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Free Post, Or Not • The Comedy of Reviews • Anderson on Trial • Art Articulations • Clarity and Brevity • Tallis’s Twists of Truth
Free Post, Or Not
Dear Editor: Ching-Hung Woo’s article ‘Einstein’s Morality’ in Issue 109 concludes with the prediction that free will will eventually be recognised as an illusion. Until such time, we have to adopt a stance. There are only two possibilities: either we have free will, or our lives are predetermined. To live my life, I need to believe in one or the other. Of course, as with any belief, it may be correct or incorrect. At present, I cannot know which is the case, but I can consider the consequences. This is interesting when my belief is incorrect.
So suppose I believe in free will but, in fact, I am incorrect. Believing in free will, I am likely to spend a great deal of time, and incur considerable anxiety, deliberating over decisions – time which I could have put to better use, and stress which I could have avoided. However, since my life is predetermined, I could not have thought any other way, so regretting my wasted effort would be pointless. Secondly, consider the case in which I incorrectly believe in determinism. Following my creed that the course of my life is set in my genes, or by the laws of physics, there is absolutely no point at all in deliberating over choice as whatever I decide to do will be what the runes foretold. So, I act without thinking. One implication of this approach is that in some cases at least, I could have made a better choice. Hence, the outcomes from adopting determinism incorrectly are immeasurably worse than the outcomes from mistakenly believing in free will. So, until someone can prove that every aspect of my life is completely beyond my control, I will continue to act under the belief that I do have real choice.
Mike Shaw, Huddersfield
The Comedy of Reviews
Dear Editor: I was thrilled to see my book, Plato’s Cratylus: The Comedy of Language, reviewed in Philosophy Now 109. It is humbling to have appeared in a magazine with such wide readership, and to have been reviewed by an author of such acumen as Roger Caldwell.
However, in light of the actual content of the article, I must revise my above sentence and say that it would have been thrilling to have been reviewed by Philosophy Now; for, upon reading Caldwell’s article, I was disappointed to discover that it was not a review at all, at least not in any traditionally understood sense. Not a single thesis, argument, or claim of mine is cited or discussed, beyond mentioning my mentioning of Heidegger’s (in)famous dictum, “Die Sprache spricht”. Indeed, the article consists entirely of Caldwell’s own somewhat generic musings on the Cratylus. Unless I’m missing something, Caldwell seems to leap over my book rather than deal with it critically. So although Caldwell’s musings are interesting in their own right, they can hardly be said to constitute a ‘review’ of my book, as they utterly fail to engage, challenge, or even summarize my text.
But Caldwell’s article is most troubling for the following reason. The last paragraph of the ‘review’ – which is the only paragraph in the entire piece where Caldwell at least gestures toward my book (without actually citing it) – is little more that a rant against the work of Martin Heidegger. Rather than adducing a single argument or thesis from my book, Caldwell merely objects to what he sees to be Heidegger’s influence upon it (although here, too, Caldwell fails to substantiate his assertions). This is the worst kind of straw-man fallacy: ‘Ewegen’s text mentions Heidegger; Heidegger is baaaaaaaaaad; therefore, Ewegen’s text is bad.’ It would be one thing if Caldwell engaged thoughtfully with Heidegger in his article. Instead, he merely asserts, without the least bit of evidence or argument, that Heidegger’s readings of the Greeks are “unpersuasive”, as are mine to the extent that they were influenced by Heidegger (who, incidentally, wrote nothing substantially interesting about the Cratylus). Surely this is the sort of claim that requires more than vacuous utterance to be valid? There very well may be a case to be made that Heidegger read the Greeks poorly, or that I read the Cratylus poorly; but Caldwell does not make it, nor even really seem to try to do so.
Your magazine supplies an important and valuable forum for philosophical engagement. I wish Caldwell had made better use of that forum! I would much rather have had my arguments challenged or even excoriated by Caldwell than have merely served as the excuse for him to complain about Heidegger (one does not need an excuse to do that!). My hope is that one day a book of mine can actually be reviewed in your magazine – although I certainly appreciate the free advertising in the meantime!
