Unsolved problems in philosophy

Unsolved problems in philosophy

:"This article deals mainly with unsolved problems in analytic philosophy. For other schools of philosophy, this concept is not well defined."Philosophical problems are unlike scientific or mathematical problems in that problems in philosophy are often refined rather than solved, and there is widespread belief that no philosophical problem is truly "solvable" in the conventional sense.

After all, as Bertrand Russell, in his 1912 book "The Problems of Philosophy" says: "Philosophy is to be studied not for the sake of any definite answers to its questions, since no definite answers can, as a rule, be known to be true, but rather for the sake of the questions themselves." ["Problems of Philosophy", pp. 93–4, 1980 edition.]

Martin Cohen, in his 1999 iconoclastic account of philosophy, "101 Philosophy Problems", offers as the penultimate problem, the question of whether or not 'The problem with philosophy problems is that they don't have proper solutions', before arguing that there is a fundamental divide in philosophy between those who think philosophy is about clarification and those who think it is about recognising complexity. Cohen chooses Étienne Bonnot de Condillac and Moritz Schlick to illustrate this divide.

The former, writing in the eighteenth century, describes someone waking up from a deep sleep to find that they are in the middle of labyrinth together with some other people who are arguing over the general strategy and principles for trying to find the way out. What could appear more ridiculous! says Étienne, yet that, he says, is what philosophers are doing, concluding: "It is more important to find ourselves merely where we were at first than to believe prematurely that we are out of the labyrinth." [Quoted in "101 Philosophy Problems" (1999/2007 3rd edition. page 186.]

Cohen contrasts this with the approach of the Logical Positivist movement in the interwar years of the Twentieth Century who, in the spirit of David Hume, wished to consign unanswerable questions 'to the flames'. As the 'hub' of the Logical Positivist circle, Moritz Schlick put it in an article entitled 'Unanswerable Questions' for the journal The Philosopher:

The purpose of philosophy, problems in philosophy, and the very definition of philosophy are highly contentious topics, and it is difficult to adequately define or answer these fundamental issues. For instance, in his early work, the highly influential philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein denied that any legitimate philosophical problems exist at all. Nonetheless, philosophy is motivated by the exploration and investigation of apparently paradoxical questions, which are often loosely termed "philosophical problems."

In his "Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus", Wittgenstein explains how the use of the same word to mean two different things or viceversa the use of two different words to mean the same thing could easily give rise to "...the most fundamental confusions (of which the whole of philosophy is full)." [Ludwig Wittgenstein "Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus", p. 41, Dover Publications Inc., 1999 ISBN 0-486-40445-5]

He goes on to state "...If I know the meaning of an English and a synonymous German word, it is impossible for me not to know that they are synonymous, it is impossible for me not to be able to translate them into one another". [ibid. p. 59]

How then does one find the exact meaning of a word? He had already answered that question: "...only in the context of a proposition has a name meaning." [ibid. p. 39]

Translation and interpretation

The Works of Aristotle translated into English with W. D. Ross as editor was published by Oxford University Press and reprinted by Encyclopedia Britannica in the Great Books of the Western World. The translation of Aristotle's "Prior Analytics" by A. J. Jenkinson uses the word "syllogism" as in Book I, ch. 1: "...We must next define a premise, a term and a syllogism..."

A more recent translation by Robin Smith reads as follows: "...Next, we must determine what a premise is, what a term is, and what a deduction is...".

According to Smith, in many respects what Aristotle meant by "syllogism" is not what we mean by "syllogism". Smith explains, "...I avoid the English cognate 'syllogism' for a host of reasons, most centrally that it has come to have a set of associations quite out of place in translating or interpreting Aristotle." [Robin Smith translator "Aristotle Prior Analytics", p. xvi, Hackett Publishing Co., 1989 ISBN 0-87220-064-7]

John Corcoran of University of Buffalo, New York, referring to Smith's translation in particular states: "...it employs the most recent philological, philosophical and logical advances, which since the 1970s at least have rendered previous translations and commentaries obsolete."

