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Judging Heidegger • Hail & Hurricanes • Being & Appearance • Could A Philosopher Be Conscious? • The Ex-Freedom Files • Off-Balance In Translation

Judging Heidegger

Dear Editor: I much enjoyed your edition featuring the thought of Martin Heidegger (125). But it seems nowadays one cannot have a sensible account of his ideas without making some reference to the fact that he was for a time a member of the Nazi Party. Indeed, it has been a longstanding obsession of many commentators on Heidegger, and both Anja Steinbauer’s Editorial and the article ‘The Trouble with Martin’ played into this obsession. However, I have never believed that an individual’s biography should influence our assessment of her/his artistic, scientific or philosophical achievement. I may dislike Wagner’s anti-Semitism or even that he had a penchant for pink silk underwear, but that has nothing to do with the wonder of the opening bars of Parsifal. I may not like Schopenhauer’s misogyny, but it doesn’t mean I can’t admire him for the depth and richness of his insights into human nature and art. We don’t dismiss Kant’s moral theory because of his racist utterances. I doubt I shall ever see an article in Philosophy Now entitled ‘The Trouble with Immanuel’. So why the relentless singling out of Heidegger for moral indignation? The point is that if moral probity is to be a pre-condition for our engagement with a thinker’s philosophy, the future of Philosophy Now is bleak. Everything that can usefully be said about Heidegger’s National Socialism has already been said. It’s time to move on.

Dr David Ashton

Dear Editor: My previous impression that Heidegger avoids assuming that Being is separated off from the questioner of Being was reinforced by Andrew Royle’s article in Philosophy Now 125. However, Heidegger does seem to assume that there is no Being separated off from the questioner(s). His description of Being appears to be a description of what I would call a subjective perspective, and he seems to ignore the possibility of anything else. Royle argues that Heidegger doesn’t doubt the existence of people and things outside himself. However, these other people and things appear also to exist within the subjective perspective.

Peter Spurrier, Halstead, Essex

Hail & Hurricanes

Dear Editor: With regard to ‘Hail, Malthus’, Issue 125: Thomas Malthus’ central insight was that resources, including land and food supply, are finite, and that population growth can outstrip them. Sadly, he over-egged the pudding by trying to dress up that insight in mathematical formulae. But that should not detract from the merit of his central idea.

Today we recognise the concept of sustainability as a necessary guide in our interactions with nature. That concept has come down to us from Malthus. It warns us that planet Earth must not be plundered relentlessly to satisfy our endlessly growing demands. Malthus was shocking in his time because for centuries Judeo-Christianity had been preaching an opposite view: that God gave humans dominion over all the Earth, and that everything in it was there to be exploited by them. But like Hume and Darwin, Malthus confronted Christian complacency with a powerful argument.

In the two centuries since Malthus, human population has grown from 1 billion to 7.5 billion. It is expected to grow to 11 billion by 2050. However, concern is not so much about food supply (though that will be a problem), but about CO 2 emissions. Too much greenhouse gases could mean runaway global warming causing climate chaos, with hurricanes, floods, droughts, tornadoes, blizzards: the complete disruption of nature and agriculture. The worst predictions of Malthus are tame by comparison.

Sadly, not everyone gets the message. President Trump has promised to revive the US coal industry, regardless of the environmental effect. Germany closed down its nuclear power stations under pressure from the Greens: now it’s burning more coal than ever! Their CO2 emissions must have gone up dramatically. When so-called advanced nations behave like this, what hope have we got? There is no Planet B.

Les Reid, Edinburgh

Being & Appearance

Dear Editor: I am very grateful to Brian Robinson for his perceptive letter in Issue 125 in response to my column ‘On Looking at the Back of my Hand’ in Issue 124.

