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Existentialist Epistles • Dismay About Drugs • An Organic Cause of Complaint • Cutting Critiques • Consequentialist Correspondence • Science versus Scientism • The Last Straw • Baseball Mystery

Existentialist Epistles

Dear Editor: As usual, Issue 115 was informative and provocative. But for existentialism to hold that we live in a moral vacuum in a careless universe makes no sense. This premise is in flat contradiction to their great claim that individuals have the duty to choose how they live their lives. To accept this power to choose, Stuart Greenstreet says, is an act of faith “so self-evident that it never needs to be proved.” I concur. The argument that we have the power and duty of choice also applies in the context of more hopeful belief systems. We can, indeed must, choose within and between belief systems. Are we Anglican or Baptist, Sunni or Shia, terrorist or peacemaker? And are we confident that we know best? Is it authentic to accept as the basis for our own behaviour that, say, Jesus Christ taught this, or that Socrates taught that, on the authority of others we have evaluated, and trust? After all, we were not there. I go for the hopeful scenario.

James Malcolm, West Molesey, Surrey

Dear Editor: In ‘The Absurd Heroics of Monsieur Mersault’ in Issue 115, the analogy of an anchor which “often alters the course of a vessel” is a false concept. Having spent some periods at sea I feel obliged to point out that any attempt to use an anchor to alter the course of a vessel would under normal circumstances result in the loss of the anchor, or quite likely have no effect at all in deep water. Anchors are normally for mooring a vessel, or possibly kedging to hold the position of a sailing vessel to wait for changes in sea or weather conditions. I hope that this does not appear pedantic, but the need for accuracy seems important in any philosophical analogy.

James Fitzpatrick, Blaenau Ffestiniog, Gwynedd

Dear Editor: Kile Jones’ article ‘“all the consequences of this”’ in Issue 115 emphasises a central issue in existentialist thought – finding the authentic posture to adopt towards a universe that appears stubbornly negligent of human woes. Jones cites the view from Sartre’s novel Nausea that “Every existing thing is born without reason,” importing with this view the assumption that the kind of reason we despair of finding is a sign in the universe of a humanly recognisable purpose. Jones goes on to touch many of the classic bases of existentialist literature, construing them as position statements on life’s purposelessness. In this light, he subdivides existentialist thinkers into two groups – the truly authentic and the less authentic – by applying a single criterion: whether or not they believe in a God, the reason being that “If God exists, it would be strange to think of life as absolutely and radically tragic, because God, it is traditionally thought, gives meaning to existence.” It should be noted, however, that Jones’ argument here works only if the conception of God that we apply is of a being capable of noticing and engaging with human triumphs and disasters – in other words, a personal God. In fact, (as he indicates), Jones’ theist/atheist divide has a distinctly pre-modern, monotheistic feel – the kind of God he has in mind is one whose purposes would be clearly discernible in our biographies and feelings. Contrary to Jones’ assumption, however, a universe that is ultimately indifferent to human concerns need not be a godless one: consider the Vedantic tradition, or Spinoza’s ‘God is Nature’. Indeed, a realisation of the cosmic insignificance of human-scale dramas can be a first and essential step to understanding one’s freedom not as a locus of universal concern or unconcern, but as one being but a fragment of a greater essence. This can lead in turn to a deeper appreciation of the centrality to human meanings of interaction with others. Anja Steinbauer makes a similar point in her article on Simone de Beauvoir when she says that in order to articulate this kind of freedom we must necessarily make a ‘plea’ to others.

Jones’ response to human tragedy is essentially one of lamentation followed by defiance. This position posits, perhaps surreptitiously, an anthropomorphic interlocutor to defy. A non-personal deity (or even a non-personal non-deity), by contrast, forces us to acknowledge how closely individual freedom is intertwined with the freedom of other mortals. Such freedom exists, if at all, in its public expression. This offers a less individualistic, but perhaps more realistic, approach to living our freedom than the angst-driven pursuit of authenticity through treating private individuality as sacred.

Paul Enock, London

Dismay About Drugs

Dear Editor: I will not deny my dismay as I read Rob Lovering’s article in Issue 113 disputing moral arguments against the use of recreational drugs. At first I found the position held by the author baffling, particularly in light of the modern world’s painful and devastating struggle with drugs. As a therapist, I have had first-hand experience of the impact of what some would call ‘recreational drug use’ on individuals, families, the health system, and by extension, the taxpayer. However I am aware that any account I may provide from the couch may be dismissed as anecdotal. So from a clinical perspective, I will only say that ‘recreational drug use’ does not remain ‘recreational’ very long. But I will point out instead that the presumed invalidity of the arguments Lovering critiques is the result of a subtle but important misunderstanding on his part. Those arguments are trivialized because they are presented, and then critiqued, out of context. Specifically, I mean his critique remains within the bounds of the individual. If the arguments are on the contrary within the context of recognizing the human being as a social being, then they acquire a new light and significance, one in which individual autonomy is not simply decided on the isolated terms of the individual. It is within this context that Plato speaks of the lotus-eaters and their behavior being less than desirable, since it deprives the state of their faculties. But let us make this more concrete. It is known that marijuana can cause permanent brain damage, among other problems. Someone who smokes marijuana therefore risks impairing his mental capacities. This goes against the well-being of his fellow citizens by denying them his abilities which may otherwise contribute to the improvement of society. The individual does not have a right to withhold from society a good which he in turn received from it – that is, his able body and mind. Herein lies the immorality of the use of drugs recreationally.