In The Revised Oxford Translation of The Complete Works of Aristotle edited by Jonathan Barnes of the Bollingen Series, Princeton University Press, the word 'deduction' is also used in the same context. It reads: "...Next we must determine what a proposition is, what a term is, and what a deduction is."

The three translations seem to agree on the term, "term" though not on "premise" and "proposition".

Popular philosophical questions

Clearly, unsolved philosophical problems exist in the lay sense (e.g. "What is the meaning of life?", "Where did we come from?", "What is reality?", etc). However, philosophers generally accord serious philosophical problems specific names or questions, which indicate a particular method of attack or line of reasoning. As a result, broad and untenable topics become manageable. It would therefore be beyond the scope of this article to categorize "life" (and similar vagaries) as an unsolved philosophical problem. Similarly expansive "questions" shall also be omitted, as will fashionable fields (e.g. bioethics, feminist ethics), which pose philosophical problems without being philosophical problems themselves.



In art, essentialism is the idea that certain concepts may be expressed organically in certain media. Each medium has its own particular strengths and weaknesses, contingent on its mode of communication. A chase scene, for example, may be appropriate for motion pictures, but poorly realized in poetry, because the essential components of the poetic medium are ill suited to convey the information of a chase scene. This idea may be further refined, and it may be said that the haiku is a poor vehicle for describing a lover's affection, as opposed to the more organically correct sonnet. Essentialism is attractive to artists, because it not only delineates the role of art and media, but also prescribes a method for evaluating art (quality correlates to the degree of organic form). However, considerable criticism has been leveled at essentialism, which has been unable to formally define organic form or for that matter, medium. What, after all, is the medium of poetry? If it is language, how is this distinct from the medium of prose fiction? Is the distinction really a distinction in medium or genre? Questions about organic form, its definition, and its role in art remain controversial. Generally, working artists accept some form of the concept of organic form (although philosophers like Rudolf Arnheim have added support), whereas philosophers have tended to regard it as vague and irrelevant.

"The medium is the message"

Marshall McLuhan's famous phrase, "the medium is the message", was first introduced in his book "" [McLuhan, M. 1964 "Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man" ISBN 978-0262631594] , and further explored in his playfully titled book "The Medium is the Massage". [McLuhan, M. 1967 "The Medium is the Massage" ISBN 1-888869-02-X] McLuhan's thesis, that electric-technology modularizes our minds, whereas the river-of-story-we-evolved-in formed our minds differently, has been so often quoted and misunderstood that, "You understand nothing of my work", has become a catchphrase for the Canadian philosopher (viz. his cameo in Woody Allen's film, "Annie Hall"). While summarizing McLuhan's argument is fraught with danger, it is safe to claim that the general understanding (perhaps not McLuhan's intended meaning) of the phrase is that the study of media rather than media content will provide more substantive research results. An extreme version of this idea proposes that the effect of media is unrelated to its content. Therefore, any two radio shows will have an identical effect on their audiences, regardless of what the radio shows may be. If one were to seek contrast, it would not be between radio shows, but between radio and television, for example. There is substantial research demonstrating that media has considerably more effect on audiences than message-oriented artists generally concede. Nonetheless, the extreme perspective is widely disregarded. The effect media has on audiences continues to be explored, and the precise nature of the relationship between media and message continues to elude philosophers.

