Five big philosophical questions: my modest take

number 5

golden 3d number 5 isolated on white

An anonymous poster has recently published a short essay over at the Oxford University Press philosophy blog, entitled “5 great unsolved philosophical questions.” How could I possibly resist answering them, I ask you? Presumptuous, you might say. Well, no, that would be the case if I claimed that my answers are original, or clearly the right ones. I make no such claim, I am simply offering my informed opinion about them, in my dual role of a philosopher and scientist. Of course, I’m also totally right.

Before proceeding, I need to remind readers of my take on the nature of philosophical questions, and therefore of philosophy itself. Here it is, in a nutshell. (For a much longer, and far more substantiated, though of course not necessarily convincing to everyone, answer, see here.)

Philosophy began, in the Western tradition, with the pre-Socratics, and at that time, and for many centuries afterwards, its business was all-encompassing. Pretty much every meaningful question to be asked was philosophical, or had a philosophical component. Then gradually, mathematics was spun off as one of many offsprings from Mother Philosophy, followed from the 17th century on by a succession of what today we call sciences: first physics, then chemistry, biology, and eventually psychology. That did not mean any shrinking of philosophy itself, however. The discipline retained its core (metaphysics, ethics, aesthetics, logic, epistemology, and so forth) and added just as many “philosophies of” as new disciplines originated from it (e.g., philosophy of science, of language, of mind, and so forth).

In modern times, I think the business of philosophy is no longer trying to attain empirical truths about the world (we’ve got science for that), but rather to critically explore concepts and notions informed, whenever possible, by science. As Wilfrid Sellars would put it, philosophers are in the business of reconciling the manifest and the scientific images of the world. (I also think philosophy is therapy for the sane, so to speak, and a way of life.)

As a result, and this brings me to the topic of the present post, philosophical questions are unlikely to ever be answered definitively. Rather, philosophers propose a number of competing accounts aimed at increasing our understanding of such questions. Our knowledge of things will likely always underdetermine our understanding, meaning that several accounts may be equally plausible or interesting. The job of philosophers is to propose and refine these accounts, as well as discard those that have become untenable because of our progress in both science and philosophy.

1. Do we really have free will?

An incredible amount of ink has been spilled on this question over the centuries. There are religious people from the Judeo-Christian-Muslim tradition who are absolutely sure the answer is yes. And there are physicists and neuroscientists who are adamant that the answer is obviously no.

My take is that it all depends on what one means by “free will,” and moreover, that the answer doesn’t really matter. If “free” indicates some magical independence of human will from causality, then no, we don’t have it. We are part and parcel of the universal web of cause and effect, and we can’t exempt ourselves simply so that we can reconcile the alleged existence of an all-powerful, all-good, and all-knowing God with the obvious observation that bad shit happens in the world.

That said, people who are absolutely sure that we live in a deterministic universe, where the writing of these very words was a given ever since the Big Bang, are significantly overstepping their epistemic warrant. Physics has not given us, yet, an ultimate theory describing the basic building blocks of existence, and we don’t know whether the world, ato bottom, works deterministically or whether instead there is true randomness in it. Indeed, we are not even sure that so-called “strong emergence” is impossible, though at the moment I’m betting against it.

But, as I said, it doesn’t matter. We should drop the theologically loaded term “free will” to begin with, and go instead with what the ancient Greeks called prohairesis, and modern cognitive scientists call volition, the ability to make decisions. It is an indisputable fact that we have more volition than most animals, a hell of a lot more than plants, and infinitely more than rocks. It is also indisputable that we have to make decisions in order to live, that we can train ourselves to get better at them, and that it is in our own interest to do so. Anyone objecting to this is falling prey to the ancient “lazy argument,” and is just wasting your time.

2. Can we know anything at all?

Ah, well, that depends on what one means by “know,” doesn’t it? Setting aside modern debates in epistemology (the so-called Gettier problem), at a first approximation knowledge is, following Plato, justified true belief. So the debate is really about truth and justification.

There are different conceptions of truth, as I have argued at length (see here and here), so we need to be more specific. Science, and much everyday discourse, typically operate according to a correspondence theory of truth: it is true that the Moon rotates around the Earth just in case the state of affairs in the world out there corresponds with that sentence. Logic and mathematics, by contrast, work with a coherence conception of truth. To say that the Pythagorean theorem is “true” (yes, yes, within the framework of Euclidean geometry!) is to say that its conclusions are logically derived from its premises in a valid fashion.

