Skip to content The Open University

What is Philosophy?

Some Philosophical Problems

It is notoriously difficult to give a good general definition of philosophy. But here are a few examples of problems you might find philosophers discussing. If you find any of the following questions interesting or thought provoking, the chances are you will get a lot out of the subject.

1. The Problem of Evil

Christians believe that God is all powerful and all loving. But these attributes are difficult to reconcile with the existence of evil in the world, as Epicurus, an ancient Greek philosopher pointed out:

Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is impotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Whence then is evil?

How serious a threat is this line of thought to traditional Christian belief?

2. The Chinese Encyclopaedia

A story by the great South American writer Borges features a certain Chinese Encyclopaedia. According to this volume, animals can be classified into the following groups:

(a) belonging to the emperor, (b) embalmed, (c) tame, (d) sucking pigs, (e) sirens, (f) fabulous, (g) stray dogs, (h) included in the present classification, (i) frenzied, (j) innumerable, (k) drawn with a very fine camelhair brush, (l) et cetera, (m) having just broken the water pitcher, (n) that from a long way off look like flies.

Why does the above way of classifying animals seem so bizarre to us? Is there any reason for supposing that the classifications we use are better, or more rational?

3. A Bald Man Looks in the Mirror

Barry simply cannot accept the fact that he is bald - not a single hair to his name. Every morning he looks in the mirror and repeats to himself the following argument:

A man with a million hairs on his head can hardly be called bald. If so, then neither can a man with 999,999 hairs on his head, for surely a single hair cannot make the difference between being hirsute and being bald. If so, then neither can a man with 999,998 hairs on his head (for the same reason). If so, then neither can a man with 999,997 hairs on his head... ...If so, then neither can a man with one hair on his head. And if a man with a single hair on his head is not bald, then neither is a man with no hair! Therefore I am not bald!

Clearly Barry is deluding himself. But what, if anything is wrong with the above argument? Can you think of any similar “slippery slope” type arguments? How should we respond to them?

4. The Tragedy of Tiny the Turkey

One day is very much like another for Tiny the Turkey. Some of the time he sleeps. Some of the time he roams around the farmyard. But most of the time he just eats. There always seems to be plenty of food around - and consequently, “Tiny” is rapidly becoming something of a misnomer. This has gone on for as long as Tiny can remember; so, when he goes to sleep on Christmas Eve, he expects to spend the next day in the blissful fashion to which he is accustomed...

We also expect past experience to be a reliable indicator of the course of events in the future. Does the sad case of Tiny the Turkey show that we are irrational or unreasonable to do so?

5. Achilles and the Tortoise

Today, Tron the tortoise must run a 100m race against Achilles, the swiftest runner in Greece. The loser must buy the winner lunch. Luckily, Tron has persuaded Achilles to give him a head start of 10m. He is now convinced that he cannot lose, reasoning as follows:

Before Achilles can overtake me, he must first reach the spot from which I started, a little way ahead of him. During the period of time it takes him to do this, I will have moved on by, say, 1m. In order to overtake me, Achilles must now cover the distance between my original starting position and my new location. In the time it takes him to do this I will have moved on by, say, 0.1m. Clearly, this line of thought can be extended indefinitely. So, having given me a head start, Achilles can never overtake me. Therefore I will win the race!

Later in the day, as might have been predicted, Achilles wins the race convincingly. As Tron pays the bill in a very expensive restaurant, he wonders, ruefully, where he went wrong.

Can you help him? What, if anything, is wrong with Tron’s argument?

6. The Runaway Train Came Down the Hill (etc.)

(I) You are standing on a railway bridge. In the distance you hear cries of terror. Looking down the line, you see that five people have been tied to the track by a deranged criminal mastermind. Within minutes, these unfortunates will be crushed under the wheels of the out of control locomotive which, you now notice, is making its way along the line. Nearby is a lever which you know you can use to divert the train. Unfortunately, the deranged criminal mastermind has taken this possibility into account by tying another person to that line. You can save five people only by condemning one person to certain death. What do you do?

(II) You are working in a hospital which has been cut off from the rest of the world by civil war. Casualties pour into your ward every day, most of whom you can do little to help. Presently, you have five patients, each in need of a different vital organ if they are to survive. Enter a reporter - from The Sun, say. In your desperate frame of mind you reason that by killing the unsuspecting journalist and extracting his vital organs you will be able to save your five patients. Surely, you think, it is justifiable to take one life, if doing so allows you to save five. Or is it?

Did you give different answers to (I) and (II) above? If so, can you think of a reason for treating the two cases differently? If you can’t, are you prepared to answer (I) and (II) in the same way after all?

7. Fear of Flying

In Captain W.E.Johns' wartime adventure story Spitfire Parade, the fearless aviator Biggles explains his attitude to the risks of flying:

"When you are flying, everything is all right or it is not all right. If it is all right there is no need to worry. If it is not all right one of two things will happen. Either you will crash or you will not crash. If you do not crash there is no need to worry. If you do crash one of two things is certain. Either you will be injured or you will not be injured. If you are not injured there is no need to worry. If you are injured one of two things is certain. Either you will recover or you will not recover. If you recover there is no need to worry. If you don't recover you can't worry."
From W.E.Johns, Spitfire Parade (1941)

Is this a good argument for not worrying about flying?

Thanks to Dr Nigel Gibbions for providing some of these examples.