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Change Now! • A Note On A Note • Eating Pygs • Foolish To Be Wise • Out of the Minds of Children • Balance of Possibilities • Natural Disasters • Hobbes on Hume! • Multiple Afterlives

Change Now!

Dear Editor: The comments of Professor Tallis on the philosophy of time in his interview in Issue 120 indicate a problem that seems to afflict the entire Academy at this time, namely a misunderstanding of the limits of science.

Professor Tallis correctly sees that time as it is used in physics is not time as it actually is, and notes that time is a metaphysical problem. He concludes that time is intimately associated with consciousness, for there has to be someone to experience it for it to exist. This is clearly correct. In his mathematical discussion of time, Das Kontinuum (1918), Hermann Weyl makes the same distinction between the ‘mathematical’ continuum used by physics, which is a fiction, and famously paradoxical, and the ‘intuitive’ continuum: the continuum of experienced time. The non-fictional experience of time is dependent on consciousness, just as Professor Tallis discusses.

So far so good. But then it all goes wrong. This reasoning will not lead us anywhere unless we stop treating the metaphysical conjectures of scientists seriously. Although he expresses a dislike of scientism – the astonishing idea that physics can answer metaphysical questions – Tallis’s respect for science does seem to extend to the casual opinions of its practitioners, for he goes on to say that we know from science that there was a temporal sequence of events before there was any consciousness.

However, we know nothing of the sort. If we believe this about science we might as well give up on consciousness and time. Science cannot prove that consciousness exists right now, let alone prove that it did not do so billions of years ago. Besides, what do we mean by ‘billions of years ago’ here?

Science has nothing to do with the idea that time is prior to consciousness. That’s a metaphysical assumption which causes nothing but problems. To dismiss Immanuel Kant’s argument that time is a function of rational minds on the grounds that we know that there genuine temporal sequences before human consciousness is to bowdlerise the great man. On the contrary, it is very plausible that consciousness is necessary for time and space. This was Kant’s view, and it is endorsed by more people than there are professional philosophers. If we do not allow scientists to overstep their authority, then sound reasoning here will lead us from Tallis to Kant and onwards to Nagarjuna, the Buddha and Laozi; and to the idea that time is a mental phenomenon such that by reduction, the only time is Now. This is called the Perennial view. Weyl would argue that if time is a continuum then it has no parts, and in this case it cannot be extended. The time is always Now, and the place is always Here, just as we experience them. We can dream of the past and the future, but nothing can happen ‘in the past’ or ‘in the future’.

For someone to say so much about time and fail to mention the Perennial view is only possible in an academic environment that has deliberately cut itself off from the rest of philosophy. One hesitates to use the word ‘backwater’, but that is the danger for Western philosophy. Professor Tallis tells us that ‘religious’ views of time have problems, but seems not to know the most popular view. Yet no argument is given against the ‘religious’ or Kantian idea that not only time, but the things that change, are dependent on consciousness.

If someone one day proves that temporal sequences of events occurred prior to consciousness, then we must dismiss the philosophy of the Upanishads as nonsense. Until then we should pay it some respect. We should be told what is wrong with its mind-based explanation of time. This is especially true when, as Professor Tallis notes, no other explanation works. But we cannot have a proper discussion while we make basic errors about what science can and cannot prove and treat the unthought-through metaphysical guesses of scientists as if they are experimental results. It is fabulously frustrating to read an article on time that leaves it as a baffling mystery, but does not mention the only view by which it is not. I wonder sometimes whether this approach doesn’t deserve the title ‘mysticism’ more than the view it ignores.

Peter Jones, Holmfirth

A Note On A Note

Dear Editor: The ‘Note on Texts’ at the end of Martin Jenkins’ Brief Life of Diderot in Issue 120 claims that his works are not easy to find in English translation. But his ‘Supplement to Bourgainville’s Voyage’, which Jenkins writes about, is readily available in the Oxford World Classics paperback collection of Diderot’s writings entitled ‘This Is Not a Story’ And Other Stories. And his ‘Letter on the Blind (For Those Who Can See)’ – which is the pamphlet for which Diderot was imprisoned – is translated by Kate Tunstall in her Blindness and Enlightenment (2011).