But of course the correspondence account of truth brings up the issue of justification: how do we justify the correspondence between my utterance that the Moon goes around the Earth in terms of actual states of affairs in the world? Unlike in deductive reasoning, which is typical of both formal logic and mathematics, scientific and everyday inferences are inductive, which means we cannot be certain about them, we can only make probabilistic statements. So, in the strict sense, no, we can’t know anything (outside of logical-mathematical truths). But this isn’t worrisome so long as one is willing to accept with humility that human beings are finite and fallible. We still seem to have been able to acquire a lot of quasi-knowledge, which has been serving us well for hundreds of thousands of years.

(Notice that I completely ignored the radical skeptical challenge to the concept of knowledge, a la Pyrrhonism, or of the Cartesian doubt type. I think those challenges are both irrefutable and irrelevant, except as a good aid at checking our own hubris.)

3. Who am “I”?

This too is an age-old question, to which both scientists and philosophers have attempted to provide answers. Philosophers have come up with accounts based on the continuity of memory (what makes you who you are is your memories), on the persistence of one’s personality, or on the continued physical existence of you as a spatio-temporal being, and so on. All of these have problems, and yet all of them capture some aspects of what we think we mean when we use the word “I.” Other theories are deflationary, both in philosophy and in modern neuroscience. There really is no “you,” because your “self” is not an essence, it is, as David Hume famously put it, a bundle of perceptions.

I don’t subscribe to either the idea that there is an essence that is us (e.g., the position taken by anyone who believes we have souls), nor to the opposite notion that the self is an illusion. Personal identity is a human concept, not something to be discovered out there, either by metaphysical or scientific inquiry. It is the way we think about, and make sense of, our thoughts, sensations, and experiences. It is both true that I am, to an extent, a different person from what I was ten or twenty years ago, as well as that I am, to a point, the same (or similar enough) person. And yes, this way of thinking about personal identity is informed by a combination of the above criteria: I am who I am because I have memories of my past (in part, and anyway a disease could erase them), because I have a certain somewhat stable personality (though aspects of it have changed over time, and again a disease could alter it dramatically), and because I have been in existence as a continuous spatio-temporal “warm.”

It is true that we can come up with all sorts of clever thought experiments about unreal situations that effectively question every account proposed so far. But those thought experiments largely miss the point, because in a sense they assume that there is one true and final answer to the question of personal identity, if only we were clever enough to figure it out. That, I think, is a mistake that smells of Platonic Idealism, like asking what is the essence of the concept of chair and attempting to arrive at a definition that unifies all the objects that we label with that word, with no exceptions and no provisos.

4. What is death?

This is an easy one, as far as I’m concerned. Plenty of people seem to think that death is something mysterious, and wonder what will happen “after.” Nothing will happen, because you will have ceased to exist. Consequently, there will be no “you” (whatever that means, see above) to experience anything. There is nothing that it is like to be dead.

I arrived at this conclusion both because my philosophy is naturalistic, and because I’m a scientist, and particularly a biologist. My professor of biophysics in college, Mario Ageno, memorably defined death as a sudden increase in entropy, which disrupts the orderly functions of our our physiology and metabolism. Death is a natural phenomenon, everything passes, panta rhei. The important question, as the Stoics were keenly aware of, is what you are going to do between now and that final moment. And keep in mind that you don’t actually know when it will come. It may already be later than you think…

5. What would “global justice” look like?

This is an odd entry in the OUP Blog post, possibly a reflection of contemporary debates about justice and inequality, more than a measure of the fundamentality of the question from a philosophical perspective. Then again, Socrates did spend a lot of time inquiring into the nature of justice, so there it goes. (We get a full treatment of the subject by Socrates/Plato in the Republic.)

The OUP entry, curiously, says that “to this day, there is no universally accepted theory of justice.” But why would we expect there to be such a theory? Again, justice, like personal identity, is a human construct, not to be found “out there,” either metaphysically or scientifically. We need to have a conversation about what we want justice to mean, whether it is a worthy goal (I certainly think it is), and what are the best strategies to achieve it.

As a practicing Stoic, I quite like that philosophy’s take on the concept, which was crucial to the Stoics since justice is one of the four virtues one is supposed to practice in order to become a better human being: “The unanimity of the soul with itself, and the good discipline of the parts of the soul with respect to each other and concerning each other; the state that distributes to each person according to what is deserved; the state on account of which its possessor chooses what appears to him to be just; the state underlying a law-abiding way of life; social equality; the state of obedience to the laws.” (Incidentally, this comes from Plato’s philosophical dictionary, the Definitions.)