Enrique Vinales, Coral Springs, Florida

An Organic Cause of Complaint

Dear Editor: As a Humean, I found Peter Sjöstedt-H’s article in Issue 114 both curious and perplexing. The author argues that David Hume is wrong to assert that we do not directly perceive causality itself because “perception is causality”. But by stating this, he presupposes that causality exists. As a consequence, he falls into the same pitfall that Hume rails against in his An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding – that after coming to perceive an event over and over again, we come to believe that there is an inherent ‘necessary connexion’ between two events; yet what we actually perceive is merely a conjugation of two events. Take Peter’s example: “a star changes the eye seeing it… and so part of the star – its electromagnetic radiation – becomes part of me.” Again, he presupposes that cause and effect are at work here. But does the star’s light really have this effect on the eye? I say that Peter merely fools himself into believing that: he may surely have witnessed such a conjugation of events many times over, so now there is this magical ‘necessary connexion’. However, what does the author actually perceive in the star and eye example? The key here is the conjugation of the star’s light, and a changing of the eye. Crucially, we, including Peter, do not perceive causality. And this is important because if we don’t have, in Hume’s word, an ‘impression’ of cause and effect, we cannot have an ‘idea’ of it either. To make such a statement therefore is nonsensical, because how can one speak of a thing without having an idea of it ?

Tracey Braverman, Brooklyn, New York

Cutting Critiques

Dear Editor: In Issue 115 David Glass and Mark McCartney show conclusively that Ockham’s razor cannot be used to prove that our scientific understanding of the universe excludes the possibility that God created it. Indeed God is an elegant explanation of how the universe, its laws and intelligent life came to be, and some might think it more likely that God had no beginning than that matter and the natural laws had no beginning.

However, Glass and McCartney do not distinguish clearly between the deists’ and the theists’ God. Deists believe God created the universe with its natural laws, but then interfered no further. His existence is an interesting theoretical possibility but of no practical importance. By contrast, theists believe God cares about us and may reward and punish our actions in this life, or in a life after this one. Therefore His existence matters very much to all of us. He is usually envisaged as a perfect being; omniscient, all-powerful and totally good. However, apart from the absence of positive evidence of His existence, there are two main problems with this belief. The first is the misery caused by natural disasters: volcanoes, earthquakes, famines and tsunamis. Second, why does He permit so much human evil? ‘Free will’ is not the answer. He could mitigate the worst of what we do to each other. He could have made Frau Hitler conceive a less murderous sibling in place of baby Adolf, and given Stalin his fatal stroke twenty years earlier.The only evident explanation of why the theists’ God permits so much unhappiness would be that he is imperfect like us. If we are made in his image that seems quite likely.

Allen Shaw, Leeds

Dear Editor: It seems as though David Glass and Mark McCartney (issue 115) are forcing Ockham’s Razor to cut where it does not wish to cut. A sensible trim is not the same as a chopping off! Ockham’s Razor is not the way to a ‘knock down’, positive proof outcome. For example, my friend was not on the train as expected; this may be because he was delayed in work, or it may be that he was kidnapped by a terrorist group in a case of mistaken identity and flown to Australia. In applying Ockham’s Razor, we acknowledge that both scenarios are possible, either could be true, but one seems a better bet than the other. That’s all the Razor is suggesting, and it is a very useful tool. If atheists think they can use it to eliminate God, they will be frustrated. The problem for theists, however, is that Ockham’s Razor can be used effectively in conjunction with discovery, research and explanation to push God further and further back in the causal chain as a ‘better bet’ for an explanation, until He gets lost in the mist. Here we enter the realms where Wittgenstein suggests that the better bet is ‘silence’.

Andrew D. Lewis, Blackwood, Caerphilly

Dear Editor: Many thanks for the interesting contrast of three articles in Issue 115: Shoeneberg reminded us of the pitfalls of fallacious reasoning and the dangers of bias; Lammer-Heindel drew precise distinctions between facts, beliefs and opinions; and then there was the piece on Ockham’s Razor by Glass and McCartney.

G&M start with the minor fallacy that the razor was forged by William of Ockham, but the ‘rule of parsimony’ is much older. The big issue, however, is their promotion of a heuristic (a way of solving a problem) into a hypothesis (a way of explaining the universe). This means that G&M miss the point of the rule of parsimony. It is only applicable where two apparently equal, and currently unprovable hypotheses are in competition.

One of G&M’s examples illustrates the problem. My car won’t start. It could be the battery or starter motor; a mechanic says the battery is faulty; but this does not exclude the starter motor also being faulty. All true, but there is nowhere here to apply the rule of parsimony, because evidence is easily available. The mechanic changes the battery and the car still won’t start. All verifiable (and billable). No need for Friar William.

