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. Philip Thrift

    Note that the “happiness” question asked in poll conducted in making the World Happiness Report I referenced is this: “Please imagine a ladder, with steps numbered from 0 at the bottom to 10 at the top. The top of the ladder represents the best possible life for you and the bottom of the ladder represents the worst possible life for you. On which step of the ladder would you say you personally feel you stand at this time?” (Also known as the “Cantril Ladder”.)


  2. Robin Herbert

    The scientific account of the “could have done otherwise” claim would also have to include an account of inter and intra level causality in the system.

    Consider a model of an ideal gas with a bunch of particles bouncing off each other and a wave being propagated through them. You could zoom in on a section of this wave midway through its trajectory and say that the wave is being propagated because the particles at this point are closer together than in the part before and after the wave and because the average of the momenta of these particles has a particular direction with respect to the average momenta of the particles before and after the wave.

    So you could say that the wave is propagated because of of the position and momenta of the particles that form part of it at any particular point in its trajectory.

    But they have that particular positions and momenta because of the shape of the wave, as it has been travelling through the gas. So you can’t exactly say it was the atoms that done it, or the macro structure that done it. You just have to say it is the whole system that done it.

    So any claim that randomness in the micro structure implies randomness at the macro level will have to take account of this.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. saphsin


    Not sure what you’re saying, they have full volition over their actions. Now “full” doesn’t mean that they’re consciously controlling every muscle joint and such, and they are moved by their emotions under the activity of physical labor. I don’t really see that as under hypnosis or problematic to volition. They could clearly stop if they really made that decision.


  4. synred

    I think most of the uncertainty in brain ‘behavior’ is due to chaos (sensitivity to initial conditions than QM). Still chaos effects can ‘magnify’ a small QM change into a macro effect.


  5. brodix


    Sorry for the way that comment was presented.

    My view is that “free will” is a fairly muddy concept that obscures deeper processes. For one thing, to “will” is to consciously determine, or make a decision, so the notion of it being “free” begs the question of what is it supposed to be free of? As you seem to be saying, if there is no causal input into the process, than any output, as in consequences, would be meaningless.

    As I see it, it is based on the western view of the individual as being distinct from their context and thus acting independently of it, rather than the eastern view of being part of context and thus part of the natural feedback and it is that being part of the process which makes our actions relevant.

    The irony is that seeing ourselves as autonomous individuals leads to atomized cultures, where the individual does become meaningless to all but themselves. Then when we try to reconstruct some larger social process, from this foundation, it appears autistic, given current evidence.


  6. synred


    Consider a set of beads lined up in a row. They are confined to a channel and equally spaced. They are elastic such that when one hits another it stops and transfers all its energy and motion to the bead hit.

    Now push the first bead in the ‘chain’. It will hit the second, stop, and the second bead will continue on to hit the third, usw.

    A wave will travel down the bead chain.

    When bead 611 hits bead 612, it is 611 that causes 612 to move.

    The wave is not the proximate cause of the 612s motion. Any bead moving the same place would cause the same effect. The wave is not the cause, but the effect of bead motion and arrangement.

    The wave is emergent behavior but is not the cause of the motion. The causes are is strictly local. It is our arrangement of the beads that made the wave possible.

    Life is not so different. It is a wave though much more complicated. It is rather like a soliton though like any analogy one has be wary of pushing it too far.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. synred

    “It’s terrible, Bob,” he said, “to think that all I’ve suffered, and all the suffering I’ve caused, might have arisen from the lack of a little salt in my brain.” — Robert Lowell

    The effect of chemistry on decisions…

    Kean, Sam. The Disappearing Spoon: And Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of the Elements (p. 253). Little, Brown and Company. Kindle Edition.


  8. saphsin


    Well I think Massimo is then probably right that Free Will is just a bad term to replaced by others. I think it’s generally pretty clear what it means to be in control of our actions though.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Robin Herbert


    The wave is emergent behavior but is not the cause of the motion.

    Consider that there are billions of different combinations of micro states that would have produced a wave of the same wavelength and speed in the preceding seconds to this moment and they would all have led to the same density of particles and the same average momenta in the particular area on which we are focussing.

    The propagation of the wave does not depend at all on any specific arrangement of the particles it depends on higher level states like the speed and wavelength of the wave.

    Notice in your bead example you said the bead was the cause of the propagation of the wave. You didn’t say that the specific particles that were in contact with the next bead were the cause. Why didn’t you say that the bead was an emergent behaviour of the system and the causality was all at the particle level?

    Liked by 1 person

  10. ejwinner

    It is interesting to note that most of the comments have circled around the problem of “free will vs. determinism,” and that at least a couple commenters have missed, or misunderstood the distinction made, “(what) modern cognitive scientists call volition, the ability to make decisions.” Failing to realize the importance of this seems to lead into absolutist cul-de-sacs.


  11. brodix

    The problem is that it is a lot more complicated than that.
    Which feeds back into the issue of “Who I/we are?” Both as emotionally and intellectually complex individuals, as particular communities and in the larger social ecosystem.
    Free will is associated with libertarianism and obviously there is another side to that coin. We tend to want to be free of the reactions to our actions, but there is that larger dynamic and it might be useful to understand it, rather than just picking sides. Which is why I see it as distraction, rather than edification.