There is a lot going on there, and please don’t be bothered by the use of the word “soul,” which can simply be replaced with mind, if you prefer. And I discard the bit about obedience to the laws, since there can obviously be unjust laws (that part is Platonic, not Stoic). The bulk of it, however, shifts back and forth between justice as personal attitude (we are in harmony with ourselves, we make the right decisions) and a social perspective (we want each person to receive according to their desert, we wish to achieve social equality). This capture an aspect often missing from modern discussions of justice: we cannot have a just society made of unjust people. Justice is achieved through a continuous virtuous feedback loop between individuals and the society they help constitute.

That’s it folks! I have just solved five of the all-time philosophical questions! You can thank me by buying me a drink the next time you see me…


83 thoughts on “Five big philosophical questions: my modest take

  1. garthdaisy

    I just finished Robert Sapolsky’s book “Behave.”

    If that doesn’t cure you of you illusion of free will I guess nothing will. Not sure how anyone could read this book and coke away with their sense of free will in tact. We are a soup of reacting chemicals. The chemicals make our choices and produce our thoughts, not the other way around. Compatibilism is a quagmire of evasion. And the evasion is unnecessary. Morality and ambition do not disappear with the acceptance that our choices are made by chemical reactions beyond out control. It just makes one understand the folly of pride and shame and hatred, which are all caused by the illusion of free will.

    The absence of free will and the illusion of the self are the oldest religious/philosophical ideas in human history. We’ve been right about this for a very long time. You do not have free will. And not only is that okay, it’s bloody liberating.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. SocraticGadfly

    Per Robin, orthodox Buddhists insist there is no self period. Ergo, they would theoretically reject all questions about free will with the “mu” that I’ve used on older versions. Hindus would arguably be predestinarians, accepting karma like Buddhists, but with an individual self. In Christianity, Orthodoxy pretty much ignores Augustine and original sin, so not all Xns are necessarily on the same page. And, I won’t even try to speak for “traditionalists” of American Indian, subSaharan Africa and Australian Outback types.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. brodix


    “There are plenty of physicists who say that strong determinism is probably the case, so I can’t rule it out.”

    Even if all the laws of nature governing our every action are completely deterministic, we still have to know the specific input into any event, in order to know the outcome. Given that this input is often coming from opposite directions at the speed of light, in what frame can we know that input?
    What governs the output of this input is to preform the calculation of its interaction. In other words, the event has to occur, in order to compute all the input. To put it in platonically mathematical terms, the event is its own calculation.
    So to assume all events are pre-determined, before they occur, means they were calculated before their occurrence. Keeping in mind this means information being transmitted around before the light carrying it can arrive.
    Ask some of those physicists for a rebuttal to that.


  4. SocraticGadfly

    To riff again on Robin, determinism as voiced by physicists, the more clueless biologists like Coyne and others is really nothing more than a tautology for rejecting ontological dualism.

    This is yet another reason more scientists need to read some philosophy.


  5. Alan White


    I haven’t had time to read through the comments, but must say this is one of your best posts for cutting through thickets of thorns with clear paths. I can’t say I disagree with your positions very much at all. I’d only have minor tweaks.

    Free will: The term has been overburdened with significance by its connection with moral responsibility, where the “action” in action theory lies. I’m a pragmatist about both, but mostly motivated from the responsibility direction to reform the freedom questions.

    Death. I’ve witnessed its process too many times by care taking to see that the lapse into entropy is not only the right take, but occurs as process at wildly different rates. Some lucky ones make the move fast–many don’t. The latter qualify for tragic deaths.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. SocraticGadfly

    Yet more to the point, the “chemicals make our choices” nonsense is part and parcel with the same nonsense that lack of serotonin “causes” depression or that a dopamine deficiency “causes” addiction. These things simply aren’t true.


  7. synred

    Catholicism and Anglicanism this is more or less the position

    Well, I took theology at Santa Clara and that’s not what what was taught! I was told I was I thought to mechanically when I pointed out that some degree of randomness did not help with the problem of ‘free will’.

    Sure, Calvin. I don’t think it’s Baptist position either.


  8. Robin Herbert

    Garth Daisy

    We are a soup of reacting chemicals.The chemicals make our choices and produce our thoughts, not the other way around.

    What distinction are you making between the soup of reacting chemicals that is us and us?

    As far as I can see the “soup of reacting chemicals Robin” and “Robin” are referring to one and the same thing.

    Thus it makes no sense to say that “the soup of reacting chemicals Robin” is making the choices and Robin is not.

    If “the soup of reacting chemicals Robin” is making the choices it just means that I am making the choices.

    That is the problem with scientists weighing in and telling us we have no free will. They don’t appear to have thought it through.

    Liked by 3 people

  9. synred

    There are plenty of physicists who say that strong determinism is probably the case, so I can’t rule it out.

