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The Reflective Turn • Scientific Limits • More Women In Philosophy • Reality’s Limits • Liberal Conservatism • More Philosophy Now Slip-Ups

The Reflective Turn

Dear Editor: I read Tim Wilkinson’s article on mirrors (PN 114) with interest as, many years ago, I came up with a different theory of why mirrors appear to reverse left and right but not up and down. My argument is that the effect is due to the direction in which we turn round – the axis around which we rotate – when we change from looking at an object to looking at its reflection.

Imagine that you are standing in front of a large mirror and that, behind you, is a large square. Each corner of the square is coloured differently. You turn from looking at the actual square to looking at its reflection in the mirror. The reflection appears to reverse the left and right side of the square, but not to reverse top and bottom. Now imagine you are a different kind of creature, that turns round by turning head over heels (in other words, by rotating vertically around a horizontal axis, instead of around the vertical axis as we usually do). Now when you rotate from looking at the square to looking at its reflection, the square seems to get turned upside down, but what appeared to be on the left still appears on the left when you look at the reflection. This principle can be illustrated by a tree reflected in a lake. In going from looking at the tree to looking at its reflection, we rotate our line of sight vertically (around a horizontal axis). What is on the left of the tree still appears to be on the left of the reflection, but what is at the top of the tree is at the bottom of the reflection. My point is that reflection inverts along the direction in which we rotate our line of sight when we go from looking at the object to looking at the reflection. If we usually turned around a horizontal axis, rather than a vertical one, we would think that mirrors inverted up and down but not left and right. Perhaps somewhere in the universe there is a species that’s puzzled about why mirrors do that.

Peter Spurrier, Halstead, Essex

Scientific Limits

Dear Editor: Grant Bartley in his editorial in Issue 114 is too timid and too brave. If some scientists think of philosophy as a poor man’s version of science this is good. Gives everyone involved something to argue about. The fact is, everyone has a license to think: it’s called a brain, and moreover you can think about anything at all. Absolutely anything. Wow! And if you take advantage of this freedom you are doing philosophy. Science is a fairly respectable part of that. So is mathematics, a different part. But that leaves an awful lot of other things to think about. And what is being done by engineers and scientists these days would have been dismissed as philosophical lunacy a century ago.

On the other hand the idea that you get any help from Kant in understanding space and time is rather silly. A philosopher argued that Einstein had to be wrong because he contradicted Kant. Einstein and others had a far deeper insight than Kant. Argue with me about this when you understand what the Lorentz group has to do with space and time.

Mike Alder, Perth, Australia

Dear Editor: Some scientists believe that philosophy is unnecessary for understanding our world, but I don’t think we could have survived the mental distress and chaos experienced after the calamitous events of the Holocaust and the dropping of the atomic bombs on Japan without engaging in philosophy. I’m sure science alone couldn’t have dealt with the mental and moral anguish we faced after those events. Moreover, I think that if we were left with only cold scientific thinking we could easily have fallen into repeating those events. It’s mostly through philosophizing about them that we’ve gained an understanding into what triggered them, which then put us on a course of trying to avoid repeating them. It’s not science alone that has given us the understanding and fortitude to overcome our history.

David Airth, Toronto

Dear Editor: In ‘Catherine Malabou & the Continental Philosophy of Brains’, Issue 114, Dale DeBakcsy mentions that Jacques Derrida thought that there is always something elusive about our attempts to experience ourselves – here the ‘I’ seems to need to treat itself as an Other. I wonder if Derrida was familiar with psychiatrist Roberto Assioli’s concept of ‘I, the observer’ being separate and distinct from ‘I, the personal self’?

Ray Sherman, Duarte, CA

More Women In Philosophy

Dear Editor: I read the letter by Marthe Kerkwijk in Issue 114 with great interest, and a lot of questions. I struggle to comprehend Prof. David Papineau’s apparent claim that one solution to the problem of the underrepresentation of women in academic philosophy could be for philosophy departments to cut out some of the technical, scholastic bits, on the basis that these deter women. Although I agree that some areas of philosophy are seen as less applicable to the competitive employment market, the answer is to show that the technical nature of these topics inculcates valuable transferrable skills, not to remove this element so that women won’t be ‘put off’. Such technical elements are the training needed to have a sharp mind and well-honed analytical skills when tackling any other area of philosophy or debate. They are not irrelevant.

