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Feeling Philosophical? • High Class Underworld • Defending Derrida • More Arguments About God • Impinging on Realities • Philosophical Speculations
Dear Editor: Mikhail Epstein’s article ‘Philosophical Feelings’ in Issue 101 touches a central concern of mine, namely how we can defend philosophy from a complete takeover by the analytic factions who, out of a self-conscious guilt and inferiority complex in the face of science, would prefer to reduce it to little more than lip service to science. How can we defend its more poetic aspects, which define and distinguish it as a discipline and, in my opinion, provide its reason to be? Epstein’s article typifies Philosophy Now’s project and it’s openness to more continental approaches.
Bertrand Russell rightly recognized that philosophy lies in that no-man’s land between science and theology. But we live in a different situation and time than Russell did. Therefore, I would revise his statement to, “Philosophy lies in that no-man’s land between science and literature.” Some may shrink at the thought of philosophy being a form of literature, but I take it as a point of pride. Take, for instance, Baudrillard. Most of those who are open to him accept the description of him as a sci fi writer who happens to be writing philosophy. We all know that there is no empirically describable entity we can point to as the constructed reality he called the ‘Simulacrum’. Still, if we open ourselves to the suspension of disbelief and apply his perspective, we get a lot of interesting understandings of how our world may well be working: the way that media buries us in a frenzy of appearances and thereby leaves us powerless against the status quo that owns the media – a kind modern day ‘Land of the Lotus Eaters’, as Tennyson described it. We can say as much for Sartre’s being-for-itself and being-in-itself, Deleuze’s difference and repetition, and any number of concepts produced by continental approaches. And if there is a flaw in the continental approach, it comes more from its analytic detractors than its practitioners in that the detractors base their argument against it on taking it too literally, on the questionable assumption that philosophy should only be seeking The Truth rather than truths or understanding.
The thing to consider here is the role that what Epstein calls ‘lyrical philosophy’ plays in all this, whether we want it to or not. We build our arguments on facts, data, beliefs, and shared assumptions in the hope that it will win the other over: in other words, ‘resonate and seduce’. And we build our process on what resonates with and seduces us. We start with certain sensibilities and build from there.
Of course, those who lean towards the more scientific side of the spectrum of science and literature will scoff at this. They believe that they have found a path that bypasses resonance and seduction – hence the smug dismissal of continental approaches. But isn’t it possible that resonance and seduction had everything to do with their own choice? Isn’t it possible that their choice to defer to the rigor of science, logic, or mathematics was more about a dispositional aversion to chaos than a rational decision to choose reason over feeling?
D. Tarkington, Bellevue, Nebraska
Dear Editor: I enjoyed Mikhail Epstein’s article ‘Philosophical Feelings’ in Issue 101. It spoke to me in a lyrically philosophical way. That is, it hit me right in the gut. Actually, just a little bit higher and to the left – since in my individual pursuit of happiness, I have discerned that there are two fundamental types of happiness; Head Happiness and Heart Happiness. Head Happiness is transitory and filled with Doubts. Heart Happiness, on the other hand, is an enduring happiness that pervades your entire being, from head to toe. I think that when boiled down to its essence, in decision-making, the decision hinges on whether it will produce Head Happiness or Heart Happiness. Becoming adept at discerning which decisions produce Heart Happiness as opposed to Head Happiness is guaranteed to produce more personal contentment and heartfelt happiness, for those individuals who want to give it a go.
Stephen Kirby, Syncretist
Dear Editor: Siobhan Lyon’s article ‘On Happiness’ in Issue 100, discusses our obsession with happiness, articulating my own thoughts on the subject very well. We are, indeed, in a ‘happiness trap’. Lyon cites the thoughts and words of authors and philosophers on the many ways we delude ourselves. Self-help books may in a few instances give us a few tools to find happiness, but they are only tools. The solution to finding everlasting happiness is unlikely to be in just one book; neither is participating in a group that claims to have the means to making you happy now and forever. Make no mistake, there is a ‘happiness industry’. When I think of the word ‘industry’, I think money, and there is a lot of money involved with the ‘self-esteem juggernaut’ – the term proposed by Jill Stark.
