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Philosophy Essays & Philosophy Texts

What topic would you like to see an essay about next?
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Logical fallacies
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René Descartes
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(Anna and i have noticed that many people don't seem to know what philosophy is about and how it's done - or at the very least aren't being good philosophers. We thought that it might be a good idea to discuss what philosophy is and how it should be done properly.)

(We are aware that there is already a thread called What is Philosophy to you?, however that kind of thread is a good example of what is not philosophy. The "to you" part on the end of title pretty much voids it of any philosophical content and turns it into nothing more than an opinion poll. In this introduction to philosophy, you will find out just what's wrong with that.)

(A final request before we start. In this introduction, we will have to use numerous examples, some deliberately contentious, some deliberately wrong. Don't start up debates about those topics here. Start another thread if it really matters that much. In this thread, reserve comments to comments on the nature and practice of philosophy. Here talk about the methods used in philosophy, not whether or not any specific example is valid.)


Indi and I wanted to make a thread that was a resource to all philosophers on FriHost - something that you can refer back to in order to improve your skills. We're going to include essays on what philosophy is, how its done, tips for how you can do it better and even very brief overviews of some of the people and questions discussed.

Anyone that wants to add anything is welcome. Just post, and if everyone agrees that it's good enough, it gets added to the list below. What we're looking for is essays on philosophy in general: what it is and how it's done. Brief essays on particular philosophers or philosophical questions are welcome, too. But try and make your essays as neutral as possible, because we don't want debate in this thread (except for debate on whether a given essay is good enough to be added to the list below). If you're going to discuss a philosophical problem, present both sides and don't make judgements - and don't say anything for or against either side that you can't back up.

It doesn't even matter if you duplicate something someone has already done. The more perspectives, the better. If you think you can offer advice to FriHost philosophers, post away.


General philosophy topics
Philosophical questions

More to come!

MODERATOR - Poll updated 08/09/13
A Brief Introduction to Philosophy

Table of contents
  • What is philosophy?
  • What is not philosophy?
  • What are the major fields of study for philosophy?
  • How is philosophy done?
  • What is an argument?
  • What is a bad argument?
  • What does philosophy look like?

What is philosophy?
You would think that this would be an easy question to answer. However, philosophy being what it is, even what it is does not go unchallenged.

i will give you a definition that is very high-level and abstract, and almost universally acceptable. Philosophy is the study of the nature of humankind and existence, and the relationship between them.

"The study of the nature of existence"? That kinda makes it sound like anything goes in philosophy, doesn't it? Pretty much anything does. More specific fields of study may be better tailored to more specific questions - for example, physics is better suited to study the physical nature of the universe and psychology is better suited to study the functioning of the mind. But for the bigger, grander and more fundamental questions, philosophy is usually the field to check.

But do not doubt for a second that philosophy is indeed a science. The only thing that separates it from what we normally call sciences is that philosophy is not limited to concerns of nature. Just as there is a scientific method, there is a philosophical method, although unlike science, the method is more loosely defined. Just as with science and pseudoscience, if you don't adhere to the method, you're doing "pseudophilosophy".

What is not philosophy?
From the definition above, it would seem like anything can be philosophy. Generally yes, although if a question is better suited for a more specific field, then it is probably better left to that field. It makes no sense to discuss chemical reactions in a philosophy discussion, although it technically does fit. (However, while philosophy may not be interested in studying the nature of chemical reactions... it is interested in studying the nature of chemistry. Even though science is generally not considered philosophy (anymore), the philosophy of science - that is, what counts as science and what does not, and why - is a large field, with lots of literature.)

However, there is a key word in the definition that creates the boundaries of what is philosophy and what is not. The word is "study".

When someone asks "what do you think about dualism" or "what is ethics to you", they're not doing philosophy, they're doing an opinion poll. Even if the smartest philosophers in the world answer those questions, they will still not be doing philosophy. This is because the questions have nothing to do with either dualism or knowlege, they are asking about opinions about dualism or knowlege. Opinions are meaningless in philosophy. Opinions are meaningless in every field of study, unless you're studying people's opinions.

Random opinions, feelings, and personal "philosophies" and not really philosophy. In order for something to be philosophy, it must be supported by reason. You can't just say "i believe god exists" and expect to be taken seriously. You have to say "god exists because... the universe would be uncaused without god" (for example). You provide your argument (in this case: "the universe needs a cause in order to exist - and god is a plausible cause), and your conclusion which follows from your argument (therefore god exists). If you just throw out your conclusions with no argument, you're not doing philosophy, you're doing soapboxing.

What are the major fields of study for philosophy?
The boundaries in every complex field of study can be a little hazy, and especially so in philosophy. However the following fields pretty much cover the entire of philosophy (once you include their respective meta-fields as well, of course).
  • Aesthetics - The philosophy of art and beauty
    Concerned with how and why we make value judgements of taste, and the nature of art and the sensations accompanied with art. Questions considered would include:
    ☯ What is art?
    ☯ Why is something judged beautiful and something else not?
    ☯ What do we mean when we say "beautiful" or "ugly"?

  • Epistemology - The philosophy of knowledge
    Concerned with the nature of knowlege, what can be known and what it means to know. Asks things like:
    ☯ What does it mean to know?
    ☯ How is knowledge acquired?
    ☯ Is knowlege even possible?

  • Ethics - The philosophy of what is right and wrong
    Concerned with morality, the difference between goodness and evil, and what counts as either. Topics covered include:
    ☯ What determines what is right?
    ☯ Why should we act morally?
    ☯ Do absolute moral standards even exist?

  • Logic - The philosophy of rationality
    Concerned with logic, including what makes fallacies and how to formalize relationships between facts into conclusions. Involves:
    ☯ How can we move from premises/evidence to conclusions?
    ☯ What are the components of a proof?
    ☯ Is it possible to reduce reasoning to a basic symbology?

  • Metaphysics - The philosophy of reality
    Concerned with the nature of reality, the possibility of (non)existence and things like souls and gods. Arguably the broadest of all branches of philosophy, and the superset of all the other sciences. :
    ☯ What is real?
    ☯ Does God exist?
    ☯ Is there a non-physical component to humans?

How is philosophy done?
Philosophy begins with an idea, but not just any old random idea. It must be an idea founded on a line of reasoning, and it must be a line of reasoning you can back up.

For example, you could come up with the idea that the best thing to do is always what is best for the majority (or to quote Mr. Spock, "the good of the many outweighs the good of the few, or the one" - this is pretty much the philosophy known as utilitarianism). But you can't just say that and stop there. You must present a cohesive argument that shows that that's a good philosophy. You must define what "good" means. You must show your logic and reasoning, and you must consider any possible objections.

Another way to jump into philosophy is to come up with a problem. This is usually done in order to refute an idea that has already been accepted. For example, the vast majority of the world believes in a powerful, wise, benevolent creator god. You could come up with the problem of the existence of evil and suffering to show that that idea cannot be true. But again, you must show your logic and reasoning, and you must consider possible objections.

Yet another way is to give a refutation or objection, where you take an existing idea or problem as presented by someone, and show that what they did was wrong. i'll explain how to do this in the section on refuting arguments, but again, as with anything else, you must show your logic and reasoning, and you must consider possible objections.

The core of the philosophical method is the argument (analogous to the experiment in science). An argument supports or refutes an idea, problem or objection (much in the same way that an experiment supports or refutes a hypothesis). Good arguments mean good philosophy, poor arguments mean poor philosophy (but it is possible to make a good argument that is completely random and meaningless, and does nothing for the greater goal, just as it is possible to do experiments that don't do anything towards supporting or refuting a scientific theory).

What is an argument?
An argument consists of a series of premises and possibly subconclusions, leading to a conclusion - one that presumably supports your idea, problem or objection. Arguments are easiest to see clearly when they're in point form, but they rarely appear that way in philosophical writings, so a certain amount of reading comprehension skill is usually required.

Here is an example of a simple argument:
    P1: All dogs bark.
    P2: Spot is a dog.
    C: Therefore, Spot barks.
This is a pretty trivial example, but it's an argument.

The idea is that the premises are all things that are either obvious, proven, or at least agreed upon. In this case, assume for the moment that it is true that all dogs bark, and that Spot is a dog. If anyone objects to either premise, we can easily prove them true - in the first case we could direct them to textbooks on dogs that say that all dogs bark without exception, and in the second we could use those same books to show that Spot is indeed a dog.

The conclusion is something that wasn't known before, but that follows from the premises logically. You had no idea that Spot barked because you've never heard him bark. But knowing the premises are true, and knowing that the conclusion follows from the premises, you come to the conclusion that he must bark.

Here's a more complex example. There's an old "riddle" that's used to test your preconceptions. Without reading the argument afterwards, see if you can figure out what's going on: A man and his son were in a car accident together, and both were rushed to separate hospitals in serious condition. At the hospital where the son arrives, the receiving surgeon says, "i cannot operate on this person, because he is my son."

i have observed people spending hours puzzling over this problem, wondering how the man could both have been in the accident and have been the receiving surgeon at the same time. They ask about extended families, whether son-in-law was really what was meant, time paradoxes and so on.

Now consider the argument:
    P1: The father was seriously injured in the same accident.
    SC1: So the father cannot be the surgeon.
    P2: A person is the son of two people, a father and a mother.
    C: Therefore, the surgeon must be the mother.

An argument can only be guaranteed true if and only if the premises are all true and the conclusion follows from the premises. If both of those conditions are true, then the conclusion must be true, and you must accept it, or you're being irrational. It is possible for a conclusion to be true even if the premises or wrong or the conclusion doesn't follow from the premises, but it is not guaranteed.

What is a bad argument?
There are only two ways that an argument can be bad. Either the premises are false, or the conclusion does not follow from the premises.

Let's go back to this example:
    P1: All dogs bark.
    P2: Spot is a dog.
    C: Therefore, Spot barks.
Now, the truth is that all dogs don't bark. Some have lost their voice, some just never barked to begin with. Since the first premise is wrong, you cannot be sure that the conclusion is true. Spot may indeed bark. You cannot say for sure that Spot doesn't bark just because the argument is bad.

Now consider this example:
    P1: All (healthy and normal) dogs have four legs.
    P2: Skippy has four legs (and is healthy and normal).
    C: Therefore, Skippy is a dog.
Whoa! Hang on there. Something's fishy there. All the premises are undeniably true. But the conclusion doesn't follow from the premises. It commits a logical fallacy (i think the fallacy of the undistributed middle, but i am not formally trained in logic). Skippy is, in fact, a horse.

Those are the only two ways that an argument can be bad. Either the premises are wrong, or it commits a logical fallacy and the conclusion does not follow from the premises. If neither of those is true, then you must accept the argument (unless you want to be irrational). However, even if either of these are true, that doesn't make the conclusion false.

What does philosophy look like?
Usually, philosophical arguments are presented in essay form (or book form for really long essays), where the idea or problem is introduced and then discussed in detail, or a series of refutations introduced. These tend to be the most clear and powerful ways of getting the point across, but they can be dull to read. The can also be dangerous (see the next paragraph).

A time-honoured philosophical tradition is the use of a dialogue, which is rather like reading a story or play. In it, two or more characters, each representing a different viewpoint, discusses a topic or topics. Commonly, one character represents the position of the philosopher, and the others represent opposing views. The characters challenge each others' positions, which allows the philosopher to argue his case and consider opposing arguments all in one shot. Plato is most famous for using this method, although others, such as Hume, have also used it. One of the strengths of dialogues is that they read less like the philosopher is proselytizing (although they are), which, because philosophers usually advocate positions that challenge social concepts and the established authority, can be wise. Hume would probably have been burnt at the stake for declaring that he was an atheist, but the atheistic Philo character in his dialogues could say whatever he wanted with impunity.

Another tradition, although one taken far less seriously, is to use fiction. Sometimes the most powerful arguments for or against an idea are best told in story form. Good examples are "The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas" by Ursula K. Le Guin - a powerful counter-example to utilitarianism - and "Brothers Karamazov" by Fyodor Dostoevsky - a very graphic story with elements questioning the existence of God, free will, and the problem of evil. Many works of fiction are considered to have philosophical value, although there is some question of whether they can actually be called philosophy. Ayn Rand, for example, wrote almost all of her philosophy in story form, and for this reason (among others) she is often not taken seriously as a philosopher (except by her fans). On the other hand, novels written by people considered to be philosophers for other reasons are usually counted amongst philosophical works, such as "Thus Spake Zarathustra: A Book for All and None" by Friedrich Nietzsche.

But philosophy can be found anywhere ideas are discussed rationally. There are no rules in philosophy except that there are no rules in philosophy (think on that one ^_-).
Some ideas on how to debate like a philosopher

Now I'm no philosopher, ya, and neither is Indi, but we have read enough and done enough debating of our own to have picked up a trick or two that we can pass on. Philosophy is a skill that has to be practiced, and no one gets it right at first try. But with a few extra tricks to use, and some practice, you might maybe master it in no time.

This is the number one cause of poor philosophy on FriHost - poor comprehension skills - and some of the worst offenders are some of the most prolific posters, and those who think they're the smartest. I could link to dozens and dozens of examples of very simple statements being completely misinterpreted. In fact, there are many cases of people making so little effort to understand the other person's position that they're pretty much making up their own opposition and debating themselves.

It's a very widespread problem. Check out any extended debate, and read carefully - and I mean carefully. When each person responds, are they in fact responding to what the other person wrote... or what they think they wrote. A pretty accurate telltale is when the other person comes back with "that's not what I said", but there are other reasons that that could happen.

Language is the way philosophy is transmitted, compared and applied, just like how symbolics are the way mathematics is transmitted, compared and applied. If two chemists didn't agree on the meaning of the word atom (which actually has several meanings, although only one in chemistry), how could they get any chemistry done? And can you imagine the chaos that would result if one mathemetician were to say to the other that "x ≥ 3" and the other one assumed the first was insisting that "x = 3" and nothing else? Or if one insists that "y = 5" and the other one says "no, y is one of the following: { 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 }, and that's all we know now" and the first says "so you're saying that y can't be 5!"? But those things are exactly the kinds of things that happen on a daily basis here.

If you want to be a good philosopher, you have to be good with language. That means you have to learn to read carefully and comprehend what you're reading, and also be clear when you're the one doing the writing. Learn proper grammar. Increase your vocabulary. Master English.

Here are some more in-depth tips that should help.

Make sure you read precisely what was written
Question: If the other person says "there is no reason to believe X is true", which of the following can you assume are true (pick as many as you want):
  1. X is true.
  2. X is false.
  3. X is probably true.
  4. X is probably false.
  5. The other person thinks X is true.
  6. The other person thinks X is false.
  7. The other person thinks X is probably true.
  8. The other person thinks X is probably false.
If you chose any of the above, you are wrong.

Most people blink and go "wha?" when they read that, but look again. What exactly was said? It was: "there is no reason to believe X is true". Is there anything in that statement about whether or no X is true or probably true? No. Is there anything in there about what the person believes, other than that there is no reason to believe X is true? No. The person may believe X is true, even though there is no reason to believe that - it happens often.

There is only one thing you can get from that statement, and that is that the other person believes there is no reason to believe X is true. Nothing more, nothing less.

You can't even get that it's actually true that there is no reason to believe X is true... not unless that person provides evidence for that claim (of course, there is no way to provide evidence for this particular claim - rather, someone who disagreed would be obligated to provide a reason - but that's another topic).

What if someone says "Joe proved X is Y", and person B replies: "Joe proved that X can be Y, not that it has to be Y, and by the way, Joe's a jerk". Which of the following is true about what person B is saying:
  1. X cannot be Y.
  2. X might not be Y.
  3. Joe did not prove that X is Y.
  4. Joe did not prove that X can be Y.
  5. X cannot be Y because Joe is a jerk.
  6. Joe is wrong.
  7. Joe may not be wrong, but he still doesn't know what he's talkin about.
This one is tougher. b and c are true - those ones are easy. f is trickier. Most people would probably have chosen f, too, and depending on the situation they might be right. If Joe did claim he had proven X is definitely Y, then person B is saying Joe is wrong. But it might be that Joe did not make that claim - person A only misunderstood Joe's claims - in which case person B is not saying Joe is wrong, they are saying that person A is misunderstanding Joe's conclusion. The thing is, we can't determine anything about what Joe's claims actually were from the exchange given, and making assumptions about the other person's position is never a good idea.

By the way, "Joe" doesn't need to be a person. You can replace "Joe" with "science" or "the bible" and the general pattern still holds. Watch out for that in your readings.

If the other person is not perfectly clear, repeat their position back in your own words
Nobody's perfect, and even when they are, they not necessarily gonna be perfectly understood. When the other person says something that doesn't sound right to you, the smart thing to do is to assume that there's some kind of communication breakdown goin on. The best solution for that is to just repeat back the other person's arguments, using your own words.

The obvious reason this is a good idea is because if you didn't get the right idea, the other person will correct you (don't get discouraged if they call you stupid or something when they do - which happens often).

