It is noticeable that broadcasted examples of the general knowledge quiz tend to claim unusual mental powers for their more successful entrants: master mind, super brain, and egghead are examples. These are hardly accurate descriptions. Success in quizzes (as I know very well) requires wide interests, a good memory, and readiness for preparatory work. All the candidates know perfectly well that quiz setters enjoy obscure capital cities, the singers of James Bond theme songs, and FA Cup winners. You are either prepared to swot these up or you aren’t; your degree of intelligence, if such a concept really has any meaning, hardly comes into it.
Rather than enter quizzes I have always considered that seriously bright people study philosophy, this being a discipline with which I have always struggled myself. I wish I could say that I understood Spinoza’s ethics or Bertrand Russell’s wish to place mathematics on a logically secure foundation, but evidently my own talents do not lie in that direction. Generally I get by, but what I need is a practical philosopher among you to explain a few troublesome issues in simple terms. The Radio 4 programme ‘The Philosophers’ Arms‘ is the sort of thing I have in mind. Definitive answers in short comprehensible sentences would be much appreciated.
I guess we have all had the experience of waking from a dream and explaining to family or friends that ‘it seemed so real’. Is it possible that what we choose to call ‘reality’ is in fact a dream, or perhaps an extraordinarily perfect illusion created for some purpose by a malevolent demon? Clearly in the everyday world we act as if this were not the case. If the ‘reality police’ refused to investigate a burglary at our house on the basis that there was no objective evidence of the existence of the stolen objects, nor indeed the house, we should be seriously disappointed. I have thought about this question a good deal. The best I can come up with is that although I cannot prove the dream-world theory to be untrue neither can I find any positive evidence for believing that it is true. I don’t feel entirely happy about this and wish that I could be more definite about reality than the uneasy thought that it may be a convenient fiction like the sun rising each day. Can anybody help me?
It is easy to be sure that phenomenon B always follows phenomenon A, or at least always in our long experience. Is that the same as saying A ’causes’ B? I gather that it is not. I hit a cue ball in a game of snooker; the cue ball hits in turn a red which then enters a pocket on the table. Did I cause the red to enter the pocket, or did it simply follow my use of the cue? It doesn’t seem that you can actually prove causality and it may be another one of those convenient fictions. Again when we are mugged in the street and summon the reality police we do have certain expectations. What if they refused to prosecute on the grounds that although our black eye followed us being hit by a mugger’s fist yet neither we, nor anybody else, can prove causality? I predict that we should feel definite disappointment.
A snooker table is quite a useful place to think about such things. Clearly the path taken by a snooker ball depends on a small number of very simple factors: its initial direction, the energy imparted by the cue, frictional with the baize, and dynamic interactions with the other balls or cushions. It may be possible to predict accurately where two balls will end up after a single interaction, I guess professional snooker players have to make such predictions successfully, but the results are soon unpredictable if multiple balls are involved. If one knew enough could one predict exactly where all the reds would end up after the first shot when, I should explain to non-players, all the reds are bunched together? But tiny differences in ball alignment will make huge differences in the final outcome, which I imagine is not really predictable.
Many people, myself included, believe that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Is this principle philosophically secure? If I tell you that I ate bacon and egg for breakfast you would have no actual evidence for believing this to be true. If I also told you that I could levitate 12 feet above the ground you would have no reason to believe this either. But in the everyday world you would probably argue that many people do in fact eat bacon and egg for breakfast and that you have sometimes done so yourself. My first statement is therefore plausible if unproven. Since nobody at all is demonstrably able to levitate at that height the second statement is both implausible and unproven. Before it is believed something very convincing in the way of evidence would have to be produced. I think you could say that you ‘knew’ I had bacon and egg because it is true and you had good reasons for believing it is true. You can never say that you know that I can levitate since you could never have good reasons for believing it. Am I right?
A popular poser when I was a sixth-former, fifty years ago, was ‘if a tree falls in a forest when there is nobody present to hear it does it make a sound?’. You might equally ask if a light is switched on automatically, when there is nobody to see it, does it produce any light? I think I have sorted this one out. When the tree falls or the filament glows physical consequences result. In the first case these are compression waves in the air and in the second various types of electromagnetic radiation are produced. In the absence of ears, eyes and brains to detect and analyse these consequences they are not perceived, and so cannot be called sound or light. Is this correct?
What is meant by ethics? The sound waves and light mentioned in the last paragraph are part of the natural order, like gravity or evolution. Personal ethics are surely an imagined order, a way of structuring human behaviour, and in this respect do not differ from a political system, or a form of government. Imagined orders have a habit of becoming embedded in the material world, and a substantial fraction of educational time is devoted to preparing children to live ethically: do not lie, do not hit your neighbour, do not steal, respect each other and so forth. I am sure that it appears quite proper to us all that children should be instructed how to behave in society together with the knowledge that their personal beliefs and wishes are of real value. But there is nothing natural about this and other societies might take a totally different view. I should like to think that there was more to ethics than divine will experienced at third or fourth hand. Can anyone help me?