Contrary to Schopenhauer, I do not accept that non-sensory, non-intellectual awareness of our own body amounts to knowledge of a piece of the world in-itself, for several reasons. Firstly, our access to our own body is patchy, intermittent, and is inescapably mediated through our senses or through our factual knowledge. What’s more, there is no privileged scale of experience or knowledge, either cellular, at the level of the organ, or at the level of the organism. We could put this another way: the sense in which I am my body (as opposed to being connected with it) is very complex, flitters from place to place, and switches on and off. There’s a slippery relationship between carnal being and subjective awareness. Secondly, our body, insofar as we are identical with it, is localised in space and time, unlike occupants of reality in-itself. Finally, Schopenhauer’s name for what we access through our body is ‘the will’, and it is entirely unclear how this can be realised locally in the body, given that he believes: a) that the will is the innermost reality of the entire universe; and b) that division into individual wills, as expressed in my agency, is part of the illusion of the world as representation. In short, the idea that we can nip round the back of the veil of appearance in virtue of being (or even ‘amming’) something in-itself – embodied subjectivity – does not stand up, attractive though it is.

Raymond Tallis, Wonderland

Esteemed Sir: So delighted was I to find nothing of that charlatan Hegel, that spoiler of paper, time and minds, in your excellent bookazine, The Ultimate Guide To Ethics, that my dismay at discovering no mention of myself quickly dissipated. I will partially heal the wound caused by your omission of my philosophy by solving the trolley problem.

The entire scene is misconceived. Morality consists in the real action of human beings, not intellect-built houses of cards to which nobody turns in the storm and stress of life. Only bipeds of impoverished capacity, lacking in goodness of heart, would debate the alternatives, repeating Kant’s error in supposing that morality is founded upon reason. We are driven by our Will, a blind, aimless, non-rational, universal impulse that is present in all nature and in every fibre of our bodies. The Will drives our emotions and actions. The intellect and its motives are awakened by the Will, but the Will is always first. Ask yourself! Do not persons who have behaved courageously invariably deny that courage was their state of mind? Do they not invariably say, “I didn’t think, I just …” – and this whether to seize a robber or jump into a raging sea to save a drowning dog? Only later does the intellect awaken and marvel that they might have lost their lives. Does this not show that reasoning may make things clear to the intellect, but that which acted, the real inner nature of their being, was their Will?

So! We must attend to the character of he who observes the trolley. Those in whom compassion is abundant – the supreme virtue that tears down the wall between Thou and I, the recognition of one’s own essential being in others – would leap into action to stop the trolley, regardless of their hope of success or of their own lives. Others, weak in Will, or where egoism dominates their character, would dither or remain immobile. All, however, will suffer for the death and misery inevitably caused by the trolley’s exercise of its own gravitational Will. We live in a world steeped in pain and death, and through our intellect, we humans feel sorrow more than any other animal.

With admiration and good wishes.

Arthur Schopenhauer (deceased)

Dictated to one complicit in my persiflagery; a certain Michael McManus

P.S. I was happy to see Kant’s works still receiving needful improvement, although his contribution to the trolley problem is hampered by his uncompromising ethics and attachment to retributive punishment. The clue to his hammer-headedness lies in the anagram of his name. It is beyond doubt that he would treat the errant rolling stock just as Thomas the Tank Engine punishes naughty trains – by bricking it up in a tunnel.

Dear Editor: Raymond Tallis’s essay ‘Death and the Philosopher’ in Issue 123 was often lovely and always provocative, but I wish to take issue with some matters.

He claims that “the richness of a remembered shared life only exacerbates our sense of actual or impending loss.” This is often true, but it need not be so. Indeed, throughout his essay, he doesn’t engage with attitudes towards death that find it a matter of fact to be accepted neutrally, or with paradoxical attitudes, of accepting the passage and the now-richness all at once. Both Buddhist and non-secular versions of this latter view come to mind. Such a tack hardly sullies the richness of life Tallis speaks of; but it changes the emphasis and the diction.