There was an expectation that Mary Warnock, as one of our most celebrated female philosophers, would be a feminist mouthpiece, but she refused to be so. Her views can be found in What Philosophers Think (ed. Baggini and Stangroom). She denied that philosophy produced by women is being ‘passed over’: rather, there isn’t much of it. This echoes Marthe’s hypothesis that women self-select out of the subject. Warnock attributes some of her own academic success to the fact that at the time, women’s colleges in Oxford and Cambridge employed only female lecturers. She also suggested that women, when busy having children, tend to publish less than men, putting them at a disadvantage when looking for academic jobs. Having two children myself, I know that there isn’t the time to read the journals and books one would want to, let alone produce publications (and I wouldn’t change a second of it, by the way).

Warnock also mentions the concentration of women in the ‘soft’ subjects of philosophy, in particular religion and ethics. One reason she gives for the interest in religion is that women were often locked in their traditional, supportive, probably religious role in the family. Another is that they have ‘divided lives’, and so whilst trying to keep many plates spinning, tend to excel at the subjects that ‘take less concentration’. She speaks autobiographically here, referring to the ‘soft’ subjects as not requiring the hours in the library, or even hours sitting undisturbed as you work out a logical problem. I was riled by this. So men are able to sit peacefully and do modal logic, but women can think about God while they sweep the floors?! However, I also have to admit that I’m writing parts of this letter while getting the kids’ tea ready. I also remember a PhD student writing to me (yes, a letter on paper) after my first year undergraduate exams, telling me to select the modules that “would get me more respect” in the department – namely, not religion and ethics. Unfortunately I had already decided to do a dissertation on neo-Wittgensteinian fideism by then; but I also took philosophy of mind and metaphysics. But, again, whatever the reasons for the lack of women in the ‘hard’ subject, the solution is not to remove these elements from courses.

I don’t claim to have the answers. I can’t claim to be a career philosopher. I teach, I write, I get involved in projects. I have rarely experienced any discrimination, probably because I never climbed high enough up the academic ladder. There have been encounters with male academics where I have felt that I was viewed as inferior, but I was not sure what the reason was. I did consider that it might be because I am female; but I also considered that it might be because I have a Brummy accent, or (more likely) not enough letters after my name. There have certainly been times when I have begun to lose confidence, to question myself and my intellect. I don’t think anyone of any gender, class, ethnicity or sexual orientation should be made to feel like that. Eleanor Roosevelt claimed no-one can make you feel inferior without your consent, but that’s simplifying the issue.

There aren’t enough female philosophers, especially in the ‘hard’ subjects. This is because either a) They aren’t clever enough; b) Their work is ignored by male academics; or c) They’re not producing the work in the first place. I take it as a given that a) is false. But if it is c), then we’re not providing the environment for young bright minds to develop philosophically, which is a tragedy. Perhaps we need to tell young girls that to spend hours on a metaphysical problem is a perfectly good use of her time.

Sally Latham, Sutton Coldfield

Reality’s Limits

Dear Editor: Judging by your feature on it in Issue 113, New Realism has a lot of promising features, but there does seem to be a problem in its claim that individuals exist outside of thought in the way that classes do not.

Consider the individual object that we call the planet Venus. Is the atmosphere of Venus part of this object, or not? The answer may be ‘yes’ or ‘no’ according to the context, and more importantly, the obvious answer in most cases is that it doesn’t matter. When a meteorite strikes Venus, in which nanosecond do two objects become one? Again, it never matters, except perhaps within rough limits. This shows that when we speak of Venus as an object we speak of an idea that is less precise than the reality – a mental model that elides irrelevant distinctions. The New Realists are right to emphasise that material reality has a mind-independent structure; but to get from that structure to individual ‘objects’ requires that a boundary be drawn between what is part of a particular object and what is not – and it is not reality which draws those boundaries, but our attempts to understand it. Typically, reality itself is characterised by constellations of closely concentric or overlapping boundaries which afford approximate descriptions in terms of ‘objects’ whose precise boundaries are not fully defined, and, as far as they matter, are context-dependent.