However, kids don’t benefit by always winning or getting trophies. Given a chance, they will figure out that they will live through a loss. And it won’t kill them to be a little bored once in awhile; they’ll find something to do, even though it may take many trials, but in the process they’ll find a way of not falling victim to the obsession with simply seeking momentary happiness. To paraphrase Bouchard, crashing into reality, for any of us, is not such a bad thing.
How can one not experience or simply ignore fear, sadness, loneliness and boredom? Except through psychological conditions that bar such feelings, these life experiences call for examination as they happen. Discontent should make you think harder; figure out how to get out of the suffering: “It is grief that develops the powers of the mind” said Marcel Proust – not falling victim to the ads and self-help literature. The “genuine interrogation of thought in everyday life” may turn out to more helpful. Of course severe sadness as in the loss of a loved one, illness, or if your possessions are lost in a fire or flood, takes a great deal of time to adjust to; but boredom can be solved by reading a book or creating something. Sublime happiness can come our way, if one is lucky, but often momentarily. The feelings material things bring won’t last forever, nor will moving away have permanent benefits, because your mind goes with you and often the same inability to cope follows.
Cheryl Anderson, Kenilworth, Illinois
High Class Underworld
Dear Editor: Loads of thought-provoking stuff in Issue 102, as ever. Certainly got my little grey cells going! In Arnold Zuboff’s defence of inductive reasoning, I couldn’t help but think he begged the very question at issue when he began to talk about forming hypotheses based on what was deemed to be probable or improbable: for on what grounds are such probabilities ascertained if not by inductive reasoning? In a Humean nightmare world in which induction is inverted, the discovery of 100 blue humebirds would only increase the probability that the next one will be green, red… anything but blue. We can’t counter this possibility by relying on our (inductively-derived) reasoning about probabilities.
In the same issue Stuart Greenstreet’s piece on crime and punishment might possibly have confused or at least elided ‘causation’ and ‘correlation’. He argues that “just as typhoid is the price of foul drinking water” so “crime is largely the penalty of poverty and ignorance.” Surely no one doubts the strong correlation between crime and poverty; but Greenstreet seems to be saying there is in fact a strong causal link analogous to the transmission of a disease such as typhoid. And therefore there is an equally straightforward cure (ie, eradicate poverty and so eradicate crime).
Granted that everyone who drinks typhoid-infected water is going to contract typhoid, is it really the case that everyone born into poverty becomes a criminal? If poverty caused criminality, then the poor are doomed as surely as those who drink infected water. Yet many (if not indeed the majority) of people from deprived backgrounds go on to become honest, hard-working citizens – one thinks of Oprah Winfrey and innumerable other celebrity success stories whose biographies feature the cliché of battling against deprivation on their way to the top. Don’t such examples disprove a supposed causal link? And to take another angle on criminal behaviour: what can be said about the siblings of notorious serial killers? Ted Bundy’s siblings, for example, were doubtless just as poor, ignorant and abused as he was, so why weren’t they also mass murderers? Criminality can’t be reduced to one simple cause, it seems; and therefore does not admit of one neat solution either. For what, after all, are we to say about the worst criminals of the twenty-first century so far: the corrupt, greedy, recklessly negligent financiers of Wall Street and the City of London who brought the economies of the Western world to the brink of destruction and caused untold misery and hardship in the process? Affluent, white-collar, well-educated to a man.
Mark Walker, Buckinghamshire
Dear Editor: In the letters pages of the last two issues, Raymond Tallis and Roger Caldwell have both disputed the account I gave of Derrida’s ideas in PN 100. They both quote the same sentence from Derrida, which can be roughly rendered into English as “There is nothing outside the text”, and which Caldwell calls “his most notorious pronouncement.” How it acquired this notoriety, I have no idea, so I would just like to place this notorious sentence back into its context – p.158 of Derrida’s Of Grammatology, within a section where he is outlining the methodology he will adopt in discussing the writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the subject of the book’s second half. Rousseau’s Confessions concerns real people and actual events; but the people are long dead, and we know of the events solely through his book. Hence Derrida writes (of Rousseau’s lover): “The Thérèse of whom we can speak [is] the Thérèse in the text, whose name and ‘life’ belong to the writing we read” (p.155). This, however, he regards as only one example of a more general characteristic of writing: that it can persist beyond the death of its author, and in “the absence of its referent” (p.158. Note that he does not write “the non-existence of the referent”). Derrida claims ‘There is nothing outside the text’ to be “the axial proposition of this essay” (p.163) – i.e., the essay on Rousseau.
