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Letters

The Views On Nowhere • Metaphysical Foundations • Political Foundations • The Real Trolley Problem • Conspicuous Benevolence • A Possibility of Understanding • Camus Is an Existentialist & De Beauvoir is an Aristotelian • Lifting Logic Beyond the Mundane • All Hail the Haiku

The Views On Nowhere

Dear Editor: I don’t often write to you, but Nick Inman’s lively article ‘Nowhere Men’ (Issue 117) just hit the point which was then bothering me, namely: Why are some philosophical superstitions apparently incurable? Why for instance can’t today’s materialists (now of course duly called ‘physicalists’) get over their mind-matter dualism? If the idea of mind makes them so uneasy, why can’t they see that the idea of matter is every bit as awkward? Since the two were designed to fit each other, they have, in fact, both got to be rethought.

Dualism was devised in the Sixteenth Century as a way of keeping modern physics out of the way of traditional Christianity. Since Christianity and physics were then the only two intellectual patterns available for highbrows in Europe, confusion between them could have had bad social, and indeed political, effects. The old names of ‘spirit’ and ‘matter’ were therefore adopted for this new confrontation, and were supposed to allow the two sides to fit together. Unluckily, however, this arrangement was then treated as if it involved a form of chemistry that linked two distinct substances, stuffs that must not be mixed, chalk or cheese. Everything, it seemed, must be made entirely either of matter or spirit. Thus, the fact that the same person could have both a body and a soul [or mind] has been seen – and is still seen – as posing a specially ‘hard problem’, because these items have been deemed incompatible, even though that same person’s having (say) both a profession and a nationality, both a destiny and also a reputation, has caused no more alarm than their having both a size and a weight.

People still do not seem to understand that the language of body and soul, matter and spirit – outer and inner – does not invoke separate substances but merely draws attention to distinct aspects of a complex whole. The unit is always the whole person. There is thus no need for anybody to start supposing that, as the idea of ‘spirit’ goes out of fashion, the conscious self has ceased to exist and become an illusion. (Who, by the way, is supposed to be having that illusion? Isn’t illusion, like measles or a bad temper, something which must be had by a subject – a particular person?) There is still less excuse for saying that when we talk about this familiar self, nature – or the brain, which is now the more frequently chosen quasi-agent – is ‘pulling a confidence-trick’. Trying to pretend that one is not a subject – that one has no inner self – is just thought-free nonsense. And when Inman reports that “many of our greatest contemporary thinkers” are now doing this, he is in fact reporting the ideas of a set of simple-minded dogmatic materialists, skilfully disguised as sages.

Mary Midgley, Newcastle


Dear Editor: One difficulty I come across in Nick Inman’s ‘Nowhere Men’ piece is the inconsistent use of language. When he asks “Am I me?” and “Do I…exist?” it becomes clear that by ‘I’ and ‘me’, he doesn’t mean what we normally mean. When we use the word ‘car’ to refer to a four-wheeled transport machine, we’re using it as a convenience. One could say that there really is no such thing as a car. What there is is a collection of parts: a frame, an engine, a transmission, et cetera; and even these components are made up of smaller pieces. For convenience, we sum it up into a collective thing and label it a ‘car’. Pronouns such as ‘I’ and ‘me’ do the same thing; they allow us to take a whole creature into account without tediously naming the biological components. When using such a holistic term as ‘I’, there’s no point questioning whether, say, I exist, because if I didn’t, there’d be no one to ask the question. But Inman’s not asking about a whole person. He’s restricting ‘I’ and ‘me’ to an immaterial personal identity here. Later on, however, his discussion reverts to a more traditional use of the word ‘me’ when he reports the commonly-held view that “half of me does not exist” – implying that he’s now referring to himself as a whole entity, of which only half is the person in question.

However, Inman is consistent in his assertion that subjective experience is only possible via immaterial activity. That we experience mental processes seems all the proof he needs that there’s something apart from matter at work in the human person. This unjustifiably dismisses the complexity that material processes are capable of, in favor of the preferred explanation that human beings transcend physics. This belief is never convincingly proven, just repeated.

Eugene Franklin, USA


Metaphysical Foundations

Dear Editor: Issue 117 has been another fascinating read. The list of metaphysicians discussed suggests that the answer to your front-cover question “Is metaphysics out of date?” is: “Yes it is; it is stuck in a time when nobody knew or cared about the metaphysics of Buddhism, Taoism etc.” Berkeley, Spinoza, Epicurus are all very well, but they did not solve the problem of reality. Surely it is time to move on.

