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Letters

Letters

Conscious Correspondence • Sceptical About Skepticism • No Madness in Philosophy Now • Dissonance Dissidence • Time & Time Again • Epistemically Essential Epistles

Conscious Correspondence

Dear Editor: The articles on consciousness in Issue 121 stimulate many further thoughts. For instance, our experience of being conscious involves a basic duality: we are conscious of being conscious, but our consciousness also contains things of which we are conscious. The awareness of these not-self things depends on a particular location in space and time, and therefore information gained through the senses. This seems to me to undermine panpsychism. What could an atom be conscious of? Could it possibly extend its awareness, to become conscious of something new? Since a kind of dynamism, an ability to extend, is so intrinsic to our consciousness where does that leave the stone – perhaps stuck inside a wall and probably doomed to die of boredom? And is my car conscious of being a car? If not, at what level, and by what processes, do conscious objects, from atoms upwards, become part of something with a greater richness of coherent individuality?

Christine Avery, Plympton, Devon


Dear Editor: Prior to learning language, infants are often described as egocentric – everything they see or grasp is part of them. They have an immature intellectual perception. But language helps them differentiate themselves from the kaleidoscope world that confronts them. Language helps them develop their intellectual perception. It helps them demonstrate their consciousness: to themselves as well as others. There have been cases where some isolated people have grown to adulthood without learning language, and they are, in some respect, conscious, although their intellectual perception has withered. Would a panpsychist describe such a person as having a consciousness much like a horse or a chicken, but not as rudimentary as a quark or electron? I have never been able to identify with, for example, the angst of a chicken or horse. But these things could still demonstrate consciousness if they possessed language. If a rock spoke to us we would be forced to conclude it was conscious. What role does consciousness play in the life of an electron? Is there such a thing as an unconscious electron, or an electron in a coma? Panpsychist research seems like the ‘busy work’ school teachers used to give their students while they stepped outside for a cigarette.

Launt Thompson, Auckland


Dear Editor: Just as infrared and ultraviolet light are out of reach of the human eye, so the question of how consciousness arises from physicality may be out of reach of the human brain. I’m reminded of Thomas Aquinas who, despite monumental efforts in reasoning about the existence and nature of God, concluded that reason was not up to the job.

Would it help to consider consciousness as a survival strategy and ask, ‘How does consciousness help living things remain in the gene pool?’ Maybe consciousness helps in the same way that being able to move, see, cooperate with, and be protective of genetic relatives does? For example, conscious beings are better able to defend themselves and are more confident, focused and energetic in exploring their environment. They feel permanently at the centre of things, and expect to be the agents of their future. Young children, relatively unaffected by adult discourse (even if their parents are philosophers) are in a sense pure in their thoughts and so worth studying, I think. Some years ago, working with survivors of war, I learned that up to the age of around five many children do not understand that death is the eternal end of life: they behave as if it’s continued existence but in a different form. This belief may help youngsters avoid the horror of their predicament. There could be an inborn imperative to take for granted that life is forever: that not only does it not stop but that it never started, in the sense that non-existence is inconceivable. I still remember my daughter persistently asking, ‘Where was I before I was born?’

Michael McManus, Leeds


Sceptical About Skepticism

Dear Editor: In Issue 121 Peter Adamson offers an instructive overview of ‘skepticism’ in the history of philosophy, and concludes that the sceptical game “is best played against an opponent.” But who is the sceptic’s opponent? Although Adamson doesn’t spell it out, the answer would appear to be, anyone who believes that the senses provide us with reliable information. The Greek sceptics argued that, since our senses can deceive us, we cannot be sure of any of our experiences, hence we must suspend judgement. For whatever reason, they never went on to argue for a fully-fledged external-world scepticism; that is, to the position that all of our perceptions could be deceptive. External-world scepticism in a comprehensive form arrived with Descartes. His answer to this possibility of systematic deception was that God was the guarantor of the in-general reliability of our senses, since He would not have given us them merely so we could be deceived. In this age, God as guarantor is replaced by natural selection: any creature with senses that failed to provide reliable information about the world would cease to exist in competition with creatures more favourably endowed.

The sceptic’s fate in Western philosophy has generally been to be met with disbelief. For most of us for most of the time, there is no question but that the external world exists as it seems. Moreover, the sceptic lives their daily life in the same way everyone else does. Thomas Reid, defending ‘common sense’, spoke of ‘an unequal contest’ in which sceptical philosophy would lose.