Art objects

This problem originally arose from the practice rather than theory of art. Marcel Duchamp, in the 20th century, challenged conventional notions of what "art" is, placing ordinary objects in galleries to prove that the context rather than content of an art piece determines what art is. In music, John Cage followed up on Duchamp's ideas, asserting that the term "music" applied simply to the sounds heard within a fixed interval of time. While it is easy to dismiss these assertions, further investigation shows that Duchamp and Cage are not so easily disproved. For example, if a pianist plays a Chopin etude, but his finger slips missing one note, is it still the Chopin etude or a new piece of music entirely? Most people would agree that it is still a Chopin etude (albeit with a wrong note), which brings into play the Sorites Paradox, mentioned below. If one accepts that this is not a fundamentally changed work of music, however, one is implicitly agreeing with Cage that it is merely the duration and context of musical performance, rather than the precise content, which determines what music is. The question, then, is what the criteria for art objects are and whether these criteria are entirely context-dependent.


Gettier problem

Plato suggests in his Thaetetus, Meno, and other dialogues that 'knowledge' may be defined as justified true belief. For over two millennia this definition of knowledge has been reinforced and accepted by subsequent philosophers, who accepted justifiability, truth, and belief as the necessary criteria for information to earn the special designation of being "knowledge". In 1963, however, Edmund Gettier published an article in the periodical "Analysis" entitled "Is Justified True Belief Knowledge?", offering instances of justified true belief, which do not conform to the generally understood meaning of "knowledge." Gettier's examples hinged on instances of epistemic luck, and numerous subsequent philosophers have offered modified criteria for "knowledge", in response to Gettier's article. There is no general consensus to adopt any of the modified definitions yet proposed.

Molyneux problem

The Molyneux problem dates back to the following question posed by William Molyneux to John Locke in the 17th century: if a man born blind, and able to distinguish by touch between a cube and a globe, were made to see, could he now tell by sight which was the cube and which the globe, before he touched them? The problem raises fundamental issues in epistemology and the philosophy of mind, and was widely discussed after Locke included it in the second edition of his "Essay Concerning Human Understanding". [John Locke, "An Essay Concerning Human Understanding", book 2, chapter 9: [http://limitedinc.blogspot.com/2007/04/things-about-arabick-influence-on-john.html] quote|"I shall here insert a problem of that very ingenious and studious promoter of real knowledge, the learned and worthy Mr. Molyneux, which he was pleased to send me in a letter some months since; and it is this:- "Suppose a man born blind, and now adult, and taught by his touch to distinguish between a cube and a sphere of the same metal, and nighly of the same bigness, so as to tell, when he felt one and the other, which is the cube, which the sphere. Suppose then the cube and sphere placed on a table, and the blind man be made to see: quaere, whether by his sight, before he touched them, he could now distinguish and tell which is the globe, which the cube?" To which the acute and judicious proposer answers, "Not. For, though he has obtained the experience of how a globe, how a cube affects his touch, yet he has not yet obtained the experience, that what affects his touch so or so, must affect his sight so or so; or that a protuberant angle in the cube, that pressed his hand unequally, shall appear to his eye as it does in the cube."- I agree with this thinking gentleman, whom I am proud to call my friend, in his answer to this problem; and am of opinion that the blind man, at first sight, would not be able with certainty to say which was the globe, which the cube, whilst he only saw them; though he could unerringly name them by his touch, and certainly distinguish them by the difference of their figures felt. This I have set down, and leave with my reader, as an occasion for him to consider how much he may be beholden to experience, improvement, and acquired notions, where he thinks he had not the least use of, or help from them. And the rather, because this observing gentleman further adds, that "having, upon the occasion of my book, proposed this to divers very ingenious men, he hardly ever met with one that at first gave the answer to it which he thinks true, till by hearing his reasons they were convinced."]