M&G are correct in their closing argument, that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. However, this is only true because absence of evidence isn’t evidence of any kind. There is no need to fill the void with opinion and bias.

Martin Edwardes, London

Consequentialist Correspondence

Dear Editor: The flaw in the ‘Jim and the Indians’ thought experiment, as discussed by Katy Baker in Issue 115, is that it neglects to tell us about Jim’s personal philosophy. The starting point for the analysis is that it is problematic for Jim to follow the utilitarian line of moral reasoning because of the impact upon himself as an agent. The question is taken to be ‘What should Jim do?’. But as soon as that question is changed to ‘What will Jim do?’, this problem vanishes.

Let me explain. Broadly speaking, Jim is either a consequentialist or a non-consequentialist. A non-consequentialist Jim would say something like ‘No way am I going to kill another human being! I can’t stop you and Pedro doing what you’re going to do, but it would be absolutely wrong for me to do what you suggest.’ Consequentialist critics might subsequently accuse him of allowing squeamishness to prevent him from doing what was right, but he would simply disagree. And anyway, he was there, and they weren’t. On the other hand, a consequentialist Jim would talk to himself thus: ‘Jim, you have the opportunity to save nineteen lives here. Yes, in normal circumstances you would never dream of killing another person, but these circumstances are as far from normal as they could be. And yes, what you’re being asked to do is horrible. But suck it up, Jim, and do what’s right!’ And this Jim, though doubtless traumatised, would be subsequently sustained by the knowledge that he had, by his lights, done the right thing. In neither of these scenarios is Jim’s integrity put aside. That would only happen in a scenario where he felt pressured to kill an Indian even though he thought it wrong, or where he thought it right to kill an Indian but was too squeamish to do so. And you can’t blame consequentialism in either case.

There may well be problems for utilitarianism and consequentialism in general, but I don’t think they’re illustrated by the tale of Jim and the Indians.

Dave Mangnall, Wilmslow, Cheshire

Science versus Scientism

whale beached
Whale beached in LA Harbour

Dear Editor: Philosophy of Science (Issue 114) is, indeed, a subject only for philosophers. I have volunteered with a whale watch program for over thirty years. Recently, a dead humpback whale was brought in on the hull of a ship to the Los Angeles Harbor. The NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) scientists present took tissue samples and prepared the whale to have it towed back out to sea where it could decompose. Reading their online posting the next day, the following non-philosophical information was listed about the whale: length was 48 feet; gender was female; death was determined to have been just a couple of days prior to being brought into the harbor; cause of death was as of yet undetermined; and the name Dragonfly was assigned to the whale, due to a scar on its tail fluke that looked a little like a dragonfly. There were no questions posed about the moral issue of whales endangered by ship strikes; or the metaphysics of taking a picture from the right side showing the right side of the whale (see the ‘Mirror, Mirror’ article); or about this animal being one of God’s creations now removed from the continued propagation of its species. All scientists ask are questions about science. Philosophy is not in the mix of their questions. And though I learn a lot about whales from this kind of research, the scientists seem quite content in learning little philosophical about them. In fact, when they hold national seminars, it is often philosophers who are brought in to discuss the philosophical issues. The scientists do care about the whales, but do not train professionally to argue the topic philosophically.

Corine Sutherland, Lomita, California

The Last Straw

Dear Editor: At the start of Terri Murray’s review of The Last Supper in Issue 114 you add a spoiler alert. But it seems to me that some critical spoilers were completely neglected that might have compromised Murray’s thesis. For one, it neglected to say that Ron Pearlman’s character, Norman Arbuthnot, ended up turning the tables and poisoning the five liberal characters while they were debating about not poisoning him. This is the kind of manipulation to which right-wing ideologues are prone, since they usually cannot prop up their beliefs rationally. The point is taken to a further level when, in the closing scene, as the camera is fixed on the five graves, the soundtrack has Arbuthnot announcing his candidacy for President of the United States. This goes back to the question the liberals asked at the beginning: if they were to meet Hitler before he ever engaged in the evil he did, would they kill him?

I’m sorry, but something about Murray’s article irked me. For instance, Murray makes a point of saying how reasonable Arbuthnot comes off compared to the liberals. But because he clearly recognized he was in hostile territory, the arguments he made were not so much an expression of how he actually felt, but rather his attempt to turn liberal values against the liberals themselves. Neo-Nazis, in a bind, use similar tactics. And although Neo-Nazis are clearly wrong, it is never just a matter of them being dumb. It is, rather, a matter of how they use their intellects. Ultimately, it always amounts to intellectual bullying.

D. Tarkington, Nebraska

Baseball Mystery

Dear Editor: ‘The Philosophy Professor & The Holy Book of Baseball’ in Issue 115 is quite unsatisfactory: the author says that the contradiction in the baseball rules was removed in 2010, but does not tell us how the contradiction was resolved! I tried looking at the current (2016) rules, but the paragraph numbers have changed, and I am loath to search through 172 pages of text. Please enlighten us as to how the contradiction was resolved!

Bill Meacham, Austin, Texas

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