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Prejudice & Toleration • Prostitution & Free Will • Digital & Trivial • Pull Your Socs Up • The Buddhist Boomerang • Misreading Cubism • Consciousness Baffles Brains • Experiencing Disagreement • Spinozist Anti-Simulation Argument • Finding Refuge • The Real Ethical Questions
Prejudice & Toleration
Dear Editor: My subject is Prejudice & Perception, which was the theme of Issue 123. My question is ‘What kind of society do we want?’ Suppose we say we want a consistently tolerant society. What would that look like? It would have to be something like a body politic consisting of self-defined and historically-defined groups who by stipulation were tolerant of every other group who was tolerant of them. In that society everyone is tolerant of everyone else! Tolerance here can be taken to mean ‘satisfied with having to accept [group x] as a part of the community’. Notice that groups like the Nazis could not exist in such a society. It is intrinsic to Nazism that it is not tolerant of various social sub-groups, and so it could not exist in plain view in such a society. It would in fact be logically consistent to formally outlaw such groups.
The objection that the enforcer of this law could use it to suppress dissent misses its target. Political and social disagreement within the bounds of tolerance is easily distinguished from intolerance. “Republicans are crooks and should all be voted out of office” is legitimate political opinion: “Republicans should be killed” or anything of that ilk, is hate speech and might be legitimately and consistently outlawed.
On the other side of the social divide, a necessary outcome in an intolerant society is that it comes to be dominated by a single, intolerant, group (such as the Nazis) because a society of competing intolerant groups is inherently unstable and eventually one of the groups comes to dominate. Notice that this society is also logically consistent – just not very nice to live in for most.
In between are societies that are a mix of tolerance and intolerance. Societies like ours. The problem with this mix is that it too is unstable because the intolerant groups will, by predilection, always be looking for ways to disturb the political and economic balance in their favour by destroying or subjugating some one or more tolerant groups. Indeed, the only way a mixed society can continue to survive in mixed mode over the long term is to provide a mechanism that actively promotes tolerance. This is why a mandatory liberal education and exposure to a reasonably wide swathe of the world’s culture is both legitimate and logical. This in no way precludes a variety of educational modes. Amish public education can be perfectly liberal while still teaching that ploughing with horses is a better way to live! That’s a legitimate tolerant social and political opinion as long as it does not advocate the destruction of those who plough with tractors.
Matthew Rapaport, California
Prostitution & Free Will
Dear Editor: When I read Rob Lovering’s article ‘Prostitution and Instrumentalization’ in Issue 123 it reminded me of a claim by Stephen Fry that the male sex drive is greater than the female so there should be prostitution to accommodate this. My former employer also said there was nothing wrong with prostitution. When I asked if he would be okay with his daughter being a sex worker he didn’t answer. While Lovering and Fry’s assertions both seem factual, neither deals with the personal costs to sex workers, who prostitute themselves often to feed a drug habit or are in forced prostitution and under threat, many under age. Lovering likely knows and agrees with this; but perhaps this is all the more reason not to be so verbose on the philosophical arguments for prostitution?
Kristine Kerr, Gourock, Renfrewshire
Dear Editor: Rob Lovering in Issue 123 argues cogently that instrumentalizing the body in prostitution is not morally different from instrumentalizing it in (other) nasty jobs such as lavatory cleaning. All involve distasteful use of the body for a rational end, earning money. However, defining prostitution precisely enables us to assess its morality better: it is not just selling sex. It is voluntarily selling sex, and sex only, to multiple customers. A sex slave is not a prostitute because she is being sold, not selling. Guilt lies primarily with her captors and secondarily with customers who prefer not to acknowledge her situation. A woman who sells sex to avoid starvation is also not acting voluntarily. Guilt lies perhaps not with her customers, who keep her from starving, but with we who live comfortably while tolerating a world where she needs to do this. The same might apply to the woman who chooses to sell sex rather than endure unhealthy drudgery for a pittance in an Asian factory while we buy cheaply the products of that factory. It might also apply to the woman who can’t get any other job in Europe.
Jobs involving risk to the operative or the customer are often legal and supervised in many Western countries; so why are brothels often illegal and unsupervised? It cannot be a simple issue of conservative sexual morality, because abortion clinics are legal and supervised. Can it be to discourage people from going to brothels? Yet we hardly want to encourage abortion either. Or is it rather because influential people can imagine themselves or their daughters needing abortions, but not being reduced to prostitution?
Allen Shaw, Leeds
Digital & Trivial
Dear Editor: Matt Bluemink’s thoughts in Issue 122 on Socrates and the pernicious effects of the digital age on our diminishing attention-spans got my attention. The police have had to advise those caught up in terror attacks not to stand around taking pictures. Then there’s Twitter, so felicitously named, and foreseen long before Socrates, in the Old Testament: “The fool takes no delight in understanding, but merely in expressing his own opinions.” (Proverbs 18.2) Or visit any art gallery and watch people snapping away with camera-phones but not attending to the art. Without attention to art there is no love of art, only of Selfie. And what of the love of our children, or of other people? At the end of his philosophical novel, The Bridge of St Luis Rey (1927), Thornton Wilder writes that love is the only survival, the only meaning. He could have been echoing St Paul’s assertion that love is patient, kind, without envy or self-interest – attentive, in other words – and the greatest of all virtues. Paul almost certainly knew of Aristotle’s notion of the truest love being the wish for the good for others – a wish that presupposes attention to another person’s soul. Love and friendship bridge the gulfs between us. We must not let cramped and flimsy internet connections destroy real connections and create Dystopia Now.
