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Why So Few Women? • New Realistic Speculations • Incalculable Realities • Embryonic Evaluations • Conservative Concerns • Unrealistic Utilitarianism • Another Maddening Idea • Inescapable Freedom • No Funny Business • The Incoherence of the Coherence
Why So Few Women?
Dear Editor: At the Philosophy Now Festival on 21st November, I attended a talk by Prof. David Papineau on why there are so few women in university philosophy departments. Papineau’s argument can be summarised as follows: in philosophy, only 25% of academics are women. This makes philosophy an outlier in the humanities. So what explains it? Papineau argues that implicit bias and a competitive academic culture can’t explain the difference, because these play a role in other disciplines too, so there must be something intrinsic to philosophy as a discipline that makes it less attractive to women. Papineau concludes that the technicality and scholastic nature of some of its subdisciplines deter women. He explains this with an allegory: there are no women in the top 100 professional snooker players, and world champion Steve Davis reckons that that’s because snooker, as an activity, is a “complete waste of time” and devoting most of your life to knocking balls into pockets is seen by women as among the “most stupid things to do with your life.” Papineau admits that the allegory only goes so far, but his conclusion is nonetheless in line with Steve Davis’ judgement on what motivates women: women are less inclined compared to men to devote their time to activities they don’t see the point of, whereas men are perfectly happy to compete with pointless skills, like snooker or scholastic metaphysics.
Whilst I agree with Papineau that it is necessary to ask why philosophy is such an outlier, and what might explain the difference between philosophy departments and, say, history departments in this regard, I reject his essentialist conclusion for two reasons, as follows.
Firstly, I think his – and Steve Davis’s for that matter – essentialism is unfounded, as there are counterexamples aplenty of women devoting their lives to activities that don’t obviously serve any bigger purpose than snooker or modal logic. They sit on horses and make them dance. They devote long careers to manicure. These things may not be entirely pointless, but in terms of urgency they are not very far removed from snooker and Leibniz’ monadology. More importantly the observation that women tend to gravitate to activity x and away from activity y by no means merits an essentialist conclusion of the form “women like x and men like y” and that type of judgement itself risks feeding implicit – or explicit – bias.
Secondly, I think Papineau has a blind spot on what life is like for a woman philosopher in a philosophy department. He made it sound like the time of sexist jokes and remarks in academia – including philosophy – is really behind us. I hate to break it to him, but this sadly isn’t the case. But how would Papineau know? Those colleagues who commit sexist behaviour are often utterly nice people, often unaware of their own sexist behaviour, and they often express perfectly progressive opinions about the matter. And yet. Let’s turn things around to stretch the imagination. Imagine there were 75% women in philosophy and only 25% men. Imagine you are a male early career philosopher. You attend a departmental meeting. In the meeting room, you and two colleagues are the only men, against nine women. You make a contribution. Everyone ignores it. A woman colleague makes the same contribution, in slightly different words. Everyone praises her for it. Every time you want to contribute, you raise your hand, higher, but the chair doesn’t see it. That makes you feel foolish and frustrated, like you don’t belong there, like your opinion doesn’t matter. Then you go to a conference. There are a hundred people there, men and women. Ninety nine of them are great, but you know there’s always one who will degrade you by publicly making a remark about how hot you are, making you into an object of lust while you really were hoping to be taken seriously as a philosopher. You worked so hard on your paper. And what do you do when it happens? Say to Professor Important that what he just said is inappropriate? Of course not! Career suicide! So you swallow and live with the uneasy feeling. That is what life is like for a woman in philosophy. These are not exceptions, they are the rule. And in my short career I’ve received a fair share of sexist remarks on top of that.
Here’s a hypothesis: women self-select out of academic philosophy because it is very stressful to be one of the few women among so many men. It is a particular kind of struggle, one that demands an iron stamina and one fewer men face. Philosophy is an outlier because there are so many men and the high percentage of men is itself a cause of the problem.
Papineau suggests that philosophy departments should look critically at the subjects on their syllabus and perhaps cut out some of the technical scholastic bits. Good idea, but let’s not deny that the treatment of women philosophers by their peers – consciously as well as unconsciously – forms part of the problem here.
