Afternoon Inquisition 12.20

It’s Saturday, and I find myself once again staring blankly at my Macbook, trying to think of something original and compelling…

What is the most pressing philosophical question in your mind, and if you could know the answer definitively, would you want to?

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  1. We know that many theories from the past were false: there’s no phlogiston, or no ether, but they were used to explain the observable phenomena and were widely accepted.

    Do we have any grounds to think that unobservable objects such as electrons or quarks actually exist? Or do we have to stick with assertion that they are only placeholders, concepts that are used to conveniently categorize empirical data?

  2. Would it be better if mysticism and Dualism were true? If we could harness magic, would the world be a better place?

  3. Are we alone in the universe? And I would definitely want to know the answer. Preferably in a provable way, so I could share the answer with others, too.

  4. Why does anything exist at all? I know that asking “Why?” here is probably meaningless, so maybe the question should be, can there be any ultimate reason for existence? Or is reason and meaning just a human construct that makes sense within the universe, but not outside of it?

  5. I want to know if humans are smart enough to survive as a civilization. Nothing about evolution has prepared us for the sort of collective thinking required to solve the challenges ahead. If I knew that survival was possible then I would be working harder to achieve it.

  6. I’d like to know if the physical laws we’ve observed here on Earth truly are universal. So much of science depends on the assumption that what’s true on this planet is also true on Tau Ceti or anywhere else in the universe.

    I’ve always marveled at what can be deduced about things that are thousands or millions of light years away just through observation, and I have no reason to doubt any of it. I just want to know for completeness, for the same reason someone who’s studied a major event in history might want to actually visit the place it happened in person.

  7. A quick point about electrons: They are not unobservable. There are many very real observations that support their existence.

  8. If we could know an answer definitively, doesn’t it cease to be a philosophical question altogether?

    But I suppose if I could get a definitive answer on anything, I’d like to know exactly what consciousness is. What does it mean to be aware?

  9. @Detroitus: If knowing something definitively causes it to cease to be a matter for philosophy, is philosophy of any use? Science advances by discarding that which is wrong. If philosophy doesn’t do the same, it becomes little more than mental masturbation.

  10. @Detroitus: yeah, that’s a good one. i often bend my mind into a pretzel thinking about what makes me me. like, if you were to create a computer replica of my brain, complete with all the memories and mental processes that i have, what would prevent it from feeling just as much “me” as i do?

  11. @wackyvorlon: Brian Greene says it’s more probable we’re in a giant computer simulation. Have you heard the Radio Lab on “The (Multi)verse?” Really freaky stuff. To Carr2d2, I’d like to know if Greene is right about multiverses; are there a zillion copies of me (and all of us) out there somewhere?

    And @ both wacky & Detroitus: I would like to see someone explain to me how science and philosophy interact now. What purpose does philosophy currently serve that science cannot? Is Brian Greene’s work science or philosophy … or both?

  12. @carr2d2: In programming there is the question of instantiation. If it were possible to create a perfect copy of you, it would certainly feel just as much “you” as you do. It would even argue that it was the original. But the two of you would be seperate instances of the same person.

    @sylvan.nak: In truth, these days, my inclination is to feel that philosophy is a lot of worthless garbage. I don’t get along with philosophers very well:)

  13. Does free will exist? That is, is there some mechanism by which I as an individual can exert my will on the universe in a way that is not made inevitable by my circumstances? I was raised to believe in free will (“because we have no other choice,” according to the Rabbis) but the more I learn about the world the more I feel that free will is the unmoved mover — an impossibility. I would like to be wrong. More than that, I’d like to find out one way or the other.

  14. @wackyvorlon: well, i hope they figure out a way to copy my brain into a computer, because i would totally become a robot to achieve immortality.
    or maybe i could be a head in a jar like on futurama :D

  15. Why is there something instead of nothing? What caused space-time to come into existence in a big bang? This question bothers me more the more I think about it. The fact of reality implies a causal event. But even if you could answer the question, what made the Big Bang happen, all you’ve done is to push back the question. What, in turn, caused the event that caused the Big Bang? This problem really bothers me because it seems that it can never be answered. I want to know what the Uncaused Cause was, but if I ever find out, then I’ll demand to know what caused it.

  16. I’d like to know if a diety exists, but only if other people know that I know, so that I don’t have to have the same mind-numbing arguments with poor deluded idiots.

    This is a more general form of wb4’s question, and “why is there something rather than nothing” would be a good one to know the answer to whether or not others know you know the answer, though it would be nice if they did so they wouldn’t try and argue with you.

  17. My response is similar to wb4’s, and I would like to pose it by simply quoting the book that first got me thinking about it:

    “Isn’t vacuum just…empty space? What was there before there was space? How do you make space? Out of a vacuum? Isn’t that a vicious circle? If in the past we didn’t have space, how can there have been a ‘there’ for whatever to exist in? And if there wasn’t anywhere for it to exist, how did it manage to make space? Maybe space was there all along… but why? And what about -time-? Space is easy compared to time. Space is just…somewhere to put matter. But time – time flows, time passes, time makes sense in the past and the future but not in the instantaneous, frozen present. What makes time flow? Could the flow of time be stopped? What would happen if it did?”