Michael McManus, Leeds
Pull Your Socs Up
Dear Editor: I write with regard to the topic of ‘the real Socrates’ as raised by Peter Adamson and others in Issue 122. As far as we know Socrates wrote nothing, but his admiring pupil Plato left a weighty tribute to his master in the form of dialogues which have Socrates as the main speaker. Yet we assume that only Plato’s so-called ‘early’ dialogues represent the real Socrates. Here he is represented as the eccentric, often annoying, questioner in the marketplace, on a life-long quest to find out the best way to live. Plato’s ‘middle’ dialogues are too often assumed to be more the thought of the pupil Plato than the master Socrates. But there is no evidence for this assumption. Rather (especially these days) we seem to prefer Socrates the questioner to Socrates the mystic, and yet the middle dialogues are preoccupied with the eternal world of the Forms and the progress of the philosopher from earthly desires and ambitions, and beliefs derived from bodily sensations, towards the true and lasting happiness which lies in the apprehension of knowledge by the intellect alone. In Plato’s images, this is a stairway to heaven that involves the rocky climb out from the Cave of ignorance. Here there is a hierarchy of being; and in this bodily world we are at the bottom. Such a search for the higher Forms does not preclude rationality, indeed it clarifies it. It could then be that the purpose of Socrates’ relentless argumentation is to illuminate, often brutally expose, the accepted norms of everyday thought in preparation for the final spiritual transformation of finding union with the divine.
Why could Socrates not be both the questioner in the public arena and the spiritual midwife to his closest followers? Why could Socrates not be the debunker of accepted truths and at the same time the advocate of an ultimate truth?
Tony Pitman, Bradford on Avon, Wiltshire
The Buddhist Boomerang
Dear Editor: I enjoyed reading Lachlan Dale’s review of The Monk and the Philosopher by Jean-Francois Revel and Matthieu Ricard in Issue 122. I have not read the book myself, but I have practiced and studied in one tradition of Tibetan Buddhism since 1987, and I wanted to raise a couple of points.
Mr Dale believes that the Buddhist doctrine of karma presents a problem for free will. I don’t think it does. As I understand it, karma is the law that brings the consequences of our actions back to us; it does not determine what those actions will be. It’s like throwing a boomerang. Once we throw it, the laws of physics determine the behavior of the boomerang: but where, when, or whether we throw that boomerang is up to us. In the same way, karma does not determine our actions; it merely states that their consequences will inevitably be visited on us.
Another issue Mr Dale raises is the problem of consciousness: are mind and body two things, or one? You can find support for both positions within Buddhism. But there’s a deeper issue. In Buddhism, ultimate knowledge is nonconceptual and nondual, and any conceptual understanding can only be conventional and provisional. Science and philosophy, as conceptual undertakings, can therefore take one only so far. A complete understanding of reality is the achievement of a fully awakened Buddha nature, and is direct and nonconceptual. In the ultimate view, reality is said to be ‘empty’ of the distinction between mind and body; so ultimately there is no mind-body problem. Yet in any given context, a Buddhist teacher might present either a dualistic or a monistic view – whichever will best help his/her listeners move closer to that final, nonconceptual understanding.
Paul Vitols, North Vancouver
Dear Editor: Stuart Greenstreet in Issue 122 believes that Cubism, and art in general, is a kind of language. This does not fit my experience as an artist.
Our distant ancestors painted images of horses on the walls of caves that we immediately recognise. They also left patterns of dots that we do not understand. Just so, Etruscan tomb figures are familiar, although we cannot read their written language. The difference is that the dots and the writing are messages encoded, subject to Saussure’s semiological analysis. But on the contrary we need no key to read the images because they display significant features of the actual objects. We need only a few features to recognise a horse or a face. They are arranged not by convention, but by nature, by the way things are.
A drawing of a horse has four legs – count them – like the real horse. The word ‘horse’ has no legs. A drawing, a caricature, or a diagram picks out prominent features related in the same way as in life. Arrange three blobs to make an equilateral triangle, with two at the top, and even a tiny baby will see a face. No decoding is necessary because a real face also has two blobs at the top and one lower down. This is how perception works, of objects or images alike.
Picasso was mistaken. He drew not what he knew but what he saw – but he drew features seen at different times and from different angles, simplified and lumped together into one image. As for the legacy of Cubism, look no further than The Simpsons.
Tom Chamberlain, London & Mexico
Consciousness Baffles Brains
Dear Editor: I really enjoy getting my Philosophy Now issues, in my case from our little village newsagent near Perth, Western Australia. The articles generally baffle my brain, which is why I keep buying it.
