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A Cynical Legacy • Morality Mechanics • Catastrophic Comet Comments • Post Dated • Particular Universal Problems • In Search of a Good ‘Good’ • Exchange of Thought Experiment • Erratum & Addendum
A Cynical Legacy
Dear Editor: I found ‘How To Be A Cynic’ in the last issue fascinating. Many more of us have become modern cynics as society has become more complicated, stressful and unjust. We are feeling increasingly powerless and often question or doubt, as truth seems so elusive. There is a perception that if one does not engage in cynicism, then one is somewhat naïve. Some might argue that to be a cynic in the twenty-first century is to be a realist.
Linda Nathaniel, Riverview, New South Wales
Dear Editor: I agree with Philip Badger in Issue 104 that his Three Laws of Morality should not be multiplied. There is a parallel with Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics. But I would change the order so that the First Law of Morality becomes ‘A living being must minimise harm where possible’. Here ‘harm’ could include damage to the non-living environment that impacts the living indirectly. The now Second Law – respect the autonomy of others – is questionably applicable to natural predators, unless ‘harm’ includes starvation. I would also replace the Third Law by ‘A living being must promote its own autonomy, except where this would conflict with higher laws’. Autonomy does not exist in a vacuum, and ‘its own autonomy’ could be taken to include the interests of genetically or socially related beings.
The ‘Trolley Problem’ cited by Badger concerns whether to sacrifice one person to save five. However, it remains unresolvable if the harm in the alternatives cannot be assessed. Morbidly, this is reflected in the tragic case of Alan Henning, where the government argued that the choice not to act to save the one by paying his ransom saves future others.
Nicholas Taylor, Little Sandhurst, Berkshire
Dear Editor: Philip Badger’s excellent article in PN 104 set outs how a Morality Machine could be built. I share his view that it is possible, but his three lines of code are flawed. His program would, for example, leave us powerless against fanatics with a ‘deep commitment’ to broadcasting bad music loudly. Also, because his machine has no desires of its own to balance with others’, it may never learn about sharing, and so seems to be mute on this fundamental issue for ethics.
Since each of us has an inconsistent set of ethical intuitions, any machine algorithm will generate some outcomes which make us wince. Looking to this ‘wince factor’ is the wrong way to test it. The design flaw lies in the machine’s specifications. It isn’t enough to establish consistency by ordering the machine’s instructions and then minimising dissonance with our intuitions through ‘iterative [repeat] testing’. The machine’s code needs to be rooted in a plausible account of morality itself. So how do we find the right algorithm – for people, as well as machines? Phil should apply his iterative testing methodology to his construction specifications and techniques, not to the program. Once he’s got them right, the correct algorithm should pop out easily. I suspect it will include ‘empathise with others as much as they empathise’; reciprocity in a suitably domesticated form; and ‘give help to others if that help is worth more to them than it is to you’. For the complete list of the coding, I await another excellent article from Phil and his impressive team of machine-building boffins.
Iain King CBE, England
Catastrophic Comet Comments
Dear Editor: It was wonderful to find an article by Tim Madigan in Issue 103 about the brilliant and brave Pierre Bayle, author of the Seventeenth Century masterpiece, Various Thoughts on the Occasion of a Comet. Bayle’s logical thinking about cosmic phenomena and politics was just as much a marvel to behold in those days as were the comets he discussed; and indeed, such clarity remains in short supply today. As Madigan points out, Bayle’s apparent commitment to Calvinism at the same time was a marvel in its own right, illustrating what a complex thing is a human mind.
While Bayle was surely correct to discern no special correlation between cometary apparitions and cataclysms on Earth, only in recent decades have astronomers come to realize that comets themselves pose a dire threat to humanity. It could have been a comet that wiped out the dinosaurs, and in any case one of them could wipe out us. So today it is science and not superstition that counsels fear of comets! Furthermore, not only an astronomical catastrophe hangs over us like the sword of Damocles, but also the very sort of civil strife a superstitious medieval might have anticipated. For we would know roughly a year ahead of time that a doomsday comet was heading our way, during which time we can easily imagine civilization crumbling to shreds well before impact. An excellent fictional depiction of this is the Last Policeman trilogy by Ben H. Winters.
Another irony about comets is that we live in an age of unprecedented awareness of the need for planetary defense; and yet attention has become focused almost exclusively on only one part of a twofold threat: ‘Asteroid’ has become the generic term for a space object that could harm us; and it is certainly true that there are far more asteroids in Earth’s vicinity than comets. But as Bayle’s immediate predecessor, Johannes Kepler figured out, a typical comet will be traveling far faster relative to Earth than a typical asteroid. Hence we are likely to have far less advance warning of a cometary impact, and it is a commonplace in the planetary defense community that years or even decades will be needed to be able to deflect an extinction-size object. So whereas we stand a good chance of warding off an incoming asteroid (regarding which see the work of the B612 Foundation), we stand no chance against a comet.