There is a helpful shorthand for this situation that has a wide application. If ‘facts’ are answers to questions in a given context, then it is only our minds that can choose the questions, and only reality that can choose the answers. So we can only ‘invent’ the questions, and only ‘discover’ the answers. This has important philosophical consequences, including:

• There are no ‘things in themselves’ – but there is a ‘reality in itself’ which does not comprise individual ‘things’. We know of this reality in itself because of its function in setting the answers to our questions (or in NR terms, its affordance of and resistance to our models).

• However, we cannot be said to fully know this reality in itself – not because of its ‘mystery’, or because of a ‘barrier’ or ‘veil’, but simply because of its indefinite complexity. Yet we can always know more by increasing the accuracy of our models of individuals and classes.

• Realism and Constructivism are thus not alternatives, but complementary.

Shouldn’t we therefore rather aim for ‘Constructive Realism’? John Searle’s claim that external Realism is consistent with conceptual relativity is one precedent for this approach (cf‘The Construction of Social Reality’). Another is Davis & Hersh’s reconciliation of the claims of Platonism and formalism in mathematics, in The Mathematical Experience.

Roger Haines, London

Dear Editor: I’m glad that you published Sam Woolfe’s article on the ideas of Max Tegmark in Issue 113. In his book, Our Mathematical Universe (2014), Tegmark defines his Mathematical Universe Hypothesis (MUH) as: “Our external physical reality is a mathematical structure.” Woolfe presents Tegmark’s hypothesis as if it were metaphysical speculation, but Tegmark’s argument on this, as well as the multiverse models Woolfe discusses, are based upon general relativity and quantum field theory, together with cosmological inflation theory.

Let me confess straightaway that my initial reaction to MUH was that it was simply a category mistake. I have long argued that mathematical entities were abstract and not physical objects. No matter how you combine any number of 7s or πs or special unitary groups or circles, you can’t construct the Eiffel Tower or an elephant. For me Tegmark’s most persuasive argument is a reductionist one. Every physical object is composed of subatomic particles. Their properties are now well displayed in the Standard Model of particle physics. This model comprises fields, together with 17 particles. Tegmark claims that these fields and particles have no properties other than purely mathematical ones, so at its root physical reality is mathematical. As we move up the physical scale through atoms, cells, organisms, stars, galaxies, new properties emerge, providing us with a conceptual framework which allows us to understand the world, but they are not fundamental to reality. Tegmark refers to them as ‘baggage’. Intelligent beings from another galaxy, or intelligent machines here, are likely to use utterly different concepts.

In regard to mathematics, Tegmark is a Platonist as opposed to a formalist. Platonists view mathematical objects as real: they objectively exist outside of physical space and time quite independently of our knowledge of them. Here mathematicians are somewhat like scientists in discovering and exploring a pre-existing reality, which will remain unchanged for all time. In contrast, formalism, which was introduced by David Hilbert, holds that all mathematics can be reduced to rules for manipulating formulas. It has been claimed that most mathematicians are Platonists on week-days when they are working, but formalists on Sundays when, in philosophical mode, they reflect on their work. The question seems completely irresolvable. But one can see that Tegmark being a Platonist might make MUH attractive to him. I strongly recommend that Philosophy Now readers read Tegmark’s excellent book, which is written in an engaging style.

John Radcliffe, Welwyn Garden City

Dear Editor: I enjoyed Sam Woolfe’s article on Max Tegmark’s hierarchy of multiverses, but Woolfe let Tegmark off lightly in terms of any discussion of weaknesses and gaps in his position. For example, Tegmark assumes that his four levels of multiverses form a consistent hierarchy, but his Level I and II multiverses are not purely quantum mechanical as his Level III is, but rather, cosmological in scale; and since quantum theory and relativity are still not fully unified, his assumption of congruency is dubious. Secondly, Tegmark is somewhat suspicious of infinities in physics. Understandably so, but he is surprisingly silent about the role of infinities in his all-encompassing Level IV mathematical multiverse. Cantor’s theory of transfinite numbers is a perfectly legitimate mathematical structure; but Tegmark omits discussion of it altogether – a strange oversight indeed.