The less obvious reason is sometimes people say things that sound good to them, but once they hear them put a different way, all of a sudden it doesn't sound quite right to them. A good example is cultural relativism, where people say things like "every culture's morality is different, and it is arrogant to say any culture is morally superior to any other culture". Sounds pretty good doesn't it? But if you put that a different way: "so then if a culture were to decide that it was ok to rape, and anyone with dark skin should be killed outright, that's perfectly ok? and saying no would be arrogance?" all of a sudden people are a bit squeamish. But the two statements are pretty much identical, just worded differently.

Make sure everyone is using the same definitions for the same words and phrases
Another common problem is that people often use words incorrectly. Take "ignorant" for example. What does that mean? Let's take two people, Joe and Bob, talking about radio repair:
    Bob: Well, I don't know much about radio repair, where do we start?
    Joe: Jesus, Bob, you ****** retard, who doesn't know about radio repair? It's like the easiest god damned thing in the world! I've been doing radio repair professionally for years and I know all there is to know about it. A ****** gnat could repair a radio man! What's wrong with you?
    Bob: Well, could you teach me?
    Joe: No, Bob, you're too ****** stupid. Why don't you go and get me a coffee, if you can manage that. I'll fix this radio.
    Bob: A-alright... but can I watch so maybe I can learn-
    Joe: *smacks Bob* I SAID COFFEE, BITCH! NOW!
Now, who is ignorant? Joe or Bob?

If you said Bob, good for you. Ignorant means lacking knowledge. Nothing more, nothing less. Joe is an ******, but he has the knowledge. Bob lacks the knowledge. Thus, regardless of what kind of person Bob is, he is ignorant. Of course, most people use the word ignorant for exactly the kind of behaviour Joe is exhibiting. They are wrong.

Now that's a black and white case, and it's usually the case that words have a specific meaning even if it is not the same as what the average person uses. But sometimes words really do have vague meanings that can be interpreted differently. What if I said "faith is a bad thing"? Sounds pretty clear doesn't it? Only... what do I mean by "faith"? Here are the definitions my dictionary gives:
  1. Confident belief in the truth, value, or trustworthiness of a person, idea, or thing.
  2. Belief that does not rest on logical proof or material evidence.
  3. Loyalty to a person or thing; allegiance: keeping faith with one's supporters.
  4. often Faith Christianity The theological virtue defined as secure belief in God and a trusting acceptance of God's will.
  5. The body of dogma of a religion: the Muslim faith.
  6. A set of principles or beliefs.
So what do I mean? Do I mean that confindent belief in someone or something is bad? Do I mean belief without evidence is bad? Do I mean loyalty is bad? Do I mean religious faith is bad? Until you get me to clarify what I mean, you can't know.

It's not just single words that can be misinterpreted, phrases or even entire ideas can be misinterpreted. Consider the phrase and idea "God is good". What does the phrase mean? Does it mean that "God" is well-behaved or moral, or does it mean that "God" is the actual living embodiment of the concept of "good" (like the difference between "Springsteen is a rock and roll star" versus "Springsteen is rock and roll incarnate")? What is the idea behind the phrase? Does it mean that there is some external definition of what is "good" that "God" matches, or does it mean that "good" is defined by what "God" is? Those are big ideas, and very, very different from one another.

Analysing an argument
When someone presents an argument, the first thing you have to do is pick it out of their post and make sure you understand it, because it's often buried in other text. Then you have to identify the premises - which can be tricky because they're usually not explicitly stated - and the form of the argument.

Once you manage all of that, your first step is to check the premises. Usually this is where arguments fall down - false premises.

If the premises are all ok with you, check the form of the argument to make sure that the conclusion follows from the premises, and that the argument doesn't make any logical fallacies. Logical fallacies are extremely rare in professional philosophy, so if someone is simply presenting an argument made by a professional philosopher, chance of finding a fallacy is small. But arguments made by regular people, including non-philosopher writers and the media, those are usually laced with fallacies.

Now, we're not really professional philosophers, so sometimes we can sort of feel that there's something wrong with an argument, even if we can't express it in terms of a single bad premise or a fallacy. Not to worry, even pros sometimes have the same problem. The Ontological Argument For The Existence Of God was first proposed in the 11th century, and philosophers rejected it almost immediately. But they couldn't say precisely what was wrong with it until the middle of the 19th century. There are other ways to object that don't necessarily prove an argument wrong, but do suggest there are serious problems.

Restating the argument
Sometimes, restating the argument using different words can completely change the way an argument looks. Some words are emotionally loaded, and replacing them with neutral words that mean essentially the same thing can really make an argument look different. Sometimes it's even a good idea to replace neutral words with emotionally loaded ones. In the example of cultural relativism above, by replacing the abstract term "morals" with actual moral clauses, like rape and racism, all of a sudden the implications of cultural relativism become glaringly apparent.

You gotta be careful though. Don't let the emotionalism be the only aspect of your counter-argument. And when you restate an argument to make the consequences of that argument apparent, make sure the consequences are relevant. In the cultural relativism case, it's ok to point out how cultural relativism leads to questionable moral situations... because cultural relativism is supposed to be more moral than the alternatives. However, if we were discussing the existence of God, a claim that believing in the existence of God leads to better morals would be irrelevant - one should determine God's existence based on whether or not he actually exists, not on how people behave when they believe he does or doesn't.

Follow the logic
Virtually every argument's conclusion can be used as the premise for another argument. Sometimes when you can't figure out what's wrong with an argument, what you can do is assume it's true and see where it leads.

Suppose someone argues that the seat of morality is in the soul, not the brain, and you know their argument is wrong, but you can't figure why. What you can do is respond with: "suppose that you're right... but if our moral decisions are made in the soul, and alcohol only affects the brain, then alcohol should not affect our moral judgements... and neither should being tired or in pain. But they do, so...."

Replace key words
Earlier I mentioned the Ontological Argument For The Existence Of God, and how it took philosophers over 800 years to lick it. While that's true, philosophers knew the argument was wrong almost immediately. They did this by replacing "God" with any number of wacky things (the first example was an island), and showing the argument to be absurd.

Many times there is no reason for an argument to be an argument for X alone, but when you replace X with Y, all of a sudden the argument looks weird. That's a good sign that there's something about X that's clouding the issue. In the case of the Ontological Argument For The Existence Of God above, "God" is vaguely and mystically defined, and people have a strong emotional attachment to the word, but when "God" is replaced by "island"... things start looking a little weird. Another good place to do this would be to replace "soul" with "non-physical aspect of the mind" in the argument about morality being the domain of the soul above.

Reality check: no one on FriHost is gonna come up with an idea that hasn't been had before. The chance of that is just astronomically low. Most philosophical questions has been around for millenia. Plato wrote around 400 BCE!!! That's almost two and a half millenia! And his writings are still relevant. Pretty much nothing is gonna be said here that hasn't already been said somewhere else.

If you're having trouble following or refuting an argument, GIYF (Google is your friend). Wikipedia has extensive philosophy articles, and there are entire dictionaries of philosophy online. Not to mention places like Project Guttenberg, which archives many of the classic philosophical texts. Use these resources to learn more.
The Question Of A God's Existence

Table of contents
    ✰ Introduction
    ✰ Arguments for the existence of a god
     ❖ The teleological argument
      ❁ The argument
      ❁ Criticism
     ❖ The cosmological argument
      ❁ The argument
      ❁ Criticism
     ❖ The ontological argument
      ❁ The argument
      ❁ Criticism
     ❖ Other arguments
    ✰ Arguments against the existence of a god
     ❖ The parsimony argument
      ❁ The argument
      ❁ Criticism
     ❖ The problem of evil
      ❁ The argument
      ❁ Criticism
     ❖ The poor design argument
      ❁ The argument
      ❁ Criticism
     ❖ Other arguments
    ✰ Conclusion

Theology is a subfield of the philosophical subfield of metaphysics that is specifically concerned with questions about the existence and nature of a god or gods. Contrary to popular belief, theology has very little to do with religion per se; to say that someone must be religious to study theology is equivalent to saying one must be a playwright to study Shakespeare. Theology is a study, done by means of reason, of concepts that are generally, but not exclusively, religious.

One of the most popular and enduring questions in the field of theology is whether or not a divine being (or beings) exists. It's not entirely apparent why at first glance, but that question is not really one of the most interesting to philosophers. The reason is that it is not a starting question, it is a question that one asks only after one has already answered several other questions. For example, one can't start to seriously talk about whether a god exists or not until one has properly defined what the nature and properties of such a god might be; although one could start by assuming properties then seeing if those properties can be reconciled with existence, the question of which properties to assume remains. Furthermore, there is no point to debating existence until one decides whether it is even possible to determine the existence of a god (strong agnostics say no), or whether it even matters (strong ignostics pretty much say no).

Nevertheless, the question has been debated for millenia, and the following is a brief synopsis of the highlights. I am going to try to make no presuppositions about the nature of the god inquestion (is it omnipotent? omniscient? good? singluar?), but many of the arguments make implicit assumptions. For example, virtually all assume that the god (or gods) is conscious, intelligent and rational.

Nobody wants to be irrational. (Well, almost nobody.) Both the theist and the atheist can avoid all problems by simply saying "it is beyond our ken",and then continue to believe whatever they want unchallenged. But that would mean that you admit that you have no rational reason for believing what you believe... and thus you are irrational. So in both cases, theist and atheist, the idea is to avoid appealing to the irrational, and to try to convince a neutral (imaginary or no) of their position using these arguments. These are the kinds of arguments you will see.

Arguments for the existence of a god
Every argument for the existence of a god or gods must necessarily make some assumptions about the nature of that god. You can't prove that "god" exists until you define "god". Most of the arguments presented here have numerous forms, all varying slightly dependent on which "god" you're talking about. The Muslim ontological argument is not the same as the Jewish ontological argument for example. I will try to pick a form that works for as many religions as possible in each case.

The teleological argument
Also known as "the argument from design", this is currently the biggest gun in the theist arsenal, and they know it. It's also my (Anna's) specialty. This is actually the underlying source of the long-running conflicts between religion and science. The theist using this argument requires that there be no natural explanations for any perceived order or implicit purpose in natural phenomena, whereas the scientist's job is to find natural explanations. Every time a scientific theory is developed that explains the nature of the universe or some aspect of it, the teleological argument gets weaker.

By far the biggest blow - some even think of it as the finishing blow, although in my opinion, they underestimate the flexibility of the argument and the tenacity of its believers - was the theory of evolution by natural selection. Before Darwin, there was no natural way to explain the kind of complex order and apparent purpose inherent in living organisms, except by appealing to the existence of a designer. Evolution eliminated that problem, which is why it's so hotly contested even today, 150 years later. Those who desire to use the teleological argument are loathe to surrender the best evidence they had.

The argument
The teleological argument goes rather like this:
    P1: Nature (or the universe) exhibits evidence of design.
    P2: Whatever exhibits evidence of design must have been designed.
    P3: Whatever has been designed requires a designer.
    C: Therefore nature (or the universe) had a designer.

The "evidence of design" referred to in the first premise comes in two forms. The first is functional complexity. The hexagonal structure of a honeycomb is far too regular to have just fallen together in that matter. Hang around this forum long enough and you will inevitably hear a theist saying something like "I can't see how free floating chemicals could have fallen together randomly to form amino acids (or cells)", implying that because it is unlikely it is impossible without a guiding intelligence; that is an example of an appeal to functional complexity. Less commonly used by laypersons, but more common among philosophers is interfunctionality, which refers to the fact that parts of a natural system are rather like cogs in giant machines, and without the grand plan of the giant machine there is no reason for the cogs to exist. For example, an often heard argument is that no part of the human eye serves any purpose on its own, but only as a component of the eye, so either the eye evolved as is spontaneously (which is vanishingly unlikely), or it was designed.

The modern version of the argument is the so-called "fine tuning" argument, refering to the alledged "fine tuning" of the values of the physical constants that define the nature and properties of our universe. Because it turns out that if any of the physical constants were different by a very small fraction the universe would be unable to support life as we know it, and there currently appears to be no reason why those constants must be as they are, the conclusion is that some intelligence must have "fine tuned" the values of the constants in order to create a life-supporting universe. Other than the fact that philosophers like Paley used biological evidence to support their argument as opposed to physics, the "fine tuning" argument is no different from the classic teleological argument.

Most people attack premise 2. They point out that apparent evidence of design does not necessarily imply design. A randomly generated system may appear designed, and in fact it has been amply demonstrated that humans tend to perceive patterns even in random data. Further, even if the structure is not random, but very regularly patterned, that does not imply intelligence - there may simply be an unknown, non-sentient force encouraging that regularity; water forms very regular spherical droplets due to the non-sentient electroweak force.

Asserting that any "evidence of design" in the universe that cannot be explained by science must be evidence of a god is such a common fallacy that it has a name - the "god of the gaps". The god of the gaps is the god that is found by pointing out the gaps in science and saying "there! there be god". Take the "fine tuning" argument for example. Science cannot (currently) explain why the physical constants are they way that they are, and so (the "fine tuner" argues) the only rational explanation is that they must have been set by god. Nonsense, and fallacious.

However, the real problem is with premise 1. Think about what the statement "Nature (or the universe) exhibits evidence of design" is really saying. It is saying "I have determined the set of properties possessed by designed systems and not by non-designed systems, and nature (or the universe) has those properties". You can picture this with a Venn diagram like this one:

"A" is the set of properties that designed systems have and "B" is the set of properties non-designed systems have, and you're claiming that you can put nature (or the universe) in the blue region. The question is, how could you do this if you didn't know about "B"? How can you say that nature has evidence of design if you have never seen anything non-designed? If this argument is true, then everything in the universe is designed. Therefore there is nothing non-designed. Therefore there is nothing non-desgined you can compare nature to and say "it's not like that". The argument is thus self-defeating. Either nature (or the universe) is not designed and we can use that to contrast with human design to say what is and what is not designed, or the universe is designed and the first premise of this argument is meaningless.

The problems with the argument become even more clear when you turn it around and actually apply it to a particular god:
    P1: If God created the universe, we should observe evidence of design in the universe.
    P2: We observe evidence of design in the universe.
    C: Therefore God created the universe.

Pop quiz: Assuming the premises are true (BIG assumption, but go with it for now), what is wrong with this argument? Highlight to see the answer: It commits the logical fallacy of affirming the consequent.

The cosmological argument
Less popular but still widely used is the cosmological argument, or "argument from first cause". The idea of this argument is that the universe may be described as a long sequence of causes and effects, and if you trace the causes right back to the beginning, there must have been a first cause. Or, to put it another way, nothing causes nothing - if you started with a big empty void of nothingness, something must have caused the first bit of non-nothingness to exist.

This argument is very popular among deists - in fact, deism may even have arisen out of this argument. Among theists, this argument has appeal in that it (supposedly) proves that a god must have at least existed, but it does little for them beyond that.

The argument
The cosmological argument goes like this:
    P1: Everything - every event or object - that does not have to exist (that is, is not necessarily existent) and has not always existed (that is, is not not infinite) must have a cause.
    P2: Either there is an infinitely long chain of causes, or there must have been a first cause that is itself uncaused.
    P3: Even if there were an infinitely long chain of causes and effects, something must have caused the chain itself.
    SC1: Therefore, there must have been an uncaused first cause.
    P4: The most likely candidate for this uncaused first cause is a god.
    C: Therefore the universe was caused to exist by a god.

The basis for premise 1 is the principle of sufficient reason, which goes back to Plato but is more often associated with Schopenhauer.

It is rare to challenge premise 1 - the principle of sufficient reason - but it is done occasionally. The problem with premise 1 is that it assumes a hard-deterministic universe. That contradicts current science, and it is incompatible most religions. Premise 2 is occasionally challenged, because there are other options besides those two (oscillations, for example). Premise 3 is just plain wrong, and arises from a misunderstanding of "infintely long". From all of that, it is apparent that the sub-conclusion is not guaranteed true.

But even assuming the subconclusion true, the argument is still weak, because premise 4 is completely ridiculous. Replace "god" with "the big bang"... and now you have the cosmological argument for the existence of the big bang. If the argument works for a god, then it must necessarily work for the big bang, too, unless there is something about a god that makes the argument work in that case but not otherwise. You might say "what caused the big bang?" as an objection, but if that objection doesn't work for a god why does it work for the big bang? You can have an uncaused deity but not an uncaused big bang? Why? There's no answer.

Finally, even if it is true, the argument doesn't really do much for the case of any god. It may prove that a god caused the universe, but it doesn't prove that god is intelligent, or even sentient, it doesn't imply that creation was a deliberate act, and it doesn't imply any rhyme or reason to the universe.

The ontological argument
This one is a little wacky, and I admit that I don't really get it myself, but Indi is an expert on it, so I'm gonna turn the reins over to him:

The ontological argument is an a priori argument - an argument that attempts to prove or disprove something without any evidence, but only based on the characteristics of that thing. The question is whether or not the very characteristics that describe God are enough to prove that he necessarily exists or does not exist.

This argument was rejected by Thomas Aquinas - who was arguably the father of Christian theology, and, by extension, all of western theology - so it is not traditionally part of western theological thought. Thus you probably haven't heard it before, although it has been put forward by several famous philosophers like René Descartes and Gottfried Leibniz. It is also quite difficult to grasp - most people reflexively reject it when they first hear it, but actually disproving it is quite difficult.