A similar problem was also addressed earlier in the 12th century by Ibn Tufail (Abubacer), in his philosophical novel, "Hayy ibn Yaqdhan" ("Philosophus Autodidactus"). His version of the problem, however, dealt mainly with colors rather than shapes. [Muhammad ibn Abd al-Malik Ibn Tufayl and Léon Gauthier (1981), "Risalat Hayy ibn Yaqzan", p. 5, Editions de la Méditerranée: [http://limitedinc.blogspot.com/2007/04/things-about-arabick-influence-on-john.html] quote|"If you want a comparison that will make you clearly grasp the difference between the perception, such as it is understood by that sect [the Sufis] and the perception as others understand it, imagine a person born blind, endowed however with a happy natural temperament, with a lively and firm intelligence, a sure memory, a straight sprite, who grew up from the time he was an infant in a city where he never stopped learning, by means of the senses he did dispose of, to know the inhabitants individually, the numerous species of beings, living as well as non-living, there, the streets and sidestreets, the houses, the steps, in such a manner as to be able to cross the city without a guide, and to recognize immediately those he met; the colors alone would not be known to him except by the names they bore, and by certain definitions that designated them. Suppose that he had arrived at this point and suddenly, his eyes were opened, he recovered his view, and he crosses the entire city, making a tour of it. He would find no object different from the idea he had made of it; he would encounter nothing he didn’t recognize, he would find the colors conformable to the descriptions of them that had been given to him; and in this there would only be two new important things for him, one the consequence of the other: a clarity, a greater brightness, and a great voluptuousness."] [Diana Lobel (2006), "A Sufi-Jewish Dialogue: Philosophy and Mysticism in Baḥya Ibn Paqūda's Duties of the Heart", p. 24, University of Pennsylvania Press, ISBN 0812239539.]

Pyrrhonian regress

Overlooking for a moment the complications posed by Gettier Problems, philosophy has essentially continued to operate on the principle that knowledge is justified true belief. The obvious question that this definition entails is how one can know whether one's justification is sound. One must therefore provide a justification for the justification. That justification itself requires justification, and the questioning continues interminably. The conclusion is that no one can truly have knowledge of anything, since it is (due to this Pyrrhonian regress) impossible to satisfy the justification element. In practice, this has caused little concern to philosophers, as it is usually clear when a reasonably exhaustive investigation becomes irrelevant. Fact|date=February 2007 Nonetheless, the question is theoretically interesting for its own sake.

Perception of color

The question hinges on whether color is a product of the mind or an inherent property of objects. While most philosophers will agree that color assignment corresponds to light frequency, it is not at all clear whether the particular psychological phenomena of color are imposed on these visual signals by the mind, or whether such qualia are somehow naturally associated with their noumena. Another way to look at this question is to assume two people ("Fred" and "George" for the sake of convenience) see colors differently. That is, when Fred sees the sky, his mind interprets this light signal as blue. He calls the sky, "blue." However, when George sees the sky, his mind assigns green to that light frequency. If Fred were able to step into George's mind, he would be amazed that George saw green skies. However, George has learned to associate the word, "blue" with what his mind sees as green, and so he calls the sky, "blue", because for him the color green has the name, "blue." The question is whether blue must be blue for all people, or whether the perception of that particular color is assigned by the mind.

A good example of this would be the way colorblind people visualize and identify the colors. They are able to distinguish and identify colors based on the hues and shades, as these are usually correlated with the true colors (for example, yellow is usually bright, while purple is usually dark). For example, they could give the names "Green" and "Red" to colors based on their brightness/darkness, unlike other people. If a person not color blinded could "step into the mind" of a completely color blind person, he would presumably see nothing but different shades of grey. The preceding argument is very simplified, and does not demonstrate knowledge of what colorblindness actually is.


Moral luck

The problem of moral luck is that some people are born into, live within, and experience circumstances that seem to change their moral culpability when all other factors remain the same. For example, a poor person is born into a poor family, and has no other way to feed himself so he steals his food. Another person, born into a very wealthy family, does very little but has ample food and does not need to steal to get it. Should the poor person be more morally blameworthy than the rich person? After all, it is not his fault that he was born into such circumstances, but a matter of "luck". The fundamental question is how our moral responsibility is changed by factors over which we have no control.