    –And many who don’t.

    Determinism makes no difference. From my dispute with Fr. Mackie, SJ

    Suppose I’m thinking about robbing a bank and, in fact, decide to do it.

    Now either the decisions was completely determined by conditions before it was made or it was not determined by conditions before. In the latter case, it contains a random event or more in the chain of causation. (I’m thinking QM).

    How can I be blamed in either case.

    A atom decays at a random time in my brain, causing some set of neurons to fire or not, and changes the outcome. of the decision. How does that make me any more or less responsible?

    I am what I am.

    PS. Those physicist who plunk for strong determinism general are advocates of ‘many worlds’ in which case anything that can happen happens and ‘you’ merely just happen to find yourself in a world where you robbed the bank. This to is a kind of randomness too.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Robin Herbert

    Here is what I would expect of a scientist who wants to convince me I have no free will:

    Firstly he must define as rigorously as possible what he means when he uses the term and then stick to that usage throughout. That way, if it is not what I mean by the term or not some view of volition that I have then I can put down the book straight away and not waste my time with it.

    Next he must show an actual incompatibility or contradiction between that and settled science. What he must not do is make vague claims of an incompatibility or an appeal to intuition. Again, that is a waste of time.

    Liked by 3 people

  11. Massimo Post author


    we have more volition than animals and plants because we exercise a lot more choice on what we do. And at least some of our choices are the result of deliberation, of which most animals, and definitely plants, are not capable. At a minimum there is neither reason nor evidence to think that they are.


  12. synred

    Chemicals don’t think, but they play a role in causing thinking. Same with choices.

    And you can certainly influence some ones choices with chemistry, I say as I sip my glass of Jamison’s…


  13. Robin Herbert

    Well we always come back to the same place and the same questions: Is a process which contains random elements itself necessarily random? Or is indeterminism not the same thing as randomness for complex processes? Do the macro states in a brain sensitively depend on the micro states? Are macro states things that can be said to be the reason things happen, or do we always have to say ‘the atoms did it’? The cat atoms ate the mouse atoms.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. kelskye

    The free will debate is one that I really can’t understand why it matters on a philosophical level. To me, the question of whether we have free will or not always centres around human decision-making, and on that the best placed people to deal with the question of capacity is the psychologist (among other scientists).

    To take an example: imagine a crime took place. The pertinent question to ask would be the intent of the would-be criminal. If the criminal didn’t know their action was against the law, then we see that person as less culpable as one who knew they shouldn’t do it. Indeed, if this is the case, we have actionable points in regards to education.

    But let’s say this criminal knew that it was illegal, but they did it anyway. Then it raises further questions – why they did what they did. Did they fail to consider the victims? Were they indifferent to them? Why did they feel the need to do the crime in the first place? All of these questions and more affect on how we think about the crime and the actions of the criminal, and all of them give us actionable consequences for it.

    At no point does it seem to me that the question as classically argued actually sheds light on understanding the situation, nor does it give us anything we can action in terms of how we try to change society (education, crime prevention, crime fighting, punishment, rehabilitation, etc.), yet any number of biological, psychological, or sociological insights would help us better understand and, more importantly, change ourselves and our society in response to such conditions. If a criminal had his family hostage, for example, we understand in a meaningful way why they might do what they did. But to say the criminal “could not have done otherwise” irrespective of circumstances doesn’t address the way circumstances shape the outcome.


  15. saphsin

    Am I the only one that finds determinism not just un-contradictory, but a prerequisite for what people intuitively consider as free will? The alleged connection between determinism and free will always struck me as odd. A chaotic random path of causal influences seem to me as completely undesirable as an agent; never being able to do as I please based on pre-developed internal states, and outwardly unable to affect the environment in predictable ways. The former seems to me as akin to being under hypnosis while the latter being debilitated.

    Liked by 2 people

  16. milesmutka

    I agree that global happiness, or maybe global epicurean pleasure, sounds better as a goal than “global justice”. I was young once, so I have some empathy for the justice warriors of today. In your twenties it is easy to see history as just a long sequence of injustices, and yourself as the first generation in a position to realize it. But history is and will remain the story of human nature.

    Liked by 1 person

  17. synred

    Quantum randomness is certainly there, but likely has small effect on the scale of brains, bodies and decision making.


  18. synred

    Justice and happiness are not the same thing. This sounds like utilitarianism by any other name.

    Groping women might make many men happy, but still would not be just, even it we were a majority and all liked that kind of thing.


  19. SocraticGadfly

    Cousin, exactly, which is why Roger Penrose is wrong, IMO, too.