Caldwell believes that discussions of language ought to start with “the everyday language of cats sitting on mats, tax returns, and most of science.” But the language of tax returns is barely comprehensible; science is rarely discussed in everyday life; and no one ever says “the cat sat on the mat” unless they are making some point about language. In his article ‘Signature, Event, Context’, Derrida argues the impossibility of separating ‘ordinary’ from ‘non-ordinary’ language.
The capacity of language to refer to itself is one of its defining features. To this, Derrida devotes his patient attention.
Peter Benson, London
More Arguments About God
Dear Editor: I am a novice amateur philosopher, so I write this with trepidation, but I felt compelled to put counterarguments to some assumptions made in Barbara Smoker’s article ‘Existence’ (Issue 102). I would contend that not all theists are “disbelievers in every religion other than their own.” Indeed, Unitarian Universalists hold a completely contrary stance, basing their approach to life on an eclectic mix of the literature of many faiths. This may be criticised as ‘cherry picking’, but valid moral messages and practices have emerged from various world religions.
I would also disagree that the concept of ‘God’ is viewed by all non-atheists as benign and personal. Such a view again depends on a narrow assessment of religion and does not take into account ideologies such as Pantheism. It is not unreasonable that the universe and everything in it is ‘God’. This vision of deity is not in direct conflict with the discovery of simultaneous universes, nor with life in other galaxies. To be fair it does not answer the fundamental question posed, as to why there is something rather than nothing, but even Barbara Smoker concedes that this is ‘unanswerable’. I prefer to keep an open mind and do not think that “sitting on the fence” is that uncomfortable!
Sybil Sharpe, Peel, Isle of Man
Dear Editor: In Issue 102, atheist Barbara Smoker bravely tackled the question of why there is something rather than nothing. She acknowledged that both atheists and theists can agree on the logical starting point that the only universe we can know of ultimately originates from an ‘uncaused first cause’; but she parts company with theists in their next step, which is to argue that the uncaused first cause is an entity with a mind (God). Barbara goes on to say “A simpler supposition, and far more credible, is that [the first cause] was some kind of energy/matter with evolutionary potential…”
To my mind we have a difficult choice here, because it’s not easy for finite beings to conceive of any ‘uncaused first cause’ bringing into existence a cause-and-effect universe. Both Barbara as an atheist and myself as a theist agree that from an uncaused cause sprung the emergence of the space-time universe of energy and matter, yet for Barbara it is easier to conceive that the nature or essence of this uncaused first cause is more akin to unthinking energy, whereas for myself it is easier to conceive that the nature of this uncaused first is more akin to mind. I suggest that it is as difficult to conceive the notion of an uncaused eternal energy-essence giving rise to the cause and effect temporal evolving energy/matter we know of, as it is to conceive the notion of an uncaused eternal mind giving rise to this temporal energy/matter. However, the notion of an eternal mind fits more comfortably with me because I experience a mind in my material body, but my mind can’t get around to understanding how an unthinking eternal energy essence could evolve into temporal mind!
Sensible arguments from one or other of these two opposing propositions can be made to underpin either theistic or atheistic beliefs. What we should all agree on is the moral imperative for people to live inclusively with each other and with the amazing world we are privileged to enjoy. Barbara goes on to lampoon the concept that an uncaused first cause could be morally good as opposed to morally neutral. I guess this is because as human beings we tend to equate good with our benefit, or a similar benefit for all other sentient beings. But from an eternal perspective, this would not necessarily be true.
