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Some(non)thing To Say • Fooling Yourself Rationally • Better Consequences • Attack & Defence • Do Not Pass Go • Vegetable Matters • Thinking Mathematically • Scientific Separations • Marxist Critiques
Some(non)thing To Say
Dear Editor: Thank you for the excellent stuff on Wittgenstein in Issue 103. I would like to suggest that the question ‘Thing or non-thing?’ might help us to understand Wittgenstein. A non-thing is anything that vanishes when the human intellect is absent. Thus Michelangelo’s David is a non-thing, but the stone it consists of is a thing. It seems that what Wittgenstein was getting at is that when philosophy tries to pin down the eternal truth about a non-thing; morality, infinity, God, numbers, words and so on, it is doomed to failure; because non-things depend for their quasi-existence on the interpreting intellect.
A.C.B. Wilson, Bradford on Avon
Fooling Yourself Rationally
Dear Editor: In Dr Biegler’s fascinating article, ‘The Climate of Disbelief’ in PN 103, he asks why many people remain staunchly unconvinced about climate change in the face of so much evidence. I think that we do not so much disbelieve the evidence, which we do not know and would probably not understand if we did, as distrust the authority of those who are telling us that this is the evidence; and then we rationalise the distrust, as we will rationalise all forms of confirmation bias.
Let me give an example of how this works for me, on a much smaller issue. For years I have been reading and hearing that too much salt is bad for me. I put plenty of salt on my food; I find the food much less palatable without it. So the theory of confirmation bias would lead you to expect that when bombarded by anti-salt propaganda I would say, “I don’t believe it.” And you’d be right. I don’t believe it!
Now for the rationalisation. There has to be a rationalisation, because I can’t tell myself that I believe what I believe because of my confirmation bias. My reasoning is as follows. Take as an axiom that some small proportion of the population has a health condition that means they should cut down radically on their salt intake. The problem is, we don’t know who these people are until they need health care further down the road, so the appropriate advice cannot be targeted. “So” I imagine the health authorities thinking, “if we tell everyone to cut down on salt even though most people don’t need to, then if everyone does what we say, the people who need to do what we say will also do what we say!” The only downside is that our food won’t taste so nice, but what do the health authorities care about that?
I checked this idea out with a doctor, and he said it was pretty much right. So confirmation bias does not always lead to error. (Naturally, confirmation bias leads me to trust this doctor.) Therein lies another problem. Anyone whose distrust has been validated will be even more likely to be distrustful in future.
So confirmation bias, whatever its emotional foundation, will lead not only to disbelief but also to a rationalisation of that disbelief. Going back to global warming, my conclusion is that as well as appealing to the heart (as advocated by Dr Biegler), further work should be done in appealing to the head by establishing the credibility of the authorities who speak of evidence that will never be known or understood by the man in the street.
Dave Mangnall, Cheshire
Dear Editor: I would like to add an argument in support of Dr Crocker’s argument in Issue 103 concerning the impossibility of maximising good consequences. In a deterministic universe there can be no moral responsibility as we have no choice in our actions, so we can neither maximise nor minimise the consequences of our actions. However in a non-deterministic universe it is possible for us to have free will but we can never be certain of the consequences of our actions, because if we had certainty of a future path occurring, we would be back in a deterministic universe. Hence the compromise is to aim for the best consequences within the confines of our perceived information. For instance, the probability that a particular child will turn out like Hitler is very low, so within the confines of perceived probability a mother should feed and care for her child, as this is more likely to lead to better consequences than not doing so. Perhaps we could even simplify the objective to leaving the world a slightly better place than we find it, which means satisfying more needs than we create. If everyone took this approach the world would be a better place.
Russell Berg, Manchester
Attack & Defence
Dear Editor: I was amused when I read the observation in Barbara Smoker’s article in Issue 102 that the New Atheists are “often under vitriolic verbal attack for speaking out against religious superstition and practice” – and a bit surprised that an editor did not see the… irony? no, arrogance of the statement. ‘Superstition’ is not an objective term, it is a value judgement, albeit a mild one in comparison to the attacks on religion hurled by Dawkins and Hitchens etc. New Atheists, like people of all stripes, suffer from a malign ailment when it comes to observing people who are not like them: they engage in ad hominem attacks, gross generalizations, and unjustified dismissal, just because they firmly believe that their world view is right and those who do not subscribe to the same belief system are stupid.