    At the level of a neuron’s synapses, even, it’s macroworld. Quantum-level effects have averaged out. I doubly stand by this as someone who leans toward a “realist” interpretation of QM.


    Happiness, if seen as a short-term item, is not the same as contentment, either.

    Liked by 1 person

  20. brodix


    “A chaotic random path of causal influences seem to me as completely undesirable as an agent; never being able to do as I please based on pre-developed internal states, and outwardly unable to affect the environment in predictable ways. The former seems to me as akin to being under hypnosis while the latter being debilitated.”

    Today, I and two other people spent the day milling a bunch of timber. I was mostly running a cutoff saw, which is an old fashioned circular saw, mounted on the back of a tractor, turning scraps into firewood, as well as prepping with various chainsaws, or running the telehandiler, moving logs about. It was about as much a state of hypnosis as I could make it. There was minimal excess thought, or physical action. It was a bit like riding a wave. I was responding to input as efficiently as possible. As I’ve observed previously, we are quite conscious when we are functioning instinctively, whether it is manual labor, or teaching others what we have spent our lives learning. Does that mean we lack control? Well, I still have all my fingers and that required a great deal of control. Like riding the wave, it is a function of being able to exist entirely in the present and not be distracted.


  21. Robin Herbert

    Let’s take the classic claim of libertarian free will – a man has robbed an old lady at knife point and people say “He could have done otherwise”. What they mean is that in that time before the event it was not already inevitable that he rob her. There was another course of action he could have taken.

    Could this statement be shown to be wrong from a scientific point of view? Is there any reasonably settled science that says that, say, 5 minutes before the event, or 2 minutes or 1 minute, it was inevitable?

    It is not enough that the amount of indeterminism is very small, because even the smallest divergence will lead to a completely different microstate in a very short time.

    Could they then say that, at the macrostate level, the event was inevitable at some time before the event? I don’t think so, it is not clear how microstate differences can effect macrostate differences in something like the brain. I have read an attempt at this calculation from Scott Aaronson but it doesn’t seem to suggest to me that any decision can be said to be inevitable.

    So science cannot say that the event was inevitable before it happened. Maybe science can say that if it was not inevitable then it must have been random. But you would have trouble convincing anyone that this man went out armed with a knife and robbed an old lady and all of this was just random.

    Was the matter of whether he made the final decision to attack or not random? Possibly, but I very much doubt anyone could make a technical scientific demonstration that this was the case.

    They would need to provide a technical scientific account of how a conscious intention converts to an action and science hasn’t done that yet.

    Or they could demonstrate that conscious states have no relevance to the question because they have no causal efficacy. Not only can’t science show this, the very statement appears to be incoherent.

    So the claim that science has shown us that we don’t have free will is not correct.

    Liked by 2 people

  22. wtc48

    Robin Herbert: “Aquinas’s criterion for free will is that the person knew and understood the consequences, not that they could do otherwise.”

    This seems like basically a legalistic definition, akin to the legal sense of sanity as knowing right from wrong (in other words, punting the question to another set of human concepts). I would think the whole matter of free will lies in the realm of human constructs: no one would seriously consider finding a non-human animal guilty of committing a crime. So I would agree with Massimo that it doesn’t matter. Free will is a fuzzy concept that we made up, and it is up to us to manipulate it to suit our various needs; it is inappropriate to apply it indiscriminately to rocks, guppies, electrons, etc.


  23. wtc48

    Kelskye: “To me, the question of whether we have free will or not always centres around human decision-making, ”

    My point exactly, on it being a human construct, only I don’t share your confidence in psychologists (or other scientists) as arbiters.

    Liked by 1 person

  24. Robin Herbert


    The free will debate is one that I really can’t understand why it matters on a philosophical level. To me, the question of whether we have free will or not always centres around human decision-making, and on that the best placed people to deal with the question of capacity is the psychologist (among other scientists).

    Psychology can make some major blunders, so I wouldn’t put too much faith in that.

    From a practical point of view it can be very useful to know what can be considered a free and unencumbered choice and what is not, even if the dividing line might be fuzzy.

    Legally it is accepted that volition is impacted by cognitive disorders, mental illness etc. But often we are asked to evaluate claims that something like childhood abuse, deprived backgrounds. We can take all the evidence we can from neuroscience, psychology, biology etc, but none of those can answer the question about whether the person could reasonably have been considered to have made a free choice or if circumstances and environment had narrowed those choices so much that we cannot consider it to be free will.

    Necessarily that judgement will include a philosophical analysis of what we mean by making a free choice or acting from unconstrained volition.


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