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Letters

Letters

The Meaning of Art • A Dance to the Music of Thought • Philosophy and the Greater Good • Talking Straight About Ray Tallis • Seeds of Dissent • Je Suis Vraiment Libéral

The Meaning of Art

Dear Editor: While reading Howard Darmstadter’s excellent article in Issue 107 on the models we use to represent our world, it occurred to me that using a different model might clarify the status of Art Objects. Previous discussion has taken place within our everyday model, which assumes that we are referring to objects of the ‘real’ world. If instead, we consider ‘Art Objects’ to be a classification of intuitions present in thought, then they become no more problematic than any other object. Comparing the classification of ‘art object’ with that of ‘chair’, for example, we can see that the concepts are similar. Both can be meaningfully used in conversation. Neither can be comprehensively defined by configuration or function. In neither set are the contents fixed or finite. Both sets can overlap with other classifications – a chair, for example, can be a ‘work of art’, a ‘prized possession’, or a ‘piece of furniture’. So within these parameters, there seems to be little operative difference between the specification of ‘art objects’ and of ‘chairs’; yet people worry more about not recognising a work of art.

It is said that to appreciate a work of art one must view the object in a special way. Kant said we must view it disinterestedly – remove all other associated thoughts from our minds – and adopt an aesthetic attitude – open our minds to the direct affect of the work. Or just isolate it from the distractions of the environment by putting it in an art gallery. But these prescriptions amount to the same thing – that we must concentrate on what we are doing. Don’t we do this when we are working on a problem, or when we are looking for a chair to sit on?

If the problem of identifying art doesn’t lie in a precise specification, or the method of acquisition, it must lie in what we expect from a work of art. As some readers indicated in the feature ‘What is Art?’, we are looking for an experience that intensely stimulates our feelings or emotions. This is a much wider search than looking for something to sit on, but is no different in kind. We can have such an experience when, from the chaos around us, some part of the natural world harmonises with our cognitive mechanisms. Monet and Constable saw such things in the landscape, and showed us what they had seen. Goya and Picasso reacted to more violent events that stirred feelings of outrage. Duchamp pointed out that all man-made objects have an artistic form. When you also consider music, literature, poetry, dance, drama etc, the field seems boundless. So t he answer to the problem seems to be that anything can be ‘seen as’ a work of art, but some objects will afford a more rewarding experience than others. This again seems no different in kind from also seeing a rock as something to sit on.

Roy Anderson, Yorkshire


A Dance to the Music of Thought

Dear Editor: Issue 108, with art in focus, proved very enjoyable. I was especially interested to read the article ‘Music in Philosophy’ by Ralph Blumenau. A picture in the article, of Pythagoras playing the lute – originally a Fifteenth Century wood carving by Jorg Syrlin the Elder from Ulm Minster – was as beautiful as it was telling. It illustrated how music, philosophy and science were intimately related to one another. For another instance, Al-Farabi (c872-c950), a renowned Islamic philosopher, scientist and music scholar, wrote The Book of Music, in which he presented philosophical principles of music; and his treatise Meanings of the Intellect dealt with therapeutic effects of music on the soul.

Regrettably, this interrelatedness was lost on Immanuel Kant, who listened only to the sounds of local military bands, as these regularly passed his house in Königsberg. He also warned his students that a serious interest in music could distract them from science. Such an attitude to music no doubt affected the style of his writings, famous for their impenetrability.

By contrast, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche not only avidly listed to classical music, but also performed it. Schopenhauer played the flute (mostly to an audience of one, consisting of his poodle, Atma), and Nietzsche was an accomplished improviser on the piano. The latter’s assertion that “music is another way of making children” no doubt must have been music to Freud’s ears! The writing style of both of these two philosophers has been often praised its musicality and poetic panache. Wittgenstein – that most logical of philosophical minds – was also deeply immersed in music and wrote incisively about it, e.g. in Culture and Value. Meanwhile, his brother Paul proved to the world that (with a little help from his friend Ravel) a one-handed musician could still be a piano virtuoso.