However, I would like to thank Peter Adamson for his excellent and useful article on metaphysics, which seemed to me to contain more good sense than many whole books on the topic. He proposes that metaphysics is the most general and fundamental part of philosophy. While this should not need saying, somehow it does. There is nothing more depressing than seeing philosophers theorising prior to establishing any metaphysical foundation. It’s like a house-builder working on the roof before the footings. The result is bound to be about the same.

Peter Jones, Holmfirth


Political Foundations

Dear Editor: I love the philosophy of politics and its central question, ‘What is the ideal state?’ When I’m waxing philosophic, I think Aristotle’s ideas sound the way we always want to live our lives. In Issue 116, I especially liked Matt Qvortrup’s quote of section 1281b of Aristotle’s The Politics, about why people participating in an enterprise as a group may reach a better level of achievement than any individuals can manage alone.

In more modern times, such communal action was tremendously suspected, especially by those who wrote the United States’ Constitution. Such ‘group work’ was called highly suspect by James Madison in his Federalist Paper #10, which focused mostly on a concern about self-interested groups which have diverged from the higher egalitarian principles that Aristotle had in mind.

I understand the worries Madison and others of his time had, but I agree with Aristotle. It is that ‘dream’ egalitarianism that drives probably all democratic governments, the desire to provide for ourselves almost better than can the gods, that keeps at least democracies waving the flags that say democracy is the best way to be governed! I also think that Madison’s and the other Founding Fathers’ idea about a representative democracy that becomes its own watchdog over factions, that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, was a very modern one, and a good one at that.

Their thinking has been another part of what is the ideal state. But if I could just have one election in my life based on a plain old-fashioned, well-healed, happy, ‘everyone-voting-for-the-same-good’ kind of America, I’d take that in an Aristotelian heartbeat!

Thanks for the article Matt. It was a nice read.

Corine Sutherland, Lomita, California


The Real Trolley Problem

Dear Editor: I recently read Issue 116 and I’m prompted to write in response to ‘Could There Be A Solution To The Trolley Problem?’ by Omid Panahi. As a high school philosophy teacher, I have long known of this argument and its variations, as well as other, similar, ‘no-win scenarios’. It is a thought experiment that often fascinates teenagers. Though I never include the Trolley Problem as part of my lessons, many of my students bring it to me. After learning about it in either their law or political science classes, most students are eager to hear what the philosophy teacher has to say.

One of the key concepts I try to instil in my philosophy students is a critical analysis of questions. There is a question or motivation behind every question, and understanding this subtlety is the key to finding, and giving, better answers. So what is the true question, or intent, of the Trolley Problem?

In each trolley scenario, the person faced with the dilemma will often begin by attempting to find ways to solve the problem without anyone getting hurt – for instance, by calling ahead to warn the workers of the oncoming danger, or putting rocks on the rails in order to run the trolley off the track. The person proposing the dilemma must then alter the story, incorporating more and more detail in order to negate each solution. Hence the Trolley Problem constantly evolves into more and more complex renderings. However, as noted in the article, any answer that does not involve someone’s death “would be to miss the point.” The subject facing the dilemma is ‘locked-in’ to choosing between one or five deaths, for which they will be ultimately responsible.

Anyone who proposes the Trolley Problem has at some time had the problem proposed to them. Having already been through the thought experiment, they have already chosen their own solution, whether they would be responsible for the deaths of one or five people. They have also experienced the guilt that comes along with the decision they would make, even if it is just pretend. So on analysis, the Trolley Problem is not so much a moral dilemma as a psychological one. After experiencing the Trolley Problem and failing to overcome the ‘no-win scenario’, ultimately culminating in their being forced to choose between the death of one or five people, the questioner rushes to pass the dilemma on to someone else in the hopes that their decision will be justified. The questioner has a need to justify their choice, thereby alleviating their guilt. The natural way to do this is by seeking others who agree with you.

