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Features : Editorial Last Updated: Oct 3, 2012 - 9:34:48 AM


Philosophy: Will we ever find answers to these 8 questions?
By Steve Ferber
Oct 3, 2012 - 9:33:55 AM

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You’re now wondering, of course, what those eight questions might be. I was too. So when I came across this provocative story I quickly glanced through down to find all eight, even before I ventured into the text.  
I won’t make you wait. They’re listed immediately below, each proffered by George Dvorsky in a piece available at io9.com, a daily publication that covers science, science fiction and the future. Their tag line?  “Time to get ready for tomorrow.”  
Here, then, are the eight questions:  
1. Is our universe real?
2. Is there life after death?
3. Does God exist?
4. What is the best moral system?
5. Do we have free will?
6. Why is there something rather than nothing?
7. Can you really experience anything objectively?
8. What are numbers?
When Roe and I were parenting teenagers I often took issue with use of the words “always” and “never” (as in: “You never let me stay out after 11”).  So when I saw the headline of this article (“8 Great Philosophical Questions That We’ll Never Solve”) it led me to pause, and wonder whether we will, at some point, find definitive answers. After all, the sun still has 5 billion years to burn, so we have a while.  Answerable or not, these questions remain intriguing. Here’s a short paragraph on each, from the pen of George Dvorsky.
1. Is our universe real?
Is what we’re experiencing the real deal, or some grand illusion?  Dvorsky references what is called the “Simulation Argument” which proposes that perhaps, just perhaps, “we’re the product of an elaborate
simulation.”  Dvorsky adds: “[And what if] the civilization running the simulation is also in a simulation?”
Author’s side note: my head started to hurt when I read this. Dvorsky’s final point, on this subject: “Assuming that the people running the simulation are also taking part in it, our true identities may be temporarily suppressed, to heighten the realness of the experience.” (Anyone have some aspirin?)
2. Is there life after death?
Materialists assume that there's no life after death, points out Dvorsky, “but it's just that — an assumption that cannot necessarily be proven.” Dvorsky adds: “ . . . [t]here's no reason to believe that we only have one shot at this thing called life. It's a question of metaphysics and the possibility that the cosmos (what Carl Sagan described as ‘all that is or ever was or ever will be’) cycles and percolates in such a way that lives are infinitely recycled.”
3. Does God exist?
Dvorsky insists that “both the atheists and believers are wrong . . . and the agnostics are right.” His argument? “We do not know enough about the inner workings of the universe to make any sort of grand claim about the nature of reality and whether or not a Prime Mover exists somewhere in the background. Many people defer to naturalism — the suggestion that the universe runs according to autonomous processes — but that doesn't preclude the existence of a grand designer who set the whole thing in motion (what's called deism).”
4. What is the best moral system?
Can we always tell the difference between right and wrong?  Dvorsky maintains that “our sense of right and wrong will change over time,” and points to a string of persistent dilemmas that are difficult to answer. For example: “The Golden Rule is great . . . [but] it leaves no room for the imposition of justice (such as jailing criminals).”  Two other dilemmas: “Should the few be spared to save the many? Who has more moral worth: a human baby or a full-grown great ape?”  In essence, Dvorsky asks: How should we “evaluate human actions and establish the most righteous code of conduct?”
5. Do we have free will?
This topic has been debated for eons: Do we truly have free will or are our actions predetermined?  Explains Dvorsky: “If our decision making is influenced by an endless chain of causality, then determinism is true and we don't have free will. But if the opposite is true, what's called indeterminism, then our actions must be random.” Some make the case for “compatibilism,” according to Dvorsky, which argues that “free will is logically compatible with deterministic views of the universe.” And “compounding the problem,” Dvorsky explains, “are advances in neuroscience showing that our brains make decisions before we’re even conscious of them.” The debate rages on . . .
6. Why is there something rather than nothing?
Dvorsky first proposes two related questions: a) Why is there all this stuff in the universe?; and b) Why is it governed by such exquisitely precise laws?  Dvorsky then quotes physicist and professor Sean Carroll: "Nothing about modern physics explains why we have these laws rather than some totally different laws, although physicists sometimes talk that way — a mistake they might be able to avoid if they took philosophers more seriously." (Worth a glance is Carroll’s web site, at www.preposterousuniverse.com).
(Just called Delta for a refill, on aspirin)
7. Can you really experience anything objectively?
Dvorsky frames the dilemma: the only way to know the world is “through the filter of our senses and the cogitations of our minds.” So Dvorsky, in essence, is asking:  is it possible to “observe the universe from the ‘conscious lens’ of another person?”  The reality, Dvorsky explains, is that “the universe can only be observed through a brain (or potentially a machine mind),” so the question becomes: “Should we continue to assume that [the world’s] true objective quality can never be observed or known?”
8. What are numbers?
Are numbers real?  Dvorsky referenced Plato’s belief that numbers are real, though you can’t see them, “but formalists insisted that they were merely formal systems.” Said Dvorsky: “This is essentially an ontological problem, where we're left baffled about the true nature of the universe and which aspects of it are human constructs and which are truly tangible.”
How many aspirin are you allowed to take in an hour?
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