The reality of a cometary impact was brought home to me when twenty years ago I saw Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 crash into Jupiter. Meanwhile, this October, Comet Siding Spring narrowly missed hitting Mars. No one knows whether the next comet will strike the next planet in line, Earth.
Two main options remain for humanity: pray for a miracle or continued luck, or embark on a vigorous program of enhanced detection and building a deflection infrastructure. I truly despair at how NASA is now throwing its resources into sending human beings to Mars, when the lives of all human beings on Earth hang in the balance.
Joel Marks, Milford, CT
Dear Editor: Mary Midgley may be a thinker and writer and not a psychic, but she appears to have read my mind. Her article, ‘Does Philosophy Get Out of Date’ in Issue 103 notes that “philosophy is not just one speciality among disciplines” – instead it looks “at life as a whole – finding wider contexts to give sense to our immediate problems…” I recall a Time magazine piece during the 60s, ‘Of What Use, If Any, Is Philosophy?’ That piece started off by saying that philosophy does not bake bread, but it decides whether life is worth living so that we can bake bread. Such holistic thinking can never be out of date.
Midgley tells us that philosophy is a kind of ‘conceptual geography’ that looks at “the relation between the subject-matters of various ways of thinking and tries to map it.” Stephen Hawking argues in The Grand Design (2010) that philosophy is dead when it fails to keep up with science, and stops asking fundamental questions. By contrast, a good example of a revitalized view of philosophy is Huston C. Smith’s ‘Death and Rebirth of Metaphysics’ in Process & Divinity (1964). A holistic philosophy seeks depth in epistemology, ethics, and other major philosophical themes. To his interdisciplinary credit, writing while at cross-disciplinary engineering giant MIT, Smith tacitly or explicitly alludes to Kenneth Boulding, Wittgenstein, Heidegger, Sartre, anthropology, psychology, astrophysics, parapsychology, philosophy of science, quantum mechanics, etc., as indispensable contributions to philosophy. Philosophy as Midgley’s ‘conceptual geography’ will map inquiry involving interrelated or parallel themes from engineering, psychology, Ricoeur’s cogito-body, Wittgenstein on speaking and silence, Bertalanffy on nomothetic and idiographic, Gadamer and Bohr’s (independently reached) actor-spectators, anthropology’s structure-agency, Richard Bellman’s reduction-humanity, the military’s symmetric-asymmetric warfare, and the intelligence community’s techint-humint issue… Each of these topics underlie metaphysics via the subject-object debate, but also pervade epistemology, ethics, and other fields and subtopics of philosophy. I also find that these themes involve organization through a taxonomy of sets and subsets. But this is not reductionism.
Yes, put all this together, and Midgley is correct in using the geographical metaphor for philosophy. Philosophy is not a discipline among others, but it is the orienting course, the uncapstone, and the lifelong learning foundation.
Michael M. Kazanjian, Triton College, Illinois
Dear Editor: I was impressed with Mary Midgley’s article in Issue 103. Here she argued that philosophy is in essence contextual, including time-contextual, thus requiring some awareness of the major philosophers of the past. I totally agree! But for me this does prompt a caveat. So often one comes across examples of famous names being invoked for questionable motives, and in questionable ways; for example, those who think that quoting the ‘greats’, past, and perhaps present, is practically the totality of what philosophy is. Or they invoke them merely because they can, and not only when they should – thus often dragging debates back to stuck dichotomies, camouflaging the very strands of thought that need to be unpicked. Or sometimes quoting the ‘greats’ is used to provide a bogus authority by association, confusing philosophical ability with knowledge, to form a convenient smokescreen for those who in truth have rather pedestrian skills, or perhaps very little to say at all. Sometimes one even sees a sort of secular sanctification taking place, involving the blithe assumption that fame, for talent, impact and current relevance all at once is always perfectly assigned; or that, as part of some sort of historical destiny, the big names of the past (in effect as prophets) simply had to have been right, right down to their last word! It may be that some of these issues are more common at philosophy’s foothills, but its mountain tops are not immune. Particularily in light of the philosophy world’s de facto arrogant refusal to accept any significant sociology or psychology of its own practices, I feel that it’s hard to envisage the development of systemic safeguards against these pitfalls. I do not present any of these points as criticisms of Midgley’s article, but I present them here as a possible adjunct to it. Or perhaps I’m just trying to provoke another superb essay!
Daryn Green, London
Dear Editor: D. Tarkington, Letters, Issue 103, refers to Bertrand Russell’s description of philosophy as a “no-man’s land between science and theology” but thinks today it would be better to describe it as falling between science and literature. Years ago, I recall John Wisdom discussing the nature of philosophy. First he gave a number of examples of how much like the work of a scientist is the work of a philosopher. Then, he went on to say how unlike science is the activity of philosophy, and how much it is like literature. I have no notes of this lecture now, but I think Prof. Wisdom’s point was that philosophy is like literary theory, in that one can no more engage in philosophy without knowledge of what philosophers have said (its history) than one can undertake literary criticism without knowledge of the great works of literature.