Problem of evil

The problem of evil has been a major topic in religious or theological philosophy since ethical and religious systems first developed. The question, in contemporary Western philosophy, has been considerably refined. There are two principal questions relating to this problem: 1) Is the concept of evil logically consistent with a benevolent, omnipotent creator? That is to say, is it logically consistent that evil and God may simultaneously exist? 2) If the existence of God and evil are indeed consistent, does the existence of evil nonetheless prove the absence of God?

Philosophers who disavow the concept of a benevolent, omnipotent God (because they argue the concept itself is logically inconsistent or meaningless) do not consider the problem of evil to be a problem at all, much less an unsolved one.

Philosophy of language

Moore's disbelief

Although this problem has not received much attention, it intrigued Ludwig Wittgenstein when G.E. Moore presented it to the Moral Science Club at CambridgeFact|date=July 2008. The statement "Albany is the capital of New York, but I don't believe it" is false. However, there is nothing in the structure of the statement that renders it false. Merely that the speaker cannot simultaneously assert that Albany is the capital of New York and his disbelief in that statement. By stating that it is true, the speaker is implicitly stating that he believes the statement is true. This is the entry point for investigating non-logical criteria for the truthhood of logically constructed statements.

Problem of induction

Intuitively, it seems to be the case that we know certain things with absolute, complete, utter, unshakable certainty. For example, if you travel to the Arctic and touch an iceberg, you know that it would feel cold. These things that we know from experience are known through induction. The problem of induction states that we cannot know anything about the future and that we can never generalise from experience, at all, no matter what it is or how simple, or what the event, if it is based on knowledge gained through experience. There is nothing to lead us to logically conclude that the future will resemble the past.

Philosophy of mathematics

Mathematical objects

What are numbers, sets, groups, points, etc.? Are they real objects or are they simply relationships that necessarily exist in all structures? Although many disparate views exist regarding what a mathematical object is, the discussion may be roughly partitioned into two opposing schools of thought: neo-platonism, which asserts that mathematical objects are real, and formalism, which asserts that mathematical objects are merely formal constructions. This dispute may be better understood when considering specific examples, such as the aforementioned "continuum hypothesis". The continuum hypothesis has been proven independent of the ZF axioms of set theory, so according to that system, the proposition can neither be proven true nor false. A formalist would therefore say that the continuum hypothesis is neither true nor false, unless you further refine the context of the question. A platonist, however, would assert that there either does or does not exist a transfinite set with a cardinality less than the continuum but greater than countable infinity. So, regardless of whether it has been proven unprovable, the platonist would argue that an answer nonetheless does exist.


orites paradox

Otherwise known as the "heap paradox", the question regards how one defines a "thing." Is a bale of hay still a bale of hay if you remove one straw? If so, is it still a bale of hay if you remove another straw? If you continue this way, you will eventually deplete the entire bale of hay, and the question is: at what point is it no longer a bale of hay? While this may initially seem like a superficial problem, it penetrates to fundamental issues regarding how we define objects.


A counterfactual is a statement of the form, "If Edison had not invented the light bulb, then someone else would have invented it anyway." People use counterfactuals every day, however its analysis is not so clear. Edison, after all, did invent the light bulb. So how can the statement be true, if it is impossible to examine its correspondence to reality? Similar statements have the form, "If you don't eat your meat, then you don't get any pudding." This is another clear if-then statement, which is not verifiable (assuming the addressee did eat his/her meat). Two proposed analyses have resulted from this question. First, some philosophers assert that background information is assumed when stating and interpreting counterfactual conditionals. In the case of the Edison statement, certain trends in the history of technology, the utility of artificial light, and the discovery of electricity may all provide evidence for a logically sound argument. However, other philosophers assert that a modal "possible world" theory offers a more accurate description of counterfactual conditionals. According to this analysis, in the Edison example one would consider the closest possible world to the real world in which Edison did not create the light bulb. When a counterfactual is used as an argument to justify a wrongful act, it is known as the 'dirty hands argument.' For example, "if I didn't sell him drugs then someone else would have, and those drugs might have been cut or more harmful."