I’ve always found Diderot more interesting than Voltaire. The latter’s Candide is a pompous, heavy-handed satire. Rameau’s Nephew, by contrast, is far more subtle and less sure of itself. It deserves to be more widely read.

Peter Benson, London

Eating Pygs

Dear Editor: Regarding Marco Kaisth’s article in PN 119, being genetically inferior does not mean that a being’s life is worth any less than a ‘genetically superior’ being; it does not logically follow. For instance, there are people born on this planet every day with qualities that some may consider to be ‘genetically inferior’. Does that mean that their lives are worth any less? Of course not! Therefore, the idea that farmers could – and should – breed genetically modified ‘pygs’ whose capacity for suffering is inferior to pigs is not, in-and-of-itself, moral. There are humans in this world who arguably suffer more than others , and, on the other hand, those who suffer less than others. Does it then necessarily follow that those who suffer more are somehow superior to those that don’t? Merely having the ability – or rather, misfortune – to suffer doesn’t inherently guarantee that a being is superior to one who doesn’t have that ability. Speaking of pigs and ‘pygs’: animal right’s activists would have a hard time swallowing the argument that a ‘pyg’s’ life is worth less than a pig’s, merely because the ‘pyg’ was genetically engineered to be inferior than its pig cousin. Animal activists believe that all animal life is inherently valuable , and therefore it is worth preserving their lives. Thus, we can safely conclude that the argument that farmers should breed inferior animals in inhumane and barbaric conditions on the grounds that they would ‘suffer less’ holds no water.

Tracey Braverman, Brooklyn, New York

Foolish To Be Wise

Dear Editor: In Issue 120 I read with interest the idea of ‘cognitive dissonance theory’ as explained by John Ongley in his article ‘Are People Rational?’ In my abundant years I have observed the same phenomenon, but interpret it as a form of self-delusion, and explain it as follows: In the uncivilized world the rule is ‘survival of the fittest’. In the civilized world it is ‘survival by delusion’!

To survive in a world of increasing information and complexity we spend less time evaluating issues because there are so many, and most aren’t important enough to us personally for us to spare the time. Usually when we hear a story and it sounds believable, we will accept it as true or false, establishing our position on it. Once we take a position on a premise, we close our minds to any further evaluation. (Too many issues, too little time, can’t be wrong, have to move on!) When new information comes to us which supports a position we already accept, we embrace it and add it to our fortifications. When new information comes to us contradicting an already accepted position, we bring forth all our resources to discredit it. We will not easily accept that our previous evaluation was incorrect. We will not open the door to re-evaluation (Too many issues, too little time, can’t be wrong!) The end result is; Better to be wrong believing we are right then to be confused by the facts! The Trump Circus gives us a plethora of opportunities to observe this phenomenon.

Dan Socha, Dartmouth, Massachusetts

Out of the Minds of Children

Dear Editor: Thank you for the article ‘Children, Intuitive Knowledge & Philosophy’ by Maria daVenza Tillmans in Issue 119. It resonated with me both as a mother of young children and a keen amateur philosopher.

The author wrote of disagreement between experts on whether or not young children are capable of having serious philosophical discussions. While she argues that children do indeed have an intuitive understanding of ideas, she also states “young children may not yet have achieved the highest stage of abstract reasoning which enables them to have what academics would recognise as academic discussion.” This may be true, but (whether by genes or osmosis) I can vouch for my youngest child, a bright and deep-thinking boy aged six, as endlessly fascinated by philosophy, metaphysics, cosmology and existentialism, just like myself – and absolutely being able to ask intelligent questions and engage in articulate and lively discussion with me. Even as a four-year-old just beginning to form sentences, he was asking some big questions – clearly not at a top academic level, but nevertheless very well thought out, engaging in a spontaneous questioning of the same issues that have plagued human beings since the beginning of humanity: Why are we here? How did the universe come out of nothing? Who/What made the world? If there is a God, then who made him? Is my brain separate to me?