Mike Weekes, Reigate
Dear Editor: I would not normally reply to a letter, but a factual error needs correcting. So I have four brief comments to make with respect to Les Reid’s letter in Philosophy Now 102, which responded to my article in Issue 101. First, I am not and never have been a ‘professional theologian’, as Reid claims. My undergraduate degree (as a pupil of Isaiah Berlin) and doctorate are both in philosophy, and my full-time teaching post (for 29 years) was in a secular department of Philosophy, where I specialized in jurisprudence and political philosophy. Second, professional theologians will be astonished at the suggestion that their opinions are influenced by the source of their salaries. In modern departments of religious studies, faculty members can be, and often are, of many faiths or none. Hence factual error is compounded by an argument ad hominem. (If a philosopher I disagreed with were to be paid by a humanist organization, I would never suggest that this lessened my respect for the arguments put forward.) Third, regarding what is historical in the Bible, the implications of my article are clear: this is a matter for professional historians to ponder, using the same kind of criteria used in other ancient sources, such as Thucydides and Tacitus. (For example, the shipwreck account in Acts 27 would probably be reckoned an eyewitness account – which does not imply that it is accurate in every detail.) Finally, re Reid saying that speculation has no weight, my physicist friends would be startled to hear Reid’s low opinion of this, even though it is true that in the long term, speculations need to be judged – in science by seeking empirical tests and in the humanities by factors such as coherence and fruitfulness.
Dr Michael Langford, Cambridge
Impinging on Realities
Dear Editor: In ‘Mathematics & Reality’ Professor Tallis succeeds, in a way, to naturalise the effectiveness of mathematics and its descriptive and predictive powers. Yet to me this leaves open a more fundamental issue. For one thing, mathematics may in certain circumstances fit physical reality, or, through statistical techniques, help to explain social and other realities (Tallis discusses how these kinds of truth relate). For another, mathematics contains many relational statements that follow from its use of terms, such as the Euler equation. I wonder if Tallis’s raising of the first issue does not hide the second mystifying issue? In light of the first issue, these internal mathematical relations appear metaphysically puzzling, and hard to talk about in naturalistic, scientific terms.
Lucien R. Karhausen, Paris
Dear Editor: Raymond Tallis poses a profound question in ‘Mathematics & Reality’, Issue 102: Can mathematics explain human experience? In particular, does it explain what he calls ‘secondary qualities’ eg, colours, sounds, tastes? To try to answer this question, let’s try a thought experiment. A man wakes up and sees his wife leaning over him; he reaches out to touch her, and discovers that a very accurate TV screen has fooled him. If we analyse the physics of what has happened, the screen has generated photons of various colours (frequencies) and brightness (intensity), which arrive at the man’s eyes and then stimulate the stored memory of his wife in his brain. The experiential meaning of the photons is encoded in their quantity, frequency, direction, etc. This meaning can only be decoded by a complex machine, the man’s brain, running a complex program, his memory. So a set of simple entities obeying mathematical laws can be organised into a complex structure that encodes ‘meaning’ for another complex structure.
My second example is a computer game, the program for which runs on a complex set of binary switches. Although I don’t claim that we currently could encode a universe, this shows that intelligence can interpret code as equivalent to reality without a reality existing.
My hypothesis is that the world can be mathematics if we accept that complexity allows secondary qualities to emerge as the result of complex coding.
Dr Harry Fuchs, Warwickshire
Dear Editor: It is always fascinating to read the work of a philosopher who is not afraid to strike at the heart of the nature of reality. In Issue 100, Professor Tallis does not disappoint. His suggestion that “we need to consider the view that links causation with the irruption of consciousness into the universe, giving birth to localities and separation” is well taken. I hope this does not refer to the entrance of consciousness into a preexisting phenomenal world, but rather, to the irruption into the noumenon – reality independent of perception.
If Kant is right, our limited, bit by bit awareness, and its necessary conditions of change and separation, say more about how we gauge reality than about reality as it is independent of us. With this in mind, it seems reasonable that, as with causation, our experience of the passage of time can be taken to be determined by, and indicative of, the nature of our consciousness. During his many expeditions out of sight of empirical confirmation, Albert Einstein was able to navigate by one particularly prized criterion of truth, namely beauty; more specifically, balance, or symmetry. The application of this criterion to our understanding of time demands that we reject the commonsense but ill-balanced conception of a phenomenal world constituted by three dimensions of space but only one of time, in favour of a more symmetrical arrangement provided by three dimensions of each. On this view, we are as tiny drops plummeting headlong through an ocean of time, the apparent motion of time and our limited, separate, piecemeal awareness a consequence of this. We fall through time together, and so share a phenomenal world. Although we mistakenly take what we share to be objective reality, it is better described as the ‘collective subjective’ arising from our common predicament. Objective reality or noumena is beyond, and broader than our spatial-temporal conception. However, acceptance of the formative role of our consciousness for phenomena allows us to infer more about the phenomenal world than the naïve view that reality is just as it is given to the senses.