And unfortunately, instead of deeply probing “why there is something rather than nothing” in her article, Smoker also spends an inordinate amount of space engaging in her own judgement of religious faith. Like it or not, Christianity is the foundation of Western civilization, and without it, we also would not have had the Enlightenment, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Sartre; for what would they have had to explore or argue about were it not for religious faith? And without religion, we would not have had Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr, Mother Teresa, nor the intellectual contributions of St Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Dietrich Bonhoeffer or C.S. Lewis.
By no means am I offended by Ms Smoker’s article. I simply want to point out the blindness in the idea that the New Atheists, when they call faith ‘superstition’ and worse, are somehow “speaking out” and not themselves “attacking.”
Steven Avalos, Los Angeles, CA
Do Not Pass Go
Dear Editor: In PN 102, Stuart Greenstreet asks “Is it right that [prisoners] should be held responsible for offences they would probably not have committed but for their bad luck of being born into the kind of circumstances that dispose men to crime?” He cites evidence that “two out of three offenders are reconvicted within two years” to argue that poverty and prison life produce criminals. Yet by his own admission, one in three offenders is not reconvicted. Not every individual born into poverty becomes a criminal. So poverty does not inevitably lead to crime. If it is possible to overcome one’s unfortunate circumstances, then criminals must bear some responsibility for their offences. While poverty may act as a contributing factor to crime, it does not completely absolve individuals of their poor choices and actions.
Greg Hickey, Chicago, IL
Dear Editor: Re: ‘Prison Doesn’t Work’, PN 102: Correlation does not prove causation. This reminds me of the statistical fallacy – there is more crime in New York than in any other city in the US; there are more churches in New York than any other city of the US; therefore the more churches there are the more crime is committed.
Let’s look at Mr Greenstreet’s arguments in more detail:
Premise 1: The majority of prisoners grew up in poverty.
Premise 2: You are not responsible for the circumstances in which you are raised.
Conclusion: You should not be jailed for committing a crime because you are not responsible for becoming a criminal.
Whilst the premises are true the argument is not valid. The only valid conclusion you might be able to draw from these premises are that you should not be imprisoned for being poor. It says nothing about committing crime.
Mr Greenstreet has also forgotten that the social experiment in the elimination of poverty that he advocates has already been conducted. A hundred years ago my grandmother and family lived in the London slums. After the war, bomb sites were cleared and all the slums knocked down to make way for new council flats with indoor toilets and running water. The National Health Service meant that there was free health care, and her children had free education. She thought she had died and gone to heaven. This was not an isolated case. Over a twenty year period every slum dwelling in London was knocked down, and all were rehoused. This happened not only in London but throughout Britain. To my knowledge this admirable achievement made no difference to the levels of crime.
As a thought experiment, imagine taking all new born children away from their parents and all outside influence and giving them all a comfortable, loving start in life. Imagine giving them each a pot of money when they venture out into the world at the end of the experiment. Some will smoke, drink, gamble, take drugs, watch TV all day, and generally be idle. Others will diligently work hard and invest their time and money. Still others will get rich by exploiting their peers. I would be very surprised if, within a generation, we were not right back where we started with crime levels.
Poverty does not cause crime: greed does. But a lot of rich criminals escape prison because they have clever lawyers and are more adept at hiding their crimes.
Prison may not be the perfect solution but it is the best we have.
Tina Seymour, Tunbridge Wells
Dear Editor: Stuart Greenstreet, Philosophy Now 102, offered a thoughtful article on the failure of prison systems to rehabilitate criminals, showing that convicted prisoners mostly have a disadvantaged or disorganised life that prison does nothing to help. This is a valid sociological view of the value of prison from the viewpoint of the prisoner; but as a philosophical piece, does it help us to understand how prisons have come to play such a significant part in justice systems almost globally?