From this analysis we can see the divergence of two forms of morality. The first, we could call ‘Constitutional Morality’. Examples are the Code of Hammurabi or the Ten Commandments. Here right and wrong actions are written clearly for all to see. Under these conditions – for example under the Ten Commandments – to kill is unjustifiable, either once or five times. The limitation of this type of morality is that it does not account for the no-win scenario in which we find ourselves. Nor does it easily allow change with the ebb and flow of the zeitgeist of evolving society.

The second form is a ‘Democratic Morality’, in which behaviour is agreed upon (cf ‘Reality television’, in which situations of questionable moral behaviour are justified through ratings: ‘If millions of people watch it, it must be morally acceptable’). Although this sort of morality evolves with the times, it also has limitations since it is so open to interpretation, and in some cases erosion: the ‘will of the people’ can too easily undermine what is morally unacceptable in order to gratify current needs or desires. Under these conditions, choosing between the deaths of one or five people becomes a justifiable moral act if we all agree it’s the ‘right call’. So the real question behind the Trolley Problem is not one of solving a dilemma of morality, but a desperate plea by the questioner to have the decision they already made justified through the authority of numbers. This only works if the questioner can force the person questioned to make the fatal decision. This is why they must constantly amend the problem to rule out any scenario in which lives may be spared. Therefore the dilemma of the Trolley Problem becomes a psychological quest to compel the person answering the question into supporting the questioner’s position. Ultimately, no answer to the Trolley Problem is adequate short of “It’s okay, I would have made the same decision.”

Geoffrey Whitman, Ontario, Canada


Conspicuous Benevolence

Dear Editor: Seán Moran’s article ‘Bilateral Benevolence’ in Issue 116 prompted me to think about what I do to practice goodwill toward others. I agree with Immanuel Kant’s conclusions on what is true benevolence, and don’t expect anything in return simply because I act towards others the way I would like to be treated. If it makes me feel good, that’s enough. What does it cost me to be kind to another person? Nothing. I especially try to be respectful to those providing a service for me; to understand that if curt, perhaps they are having a bad day. It’s not my place to pass judgement. More often than not I give them a break; unless of course they are completely out-of-line. The world is harsh enough, being nice to people is the least one can do. Why not pay it forward?

But ‘conspicuous donation’ goes against what I believe to be true benevolence. There are those instances when a family or an individual gives an entire wing to a hospital and their name is on the building. If I had such funds, I would consider making such magnanimous gestures, but I wouldn’t want my name on the building. The underlying agenda of those who participate in conspicuous benevolence is to elevate their position in the community.

Cheryl Anderson, Illinois


A Possibility of Understanding

Dear Editor: In Issue 116 Malcolm Brown and Steve Hubbard make some interesting points about communicating with extra-terrestrials; but some of their assumptions seem doubtful.

The argument that we cannot know ‘what it is like to be a bat’ founders on the problem that, in a sense, a bat does not know what it is like to be a bat; nor do humans know what it is like to be human, at least in the sense of being able to explain what being human is like. If one human asks another, ‘What does it feel like to be human?’ the answer is likely to be meaningless. ‘What it is like’ can only be explained if there is a point of comparison – i.e. if two species can share their experiences and understand their own in terms of difference from the other’s.

Large brains do not necessarily imply a philosophising intelligence. Dolphins may use their brains to ensure that they can track down the best supply of fish, but they may be content to do so without worrying about the meaning of life. It is curious that the authors do not refer to humans’ most serious attempt at inter-species communication, namely, teaching other primates sign language.

To qualify as life, aliens must share basic needs and drives with humans, for example, the need for nourishment or the urge to reproduce. Even a pet dog can communicate, inter-species, the concept ‘I am hungry’. Also, alien science and technology, being based on the invariable laws of mathematics, physics and chemistry, will be somewhat communicable. So our first meaningful communication may be “Swap you three tons of food for the plans of your warp drive.”

Martin Jenkins, London


Camus Is an Existentialist & De Beauvoir is an Aristotelian

Dear Editor: I am writing with reference to Greg Stone’s piece ‘Why Camus is Not an Existentialist’ (PN 115). Considering that this issue holds many theoretical nuances and interpretations, his piece lacks a certain depth. Stone’s evidence is mainly based on the personal and political differences of the two authors. Stone’s conclusion is also demeaning of Camus’s theoretical work, and he failed to look into other works by Camus such as The Rebel. I would like to add that Sartre’s notion of complete freedom was heavily criticised, and that in his essay ‘Existentialism is a Humanism’ Sartre attempts to rectify this theoretical mishap by introducing the notion of responsibility towards others: “In fashioning myself I fashion man.” This same essay also attempts to counter the notion of existential despair that Stone highlights. Sartre’s aim is to show that existentialism is a means of liberation as opposed to a plunge into despair; a similar kind of liberation that is to be found in Camus’s absurd hero.