    Fairly long quote, I know, but it efficiently encapsulates most of the age old questions that just seem difficult to figure out, much less contemplate. Honestly, if there was a SINGLE question that I could have a definite answer to, it would be:

    How did the rules of the universe come into being?

    (The quote, btw, was from “The Science of Discworld” by Terry Pratchett, Ian Stewart, and Jack Cohen.)

  18. I understand the question is hypothetical, but I just can’t get past the prospect of there being something/one providing the answer. If I get to be the supreme being, then the answer is yes, I do exist and I have the answers to all of your questions.

  19. @wackyvorlon: electrons are naturally shy creatures. Thumping an old analog TV can sometimes awaken them. Thumping too hard, and a flash of bright light, and acrid smoke let’s one know the electrons are unhappy, and have run away.

  20. How does consciousness arise? Why do I feel like I’m controlling myself? Why am I myself?

    If I inquire deeper, I’m afraid I won’t start making sense.

    If the universe can really be described by one “gigantick equation”* , then IS the universe a gigantick equation? Are we just part of a gigantick equation? Is the universe just self-caused and self-existent like that?

    *quoted from a quote in Sean Caroll’s book of relativity.

  21. Why does most of the human race insist on believing in “God” when they can’t prove that “God” exists in the first place much less that their own version is correct?

    Knowing the answer? I sleep without it.

  22. @wb4: Have you considered that what we consider to be the universe simply exists because that is what is? Do you think there needs to be a “reason” for the universe to exist?

  23. My question is stolen wholesale from David gross, who won the nobel prize for discovering asymptotic freedom of quarks. He asked: “Is physics an environmental science or not?” My understanding is this: either the physical constants are the way they are by accident, or they are predicted by an underlying theory we have yet to work out. Dr. Gross also said “The most important product of knowledge is ignorance.” So, do I really want an answer? The point is that the answer leads to more intresting questions. So yes, it seems to me that is something that is worth knowing enough about to broaden our ignorance. Hope we get there in my lifetime.

  24. What, if anything, is the distinguishing factor between life and non-life? Is there a general case for all possible physical environments? Is it rare or ubiquitous?

    And, yes, I’d want to know.

  25. Is there an objective way of measuring morality? From a utilitarian perspective morality is supposed to result in better ends, but how can you measure if those ends are better than other ones if it’s based on values which are subjective? And if so, can pluralism coexist with moral relativism anyway?

  26. Mine is sorta in the morality area.

    I can’t really explain it without an example, so here goes:

    We’ll take something I know better than any other subject: Greek Armor.

    If I wrote a book about that subject, I doubt it would cover any new ground, be any good or even be published. I’m just not as talented, educated or intelligent as those that have gone before me. Bad books don’t deserve to be re-written and good books don’t need to be.

    However, if I wrote a book “proving” that Greek Armor was inspired by visits from ancient astronauts; I’ll bet I’d get a lot more attention.

    In fact, I could use all our favorite logical fallacies to “show definitively” that Greek Armor’s design proves that we were visited. It would probably sell.

    Further, my lack of credentials would probably not even be mentioned, but perhaps even be praised, by the publishers.

    The Question:

    Why won’t I? Why won’t anyone that I have any use for?

    What makes us un-willing to deceive people for money and what makes some of us so willing?

    That’s the “big one” for me,


  27. Yeah, I’d say I’d want to understand all the intricacies of the universe as it exists objectively. Which is kind of a cheap thing to desire to know, because it basically means I want to know everything.
    I do agree with some of those that have commented before about philosophy seeming almost like a waste of time sometimes because it asks questions that can’t be definitively answered, but I really think it has it’s place. I think it can be a useful tool to develop all sorts of new ideas.

  28. Consciousness & morality: Am I the only Radio Lab fan here? The show has had several episodes on these issues. Not that they answer the questions definitely, but since nobody else has mentioned it, I’m thinking nobody else listens to the show. :( Tell me different.

    There’s an episode on morality, and two on consciousness: “who am I” and “where am I.” There’s also one on time, beyond time, space, memory & forgetting … all of these supposedly philosophical issues … but through the lens of science.

  29. @sylvan.nak: no, you’re not alone. i actually just started listening to radiolab and now i’m completely addicted.
    i think i’ll start at the beginning and listen to them all.

  30. Is morality Objective or Subjective?

    Is it possible to reconcile Stoic forebarence with the modern/post-modern drive to self-actualisation?

    Does Mathematics exsist on a Platonic level or is it a Social-Construct?

    Given Incompletness Theory, is Mathematics still a worthwhile endevour?

  31. What is the ultimate answer to life, the universe and everything?


    What is the best way to get a skepchick in bed with you?

  32. @Gabrielbrawley:

    What is the best way to get a skepchick in bed with you?

    Dinner at a nice restaurant accompanied by a lively discussion of skeptical topics, followed by a good sci-fi movie and then a rag soaked with chloroform.

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