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Letters to the Editor

More Things in Heaven and Earth? • Logic Chopping? • Eat More Meat! • Cannibals’ Corner • Collective Indignation • Car Mania

More Things in Heaven and Earth?

Dear Sir,

In your last issue, I was struck by the close parallels between the ideas in your first article, Peter Lloyd’s ‘The Physical World is a Fiction’, and those in Martin Tyrrell’s ‘Here I Go, Here I Go, Here I Go’. To disprove the existence of the physical world costs Peter Lloyd no more trouble than it costs Martin Tyrrell to disprove the existence of nations, and much the same technique is used by both of them.

Getting caught up with enthusiasm for this philosophical method, I soon found I could likewise disprove the existence of the Liberal Democrat Party, the Church of England, the Monarchy, Oxford and Cambridge Universities, the Papacy, and the Inland Revenue, the United Nations, NATO, and the Boy Scout Movement. All these things have a complexity extending along the time dimension as well as in space, together with a multitude of more or less invisible relationships, which absolutely precludes any of them ever being a sense-datum.

On cooler reflection, however, I began to suspect that this mass destruction had been achieved a little too easily. While it may be that a lot of deeply-held beliefs were on trial, it might equally mean that it was a certain form of philosophy which was on trial instead. If the Empiricists are right, and all our knowledge enters our minds after the manner of pieces of furniture being moved into a house, then the reasoning of Messrs. Lloyd and Tyrrell could well be unshakable.

But Empiricism is not the only possible philosophy. It has been held by many who were by no means least among philosophers that knowledge does not come from the senses; that such things as ‘world’, ‘nation’, ‘religion’, and so on, are primarily ideas; that ideas are subsistent realities with the power to cause physical instantiations of themselves; and that a very meagre sensory input from any of these instantiations can be enough to evoke a full realisation of its source-idea, such that the object is known without anything having to be imported from without.

Those who are not very keen on that kind of philosophy should realise that they are willing to accept disproofs of the existence of worlds and nations because they think they can manage without them, without noticing that if they keep to this kind of thought, most of the things they are not willing to part with must die by the same sword. They might then be more willing to reconsider the idea that the world consists of invisible realities visibly and tangibly manifested.

Yours sincerely,
Dr. R. Bolton

Logic Chopping?

Dear Editor,

In Issue 11, an article appeared by Peter Lloyd, entitled ‘The Physical World is a Fiction’ in which he included a scheme in order to prove his theory:

(1) It is intrinsically inconceivable that we can ever perform any experiment or observation to detect the presence of X.

(2) Therefore any X is indistinguishable from a fiction.

(3) Therefore any X is fiction. This was then followed by an expressed wish for “a counter-example, or a contrary proof.”

I would suggest that statement (3) should surely read:

(3) “Therefore any X could be either fact or fiction.”

Just because we cannot distinguish X from fiction we cannot as a result give X the pure quality of fiction. If as Peter Lloyd seems to suggest with the Pinkel Triangle, we cannot tell the difference between the factual and the fictional, they must both be as equally possible as each other. Just as in premise 2, where X is indistinguishable from fiction, Lloyd has also stated that fiction is indistinguishable from fact.

The article should therefore read: “The Physical World is as Possible a Fiction as it is a Fact.”

Yours faithfully,
Catherine Rouse
Thetford, Norfolk

Dear Sir,

I’d thoroughly approve of Peter Lloyd’s assertion that ‘The Physical World is a Fiction’ (Philosophy Now No.11) but for one thing.

His own argument (and I quote) compels me to accept that:

(1) It is intrinsically inconceivable that we can ever perform any experiment or observation to demonstrate his hypothesis.

(2) Therefore his hypothesis is indistinguishable from a fiction.

(3) Therefore his hypothesis is a fiction. And therefore, of course, I must dismiss it.

Yours faithfully,
Peter Mottley
Pangbourne, Berkshire

Eat More Meat!