  12. saphsin


    I happened to understand the distinction, and agree that it’s less problematic to rely on it. I just start talking about determinism because I found it odd how causal relations is somehow not seen as a prerequisite in our ability to make choices in discussions of what people call free will.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. saphsin


    I really don’t know what you’re talking about because your writing really is unclear sorry to say. But from the bits I can make out, I will say that the ability to make choices and influence our surroundings should be understood along a spectrum. It’s not a dichotomy between being Gods or being complete puppets. My guess is that we’re closer to the latter, but not enough to fail to meaningfully talk about decision making.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. synred

    The propagation of the wave does not depend at all on any specific arrangement of the particles it depends on higher level states like the speed and wavelength of the wave.

    That’s just not true. Im my simple example, the propagation of the wave depends exactly on the arrangement of the particles. The speed and wavelength are determined by the arrangement and how hard the initial hit is.

    If I simulated it there would need be nothing about the wave. It would ’emerge’ from the arrangement.


  15. synred

    And nobody seems to get that deterimiss is not the issue. There’s no libertarian free will either way. The concept is incoherent.


  16. kelskye

    @wtc48, Robin Herbert

    In terms of psychology, I think there’s great work that’s been done over the past several decades detailing how it is people think. And I think in the future, this will only improve. Especially with the work that covers overlapping concerns (such as neuroscience), where we are learning more and more about how humans actually think. I think there’s already a lot to go on that informs what we can reasonably expect from individuals in terms of their decision-making abilities and limitations.

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

    Oh, I don’t want to give the impression that I want to throw away the role of philosophers in all this. Dan Dennett’s quip about philosophy-free science always comes to mind. Rather what perplexes me is the focus on the incompatibilism / compatibilism / libertarianism discussion that never seems to have any practical value despite the relevance of “free will” in discussions about human behaviour and motivation.

    I don’t see how one can exclude philosophers, nor why anyone would want to.


  17. Massimo Post author

    To contribute a bit to the discussion between ej and saphsin, I think there is a distinction between talk of causality and talk determinism. People who use the latter term usually mean a radical version of reductionism, whereby everything was set in stone from the Big Bang. “Causality,” by contrast, is a more flexible concept. It is compatible with that view of determinism, but also with strong emergence. The Stoic Chrysippus talked about different levels and types of causality, some global (i.e., cosmic), somore proximate and local. I think the open causality account is right, while reductive determinism may or may not be right, it certainly hasn’t been established, and even less so it is “obvious,” as people like Krauss, Harris, and Coyne maintain.

    Liked by 3 people

  18. Philosopher Eric

    Now that I’ve finally had time to go through Massimo’s post and comment once again, I’m quite impressed with the similaritlies to our answers. ( I’m not quite as modest publicly as he is however, so I’ll directly say that we’ve put up some good stuff! It would be nice if there were a professional community of experts that could provide humanity with such consensus answers for the public to use in their daily lives. Perhaps some day. Anyway since many here have expressed concerns about freewill, I’ll now provide my own take on the topic.

    Given causality, freewill cannot exist in an ultimate sense. But who among us will say that the human has an ultimate perspective? No we’re we’re clearly quite ignorant. Therefore we should naturally see freedom even under a perfectly determined setting. Notice that when we define freewill as a function of ignorance, those nagging agency concerns vanish.

    Consider someone put into an elaborate prank show type of scenario. In ignorance the person will consider him or her self freely choosing what to do at each turn. From the somewhat larger perspective of the prank however, we can see that this person is being duped — forced to do strange things given the setup. If we continue this theme beyond the prank show to the perfect perspective associated with all causal circumstances themselves, causality mandates that all freewill becomes lost. So the theory is that freewill is merely a function of ignorance.


  19. wtc48

    I’m surprised to find comments still open, but I’ll slip another one in. The discussion on determinism seems to revolve around two different areas of human activity, which seem to involve the manifest/scientific points of view. Sports and games provide examples. In baseball, it is quite important to make decisions regarding boundaries, such as foul lines, pitch location, etc. Traditionally, this has been done by umpires who make rulings on the spot, and they have been regarded as correct by definition, as in ex cathedra rulings on moral matters by the Pope. In recent years, there has been a tendency to take advantage of technology and make more “correct” rulings by instant replay, or even by deferring judgement to officials watching the tapes in distant cities. Opinions differ on the validity of these new practices, in which we see the scientific realm encroaching on the manifest.

    In the scientific realm, there is apparently no limit to the precision and scope of measurement: the more accurate the better. Applying IA to baseball through the use of robot umpires would seem like an improvement, but the imprecision of human perception is part of the sport.

    Sorry if this is a bit incoherent; I was hurrying to get it in before comments expire.


  20. brodix

    Sorry about that. As a concept it is a spectrum, but it also bleeds into several other issues, from the nature of identity, since it is difficult to define the will, when it is not completely clear the definition of the being expressing its will, but also the subjective feedback of the larger reality, where expressions of will can have little to very much effect on the situation. Given it is this ability to leverage our input that so often matters to the social importance of will, that makes it a popular topic in the first place.
    So it is complicated to dissect the issue. I think we are in agreement that our conscious input is a factor in the events of our lives.


  21. synred

    A simple bead. Much the same could be said of particles, but the complication of QM would enter.

    Condensed matter does such experiments all the time. Quasi-particles as well as waves emerge from local interactions.


  22. Robin Herbert


    Ir is doubtful that the system you are describing is an example of something with a micro state and macro state behaviour.

    But if you have any distance between the centres of your beads then you can have several configurations that will give you the same wave.

    If you don’t then you don’t have a wave at all, the momentum would propagate instantaneously from the first to the last bead.

    And are you denying that in the system I describe there are many microstates that will produce the same wave?


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