In the same issue, Mary Midgley links attacks on the teaching of the history of philosophy with linguistic analysis, “the modern logical and analytic style of philosophy.” Although Ludwig Wittgenstein is associated with that approach, in an essay, Wittgenstein’s friend and student Rush Rhees provides a defence of studying the history of philosophy:
“The point is not just to see what earlier people did, and the phases through which the subject has developed… In the history of science, you may study methods and theories which are now out of date. But it is not like this in the history of philosophy. Or at any rate: if you want to say that certain views or modes of argument are – or ought to be – out of date, well then it is important for the student to see how and why it is that later discussions have put them out of date.”
Wittgenstein paid little attention to the history of philosophy, but he did not start from scratch and was familiar with Schopenhauer, Frege and Russell. He held the writings of Plato and Augustine in high regard.
In his Origins of Analytical Philosophy, Michael Dummett argued that a better understanding of the history of philosophy might help close the gulf between the Continental and the analytic approach. It was possible to “re-establish communication only by going back to the point of divergence.” For Dummett, the analytic course was clearly the right one but (some recent philosophers have argued) Wittgenstein’s significance is the bringing together of conceptual analysis with an understanding of existential meaning and a particular way of life.
Linguistic analysis often comes close to allying with scientism (certainly this could be claimed of logical positivism). Ray Monk points out that Wittgenstein was concerned to show “the wretched effect that the worship of science and the scientific method has had upon our whole culture” (Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius). This should not be taken as an attack on science, but as reaffirmation that human understanding is not exhausted by scientific methods.
Robert Clive-Barnby, Wales
Particular Universal Problems
Dear Editor: In his article ‘“The World Is All That Is The Case”’ in Issue 103, Professor Zalabardo considers three problems with Plato’s theory of Forms.
He rightly says that particulars (things) cannot exist without instantiating universals (properties such as blue, round, etc). But why is that a problem?
Zalabardo asks in what sphere universals could possibly be located, and cites Aristotle’s explanation: our minds always envisage universals as being attached to a particular. If we see a gigantic object filling our visual field, we think of ‘largeness’. If we feel something smooth,we think of ‘smoothness’. Universals always attach to a particular, just as particulars always instantiate universals. He then argues that if large particulars and the form of largeness combine, then the set must be called largeness 2 and this again combines with largeness; the new set is largeness 3, creating an infinite regress. But why is an infinite regress impossible? We live with an infinite number of numbers. We live in one of a possible infinite number of universes. I might start troubling Philosophy Now with an infinite number of letters. Infinities occur.
However, putting large particulars in the same set with the idea of largeness is a category error. They are different concepts. Similarly a relation between two particulars, such as ‘William loves Kate’ is in a different category to a universal instantiated in a particular – ‘the chair is red’. Anselm was wrong to regard the existence of God as one of his characteristics. So there is no infinite regress.
Finally what is the difference between combining particulars and universals to make a fact, as Plato does, and taking a fact and analysing it in terms of particulars and universals, as Wittgenstein does?
Allen Shaw, Leeds
In Search of a Good ‘Good’
Dear Editor: In Issue 103, Raymond Tallis underlined an issue of the utmost importance for the political debate concerning euthanasia not only in the UK, but also in many other countries (particularly my own country, Italy), namely, the role of religion in the debate.
As euthanasia is labelled by religion as ‘not good’, so too is sexuality when it isn’t strictly kept inside the boundaries imposed by religious morality itself. This provokes the question: what does the term ‘good’ mean in such a discourse? I am not trying to fall into a discussion about Good and Evil – their sense, their possibility, and so on. Not at all. What I am trying to say is that when we read or hear of a ‘good use’ of sexuality, or that euthanasia as ‘not good’ from a religious perspective, we are confronted by a different kind of speech than in the common use of the term.
This is more evident when talking about sex. The Catholic position is that sexuality is good when ‘properly ordered’ – which means, when its use corresponds with its status within an articulated system of beliefs. This is not what most people consider ‘good’ to mean. Here we’re not talking about peoples’ happiness, or the effective reasons or consequences of an action, but of the subordination of something so important for men and women to the burdens of an abstract structure of values. In brief, this is a dehumanization of sexuality, for it doesn’t allow any kind of flexibility – apart from a difference of degree in the scale of seriousness of the sin.
We can apply this same line of thinking to euthanasia too.