The consciousness issue (Issue 121) confused me completely as I’m not a philosopher. But I am an experiencer. I’m missing the point of those articles as they didn’t once mention how I experience consciousness.
I’ve found I cannot separate consciousness from my attention: I become conscious of whatever when I give my attention to it. I understand there are different degrees of attention, but even so I still think consciousness is still connected to attention. To me that’s what was missing – but maybe I’m missing the point of the various theories.
The mosquitos in Perth not only give me their conscious attention from their spot on our bedroom wall after their bite/flight response: they even seem to be consciously aware of my intention when I approach them with my PN magazine, loosely dangling in my hand, ready to swat. Mysteriously they disappear into the shadows, maybe silently laughing at my frustrated searching as to what their level of consciousness is.
Paul Bergin, Perth, Western Australia
Dear Editor: Dr Steve Brewer (Letters, Issue 123) expounded on experientialism as being his preferred explanation of consciousness: “In panexperientalism, a fleeting experience is generated whenever physical systems exchange energy-information, since they’re equivalent.”
Where is the evidence that they are equivalent? And are they identical too or is this a case of supposed cause and effect? This quoted statement has the appearance of dogma. I would like to call Raymond Tallis to the rescue. It looks like a case of neuromania.
Pamela White, Nottingham
Spinozist Anti-Simulation Argument
Dear Editor: In Issue 121, Peter Adamson gave us a history of philosophical skepticism and remarked that its diversity does not permit us to meet it with a unified response. This is a sound conclusion. Here, I want to attempt to provide a response to the contemporary version of philosophical skepticism which proposes that there is a high likelihood that all of reality is a computer simulation.
The computer simulation hypothesis relies on the idea that what we experience as real could be modelled by a computer, which means that it is formally mathematically describable. Moreover, if reality is formally describable, it is also in principle knowable. Therefore we can evaluate the computer simulation hypothesis by means of what we know about formal systems.
Kurt Gödel (1906-1978) proved that all formally describable systems are incomplete. In other words, all formal systems require an outside perspective for their consistency or truth. This in itself is not a problem for a proponent of the simulation hypothesis, because the ‘outside perspective’ can be provided by a deceiving entity. However, the deceiving entity itself has to be a part of a reality, which is itself either formally describable or not. If not, the question is, why not? If it is, then the deceiver’s reality likewise also has outside requirements. So a simulation hypothesis has to admit that either: (1) Reality is not modellable in its totality – which would itself mean that there is an inherent limit to possible deception, and to the skeptic’s skepticism; or (2) There is no limit on deception and every conceivable reality can be simulated by a computer. If endorsing (1), one needs to explain why some realities are modellable while others are not. If endorsing (2), then the question is, what’s left over from a union of all computer simulations (even if there is an infinity of them), as Gödel’s incompleteness theorems tell us that all (collections of) formal systems require an outside? I want to argue that what is left over is an entity that’s real and yet not formally or independently knowable. This means that it is conceivable only through itself. But even as such, this unknowable yet inescapable portion of reality has to have a reason for its existence. This reason, however, cannot be outside of it, because it is not independently knowable. Therefore, the reason for its existence must be within it: in other words, it must be self-caused. Moreover, because all realities, simulated or not, ultimately depend on this entity, they are all related to it, and it in turn interrelates all of them. Thereby, it can be said to be creative. We have thus arrived at Spinoza’s substance that is self-caused and boundless, all-encompassing, all-creative, and unique.
Zoran Vukadinovic, Denver, Colorado
Dear Editor: I was struck by Jacques Derrida’s views on hospitality and immigration, described in the article about him in Issue 123. He believed – as the author of the article also did – that when “refugees fleeing from persecutors find their way through an opening, it cannot be equally open to those pursuing them.” This called for a highly selective border. However, in most cases the reason that people flee to the place that they have fled to is exactly that their persecutors would not dare to follow them. For example refugees flee to Europe because once inside it they are protected by NATO, a force with which no such petty power would attempt to reckon on their own turf. This therefore makes the musing in question irrelevant as petty attackers would never venture to the borders of superpowers and therefore never need to have borders closed off to them. The one case in which this reasoning breaks down is when the attacker itself is a superpower, luckily this – mostly – isn’t a problem at present.
Henry O’Regan, St Albans
The Real Ethical Questions
Dear Editor: On the news page of Issue 123 the first section, ‘Merger 1: Human Brains and Animals’ highlights some ethical questions, but misses the big one: Is it ethically permissible to use animals as objects, as a means to an end, in our experiments? I am personally the beneficiary of such research into mental functioning and malfunctioning, but still it leaves me uneasy that experimenting on other animals is done to our benefit. Just because they are not ‘one of us’ does not seem a good enough reason, especially when we consider that experiments have been done on humans whenever those humans were re-classified as ‘sub-human’. When we treat animals as less important than ourselves, it seems that we lose sight of something important.
Peter Day, Silver Spring, Maryland