Posts tagged Philosophy

Column on Multiple Universes Anyone?

Multiple Universes Anyone?

Tibor R. Machan

An issue that has puzzled many philosophers and cosmologists is whether there is just one universe or might there be many. On first inspection the puzzle appears to be bogus. After all, by “universe” is meant “everything that is.” Other terms used for this are “existence,” “reality,” “the world,” and so forth. But leave it to the very bright men and women in some of the least accessible disciplines to come up with notions that are very odd, at least to those who like to be grounded on Terra firma in their thinking.

However, without some of these apparent flights of fancy certain valuable discoveries of the past would have been overlooked. So the question is, does the idea of multiple universes qualify as one of these apparent flights of fancy or is it per chance a bona fide and promising flight of fancy?

One way that some people come to believe in multiple universes is by considering whether there is anything contradictory in postulating it. Thus, for example, married bachelors or square circles would not qualify since these are outright self-contradictory. Nothing married can also be a bachelor, nothing that’s square can also be a circle. Impossible. So is the idea of multiple universes like these, out and out self-contradictory?

Arguably it is not but then perhaps it is almost. If the meaning of “universe” is “all that exists,” then multiple universes would be a self-contradictory idea since if some other thing existed that’s like a universe, it would just be part of the universe, not an additional universe. After all, “everything” means just that, everything without exception. But if “universe” means something specifiable, with borders or limits, like a playground or sphere, then it would not be out and out self-contradictory to suppose that there are others beside this one we are familiar with.

Yet, this latter approach relies on changing the meaning of “universe.” It no longer is used to mean “everything that exists” but, rather, whatever exists in a certain way and then, quite possibly, other things might exists that way too. Not that there is any reason to think they do only that there could be no objection to the possibility of their existence. As many cosmologists and philosophers would put it, multiple universes are logically possible–there is no formal contradiction in thinking they exist.

Yet, of course, that alone doesn’t establish that multiple universes exist, actually, in reality, as it were. They would be, instead, conceivable, thinkable, perhaps. Like three legged ducks on Mars are–thinkable but with no reason to believe they exist.

But some think that anytime one comes up with some idea that might–just barely might–be realized, it should be treated as in fact existent for in the long run, through eternity, everything possible would in fact be (at some time). Eternity is, after all, a very long time and that gives anything that’s even remotely possible some chance of being actual, at some time at least. Who could rule it out–no one could traps around the whole shebang to establish the matter once and for all.

Yet, are we supposed to form our beliefs based on such flimsy possibilities, ones that are deemed possible only because they cannot be ruled out entirely? It seems that the more reasonable thing to do is to regard such logical possibilities–of what might just be possible but no one knows if they are–as mere fancies instead of something worthy of belief. After all, by such reasoning the mere fact that someone might be guilty of a crime of which he or she is accused would justify regarding the person as possibly guilty. This could then lead to their being treated as suspects who should be investigated. Would that be justified? Would it not, instead, amount to harassment?

So the real challenge is what is reasonable to believe in. Many things that do not qualify might possibly be, at some point, somewhere, but unless solid evidence of their reality is at hand, we should most likely postpone any decision about whether they exist. Which, seems to me, goes for multiple universes.

Column on Progress & Philosophy

Is There Progress in Philosophy?

Tibor R. Machan

Often those who study the history of philosophy and compare it to the history of other, especially scientific, disciplines, complain that in philosophy no progress is made, that philosophers keep talking about the same thing in each age, that nothing ever gets resolved, etc., and so forth. (Articles on this topic are available in many forums, e.g., Todd C. Moody, “Progress in Philosophy,” American Philosophical Quarterly, Vol. 23 [January 1986]:34-46) and the entry “Philosophical Progress,” in the on-line encyclopedia, Wikipedia [at]).

Here I am taking it as true that there is no progress in philosophy, not comparably to what is evident in, say, chemistry or physics or anthropology. It appears clear that in each age most of the same philosophical issues are debated, theorized about or reflected upon as are explored in others, albeit in somewhat different terms. Thus the topic of free will may get rechristened “human agency” yet the basic problem in focus is the same–are people free to determine or cause some of what they do? Ancient, modern, and contemporary philosopher all address it, with only a few exceptions and opposite positions are defended in every age. Whether God exists, does the universe have a beginning, what is the nature of moral goodness and evil–all these issues keep getting revisited and though answers are defended, they do not seem to have lasting power but seem to need renewed support again and again.

I want to suggest a reason why this is how it is with philosophy and why that fact doesn’t diminish the discipline’s importance, nor its capacity to arrive at true conclusions. It isn’t a very complicated explanation, actually. It is modeled somewhat loosely on individual developmental psychology. To whit, it is well recognized that teens tend to resist explicitly stated advice from elders. Arguably they do accept, at least subconsciously, leadership if it comes in the way of examples set for them by intimates. Becoming financially responsible, for example, may involve encountering one’s parents’ or guardians’ repeated responsible conduct–if they routinely pay their bills, keep their promises, etc., so the teens can witness this without however preaching the practice at them, this is quite likely to carry influence.

One reason may be that teens are in the process of taking over the management of their lives and want to learn about this from their very own experience and practice rather than from explicit instructions. They need to know directly that they are doing what they choose to do, not merely blindly following other people’s advice. Even the more complex matters of accepting their family’s values, religious or political, seem to follow this process. If the teens are not being badgered about what they should believe, about the convictions that their parents want for them to embrace, they are more likely than not to follow their parents. Teens are about to assume the governance of their affairs and to do this they would naturally want to start thinking for themselves. So they, or at least the bright ones among them, are likely to resist just being told everything.

It is quite probable that human beings confront their most important and basic issues, ones treated within philosophy, similarly. A new generation will not take kindly to just accepting, without question and personal involvement, the vital ideas from past generations even if these ideas turn out to be right. It seems more likely that they will want to reconsider the basics on their own, with just some help from those who dealt with them earlier. And philosophy is where the basics are studied, examined, criticized, accepted or rejected.

Philosophy is also a discipline in which discussions are not thoroughly fraught with specialized jargon but are conducted in fairly ordinary terms. Everyone can, with a bit of effort, access these ideas, in other words, instead of submitting to the authority of experts as one would normally do in the case of most of the sciences, even when these bear directly on one’s life, such as medicine, nutrition, biology, psychology, or sociology (although in some of its special areas philosophy can get quite complex and even convoluted, just as do the sciences). Thus most who have an interest in philosophy will want to and are likely to be able to explore its topics directly or through participation in the work of contemporaries, not by reading up on the topics as dealt with in the past.

This, then, places into the hands of a certain group of people in every new generation the task of revisiting the topics of the field. These would include, as already noted, “Is there a God?” “Is there free will?” “Can we know the world?” “Is it possible to be objective?” “Are principles of conduct made up or discovered?” “What exactly is justice or equality or liberty?” And so forth and so on.

No new generation will want such matters to be simply handed down from earlier ones. Sure, help from those who have addressed them will be welcome but not decisive. So there is not going to be rapid progress in the field, if any progress at all. Refinements of well travelled solutions are more likely to be the products of philosophical inquiry and reflection and, significantly, there is not going to be any “at the end of the day” about them. The day of such investigations never ends. And that is just as it must be–anything else would go contrary to human nature!