More radically, the composer Richard Wagner once wrote to Franz Liszt, “I have found a sedative which has finally helped me to sleep at night; it is the sincere and heartfelt yearning for death: total unconsciousness, complete annihilation, the end of all dreams – the only ultimate redemption.” This quote is included in Christopher Janaway’s fine short book on Arthur Schopenhauer – perhaps the most contrarian philosopher of death in the Western tradition.

Tallis argues that “if death does not matter, then nor do our lives”, and that “a world in which none of us cared about death would be one in which none of us cared about each other.” On the contrary, my mother cared very much about her death (it terrified her) – so much so that she actually cared little for her life. Many fundamentalists of many stripes also care a great deal for death and little for actually living. I have found the opposite path to be more serene and less deluded. By demystifying death – in a sense not caring about it (‘care’ being here an idea Tallis ought to have unpacked) – many people have found liberation from terror. Death-acceptance can put us in a more open posture to the world, including being more, not less, responsive to the suffering of ourselves and others. Death-acceptance also can calm us into an appreciation of the beauty of the present moment – the present being all we ever experience. Note that such an acceptance need not prejudge the question of the existence of an afterlife. I have no such belief and I don’t believe one needs it for open-hearted acceptance of death.

What I am sketching out here, then, is precisely the opposite of bemoaning “what a small figure we cut in the world.” Tallis’s objection to our insignificance is curious. Failure to notice it has been the root of a great deal suffering throughout history. Consider the grief of Gilgamesh – his own and what he induces – because he wishes to make a name for himself. This first story in the Western tradition grapples with the insanity of believing we should not cut a small figure. Realizing our relative insignificance is a kind of internal, personal Copernican revolution. It does not diminish beauty or compassion or life’s richness, the good and the ill. Letting go of the ambition to cut a larger figure in the world, one can be liberated to do more good than harm and to do so with more balance and delight. It’s good for the blood pressure, too. Perhaps paradoxically, being immersed in acceptance of the present and the inevitable (not resignation or indifference to it), also allows a person a chance to more fully appreciate the sublimely self-effacing temporal and physical scales. Time is long, the world is big.

I recommend that anyone interested in these issues familiarize themselves with the movement called Terror Management Theory. Growing out of Ernest Becker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book, The Denial of Death, TMT is a powerful lens through which to see how fear of death is a driver of many social ills. The book The Worm at the Core: The Role of Death in Life is a highly readable summary by some of the social scientists engaged in this research.

Christopher Cokinos, Tucson, AZ

Could A Philosopher Be Conscious?

Dear Editor: Brian King’s article ‘Could a Robot be Conscious?’ in PN 125 misses many of the most interesting features of this debate and obscures others. Firstly, the three points he raises as having a bearing on the question are all implementations of the functionalist idea. He fails to point out that what is common to these implementations is information. That is why many functionalists propose information as the basis of consciousness. However, to develop this argument they must show how machines can transition into consciousness from non-conscious states. Simple machines such as lathes cannot plausibly be said to be conscious; and if machines do not start off conscious, how do they change?

One obvious idea is an increase in processing power. This is the argument of some AI proponents, who assert that the information processing threshold for consciousness is roughly the same as for a human brain (whose number of synaptic connections is about 1014 ). But this argument is unsatisfactory since it is not at all obvious why a machine should suddenly become conscious at a particular threshold of complexity. The ‘homeostasis’ argument purports to tell us why consciousness is useful and so why it may have evolved – to look after the body – but it doesn’t tell us what consciousness is, only that there’s an apparent connection between it and human agency. However, computation doesn’t require understanding. (Whether understanding is entirely conscious is another debate.)

It appears to me that ever since Descartes separated consciousness from matter, we have had trouble putting it back. If we wanted to retain the best features of objective realism and science, we might consider re-jigging fundamental concepts such as causation, by allowing free will to be ‘non-causative action’. That might imply some form of proto-consciousness in the universe.

Maybe the robots will figure it out.