Marthe Kerkwijk, Heythrop College London (Early career philosopher)
New Realistic Speculations
Dear Editor: Nice interview in Issue 113 of Markus Gabriel by Anja Steinbauer. I believe that Wittgenstein and Nelson Goodman might have been mentioned to provide some historical perspective. Gabriel’s key notion of multiple fields of sense surely echoes Wittgenstein’s language games, while Gabriel’s notion of truth, where something ‘holds good’ of something, surely echoes Goodman’s concept of ‘rightness of description,’ which is more expansive than a traditional concept of truth.
A world rather than the world has been a staple of many philosophical approaches. An individual will select and group fields of sense into a version of a world, and that process and result amount to objective facts, which is to say that a world does exist as a fit subject for philosophy. A world may be shared by a community, which is presumably what Gabriel means by ‘local unifications’.
Gabriel says that objective features exist even if no one has spoken of them. I would argue that just because no one has spoken of them doesn’t mean that the objectivity of the features is not still tied to language. What is crucial to the objectivity of the features is that one could speak of them and that they would then be objective if the language being used was fit to a present way of talking about our favored descriptions, our actions, our problems and projects (Goodman), our values, our ‘local unification’ or ‘form of life’ (Wittgenstein). What is required is not a subjective language to speak of objective features (prohibited anyway by Wittgenstein’s argument against private language), but an accepted inter-subjective language. In this approach, language is not contingent to objectivity but is the very stuff of it. It matters not that we don’t hear it spoken on an occasion; an object that intrudes on our field of vision, and of which nothing is said, is a future trace of what could presently be said of it.
Gabriel, it seems, means to exclude our talk as merely a contingent fact. But his relational realism demands a subject and what distinguishes human subjects is language, not, for example, the ability of sight, shared with many creatures, from which Gabriel draws several examples. Needless to say, Gabriel’s New Realism itself exists in language – in a tradition of frameworks that he hopes will be useful when placing objects under pertinent descriptions. When he speaks of “the [not a] structure of reason itself,” it seems he has isolated reason and forgotten that it is relational to objects.
Edward Branigan, Oak Park, California
Dear Editor: Thank you for Issue 113, most especially regarding the notion of New Realism as proposed by Markus Gabriel and Maurizio Ferraris. However, I can’t comprehend why Philosophy Now made no reference to a close cousin of the New Realism, namely Speculative Realism, which predates the former by a few years and has a large, indeed burgeoning, following.
Speculative Realism shares considerable common ground with New Realism, and there is some interaction happening, as is evidenced by one of the four leading lights of Speculative Realism, Iain Hamilton-Grant, writing the Foreword to Ferraris’s book An Introduction to New Realism; while in the 2015 issue of Speculations (#VI), Ferraris refers rather favourably to another two of the four, Quentin Meillassoux and Graham Harman. Indeed, I see a lot in common between the object-orientated ontology of some Speculative Realists and the New Realists. Both groups disestablish human creativity over reality, and so are anti-anthropomorphist and anti-phenomenological. This position is best summarized in this quote from Ferraris’s Philosophy Now interview: “Objects were there before people, and interacting too,” or, from his Speculations article, “natural objects… are independent of our means of knowing them.” (This is why any realism can only ever be speculative, too.) More, despite what Ferraris states in his Speculations article when he questions Meillassoux’ book After Finitude (2008), the notions of the Speculative Realists’ ‘Correlationism’ and the New Realists’ ‘Constructivism’ are identical – to me, anyway. Another strong parallel between the two lies in their incisive postmodernist questioning, at the same time disavowing postmodernism’s ‘Kantian turn’. They both have a Continental genesis.
However, there are also some basic differences between Speculative and New Realism. The more radical of the S.R.s, such as Meillassoux, and Ray Brassier in his 2007 book Nihil Unbound, are far less inclined to treat a human subject as giving organised existence to any aspect of reality whatsoever. They paint an undeniably contingent universe, well exterior to as well as preceding humanity – what Meillassoux calls ‘the Great Outdoors’. These thinkers, then, are far more radical than Ferraris and Gabriel, and to me, accordingly more fascinating. However, the prime difference between New Realism and Speculative Realism is the lack of coverage of the Speculatives in the English-language academic press, Given the swathes of online attention accorded them I remain puzzled by this, and hope that Philosophy Now, for example, could devote some serious space to the ideas of the Speculative Realists.
