One of the best writers on the whole great big internet is Mark Vuletic, whose blog and essays on philosophy and theology are always great reading. I first found him a few years ago through his Defender’s Guide to Science and Creationism, and have made a practice of stopping in every couple of weeks (months is more like it lately) to see what he’s been doing. Him have heap big brain, kemosabe.
This morning I was browsing his site and I came upon his list of the ten philosophical questions that have most commanded his attention since he began studying philosophy. “What an assload of fun it would be,” thought I, “to answer those ten questions for myself!”
So, ignoring the fact that I am way out of my depth on a couple of them, I have. The ten questions are reproduced verbatim below, followed by my responses. Read Vuletic’s original article to see his answers.
1. What are the most fundamental constituents of reality?
Elementary particles, whatever they finally turn out to be. Right now that means six flavors of quarks, electrons, muons, tauons, and their related neutrinos, and those wacky bosons — photons, gluons, W, Z, and the exceedingly bashful Higgs. There will, I’m sure, be discoveries made in the remainder of my lifetime that will augment or even radically revise this model, but by our present knowledge, that’s what the universe is made of. It sounds like a literal scientific answer to a philosophical question, but I think it’s the best answer I have. Even if you define reality as a more variable, perception-based phenomenon, perception still has to come from somewhere. Everything (except elementary particles, by definition) reduces to something.
2. Is the mind a material phenomenon?
Oh, you betcha.
3. Are there categorical moral facts?
Morality is the creation of the human mind (at least it is round these parts), so there can no more be such a thing as an objective fact about morality than there could be an objective fact about Superman. We keep what works for us and we resist or ignore what doesn’t. Those moral principles that have the broadest consensus — don’t murder people, respect the rights of others — earn their places because they’ve proven the most useful to us as a species. It’s better for the species as a whole if we don’t kill each other and try to get along. That’s as close to a moral fact as we’re ever likely to get.
4. Is there a god?
I have absolutely no reason to think so. But, with a few huge qualifications, and for entirely selfish reasons, I hope so.
5. What is the solution to the problem of induction (or, more generally, underdetermination)?
The problem of induction, in case you’re not familiar with the term (or even if you are; I enjoy insulting people’s intelligence), is basically this: how do we know what’s going to happen? If every single time you have ever dropped a ball it has fallen to the ground, does that mean it will definitely fall to the ground the next time you drop it? Is there no chance whatsoever the ball will just float there, or fly upwards, or do anything other than fall? My imperfect but practical solution to the problem is simply to trust the laws of physics, and my own reasonable expectations based on experience, until I have a reason not to. As House said when a fellow doctor accused him of always thinking he was right, “I find it difficult to function under the opposite assumption.”
6. How does one prove that there is an external world?
If one doesn’t trust one’s own senses, one doesn’t.
7. Do states have moral authority over their citizens?
No. States have legal authority over their citizens.
8. What is the solution to the measurement problem?
The measurement problem (again, for the uninitiated) is the inability to directly measure and precisely determine the exact location and state of motion of a quantum particle. According to the most widely accepted interpretation of quantum mechanics, quantum systems can only be described by probabilities, and it’s impossible to determine the location and motion of a given particle at the same time. Yet when observed and measured, quantum particles seem to settle down into a single state, implying that the act of measuring affects the state of the particle. I have no fucking clue what the solution is to this one.
9. Does life have any fundamental meaning?
No. We give our lives meaning through the people and things we love, the choices we make, what we do and how we live. And really, I wouldn’t have it any other way. Many insist that there has to be a deity or other supernatural element to impart meaning to life, but I don’t really get that. Life can only have meaning if something exterior gives it meaning? And it means whatever that exterior person or force says it means? How is that satisfying?
10. Do people have free will?
Practically speaking they do, at least for the most part. I don’t believe in fate or anything like that. But there are many factors beyond our direct control — the actions of others, our physical and mental abilities, our requirements for food, water, air, etc., our economic status, the laws of physics and chemistry, to name a few — that keep us from doing anything we might want to do.
Let me throw this open to you all. What do you think of my answers, or Mark Vuletic’s answers? How would you tackle these questions? Are there other philosophical questions that intrigue you more than these ten?