Material implication

People have a pretty clear idea what if-then means. However, in formal logic, if-then is defined by material implication, which is not consistent with the common understanding of conditionals. In formal logic, the statement "If today is saturday, then 1+1=2" is true. However, '1+1=2' is true regardless of the content of the antecedent in the conditional. The statement as a whole must be true, because the one way conditional only refers to a particular case, it says nothing of the truth value of the antecedent. Formal logic has shown itself extremely useful in formalizing argumentation, philosophical reasoning, and mathematics. However, the discrepancy between material implication and the general conception of conditionals is a topic of intense investigation. There are basically two clearly opposed viewpoints on this issue: those that think the problem is an inadequacy in formal logic, and those that think the problem lies in the vaguary of ordinary language. A third opinion, championed by H.P. Grice, asserts that no discrepancy exists at all.

Philosophy of mind

Mind-body problem

The mind-body problem is the problem of determining the relationship between the human body and the human mind. Philosophical positions on this question are generally predicated on either a reduction of one to the other, or a belief in the discrete coexistence of both. This problem is usually exemplified by Descartes, who championed a dualistic picture wherein the conceivability of one's self at one's own funeral seems to imply that the self and the body are separate and distinct. The problem therein is to establish how the mind and body communicate in a dualistic framework, or to disregard dualism in favour of monism, or materialism, which would solve the problem, as it states that the human mind is purely physical. Neurobiology and emergence have further complicated the problem by allowing the material functions of the mind to be a representation of some further aspect emerging from the mechanistic properties of the brain. The brain essentially shuts down the portion which generates conscious thought during a deep sleep, and reactivates on dreaming or waking; the ability to restore this pattern is still a mystery to science and is a subject of current research.
Neurophilosophy takes this view which is not universal among neurobiologists.

Cognition and AI

This problem actually defines a field, however its pursuits are specific and easily stated. Firstly, what are the criteria for intelligence? What are the necessary components for defining consciousness? Secondly, how can an outside observer test for these criteria? The "Turing Test" is often cited as a prototypical test of consciousness, although it is almost universally regarded as insufficient. It involves a series of questions, by which a sentient entity can theoretically provide answers where a machine could not. A well trained machine, however, could "parrot" its way through the test, and such devices have proven hard to tell from a real personFact|date=May 2008. This raises the corollary question of whether it is possible to artificially create consciousness (usually in the context computers or machines), and of how to tell a well trained mimic from a sentient entity.

Another question in this heading is an ethical one: "If a possibly (but unconfirmed to be) sentient computer begs you not to turn it off, should you listen?" This question is a convoluted one, as it delves into whether an artificial entity could have what has traditionally been called a soul: something that cannot be recovered when an entity "is shut off", or dies. Can an artificial entity die, or will its next reboot generate an identical entity?

Important thought in this area includes most notably: John Searle's Chinese Room, as well as Hilary Putnam's work on Functionalism. See also Unsolved problems in cognitive science

Philosophy of science

Demarcation problem

‘The problem of demarcation’ is an expression introduced by Karl Popper to refer to ‘the problem of finding a criterion which would enable us to distinguish between the empirical sciences on the one hand, and mathematics and logic as well as "metaphysical" systems on the other’ ( [1934] 1959: 34). Although Popper mentions mathematics and logic, other writers focus on distinguishing science from metaphysics and pseudoscience.

Some, including Popper, raise the problem because of an intellectual desire to clarify this distinction. Logical positivists had in addition the aim of overthrowing non-scientific disciplines such as metaphysics and theology that purport to describe the physical world but, being unverifiable, are (they claimed) lacking in meaning. Others have more practical aims. In a country such as the USA, which officially attempts to separate church and state, religion is not to be taught in the public schools, but science is. So the practical question becomes what to count as science (for example, is ‘creation science’ appropriately named?).


See also

* List of unsolved problems
* Paradox

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