Andrew Hutton, Bucks
Dear Editor: It is appropriate that Issue 100 began with a provocative article by Anthony Tomlinson, ‘Do Languages Exist?’, since philosophy has been a long attempt to create a model of the world using only words. It is vital that we understand the nature of the toolset we’re using.
There are three intertwined issues here: existence, knowledge, and language. The first two – namely, ontology and epistemology – have been at the heart of philosophy for a long time, and are the core of metaphysics. Recent attempts, such as Positivism, have tried to collapse these two into the same problem, claiming that only things that we know exist. This proposition had a strong appeal to science at the beginning of the last century. Apart from falling back into the arrogant error that we are at the heart of the Universe, this shortcut has failed to deliver any new insights in either physics or philosophy.
A useful way to clarify this question is to return to the commonsense views of Aristotle, who rejected the overly idealistic thrust of his teacher, Plato. Aristotle had a huge respect for what he saw around himself. He never doubted that most of what he observed existed. He recognized that there appeared to be a lot of distinct things around him, classifying these objects into living things (‘animate’) and non-living things (‘inanimate’). Ignoring occurrences of either type was not a useful way to stay alive – errors of this type resulted in the mistaken animate quickly joining the inanimate. This strongly suggests that being aware of objects is a good idea. Logically, objects must exist before they may interact with each other. It is more than reasonable to assume that we each exist; we don’t have to think for us to come to this conclusion – any other alternative is conceited or suicidal. It is useful to define any object that exists as real, with the totality of such objects as defining reality.
We notice that most objects can be divided into parts, but this division is very delicate when it comes to any animate object. We have come to recognize that parts must interact for a single object to remain. Thus, we can define animate objects as contingently persistent sets of vital interactions.
We can also confirm that on Earth only humans have developed sophisticated representations of reality. The commonest forms of these representations are languages. Animate objects must interact with other parts of reality if their existence is to continue. Activities, as relationships, are transient, and require the existence of participating entities to occur. When humans observe phenomena and entities they may create mental impressions that eventually may be given labels by a language group; such sources may then be known directly through their senses or their labels, forming knowledge: a process whose study is referred to as epistemology. Collections of entities or activities may be grouped together when they possess similar properties and assigned class labels (‘concepts’) by language users. An example can be confirmed as a member of one or more classes by confirmation of their properties. Certain examples may be viewed as standard examples (or prototypes), and since some properties are not always considered necessary, closeness to a prototype is a better test for class membership than an analytic definition that is usually too sharp for many real examples. Since we must learn and share a language, it must be a social construct. Thus, concepts and rules are a necessary part of any human language. So, to return to the primary question, we can say that languages occur but they do not exist.
Dr Herb Spencer, Surrey, British Columbia
Dear Editor: The review by Michael Brady of John Dewey’s long-lost book in PN 102 is extraordinarily interesting. In it Dewey argues that philosophers should wholeheartedly adopt the scientific method. Such an approach was enthusiastically adopted several decades later by W.V.O. Quine (see my Brief Lives, PN 95). Quine made no reference to Dewey, no doubt unaware of the lost manuscript.
Dewey’s later outlook deepened and broadened away from such a narrowly science-based point of view. His mature philosophical outlook is summarised in ‘Experience, Knowledge and Value’, contained in Volume 1 of The Library of Living Philosophers (1939). Here Dewey argues for a much broader, humanistic basis for philosophy. It is fascinating to speculate what Dewey would have made of Quine’s adoption of the approach advocated in his unpublished work.
Conversely, Richard Rorty (Brief Lives, PN 100) who considered Dewey a philosophical hero, would have been aghast to hear of Dewey’s advocacy of the scientific method, which Rorty built his reputation on attacking.
Dewey declined the opportunity to write his philosophical autobiography for The Library of Living Philosophers volume dedicated to his work, delegating this task to his daughters. Thus we will never know what he made of his devastating manuscript loss, and whether this was related to his later change of philosophical direction. Sometimes the lives of philosophers are as interesting as their subject.
Alistair MacFarlane, Scotland