The argument
To do the argument justice, i have to present two different forms of it. The first is the original; Anselm's:
    P1: God is that thing of which no greater thing can be conceived.
    P2: A thing that exists is greater than a thing that does not exist.
    C: Therefore God must exist.

How about that? Simple, yet oh so complex. Two premises and a conclusion. You can't get much more elegant than that.

Next is Descartes' which is more abstract, but really clever because of that:
    P1: It is possible to conceive of God as a being that has every perfection.
    P2: Existence is a perfection.
    C: Therefore God must exist.

The problem with Anselm's formulation is that anyone who conceives of a different god (or no god at all) can dismiss premiss 1 by simply saying "says who?". Descartes' version sidesteps that problem in a most ingenious way. Descartes doesn't assert anything about God, he simply says that it is possible to conceive of God as perfect. You don't have to believe anything, you just have to agree that it's possible to think that thought. (Incidently, that existence is a perfection is hardly refutable - how can a non-existent X be more perfect that the exact same X that exists? In my left hand is a hundred dollar bill that exists. In my right hand is a hundred dollar bill that doesn't exist. Which would you take?)

As Descartes puts it: "Even if there are not and never were any triangles outside my thought, still, when I imagine a triangle I am constrained in how I do this, because there is a determinate nature or essence or form of triangle that is eternal, unchanging, and independent of my mind. Consider the things that I can prove about the triangle - that its three angles equal two right angles, that its longest side is opposite its greatest angle, and so on. I am forced to agree that the triangle has these properties, even if I didn’t give them a thought when the triangle first came into my mind. So they can’t have been invented by me." In plain English, imagine you knew nothing about triangles, and i told you to conceive of a three-sided geometric shape. So you picture one in your head. Then i ask you if the sum of the angles is 180°. You check and answer yes. Now, i did not ask you to conceive of a three-sided object that has angles adding up to 180°. However, the fact that the angles add up to 180° is an intrinsic truth of three-sided geometric objects. You can't conceive of a three-sided object that does not have that property. What that means is that just by conceiving of things it is possible to discover intrinsic truths about them, without you actually having to insert the truths proactively in your conception. Simply conceiving of a three-sided object lets you discover truths about three-sided objects that existed even before you conceived the idea.

That's how the argument works. The idea is that if you conceive of a triangle, you will discover intrinsic truths about it - such as that the angles add up to 180°, the area is half-base-times-height and so on. And by the same process, conceiving of a perfect (or "supremely great" in Anselm's version, which takes care of conceptions of gods that don't require perfection) god leads you to an intrinsic truth about that god... the god must exist.

Bertrand Russell wrote this about the ontological argument: "it is easier to feel convinced that it must be fallacious than to find out precisely where the fallacy lies", and he's right. Most people look at that argument and know there's something wrong, but can't say exactly where.

The first thing most people try is to replace "god" with anything else:
    P1: It is possible to conceive of a supremely perfect unicorn.
    P2: Existence is a perfection.
    C: Therefore the supremely perfect unicorn must exist.

Only it doesn't, now does it? Clearly something is wrong. But where?

The answer, as determined by Kant, is that existence is not a predicate (or property), it only looks like one. Suppose i told you that i had in my pocket a lighter. Then i said "it is a pink lighter" - i have added more information about the lighter, you now also know that it is pink. Then i said "it is empty" - i have added still more info, you now also know that it's empty. Then i said "it exists" - but i haven't added any new information, all i have done is taken the lighter, with all of the predicates i have already given you (pink and empty), and brought them out of the hypothetical into the real.

Or to put it another way, how can the lighter be pink if it doesn't exist? It can't. Turn it around now: can it exist if it's not pink? Sure. So before it can be pink, or empty, or anything, it has to exist first.

In the case of the ontological argument, premiss 1 says "God is _____" (fill in "supremely great" for Anselm or "perfect" for Descartes). But how can God "be" anything if he doesn't exist? Therefore, in order for premiss 1 to be true, you have to assume the conclusion. It's a circular argument.

Back to Anna!

Back to me ^_^ I just want to add two things. First, many epistemological philosophers believe that it is impossible to know anything a priori, so a priori arguments are meaningless (even if they're not fallacious).

Second, Indi totally didn't mention my favourite parody of it. ^_^ If you assume that existence can be a predicate in order to make the ontological argument work, then you can also make this argument:
    P1: In order to be worthy of being called God, a being has to do the most amazing things imaginable, otherwise something else could possibly do something God could not, and supersede God.
    P2: Nothing would be more amazing than being able to do anything while not existing.
    C: Therefore God must not exist.

Heh. Is it absurd? Yes. ^_^ But that's what makes it so funny. If the ontological argument is valid, this one (and others like it) would be too.

Other arguments
Those aren't the only arguments for any gods' existence, but they are really kinda the only ones worth mentioning. There are other arguments, such as the argument from the existence of morality, which claims that given that morality is a bunch of commands on how to behave, there must be a commander. A recent development is the transcendental argument, but that's so new the paint hasn't dried yet - it looks like it might be full of holes, but it's too early to say for sure. There are lots of other minor ones, arguments from testimony ("that person felt the presence of God, so God must exist"), arguments from need ("we need a superior being to guide us or we can't be moral"), Pascal's wager and so on. But they're mostly philosophically uninteresting.

Arguments against the existence of a god
Some arguments against the existence of god attempt to disprove the existence of a specific god, but many are rather general. Almost all, with the exception of the parsimony argument, are reactive arguments. There is a simple reason for that. Consider this: why are there no proactive arguments against the existence of a flooga? Simple; no one knew they would need any until I introduced the idea. And you can't argue against the existence of a flooga until I tell you what a flooga is. Thus all arguments against the existence of a flooga will be reactionary.

Until "god" is defined, no one can give any coherent argument against the existence of one. Some claim that no one has actually managed to give a meaningful definition of "god", and they may be right. Whatever the case, most arguments against the existence of gods are refutations of claims made about them.

The parsimony argument
This argument is the only proactive argument against the existence of a god, and for most atheists the only one that matters. Technically it is not specifically an argument against a god, but it does a number on arguments for. The argument is essentially a broad application of Occam's razor.

The argument
The parsimony argument goes rather like this:
    P1: It is unnecessary to appeal to a god when describing the universe and human existence.
    P2: Unnecessary hypotheses should be avoided.
    C: Therefore, until evidence requires you to assume otherwise, you should assmue gods do not exist.

As you can see, it's not so much an argument as it is a principle. The only rational epistemological position to take is to assume there is no god until you have evidence that there is. This principle is restated over and over in atheist literature, in various ways. It is the foundation for Russell's teapot, for example.

The part that is debatable is whether or not the condition of evidence has been satisfied, and the argument is that it has not. Furthermore, this principle puts the burden of proof on the theist, and to prove the existence of a god would require an ungodly amount of proof, pardon the pun.

This argument is not a proof against the existence of a god, it is a tactic to switch the responsibility of defence from the atheist to the theist. Does it actually belong there? Technically, yes. There is not much to be said against the principle of it because it is a foundational principle in epistemology. The only real way to object is to claim that there is plenty of evidence for the existence of a god - so much so, in fact, that the burden of proof now falls back on the atheist to explain how so much evidence can be wrong. Unfortunately this is not a very good objection.

The existence of this argument is the reason why a theist has to make any arguments at all for the existence of gods. If it weren't for this argument, the theist could simply say "it's obvious that a god exists" and there would be no real challenge - it would be one unjustified opinion against another.

The problem of evil
By far the most famous atheist argument, and the oldest. An entire field has sprung up to refute this argument, the field of writing theodicies. Parsimony is what gives atheist philosophies their epistemological justification, but it's the problem of evil that gives them their teeth.

This argument is so popular and so widely applied that it is customized and recustomized for just about every occasion. Christian god concepts, Jewish god concepts, Hindi god concepts; you name it there's a POE for it. As a general rule, the argument is directed either at creator gods (gods that created the universe/world but do not necessarily control it - deist gods, for example) controller gods (gods that (can) control the universe/world but did not necessarily create it - for example, Zeus), or both. It also always assumes the god to be reasonably benevolent. The other details, such as assuming omnipotence and omniscience, vary according to the specific god concept being discussed.

The argument
The most common and general formulation of the problem of evil that I can put together is directed specifically at creator gods, but it's trivial to change the wording slightly to cover controller gods:
    P1: If a god that created the universe exists, it must be very powerful, it must be enormously aware, and it must be reasonably benevolent.
    P2: If a creator god possessed those properties, it would strive to create the best possible world.
    SC1: Therefore, if a creator god exists, this must be the best possible world.
    P3: This is clearly not the best possible world.
    C: Therefore, a creator god does not exist.

The more power you attribute to the god, the more powerful this argument becomes - those gods that are claimed to be omnipotent, omniscent and omnibenevolent are completely tanked by it.

Most people understand the argument because it's such a popular one - usually stated as simply as "if God exists why is there suffering?". I love Epicurus' formulation, stated here - he was talking about the Greek gods, but it's rather timeless.

One of the easiest ways to dismiss the argument is to surrender one or more of the characteristics of the god in premise 1. If you say the god is not particularly powerful, or not particularly aware of what is going on, then you might be able to get out of the quagmire - the problem is that would it still be worth calling a god once you do that? You could also say the god is not particularly good, but that's rarely done. Who wants to worship an ****** (and be unable to deny it)?

Sometimes premise 2 is attacked, but that's rare and not particularly effective - especially if you're not willing to give up the claim that the god is reasonably benevolent.

But the most interesting challenge I know of is to challenge premise 3 and say "this is the best possible world". Most people scratch their heads when they first hear someone say that, and think they're joking or naive; Hume mentions it in passing, chuckling about how silly it is. But that's the way that most religions solve the problem.

How can they justify the claim that this is be the best possible world? By means of the free will defence, claiming that this is the best possible world that could exist with free will existing in it, and that no world without free will can be superior to a world with it. Indi is an expert on the free will defence, so I asked him to say a few words, but he said it's an elaborate and complex problem that cannot be handled in just a few words, so he might do a separate essay on just the problem of evil and free will defence later.

The poor design argument
Because it is sometimes used as a parody (often called "unintelligent design", har har), the poor design argument is normally not considered a good argument against god. Atheist philosophers will usually turn to one of the paradoxes of godly attributes, such as the paradox of omnipotence, before turning to this one. However, do not underestimate its efficacy. It's a very effective argument - especially when coupled with the parsimony "argument".

I chose to pick this one as the third atheist argument for three reasons. First, as I've already mentioned, a priori arguments are iffy at best, and the paradoxes are all a priori arguments. Second, the paradoxes are too specific - for example, the paradox of omnipotence only applies to omnipotent gods. Third, this argument is closely tied to science, and I felt a scientific argument against should be included to balance a scientific argument for (the teleological argument).

One of the most effective uses of this argument is against the claim of some religious people that humanity is the reason the universe was created - that we are somehow special or unique to our creator, and all of nature exists for the purpose of us existing. It is also very powerful against creationism.

The argument
The poor design argument goes rather like this:
    P1: There are many elements of nature that exhibit very poor design, including superfluous components, unnecessary complexity and more.
    P2: If the universe was designed by an intelligent being, there would be none of those things.
    C: Therefore, the universe was not designed by an intelligent being.

The evidence of poor design usually comes from observing life - the famous example is Stephen Jay Gould's "panda's 'thumb'". But in the human anatomy there are hundreds of examples. Our nasal cavity is prone to infection and inflamation because it was originally evolved for a species that walks on all fours with our heads down, not up. Most back problems exist for the same reason, our spine was not originally intended for an upright species. Why do we have a blind spot in our eyes - it is obviously not necessary because not all creatures have them? Wisdom teeth? Appendix? It makes no sense for a creator to have given us these things if we would not always need them, and even if it was necessary in the past, why make them so they're not only useless now... but downright dangerous?

There are other ways to look at the problem, depending on the perspective of god. For those who believe that humanity is priviledged and that all creation exists for us, one can question why so much of nature is hidden from us or out of our reach. Why make deep sea creatures if we can't see them? Why make us able to drown on a planet that's 70% water?

This is actually the argument that first turned Darwin away from Christianity (although it was the problem of evil that convinced him years later). He set out on his voyage to prove the teleological argument... and wound up denying it.

Commonly, premise 1 is attacked, with the argument that just because something seems random or purposeless, it does not necessarily follow that it is. The purpose, and the design, may simply be well beyond our capacity to see. (This is the traditional Christian solution to this problem, which also seemingly allows for the teleological argument as an additional bonus (although it really doesn't).)

Premise 2 is generally dismissed by deist conceptions of god, which argue that the creator simply made the laws of the universe then set it in motion. The apparent lack of order is an unavoidable consequence of natural evolution. One might question whether or not a creator could have designed the laws in order to make things a little better for humanity, but if one does not assume humanity has a special place in the universe, that objection is easily dismissed. This argument is probably the reason why such a disproportionately large number of scientists and thinkers over the ages have opted for deism, which is not affected by this argument. ("Modern" Christianity is attempting to co-opt this view into their belief system, downplaying the uniqueness of humanity's place in the universe and dismissing half the bible as allegorical. They do this in order to free themselves from the trap of this argument. You can see now, I hope, why I thought this argument was important enough to mention.)

But even without assuming that the universe must be the way it is, one could simply dismiss premise 2 by asking why not. There is no reason to assert that a creator would not add components that have no functional purpose, just for the hell of it. Painting flames on your car can be considered poor design, because the irregular pattern disrupts the visual form of the car (much like how camouflage works) and makes it harder to see, and thus more likely to hit. But damn, it looks cool. In fact, the person with flames on their car is probably the person who spent more time selecting and improving their car than one who did not. What appears to be poor design is, in fact, evidence of good design.

Yet another possible objection, albeit a disingenious one, is to say that the apparent shortcomings are deceptions deliberately put there to "test" us. I'm not going to comment further on this objection, because it's philosophically vapid.

Other arguments
There are, of course, dozens of other atheist arguments. Many of them paradoxes used to show that specific conceptions of gods are illogical, such as the paradox of omnipotence ("can god create a rock he can't lift?"), the paradox of sovereignty ("can god make a law he can't overrule?") and more. In fact, most atheist arguments are such paradoxes, but not all. There are also arguments of morality, and injustice, against god. Some are interesting, some are not, but most are rare.

Does a god exist? I dunno.

What, you thought I would give a final answer? Hardly.

All too often in philosophy there are questions that have been unanswered for millenia, and not for lack of trying. There are few such questions in other fields, save for the really, really big and vague ones.

There is no final answer to this question, although the general consensus is that the atheist position is better justified at this point. However, the opposite was true up until the middle of the 19th century of so - Paley's teleological argument (the one Darwin believed and set out to enforce) was unshakeable, a guy named Samuel Clarke had the cosmological argument pwn3d and no one had yet figured out quite what was wrong with the ontological argument. But then along came Darwin to put Paley's argument to rest, the cosmological argument was always iffy and was shaken by Haley but really put down by quantum mechanics, and Kant finally solved the riddle of the ontological argument. Science at this point is so powerful that it has very few gaps for gods to live in - in another few decades, it may be that any remaining gaps will be beyond the ken of the layperson. Or maybe not, who's to say?

It is important to note that because of the widely varied (and shifting!) definitions of "god", it is impossible to ever completely disprove the existence of a god. A determined believer could simply switch to another conception of "god" (and does, often in the course of a single discussion). Or they can simply say that their god is beyond evidence, beyond reason, beyond whatever it needs to be beyond in order to be believed.

Nevertheless, I believe it is important for anyone who takes reason seriously to seriously reason about the question. Especially theists, for an atheist has the freedom to point out that the question is irrelevant to them until proven otherwise. Every theist should be intimately familiar with the arguments for and against their god... unless they do not care whether or not they hold their belief by reason. Mind you, that is not the only question that must be considered. Even if you manage to prove that a god exists, you must still answer the question of why anyone should care (other than as an intellectual fact), why the god should be worshipped/loved instead of despised, and more.

But even if you don't care, an overview of the discussion like this can be a valuable learning tool for those who want to be good philosophers. Which, in the end, is why I wrote this essay. ^_-
Methods for determining morality

Fundamental to any discussion of what is right or wrong, or whether X is right or wrong, is the question of where right and wrong come from, or what it is that determines right and wrong. There are, of course, many different theories, but they can be lumped into two categories: relativist theories and universalist theories. Relativist theories claim that there are no universal standards for determining what is right and wrong, and that all morality is relative to some "thing", which could be a culture, a god's will, or even the individual. Universalist theories claim that there are ways to determine morality objectively, and that those standards can apply universally.

Traditionally, philosophers have almost universally rejected relativism, with the exception of nihilists and existentialists (both of whom are, in effect, types of subjectivists, which will be explained shortly). But at the same time the general public has almost universally embraced it. Dr. Laurence BonJour of the University of Washington once commented: "It is a striking fact about the current state of moral discussion that despite the popularity of relativist views among nonphilosophers, very few philosophers find them plausible."