It is undeniable that science goes against common sense – it is not exactly obvious that we are made of atoms – but it does so on the basis of overwhelming empirical evidence. When philosophy goes against our experience, all it has at its command is logic: it depends on identifying internal contradictions in concepts. Where evidence is unavailable, arguments need to be ingenious indeed, and the supposed contradictions glaring, if we are to give up what are the basic convictions of our daily lives.

When the sceptic urges on us the possibilities of our being comprehensively deceived, we might at best grudgingly admit that it is conceivable, but since we have no reason to suppose that we are, we need not prove that we are not. In this sense all that the sceptic offers us are possibilities. But just as we insure our houses only against real possibilities (such as flooding, being struck by lightning) rather than mere possibilities (being attacked by giant anteaters), our capacity for doubt is similarly restricted. When we look out the window and see a bird pecking at the lawn, we may doubt if we can identify what sort of bird it is, but we are unable seriously to doubt that it’s a bird of some kind, or that both bird and lawn exist. So it’s hard to see why we need to respond to the sceptical challenge, or why it should bother us as it does.

Roger Caldwell, Surrey


Dear Editor: I want to add to Peter Adamson’s piece on scepticism in Issue 121 that the ancient Greek school of Scepticism was (perhaps) founded by Pyrrho of Elis (360-270 BC). Pyrrho, who had travelled to the east in Alexander the Great’s army, was influenced by the Buddha’s tenet of emptiness, and in India, encountered the Gymnosophists, who taught him the doctrines of incomprehensibility and suspension of judgement. Closer to home he studied Xenophanes, who claimed that if horses and dogs could draw gods, they would represent them as horses and dogs. Another major influence was the laughing philosopher, Democritus, whose books Plato wished to see burned, as Democritus’ atomism was not to his taste.

Christopher Hanafin, Co. Limerick


Dear Editor: It is appropriate that George Berkeley should gatecrash Immanuel Kant’s debut in ‘Wonderland’ in Issue 118. Berkeley rejects as incoherent the postulation of a world inherently inaccessible to our senses, and would undoubtedly pour scorn on Kant’s notion of a world of ‘things as they are in themselves’ forever concealed behind a world of ‘appearances’ shaped by our in-built forms of perception. The contrast between Berkeley and Kant is put succinctly by Körner in Kant (1955): “For Berkeley the assumption of an unperceived existent is a contradiction in terms. Not so for Kant. What for him is a contradiction in terms is merely the assumption that an existent can be perceived as it is.” Körner then argues that just because we can never know whether appearances resemble a hidden reality, it does not logically follow that they can’t: “One can agree with Kant’s view that the matter and form of perception are distinct, without sharing his view that the form is subjective. Thus even a realist, who believes that the thing he perceives exists just as he perceives it, could adopt the Kantian distinction without inconsistency.” From Kant’s claim that how we experience the world is determined by our forms of perception, it also does not follow that we choose those perceptions. Whether we see an apple rather than an orange is a ‘given’, and must bear some relationship to Kant’s world-as-it-is-in-itself, albeit a totally obscure one in Kant’s philosophy.

Roger Jennings, London


No Madness in Philosophy Now

Dear Editor: In Issue 121 of Philosophy Now Peter Benson writes that Michel Foucault “is not claiming that there is no reality to madness outside of our discourses about it. No-one, to the best of my knowledge, has ever seriously made such a claim.” Peter needs to improve his knowledge therefore. Many have very seriously questioned the concept of madness and asserted that it is bankrupt, even if the unjustly idolized Foucault is not among them. Indeed, the belief in ‘madness’ has undoubtedly done more harm than ‘madness’ itself, which is a concept devoid of scientific meaning.