If prison is not there for the benefit of the criminals, who does it benefit? It is here that the emphasis of Greenstreet’s argument is most interesting. When I was much younger, I came across the ‘four Rs’ of the justice system (I can’t remember where from): revenge, repression, rehabilitation and reparation. Looking at these four Rs, we can see that there are beneficiaries and losers for each of them. Revenge may satisfy a victim’s need, although it gives little help to the prisoner or value to society; yet it remains a powerful incentive in modern sentencing, as the recent prison sentences handed out in Britain to 80-year-old sex offenders show. Repression (the removal of freedom) has value for possible future victims, and therefore is useful to society; but it clearly does not help the criminal. On the other hand, rehabilitation is of advantage to the criminal and to future victims, when it works; but the cost-to-benefit ratio means that its usefulness to society may be marginal or negative in many cases. Finally, reparation has largely dropped out of Western justice (although weregild was not unusual in pre-Norman Britain, and some modern justice systems allow the victim a say in the punishment of the criminal); but its advantages for the victim (or the victim’s family) are obvious.
How we represent these four Rs in our justice system, and whose viewpoint we emphasise, is certainly a matter for philosophical debate. However, Greenstreet’s bald statement that “prison doesn’t work” does not invite us to have that debate.
Martin Edwardes, London
Dear Editor: In Issue 102, Richard Corry presents ‘A Dilemma of Consumer Responsibility’ considering the parallel arguments concerning individual responsibility for eating meat and buying child pornography, based on supporting the market for them. I was vegetarian for fifteen years on moral grounds, and it was only when I came to the conclusion that my non-meat-eating would not save animals that I began eating meat again. This was not because other people would continue to eat meat; I saw this as no different from justifications for being a lackey for a despicable regime: sure, someone might take your place, but evil only survives when good people do nothing. We all make some difference and should stand for what we believe in. Instead what convinced me was the realisation that if all humans became vegetarian, then unless we kept the livestock as pets other animals would take the place of humans as predator. So, eating meat suddenly seemed like part of a natural cycle. But it was not taste that drove me to question my moral stance: I would have stayed veg anyway except that I felt unhealthy. It was difficult to reintroduce meat into my diet, and I only did so because my energy level was very low and I was very unhealthy, despite eating a wide range of ‘healthy’ foods, including many soy products and vitamin-packed vegetables. So although Correy claims that “it is not at all difficult in a modern agricultural society to maintain one’s health on a purely vegetarian diet” this simplification does not stand up. Some individuals can be very healthy on a vegetarian diet without really trying, while for others only meat is able to provide the protein, iron, or other nutrients they require. I have been much healthier since reintroducing meat into my diet, and find I only need a small amount every couple of weeks. At least until science catches up, I feel that I do not have other options, as Correy assumes.
Finally, the market for meat is vastly larger than the market for child pornography. Each individual who engages in child porn transactions has a much larger influence on what exists of it at any given point in time. Until meat is illegal or attitudes change and the market shrinks, the effect of each consumer will be proportionately less. Whether or not it is just to condemn someone more because their effect on the market is proportionately greater, it makes sense from a consequentialist point of view.
Guinevere Nell, address unknown
Dear Editor: In ‘A Dilemma of Consumer Responsibility’, Richard Corry says that if consequentialism (judging actions by their consequences) is the foundation of our morality, then we should seriously consider being vegetarians because of the suffering produced by the meat industry. In attempting to produce a logically coherent moral view of the world, he looks in great detail at the inconsistencies thrown up by eating meat and watching child pornography. I found this an interesting mental exercise, even though I did not agree with what he was saying. However, part way through, I began to wonder what purpose this and similar articles serve. The idea clearly is to establish a rational framework for morality with no logical loose-ends. But although we may use our reason to point up inconsistencies in our moral codes, we need to take note of the fact that over the millennia philosophers have failed to agree upon a comprehensive rational approach to morality, and in practice the public do not take any notice of their (varying) Olympian pronouncements as to how their lives ought to be lived. If moral codes are simply a means to enable us to live together as social beings this is hardly surprising. So, whilst disappointing to philosophers, there is no reason to suppose that there is some great logic which can be applied to this. Indeed, the fact that our moral codes change with both time and place indicates the opposite. As individuals and groups we may explain to others why we feel that particular things are unfair and so try to influence the consensus view. Fortunately, however, in a democracy what is treated as a criminal act is a decision taken democratically, not imposed by special interest groups, whether religious or quasi-religious; or indeed by philosophers, whether vegetarians or carnivores.