Chances are that you are a moral relativist. In fact, you are most likely a cultural relativist - you believe that right or wrong is determined by the culture. If that's the case, you were probably shocked by the paragraph above (you may even have decided that everything i am writing here is simply my own opinion, despite the quote, and have decided to ignore it out of hand). But bear with me, and i will try to give a whirlwind summary of the entire philosophical field of morality. Hopefully at the end of it, if i do the topic justice, you will see why philosophers prefer universalist theories.

An introduction to moral relativist theories

All moral relativist theories have one thing in common. They claim that there is no universal standard by which morality can be determined, and that all morality is relative to non-universal standards. i'll introduce three such non-universal standards: the first is a personal standard (relative to the individual), the second is a cultural standard (relative to the local culture) and the third is a theological standard (relative to the word and/or teachings of a religion or god).


Subjectivism is a category of moral relativist theories that holds that morality is relative to the individual, and has no meaning beyond each person's own opinions. This is roughly equivalent to saying that morality does not exist at all (although not quite... it does have the same effect in the end, though).

The most basic form of subjectivism - simple subjectivism - is... well, pretty poor, from a philosophical standpoint. Because of that, a more evolved version - emotivism - was developed. For the sake of fairness i will present an emotivist argument along with the simple subjectivist argument, because the latter is just too ridiculously easy to take apart.

Simple subjectivism

Simple subjectivism holds that moral judgements are nothing more than opinions. When i say "X is good" or "X is right" or "X is morally correct", what i am really saying is "i like X" or "i am ok with X" or "X is ok by me". Similarly, when i say "X is wrong" or "X is evil" or "X is immoral", what i am really saying is "i don't like X" or "i disapprove of X". But in actual fact, there is no "right" or "wrong", "good" or "evil", "moral" or "immoral". It is all just a matter of opinion.


For reasons that will become clear shortly, simple subjectivism hasn't found much favour in philosophical circles (even considering the paltry support for relativist theories in general, simple subjectivism is lacking). Because of that, emotivism was developed. For the moment, it won't be clear why emotivism was necessary, or why it took this form. Bear with me. When i get into the criticisms of simple subjectivism, you will see why emotivism is the way it is.

There are three types of non-question sentences: statements, commands and interjections. Statements are declarations of fact, and as long as they are not ambiguous, must be true or false. Commands are pretty obvious; they are instructions that you give to someone else. Interjections are neither statements nor commands, they are like outbursts. Here are some examples of each:
❅ Einstein was a scientist.
❅ Cheese is a vegetable. (Note that statements do not necessarily need to be true.)
❅ i like cheese.
❅ Help me! (Although this may seem like an interjection, it is in fact a command... or at least a request.)
❅ Get lost.
❅ Please pass the cheese. (Commands can be polite, too.)
❅ Cool!
❅ Oh, crap.
❅ Yay for cheese!

In simple subjectivism, moral statements are statements of fact, rather like the "i like cheese" example above. That (as will be shown later) causes all kinds of problems, so emotivism changed the rules of the game a little.

In emotivism, moral statements are more like interjections. When i say: "X is morally correct", it's not like stating a fact, but it is like saying: "Yay for X!" Similarly, when i say: "X is immoral", it is rather like saying: "Blah, X". There is an element of command in there, too, because when i tell you that X is morally correct, i am obliquely hinting to you that i want you to do X (and when i say X is immoral, i am telling you i don't want you to do X). However, it is a weak command - a command by implication only. When i shout: "Yay, Leafs!" there is also a weak command there for the Leafs to go on winning... but it is only a very weak implied command.

The important thing to understand about interjections is that they don't imply any fact at all. As a matter of fact, i may despise the Leafs, but still say: "Yay, Leafs." Some accomplishment they made may have impressed me, however grudgingly, leading me to utter that cheer... which in no way represents how i really feel about the Leafs. For example, although it is unlikely for me to say both "i like asparagus" and "Asparagus, gross", it is not impossible. i may really think it tastes nasty but enjoy eating it anyway.

So in emotivism, it is possible to say "X is immoral" and "i approve of X". For example, "gambling is immoral, but i still like to do it once in a while". And of course, in the end, your moral "opinions" have no relevance relative to anyone else.

Cultural relativism

Around the early half of the 19th century, the concept of imperialism was really beginning to sour. Guilt for the annihilation of many of the indigenous peoples of the Americas was beginning to set in, and the days of slavery were all but over. Anthropology was changing; where in the past it had been standard practice to refer to the indigenous peoples of a newly found land as "savages", study them briefly, then swallow them into the larger culture, "modern" anthropology (modern at that time, i mean) was beginning to grow a newfound respect for other cultures. That meant that it was no longer kosher to simply dismiss other cultures as "savage" and "backwards". Instead a new philosophy took hold: cultural relativism.

The basic idea is - as with all relativist theories - that there are no universal moral standards, and that all moral standards are relative to the culture. Further, no culture's standards are superior or inferior to any other culture's standards (this follows from the idea that there are no universal standards), just different. (It goes on to suggest that all cultural differences should be tolerated, and so on, but that's not important here.)

Cultural relativism was embraced by the general population in a big way. In fact, most people are cultural relativists... or at least claim to be (you will see why i add that part shortly).

Divine command theory

Cultural relativism has been the dominant theory of morality since the early-mid 1800's. Before that, the big dog in town was divine command theory. Basically, you need a god - an intelligent god capable of command and capable of communicating commands to us. In the distant past, that was done by means of oracles who usually got high on fumes or other substances and then had visions that were messages from the gods. But nowadays we attempt to interpret vague and contradictory thousand year-old texts written in dead languages. That's progress, i suppose.

At any rate, once again, there is no universal moral standard in divine command theory. Instead, all moral standards are defined by the god(s). (From this point on, i will assume a single god, but that's just to save me some typing. The theory applies just as well to polytheism... it just gets a little more complicated.) What the god says is good... is good. What the god says is bad... is bad. It's as simple as that.

Now, this is important. When the god says that murder is evil, there must be no objective reason for the god to say that. You cannot argue that the god says murder is evil because of anything; you cannot say that the god says murder is evil because of the harm it causes, or because life is precious, or anything. Why? Because if you do, then you are claiming that an objective standard exists. In which case, you are not using divine command theory - or any relativist theory at all.

An introduction to moral universalist theories

i suppose this goes without saying, but the common thread among morally universalist theories is that morality is not relative or arbitrary, but that there is some universal method for determining morality that can be universally applied.

There are some theories that hold that morals are universal facts, like the laws of physics. Killing is wrong because there is a universal law against killing. These theories are not widely held, so i won't bother with them. But it is this idea that led Hume to become a moral relativist. Hume realized that there were no universal moral facts, no "matter of fact" that made a murder wrong. He deduced, therefore, that morals must be arbitrary and relative.

He screwed up (nobody's perfect). He missed option number three. Morals are neither "matters of fact" nor "matters of opinion". Morals are matters of reason. Murder is not wrong because it is against the laws of nature, and it is not wrong just because we don't like it. It is wrong because it is against reason to murder (for various reasons, as i will explain shortly).


Utilitarianism is the name of a set of theories that believe that the morality of an action is determined by the expected consequences. It can be simply summed up by the phrase: "the greatest good for the greatest number", although that summary hardly does the theory justice, and provides little insight - and in fact, while generally vaguely true, in many cases it actually contradicts utilitarianism.

Consider the murder example. Under normal circumstances, the random killing of a person will produce almost no real good, and much suffering. Therefore, murder is immoral. However, there are cases when killing someone will produce great good - for instance, killing a terrorist before he can commit his act of terrorism. In that case, the killing would be moral.

The different forms of utilitarianism differ on exactly how to apply moral rules. Act utilitarianism says that morality should be considered on a case-by-case basis (in other words, it is wrong to say that "killing is wrong"; each instance of "killing" must be weighed individually). Rule utilitarianism says that if it is generally true that killing causes harm most of the time, then it is ok to say "killing is wrong". And there are still other, more esoteric forms of utilitarianism, even some being developed today - utilitarianism is a hot topic in moral philosophy.

The categorical imperative

The categorical imperative is one of a group of theories, called deontological moral theories, that say that morality depends on duties and rights. In the specific case of the categorical imperative, the duty is to universal fairness, in that we should determine the morality of our actions based on how we would expect others to act towards us. If you put it in children's terms, you get the "golden rule": "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you". But of course, as in the case of defining utilitarianism as "the greatest good for the greatest number", it hardly does the theory justice, and is quite wrong in many cases.

According to the categorical imperative (the first part of it, anyway), you should always act according to rules that you would like to be universal laws. That does not mean that they are universal laws. However, they do become universal laws, of a sort, by your choosing to treat them as such.

Once again, consider murder. Suppose you are faced with the decision of whether to kill someone or not. To determine whether you should, you should consider whether or not it should be a universal law that killing (in a situation like the one you are in, not necessarily all killing) should be wrong. If it makes sense for there to be a universal law against killing, then you should not kill. Once again, this would only apply to situations like the one you are in. If you determine that it is wrong to kill for money, that does not imply that it is wrong to kill in self-defence - but it does imply that it is always wrong to kill for money.

Like utilitarianism, deontological theories are hot topics in modern philosophy. In particular, i believe discussions of moral rights are right now on the cutting edge.

Virtue ethics

Both utilitarian and deontological view are hundreds of years old, but still very much live topics in modern philosophy. But they ain't got nothin' on virtue ethics. Virtue ethics dates back to the dawn of recorded history, and although it fell out of vogue for centuries, it's back in a big way. In fact, as much as the previous two topics are being discussed in modern philosophical circles, virtue ethics is even more on the cusp of the state-of-the-art. Peculiar, isn't it? Virtue ethics has been around since before there was a school of thought called philosophy, but are still considered to be under active development. Only in philosophy.

In fact, i am afraid that i do not have much to say on the topic, for the simple fact that it is so cutting edge. Modern virtue ethics theories are under active development, so it would not be fair to criticise them at this early stage (and rather pointless, too).

However, classical virtue ethics theories hold that morals should be determined by moral virtues. For example, courage, honesty and compassion would be positive virtues, and cowardice, greed and spite would be negative virtues. Any action taken under the influence of positive virtues would be a moral action - for example, any action that you undertook for the sake of compassion would be moral. Similarly, any action that you undertook for the sake of spite would be immoral.

As i said, i cannot comment much on the topic. The ancient theories are far too easy targets, and the modern theories are too green.

Criticisms of moral relativist theories

Many criticisms of moral relativist theories can apply to all of them, with a little tweaking. However, i will tackle them one by one as they were introduced. As an exercise for the reader, see if you can apply criticisms of one theory to others.

Simple subjectivism

Consider what the simple subjectivist is really saying. They are telling you that when you say something is morally right or wrong, then as long as you are speaking honestly, you cannot be wrong. Your moral judgement is absolutely perfect, all the time, without fail.

Wait a minute. Something smells fishy here. Would you call yourself perfect? Can you seriously claim that your judgement on anything is ever absolutely, perfectly flawless? Even when you think you're being honest about your feelings, sometimes you can be wrong - sometimes we fool ourselves. Simple subjectivism claims that we can never be wrong since all morality is relative to us, but at the same time we know that we are not infallible, therefore simple subjectivism cannot be right.

There's more. Suppose i were to tell you that it is moral to rape children, and suppose i were actually being honest. i assume that you would naturally disagree and say that it is not moral. But wait a minute... exactly what did you just do? i just said that it was moral to rape children, which, in simple subjectivism, is the same as saying that i approve of raping children. You can't disagree with that, it is a fact; and as with all simple subjectivist statements of morality, it must be absolutely true. When you say that it is wrong, you are telling me that you disapprove of it. That's just changing the subject. i was talking about what i approve/disapprove of, and you started talking about what you approve/disapprove of. Nothing that you can say would change the fact that it would be moral for me to rape children.

Clearly that's a problem. It turns out that simple subjectivism means that moral dialogue is impossible. You cannot judge me or punish me, because unless i go against what i personally believe, i can do no wrong. We can't even disagree about whether something is right or wrong, because we would both be talking about different things. Yet experience shows us that all of these things do happen - we do disagree, we do have moral dialogues, and we do judge others... and occasionally punish them. Therefore, simple subjectivism cannot be right.


Early in the 20th century, philosophers got smart about subjectivism. They got together with linguists to find a way to interpret moral statements in a way that did not make them statements of fact. By doing that, they manage to mostly dodge most of the criticisms against simple subjectivism mentioned above. For example, since emotivism does not consider moral statements as statements of fact, we no longer have to be perfectly right all the time. We can, in fact, disapprove of X while at the same time saying X is moral - in the same way that i can hate the Leafs and still say "yay, Leafs".

But emotivism has its own major problem. It has turned all moral statements into expressions of emotion (hence the name). That effectively means that your moral attitudes are really just your emotions. Anything that changes your emotions changes your moral attitudes. That is a major problem, because our emotions are inherently irrational.

Consider what it means in practice. Suppose there was a man who wanted to be president, and you did not really think he was a good person. He had a questionable past, and a questionable record in office so far. But because you felt that he was not a good person, you were not going to vote for him. Now, i am aware that you are a nearly fanatical Sikh, so i tell you that this candidate is a devout Sikh. All of a sudden, you really like this guy, and run around telling everyone what a good person he is.

Does that sound right? This person's deeds have not changed. All that has changed is how you feel about him. But suddenly he went from being a bad person to being a good person. If you were a fanatical vegetarian and i told you he was a steak lover, he could go back from being good to being evil again. It's all a little ridiculously arbitrary, to the point of being meaningless. A person does not go from good to evil by ordering the filet mignon rather than the garden salad.

Cultural relativism

The first and most obvious criticism of cultural relativism is the nebulous meaning of "culture". Consider a commune of Mormon polygamists in the Mormon-dominated (though not polygamous) state of Utah, USA. What is their culture? The commune, the state, or all of the USA? Each has different moral standards. Which one determines what is right and wrong for the people in the commune?

But aside from the practical problems, cultural relativism has several disturbing philosophical consequences.

Imagine you had two "cultures" on opposite sides of a river that marked the border between them. Let one culture be similar to a generic modern western culture and let the other culture keep slaves, segregate by race and various other nasty things. Now, let's take cultural relativism seriously and see what we can learn from these two cultures.

The first thing to note is that you cannot say either culture is "better" or "worse" than the other - there is simply no objective standard by which to compare them. Normally cultural relativists would only compare two cultures which differ only in minor tastes and claim there is no justification in calling either one better or worse. But the same rules apply when comparing an enlightened, peaceful culture with Nazi Germany... according to cultural relativism, both cultures are equal, morally speaking.

It gets worse. Suppose a person is flying a plane to the territory of one culture and hits bad weather and is forced to make an emergency landing in the other culture's territory... and is promptly enslaved for the rest of their life. Tell me what's wrong with that picture. Unfortunately, if you're a cultural relativist... nothing. Does it sound right that on one side of the river there is freedom and equality for all, but on the other people of the wrong skin colour can be shot on sight like game... and that there's absolutely nothing wrong with that? To me, that sounds a little problematic.

Oh, but it gets worse. Because if the culture on the one side of the river decides that it is morally right to start a war of aggression and take over every other culture... no one can tell them they're wrong. Everyone must fight or die. No culture or cultures would have any justification for setting rules for other cultures... except by force. Basically, if the world actually were run by cultural relativsts (that took cultural relativism seriously), then there could be no peaceful cultures, because they would all be exterminated by the aggressive cultures.

And it gets worse! Remember, there is no objective standard for determining moral "progress". No culture is better than any other, just different, and that applies within a culture as well. Most people would argue that our modern western civilization has "evolved" morally; once upon a time we kept slaves, treated women like second-class citizens and denied equal rights and privileges to visible minorites, but we do not do those things anymore, and most people would consider this to be an improvement. But in cultural relativism... it's not. A culture does not get "better" when it abolishes slavery, because there is no "better" or "worse"... and in fact if we were to reinstate slavery today, it would not be a step backwards. People who petition for social change are not "improving" or "destroying" their societies, they are simply changing them - and not for better or worse. By that metric, there is no difference between Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Adolf Hitler - neither made their society better or worse with the changes they provoked; both merely changed their societies. Strange, isn't it?

i'm not even done yet. Suppose in your culture, it is believed that murder is immoral. So far no problem, right? Now... what if i were to ask why murder is immoral? Most people would attempt to provide a rational reason for why murder is wrong. STOP! What just happened? Did you just try to present a reason for a moral? But... that can't be! Because if there is a reason then relativism must be wrong. If cultural relativism is correct, then there can be no objective reasons for morals. All morals must be as they simply because of tradition. Does that sound right to you? If i ask you why it is wrong to set babies on fire, the only answer you can give is: because that's what we've always believed traditionally?