Several distinguished philosophers took to composing music. Rousseau (1712-1778) wrote an opera, Le Devin Du Village, whilst Adorno (1903-1969) opted for a string quartet. Nietzsche (1844-1900) composed many piano pieces, and while still a teenager this future Antichrist let his religious yearnings culminate in Miserere (youtube.com/watch?v=Z3MuJ5vjSl8), And there is of course Roger Scruton (b. 1944) – a fellow Schubert appreciator – who not only wrote a philosophical book called Understanding Music, but has composed two operas: The Minister and Violet. The question remains why these philosophers remain known as philosophers rather than composers. Conversely, why is Wagner known as great composer rather than a philosopher?

Eva Cybulska, London


Dear Editor: I was interested to learn how few philosophers have said anything about music (‘Music in Philosophy’, Issue 108). However, Ralph Blumenau’s approach exemplifies the impoverished view most philosophers have of their subject. Whilst few philosophers have said anything philosophical about music, many ‘non-philosophers’ have – for instance, writer Victor Hugo: “Music expresses that which cannot be said and on which it is impossible to be silent” or critic Heinrich Heine: “When words leave off, music begins.” If philosophers paid less attention to their own history and more attention to the rest of the world, perhaps their contribution to understanding the world would be better recognised.

Dan Sumners, London


Philosophy and the Greater Good

Dear Editor: I was stirred to comment on Jos Philips’ article in Philosophy Now 108, ‘The Place of Self-Interest in Morality’. My comment is really a question: ‘Is the study of philosophy merely a way of displaying skills of writing and logic, or is it supposed to have a practical use as a guide in life – or perhaps both?’

The article was well written and well argued, and roughly engaged with John Stuart Mill’s proposal of Utilitarianism as the basis of morals. Mill thought that the happiness of the greatest number, or the Greater Good, was the most important thing in defining moral behaviour. But when Mill was writing in the Nineteenth Century this idea was useful, since people could immediately see how they could increase the Greater Good by helping family, friends and the local community – at that time almost nobody had influence on the Greater Good defined as the good of the world. Today, however, the local community has expanded to include the city (perhaps becoming a volunteer to help to house the homeless), then the country (donating to national charities) followed by the world (donating money to international causes: to adopt a snow leopard, to Oxfam, or to the Red Cross, etc). Some of Dr Philips’ students would perhaps suggest that a donation to the RSPB [a British bird charity] would not be helping the Greater Good, but thousands of people every year would argue otherwise. So perhaps the question facing Utilitarianism today is ‘How do we define the Greater Good?’ Those same students who worry about children in Africa today will perhaps change their focus when they have families and their new aims are to prepare their children for the world of the local community. An example of this is that if they live in Wales they may want their children to speak Welsh (a good cause), but if they live in Manchester they would (usually) think that learning Welsh would be time wasted. So, for me the meaning of the Greater Good to an individual person changes as that person gets older. To draw a time-scale through a normal life: very early in life, the Greater Good is defined by family; later friends become important; then the country; then the world; then back to family and friends; and finally family, friends, and the local community.

In a liberal democracy, the Greater Good cannot be defined only by intellectual philosophers, because that would smack of elitism. Instead the Greater Good must be defined by the majority. Then we would probably find ourselves back with the view of Mill’s time, when the Greater Good would have been family, friends and the local community. So this returns to my question: if philosophy is to be useful, helpful and practical, shouldn’t it stop repeating the same old arguments about whether Utilitarianism is the correct basis of morals, and start trying to define the Greater Good, and thereby help people to decide how they should donate their time and money?