Thomas Jeffreys, Warwickshire
Dear Editor: The wonderful article ‘Mathematics & Reality’ by Raymond Tallis in Issue 102 takes on “the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics.” As a card (and degree) carrying mathematician I know the feeling, but I wonder: Is it really so unreasonable that the human mind, which evolved in adaptation to the world, should invent tools that prove effective in that world? Mathematics is man-made, but so is a hammer, and I have not (yet) met anyone who regards the hammer’s effectiveness as ‘unreasonable’ (although I do not rule out the possibility that there might be a philosopher somewhere out there who does). Tallis’s logical hammer has once again hit the nail on the head by explaining that mathematics isn’t everything. It is only the best thing; at least according to Isaac Asimov: “Nothing pertaining to humanity becomes us so well as mathematics. There, and only there, do we touch the human mind at its peak.”
Axel Winter, Queensland, Australia
Dear Editor: Regarding Raymond Tallis’s ‘Mathematics & Reality’, the core issue is whether mathematics merely describes reality, or goes further and is reality. If the former, then mathematics serves as only another everyday language that imperfectly summarizes reality, along the lines of the many natural languages like English, Xhosa, Urdu, Farsi, and all the rest. In that case, mathematics models the universe through increasing types and numbers of variables and relationships through its own unique syntax, grammar, and vocabulary. If the second, then mathematics is the most fundamental constituent of the universe, underlying even the subatomic particles making up the scientists’ Standard Model. If so, mathematics is discovered, not just invented, and there is nothing at all “unreasonable” about mathematics’ effectiveness. Yet even if mathematics only describes reality, it does so with a vastly higher degree of comprehensiveness, precision and understanding than do its natural-language counterparts, and the disciplines that depend on and so are limited by those natural languages. Much of the reality that physicists and other scientists uncover is best described, and in many instances can only be described, by equations. The deep insufficiencies of natural languages in describing those realities, no matter how smart the thinker, result in only a fragmentary, veneer-thin shell of the deep understanding that mathematics reveals. Hence, even as a language, mathematics is unique, standing far, far apart from its natural cousins.
But mathematics may indeed be more than a language, and might well be the most elementary constituent of reality. To say that as we understand it at this point in time, mathematics doesn’t capture every conceivable aspect of reality, such as the often-cited qualia, is premature and only states that mathematics hasn’t yet been fully developed. But with enough time, mathematics will more and more envelop and fundamentally underlie all there is to reality. No other discipline, no matter how imaginative the practitioner, will get humanity to that level of understanding and depth – and no other elementary constituent of the universe will serve in mathematics’ place, on which all within the natural world of space-time may hinge.
Keith Tidman, Maryland
Dear Editor: In Sally Latham’s explication of ‘Swinburne’s Separations’, PN 102, Richard Swinburne’s logical justification for dualistic thinking (mind-body separation) seems valid. The ancient Hindus, using observation, came up with this idea ages ago with their concept of Atman (or essential self) as separate from the material world. And psychologist Roberto Assagioli summed it all up in his Exercise in Dis-identification: “I have a body, but I am not my body.”
Ray Sherman, Duarte, CA
Dear Editor: Issue 102 had two articles dealing with science as a way of knowing (I. Kidd, ‘Doing Away with Scientism’ and M. Pigliucci, ‘Are there “Other” Ways of Knowing?’). Both argue a weak position regarding other forms of knowing by asserting that there are alternatives that claim some parity with science. A strong position would be that there are things science or scientists cannot know, and consequently scientism could be defined as arguing for science’s ability to know when that is not possible.