Francois Zammit, Malta


Dear Editor: Thanks for Anja Steinbauer’s essay on ‘Simone’s Existentialist Ethics’ in Issue 115. De Beauvoir’s The Ethics of Ambiguity is an underappreciated work. Readers may be interested to learn that it is freely available online.

De Beauvoir is certainly an existentialist, but in some ways she is also an Aristotelian: she rejects any notion of an absolute goodness or moral imperative that exists on its own, and says that a person’s values spring up as a result of having chosen a project. But what justifies the project? There is one goal that comes with being human, she says, the exercise of freedom itself: “human freedom is the ultimate, the unique end to which man should destine himself.” (Ironically, she wrote before the value of gender-inclusive language was recognized.) Freedom is the “universal, absolute end.” (Part II) This is also Aristotelian, in that according to Aristotle the goal or end of being human is to do well what human beings uniquely do. And for de Beauvoir, what human beings uniquely do is to exercise their freedom. A project that exercises one’s freedom is therefore inherently justified.

But we cannot pursue our projects alone. De Beauvoir’s contribution to existentialist ethics, as Steinbauer notes, is to recognize that our freedom is achievable only in relation to others. We can be grateful for her insight – which, arguably, is also Aristotelian – that “we fulfill ourselves in taking the other as an end” (Part III, section 5). Steinbauer says, correctly, that The Ethics of Ambiguity is too rich to be covered adequately in a short essay. In her brevity, she omits an important aspect of de Beauvoir’s views: the political. The paradigmatic case of an authentic project is the struggle for liberation, politically, socially and economically: “the oppressed,” says de Beauvoir, “can fulfill his freedom as a man only in revolt” (Part III, section 2). Readers interested in discussion of this aspect of de Beauvoir’s work are invited to read my short essay, ‘Simone de Beauvoir: A Philosophy of Liberation’ at bmeacham.com/blog/?p=451.

Bill Meacham, Austin, TX


Dear Editor: I am a first-time reader of Philosophy Now. As a casual student of the existentialist movement, I was drawn to Issue 115. I enjoyed the synopsis of every writer in the magazine, but found myself frustrated by a want I find in most existentialist commentaries: that more foundational to each writer than freedom or angst is their common engagement with nihilism and going beyond it. Kierkegaard and Camus, the two with whom I’m most familiar, provide the ideal examples. Kierkegaard acknowledged the limits of our ability to know and the underlying meaninglessness to all we do. However, his goal was to posit a philosophy through which we can acknowledge the meaninglessness of the world and still live our lives. He suggested his leap of faith. Similarly, Camus summarizes the human condition in his absurdist philosophy. Like Kierkegaard, though, from the beginning of The Myth of Sisyphus Camus tells the reader that he is looking for a philosophy that can take the individual beyond the apathetic or suicidal conclusions of nihilism. Life is meaningless, he acknowledges, but we still have inclinations, passions, and relationships, so he tells us to live.

So for the rest of the existentialists. Nietzsche recommended a life of aesthetics and art. As Anja Steinbauer writes in her article, Simone de Beauvoir laid out an existentialist ethics. And Sartre begrudgingly acknowledged our condemnation to freedom. Doing nothing or suicide is just as much a choice as living.

Thus, the best definition of existentialism is not a focus on freedom, individualism, and angst, but rather a movement that sought to acknowledge nihilism and then take a logical step beyond it into action.

Daniel Buck, Green Bay, WI


Lifting Logic Beyond the Mundane

Dear Editor: David Glass and Mark McCartney in Issue 115 skillfully slice away the New Atheists’ claim that Ockham’s Razor makes any statements about God pointless once a scientific explanation has been given. However, Glass and McCartney’s analysis treats God-talk as being primarily an attempt to explain facts about the world, but the God-talk of religious believers, while able to encompass facts, includes a valuing dimension that goes beyond the limitations of science.