Dr Chris Wheatley, Llanelli


Dear Editor: Alastair Gray of the University of Sussex argues in the Letters column of Issue 108 that serious philosophy is a subject for people with big brains and a vocabulary to match. The doubtless quite small cohort of academics who qualify to be in the philosophy club probably do very good and useful work. But his exclusivity is awful. In support of his elitist argument he asks if experts in quantum theory should get rid of all their jargon and use only everyday language. Does he see no difference between quantum theory and philosophy? We ordinary mortals do not need to understand the intricacies of quantum theory. Scientists can discuss it in any language they choose. What is important for us is that they keep doing it, we support them, and that their results help beneficially shape the environment we live in. But it can be strongly argued that our world is a much poorer place because involvement in philosophy has become a no-go area for so many people. Everybody needs a basic understanding of philosophy. Our individual philosophical standpoint determines the way we interact with others around us. It determines the way we feel about ourselves. It is not so much the results of philosophical discussion which shape us, but the discussion itself. Close off that discussion through elitism and what are we left with? We will have a society which mindlessly accepts materialism as its goal – which takes its precepts from television soap operas, and which is perfectly happy to save a few quid by shutting the university departments where Mr Gray breathes his rarified atmosphere.

Meurig Parri, Pontypridd


Talking Straight About Ray Tallis

Dear Editor: In ‘Thinking Straight About Curved Space’, PN 108, Raymond Tallis argues that it makes no sense to speak about empty space being curved. A lot of mathematicians will be out of a job if this is so. The analogy they make with the surface of a sphere is admittedly awkward, but it is helpful, providing you can imagine 2D creatures of zero thickness on its surface. To the 2D inhabitants of the sphere’s shell, since its curvature is into a dimension that is inaccessible, and hence imperceptible, from their point of view,there’s absolutely nothing straighter than a straight line. However, to us 3D creatures, these lines will appear to be segments of a great circle. Similarly, if my 3D space is inherently curved, the ruler on my desk could appear distinctly curved to 4D creatures, but still seem completely straight to me. Since we cannot inhabit a fourth spatial dimension, and can only imagine it with great difficulty, the analogy will have to do. Nevertheless, if our 2D counterparts were to notice that they can find shorter possible paths (‘straight lines’) between two points, they could correctly infer that their 2D space is intrinsically curved.

Without making any claim regarding the veracity of general relativity, I see no problem in principle in asking which of the mathematicians’ abstract 3D spaces most closely corresponds to our actual universe. As with the sphere, the curvature (if there is any) of our empty space should be detectable geometrically from within by sufficiently careful measurement of distances and angles. Due to the vastness of the universe, such a determination might in practice be extremely difficult to make; but it is possible.

Turning from generalities to the particulars of Einstein, ‘curved spacetime’ is so successful an explanatory and predictive tool that it is easy to think of the universe as a 4D manifold. To do this, time must be granted almost the same status as the three spatial dimensions. As Tallis suggested in an earlier article, this may be where the true difficulty (if there is one) lies. Where it does not lie is in the suggestion that spacetime or spaces in general cannot be curved, which is simply false.

Some physicists, such as Lee Smolin, are already arguing that physics needs to revise its treatment of time. But whatever the future of physics, ‘spacetime’ is probably just too useful to be discarded. Just as Newton’s ‘incorrect’ laws are still often employed as a serviceable approximation to general relativity, any new theory must respect stubborn empirical facts about time dilation, gravity, and the constancy of the speed of light. Therefore, if only as a useful tool for predicting our motion through space and the running of our clocks, the notion of spacetime may well survive indefinitely. And in the relevant conceptual respects, it is curved.

Tim Wilkinson, Houghton-le-Spring


Dear Editor: In ‘Thinking Straight About Curved Space’ (Issue 108), Raymond Tallis appears to make the mistake of believing that ‘unvisualisable’ implies ‘unintelligible’. He notes the popular analogy for curved space as the surface of a sphere, and the distinction between ‘extrinsic’ and ‘intrinsic’ curvature, but fails to follow through the full implication of this distinction. The point is that although while viewing a sphere’s surface from the vantage point of 3D we can see that the geodesics (the ‘straight lines’) curve around, and so there might be a straighter route from the equator to the North Pole if we drill through the sphere, we do not need to make use of this image to get a full description of the 2D surface. Through measuring to what extent distances between nearby points differ from that predicted by Pythagoras’s theorem, we can drop any need for images, and focus on analysing the 2D space purely mathematically. The fact that we cannot visualise 3D space curving, let alone 4D space-time, is no hindrance to extending the mathematics into the higher dimension, with the consequent confirmation in experiment that this seems to be how the physical world really is.