One way of establishing the strong position would be to demonstrate the failure of science to know in a domain where science is expected to know. For example, scientists could argue they have a full explanation of the physics affecting H2O; yet science cannot predict the shape of any snowflake. Another approach would be to be more rigorous about knowledge. For example, Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle says we can’t know both the position and momentum of a particle with complete accuracy at a single point in time. So science can only achieve approximate knowledge of, or at best a problematic knowledge of, instantaneous momentum. Another approach would be not to confuse the actor for the action. Videoing the movements of a painter creating art is not the same as having a knowledge of art. This distinction is particularly important in the current era of cognitive neuroscience and neurometabolic imaging, such as functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI). For example, one could trace the changes in blood flow in the brain while a subject appreciates a work of art, but such images of the brain may only be like watching the movements of the painter. It cannot be assumed that the images are some scientific knowledge of art. The same can be said of fMRI images of a subject contemplating justice, virtue, or purpose. Yet, the contemplation of justice, virtue and purpose are causal, since people act from such contemplations. As these actions are not random, the actions evidence information, and having information is knowledge. Finally, in many situations the act of science removes what might be knowable. For example, given the intrinsic variability of any scientific procedure, the statistical tendency is taken as the truest representation of the object being measured, whether it is the mean or the median of the results. But the process of calculating a mean or median is irreversible, that is, the actual distribution of the measurements cannot be completely and fully determined from them. Thus, it is not clear how the mean or median from the sample truly represents the population, and the object of science is understanding that population. So to retain the innumerate data of the sample in this averaging way necessitates abandoning any knowledge claim concerning the population.
Erwin B. Montgomery Jr. MD, Director, Greenville Neuromodulation Center, Greenville, PA
Dear Editor: It is amazing to me that Roger Caldwell can introduce us to the work of Marx on capital in Issue 102 but neglect the heart of Marx’s description. Marx defined capitalism as a system of production based on the alienation of workers not only from the surplus created by their labor but from the act of working itself. It is a system in which the surplus wealth created by work is appropriated by others who don’t do the work. It is a system in which workers have no control of their work. For Marx, work was sacred. We spend most of our lives working, and it is work that ennobles us and gives life meaning and purpose. It is what distinguishes us from other animals. To alienate a person from his own work is to impose a great indignity on workers, not to mention the parasitism of the capitalists who run off with the surplus value of their work. It is this aspect of alienation that has captured the attention of the Catholic Popes in their ongoing critique of capitalism. On this one point, Marx and the Popes agree.
More important than Marx’s theory of value is his theory of wealth, as something that only workers can create. Capital at most provides only the material cause of new wealth, not its efficient cause. This is why Marx believed that wage labor, selling one’s labor to another, is the worst system ever inflicted on humans, save for slavery itself. It is at best a mitigated form of slavery.
William H. DuBay, Poulsbo, WA
Dear Editor: I have just read Roger Caldwell’s article on Karl Marx in Issue 102, and thought it was not altogether accurate and too full of received ideas. But he was right to stress the importance of Hegel in Marx’s development of dialectical materialism. I think it would also be interesting for some commentator to relate Marx to the school of seventeenth and eighteenth century materialist thought, of which he was an avid reader. Footnotes in his work are studded with references to Turgot, Diderot, Holbach, Shaftesbury, John Locke and others. I wonder whether it has been overlooked that Marx’s distinction between the base of the mode of production and the superstructure of law, religion, government, ideology etc. resembles the distinction John Locke made between primary and secondary qualities of matter? And although Caldwell dismisses Marx’s Labour Theory of Value, John Locke himself produced a version of it, when he affirmed that ‘mixing’ labour with a thing gives the labourer some rights of property in what he had made. So I think an assesment of more of the intellectual inheritance of Karl Marx than just Hegel would be an interesting project. It might also be good to compare and contrast the intellectual contemporaries of Marx. He was I think influenced by the British economist Ricardo in an interesting way. He was also an obdurate opponent of the French socialist Proudhon. I wonder how far Marx was influenced by the Positivism of Auguste Comte, who influenced Lenin as well as forgotten revolutionaries in the Ottoman world and Mexico in the early twentieth century. Marx’s interest in literature might also be a good subject. He seems to have read Victor Hugo and Balzac, though not much of Dickens. In the Fourth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon, he seems to define the lumpenproletariat out of the characters in Les Miserables.
Christopher Gould, Norwich