Let’s set aside the obvious difficulties and contradictions that can arise from the attempt to integrate dogmatic religions into a democratic landscape, and the damage they can potentially do to the correct running of democratic institutions – an issue already explored by many thinkers. The point I’m making is another small (and probably not so original) piece of the puzzle of how religions could be corrosive of the ‘human-building’ process of life. In a democracy, compromise is the key, and compromise requires flexibility. A definition of ‘good’ strictly linked to a structure of ideas doesn’t allow for such flexibility. Religion will continue being a destructive actor in the democratic process, at least until religious people learn to see men and women more, and dogma less.
Dr Arturo Mariano Iannace, Italy
Exchange of Thought Experiment
Dear Editor: Regarding ‘Swinburne’s Separations’, in Issue 102: a different thought experiment than those in the article might help clarify some of the assumed aspects of the ‘I’ or ‘soul’ that is being theoretically split there, and shed light on this mysterious thing called consciousness.
Imagine you can read minds; but more than that, you can feel others’ emotions and directly know their motivations. Also imagine that this is ubiquitous – that we belong to a race of telepaths. From birth, you have been able to know others’ thoughts, and they yours. In this world, privacy of thought would be a strange concept; but more importantly, your sense of self would be a diffuse, shared thing, spread across many entities. Consciousness would feel more like a distributed project than the discrete collection of embodied ‘I’s we’re familiar with.
Now imagine that this telepathic power has a limited range. Separated across a sea, out of range, is another group, identical in their telepathic abilities. They would develop different ways of doing things – a different culture – just as isolated groups of non-telepathic humans do. Not having yet thought of boats, and being unable to swim, the only way the two groups can communicate is by flashing signals back and forth across the water using big mirrors.
There is no deep difference between these two separated telepathic cultures and two regular non-telepathic individual humans having a conversation. Not being able to read minds, we have invented codified sounds and symbols to communicate the contents of one mind to another.
Current theories of mind posit that all manner of signals bounce around the brain, in the process becoming either attenuated or amplified until, in a survival of the fittest style, the strongest work their way to the top of the distributed-computing brain system and become the ideas we are conscious of. In this sense our brains seem to operate much as a culture does, with a sense of ‘self’ being an emergent phenomenon, just as a culture’s character can emerge from the exchange of ideas between the people involved. So we can assume that this process of signal exchange typifying consciousness can be not only neuronal, but interpersonal or even intercultural. Thus, consciousness is not a product of something that by necessity has to be uniquely localised in our bodies. What gives us a sense of self is our sense of separateness from others and the world afforded by our lack of telepathy and our containment within our discrete bodies, over which we have a degree of control. We have no need to postulate a unique ‘soul’ which is the seat of our consciousness. Instead consciousness is the result of processing, and this can be distributed both within and without any particular enclosed system such as a human body. Again, it is the borders – cell wall, body, isolated culture – that give us our sense of self as a discrete identity – a sense the telepath may not share. Our sense of self is also articulated and reflected back at us by our participation in the larger exchange of ideas called culture.
Indeed, it might be useful to consider that just as relatively isolated populations develop different cultures, these cultures could also be considered as having their own ‘I’-ness; an identity, and a personality as well; and like a person, can evolve and develop, casting off old cultural ideas and taking on new ones – can in effect ‘change their minds’.
How might this process evolve as technology encroaches more and more on our lives? In the past, communication was largely short-range, so different cultures could evolve in isolation. As travel and communications spread, so cultures with very different ideas came into contact with each other for the first time and had to negotiate mutual coexistence or extermination. The high-speed nervous system that is the internet has now demolished the last geographical barriers to communication. Thus we see the different ‘personalities’ of differently-evolved cultures duking it out – the last big heavyweight punch-up of ideologies. If we survive this, might the global ‘human cultural consciousness’ take on a more unified character, an ‘I’-ness all its own?
This, of course, might not be the end of it: next up is the challenge of contact with aliens. If we are not alone in the universe, this has to happen sooner or later, and the project of trying to communicate with the vastly more varied forms that consciousness will undoubtedly have taken across the Universe will begin.
Rian Hughes, Ealing, London
Erratum & Addendum
Dear Editor: In the last issue, the photo in ‘Nietzsche on Love’ is not of Nietzsche and his sister as captioned, but of Nietzsche and his mother Franziska. It was taken shortly after his release from Jena mental asylum in 1890. Franziska devotedly looked after her very ill son until her death six years later.
Eva Cybulska, London
Dear Editor: In Dale DeBakcsy’s piece on Feuerbach in Issue 103 he says in ‘Further Reading’ that books on Feuerbach are hard to find, and he only mentions Wartofsky’s book of 1982. Other books readers might be interested in include Between Transcendence and Nihilism, Larry Johnston (1995), Feuerbach and the Search for Otherness, Charles Wilson (1989), and my own Feuerbach and the Interpretation of Religion (1997).
Prof. Van Harvey, Stanford, CA