Vaughan Rapatahana, Aotearoa
Dear Editor: I really enjoyed Sam Woolfe’s article in Issue 113 about Max Tegmark’s mathematical metaphysics. But its summary of various types of possible multiverse left me confused.
Different ‘Levels’ of multiverse were outlined. Level I was described as being infinite, with the same laws of physics applying everywhere. Level II was described as containing “distinct non-interacting bubble universes” where different fundamental laws of physics could apply. Level IV, Tegmark’s ‘Ultimate Ensemble’, would contain all Levels of multiverse simultaneously. But how could Level I and Level II co-exist? If Level I is truly infinite, then nothing can exist outside of it (otherwise you would have an infinity that wasn’t infinite); and that would ensure that the laws of physics were constant throughout. But the bubble-universes in Level II have their own fundamentally different laws of physics, and so by definition, could not exist simultaneously with a truly infinite Level I multiverse. The article asserts that all these possible universes are real, so presumably they must exist within what we would call ‘infinity’ – yet this is contradictory and impossible. How does Tegmark square this contradiction?
Tom Graham, London
Dear Editor: Elizabeth Hemsley offers an articulate opposition to the use of embryos for mitochondrial donation (Issue 113). She reasonably questions the sacrifice of one early embryo for another as they are apparently of equal moral value. So we have no right to remove the nucleus from one to insert the other’s nucleus into it. But are they of equal moral value if one will inevitably die anyway while one has a hope of life? It might be answered that you must not kill me on Monday just because I am going to die on Tuesday. But the situation is more analogous to organ donation. If I am going to die anyway, why not make my death useful to others? However, unlike the organ donor, the embryo gives no consent. But the parents give consent on its behalf – just as parents do for current research involving children. Consent must not be given to any procedure involving significant harm to the child. But discarding the nucleus of an embryo is, if anything, less harmful to it than discarding the entire embryo. On these grounds, mitochondrial donation using two fertilized eggs is morally permissible.
The slippery slope argument does not convince me. Everywhere we are faced by slippery slopes and must always be on guard against them. Each new proposal concerning embryo research and genetic manipulation must be discussed as thoroughly as mitochondrial donation.
Allen Shaw, Leeds
Dear Editor: I have a few comments about Musa al-Gharbi’s article ‘On the Philosophy of Conservatism’ in PN 113. I find it difficult to tell what conservatism is when it is defined as the negation of the enlightenment, Marxism, and other revolutionary movements. I think that someone who wants to promote or at least define a philosophy of conservatism should tell me a lot more about what it is than what it isn’t. The only real meat that I was able to extract is that conservatism emphasizes community over the individual. So does that mean that conservatives are more likely to agree with E.O. Wilson on group selection and with feminists like Carol Gilligan on Care vs Justice? I find it difficult to even use Nozick’s name in the same sentence with feminism or group selection. [You just did! Ed.]. However, the idea of community over the individual appears to me to be consistent with Wilson and feminists. If Musa’s idea of conservatism is only a political position, isn’t it rather shallow? Also, doesn’t conservatism have to address the speed of change and discuss how to deal with meaningful trends vs merely fashionable ones? Do conservatives have criteria for determining which trends are meaningful and which merely in vogue?
Terry Ortlieb, Denver, Colorado
Dear Editor: I was fascinated by Raymond Tallis’s column ‘On Being Embodied’ in Issue 112, but I felt there was something missing in his article: information. The difference between a pebble and a person is the degree of complexity, which is reflected in three distinct types of information, contained in the person but lacking in the pebble:
1) Genetic information in the DNA.
2) Memories, which are held in the brain.
3) Language, which links the person with the community.
One interpretation of quantum theory uses the concept of active information, which together with energy, is essential to form complex structures, starting with atoms. Using an information model, the mind can be considered as an activity of the brain rearranging existing information and incorporating new information obtained from the senses. So using information might well lead to an explanation of an embodied (or informed) entity, rather than just a description of it.
Russell Berg, Manchester
Dear Editor: I was puzzled by Joel Marks’ review of Peter Singer’s new book in Issue 112. Marks recounts Singer’s position lucidly and makes some cogent comments about the inadequacy of utilitarianism, such as that calculating the long-term consequences of proposed actions is rather a hopeless task. But he omits what I would have thought to be his strongest objection – that utilitarianism is a form of moralism, and morality, as an objective fact, does not exist!