Brett N. Wilson, Manchester

The Ex-Freedom Files

Dear Editor: I read Carlo Filice’s article in Issue 124 on free will with interest. As a Professor of Philosophy he will be well versed on the arguments that philosophers and scientists have put forward; but if he has ever conversed with anyone who truly believes in determinism, he does not mention what he has learned of their perspective. May I offer you, dear Editor, as a counterbalance, some insight into determinism as it appears from the inside?

I, a determinist, do not feel like a robot. Since discovering determinism I have felt no less human than I did before. As a determinist, I do not believe that there is an ‘I’ that is somehow separate from the processes of my brain who is in charge of my actions. And so I do believe, therefore, that I do what I must do, and that real alternative possibilities to my actions are an illusion. I feel somewhat like an actor; although one whose script unfolds before my awareness only momentarily before I perform according to its dictates. Or I feel like a spectator of my own life, watching myself do the things I find myself doing, sometimes with some bemusement.

Positively, I find determinism prevents me from feeling the weight of impending choices and decisions. None of that existential anguish for me! I don’t worry about choices and decisions because I know that when the time comes I will find myself doing the only thing I would ever have done. Sometimes outcomes are not as desired, and I may regret those outcomes and find myself trying to do better next time. But I’m immune from guilt. Guilt would be irrational.

People attached to free will always think that something would be lost were determinism true. Hence the pejorative term ‘robot’. That is logical enough when thinking within the free will model. But once you’re free of the Free Will Illusion, the sense of loss evaporates.

Dave Mangnall, Cheshire

Dear Editor: Carlo Filice in Issue 124 has teased out some of the strands of resistance to the “recent slew of popular anti-free will literature.” He creates a little breathing space for the idea of a ‘semi-autonomy’ for the ‘I’ (ego). Undoubtedly we have the experience of exercising free will. However, as Schopenhauer puts it “Man can do what he wills but he cannot will what he wills” (Prize Essay on the Freedom of the Will, 1839). Suppose I decide whether to wear a red or green tie today. I believe the eventual decision is made by my (for want of a better phrase) ‘organic will’, meaning that it is the emergent outcome in my awareness of an unconscious interplay of competing impulses, evaluations, and selections made by my mind-body to satisfy its needs. So what of the ‘freedom’ I experience in this decision?

Edmund Husserl offers valuable insights into how this experience is constituted by drawing on a distinction between phenomenal and objective time.

The result of my decisions is represented to me retrospectively as the outcome of a causal sequence, and I say, ‘I made a choice’. That’s a rear-view perspective, originating through memory. Conversely, if I consider my forthcoming options (‘Shall I wear a green or a red tie?’) they are represented to me as a radiation of possibilities which I must whittle down to the one most strongly congruent with my will. I say, ‘I can make a choice’. That’s a prospective viewpoint originating through imagination and modelling. In both cases I seem to exercise freedom in choice. But these apparent choices disappear when talking about my present experience. I am not choosing in either case. My apparent ‘freedom’ is instead a representation created in my ego – that conscious spot in the mind-body system – by the activities of the will within the phenomenal present as it recalls past events and models future outcomes. The system then represents the results of this process within a framework of linear (objective) time.

We are not programmed robots, we are experiencing organisms. The key thing is to understand how we represent ourselves to ourselves in time. To do so we must bracket our natural experience of ‘ego’ and ‘free will’, and fearlessly trace volitional phenomena to their sources in unconscious processing – including the intense monitoring and directing Filice mentions. Of course, where will is concerned, given the limits to our knowledge, perhaps we can only ever be partial authors of our self-understanding.

Tim Holt-Wilson, Diss, Norfolk

Off-Balance In Translation

Dear Editor: Regarding the ‘Philosophical Haiku’ on the Buddha in Issue 124, many contemporary Buddhist writers have come to see the word ‘suffering’ as being too negative a definition of the original Sanskrit word ‘ dukkha’, which refers to a wheel that’s off-balance, thus leading to a bumpy ride. In Buddhism, life is not simply a continuum of constant, grinding suffering which then transforms into enlightenment. There are flowers to smell along the way!

John Hasemeyer, Schaumburg, USA

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