Shane Ewegen, Trinity College, Hartford, CT
Anderson on Trial
(A small sample of the many letters we received replying to ‘Atheism on Trial’)
Dear Editor: Many thanks for the article by Stephen Anderson on the ‘trial’ of atheism in Issue 109.
Let’s look at his example of Denmark. It’s true that I can provide no strict evidence for the existence of Denmark. However, there are a series of other evidences which, while not individually convincing, do amount to a hill of beans. There are many pictures, books, TV shows, slices of bacon, coins that keep turning up inexplicably in my change, and other evidence for Denmark – including the comforting figure of Sandi Toksvig. Clearly either a large group of people are propagating an elaborate hoax against me for unknown reasons or else, using William of Occam’s shaving equipment, I can establish a working hypothesis that Denmark exists.
So what evidence do we have for the existence of another place… say, Heaven? Is any personal account of a visit perhaps supported by photos, or maybe the feather from an angel’s wing, … anything tangible? If you expect me to believe in Heaven because I believe in Denmark, then show me the evidence.
Denmark is, though, just a warm-up for Anderson’s killer argument: atheists are in trouble because they have to prove a negative, that there is an absence of God. But do I really have to prove that a non-existent thing is non-existent? Just as I do not have to prove that there is no jabberwocky, no tribbles, no Little Red Riding Hood, and no Archangel Gabriel, I can take a working hypothesis in my life that there is no God. I don’t need to prove that hypothesis to myself, or to anyone else: as long as there is no contraindication, nonexistence remains a valid scientific hypothesis – and, indeed, the natural default hypothesis. So if you want me to abandon my default non-existence-of-God hypothesis, show me some evidence of Her existence.
Martin Edwardes, by email
Dear Editor: Dr Anderson notes that “negatives can be extremely hard to prove”. Indeed. Negatives can be proved only under certain circumstances. A negative can be proven if we can show that something is contrary to the laws of logic or mathematics. We can extend this to well-established physical laws; I do not need to explore remote valleys to show that there can be no animal with the body of an elephant and the legs of a gazelle; physiological principles prove it could not exist. And a negative can be proven empirically if the statement sets its own limits – “there is no child with two heads in this school”.
Where does that leave us with God? Now definitions of God are plentiful. It would not be difficult to argue that many of the common characteristics attributed to God are self-contradictory. Is an omnipotent being a contradiction in terms? Philosophers long ago enquired ‘Can God make a stone so big he cannot lift it?’ The same applies to omniscience – does God know the formula for the nth prime number at the same time as knowing that no such formula can exist? And if she is omnipresent, then Dr Anderson’s requirement that the atheist “go everywhere, at all times, see everything” fails: it is sufficient for me to state that there is no trace of the omnipresent God in my bedroom. But then the theologians immediately add invisibility to God’s attributes. In fact, theists constantly move the goalposts by redefining God so that proving a negative becomes impossible.
But where does this take us? Let us examine the question of leprechauns. On the basis of Dr Anderson’s criteria, we certainly cannot assert that leprechauns do not exist. But would Dr Anderson describe himself as an agnostic with respect to leprechauns? Does he secure his house against them, or curry favour with them to avoid being the victim of their practical jokes – just in case? I doubt it. I suspect the question of leprechauns does not cross his mind from one year’s end to the next.
My position with regard to God is similar. For all practical purposes I live my life on the basis of the assumption that God does not exist. Now as Dr Anderson correctly notes, my position “fails to bind anyone else”. Indeed, like most atheists, I have no desire to proselytise. But there is a problem which Dr Anderson does not mention. That is those people who, with a greater or lesser degree of fervour, confidently believe that they know God’s will. But, believers in God have historically asserted that it is God’s will that women should be denied the right to vote or to have an abortion; that blacks should be enslaved; and that homosexuals should be persecuted. Such people are a danger to society because it is impossible to debate rationally with them, as they claim access to a superior authority. (On the other hand, one might ask what is the point of believing in God if one doesn’t know what she wants.)