Phil Hoffmann, Calgary, Canada

Dear Editor: I believe your correspondent in Issue 114, Tom Graham, may be somewhat confused about the nature of the infinite. Something being infinite does not imply that nothing can exist outside it. There are infinitely many numbers between zero and one; but there are also an infinite number of numbers between one and two, and so on: in fact, an infinite number of such infinities! Would it not therefore be possible that each individual multiverse is like each of these infinities, so an infinite number of them could exist without overlapping? I am not suggesting that the analogy from numbers to space is direct, but I believe it demonstrates that there is no contradiction in multiple infinite universes.

Nicholas Dyson, York

Liberal Conservatism

Dear Editor: Musa al-Gharbi in Issue 113 is certainly right in contrasting conservatism with its opposite, progressivism, and in holding that conservatives’ inclination towards tradition is a feature of conservatism, not its essence. I was however surprised to read that he chose to include neo-conservatives among what he called ‘other conservative strains”. As he says, they embrace “progressive absolutism”, including “forcibly spreading liberalism around the world.” Surely this is not very conservative?

In his posthumously published book The Politics of Faith and the Politics of Scepticism, philosopher Michael Oakeshott (1901-1990) identifies two styles or poles in the last 500 years of political history. Whereas the ‘politics of faith’ is charged by grand designs and absolutist forms of government, the ‘politics of scepticism’ is very much reluctant to believe strongly in any given scheme, and absolutist schemes in particular. Now, although conservatism understood as the opposite of progressivism probably exemplify a politics of scepticism, Oakeshott includes left- as well as right-wing politics into both poles or charges. On this account, it becomes a stretch too far to hold neo-conservatism as a strain of conservatism. It is more helpful to distinguish a political type – right-wing politics – from its tokens, conservatism and neo-conservatism: Whereas conservatism is a politics of scepticism, neo-conservatism, with its belief in ‘progressive absolutism’, is clearly a politics of faith. Thus, although they are both to the right of the political spectrum, they are charged very differently. One could say that epistemologically speaking, they are polar opposites.

Frode Bjerkås, Oslo, Norway

More Philosophy Now Slip-Ups

Dear Editor: Although Mary Gregg correctly distinguishes between savoir and connaître in the article ‘Knowledge and Language’ in Issue 114, she uses the word être instead of faire in the sentence ‘je sais que deux et deux sont quatre’. Although it does not make any difference to her argument, the correct version is, ‘je sais que deux et deux font quatre’. However, what if Descartes had said ‘Je pense, donc je suis’ instead of ‘cogito ergo sum’? Also, why is the spelling of ordinateur correct in the text, but not in the cartoon?

Eva Tyson, Dalgety Bay, Fife

Dear Editor: I’ve just got the new Philosophy Now (114), and upon seeing the title of one of the articles – ‘Is Žižek the Elvis of Philosophy?’ – I couldn’t resist to check it out immediately. But as Slavoj Žižek’s compatriot, and thus fluent in Slovenian, I was really disappointed when I saw at the end of the article a quote saying that the southern Slav (Yugoslav) word for ‘Cheers’ is ‘Zivali’. Unfortunately, there is no southern Slav word zivali. The situation changes if you add a circumflex to the Z, to make it Živali. In this case you get a word, but I am afraid Žižek might get confused or offended by this kind of toast, since it means animals! If you want to make a toast in Slovenia or any neighbouring countries that share Slavic roots, you should say ‘Živeli!’

Sabina Plesnar Kasca, Rome

Dear Editor: Regarding the excellent article by Geoff Sheehan, ‘Socrates & Zen’, in Issue 113, the parable attributed to Mark Vernon should be attributed to Swami Vivekananda (1863-1902).

Dorothy Berry, Prescott, AZ

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