As you can see, cultural relativism is a very troubled theory. i could go on! There are many more issues with it. But i think that is enough for an introduction. It is true that cultures differ in moral standards, but it does not follow from that difference alone that there are no objective standards. If two people disagree about the atomic structure of deuterium, it does not follow from the fact that they disagree that there is no objective truth about the atomic structure of deuterium. And it turns out that when properly studied, the moral standards of different cultures are not really different. It would seem, given a naïve study, that Nazi Germany's moral standards are difffernt from our modern day western standards, because they believed it was ok to throw Jews into internment camps while we do not. But a deeper study shows that there's actually no moral disagreement at all! Modern day western civilizations believe that criminals should be separated from society into prisons, because they pose a threat to society. Nazi Germany believed that Jews should be separated... because they pose a threat to society! You see? There is no difference in the moral standard. The difference is a disagreement in facts. We do not believe that Jews pose a threat to society simply by virtue of their "race", while the Nazis did believe that. But if we did believe that, we, too, would throw Jews into prisons just like the Nazis did! A closer examination of the beliefs of different societies will almost always lead to the discovery that it is not that moral standards themselves are different, but that beliefs about facts that underlie moral judgements that are different.

Suffice it to say that despite the claims most people make about believing in cultural relativism, there does not exist a single agency, organization, government or body of laws that uses any relativist morality theory as a basis, anywhere in the world, ever in the recorded history of humanity.

Divine command theory

Divine command theory suffers from all of the same problems that all relativist theories share, with one additional minor catch. It turns out that if a god exists, and divine command theory is true... then nothing else matters! While it can be argued that it is rather silly to believe that a culture should hold that rape is wrong simply out of "inertia", it is not necessarily silly to hold that rape is wrong based solely on the word of a god... because, after all, it is the word of a god. By this line of reasoning, one can dismiss most of the usual objections to divine command theory as simply not applicable. This kind of thing happens often when a god is brought into a philosophical theory - a god is the ultimate five hundred pound gorilla that can do what it wants, how it wants, when it wants, no justification necessary. This is actually a double-edged sword, because while it allows you to claim a god can do whatever needs to be done in order for your position to be correct, it also allows the person debating you to claim the same for their position.

In this case, assuming that divine command theory is true, then it is true that there is no objective reason for the god to say - for example - that murder is wrong. If there were an objective reason, then it would not be divine command theory (or a relativist theory at all). In divine command theory, one cannot claim that the god had any rational motive for making the moral law at all, regardless of the law. You cannot claim that god made rape immoral because it hurts, or because it's a violation of the victim's person, or because of the humiliation, or any reason at all. The only reason the god made something immoral in divine command theory was because it randomly bloody well felt like it - no more, no less.

That is extremely problematic. We make moral laws for reasons - to protect people from injury or other harm. We don't make random moral laws for no reason other than whim. There's a reason for that - those moral laws, even if they are "fake" moral laws in that they exist for no real reason, still create real criminals. If we were to make pointless moral laws, we would be creating immoral people... pointlessly.

So a god that creates morals for no reason creates immorality... for no reason. In other words, such a god would be creating evil... for no reason. Anyone that creates evil for no reason cannot be good. Therefore, if divine command theory is true... the god making the rules cannot be a moral god. It must be amoral at the least, immoral at the most - and if it has any understanding at all of suffering... then it would be a immoral god.

But an immoral god cannot rationally expect moral behaviour from its followers - who would let a child molester and rapist dictate proper sexual behaviour for them? So in divine command theory, the god must be either amoral or immoral, and thus not worthy of being a source of morality. Therefore, divine command theory cannot be correct.

Criticisms of moral universalist theories

i must apologize in advance if i am weak in this section. The truth is that this is not my field, and i was not originally supposed to be writing an article on this. i have been relying on what little i do know, and the partial work done by the person that was originally supposed to be writing this, but at this point both have run out. i will give it my best, however.

i can say this much. Every secular moral code that has ever been drafted in history, including the laws of every non-theocratic body, has been a moral universalist code. What is not clear is exactly which moral universalist theory was used, if indeed any single theory was used. Most are probably cobbled together from a mish-mash of bits from each moral univeralist theory. In fact, it turns out that for most common situtations, most moral univeralist theories will give you the same results, which makes it even harder to determine which one is actually being used at any given time.


At its core, utilitarianism is a moral philosophy that declares that the ends justify the means. The morality of an proposed action is completely unrelated to that action at all - it relies solely on the expected results of that action. It would be perfectly ok to torture and exterminate an entire civilization... if the results of that action generated enough "good" to outweight the suffering.

The first objection, then, is obviously to challenge the definitions of "good" and "suffering", and whatever methods are used to weigh them against the other. In fact, that was pretty much how the original objections went - they argued that utilitarianism effectively reduced to hedonism - but the theory was strengthened considerably later by better definitions of "good" and "suffering". Still, there is a degree of lattitude in deciding what's "good", what's "suffering", and just how much of the one is equivalent to the other.

But that is not the most troubling aspect of utilitarianism. Remember that utilitarian ethics claims that the ends justify the means. It is possible to imagine a situation where nearly infinite good is created... by forcing a finite amount of suffering on a finite group of people - or a single person. Regardless of your definitions of "good" and "suffering" or the relationship between the two, no utilitarian can rationally argue against infinite happiness for a finite amount of suffering. Thus, according to a utilitarian, it would be ok to subject someone to horrible suffering... provided the end result is good enough. That is rather troubling, to say the least.

The categorical imperative

Most objections that i know to the categorical imperative are objections to how it was derived - not to the actual rule. i am afraid i will have to leave it to someone else to present a proper case for and against it.

Virtue ethics

As i mentioned before, this field is both too old and too new to offer and real comment on. So, unfortunately, i cannot say anything about it.


It cannot be denied that moral relativism is wildly popular among laypersons (non-philosophers) - particularly moral relativism nowadays. But philosophers have generally found moral relativist theories to be lacking. Almost all modern debate is around universalist theories of one form or another. Every organization or body that describes or enforces moral laws in one form or another - from your local judical system to the United Nations - uses a moral universalist system.

The only real question under debate these days is... which one is best? Unfortunately, that is not an easy question to answer, because most of the time it is not possible to distinguish one from the other by their results. It is only on the questions on the fringes of morality and ethics - the ones that really challenge our moral sensibilities - that these systems really start to diverge.

Debate literally continues to this day on this question - a question as old as human thought.
Free will and moral responsibility

Much time is spent discussing what is right and what is wrong, and why. It is rare that much thought is given to whether or not any of that even matters.

Consider the question: what does it take to be morally responsible for an action? That's not too difficult for most people to answer. First, you would have to be aware that it was right or wrong - if you were suddenly arrested for yawning in public because a law against yawning had been passed that you were unaware of, no one would accuse you of being a bad person (just stupid). Second, the action would have had to have been deliberate - if you told a joke and a man laughed so hard he had a heart attack, you could hardly be considered a murderer. And third, you would have had to have been acting of your own free will - you could not be blamed for theft if someone was holding a gun to your head and threatening to kill you if you did not steal.

For now, forget the requirement for knowing what you're doing, because that is rather uninteresting philosophically (although perhaps important legally). Don't worry about intention for the moment either. Let's focus on free will.

In this installment, i will discuss the question: does free will exist? i will present an argument that shows that it does not, then consider some of the standard philosophical positions on the topic.

Then, just to be a troublemaking jerk, i will discuss another question: does any of that matter?

But to begin, i need to make some definitions.

Determinism and indeterminism

So how does the universe work, anyway? Is it the case that every event is caused by the preceeding events? Or do things just happen randomly without cause?

Up until the dawn of the 20th century, it was almost universally believed that the universe is deterministic. Both science and philosophy held that this was the case. That means that if you were somehow able to know everything about the universe right now - that is, the current state that it is in and all the laws that govern it - you would be able to predict with perfect accuracy every future event. Unless you're studying quantum physics, you will see that this is the case in all the science that you do - given enough information about a system at time t, and given that you know the laws of physics that apply, you can calculate everything that happens to that system at any time beyond t.

The important result of determinism, for our interests, is that it means that at any given time, there is only one possible future. That future is determined by the past and by the laws of the universe (hence the name). For all practical purposes, it is impossible for us to actually predict the future, because we cannot have perfect knowledge of the present and we do not have perfect knowledge of the laws of the universe. But that doesn't matter for this discussion. All that matters is that at any given time, there is only one possible future - whether we can know it or not is irrelevant.

The only other alternative is an indeterministic universe. In an indeterministic universe... things just happen. Nothing causes anything else. You may be able to assign probabilities to what might happen, but you can never know for sure what actually will. That means that at any given time, there is more than one possible future... and whichever one comes to pass is random (because if it were not completely random, it would have cause, and would be a determined future).

As i mentioned, up until the invention of quantum physics in the early 20th, the universe was held to be deterministic. Quantum uncertainties mean that events really are random, and although probabilities may be determined, what actually happens cannot (attempts have been made to try to make quantum mechanics deterministic again by introducing the idea of "hidden variables", but so far the idea does not seem scientifically plausible).

Nevertheless, all that matters to us for this discussion is the following:
  1. The universe is either deterministic or indeterministic.
  2. In a deterministic universe, at any given time there is only one possible future.
  3. In an indeterministic universe, there is more than one possible future, but it is determined randomly.
Keep these in mind for the next section.

The problem with free will

Assume the universe is deterministic. Can free will exist?

What does it mean to make a free choice? Does it not mean that you are able to choose between multiple available options? Think about it. If i told you that you were free to choose between option A... and nothing else (including not choosing - that's not an option either)... and you take option A (the only choice you had), was your choice really free? Were you not "forced" to choose option A by virtue of the fact that there were no other options?

If that's the case, consider the nature of a deterministic universe. Remember that in a deterministic universe, there is always only one possible future. Your actions - as part of the universe - are determined. That means that at any given time, there is always only one possible action you can take. Therefore, free will does not exist.

Not a problem, though, right? The universe is not determined.

Ok, assume the universe is indeterministic. Can free will exist?

In an indeterministic universe, things happen randomly, without causes. What does that mean for free will? It means that when you do something, it cannot be caused by a choice to do it. You may want do X, but that does not make you do X. You will do X if the probabilities work out right, otherwise you won't. Either way, it is beyond your control. Therefore, free will does not exist.

So, what have we got now? Observe:
  1. The universe is either deterministic or indeterministic.
  2. If the universe is deterministic, free will cannot exist.
  3. If the universe is indeterministic, free will cannot exist.
  4. Therefore, free will cannot exist.
Pretty neat little package there, hm?

Schools of thought on free will

Now that i've explained determinism and the problem of free will, i can explain to you the major categories of philosophical thought on the issue.

One thing you will note is that far more work has been done under the assumption that the universe is deterministic. That is because up until the advent of quantum mechanics, it was believed to be so. Now that signs are pointing to the likelihood of an indeterministic universe, it is likely that a lot more work will be done in the future using the assumption of an indeterministic universe.

Hard determinism

Hard determinism is the easiest to understand. The hard determinist says that the universe is deterministic, and agrees that that rules out free will. Therefore, free will is an illusion.


Libertarianism involves assuming that free will exists, but admitting that it is incompatible with a deterministic universe. Therefore, the universe cannot be deterministic.

This is actually the position held by most people - especially religious types whose theology requires that we be able to freely sin or do good and be held responsible for it - but it suffers from the problem of not really answering anything. Remember that free will still doesn't work in an indeterminstic universe. You don't solve the problem by tossing determinism aside, you've just change the question.


Compatibilism says that both free will and determinism do exist... that they are, in fact "compatible" (hence the name - ideas that hold that the two cannot coexist are incompatibilist ideas).

How do compatibilists make free will and determinism work together? The trick is to redefine "free will".

A compatibilist will tell you that the definition of free will that you know - that is, being able to choose between alternative actions without coercion - is nonsense. Why? Because if determinism is true, then obviously we can never have any alternative actions. Yet we still talk about some actions being free and some being not free. So, assuming we're not all just stupid or deluded, what do we mean when we talk about these things?

A compatibilist will answer: an action is free if it is directly caused by and taken in accordance with our mental states. In other words, if you will to do X - that is, that your mind is in such a state that it intends for X to happen - and this causes you to do X, then that is all it takes for you to be doing X "freely". On the other hand, if you did not will to do X, but you did X, then you did not do X "freely". It does not matter if you had no choice but to do X, so long as X was what you intended to do.

For example, suppose someone held a gun to your head and told you to mug a complete stranger and steal their wallet or you would be killed. You do it. But was it a "free" action? Not by the normal definition of "free" because you did not have any other reasonable options available to you, and not by the compatibilist version either because the action was against your mental states. You didn't "want" to mug the person, you were forced to against your will.

Compatibilism has enjoyed mixed success. On the one hand, it seemed to solve all the problems of determinism and free will. On the other hand... well, let me let Immanuel Kant say it: "[Compatibilism] is a wretched subterfuge with which some persons still let themselves be put off, and so think they have solved, with a petty word-jugglery, that difficult problem, at the solution of which centuries have laboured in vain, and which can therefore scarcely be found so completely on the surface." Ouch.

Summary so far

The philosophical concept of determinism, which declares that every event in the universe is an inevitable product of the combination of the preceeding events and the laws of nature, poses a critical problem for the idea of free will. Most philosophers hold that the two ideas cannot be resolved together - they are called incompatibilists - but compatibilists try to make them work by redefining "free will".

Hard determinists are incompatibilists who reject free will; Libertarians are incompatibilists who reject determinism. Unfortunately for the latter, it turns out that free will also doesn't work with indeterminism.

So far it's looking pretty bad for free will. However, it's about to get worse. Because i'm about to show that - regardless of whether "free will" exists or not, we cannot ever be held morally responsible for our actions.

Moral responsibility

If you remember, we started with the question of what it would take to make you morally responsible for an action. So far, i've just been talking about free will, and it looks pretty bleak. But there was another requirement: intention. In order to be morally responsible for an action, you must intend to do it - it can't simply be an accident.

Is that enough? No, unfortunately, it is not.

Consider the case of someone who had been drugged. Suppose someone was slipped an overdose of steroids, which heightened their agression considerably. Suppose that under that influence, they kill someone. Are they morally responsible for that act? Of course not. They weren't in control of their intentions, the drugs were, and they did not choose to take the drugs.

So it is not enough for moral responsibility to intend to do the action, you also have to be responsible for the intention. Or to put it another way, it is not enough to want to do the action, you have to want to want to do the action.

Is that enough now? No, it is still not.

Consider the case of someone who had eaten some food that someone had laced with a drug. The drug hinders their judgement, and the person decides that it might be a good idea to take a lot of steroids. These steroids make the person aggressive, and he kills someone. Are they morally responsible for that killing? No. It is true that they they wanted to kill the person, but the steroids caused that. And it is true that they wanted to take the steroids, but the drug caused that. And they did not want to take the drug.

So it is not enough for moral responsibility to intend to do the action, or any of the actions that lead to the intention to do it, you have to ultimately intend to start the chain. Or to put it another way, it is not enough to want to do the action, or even enough to want to want to do the action, you have to want to want to want to do the action.

i could continue forever, but i think the point is made. You can only be morally responsible for intending an action if you are ultimately morally responsible for all the factors that made you intend to do the action.

Normal human behaviour

So far, i have only been talking about people under the influence of behaviour modifying drugs. Does this finding apply to people that act "freely" (by whatever definition of "free" you choose to use)?

In fact, it does, and it's problematic, to say the least.

Consider the case of a murderer. Out of his own "free will" - that is to say, without coercion and in accordance with his own desires - he kills someone. His own rage and violent tendencies were the cause of that action. He wanted to do it. If you like, you might even add that he enjoyed doing it and would choose to do it again - it changes nothing in the analysis.

But what was the cause of his rage and violent tendencies? It was some combination of his personality and the experiences brought on by his past environment.

Now, clearly he wasn't the cause of his environment, but his personality determines how his environment affects him. So personality seems to be the key. But what was the cause of his personality? His genetic makeup and his development environment.

Once again, he wasn't the cause of his development environment. But what was the cause of his genetic makeup? Biology and the random chance of who his parents were.

Look at where we are now. We started with an action that seemed to be indisputably caused by the individual that did it, then we traced the causal chain back to realize that although his desires did cause the action, ultimately the cause of his desires were not in his control. In fact, we could do that for any individual and any action, good or bad. Even if you want to do something, the reason you want to do something is due to your personality, which is due to who you are, which is ultimately beyond your control.


Can we solve this dilemma? It turns out there is a solution. However... the solution actually makes things worse.

First, simplify the chain to deal with only mental factors, and pretend there is no genetic or environmental influence on them (it changes nothing if you include them, it just makes it more complicated). Your actions are caused by your desires, which are caused by your personality.

Could it be possible to be responsible for your personality? Consider what would be required for that. In order to be responsible for your personality, you have to choose it. You have to choose to between a aggressive personality, or a compassionate personality (among others). How do you choose? You select the personality that best aligns to the desires you have for who you want to be.

But wait a minute! How can you have desires without a personality? How can you want to be compassionate or aggressive without already having a personality alignment that prefers one over the other? In other words, before you can choose a personality, you would already have to have a personality. But then you wouldn't have chosen that personality. And if you did, then you wouldn't have chosen the personality that aligned your desires in such a way to select it without an even higher level personality, which you would have to choose, and so on and so on ad infinitium.

There is only one solution - only one way to break the chain. At some point, you would have to be causa sui - the cause of yourself.