Dear Sir,

Jerry Goodenough’s arguments (in Issue 11) in favour of meat-eating are admirably expressed and I fully agree with them. Although I have often used them in argument, I have been too indolent to put them down in an article.

The idea that humans are natural meat-eaters is supported by anthropologists whose study of fossilised teeth confirms that homo-sapiens has always been a meat-eater and, in addition, Richard Leakey asserts that the huge development of the human brain could not have taken place if we had stayed mainly vegetarian like the apes. (see The Origin of Mankind by Richard Leakey, pp.54-55)

Yours sincerely,
Mrs. P.M. McCormack
New Romney, Kent

Cannibals’ Corner

Dear Sir,

Jerry Goodenough does a good job in responding to Liz Mabbott’s vegetarianism (‘Big Ears Bites Back’) but perhaps not a good enough one! “The notion of animal preferences and interests is…problematic”, he writes. “Even the most advanced non-human mammals have such limited mental powers that it does not seem to make sense to attribute to them belief states concerning their own continued existence, especially concerning their existence in the future.” Whereas “A human being could be put into a painful state of anguish by being told that they were to be killed tomorrow.” This prompts two observations; first and most obviously this is not true of all human beings. It is not true for foetuses, new-born children or senile or comatose patients. Insofar as it is not true of them it is problematic whether they can be said to have a preference for, or an interest in their continued survival. In the second place the claim that it makes no sense to ascribe such interests to the higher animals seems too strong. There are some pretty intelligent apes and dolphins around. Though attempts at teaching languages to animals have not been conspicuously successful to date it seems premature to conclude that their mental powers are so feeble that significant progress in this direction is impossible. Anyway this is surely an empirical question to be answered in the light of research rather than settled by a priori fiat.

It is not yet clear, then, that there is an absolute dividing line between animals and humans such that all of the former are a legitimate food source and none of the latter are. Goodenough tries to bolster this claim when he comes to respond to the vegetarian charge of speciesism. “The accusation of speciesism”, he says, “is not on a par with accusations of racism or sexism, for in the latter two cases the differences between average members of different races or genders tend to be insignificant or irrelevant and so cannot support significantly discriminatory treatment for those portions of the human population. But in the case of animals the differences between them and us are many and profound.” We may grant this for average members of the various populations but it is not enough to show that there cannot be overlaps. The brightest of animals might still score better than the least functional humans and we would still be left wondering whether we ought not to refrain from eating the dolphins or alternatively start tucking in to some of the humans.

Goodenough anticipates the objection and responds to it. “Where certain categories of human being (small infants or people in comas,perhaps) may lack feelings or interests then sound evolutionary reasons for respecting even the weaker members of our own species kick in. It makes sense to have a high regard for those who have been, will be, or may once again be fully sentient creatures like ourselves.” Again, two points in reply; first even these liberal criteria will exclude humans who are so damaged that at no time of their career have they the remotest chance of being fully sentient creatures. Secondly, I am not at all sure what ‘sound evolutionary reasons’ means or of how evolution could provide reasons for (or against) anything in the moral sphere. If the idea makes sense at all, could we not argue the other way round; evolution requires the survival of the fittest and the removal of the unfit. Why not do this by putting them on the menu?

I am not inclined towards vegetarianism; but neither do I see why I should not vary my diet occasionally by the addition of the odd succulent baby or toothsome ‘oldie’.

Yours sincerely,
Christopher McKnight
Queen’s University, Belfast

Collective Indignation

Dear Sir,

Martin Tyrrell presents a cogent argument for the elevation of the individual and therefore necessary undermining of the collective in his ‘Here I Go, Here I Go, Here I Go!’ article (PN Issue 11), but not so cogently as to render it air-tight. In fact, behind his somewhat digressive infatuations with football and books on contemporary Irish fiction (product of no fixed publisher), it seems not even to hold water. So I have composed a countercharge to his views using a historical, deterministic platform to dearticulate his cherished and exalted, though fallacious, vision of individualism.

