Friday, September 17, 2010

A List of Unsolved Philosophy Problems

Spotted at

     "This is a list of some of the major unsolved problems in philosophy. 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 fields (e.g. bioethics, feminist ethics) which pose philosophical problems without being philosophical problems themselves."
The Philosophy Problems here after the jump



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 maygirls 20vs 20boys small1 300x260 List of unsolved problems in philosophy | Get Blazed Before Reading 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 Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, and further explored in his playfully titled book The Medium is the Massage. McLuhan’s thesis, that electric-gestalt List of unsolved problems in philosophy | Get Blazed Before Reading
technology modularizes our minds, whereas the river-of-story-we-evolved-in formed our minds differently, has so often been 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 electric rack face painting 4 blood money wallpaper 300x199 List of unsolved problems in philosophy | Get Blazed Before Readingnote, 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.


Epistemological problems are concerned with the nature, scope and limitations of knowledge. Epistemology may also be described as the study of knowledge.

Gettier problem

Main article: Gettier problem
Plato suggests in his Theaetetus, 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 that do not conform to the generally understood meaning of “knowledge.” Gettier’s examples hinged on instances of epistemic luck: cases where a person appears to have sound evidence for a proposition, and that proposition is in fact true, but the apparent evidence is not causally related to the proposition’s truth.
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

Main article: Molyneux’s 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.
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.

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, since the line between a reasonably exhaustive investigation and superfluous investigation is usually clear, while others argue for coherentist systems and others still view an infinite regress as unproblematic due to recent work by Peter Klein. Nevertheless, the question remains theoretically interesting.

Münchhausen Trilemma

The Münchhausen Trilemma, also called Agrippa’s Trilemma, purports that it is impossible to prove any certain truth even in fields such as logic and mathematics. According to this argument, the proof of any theory rests either on circular reasoning, infinite regress, or unproven axioms.


See also: Distinguishing blue from green in language
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.


Moral luck

Main article: 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 instance, a case of circumstantial moral luck: 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”.
A related case is resultant moral luck. For instance, two persons behave in a morally culpable way, such as driving carelessly, but end up producing unequal amounts of harm: one strikes a pedestrian and kills him, while the other does not. That one driver caused a death and the other did not is no part of the drivers’ intentional actions; yet most observers would likely ascribe greater blame to the driver who killed. (Compare consequentialism.)
The fundamental question of moral luck is how our moral responsibility is changed by factors over which we have no control.

Philosophy of language

Moore’s disbelief

Main article: Moore’s paradox
Although this problem has not received much attention, it intrigued Ludwig Wittgenstein when G.E. Moore presented it to the Moral Science Club at Cambridge[citation needed]. The statement “Albany is the capital of New York, but I don’t believe it” is not necessarily false, but it seems to be unassertable. The speaker cannot simultaneously assert that Albany is the capital of New York and his disbelief in that statement. (Moore’s explanation of what appears to be a contradiction when we assert that a proposition is true but claim not to believe it draws a distinction between what is asserted and what is implied. To claim that the capital of New York is Albany makes an assertion which is either true or false. Someone making this assertion implies that they believe it. When they go on to assert ‘but I don’t believe it’, they contradict not the original assertion but the original implication. Moore realized, however, that it is the contradiction between the assertion and the implication that gives the expression the appearance of nonsense.)

Philosophy of mathematics

Mathematical objects

Main article: Mathematical structure
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: 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 “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 any countable set. So, regardless of whether it has been proven unprovable, the platonist would argue that an answer nonetheless does exist.


Sorites paradox

Main article: Paradox of the heap
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. This is similar to Theseus’ paradox.


Main article: Counterfactual conditional
A counterfactual is a statement that follows this form: “If Edison had not invented the modern incandescent 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 modern incandescent light bulb, so how can the statement be true, if it is impossible to examine its correspondence to reality? (See correspondence theory of truth.) 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 vegetables). 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 modern incandescent 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

Main article: Material conditional
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. The two opposed camps are basically these: those who think the problem is an inadequacy in formal logic, and those who think the problem lies in the ambiguity 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 person[citation needed]. 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.

Hard problem of consciousness

The hard problem of consciousness is the question of what is consciousness and why do we have consciousness as opposed to being philosophical zombies. The adjective “hard” is to contrast with the “easy” consciousness problem, which seeks to explain the mechanism of consciousness (“why” versus “how,” or final cause versus efficient cause).

Philosophy of science

Problem of induction

Main article: 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 in short; (1) any inductive statement (like the sun will rise tomorrow) can only be deductively shown if one assumes that nature is uniform. (2) the only way to show that nature is uniform is by using induction. Thus induction cannot be justified deductively.

Demarcation problem

Main article: 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’. Popper attributes this problem to Kant. Although Popper mentions mathematics and logic, other writers focus on distinguishing science from metaphysics and pseudo-science.
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, were thought to be 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?).
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  1. Wooow that's a lot to that I shall, when I'm less busy. Returning my support for a fellow blogger.

  2. it looks like you're headed in the right direction with this post...

  3. Got about half way through this, i'll have to come back later. But dare I say would Philosophy problem in fact be a philosophy problem if it was solvable?

    Extremely educational post. Loved what i did read though

  4. I'll need to do some research on this, I don't like taking Wikipedias word on things.

  5. Daily support, comrade *commie salute*

  6. cool!supportin bro :)

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  7. The answer to all of them is 42

  8. always interesting read mate. spp

  9. I wish I took more philosophy classes in college. Took an awesome course right before I graduated though. Cool/interesting shit.

  10. Showing the daily love!

    Check out both my blogs as well as Blong!

  11. Oh wow, these are very insightful!

    Spreading the love, bro!

  12. i wonder if plato debated his own ethics.

  13. Philosoraptor approves

  14. Great blog, man!

    Hope you`ll check out mine as well.

  15. You got a great blog! keep workin.

  16. Intelligent list, sorting through them with my friend at the moment.

  17. To punish them although not done but meant. Following!