What does that mean, philosophically? In order for something to be causa sui, it would have to break the rules of causality. It would have to be both its own cause, and its effect. Think about it: "What made this house? The house made the house. How can the house have caused the house if the house didn't exist before the house did in order to be the cause of the house? It is both its own cause and its effect, it is causa sui". Wacky, huh? But that's what causa sui is. It violates a philosophical idea called the principle of sufficient reason, which states that every effect must have a cause, and nothing can cause itself. But it is the only way to solve the problem. In this case, your personality would have to have been the cause of itself.

Of course, that "solution" opens up a whole new world of problems, because once you let one thing be causa sui, you now have to explain why nothing else can be (there are lots of things that could potentially be causa sui that would cause all kinds of philosophical havoc - once you open the floodgates, closing them could be hell). As it stands, only one thing is generally held to be causa sui (by some philosophers), and that is "God", which would mean that "God" is the only being in existence than can be morally responsible (which is quite the opposite to most theologies, which claim that "God" is blameless and it is we who bear responsibility for everything).


As if free will did not have enough problems - trying to mesh with determinism in compatibilism or indeterminism in libertarianism... or neither in hard determinism - it turns out that the question might not even matter.

Because unless we are causa sui (the cause of ourselves), we cannot be held morally responsible for our actions. That is because if we are not causa sui, then we are not ultimately responsible for who we are, which determines our choices, and, finally, our actions. However, if we allow that we are causa sui, it violates the principle of sufficient reason, and once violated for one thing, there is no reason to presume that it cannot be violated for something else. That would raise havoc with many ideas in philosophy.

Obviously in "real life" - that is, practical application - we don't go by any of this. We assume that free will exists and that moral responsibility is possible. Otherwise there would be anarchy! But in reality, what we are doing is not acting out of concern for the truth, but on practical or pragmatist philosophies. Secular legal systems do not punish so much out of a desire to enact vengeance, but more for the purposes of social engineering and behaviour modification. We punish people who commit crimes in order to discourage them and others from committing further crimes, not because they "have it coming" (despite what some people think).

Of course, that raises an entirely new slew of moral dilemmas. Is it moral to punish someone for the purpose of making an example of them to dissuade others from the same behaviours? That's an entirely different set of questions, that may get discussed in another post, by me or someone else.
In philosophy, aesthetics, in a very narrow sense, is the study of beauty. In a slightly broader sense it is the study of beauty and art. In its widest sense it is the study of how we attach value to what we perceive. What do we mean when we say something is ‘beautiful’? What makes something ‘ugly’ or ‘repulsive’? How do we judge an artwork? What criteria and rules, if any, can we apply? Is beauty entirely ‘in the eye of the beholder’, or are there some objective measures we can use? Is the notion of beauty something fixed or is it constantly changing? Is something beautiful simply because of how it looks (is beauty really ‘skin deep’) or does an aesthetic value need to go deeper?

These are some of the key questions in aesthetics.

I will quickly skim through the thoughts of early philosophers on the subject to give some context.

Early History
The Ancient Greeks
Socrates regarded beauty as being a quality possessed by something because of it's utility or 'goodness' and not a separate thing unto itself.
Plato, on the other hand, believed in 'absolute' beauty, which he identified with concepts of truth and goodness, but regarded as something indefinable. In as far as he attributed beauty to objects or people it was because of harmony or unity within the object rather than because of any sensual pleasure or effect that the object bestowed.
Aristotle wrote more extensively on the issue. He distinguished between 'goodness' and 'beauty' by saying that goodness is 'always in action'(praxei), whereas beauty 'may exist in motionless things'(akinetois). He also defined beauty as something which does not provoke lust or desire when experienced. He defines the individual elements of beauty in a similar vein to Plato - order (taxis), symmetry, definiteness (orismenon) and 'correctness' of size or magnitude; small enough to see the whole whilst large enough to be perceived in detail.

Chinese Aesthetics
In ancient times Chinese philosophers were already arguing about aesthetics. Confucius emphasized the role of the arts and humanities (especially music and poetry) in broadening human nature and aiding “li” (etiquette). His opponent, Mozi, argued that music and fine arts were elitist and wasteful, benefiting the rich but not the common people. China is quite unusual in the fact that although religious and philosophical influence on art was common (and diverse), it was never universal and examples of Chinese art can be found from nearly every century that owes little or nothing to either religion or philosophy.

Western medieval aesthetics
Typically art of this period was commissioned and funded by the Church and is, as a result, highly religious in tone and subject matter. The period is divided up into 8 main movements: Early Christian art, Migration Period art, Celtic art, Pre-Romanesque and Romanesque art, Gothic art, Byzantine art and Islamic art. A brief description of each of these, together with the time-scale is included in Appendix A

The German and English Modernists
The modernists emphasised beauty as a key component of aesthetic experiences.

Emmanuel Kant (1724–1804)
For Kant beauty was something subjective but universal. He said, for example, ‘All will agree that the rose is beautiful’ but he thought that beauty could not be reduced to a basic set of features or elements. In a nutshell Kant believed that beauty has 4 elements or aspects. These elements are; freedom from concepts; objectivity; the disinterest of the spectator; and obligatoriness. Let’s look at each starting with freedom from concept. Kant means by this that art/beauty must be free from purpose or aim. Kant believed that beauty required that the cognitive powers of the brain – understanding and imagination – were engaged in judging something then it could not be experienced as beautiful. Only when the cognitive powers of the brain are held back from forming concepts and judgements did Kant believe that true beauty could be experienced. Let’s take an example. If I give you a pebble then your mind will immediately start to judge and classify that pebble and, Kant would argue, you will not perceive any beauty in it. If, on the other hand, I take you to a pebble beach where there is no definite concept for your mind to settle on, then you might experience beauty in the way the scattered pebbles are arranged. Next we consider objectivity. Kant would argue that since everyone with cognition knows what a pebble is, their cognition will behave in the same way with the individual pebble and with the pattern of scattered pebbles on the beach. Everyone, by this argument, would possibly experience beauty in the latter and no-one in the former. To that extent beauty is an objective judgement. Next we consider disinterest of the spectator and the ‘obligatoriness’. These two are linked. Kant followed the Platonic idea that beauty does not cause us to desire to possess it nor does it give us any selfish gratification as we observe it. It captures our attention and forces us to look at it without any other concern or thought in our minds. Thus we are disinterested in the sense of wanting/desiring nothing. Perception of the beautiful object is the end in itself – it is not a means to a further end. It is enjoyed for its own sake and nothing more. The obligatoriness comes from the fact that, to Kant, this selfless appreciation is a moral act and, therefore, observation of beauty is obligatory because it introduces us to a moral point of view and we ‘rise above ourselves’. One of Kant’s frequent sayings was “The enjoyment of nature is the mark of a good soul”.

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831) For Hegel all culture is "absolute spirit" manifesting itself, stage by stage. Art is the first stage - the absolute spirit is manifest immediately to the senses. Thus Hegel regarded beauty as something completely objective.
Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860) For Schopenhauer the aesthetic contemplation of beauty is the most freedom that the intellect can gain from the will. There is no worldly agenda – any intrusion of utility, politics or other worldly considerations would ruin the point of the beauty.
Edmund Burke (1729-1797) In short, the Beautiful, according to Burke, is that which is well-formed and aesthetically pleasing, whereas the Sublime is what has the power to compel and destroy us. (The preference for the Sublime over the Beautiful was to mark the transition from the Neoclassical to the Romantic era). Burke was one of the ‘analytic’ theorists and this group included William Hogarth and Lord Kames.
David Hume (1711-1776) Hume is an inner sense theorist who treats aesthetic pleasure as an instinctive and natural human response. Successful art exploits our natural sentiments by employing appropriate composition and design. Only empirical inquiry can establish reliable ways to elicit the approval of taste.

Post Modern Aesthetics
Benedetto Croce (1866-1952) Croce theorised that everything we know can be reduced to logical and imaginative knowledge. Art is basically pure imagery and all thought is based in part on this and such though precedes all other. The task of an artist is to put forth the perfect image for the viewer, since this is what beauty fundamentally is - the formation of inward, mental images in their ideal state.
George Dickie (1926- ) One of his central theses was that the sociological institutions of the art world were the glue binding art and sensibility into ‘unities’. He fiercely championed Hume's treatment of the subject over that of Kant.
Marshall McLuhan (1911-1980) McLuhan suggested that art functions as a "counter-environment" designed to make visible what is usually invisible about a society.

««««««««««««««««« Appendix A – Medieval Art Movements in Western Europe »»»»»»»»»»»»»»»»

• Early Christian art covers from about 200AD to the early 8th century. After this time Arab conquests and Byzantine iconoclasm halted the production of art in the East. During this period Christian artists adopted the Roman crafts of painting, mosaic, carving and metalwork.
• Byzantine art overlaps Early Christian art until the period around 800AD, known as the iconoclastic period. During the period 730-843, the vast majority of artwork with figures was destroyed. After 843 until 1453 there is a clear Byzantine art tradition. It is often the finest art of the Middle Ages in terms of quality of material and workmanship, with production centred on Constantinople. Byzantine art's crowning achievements were the frescos and mosaics inside domed churches. Most do not survive today due to natural disasters and the appropriation of churches to mosques.
• Celtic art describes the art of native Celtic speaking peoples of Ireland and Britain from about the 5th-12th century, when we get the establishment of Romanesque art. The 5th-7th centuries were mainly a continuation of the late Iron Age La Tène art with some Roman modifications. The 7th and 8th centuries saw a fusion through contact with the Anglo-Saxons, creating what is called the Hiberno-Saxon or Insular art style.
• Migration Period art describes the art of Germanic and Eastern-European peoples on the move during the Migration Period from about the 4th-10th centuries. It also includes the early Hiberno-Saxon period.
• Pre-Romanesque art is the period from 9th-11th century. It includes Carolingian art, Ottonian art (Germany), Anglo-Saxon art (England), as well as the art of France, Italy and Spain. During this period Carolingian art becomes the seed from for later Romanesque and Gothic art.
• Romanesque art refers to art of the period from 10th-12th century, which developed with the rise of monasticism in Western Europe (France, Christian Spain, England, Flanders, Germany and Italy). Its architecture is dominated by thick walls, short bulky structures, and round-headed windows/arches.
• Gothic art originated with Gothic architecture in 1140. Gothic painting did not appear until around 1200 when it diverged from Romanesque style. Gothic sculpture was born in France in 1144, with the renovation of the Abbey Church of St. Denis, and spread throughout Europe. By the 13th century it had become the international style, replacing Romanesque.
• Islamic art includes illuminated manuscripts, textiles, ceramics, metalwork and glass. It refers to the art of Muslims in the Near East, Islamic Spain, and Northern Africa. The formative stage was from 7th-10th century with the development of regional styles from around 900AD.

More reading
Bru, stuffce
I am interested in the Doctrine of Double Effect (DDE).

To introduce this I will first define it. I like Mangan’s definition that includes the explicit requirement that a bad effect not be intended:

The Doctrine of Double Effect
A person may licitly perform an action that he foresees will produce a good effect and a bad effect provided that four conditions are verified at one and the same time:
• that the action in itself from its very object be good or at least indifferent;
• that the good effect and not the evil effect be intended;
• that the good effect be not produced by means of the evil effect;
• that there be a proportionately grave reason for permitting the evil effect.

Note it’s relationship to Deontology and Consequentialism and perhaps even utilitarianism. If it were feasible I would use a Venn diagram to illustrate these overlaps, but I doubt it's efficacy. In summary consequentialism insists that the good or evil of any act is determined by it's outcome whereby Deontology considers the implicit good or evil of any act. Utilitarianism is a superset of consequentialism that argues that one should act in a way that maximises the total 'good', to the whole human race, of any act.

A good example of the DDE is abortion:
A doctor who believed that abortion was wrong, even in order to save the mother's life, might nevertheless consistently believe that it would be permissible to perform a hysterectomy on a pregnant woman with cancer. In carrying out the hysterectomy, the doctor would aim to save the woman's life while merely foreseeing the death of the foetus. Performing an abortion, by contrast, would involve intending to kill the foetus as a means to saving the mother.

This argument has been used many times (collateral damage in wartime, assisting terminal patients with lethal doses of pain-killers, etc.)

The doctrine itself has a nice intuitive appeal, but it falls victim to the problem of description. How does anyone, even sometimes the actor involved, really know what the intention is?
To go with the drugs example. A doctor's job is to save lives and alleviate suffering. If a patient is terminal, and has maybe two weeks of life left and specifically asks to die it is not the doctor's job to kill the patient. Even if the patient is dying anyway. What the doctor can do, though, is prescribe a level of pain-killers that will inevitably cause death. If a doctor acts to relieve the patient's pain with a massive dose of morphine that he knows will kill the patient and bring about the end that all involved desire how likely is it that the doctor won't, at some level, be acting to hasten death in order to end the pain rather than purely to ease the pain? If the bringing of death is a means to the desirable end, but the mechanism is the same as that of simply easing pain, but hastening death how will anyone, even the doctor, be sure of the motivation?

And, given that the end is the same, does it matter?
The Mind-Body Problem

One of the fundamental branches of philosophy is the philosophy of mind, and one of the most fundamental problems in the philosophy of mind is the mind/body problem. The mind/body problem is the question of the relationship between mind or mental states and the body or physical states. Despite common belief, this has very little to do with religious questions about the existence of a “soul” (however that even gets defined, because it's one of those words that doesn't really have a clear definition), although it did historically.

The differing views of the problem fall into two different categories:
  • Dualism: Mental states and physical states are distinct from each other.
  • Monism: Mental states and physical states can be reduced to a single substance.
Pure monism is very rarely discussed; normally dualism is contrasted against a specific type of monism. These are the types of monism:
  • Materialism/Physicalism: Mental states and physical states all reduce to physical states.
  • Idealism: Mental states and physical states all reduce to mental states. (The physical world is all a figment of our imaginations.)
  • Neutral monism: Mental states and physical states all reduce to… something else. (There is something else that the universe is made of that we interpret as two different things.)
Both idealism and neutral monism have come up from time to time, but, generally speaking, dualism is usually considered along with materialism (or physicalism – for our purposes, there is no difference). That's why I'll only be dealing with materialism, and not giving any time to idealism or neutral monism.


Dualism is very common in western philosophy, but is actually not as old as materialism, and for most of the history of philosophy never held much sway. Plato pushed a form of dualism that was pretty much shot down cold by Aristotle, and then that was that for centuries, until the Catholic Church wanted a philosophical view that supported their religious beliefs and revived it – more or less. But in philosophical circles the idea was not taken seriously until René Descartes. Descartes took the widespread religious beliefs of the time and formulated a philosophical model that was (mostly) consistent. Virtually all modern discussions of the mind/body problem take their cue from Descartes in one form or another (in fact, it is not entirely incorrect to say that Descartes started the debate). But despite common conception, Cartesian dualism – a form of “substance” dualism (I'll explain what that is in a minute) – is not really influential in modern philosophy (although it is extremely popular amongst laypersons, and has been embraced by a number of religions).

Dualism comes in two main flavours:
  • Substance dualism: There are actually two different “things” out there in the universe, and mind is made of one and the body is made of the other.
  • Attribute dualism: The mind arises out of the physical universe, but is not part of it.
Traditionally, when someone says “dualism”, they are referring to substance dualism (which is what Descartes introduced). This is the notion that there is the physical universe – where your body exists – and the “mental” (or, if you prefer the religious term, “spiritual”) universe – where your mind exists. If this sounds familiar, it is because it is a fundamental notion in most – if not all – religions and “spiritualist” beliefs: usually the mind can survive the death of the body because it is not part of the body, and in fact is not part of the physical universe at all.

By contrast, in attribute dualism, there is no “spirit stuff” – the mind only exists because of the body, and if the body died the mind would cease to exist. This is similiar to the case of a story in a book – the story only exists as long as the book does, and if the book is destroyed it would no longer exist (the related question of identity deals with the question of whether a copy of that story in another book means the story still exists or whether this is another story that is identical, but that's beyond the scope of this essay). Like the mind, the story is not made of matter, but emerges out of matter (the writing on the page in the case of the story, and the neuron operations in the brain in the case of the mind).

Nowadays, substance dualism has fallen out of favour largely because of the interaction problem. This is not new – Aristotle pointed it out and Descartes tried hard to get around it – but it has never been satisfactorally addressed. The problem is that if mind-stuff (spirit) and body-stuff (matter) are two entirely different things… how can they possibly interact? They must interact, or our minds would be completely unaware of our bodies and our bodies would be completely independent of our minds – but in order for two things to interact, they must share a common medium. Sound can break glass (matter) because of the common medium of air pressure waves (sound travels as them, and they can impact the glass), sunlight can make plants grow because of the common medium of electromagnetic energy (photons) (sunlight travels that way, and the atomic states and bonds in the plants exist that way). But if mind and body really are made of completely different things, they have no common medium. Attribute dualism does not suffer from this problem, because it says that the mind is not made of a seperate substance, or of any substance at all, but is merely an emergent property of the physical.

