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Garbled Anti-Relativism? • Rocks and Chairs • Non-Free Thinking • Confusing Pictures & Words • Being Embodied • Perceiving Prejudices • Conscious Response
Dear Editor: Ray Prebble concludes his article ‘Are You a Garbled Relativist?’ in Issue 124 with a series of questions aimed to intrepidly bolster his pronouncement that ‘nobody’s really a moral relativist.’ Dr Prebble couches his questions as a tool for challenging the moral beliefs of other cultures, to see if they’re sound. Let’s assume, then, that I were to allow Prebble to borrow the time machine stored in my garage so he can travel back to the pre-Columbian era, where he meets an Aztec priest at a temple. There, Prebble looks on aghast while the official unflinchingly sacrifices one prisoner after another by cutting out their hearts.
Now let’s consider at Prebble’s five questions intended to debunk moral relativism – in this particular instance, the Aztecs’ fervent belief that human sacrifice is indeed moral. Prebble: “Why do you think that?” The priest’s response: “The gods expect sacrifices, as well as the resulting blood, as an offering of nourishment. Human blood makes for the ultimate sacrifice.” Prebble: “How can you justify doing that?” Priest: “The sacrifices ensure, among other benefits, agricultural abundance and good weather.” Prebble: “What consequences will that decision have?” Priest: ‘Society will be looked upon favorably by the gods, leading to our citizens being richer, better fed, and more powerful in the face of enemies.” Prebble: “Haven’t you just contradicted yourself?” Aztec priest: “No. And if you keep pestering me with questions, you might shortly find yourself on the sacrificial block.”
So what have Dr Prebble’s five questions – his purported litmus test of moral soundness – actually proven by way of his assertion that moral relativism is garbled? After all, the Aztec priest, confident in his ostensible morality, substantively and logically answered all of Prebble’s test questions. So if, despite the priest’s answers, Prebble still insists upon scorning the morality of sacrificing humans to the gods, doesn’t he need to come up with a yardstick other than those questions for ascertaining which societies’ beliefs and behaviors are moral? Or instead, might moral objectivism, not moral relativism, be what’s garbled?
Keith Tidman, Bethesda, MD
Dear Editor: In his article ‘Are You A Garbled Relativist’ (Philosophy Now 124), while Ray Prebble makes some good points (e.g. that it is very hard to find a robust enough sense of ‘culture’ to make cultural relativity a robust notion), his main line of attack fails. The trouble starts in the very first sentence of his article. “A relativist” he says, is someone who says things like “There are many truths, many ways of seeing things.” But it surely obvious to anyone that there are many truths: I know some of them, no doubt Prebble knows others, and no doubt there are very many other truths which no one knows. It is equally obvious that there are many ways of seeing things. An engineer might admire a bridge for its engineering ingenuity, a factory owner might welcome it for the economic benefits, an environmentalist might deplore it for the damage it causes to wildlife. If this is what relativism is, then I, and surely the huge majority of people, including Prebble himself, are relativists.
There may well be some good arguments against relativism, but before they can even be proposed, we would first need a sensible definition of what relativism is – and by ‘sensible’, I mean a definition that does not show immediately that relativism is obviously true, or that it is obviously false.
Nick Everitt, Seascale, Cumbria
Rocks and Chairs
Dear Editor: In Issue 124 Quentin Mareuse wondered: “When a rock breaks, you get two rocks; but when a chair breaks, you get two parts of a chair. Why the difference?” I found his article ‘Splitting Chairs’ to be thought-provoking, and these are the thoughts it provoked.
The first relates to the nature of a chair. If I buy a flat-pack chair from IKEA (other stores are available), have I bought a chair or the potential for a chair? If an artist requires a broken chair for their installation, so they make a chair and break it as part of the production process, did they make a chair? And is the resultant object a broken chair? (Most of my IKEA experiments go from chair kit to broken chair without encountering chairiness on the way, but that’s another story.)
The second thought relates to the nature of a rock. If I break a rock, I could end up with two rocks; but if I do it enough times I end up with gravel; even more times, I end up with motes of dust. At which point does breaking a rock not produce more rocks?
The third relates to temporality. The chair existed before it was broken, but the act of breaking causes it to cease to exist and pieces of a chair to come into existence. It is only our way of experiencing the world that causes us to insist that an object before an action is continuous with objects after an action.
And this leads on to the big thought: what about language? “A rose is a rose is a rose” is true if each of those ‘rose’ words refer to the same object. But I think that utterance is saying something different – that the nature ‘rose’ coexists in multiple objects. It is referring not primarily to objects, but to our social agreement to negotiate meaning, in this case a meaning of ‘rose’. This is the power of language that the ancient (and some modern) philosophers seem unwilling to accept: language is not a device for exchanging meanings, it is a tool for negotiating towards a shared meaning; and those meanings do not need to be anchored in what Karl Popper described as World 1, the world of physical things. Language operates partly in his World 3 (abstract ideas), but mainly in World 2 (living thought). Language is also not primarily about truths. This makes it (as Gödel recognised) incredibly inefficient at doing logic, and so, philosophy.