Of course, I may be wrong, but I’m quite confident of one thing. If God should exist, she would be considerably more intelligent and broad-minded than the versions presented by various religions. So I feel no anxiety about the possibility of encountering Her.
Ian Birchall, London
Dear Editor: Stephen Anderson is right to conclude that atheism is irrational. It is no more possible to disprove the existence of God than it is to prove it. But agnosticism is not just a personal view. It follows logically from the impossibility of proving either theism or atheism.
He also makes a valuable and interesting contrast between hard and soft agnosticism. Hard agnostics think that God is a cultural invention which arose in an attempt to explain nature in a prescientific age. They deny that a caring God could allow thousands to die in tsunamis and other natural disasters. They believe that God could have allowed us freewill while still reducing the evil we do to each other. He could have made Hitler’s mother miscarry. They find no relevance in an uncaring God. Furthermore they think that religion does more harm than good, and ISIS and Boko Haram make this view understandable. Soft agnostics reply that political extremism is just as harmful as religious extremism. They rather hope there is a God, and often benefit from membership of religious communities, They may find comfort and self-improvement in prayer, treating God as a metaphor for their hopes. Religion is a comfort to many and encourages us to care for others.
Allen Shaw, Leeds
Dear Editor: The way the question of God’s existence is generally posed suggests that we all know what we mean by ‘God’, the only issue being whether or not She exists. However, unless what is being asked is coherent and amenable to testing, the question remains vacuous.
There are, of course, many different conceptualisations of ‘god’. All, as metaphysical propositions, are incapable of verification or falsification. They can be judged, nevertheless, by their ability to account for the facts of experience, their internal coherence, and their moral acceptability. In a short letter I can do no more than assert that all fail on all counts.
Theists generally display an intellectual inconsistency amounting to dishonesty when they represent God in such insubstantial terms as to be ‘beyond evidence’ (either for or against), but then claim remarkably detailed knowledge of their chosen God’s characteristics (including gender) and what He, She or It expects of us (including, perhaps, nasty things to do to non-believers).
Roger Jennings, London
Dear Editor: I greatly enjoyed reading Dr Stephen Anderson’s critique of atheism in Issue 109. If Dr Anderson himself is a believer in one or more gods, I would be interested know which one(s), and even more interested to know on what grounds he dismisses the existence of those deities he does not believe in.
Tom Graham, London
Dear Editor: Part way through his criticism of atheism in Issue 109, Stephen Anderson says: “This makes the famous ‘Argument from Evil’ so beloved by New Atheists simply off topic: the existence of evil or injustice does not count as evidence against gods of every possible kind, and leaves harsh, judgemental or indifferent gods as possible.” Well of course such deities are theoretically possible, although not seriously proposed by any theists I have heard from recently. But for my part I would still want the assertion of the existence of a nasty or indifferent god to pass a threshold test that would persuade me to spend the time to see whether this made any sense, the more so bearing in mind that we now have perfectly good non-supernatural explanations for the world’s ills. The temptation to apply Occam’s Razor at a very early stage would be very strong. But Dr Anderson goes on to say: “Though maybe it can even be answered with some explanation that allows for a benevolent God, such as the argument from free human will.” Theists keep saying that there is a benevolent God, and that war and famine could all be solved by the better exercise of our free will. They quite deliberately fail to notice, however, that the evidence for a lack of God’s benevolence is all around us. We see it in volcanoes and earthquakes, tsunamis, pathogenic microbes and defects in the genetic code of new-born babies, not to mention the merciless process of evolution. And none of those are down to our actions, free or not. We are simply left to pick up the pieces out of our common humanity.