Another aspect of the interaction problem is not just the mechanism of the interaction, but what the interaction is like. Does the body influence the mind, or does the mind influence the body, or both? Or neither? There are four possibilities:
  • Interactionism: The mind and body both influence each other. This is by far the most commonly held view among laypersons.
  • Epiphenominalism: The body influences the mind, but the mind does not influence the body. This is very popular amongst scientists and philosophers.
  • Dunno what this is called, if it has a name: The mind influences the body, but the body does not influence the mind. This has never had any support, anywhere, anytime (anyone want to guess why? ^_^).
  • Parallelism: The mind and body do not influence each other. However, they are kept “in sync” by a god in one form or another. This view used to be somewhat popular, but is not anymore.
Graphically, the four options are illustrated below. M(n) is a mental state and P(n) is a physical state, and the arrows show how those states influence each other:
M₁ → M₂ → M₃ → M₄          M₁ →  M₂ →  M₃ →  M₄
⇅    ⇅    ⇅    ⇅     OR:     ↘  ↗  ↘  ↗  ↘  ↗  ↘
P₁ → P₂ → P₃ → P₄             P₁ →  P₂ →  P₃ →  P₄

M₁ → M₂ → M₃ → M₄
↑    ↑    ↑    ↑
P₁ → P₂ → P₃ → P₄

No name
M₁ → M₂ → M₃ → M₄
↓    ↓    ↓    ↓
P₁ → P₂ → P₃ → P₄

M₁ → M₂ → M₃ → M₄
P₁ → P₂ → P₃ → P₄
Interactionalism is the traditional, popular notion of how body and mind interact, and is especially associated with Cartesian dualism, and religious notions of dualism. For example, in Abrahamic religions, the physical world tempts the mind to make choices that cause actions in the physical world (which are sins). Epiphenominalism is closely associated with attribute dualism (in fact, attribute dualism arose out of an attempt to formalize epiphenominalism). Parallelism used to be popular, especially in religious “philosophy”, where the two states – mental and physical – were held in sync by gods in one of two ways: either some god intervenes at each stage to make sure the two paths are in step (occasionalism), or existence was originally set up so that they would always be in step (predetermined harmony).


As I mentioned earlier, materialism is only one form of monism, but is by far the most popular. It is also older than dualism, but fell out of favour in the dark ages because of its incompatibility with religion. In fact, since the dark ages it has generally been held in low esteem in popular opinion, and associated with atheism (which was a capital offence for hundreds of years). Each of the three brands of monism say both mind and matter boil down to a single “thing”, and only differ in what that “thing” is; materialism says the “thing” that mind and matter boil down to is matter, idealism says that “thing” is mind and neutral monism says that it's “something else”.

There are many, many different forms of materialism, and some of them get a little complex. In fact, attribute dualism – which I mentioned above – is also actually a form of materialism, called emergent materialism. I can't possible cover all of them, so I will cherry pick a representative sampling.

Behaviouralism is one of the most extreme forms of materialistic monism. According to behaviouralists, there is no such thing as mind at all. Human beings are simply very complicated stimulus-response mechanisms. What that means is that when I say, “I think I am,” I don't really “think” anything, I am just performing the response of saying “I think I am.” The thing that made me make that response is some set of stimulus; certain triggers in the environment that set off that behaviour. Theoretically, if you could figure out exactly what that set of triggers is, and kept showing it to me over and over, I would keep repeating “I think I am” over and over like a broken robot.

Nowadays behaviouralism has fallen out of favour, but it was actually a revolutionary theory in psychology that did a lot to shape it into its modern form. Notably, it pretty much started the ball rolling for all physicalist theories of mind – theories that state the mind is entirely physical in nature. Other such theories include identity theory, which says that me saying “I think I am” is a product of a specific brain state, and that whenever I have that same brain state I will say that same thing. Theoretically, if you could control the firing of my neurons and the chemical levels in my brain, you could keep setting it make me say “I think I am” over and over again… and if you set the same patterns in someone else's brain, they would say “I think I am,” too (even if they had never heard the phrase, or even the language, before). Identity theory is still popular today, albeit in more advanced forms than the one I've outlined.

Both behaviouralism and identity theory (as well as several other theories) fall under the heading of “reductionist” theories in that they try to reduce mind states all the way down to physical (body) states; every thought, every state of mind, is simply a specific set of chemical reactions and/or neural firing patterns and/or sensory stimuli (depending on which specific theory you are using). This kind of thought dominated the mid-late 20th century, but in the last couple of decades there has been a trend toward “non-reductionist” theories. I already mentioned emergent materialism (which is also pretty much attribute dualism – technically the two are different ways of talking about the same theory), but there are other forms that say (for example) that mind states are not simply just physical states, but that they would not exist without physical states to define them, or change without changes in physical states. As you can see, it gets very complicated.

Criticisms of dualism

The key criticism of dualism is the interaction problem, described above. Two things cannot interact unless they share a common medium, which means that if mind and body are to interact, they must share a common medium – they can't be two separate mediums. Philosophers have tried to get around this problem in two ways. First, they try to restrict or limit the interaction to make the problem a little less serious – this is why epiphenominalism is preferred over interactionalism. Of course, the problem, no matter how much it is lessened, still exists. The second tactic is to introduce an external, transcendental force – usually a god – that can break the rules. I only mention that because it was so popular historically you will come across it when doing any reading on the topic… but it has no real followers in philosophy today (although, it is popular among laypersons still).

Another criticism is parsimony: it is not necessary to introduce two things where one thing suffices. In this case, if you can explain the operations of the mind perfectly well with only physical descriptions (which materialists claim they can do), then there is no need to assume the existence of a “something else”, or mental universe. If monism is sufficient, then dualism is a waste of time.

Dualists also have to explain why it is that mental capabilities and the way the mind works are so heavily dependent on the physical – if mind really is something different than body, then why does thought get so sluggish when you are tired? Why do drugs and alcohol affect judgement? These are problems that dualists have a difficult time answering. Even if you allow that physical states influence mental states – which you have to in order to be aware of your physical body – it does not explain why physical states influence the functional capability of the mind. You should still be able to do math just as well when drunk as when sober if pure thought is not part of your body.

Sleep is another problem for dualists – if the mind is not part of the body, why does it essentially shut down when your body shuts down to rest? Even if your body is resting, you should still be able to think (for example, do math equations).

Criticisms of materialism

One of the most frequently raised criticisms of materialism is that thought is unlike anything else we can observe in the physical world. Consider a box: no matter how many different ways we look at that box, under any kinds of lighting conditions, at any angle, it's all one box. But each one of those infinite varieties of ways of looking at that box is a different thought. Also, the mind can (in theory) conceive of infinity, and many other things that cannot exist in physical reality. Thought does not seem to be bound by physical laws at all, which leads to the idea that it must be something non-physical.

It is not only the capability of thought that does not fit in physical reality, it is also the nature of thought. Ideas and feelings have nothing in the physical world similar to them: an idea can be true or false, but nothing in nature is like that – it either exists or it does not, it is in this place or it is not. Feelings are also unlike anything physical, in that they are interpretations attached to physical objects (or other thoughts!) by the observer, and not part of the object itself.

Another objection is based on the idea of qualia. Imagine Mary, a girl that has been raised alone in a specially enclosed environment where she has never had any chance to see the colour red. Now, Mary has access to any book she wants – just not in colour – so she can read all about red. She can read about the physics of light and the specific wavelengths that are red, and she can read about the symbolism and impressions people have about the colour red… but she can never see red. Then one day, she finally gets to leave her little world… and she sees a red rose. Now she has a new experience, she knows what red feels like. This sensation is unique to Mary, and cannot be taught or transferred – it exists only within her mind, and if her mind is simply a product of her body then why is there a difference between understanding red and feeling red? If mind is just body, then giving Mary all of the thought patterns of red that everyone else has should give her every part of the idea of red that exists, but it doesn't. There is something else, Mary's unique sensation of red, that cannot be transmitted.


Mostly kicked into motion by Descartes in the 17th century, dualism is the idea that mind and body are made of two separate and distinct substances. It has much older roots in religion, but in philosophy was largely ignored until Descartes. Prior to that, philosophy generally held mind and body to be one and the same substance, an idea that goes back to ancient Greek thought. Modern philosophy generally adopts a position that straddles the fence somewhat called emergent materialism, where mind is held to come from the body, but it has special properties that emerge that the body itself does not have. This is also the position held in modern science, more or less.

Dualists have problems explaining how mind and body are supposed to interact if they are two different things entirely. They also have a hard time explaining why the mind is so powerfully effected by body states.

Materialists have problems explaining the capabilities, characteristics and qualities of thought in terms of entirely physical processes. The mind seems capable of doing so many things that are outside the scope of what is possible in physical reality.

Most laypersons think the dualist/materialist controversy is one based on religious differences, but the reality is that religion has very little (if anything) to do with the modern form of the controversy, although it played a huge part in the historical controversy.
★★★ The meaning of life ★★★

This is one of the Big Questions. It’s one of the things people think about when they hear the word “philosophy”. One of the ways that schools of philosophical thought are categorized is by how they contend with this question. Many pseudo-philosophical quacks have built entire careers on providing “answers”.

So as you can imagine, there’s a lot to this topic. The sheer scope of the topic has kept me from trying to write on it for so long. Even a cursory survey of the philosophical work done on the topic could fill a book or two. A detailed analysis is just beyond any hope.

Nevertheless, i really wanted to do it. Very few topics in philosophy capture the attention as well as this one. And unlike most philosophical topics, the real meaty discussions of this topic are well within the ken of the common person. Any thoughtful person has, at some time or another, thought long and hard about the meaning of life, and have had long and involved discussions about it with peers. This is not a field that has become obscure, technical and difficult to grok. This is a field where we are all quite close to the experts, and we can easily grasp the concepts they’re working with. I think it would be neat to see a branch of real philosophy that we can really sink our teeth into, and really see how it relates to the armchair philosophy we all like to do.

I can’t even begin to give comprehensive coverage of the topic, but i will try to hit the highlights, with special focus on more recent ideas. Even a cursory survey of the topic will surely give us lots of stuff to think about. Maybe you’ll see a new way looking at life and meaning that you can follow up on in more detail.

One important thing i want to make clear before i begin though: philosophy is not about “opinions”. Anything that starts with “i think...” or “i believe...” is not philosophy. All the ideas i’ll talk about in this essay are well-argued and thoroughly backed up by valid reasoning. I have to say this, because we’ll whip through so many of them, that i won’t be able to do justice to their foundations and derivations, so they may look like the navel-gazing platitudes of pop gurus and self-help pseudo-philosophers, but they’re not. Those people make up crap that “feels” true or right (and then sometimes try to justify it with some kind of framework, usually based on mysticism); the philosophers that came up with the ideas i’ll describe here actually carefully thought out, derived, argued and defended these ideas using rational principles... not just what “felt” right. Even though i won’t go into the details of the logical arguments for these ideas, they do have logical arguments, and if you find any of them interesting, i encourage you to seek out their philosophical justifications and see if you find the arguments convincing – don’t just pick the one you like because it sounds nice.

So, without any further ado, let’s dive in....

The meaning of the meaning of life

Before you can even start to consider what the meaning of life is, you first have to figure out what the phrase “meaning of life” means.

This is not pedantic stuffiness. There are many schools of philosophical thought that have simply outright refused to answer the question at all on the grounds that the phrase itself is meaningless. Wittgenstein – one of the godfathers of Logical Positivism – argues that the phrase “meaning of life” is recursive: life means life.

But even if you’re going to give the issue the old college try, you have to figure out what the idea is about before you can meaningfully discuss it. A classic spoof to illustrate the problem is Douglas Adam’s famous answer to “the question of life, the universe and everything”. What happens is an advanced alien race constructs the greatest computer ever built, and asks it for the answer to “the question of life, the universe and everything”. The computer gets to the task, but it takes millions and millions of years to come to the answer. And the answer it finally gives: 42. The advanced alien race are puzzled and frustrated by this answer, which seems to be a bizarre non-sequitur. But as the computer patiently explains: you can’t expect to understand the answer if you don’t really know what the question is. What is the question of life, the universe and everything, the computer asks, and the advanced aliens have to admit they have no idea. (This leads to a second attempt with an even more powerful computer to figure out what the question is that matches the answer “42”.)

To get an idea of how that applies here, riddle me this: what is the meaning of “life”? When we say we want the meaning of “life”, do we want the meaning of all biological life? Or all intelligent life? Or when we say “life” do mean a single person? And if we mean a single person, are we asking if there is a meaning for their being, or for the meaning of the things they do in their lifetime? The meaning of humanity may be very different from the meaning of the life lived by a single human, assuming that both have meanings. It may be that, like the cells of your body, the only meaning an individual human has is to as part of humanity, and real meaningfulness only comes into play when you consider humanity as a whole. Or, maybe humanity as a whole has no meaning, and only individuals can find meaning. As you can see, what “life” means, means a lot to the question of the meaning of life.

And it gets even more interesting when you ask: what is the meaning of “meaning”?

The meaning of “meaning”

The meaning of “meaning” has been heavily discussed by philosophers over the ages. While they still haven’t pinned down the meaning of “meaning” to a mathematical certainty, there are some things that most philosophers agree on. For example, whatever “meaning” is, it must be a positive thing; it must be something adds value to “life”. In other words, a life without meaning is somehow worth “less” than a life with meaning.

This has consequences though, because you can ask: if is a person whose life has meaning “worth more” than a person whose life doesn’t? When it comes time to make a moral decision, is it ethical to give more weight to the person whose life has meaning than to the other person? In other words, if we say meaning adds value, does it add moral value? The answer to that depends a lot on your moral theory, of course; both utilitarianism and neo-Kantianism say no, because – although they say this in very different ways, with different nuances – what determines moral value is the capacity for a person’s life to have meaning, not the meaning itself.

There’s another dimension to the moral question: is it immoral to live a life without meaning? In other words, if you could choose to live a meaningful life or not, are you morally obligated to live the meaningful one? Again, the answer to that depends on the moral philosophy you’re using, but in general, philosophers agree that all that matters is the trying. If you try and fail to live a meaningful life, you haven’t lived immorally (assuming you tried to live morally); if you don’t try, though... that’s different.

Another thing that most philosophers agree on is that while meaning adds value to life, it doesn’t necessarily add happiness. You can have a miserable, shitty life, but that life can still be rich with meaning. Or you can have a happy, comfortable life, and ultimately it might have no meaning at all.

Beyond that, though, philosophers are kinda stumped as to what would give “meaning” to life. Many philosophers have argued that this or that is necessary, but thus far, there’s not much consensus. Here are some of the more broadly accepted or discussed ideas:


    The idea here is that unless life, or a person’s life, has some sort of measurable result, it can’t have had any real meaning to anyone (other than themselves, but more on that in a minute). Your life has to have some objective impact on the rest of the cosmos for it to have meaning. The classic example of a meaningless life is Sisyphus, from the legend of a man being punished to keep pushing a rock up a hill only to have it roll down over and over for eternity. The complete lack of any real impact of Sisyphus’s work on the rest of the universe, the argument goes, stripped it of any real meaning – and in that case, he didn’t even get the impact of any personal satisfaction from moving the stone; it was punishment.


    Related to impact is the idea of reason. The easiest way to distinguish them is: impact is determined after the fact, purpose is determined before. Purpose is the effect your life should have had, impact is the effect your life actually turned out to have. Generally speaking, only religious theories talk about life having a purpose, because purpose generally requires that there was some kind of forethought or planning, which pretty much presupposes a god, which is a logical fallacy called “begging the question”.


    This is a fairly widely accepted idea, implicitly. Whatever the meaning of life is, it has to bring some kind of coherence to life. It has to make life a single, unified pattern out of life, rather than leaving it as a series of disjointed, unrelated events.


    The meaning of life should also “explain” life, in some way, if only by proving the right point of view to be able understand it. If you know what the meaning of your life is, it should make the relevant parts of your life make sense, from some perspective.


    The idea here is that if life has some kind of special meaning that makes it transcend the rest of nature – the lifeless parts – then that transcendence should be reflected in the meaning of life. To put it another way: we don’t talk about the meaning of a dog’s life, or a turtle’s life. For some reason, we think there’s something “more” to a person’s life. That should be reflected in the meaning of a person’s life.

The other problem with determining the meaning of life is: from whose perspective is the meaning being measured? This is where Nihilism steps in and says: there is no objective meaning; all meaning is constructed from subjective points of view, and is therefore meaningless. Other schools have agreed that there is no objective meaning, but have rejected that that means there is no meaning at all, and have argued for this or that point of view as the best one for measuring meaning by. More that when we get into the details of the various philosophies.

So philosophy hasn’t reached a full consensus on the meaning of “meaning”, but that doesn’t mean we can’t have any discussion about the meaning of life. There are some things we can agree on. Basically, “meaning” is something that you have achieved at the end of life that is separate from your successfully-carried-out moral obligations, and your happiness, comfort and pleasure, which has added value to your life. Whatever that is and whatever point of view it is measured from, that would be the meaning of your life.

Religious perspectives

I’m going to breeze through these pretty quickly, because they’re painfully uninteresting, and horrifically misguided, and generally defended only by apologists, for obvious reasons. It’s no coincidence that the vast majority of contributors to the discussion have been rather strongly irreligious, from Epicurus to Nietzsche – whether quite explicitly, like Sartre, or only in their philosophies, like Kant.