A chair is not a ‘natural kind’ of thing, it is a cultural idea we’ve agreed to share – some cultures don’t have or need the idea. A ‘broken chair’ is even more not a World 1 thing, it is a World 2 description of a World 3 meaning. Whether we see this meaning as related to other meanings with different descriptions (e.g. former chair, kindling, chair kit) is down to us, and has absolutely no effect on World 1 – unless, of course, we act on our meanings.
Martin Edwardes, Stratford, London, World 3
Dear Editor: Professor Filice believes that the existence of free will cannot yet be excluded (‘Free Will Is Still Alive’, Issue 124). He uses a series of analogies to encourage us to think that all is not lost because the complexity of any neurological explanation must, in his view, leave space for there being some other way of explaining how I am doing the choosing. Nowhere, however, does he actually describe in what manner our decisions may be made if not randomly or as a result of a deterministic process. Towards the end of his article he argues: “What if… non-chosen motives are many and suitably complex; and what if they generate routine indecisions?… the accumulation of split-decisions over time might prompt me to develop one side of myself more than another, and unpredictably.” But no justification is given for the sudden appearance of this unpredictability nor how it may differ from randomness.
Earlier in the article Professor Filice says: “Micro-level changes do, of course, affect the higher levels. Specifically, neurons do affect person-level thoughts, feelings, and behaviour. But the reverse also seems incontrovertible to me.” Well, it is to me as well, because, as we know, the brain is plastic in its functioning and able to adapt to new information supplied to it. We spend all our lives supplying this and our characters, and therefore our motivations, change in consequence. I’m certainly not the person I was, but this is hardly an argument for free will. Indeed all that Professor Filice’s article succeeds in doing is to describe a very complex being, complete with feedback pathways. He then, however, infers without any evidence that its complexity must somehow hide an alternative to determinism or randomness; an alternative which he signally fails to characterize or explain.
Thomas Jeffreys, Warwickshire
Confusing Pictures & Words
Dear Editor: In Philosophy Now Issue 124, Peter Adamson called Wittgenstein, Frege and Russell great philosophers. In this context I wondered what is ‘great’, and, further, what is philosophy, anyway?
What makes philosophy worthy? Fundamentally, it must convey enlightenment to the intelligent reader. This implies that its narrative must be understandable: it must be, as far as possible, in ‘street’ English (if we are in an English-speaking context).
This led me to the notion that there are, essentially, two types of philosophy: academic philosophy and street philosophy. They seem to be defined by their readership. In the former, the narrative utilises jargon which overwhelms street English, frequently to a point beyond which an outsider fails to be enlightened. Street philosophy (and of this, the content of Philosophy Now is a representative example), on the other hand, is understandable, enlightening and, importantly, intellectually accessible. [Thanks, Ed.]
This begs a further question: What is philosophy for? Is it to be a narrative encapsulating the secret semiotics of a particular cohort of thinkers, by those thinkers, and exclusively for those thinkers? Or is it to intellectually engage, stimulate and enlighten the thinking ‘man/woman in the street’?
Given that the philosophers of ancient Greece aimed essentially to identify and capture the right and good way for citizens to live their lives, academic philosophy and philosophers should take lessons from ‘plain English’ proponents, and the thinking citizen should buy Philosophy Now [agreed, Ed.]. In this way, philosophers would be really great, and philosophy would enrich the many, not just the few.
Cedric Richmond, Nottingham
Dear Editor: Raymond Tallis’s ‘On Looking at the Back of My Hand’, Issue 124, reminded me that Schopenhauer writes to the effect that my body is the one object in the universe I can experience both from the outside and the inside.
In his 1983 book on Schopenhauer’s philosophy, Bodies and Wills, Bryan Magee wrote (p.122), “This material object here [my body], and this one alone, I can know with a direct, non-sensory, non-intellectual knowledge from within: everything else in the universe I can know only from without, via the representations of sense and intellect, which are themselves functions of physical organs which are parts of this body of mine.” My body is thus the one exception to Kant’s contention that we can know material objects “only in the subjectively determined modes of our own perceiving and thinking and not as they are in themselves.” The exception has been under our noses all the time, says Magee, who writes that it is ‘astonishing’ that Kant could have overlooked this, “with its radical consequences for his philosophy.” He speculates that Kant’s oversight might be related to the fact that we don’t like, or find it difficult, to think of ourselves as material bodies.
Brian Robinson, Milton Keynes
Dear Editor: Philosophy Now Issue 123 concentrated on Prejudice and Perception. Despite thought-provoking contributions about the nature of prejudice, and how to deal with it when it appears, I could see nothing about the mechanics of the dissemination of prejudice. As electronic media gain an ever more powerful grip on our culture there will be an increasing tendency to mix news, comment and drama, all served up as ‘entertainment’. Does there not need to be a clear divide established between fact and fiction, using clear guidelines? Or will society be defenceless against brainwashing by an all-powerful communications industry and the prejudices which power tends to collect around itself? Does philosophy have any response to this?
Meurig Parri, Caerdydd
Dear Editor: I enjoyed the letters in Issue 122 in response to my panpsychism piece in Issue 121, and I have written a response on my blog. Please visit conscienceandconsciousness.com/2018/01/30/responding-to-some-recent-criticisms/.
Dr Philip Goff, Central European University, Budapest