At times I struggle to answer these questions to his satisfaction, and he still asks me at least once a week, “But where did the world come from?” I even bought him a simplified book that purports to explain the origins of everything, which we read together; but the section on the Big Bang has left him with more questions than answers, as he rightly asks, “But where did the gases and things come from to cause the Big Bang in the first place, if there was nothing there before?”

I agree with Dr Tillmans that we underestimate children’s ability to understand such complex topics when we merely find their utterances amusing in their boldness and delivery. My son’s genuine wonder at the world around him delights me, as he shares my thirst for always questioning and thinking about the more profound aspects of this life and its mysteries. I concur with her that philosophy should be taught in schools from the start – but as she states, with a clear emphasis on teaching not just the art of thinking, but also embracing the content of childrens’ statements as having validity, and the use of play and imagination to be encouraged, to prevent the dehumanisation of the learning process. If only this was taught when I was at primary school! I wasn’t exposed to formal philosophy until university. Surely children’s natural curiosity is ripe for philosophical teaching, alongside more traditional subjects (which of course often overlap with philosophy). I look forward to one day introducing my son to the ideas of the philosophical greats such as Kant, Nietzsche, Hume and Aristotle, and exploring his childhood questions more fully. I hope he is still asking those questions, and more, throughout his life; but in the meantime I cherish our deep discussions and his unbridled joy in existence. To quote Einstein: “Logic will get you from A to B. Imagination will take you everywhere.”

Rose Dale, Floreat, Western Australia

Balance of Possibilities

Dear Editor: In PN Issue 119, Dr Paul Walker explores the balance of power (not to say, the tension) within the ethical bearpit of doctor-patient communication. Hospital doctors rightly claim expert knowledge and dispense advice to the patient. But whether that interaction be paternalistic or according to shared decision-making, or by whatever model, can the meeting ever be ‘ethical’?

‘Ethics’ implies the doctor’s considered, thoughtful, thorough and compassionate exploration of what is best for the patient sitting in front of him. Aristotle saw the ‘good’ as what’s intrinsically worthwhile. But the doctor is short of time, overworked and probably tired. Even if the doctor decided a particular course of action would be ‘intrinsically worthwhile’ for his patient, the constraints upon his ethical decision-making would be diverted towards ‘the greater good for the greatest number of people’. This ‘greatest number’ would include his clinical boss, the finance director of his hospital, and the next ten patients he has to see before lunchtime!

Cedric Richmond, Nottingham

Natural Disasters

Dear Editor: Regarding: ‘Are Designer Babies Our Future?’, Issue 119, Keith Tidman implies that with genetic manipulation, scientists are interfering with the way Nature planned life.

The premise of ‘natural life’ being a moral/ethical process in the right direction and speed is false. The process of Nature is not any of these. Nature gets it wrong a lot. Many genetic diseases were originally spontaneous mutations. Some good, helping survival (for example, haemophilia for malaria); some uncomfortable (being lactose intolerant); some catastrophic (for instance, cyclopia). The naturalness of natural biology, that is, without human intervention, does not guarantee a better human outcome, nor does the history of it show that it has any real stability. Ultimately, for many, it’s a crap shoot.

What I have never understood about the position that Nature is better/right, is that it misses that humans are part of Nature! So using our minds to employ certain techniques to change genes is, by definition, Nature doing its work. And as an element of Nature, we are given the authority to change genetics, since that’s what Nature does. Indeed, there will be poor outcomes at times, just as there are in non-human-intervention Nature. Nonetheless, as humans are Nature, then it is natural to use the techniques at our disposal to influence genetics; as do the chemicals, sunlight, parasites, nutrients of Nature, which are natural too.

Quinn Rivet, Boucher Institute of Naturopathic Medicine, Canada

Hobbes on Hume!