To my mind, a more interesting point is how the fact that we can only visualise space as 3D Euclidean (‘flat’) space, and time as absolute and separate, seems to vindicate Kant’s view that we impose this view on what we see. Flat space is vastly simpler mathematically, and a good approximation to how things seem on Earth, so it is natural that our minds would have evolved to see and imagine things in this way. However, general relativity gives strong evidence that the real physical world might be something quite different: non-Euclidean and non-absolute. I wonder whether Kant could have foreseen quite how prescient was his statement in the Critique of Pure Reason (1781) that “Mathematics presents the most splendid example of the successful extension of pure reason without the help of experience.” But the fact that we can go beyond experience in this way does not lead automatically into unintelligibility.

Chris Ottewill, London


Dear Editor: This is a tangential rejoinder to Prof. Tallis’s admirable remarks about perception and dimensionality in Issue 108. Of course time can never be used to represent space, so why should we ever expect space to represent time? It is worse than useless for scientists to draw diagrams that make sense in terms of ordinary perception to illustrate dimensionalities radically other than familiar ones.

Roger Gibson, London


Dear Editor: As part of his relentless crusade against alleged misappropriation by the sciences of metaphors drawn from the arena of daily life, Ray Tallis has this time (Issue 108) tilted against scientific claims that are intended strictly literally. Thus he reminds us: “Relativity theory stripped [time] of its tenses, dismissing the difference between past, present and future as illusory.” This misconception is not his alone. The resulting ‘block universe’ view ought instead to be regarded as a spacetime map of the cosmos from beginning to end. It no more precludes the possibility of our being here and now than would maps at the gates to the grounds of country houses saying ‘you are here’. Ray then quotes Hermann Minkowski to the effect that “only the union of space and time have preserved an independent reality.” But this doesn’t obviate the fact that for all necessarily situated observers there is, locally speaking, no possibility of confusing the two. He then laments that space and time “have had to suffer reduction to a pure quantity.” To draw an analogy with banknotes, does their numerical representation on the cashpoint screen prior to withdrawal make them any ‘less real’?

The nub of his objections, however, is the general relativistic notion of curved spacetime. Here his Euclidean chauvinism gallops ahead by leaps and bounds. But as thinkers such as Poincaré, Carnap and Reichenbach have repeatedly stressed, the union of space and time implies a more general picture: if spacetime were truly non-Euclidean, then within ‘highly curved’ regions surrounding massive bodies there would appear to be forces (and so accelerations) of universal scope acting, affecting all matter impartially, despite the fact that, locally, rigid rods would continue to look straight – thus redefining the notion ‘straight line’ as a generalisation of the geodesic. Conventionalism – or rather, Poincaré's own variant, commodisme – then allows you to take your pick: continue to regard spacetime as Euclidean and assume the action of mysterious accelerating forces, or regard it as curved, and, hey presto, the ‘forces’ vanish.

Finally, Ray takes umbrage at the notion of cosmological expansion “into something that is not even emptiness” – but that is not what cosmologists claim in any case. The expansion of an infinite universe (as indicated according to general relativity, together with estimates of the universe’s current density) entails the cosmos has neither centre nor boundary. If it had either, this would be uncomfortably parochial and ‘anti-Copernican’, surely? The view is rather that any pair of masses at sufficiently great mutual separation recede from each other as time passes.

Ian Buxton, London


Seeds of Dissent

Dear Editor: In Issue 108 Letters, Stephen Push criticizes my argument in Issue 107 that a Lockean defense of intellectual property rights for genetically modified organisms (GMOs) is condemned to failure. Mr Push first raises the objection that throwing a can of tomato juice in the sea and becoming its owner is very different from changing one gene in a species and getting intellectual property rights over that specific variety. I have, however, no quarrels with that: I point to that disanalogy myself in the second section of my article.