John Michaels, Normandy, France
Dear Editor: Van Harvey’s article on ‘Wittgenstein & Postmodern Biblical Scholarship’ in Issue 107 was a gem of clarity, and extremely welcome given the often slapdash application of philosophical ideas and trends to Biblical criticism. There is a paragraph in Wittgenstein’s Culture and Value that is very pertinent to issues Harvey raises concerning critical historical scholarship:
“Christianity is not based on a historical truth; rather, it offers us a (historical) narrative and says: now believe! But not, believe this narrative with the belief appropriate to a historical narrative; rather: believe, through thick and thin, which you can do only as the result of a life. Here you have a narrative, don’t take the same attitude to it as you take to other historical narratives! Make a quite different place in your life for it. – There is nothing paradoxical about that!”
As usual, Wittgenstein has distilled an entire thesis into one paragraph.
David Clarke, Hobart, Tasmania
Dear Editor: When Issue 108 of Philosophy Now, the Art Issue, arrived, I thought ‘aesthetics’ and put it on my bottom shelf, whilst remembering an incident at Glasgow University where a tutor announced that she was interested in all branches of philosophy except aesthetics. Back then I agreed with her. Why should philosophy concern itself with silly questions like ‘What is beauty?’ when there are crackers like ‘What is a good life?’; ‘What is the meaning of life?’; ‘Why is there evil when God exists?’ or ‘Why does good exist if there’s no God?’
Hence I studied aesthetics only if it crept into other topics, and of all the chat in the refectory among students, beauty was never discussed – not once. However, the truth is we all appreciated beauty: everyone fancied someone or enjoyed a summer sunset; but somehow I didn’t connect that unique human facility to appreciate beauty with my studies.
Through Issue 108 particularly, and some other recent theological readings, I had cause to think again and concluded that, like beauty, my life – anyone’s life – is unnecessary, but still meaningful. Atheists and believers alike are able to meet on this ground albeit by different routes. For atheists, the universe doesn’t require the human race (unnecessary) but they can appreciate its beauty and creativity (meaning). For believers, an omnipotent being doesn’t require us either (unnecessary), but made us because he simply wanted to (meaning). This divine desire is reflected in art, where human beings enjoy looking at or creating art (meaningful) although art is unnecessary. A few days ago my art club burnt down with the loss of many paintings. I stood outside the blackened remains and wept: mega-meaning! So I will be taking heart, a cosmological non-requirement as I am, as I lift Issue 108 from that bottom shelf and read about aesthetics, the most important branch of philosophy.
Kristine Kerr, Gourock, Scotland
Dear Editor: In Issue 108, Alistair MacFarlane wrote that today anything goes in art galleries. He also wrote that it would be unreasonable to claim that such a dramatic change can be laid solely at the feet of Duchamp. It is worth adding to this that the difference between Duchamp’s Fountain and contemporary artists who seize upon everyday objects and promote them as art, is that Duchamp genuinely challenged an orthodoxy concerning the boundary between art objects and everyday objects. On the contrary, contemporary artists who do this today, such as Tracey Emin with her bed, merely repeat Duchamp’s gesture without having any real claim to originality. In doing so they only pretend to challenge an orthodoxy that was in fact long ago destroyed by Duchamp.
Dear Editor: I refer to Grant Bartley’s editorial ‘Angles on Art’ in Issue 108, where he asks ‘What is Art?’ Subsequently he says “Now, presenting something in a gallery is enough to make it art, for the contemporary understanding is that art is whatever an artist designates as art.” Many years ago I attended a major London poetry seminar, and asked a well-known poet “What makes a writer of poetry a poet?” His succinct response was “When other people say so.” Surely the same proviso could attach to art, in that, it is not art simply because the artist considers it so, but only when it is acknowledged to be such by the public.
It is virtually impossible to provide a definition acceptable to all, and in order to exacerbate the problem may I suggest that on a philosophical level, a discussion of ‘Art’ should initially commence with its literal meaning as a noun. We might for example wish to determine exactly ‘What is a painting?’ To do this we would have to ask ‘Are any of the individual parts of the painting, a painting?’ ‘Are the oils or water-colours the painting?’ ‘Is the canvas the painting?’ and so on. At this point we would conclude that endeavouring to decide ‘What is Art?’ is indeed a complicated exercise and console ourselves in turning our minds to considering ‘What is beauty in Art?’