Dear Editor: While reading in Issue 119 Professor Earnshaw’s well-written illustration of the perniciously persistent problem that David Hume represents in Western philosophy, I was immediately reminded of Zeno’s (in)famous paradoxes. It occurred to me that perhaps Hume’s motivation for introducing his logical Problem, about the lack of a rational foundation for induction (that is, for science), was similar to Zeno’s. I mean that the primary goal of both thinkers is to draw explicit attention to the old problem in Western Philosophy, the gap between theory and practice. For instance, it would be absurd to believe that Zeno thought he really proved the impossibility of motion with his paradoxes. His purpose was rather to expose the limits of abstract logic (that is, pure theory) and the danger it poses to intuitive knowledge (that is, to practice). Likewise, surely the significance of Hume’s Problem is precisely that it helps clarify the boundaries of theory and practice.

On the one hand, this lesson is central to Earnshaw’s argument: if one is willing to read between the lines, it is clear that his ‘solution’ to Hume’s Problem relies upon the distinction between theory and practice. That is, in formulating his solution, he rightly exploits the difference between ‘certainty’ and ‘probabilistic reasoning.’ If deductive ‘certainty’ were a necessary condition for action, humanity would exist in a state of permanent paralysis. Conversely, did Zeno’s ‘logical proof’ of the impossibility of motion successfully persuade the arrow to stay put?

However, on the other hand Earnshaw is so preoccupied with ‘saving Western philosophy’, that this crucial point tends to disappear into the background, amplifying the mistakes of Hume’s followers. In other words, the failure to recognize the anti-theoretical dimension of Hume’s project by focusing exclusively upon its logical content, is precisely what has led to the breakdown Earnshaw observes in professional philosophy.

Thomas F. Hobbes Jr., Washington DC

Multiple Afterlives

Dear Editor: I’m grateful for Russell Berg’s interesting reply in Letters, Issue 120, to my article ‘Can The Multiverse Give You An Afterlife?’ in Issue 119.

In the article I argued that if an infinite multiverse exists it must include universes in which there are duplicates of me. So if my first-person perspective emerges as a set of properties from my brain, it’s conceivable that the same perspective would also emerge from a continuing duplicate of my brain in another universe, after I’ve ceased to be in this universe. Among other things, Berg points out that the surviving duplicates of me would eventually all die of old age, and so, this would not be much of an afterlife after all.

However, if an infinite multiverse exists, then, as the physicist Alan Guth put it, “anything that can happen will happen – and it will happen infinitely many times.” So for example, medical science could someday extend human life-span significantly, or be able to transfer brain patterns and accompanying first-person perspectives into non-biological bodies having indefinite life-spans. If these scenarios are at least possible, then there would be an infinite number of universes in which such duplicates of me exist. Another possibility which avoids Berg’s conclusion, is that in an infinitely-extensive multiverse, there would also be copies of me at every age. So it also becomes conceivable that perhaps my first-person perspective might also emerge in a duplicate younger me in another universe, after I’ve ceased to experience in this one. This possibility, however, would be plausible only if what determines me as me over time is sameness of first-person perspective, and not some form of psychological continuity over time, such as sameness of memories.

Rui Vieira, Mississauga, Ontario

Dear Editor: Rui Vieira claims that there are, out there, several versions of this Universe, and therefore several versions of myself. Other theorists would have us believe that we are in a simulation of the ‘Real World’ [e.g. Nick Bostrom, Ed.]. If while eating fish and chips on Friday night I experience a sense of deja vu, would this be because, out there somewhere, there are several versions of me doing the same thing?

In this world (or worlds) in which we live, there is a suggestion of an (actual) afterlife. If Rui is correct, can I thus expect to see many duplicates of myself in the afterlife? Faced with the alternatives, it is tempting to ask ‘Will the Real Me stand up please?’ Or perhaps we can all stand in a line and declare ‘I’m Me!’ Would I want to be confronted with several versions of me doing the same thing? No – one is enough!

Ruth Greenwood, By Email


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