Let us begin by focussing on the very modus vivendi of the individual and its startling variability according to conditions imposed upon it by society. Owing to sociological determinism, individuals’ attitudes and conducts are shaped, impeded, enhanced or otherwise, by the very fact of their being placed in a team, army or when surrounded by others. In the Los Angeles riots of 1992, for example, we saw a classic case of faction clashing against faction, symbol confronting symbol, black indignation challenging white prejudice. Yet those factions are not fully reducible to the hundreds of individualistic propensities comprising them. The individual persons of those factions had no consciousness as such, but had had their individualism subsumed by an awareness more powerful and collective than their own. On that day Mr. Smith was not acting as Mr. Smith the man, instead he was acting out of an awareness of collective dissatisfaction. The atrocities which followed are not explicable in personal terms. They are only to be understood historically, or by examining the wider picture.

Which leads me to my next point. As for Dr. Tyrrell’s risible belief that 1930s Italy bears no causal connection with 1990s Italy, I should like to advance the following countercharge. What relationship has 1930s Italy to its present-day incarnation? It is its producer, its father. Italy today is the product of Italy yesterday. All things extant today are so contrived by virtue of the things they developed from. To deny this is tantamount to denying the cause-to-effect reasoning central to causality. (British Euro-scepticism and fear of losing sovereignty and economic autonomy to a mightier Franco-German central power is, for example, only explicable by examining Britain’s past as an imperial power and first industrial capitalist nation with little official interest in continental politics and values.)

This means that we, too, are inseparable from our past, since we are products of it. Doctor Tyrrell’s fault is that he sees the person as an isolated, celebrated individual in space rather than a determined, impersonal movement through time. Because none of us is impervious to sociological determinism, historical precedent, culture and collective ideology, it is arguable that none of us is quite the individual that we think we are, that no one ever has been individual, so to speak, and that no one ever will be or can be. We are far more products of collective society than we are individuals living entirely independently of it. And as a final, clinching testimony to the reality of an abstract entity subsuming its ‘individual’ components, eternally existing over and above them, tell me how it is that two men can lift a piano, but one man alone can’t lift half of one? This instance belies the truth in the notion that a collective is essentially nothing more than the sum of its component parts.

Yours sincerely,
Mark Hawkes
Woodley, Reading

Car Mania

Dear Sir,

G.E. Haines in Issue 11 is a trifle harsh on Tim Chappell’s article on the car problem (Issue 8), Few could disagree with the arguments set out by Dr. Chappell even if his ‘solutions’ are overly optimistic. He can fairly claim to be a member of the Car-Free Movement but how to persuade the rest of us for whom the car is a practical necessity is another question. What both writers overlook is this current dependence on the car, the solution to which can only be political.

If by some deus ex machina we could return to the conditions of only 30 years ago who, given our present experience, would greet the opening of the M1 with all the rapture we did then? Yet the warning signs were clear enough but such is man’s myopia that we didn’t see the growing car culture as the thin edge of a very nasty wedge now firmly driven home. Never indeed was there clearer proof of the prophetic words of Aldous Huxley in ‘Ends and Means’ (1937):

But without progress in charity, technological progress is useless. Indeed it is worse than useless… it merely provides us with more efficient ways of going backwards… Oversimplifying the problem, they (ie us) prescribe an over-simplified solution.

Applied to our times as the ‘inefficient’ railways contracted à la Dr. Beeching so we became increasingly self-oriented pace Henry Ford. Nothing short of universal good will can ameliorate our present misery for as Huxley also wrote in the same book:

Unless peace can be firmly established and the prevailing obsession with money and power profoundly modified, there is hope of any desirable changes being made.

All men desire peace, but very few desire those things that make for peace.

Yours sincerely
D.W. Soughan
Moulton, Northants

Dear Sir,

Cars versus bikes would be a non-question if our population were a more sustainable 20 million rather than 60”, writes G.E. Haines.

Probably. But it isn’t.

Yours sincerely,
Tim Chappell
University of East Anglia

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