Perhaps most saliently, and definitely with most impact among those who have asserted the non-existence of insanity, is Thomas Szasz (1920-2012). In The Myth of Mental Illness (1961) and elsewhere, he asserted that the whole concept of ‘mental illness’ is an impossibility – effectively a ‘category error’, to borrow a phrase from Gilbert Ryle. In his 1987 book Insanity: the Idea and its Consequences, Szasz argues with great rigour that the concept of ‘insanity’ is ‘an empty vessel’. He also wrote an excellent set of essays The Medicalisation of Everyday Life (2007), which deals with broader issues, and not just those relevant to opposing what he called the ‘Therapeutic State’ – the alliance between psychiatry and the state. Szasz should be a hero to homosexual rights proponents such as Peter Benson, since Szasz was one of the first to contend that homosexuality was in no way a ‘mental illness’. But whilst this campaign was successful, the yet more important task of convincing society that this is because nothing is a ‘mental illness’ remains unfulfilled. The avoidance of a great deal of suffering is one motivation to keep trying to fulfill this task.

‘Citizen Sofa’, London


Dissonance Dissidence

Dear Editor: The notion of ‘cognitive dissonance’, or at least its characterization, has always puzzled me; and John Ongley’s article on Russell and rationality in Issue 120 has not helped. Ongley defines cognitive dissonance theory as “the view that people feel uncomfortable holding inconsistent beliefs, especially about themselves, and that to dispel inconsistency and the accompanying discomfort, they will modify their beliefs, even to the point of adopting false ones” (p.16). Ongley then gives an example from Russell, according to which people will praise a very long novel they have read, even if they thought it was awful, in order to avoid believing that they have wasted their time. But how does this bear out cognitive dissonance theory as Ongley has characterized it? If the reader of the novel were motivated to avoid inconsistency, he or she would not have spawned a belief that contradicts their original belief that the novel is awful! That this is precisely what the reader does do therefore attests to their readiness to sacrifice consistency to ameliorate what actually does bother them, namely, the thought of having wasted a lot of time. It seems to me that the example shows not that people feel uncomfortable believing inconsistent things, but quite the contrary: that people will readily embrace inconsistency to lessen the effect of believing something that makes them feel bad.

​Ongley’s real point is that people are irrational, and that Russell knew this… to which I say, hear hear. But this also shows that we are quite at home with inconsistency, not that we find it uncomfortable.

Joel Marks, Prof. Emeritus of Philosophy, University of New Haven


Time & Time Again

Dear Editor: In Issue 120 Professor Tallis questions whether eternity is endless time or timelessness. To my mind eternity is ‘now’ forever, with there not being a tomorrow or yesterday. In The Consolation of Philosophy, Book 5, Prose 6, Boethius wrote that eternity is simultaneous possession of all existence in a single present – meaning that eternity is not spread out like time, but is all present at once. For us within time the past is unalterable as it is not present to work on. For those in eternity, all time is alive. The past and future are present. A direct effect of all time being present in eternity is that one would be able to travel in time from eternity. Another effect is that all lifetimes meet there similar to how roads up the same mountain meet at the top. Eternity is neither part of time nor apart from time: all of time is present in eternity. Hence from the perspective of eternity, nothing ‘was’ or ‘will be’, everything ‘is’. It is a paradox.

Kes Karvelis, Queensland


Dear Editor: The Professor Tallis interview in Issue 120 was very, er… ‘timely’, given the topic of his new book, Of Time and Lamentation. However, there was a question left unasked that’s crying out to be asked. The photo of Prof Tallis you used shows him standing in front of shelves of books, and therefore undoubtedly indoors. And yet he is wearing a hat, scarf and overcoat. Was this a time-perception error, or a location error? A similar question could be asked if he had been photographed at a bus-stop in pyjamas and slippers. I think we should be told.

Terry Hyde, Yelverton


Epistemically Essential Epistles

Dear Editor: I was intrigued by Dr Mark Pinder’s article ‘Experimental Philosophy versus Natural Kind Essentialism’ in Issue 120. However, Natural Kind Essentialism, like all types of essentialism. fails to distinguish between structure and function. For example, the structure of water on our planet is two atoms of hydrogen and one of oxygen; but in a world made of antimatter the equivalent would be made up of two atoms of anti-hydrogen and one of anti-oxygen. This anti-water could quench the thirst of the entities on this planet, as they would also be made of anti-matter. If the essence of water is in its structure, anti-water would not be the same as water; but if the essence of water is in its function, anti-water would be the same as water as they both quench thirst and fill oceans in the same way. Another example is a heart. If the essence is in a structure consisting of muscles and nerves, a plastic heart created on a 3D printer is not the same. However if the essence of a heart is the function of pumping blood around a body, a plastic heart which pumps blood round a body is a heart.

Russell Berg, Manchester

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