Marks indeed proclaims himself to be an ‘amoralist’ – a position better known in the philosophical literature as ‘moral anti-realism’. In his book Ethics Without Morals (2015), he claims that morality, meaning a set of prescriptions for conduct that we are all obliged to obey, does not exist. If so, then the utilitarian enterprise is fatally flawed. Utilitarianism says we should act to produce the greatest good for the greatest number of people, or in Singer’s formulation, for the greatest number of sentient beings, human or otherwise. But why should we do that? The amoralist position is that there is no such duty to do so. It is curious that Marks fails to mention this very strong objection to Singer’s whole program.
Bill Meacham, Austin, Texas
Another Maddening Idea
Dear Editor: I found Magdalena Scholle’s ‘How Nietzsche Inspired Dalí’ in PN 112 very interesting indeed, but it also irked me no end. Perhaps it’s to be expected that Nietzsche gets attacked from all sides. A favorite trick of the ‘herd’ is to relate Nietzsche’s philosophy to his madness: to say his ‘bad’ thoughts drove him mad. It’s perfectly reasonable for Scholle to tell us that Salvador Dalí thought that “the weaknesses of Nietzsche’s ideas were related to his mental illness” but doesn’t she (and/or the editors of the magazine) have a responsibility to defend the truth? There are too many who think that this imbecilic idea Dalí repeats is the truth. Why not insert a sentence or two to dispel the ignorance? Even doctors at the time of Nietzsche’s death suspected he suffered from brain disease, likely syphilis, but perhaps something else. Modern researchers are champions of various theories, but whether it be advanced syphilis, retro-orbital menngioma, or something else, almost all conclude his madness was caused by a disease of his brain. You can no more blame his disease on his philosophy than you could if he had died of cancer or a heart attack!
David Wright, Sacramento, California
Dear Editor: Congratulations on your choice of ‘Free Will’ as a theme for PN 112. But in my mind the key issue remains. If I am free, how am I free? Professor Woo denies free will ‘if’ everything follows classical physics. If that premise is true, then he is right and determinist is true. The corollary, which is as clear as any in philosophy, is that if I have free will, then it is non-physical.
This changes the nature of the debate entirely. The determinism/libertarian dichotomy is made redundant. The main debate now is whether or not there is a metaphysical (non-physical) world. The ‘free will’ debate becomes two debates. Whichever position one holds on the spectrum, the science of the human body is a legitimate and valuable field of study. But if we have free will, the philosopher meets the theologian and asks what is the nature of the interaction between our bodies and the meta-physical? Steve Taylor lists ‘factors’ that might explain free will, but he does not explain how any of these are other than the outcome of how the person concerned reached the choice he or she made, and does not talk about exactly how they made the choice. He refers to ‘strength of will’ but what’s that? Is it the effect of his/her meta-physical mind/soul, and if so, how can it influence a physical outcome?
One cannot be completely free of one’s genes or history, so I sign myself off as a newly-convinced compatibilist.
James Malcolm, Molesey, Surrey
Dear Editor: Free will is an age-old conundrum, but the difficulty is a theological one. Without some alternative to decisions made as a result of the chain of causes and effects of the physical world, religion cannot meaningfully blame us for our sins. In a deterministic world the causes and effects leading up to my decision to kill someone mean that I am constrained to do what I have done, and so it is argued that I should be excused. But the law is not religion. It is there to discourage us from doing things which would disadvantage society. Through the threats it makes to those thinking of criminal activity, it becomes a part of the chain of causes and effects leading up to our actions. It can do so in the explicit knowledge that we are the consequence of our nature and nurture, whilst making allowance for the inappropriateness of punishment in the case of mental illness affecting our ability to reason and foresee the consequences of our actions. Our everyday moral code is likewise a part of the cause and effect chain. It usually has the effect of promoting cooperation and so the functioning of society in a general sense. Steven Pinker’s analysis of the reduction in war and violent crime over the centuries shows that it all seems to be doing a pretty good job. Clearly it is an evolutionary adaptation. Religion, as distinct from secular morality, however, has to claim a different modus operandi. It has to claim that our choices can somehow be made independently of deterministic constraints and that we should be judged accordingly. When the theologians come up with a cogent explanation of how that happens, I shall be interested to hear it. But in the meantime, I am happy to say that free will is simply not my problem.
