What do we know – continued – what are you looking at?

Sense data fills the gaps between our eyes and the world around us.  But is it a straw man in the argument for experience?  By Lisa McLellan

My last article introduced you to Descartes and his famous statement ‘I think therefore I am’.  Descartes rejected all beliefs that he considered even remotely doubtable in order to arrive at a foundation of absolute certainty.  One of the first categories of beliefs to be rejected was beliefs based on sensory information.

Descartes recognised that a particular experience, e.g. the experience of seeing an apple, is no guarantee that an apple is actually there.  The experience may be an illusion, and in fact there is a nectarine that looks particularly apple-like.  Maybe the experience is a hallucination and there is in fact nothing there at all. Continue reading


What do you know? A step-by-step dip into Descartes…

What can we know?  Lisa lines up the thoughts of one of the world’s biggest thinkers to explain how little we really know… By Lisa McLellan

Today I will introduce you to Descartes and one of the most well known statements in modern philosophy,

I think, therefore I am’.

Descartes is widely considered the father of modern western philosophy.  His writings and his methods set the stage for the development of philosophy and his topics of discussion are still hotly debated today. Continue reading

New year – new you?

Are we the same as we always were – and do our memories matter?  The myth of the continuous self.  By Lisa McLellan

It is the start of a new year, which for many represents a new start.  With all the best intentions, we promise ourselves that this year we will be good.  We resolve to quit smoking, to go on a diet, to get fit.  We see the start of a new year as an opportunity to reinvent ourselves.  Of course, only a select few of the most determined individuals will follow through with their resolutions (I have given up on such false promises!)  It remains true, however, that we are all changing, all the time.   The problem is: what makes you you? Continue reading

Mary’s new look – the philosophy of perception

Say hello to Mary – the Zombies’ friend – here to demonstrate that conscious experience cannot be fully explained in physical, scientific terms.  By Lisa McLellan

Last week some Zombies suggested that conscious experience may be epiphenomenal. That is to say, it might be a by-product of physical processes, with no causal effect on the physical world.  Let us follow this train of thought with a look at Frank Jackson‘s imaginary Mary

Frank Jackson’s thought experiment:

Imagine a scientist, Mary, who is an expert on the physical processes involved in colour vision.  She knows how various surfaces reflect different wavelengths of light, and how this light affects the retina, how this causes signals to be transferred to the visual cortex of the brain, and how these signals are processed.  She knows everything there is to know about how the physical processes of colour vision work.

Mary has carried out her extensive research while confined to a black and white room, (or wearing black and white goggles, or with a rare condition which causes her to see only in black and white, depending on which version you prefer).  The important point here is that she has never actually experienced colour vision directly.  As the thought experiment goes, she is then released from the black and white room (or removes the goggles, or is cured) and for the first time ever, she experiences colour vision.  She sees the colour red for the first time. Continue reading

Can zombies see red – a discussion of conscious experience

What is conscious experience and do we really need it? By Lisa McLellan

I am going to talk to you about zombies.  Not the Dawn of the Dead style zombies – philosophical zombies.  Philosophical zombies are indistinguishable from humans like me and you – they can walk, talk, work and blog.  The only difference is that they have no conscious experience.  Imagine a world identical to ours in every way – but populated with these philosophical zombies instead of us.  To an outsider, it would be impossible to tell the difference. Continue reading

Lisa asks: What Are Morals?

A quick look at morals – what they are and what they do!  By Lisa McLellan

Moral facts

When I make a moral judgment (i.e. it is wrong to kill an innocent person) I hold this to apply to everybody, not just to myself.

If it were subjective, I would have to admit that although it is wrong for me, it is not wrong for you.  Morality is not like this, however – if I believe that it is wrong to kill an innocent person, then I believe it is wrong for you to kill an innocent person.  It doesn’t matter if you disagree with me.  We don’t just make up our own moral codes arbitrarily and accept that others will have different moral codes.

We do construct moral codes that differ between individuals, societies and culturesbut this is because we don’t always know exactly where the boundaries of morals lie – especially with contentious issues like abortion, euthanasia, torture (think 24!) – not because we consider morality a matter of personal taste.  We assume that wherever these boundaries lie they must apply universally.  Just as contradictory scientific theories can’t both be right, contradictory moral codes cannot both be right. Continue reading

How free is will – a philosophical starter kit

Do we determine our own free will?  Causality and physics from our pop philosophy guru.  By Lisa McLellan

There is no such thing as free will…as far as we know.  Don’t believe me?  Read this and prove me wrong!

It is widely accepted that we can explain why any physical event has happened by citing some other prior physical event.  The sum of these prior events will make the first event inevitable.

For example we can work out the trajectory of a snooker ball by looking at the speed and direction of the cue ball that hit it, and the angle at which the two hit.  The way the cue ball moved can also be worked out from the force and angle with which the snooker cue hit it.  So once we have done this, we need do nothing further.  We will have explained fully the cause of the event in question – accidentally potting the black, for instance. Continue reading