Secondly, Push objects to my worry that by cross-breeding, the use of GMOs might lead to the homogenization of plant varieties and the loss of biodiversity, making consumers worse-off. He claims that cross-pollination in corn, for example, does not happen. But there are studies that refute this – see, for example, ‘Transgenes in Mexican maize: molecular evidence and methodological considerations for GMO detection in landrace populations’ in Molecular Ecology 18, Piñeyro-Nelson, A. et al (2009). Push further claims that even if the use of GMOs led to homogenization, we could always resort to government and academic germplasm repositories to restore the lost diversity. For one thing, it is much easier to keep the diversity all along rather than trying to restore it after it has disappeared. For another, these repositories cost money, and in the case of government repositories, they costs tax-payers money, thus making us worse-off.

Thirdly, Push is right to correct me over the fact that no farmers have so far been sued in the U.S. for patent infringement by accidentally growing GM crops on their fields. This fact, however, does not affect the main line of the argument. Moreover, he forgets to add that the fear of being sued by the big biotech companies for this is very much alive among small U.S. farmers – so much so that, in 2011, the Organic Seed Growers and Trade Association (representing around 300,000 farmers and seed dealers) unsuccessfully sued Monsanto, seeking to prohibit the company from suing them if accidental contamination occurred.

Fourth, Push says that my argument relies on the assumption that growers still routinely save seeds for planting, and that this is false. While I don’t question that farmers from industrialized countries might rely exclusively on seeds they buy, my cousin Berta and all her neighbors in the South of Chile, along with thousands of other small farmers in South America, Africa and Asia, still save their seeds from year to year. That the industry would like this practice to end is a different story.

Finally, regarding the copyright notice at the end of my article, PN attaches it to every author’s name, and it was my omission to ask the editors to change it to a (cc). I thank Mr Push for the reminder.

Alejandra Mancilla, Chile


Je Suis Vraiment Libéral

Dear Editor: Like Phil Badger in Issue 107, I concur with the Spitfire pilot’s view that “you don’t fight for peoples’ freedom then tell them how to use it.” Badger’s argument appears to be that a person has freedom “over himself, over his mind and body the individual is sovereign” to quote John Stuart Mill from On Liberty. With that freedom goes the responsibility to allow others the freedom to live by their ‘social conventions’. But if the individual is sovereign, he has power over himself – which implies he has agency. It is this ‘agent’ element of a person that has the freedom, conscience and responsibility. Without such agency, we have no control, we cannot be ‘vraiment libéral’. But given agency, we are also on the way to regain the ‘free will’ defence of God, pace Douglas Adams as quoted by Phil Badger. How else but through God can we have free will – a most unscientific notion?

James Malcolm, Molesey


Dear Editor: In PN 107 Joshua Farris presents a fascinating read into alternative definitions of personal identity and personhood, or what makes you you. There is, of course, a corollary to Farris’s discussion, which is whether an entirely nonorganic entity might achieve personhood too. Quantum computers, which would provide exponentially new levels of processing heft through the application of superposition, entanglement, and related quantum processes, are just one possibility in realistically aiming for eventual personhood in a machine. Just like human consciousness, advanced computer life would be possible only as a product of material activity, not some ethereal, immaterial phenomenon.

Scientists, along with technologists of various stripes, would be central to such a computer’s genesis, but only insofar as making it possible for the computer to attain a capability threshold, where it can begin to manage its own destiny without further human intervention. Its self-management, with its unlimited growth, would then lead to a computer operating beyond the sphere of brute processes, into creativity, innovation, envisioning alternative futures, reasoning, self-assessment and improvement, accurate lessons derived from the past, and the like: even self-replication, with generation-to-generation improvements! And, being able to do all this in ways that eventually far surpass, the ability of the most brilliant humans, in now unimaginable ways. Such capabilities would in turn cyclically impact developments in the sciences, technology, philosophy, art etc.

The underlying mesh to such abilities would be consciousness, including sensory input that calibrates the environment, the computer’s awareness of its own existence, knowledge of a body of historical experiences, vision of alternative solutions and futures, and a concomitant sense of destiny. That is, it must absorb, think, learn, adapt, and evolve.

Keith Tidman, Maryland

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