Thomas Jeffreys, Coleshill, Warwickshire
Dear Editor: I think the desire to reject determinism as a cause of our actions is due to the need to boost our egos. But it seems to me more important to make the best decision in the circumstances, and if that decision is determined by past situations, so be it. If this concurs with Hume’s compatibilism, it also complies with his view that our actions are based on our beliefs, desires and characters. Consider the analogy of computers programmed to take account of a situation. Like them, I consider that my actions are predetermined, and hope that I am programmed to make the best decision.
Derrick Grover, Haywards Heath
Dear Editor: I am an ex-con with a record going back to my teenage years. During the time I spent inside I became interested in the philosophy of choice, and after my release in ’93 continued to take an interest in the subject, and finally to read your magazine.
I’m convinced that choice is an illusion and I feel confident of being able to sustain the argument. I am also a fan of Slavoj Žižek and recently saw his film The Pervert’s Guide To Ideology. You can understand then how disappointed I was when he attempted in the film to describe the possibility we all have of choice. He talked about “the possibility of a small margin of freedom” and explored this in the context of the London riots of 2011. He said the usual explanations of deprived background, etc, etc, were not enough to explain the events. He then went on to give his own explanation: that we each build our own universe from the subjectivising of objective circumstances. He implies that this takes place on the hoof and this therefore allows for choice.
He is wrong. The subjective is also a circumstance and is itself always predetermined. For example, someone wants to buy a balloon. They hate green and love red. The balloon-seller has only two colours left: red and green. The balloons and their colours are the objective circumstances. The hatred of green is the subjective circumstance. There can only be one outcome. Žižek’s emphasis on the ‘small’ margin of freedom, and his use of ‘freedom’ instead of the more problematic ‘choice’ tells me that he is not entirely confident of his position.
Michael Quanne, London
Dear Editor: I enjoyed the philosophical debate on freedom and determinism in Issue 112, but remain astounded at the zeal of the determinists. They remind me of solipsists or absolute idealists. Their philosophies cannot reflect how they themselves behave. Without freedom and responsibility, there is no morality, and a knife-wielding burglar who murders your wife and child bears no responsibility for his actions.
Robert M. Craig, M.D., Lake Geneva, Wisconsin
No Funny Business
Dear Editor: My main concern after reading David Marmysz’s ‘In Defense of Humorous Nihilism’ in Issue 111 is the first paragraph, in which he describes nihilism as a state of despair based on the meaninglessness and inconsistency of life. I attribute this to the widespread nihilistic pose parodied in the movie The Big Lewbowski: gloom, doom, and destruction; dressing in black, never smiling, and punctuating every assertion with “What’s the point?” Against this I offer the idea that the nihilistic perspective is a matter of tapping into the underlying nothingness and ungroundedness of things, and exploring the implications of this. It is the failure to do just this that characterizes the above ‘nihilistic’ pose and exposes its self-indulgence and pretense: a reverse sentimentality in which the ‘nihilists’ assume they have somehow risen above the rest of us common sheep and found a shortcut to true understanding, while contradicting themselves by assuming that nothingness has some kind of fixed trajectory into intellectual negativity.
D Tarkington, Nebraska
The Incoherence of the Coherence
Dear Editor: In his letter ‘Godly Causes and Effects’ (Issue 113), Dr Stephen Anderson offers Intelligent First Cause as a coherent definition of God. But the fact that individual words can be used meaningfully in certain contexts does not guarantee the conceptual coherence of a hypothesised ‘thing’ supposedly denoted by stringing the words together. Particularly problematic is the notion of a First, and therefore uncaused, Cause. Our ordinary concept of causal chains chops up continuums of observed phenomena into relatively arbitrary links, each comprising both a cause of something and the effect of something else. At the very least, a First Cause is not a cause as we ordinarily conceive causes. Its form and nature is totally obscure. Unsurprisingly, some people may wish to attribute to it the particular characteristics of some product of their own imaginations. They would be at a complete loss, however, to justify such attribution by reference to any empirical evidence or process of deductive reasoning. And since a First Cause must be the cause of everything that happens in the world, including plagues, pestilences, wars, and genocides, we must question in what sense of the word it might be considered ‘intelligent’ (let alone sane).
Roger Jennings, London