Monday, 29 October 2012

Religious Architecture and Art

Professor David Archard has started an active discussion about atheism, aesthetics, and religious architecture and art at The Thoughtful Scholar.

Thursday, 11 October 2012

We're Moving!

For the last couple months, we've been in the process of moving to a new blog, The Thoughtful Scholar.  (This move is partly inspired by the success of The Big Questions during this past year.  Because of our success, we have been encouraged to move to the Queen's University Belfast website.)

I will post details about the new blog shortly.  We hope that readers of The Big Questions will continue to follow us at our new location.

Friday, 13 July 2012

Friday Question: Aristotle on Happiness

This week's Friday Question comes from QUB student Carys Barry:
For this week's question, I will concentrate on what Aristotle says about virtues. Aristotle sees virtues as a way of reaching happiness ('eudaimonia'), not just happiness in the way that we feel we experience it, but happiness in its 'full' sense.  He says: 'T]he good for man is an activity of the soul in accordance with virtue, or if there are more kinds of virtue than one, in accordance with the best and most perfect kind.'

There are (at least) two ways to look at happiness: as it being a degree of happiness felt, or as something independent of feeling. Aristotle subscribes to the second, seeing that the view that happiness is objective. In contrast, other philosophers like Bentham advocate for a more subjective conception: 'Prejudice apart, the game of push-pin is of equal value with the arts and sciences of music and poetry.'

Not only does Aristotle view happiness in a 'higher' way, he thinks that only certain people can ascertain this 'true' happiness.  He says, 'happiness evidently also needs external good to be added, as we said, since we cannot , or cannot easily, do fine actions if we the resources…  Further, deprivation of certain [externals]—for instance, good birth, good children, beauty—mars our blessedness.'  This suggests that those without the resources of the rich may not obtain 'happiness', as they do not have the goods to fund their 'higher' happiness. However, I would say the exact opposite is true, happiness in its truest sense is completely unrelated to 'goods' or the 'virtues' one possesses. (Of course, I do think that there is on some hierarchy to kinds of happiness. Some happiness may be worse if it takes away the happiness of another or are immoral.)

Aristotle thinks 'eudaimonia is living a life of accomplishment via the exercise virtue.'  My question is: Why does accomplishment via the exercise of virtue produce 'eudaimonia', when some people who are said to have done this and should have that 'higher' happiness, are in fact visibly less happy than those who have found solace in things that have nothing to do with accomplishment? And why does this make it a 'higher' happiness in any way that is genuinely valuable?

Monday, 9 July 2012

Objects and Essences

It is widely accepted that kinds have essences.  For instance, it is an essential feature of the kind water that samples of that kind are largely composed of H2O.  Something couldn't be water unless it were thus composed.  Plausibly, it is an essential feature of the kind human being that instances of that kind contain DNA molecules.  Something couldn't be a human being unless it had DNA molecules. 

The way that we look for essences of kinds seems to be by seeking out what principally explains the characteristic superficial features of the kind in question.  Arguably, it is even knowable a priori that the essences of kinds are individuated by whatever principally explains the characteristic superficial features of the kind.  (Characteristic superficial features are the features that we ordinarily use to recognize instances of the kind in question.)  This a priori knowledge would explain how we can know about the essences of kinds by engaging in empirical inquiry.

It is an interesting question whether this same approach to essences of kinds can apply to particulars.  I think it is unlikely.  Consider that we the superficial feature characteristic of a particular rock might be its distinctive (purple) color.  What principally explains this feature might be that somebody painted the rock this color.  However, I don't think this is a particularly good reason for thinking that having been painted is an essential feature of the particular rock in question.  On this basis, I'm inclined to think that the story of essences for particulars has to be different than the story for kinds.  Does that sound plausible?