What Do We Really Know?: The Big Questions in Philosophy
Blackburn (Simon)
Source: Blackburn (Simon) - What Do We Really Know?: The Big Questions in Philosophy
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  1. The twenty questions I have chosen here are among those that often occur to thoughtful men, women and children. They seem to arise naturally, with our powers of reflection. We want to know the answers. Yet philosophy is unusual among academic disciplines in appearing to cherish the questions rather than provide the answers. The tradition contains few agreed and definitive solutions. This may be a matter of regret or embarrassment to those of us who work as academic philosophers, but I do not think it should be. This is partly because some questions which appear simple and straightforward at first glance fragment into many other little questions on reflection. We ask, ‘Why be moral?' or ‘What is the meaning of life?' as if one answer might be around the corner. But perhaps there are many different questions. Why be moral in this particular way on this particular occasion, faced with this, that or the other temptation? Which of the things that can interest and engage people deserve to do so? There will be many answers in different contexts, rather than one big answer, and it is progress to realize this.
  2. Other questions may have different concealed traps in them. 'Why is there something rather than nothing?' is a good example. Although it is sometimes thought to be the fundamental question of philosophy, the deepest question anyone can ask, it may be that its depth, and the obsessive interest it can engender, are the artefact of a logical trick ensuring that it is unanswerable. Or perhaps not: these are matters on which we have to tread carefully, and not all thinkers will tread the same path. I do not think we should lament that or be embarrassed about that. We would not all tread the same path if we tried to write essays about almost any human affairs: just imagine the different lights in which a political decision or a family holiday (or family quarrel) may appear to different participants and observers. Shakespeare wrote wonderful plays about love, war, fear, ambition and many other things, but nobody believes that he gave definitive ‘answers' or that there is nothing left to add.
  3. So I have tried to acquaint the reader with the questions, with some of the things that get said, and with some of the pitfalls and perplexities surrounding them.
  4. The twenty questions I have chosen are here arranged in no particular order, except for the last one, which comes last for all of us. The discussions are intended to be self-contained, and therefore readers are welcome to dip in wherever they wish. Since there are occasional cross-references, they may find themselves drawn backwards or forwards as the case may be, and I hope that they are.
  5. The 21st century continues a trend also visible in the last century. This is a certain kind of scientific triumphalism. The euphoria that came with cracking the human genome, and the dazzling prospects of unlimited biological and medical progress that this encouraged, have contributed to an atmosphere in which humane studies like philosophy are put on the defensive. Insofar as we philosophers do things like interpreting human nature, then is philosophy itself due for retirement, overtaken and superseded by the juggernaut of advancing science? In a number of chapters I reflect on the actual achievements and promises of the new sciences of human nature, not always with quite the confidence that others seem to feel. I hope that the reasons in play at least raise some doubts, and enable others to approach the difficult problems of how we do think and feel, and then how we ought to think and feel, with proper respect.
  6. I owe thanks [… snip …].


Having read the book, I intend first of all to go through the Notes to link in the various references, then comment on the chapters in priority sequence1.
    Preface – 1
  1. Am I a Ghost in a Machine? The search for consciousness – 5
    • The inner world
    • God’s good pleasure
    • Mary, spectra, zombies
    • Fighting back
  2. What is Human Nature? The problem of interpretation – 17
  3. Am I Free? Choices and responsibility – 29
  4. What Do We know? Virtual realities and valuable authorities – 41
  5. Are We Rational Animals? Reason in theory and practice – 53
  6. How Can I Lie to Myself? Self-deception, seduction and motivation – 65
  7. Is There Such a Thing as Society2? The individual and the group – 77
  8. Can We Understand Each Other? Treating words carefully – 89
  9. Can Machines Think? Artificial intelligence3 and cognitive powers – 101
  10. Why Be Good? Annoying behaviour and annoying questions – 113
  11. Is it All Relative? Problems of toleration, truth and confidence – 125
  12. Does Time Go By? The strange river of time – 139
  13. Why Do Things Keep on Keeping on? Problems of constancy and chaos – 151
  14. Why is There Something and Not Nothing? The strange ways of being – 161
  15. What Fills Up Space? The curious nature of things and their properties – 173
  16. What is Beauty? The fatal attraction of things – 183
  17. Do We Need God? Hope, consolation and judgement – 195
  18. What is it All For? The pursuit of the meaning of life – 207
  19. What are My Rights? Positive, negative and natural rights – 217
  20. Is Death to be Feared? The awful abyss of extinction – 229
    Notes – 241
    Key Philosophers – 257
    Index – 261

In-Page Footnotes

Footnote 1: As an aside, Julie bought a birthday card for Stephen (her brother) which she noticed had the same image. It is (I think) the pre-restoration pier at Swanage.

Text Colour Conventions (see disclaimer)

  1. Blue: Text by me; © Theo Todman, 2021
  2. Mauve: Text by correspondent(s) or other author(s); © the author(s)

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