An example used by the theologian John F. Haught can demonstrate how religious statements operate at a deeper level than just explaining facts. Imagine that several people have witnessed a car going down a street. Even in explaining what happened, each witness can give a quite different answer to the question, ‘Why was the car with Bill in it going down the road?’ Such answers include:

• Because the spark plugs were igniting the gasoline-air mixture, thus forcing the pistons in the internal combustion engine to move, turning the drive-shaft.

• Because Bill was driving to the drug store to get some medicine for his mother.

• Because Bill cared about his mother, even though he had been angry with her in the past, and even though he was frightened by her being so ill; but he didn’t want her to die.

• Because love is so powerful it can sometimes cast out anger and fear.

Notice that each statement provides an explanation composed of facts. But now imagine that we go a step beyond the last witness’s answer to make an ultimate assertion by saying, ‘Love is ultimately more powerful than anger and fear.’ Such an assertion goes beyond our direct knowledge of the facts; for how could I know about all situations, past and present, measure the amount of love in each, and know about their ultimate outcomes? But we might recognize such an ultimate assertion as being the kind that religious believers sometimes make in talking about God as the Ultimate. In doing so, believers are not just explaining facts, but are also expressing a value judgment about what they consider to be the highest value. Such a value-statement lies even further beyond the reach of Ockham’s razor than the explanations of facts that Glass and McCartney deal with.

Bruce Yaeger, Houston, TX


Dear Editor: In the article ‘Science, Ockham’s Razor & God’ in Issue 115, the authors have attempted to show why using science and Ockham’s Razor to explain God away is very unlikely to be successful. Lately I have also come up with some new ideas about omnipotence paradoxes to support their argument. The most well-known omnipotence paradox is the so-called ‘Paradox of the Stone’: Can God create a stone that he cannot lift? If God cannot create such a stone, he is not omnipotent. If God can create such a stone, he is also not omnipotent, because he cannot lift it. So no matter whether an omnipotent God can or cannot create such a stone, he is not omnipotent. Many people use this paradox to argue that the concept of omnipotence is incoherent. But I have thought of some arguments to refute this paradox. John asks God, ‘Can you create a stone that you cannot lift?’ and God answers, ‘I can lift a stone with an infinite weight. So logically there cannot be any stones in the world that I cannot lift.’ The paradox is like asking someone who can lift any stones under 10 kg to create a stone with a weight under 10 kg that he cannot lift. The response is the such a stone logically cannot exist. So the paradox of the stone becomes meaningless.

The paradox can also be refuted from another perspective. Most people may believe that ‘being able to lift the stone’ and ‘being unable to lift the stone’ are mutually exclusive. Is that true? No. Peter is very clever and got A grades for all his past examinations. His friend, David asks him, ‘Can you get an A grade for the examination tomorrow?’ Peter replies, ‘I can and I cannot.’ David asks, ‘What do you mean?’ and Peter answers, ‘If I study tonight, I can get an A grade tomorrow. If I don’t study tonight, I cannot get an A grade tomorrow.’ The same argument can be applied to the paradox of the stone. God can willfully choose whether he is ‘able to lift the stone’ or ‘unable to lift the stone’. These two situations can therefore co-exist, and need not be mutually exclusive.

I do not have any religious faith, but I hope these arguments can help in resolving omnipotence paradoxes.

Ernest L.Y. Fung, Hong Kong


All Hail the Haiku

Dear Editor: Congratulations on introducing the haiku column! As a daily haikuist, I commend the exercise for reflections on the sublime and the ridiculous. The syllabic restriction imposes a discipline that can help get to the heart of an issue (although, more often than not, the trite, pretentious or the vacuous emerge). Possibly it’s worth inviting the readership to contribute, so that you can dot them through the text. [Feel free to submit philosophical haiku to us, Ed.] As someone whose initial degree was in Physics (or ‘Natural Philosophy’ as Glasgow University styled it in those distant days) I was also delighted with the recent science and philosophy theme (Issue 114). In my retirement I took up writing poetry to tackle the aversion to it I developed at about sixteen when the world’s most boring teacher spent a term on Paradise Lost and The Deserted Village. So, here is an offering which deals with all that:

I was Schrödinger’s cat’s muse
that summer
when I might have been
John Cage perhaps.
I posted a blank card
with no message, no stamp
unaddressed, unsigned
or maybe not.
Sorting it
will be a matter
of life or death.

Alasdair Macdonald, Glasgow

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