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To boldly go through inner space

Philosophers have struggled for years in the West and longer elsewhere to discover what counts as knowledge, whether human beings are free, how bodies are related to souls, and the meaning of Nicholas Fearn. The work of the classic philosophers--Plato, Aristotle, Russell, and Wittgenstein, among many--is well known. But what do comtemporary thinkers say about our current state of being? In his serious, challenging, and remarkably accessible new book, The Latest Answers to the Oldest Questions, British philosopher Nicholas Fearn delivers a broad interrogation of age-old questions: Who am I?

While there is never any shortage of books simplifying the thinkers of the past, popular accounts of what the thinkers of today are getting up to are much rarer. Nicholas Fearn's Philosophy is an ambitious attempt to fill the gap - probably not a genuinely popular book, but well suited to the person who has some interest in philosophy but is too lazy to keep up. Like me. The book falls into three sections, headed Who Am I? The first part deals with questions of the self.

Is the mind a kind of computer? Could computers ever think? Fearn deals efficiently with these debates, and manages to interview some of the biggest names in the field: Jerry Fodor, leading exponent of the "computational theory of mind", John Searle, Fodor's leading bugbear, and the charismatic Darwinist thinker, Daniel Dennett.

What Do I Know? We hear from Noam Chomsky, the American pragmatist Richard Rorty, and Colin McGinn, leader of the "new mysterian" school - philosophical defeatists who hold that the structure of the mind makes us incapable of understanding deeper truths. In What Should I Do? Though Fearn is by and large even-handed, his own prejudices emerge. He leans towards Anglophone empiricism his dismissal of Jacques Derrida verges on the contemptuous.

Fearn is attracted to the notion that many of our conceptual confusions stem from using nouns "self", "consciousness" that don't refer to actual things. Knowing where your interlocutor stands is useful, and I find Fearn's views sympathetic, but once or twice I worried that he doesn't give people a fair crack of the whip.

Is Singer's case for animal liberation really as easily undermined as Fearn seems to think? He also puts too much faith in "thought experiments", like Derek Parfit's famous teleportation stories. Having had his body destroyed in one place and re-created elsewhere, is Captain Kirk still the same person? Fearn should have paid attention to a maxim of Dennett's: sometimes a practical impossibility can tell us more than a conceptual possibility. A picture emerges of a field with its boundaries in constant flux, as advances in technology change the nature of the questions.

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That we can now see physical structures in the brain that support mental faculties inevitably alters our notion of mind. So Philosophy will fairly soon be out of date. For the moment, it remains a readable, challenging guide to the frontiers of thinking. You can find our Community Guidelines in full here. Want to discuss real-world problems, be involved in the most engaging discussions and hear from the journalists?

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Questions No One Knows the Answers to (Full Version)

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Philosophy of mathematics

It's not on the ether wind and not in God's mind. WHERE is it? I refuse to believe that it doesn't exist. Or is all of human knowledge merely a gigantic social construction as the postmodernists would have it forever distant from true knowledge? Clearly Fearn is not a postmodernist since he mostly diminishes this idea. Most philosophers and other thinkers that I have read, believe that human knowledge is an ever-widening sphere going out into a larger unknown.

We learn more and more about ourselves and the universe we live in, but we have no way of knowing how distant or close to Absolute Truth we might be, or could possibly be.

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Furthermore, we cannot know with certainty that we know anything at all. Descartes might have thought he found something true in "Ego cognito sum," but actually he assumed the "I am" in the "I think" and proved nothing.

Five big philosophical questions: my modest take | Footnotes to Plato

And nobody, if I am reading Fearn rightly, has gotten any further than that. In the final part there are some bits about "moral luck," e. Morally speaking Frankie is feeling kind of low while Johnny hasn't a clue. This is moral luck. All in all this is a most interesting book, but to be honest, I think Fearn is a little short of a mature understanding of some of the questions. In particular I don't think he realizes that the subjectivity of the experience of color or taste or any sort of feeling is absolute.

I can never know exactly how you experience the color red or the taste of black walnuts.

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I assume--and we all do--that your experience is closely similar to mine. So no problem. But when we get to the larger experience of consciousness in its bedeviling complexity, our assumptions may lead us astray. Almost certainly the consciousness of a dolphin or a whale is difference from ours in some very important respects and in ways we cannot know. But the philosophic problem of consciousness is really like the problem of "seeing" things smaller than photons: it's something that we can never do. Subjectivity is forever subjective.

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  • Or to use another example, we can never measure something so accurately that we can be sure that it is exactly one meter long. In fact, the every idea of exactly becomes muddled as we approach the limits of our senses and descend toward the Planck limit. Fearn also seems a little askew when it comes to the "Swampman" thought experiment. Swampman is an exact replica of philosopher Donald Davidson. Davidson opines that Swampman, despite having exactly all the same molecules in exactly the same arrangements as himself, is different from himself because Swampman "can't recognize my friends; it can't recognize anything, since it never cognized anything in the first place.

    Fearn calls the memories that Swampman has "pseudo-memories" p. But where are the "real" memories that Swampman and Davidson have of the past? They are in, and only in, the brains of Swampman and Davidson, and they are identical! This is a wonderful thought experiment that has been done many times in slightly different ways. What I think we can learn from such an experiment is that--hold on to the steering wheel--we don't really exist as we think we do! If Davidson is dissolved and Swampman comes home for dinner, clearly Davidson is not going to get anything to eat, but no one including Davidson will ever know the difference.

    Well, Swampman if he had been told he was a duplicate or had seen Davidson might know, but guess what? Swampman would remain convinced that he is Davidson. Fearn includes this wonderful quote from Ludwig Wittgenstein: "Death is not an event in life; we do not live to experience death. But Wittgenstein's point and that of Eastern religions is psychological and very powerful; however it requires us to simultaneously understand that 1 we do not exist in a way different than Swampman; and 2 death is not an experience we ever have except in the anticipation.

    Not a lot of competition, but this is one of the most straightforward and enjoyable works of popular philosophy. Fearn interviews the best of the living philosphers--John Searle, Richard Rorty, Peter Singer, Noam Chomsky, David Chalmers, Jerry Fodor, Daniel Dennett and more--in a series of expositions about free will, the mind-body problem, postmodernism, pragamatism, the language of thought, etc.