I can’t avoid discussing them, of course, because so much of the dialogue on the topic in our culture is tainted by these ideas. Indeed, one of the most popular “objections” to atheism is that it is nihilistic (it isn’t) and argues for a meaningless existence (it doesn’t). I can’t in good conscience offer you a primer on the topic that doesn’t arm with some ideas on how to handle these religious arguments.

Abrahamic religions

All the Abrahamic religions – Judaism, Christianity, Islam and their children – share the same basic structure, and thus have the same basic problems. Interestingly, there are a number of other religions that have similar problems, even though their structure is radically different: Raëlism, for example, is an atheistic religion, but if you replace “god” with “aliens”, the results turn out to be much the same, in this discussion.

The basic idea of these religions is: there is a god who is either omnipotent (as in Christianity) or just really, really powerful (as in Judaism) who created us. This god created us for no apparent reason, because it has no needs or shortcomings... it just felt like having some people to worship it. In order to make this whole endeavour worthwhile, the god had to give us free will, so that we could have the freedom to choose whether to worship it or not; when we choose to worship the god, that choice has real value because it was made freely, which it wouldn’t have been if the god had just made mindless, worshipping slaves.

The argument goes that our lives have no meaning when we turn our backs on the god. It’s much like Sisyphus and the rock: you can’t possibly beat the god, and at the end of time the god is just going to annihilate the universe and any effort you put in it, so any attempt to defy the god or pursue other goals it is ultimately just a total waste of time. Thus, for our lives to have meaning, we must worship the god, and the meaning of our lives, then, lies in fulfilling the purpose we were created for: to worship that god.

Now, most of the above is fairly philosophically incoherent, even if you’re willing to accept the premise of a creator god. But focusing on the claim of meaningfulness alone: it just doesn’t fly.

The easiest way to demonstrate is with an example. Suppose you had a megalomaniac cult leader who knocked up a woman, and stole the baby away at birth to some private retreat cut off from the rest of the world. For that child’s entire life, almost from the moment they exited the womb until death, they live in isolation from everything and everyone else, worshipping and serving every bizarre whim of the cult leader. Until the day they finally die – having spent every waking moment doing nothing but pleasing the cult leader – with a smile on their lips because the only concept of happiness they’ve ever known is to serve the cult leader, and they did so well all their lives. Now, even if the cult leader really loves their little slave and treats them very well, and even if the child was quite happy to serve (and, of course, knew of no other options), would you say that child lived a meaningful life? I wouldn’t. In fact, i would say that’s the canonical example of a totally meaningless life. And i’m not alone – our media and culture is full of stories of pitiable characters whose lives were ultimately meaningless because all they knew in life was service to someone or something (usually henchmen of the main villain).

Dharmic religions

The Dharmic religions come in two relevant flavours: those that have an end – like most mainstream forms of Hinduism and Sikhism – and those that don’t, like the most common forms of Buddhism and Jainism (more or less). The same pattern can also be applied to other religions, like Scientology.

Those religions have an end generally have the goal of reaching heaven (or hell, if you screw up), with lots of trial and error over many lives. But once you reach heaven, it’s all perfect and eternal and all that. All there is to life, ultimately, is accruing a high enough score to transcend to heaven, and then... that’s about it. There’s nothing more to do or accomplish, and all that you did before doesn’t really matter any more once you get into heaven. That means the time spent getting into heaven has meaning only if the time in heaven has meaning, and the time in heaven has no meaning because it’s just pointless infinite bliss.

The religions that don’t have an end to the reincarnation cycle, like Buddhism and Scientology, come off even worse. There’s no ultimate point to any of it, and the only goal of life is to just try to keep your score up high enough that you stay in the nicer parts of the cosmos, rather than the crappier ones. Even the effort itself has no meaning, because if you screw up, you can always make it up in a later life.

Other religions

Taoist religions generally come off well – the notion of connectedness and that our actions ripple though the energy of the universe is very conducive to a meaningful life. Most other religions either fall into the same general pattern of either the Abrahamic or Dharmic religions, depending on whether there are gods and the goal is to serve them. Part of what most religions try to do is provide meaning for life, but it’s unreasonable to expect that any of them would have much success. If the greatest minds in all of history couldn’t figure out what the meaning of life is so far, it’s ridiculous to expect that some random religious leader would figure it out – though of course, many think they had.

Ancient Western philosophy

Unsurprisingly, as just about every discussion of Western philosophy does, this discussion starts with Plato. Plato set the tone that most Western philosophers followed for the next several hundred years. Right through to the Christian thinkers of the middle ages, Plato’s basic ideas were more or less the foundation for all philosophical thought on the meaning of life.

Plato’s philosophy was based on his idea of “universal forms”, or “ideals”. The easiest way to think of them is like this: according to Plato, there exists a universal form that describes the “perfect chair”, and all chairs are simply approximations of this “perfect chair”. The closer a chair is to the “perfect chair” form, the more perfect that chair is. By extension of this logic, there is even a perfect form for the perfect forms – the Form of the Good – and all ideas exist as imperfect subsets of that form. From the Form of the Good come the three virtues: courage, restraint and wisdom. Reason is the primary method by which people come closer to the Form of the Good. By thinking, reasoning and examining our lives and the world around us, we give meaning to our existence. In other words, life has no meaning if you don’t use your brain.

So for Plato, the meaning of life is all about trying to achieve the Form of the Good – the perfect idea – and the way to do that is to use our minds. The Form of the Good is the highest good – there is no more perfect idea – so if you achieve that, you’ve effectively achieved everything good, ever. It’s impossible to get there, but there is value in getting closer. That’s what life’s about: using your brain to get closer to goodness.

Pretty much everyone that came after Plato followed the same pattern, with minor differences. No one else used the idea of the Form of the Good explicitly – though they all had their own “perfect form” to aim for – but they all said in their own ways that the only way to have any meaning in your life is to use your think, reason and examine our lives and the world around us, and to try to live for the better.

Ancient Eastern philosophy

As Plato was to the West, so Confucius was to the East. Confucius’s philosophy is basically the foundation, in one way or another, for all secular Eastern philosophy.

Confucius didn’t talk about abstract stuff like the Form of the Good; Confucius’s ideas were very heavily based in mundane reality. Confucius saw people as generally flawed, but capable of improvement by conscious effort. And the way to improve is not just to use your mind, as Plato said, but to connect. Confucianism is all about recognizing the social nature of humanity, and diving in. The way to meaning, according to Confucius, is to show humanity, compassion and love to your neighbours, and to carry out your social obligations – like helping the elderly, and sticking by your family, and keeping your word when you give it.

All that can be summed up basically as: “be a good person”. The effort you put into trying to being a good member of society makes you a better person. And that is what life is all about, according to Confucius. The meaning of life, in other words, is being part of society – a good part of society, bettering yourself by learning, and by having real personal connections with other people and the rest of humanity in general.

Modern philosophy

Things didn’t really change in the world of philosophy until the Enlightenment, and then there was a burst of new ideas and progress. All of philosophy was reformulated to get the religious and mystical out of it, and that went too for the issue of the meaning of life.

Of course, in the early days of the Enlightenment, the reformulations were a little crude. They wanted to find meaning without gods, but finding meaning at all is not easy to do, gods or no gods. So the first secular philosophical theories about the meaning of life since ancient times were underwhelming. But things did improve in time.


Jeremy Bentham in the early 19th century was trying to come up with a completely secular moral and social philosophy. Up to that point, a few major theories had been suggested, but they all had the same flaw, as Bentham saw it: they were all based on abstract assertions, not on empirical evidence. John Locke talked about “natural”, inalienable rights (ideas which influenced the framers of the US constitution) and Kant talked about universal moral duty, but as Bentham saw it, both of these things were wholly made up – they had no natural existence until someone asserted them and enforced them. Bentham wanted a system that was actually based on the way things are in reality, so he came up with a philosophy based on the obviously real idea of seeking pleasure and avoiding pain. The result was utilitarianism.

As Bentham saw it, it’s silly to have a meaning of life that you have to be told about it, and even sillier if the pursuit of that meaning requires us to go against our nature. The meaning of life should be as natural and obvious as life itself is. If you have to deny yourself pleasure to find meaning, as things like Cynicism and most religious philosophies dictate, then you’re doing it wrong. The meaning of life, as he saw it, is very simple: to maximize the amount of pleasure shared by all people, as much as reasonably possible. That’s all there is to it.

Nihilism, Absurdism and Existentialism

These three schools of thought are closely related, and most of the main philosophers associated with them overlap into more than one category. All of them start with the idea that there is no external, objective meaning to anything, let alone life.

Nihilism stops there – after saying there is no meaning, it doesn’t offer anything else beyond that. The meaning of life? There is no meaning of life. End of story. Friedrich Nietzsche is most often associated with this idea, but Nietzsche was really way more complicated a philosopher than that. He wrote a lot about the total of objective meaning, but he also wrote quite a bit about how to deal with it, so he would probably be more correctly called a proto-existentialist.

Absurdism looks at the same problem in a different way. After agreeing with Nihilists that there is no objective meaning, Absurdism notes the absurdity of the fact that we all look for meaning despite that. We want meaning – that’s why we ask this question “what is the meaning of life” – but there is none, so... what do we do? Absurdism offers three solutions:
  • Give up on life. Just die. Commit suicide. It’s hopeless, after all – there’s no meaning, so if you can’t live without meaning... then I guess you can’t live.

  • Give up on the search for meaning. There’s no meaning out there to be found, so there’s no point in looking for it, but if you really want meaning... make it up. Join a religion, and enjoy the faux meaning they offer, if you can.

  • Accept it. Just... accept that there is no meaning, but that you’re going to search for it anyway. Accept that absurd situation, and live on.

Søren Kierkegaard was the first Absurdist philosopher, and his preferred solution was #2: take a leap of faith and believe in something, anything (anything that you can rationalize, that is).

More recently, however, Albert Camus dismissed Kierkegaard’s solution, and went with #3. His logic was that if you’re just going to give up the search like that and quit trying to be rational, it’s more or less the same as giving up life entirely – that is, effectively the same as suicide. So somehow, we have to accept that there’s no objective meaning out there, but nevertheless keep up the search for it.

The most common response to Nihilism, though, is Existentialism. Existentialism says, yes, the Nihilists are right – there is no objective meaning. However, that doesn’t mean we can’t create our own meaning. It may not be objective – it may be entirely subjective and personal – but if the need for meaning is personal, then personal meaning should suffice.

This was actually Nietzsche’s stance. Nietzsche said that there it was important for us to make our own meaning, since no objective meaning exists. He wrote about the Übermensch, or “superman” (yes, the comic book character was inspired by him), who creates his own values and meaning in defiance of Nihilism, and said that this was the future of humanity and philosophy. He saw Nihilism as just a phase we have to pass through, but a phase that must be overcome to progress.

Jean-Paul Sartre was another notable Existentialist. Plato believed that “thought precedes matter”, or “mind precedes body” – this was heavily influential in early Christian philosophy (God is pure mind, no body, and our minds – our souls – exist before and after our bodies), and thus, Western philosophy in general up until the Enlightenment. The rationalists, and Sartre, however, said that was hogwash: “body precedes mind”, or “existence precedes essence” as Sartre put it, because there are no gods and no objective “essence”, or meaning, so it has to come from us. And does have to come from us – we have no choice in the matter. We are “condemned to freedom”, meaning that no one and nothing gives us meaning for our lives, but our lives have to have some meaning, so we are forced to create that meaning whether we want to or not.

Secular Humanism

Secular Humanism is a very modern philosophy that follows on the tradition of what Bentham tried to do with Utilitarianism: it is meant to be a “complete” philosophy, covering moral, social and practical issues, and it is – as much as possible – founded on empirical principles. Unlike Utilitarianism, though, it does include some non-empirical, purely rational components.

In Secular Humanism, all value and meaning is created by people, using reason and evidence to decide on what value and meaning to assign to things. In other words, Secular Humanism follows from Nihilism in saying there is no objective meaning, and Existentialism in saying that we assign our own meaning. However, what sets it apart is that it that meaning we assign shouldn’t just be arbitrary, it should be based on evidence and reason, and we should figure it out using our critical thinking skills.

One of the fundamental ideas is that we’re all part of the human community, and we all have an obligation, along with finding self-fulfilment, to think about what’s best for the community as a whole. Just as in Confucianism, we all have a responsibility to be good citizens of humanity, and of the world. But unlike Confucianism, that’s not what determines the meaningfulness of our lives, because then our lives would have an objective meaning, and Secular Humanists, being Existentialists, say that there is no objective meaning. So we have to create our own meaning, and when we do it will just be our own meaning – it won’t have meaning for anyone else.

Put another way, Secular Humanists often say the question, “what is the meaning of life”, is misguided. The correct question is: “what is the meaning of my life?” Because the question only makes sense on an individual, subjective level. That doesn’t mean you just make up your own meaning any way you please; you have to use reason and evidence to find meaning for yourself. You find your own meaning, using your intelligence and critical thinking skills to evaluate the best way to find meaning for you, but your answer won’t mean anything to anyone else.

In away, Secular Humanism is kind of like a synthesis of the best parts of previous secular philosophies. It takes the emphasis on reasoning, thinking and examination of self and surroundings from Platonism, but doesn’t make that the sole focus of all meaning, or ignore the importance of behaviour and social connections. It adds to that the Confucian emphasis on society and social responsibility, but again doesn’t make that the sole focus, so your life’s meaning is not merely determined by your place in society. It accepts the logical conclusion of Nihilism – that there is no objective meaning – and of Absurdism – that though there is no meaning, we’re bound by our nature to keep looking for it. And it builds on the optimistic outlook of Existentialism, saying that we can make our own meaning, though it does constrain the options for how we can do that somewhat.


What, you were expecting an answer? If you want a pat answer, go get a self-help guru book. Philosophers don’t make shit up without strong justification for doing so – at least, not modern philosophers (ancient philosophers were a lot more bold about just asserting stuff without justification). It’s not in their nature to just throw out guesses at what the meaning of life might be; they have to understand the form of the question, and the larger issues, before they will attempt to actually give an answer.

Few of the more recent schools of philosophical thought have bothered to even attempt answer the question, “what is the meaning of life?” Before you can do that, you have to figure out what “meaning” is, where it comes from, and so on. It’s asking those questions that led to Nihilism and its descendents, which is pretty much where we are today.

Here’s a brief summary of some of the answers various philosophical schools give about the meaning of life:

  • Abrahamic religions:
    Service to God.
  • Dharmic religions:
    Achieving nirvana.
  • Taoist religions:
    To add to the positive energy of the universe.
  • Platonism:
    To aspire toward the perfect good by means of using our reasoning, and intellectually examining ourselves and the world around us.
  • Confucianism:
    To become part of humanity, immersing yourself in everyday life, forming bonds with people around you, and living up to the ideals of a good member of the community.
  • Utilitarianism:
    Maximizing the happiness for the largest number of people, within reason.
  • Logical Positivism:
    The question is gibberish.
  • Nihilism/Absurdism:
    There is no meaning.
  • Existentialism (Nietzsche):
    You should create your own meaning.
  • Existentialism (Sartre):
    You are creating your own meaning, whether you want to or not, whether you like the meaning you’re creating or not.
  • Secular Humanism:
    The correct question is: what is the meaning of your life? And the answer is: you have to use reason and evidence to find your own meaning.

As I said, this is just the most cursory treatment of a huge field of philosophy. I have tried to give you an idea of how philosophers – real philosophers, not pop culture pseudo-philosophers – handle the question, particularly in modern times. You can’t answer a question that you don’t properly understand. As you can see, philosophers don’t just up and try to answer the question of the meaning of life. They carefully consider the background to the problem first. That process by itself can lead to surprising conclusions, but real philosophers don’t shy away from trying to follow them.

Try it yourself: rather than just rush to try answering the question, “what is the meaning of life?”, take time to think about what the question is asking for. Think about what kinds of answers might satisfy the question. Try rewording the question – “what is the purpose of life?” or “what is the reason for life?” – or even replacing words with other words – “what is the meaning of cheese?” – to get a better understanding of what’s going on. Sometimes just doing that is enough to make a completely obscure question clear. Other times, it shows you that there’s a lot more to a simple-sounding question than first appears.
In this posting I will give links to works which most would consider important in philosophy.
Obviously the links will be to legal/legitimate versions of the texts - fortunately many are either out of copyright or public domain.
Please feel free to post suggested additions, but I will reserve the right to moderate this list very actively - which basically means I will remove postings where I think necessary without prior notice and with no promise to let the author know, or even give a reason Smile

David Hume - Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion Link 1 - PDF..|..Link 2 - HTML
Immanuel Kant - Critique of Pure Reason Link 1 - PDF..|..Link 2 - HTML
Immanuel Kant-Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals Link 1 - PDF..|..Link 2 - HTML
Rene Descartes - Meditations on First Philosophy - Link 1 - PDF..|..Link 2 - HTML
John Stuart Mill - Utilitarianism Link 1 - PDF ..|..Link 2 - HTML
Thomas Nagel - What is it like to be a bat? Link 1 - HTML
William K Clifford - The Ethics of Belief Link 1 - HTML
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