Michael Harris, Eastbourne
Clarity and Brevity
Dear Editor: There was correspondence in the Letters pages of Issues 108 and 109 about the difficulty people have understanding some philosophical texts. But contrary to what was said there, we shouldn’t confuse clarity with simplicity. Clarity implies using unambiguous, well-defined words – a discipline demanded by both mathematics and the sciences. When eminent philosophers declare that they aren’t sure how to interpret some texts, then it is evident that more clarity is needed.
Philosophy seems to suffer more than other disciplines in regard to the difficulty in defining the meaning of words. Examples can illustrate the meanings that a word enjoys (or suffers from) better than numerous clauses and sub-clauses. Is it perhaps considered infra dig in academic circles to illustrate the use of words by example? The question that must arise is whether the authors of some texts have the clarity of mind necessary to assess the themes they are addressing. The skill lies in achieving results with the minimum of effort – that means efficiently. But as Marc Champagne observes in Issue 109, “excess verbal growth is endemic.”
Derrick Grover, Haywards Heath
Tallis’s Twists of Truth
Dear Editor: In his interesting article in Issue 108, ‘Thinking Straight About Curved Space’, Raymond Tallis has made an error when he suggests that the notion of space being curved “arises from projecting into space our mathematical portrait of the influence of gravity on the trajectories of objects.” The curved trajectories of free-falling objects are not the source of curved spacetime; these trajectories occur in Newtonian mechanics in which space is strictly Euclidean, that is, flat! Also, Tallis has misunderstood the use of the analogy of the Earth’s surface as a two dimensional non-Euclidean space. Consider the following: All flat (two dimensional) maps of the Earth’s surface (Mercator projection, Peters projection, etc) are attempts to use Euclidean space to represent something essentially non-Euclidean – the geometry of the surface of a sphere. They consequently distort the distances or angles between points on Earth’s surface or the areas of the continents, so are not fully faithful representations of reality. The Earth may appear locally flat to us but we can discover its curvature from measurements of distance and angles between different locations on the surface. So we do not have to leave the 2-D surface to measure its curvature, nor do we have to visualize it as embedded in three dimensions to deduce that it is curved. Thus Tallis’s statement that “the least we should ask of something said to be curved is that it should have edges, surfaces, and parts that look or feel curved” is nonsense, and a source of confusion when discussing curved spacetime.
Similarily, Bernhard Riemann showed that 3-D space may be curved, and that the curvature could be measured from within the three dimensions by measuring distances and angles between points. If the space is curved then the distances are not given by the usual Euclidean geometry (i.e Pythagoras’ Theorem is not obeyed), in direct analogy with maps of the Earth’s surface for two dimensions. It is possible that 3-D curved space could be represented by Euclidean geometry, but only if we embed it in 4-D space, and that’s harder to visualise than curved 3-D space! Curved 4-D spacetime would similarily require five dimensions to represent it with Euclidean geometry!
Dear Editor: Mr Canning’s letter is largely correct on matters of physics, but his objections to my article are based on a fundamental misreading of its thrust.
The standard way of representing motion accelerated by either a gravitational or an inertial force, is a curve on a graph. This Newtonian convention prepared the way for the Einsteinian conclusion that a gravitational field is essentially a curvature of space (strictly space-time). This step beyond Newton was based on acknowledging the equivalence of gravitational and inertial mass.
Canning seems to think that I have confused extrinsic and intrinsic curvature. But that was precisely the point of my article: the use of extrinsically curved items as analogies to make sense of the intrinsically curved space of Relativity is inadmissible. It’s nonsense because it is rooted in the notion that something – intrinsically curved space – that is essentially mathematical (and not amenable to imagining) can be explicated by a visual image – the surfaces of spheres such as globes and footballs.
Behind my criticism of this use of imagery is my objection to the attempt to link the maths with the phenomenal world which the maths has left out. This is a cause for concern because it is a symptom of extravagant claims about the extent to which the mathematical portrait of the world captures all that is real in it, including the phenomenal reality in which we live. This is not to challenge Einstein’s physics. I am not that daft.