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Dogmatic Demands • Brought to Book • Many Reasons For Worlds • Shades of Gray • Taking the Moral High Ground • Derrida True Reader • On Celebrity
Dear Editor: Sandy Grant’s article on ‘Dogmas’ in Issue 127 reminded me of a comment a senior colleague made to me when I was a somewhat naïve and perhaps arrogant young lecturer. He said, “You would do well to remember, Colin, that there is a difference between being an authority and being authoritarian. The former knows what they are talking about, the latter is merely throwing their weight around.”
I was suitably admonished and subsequently grateful for this remark. I believe its force stayed with me, for on reflection I had recognised his ‘authority’. The usefulness of the distinction could helpfully add to those made by Sandy Grant in her article because it seemed to me that ‘an authority’ and ‘being in authority’ do not have necessarily to be linked to dogma, whereas being ‘authoritarian’ does.
Furthermore, whilst paying an authority ‘too much attention’ (p.26) can be problematic, seeking out an authority on a topic one is researching is a valuable strategy. It is a good starting point to ask, “Whom should I trust on this subject?” This question can be pursued typically by consulting bibliographies, references and footnotes. Of course one should attempt to read critically, but this takes a familiarity with a subject, practice and patience and, to begin with at least, reliance on an authority is no bad thing. And, in time, having learnt to read critically, it becomes possible to see how and why an author has become an authority, or just authoritarian.
Colin Brookes, Leicestershire
Brought to Book
Dear Editor: Siobhan Lyons’ article ‘What Makes A Philosopher?’ in Issue 128 shows the role overlapping other chosen pursuits, e.g. for a comic to create fresh humour some serious thinking is required, just as philosophers apparently require wisdom and foolishness. The latter group may well claim to grasp forces that impinge on members of a society, but so might politicians, town planners, economists and sociologists. Something of a contradiction arises when philosophers are advised to (somehow!) ‘read everything’ and also to not depend on an excess of knowledge. Well, avoiding an excess of knowledge is reasonable, but only in the sense that many excesses – water, alcohol, debt, pasta, money – are harmful.
Dr Lyons’ inclusion of concepts sharpens this article; but perhaps key features of philosophical concepts should have been introduced, so distinguishing them from our everyday, taken-for-granted concepts, like schools and health centres. Professional philosophers may live for their theories, but what shapes the future of these ideas – applause from friends or tough criticism from folk keen to establish a patch? Maybe the general population will demand inclusion: how will the process of concept-design and application be done in a user-friendly way?
Neil Richardson, Kirkheaton
Many Reasons For Worlds
Dear Editor: With regard to ‘Why is There a World?’ in Issue 128: If there is a God, questions about God’s motives will inevitably be speculative because our perspective is narrow. And answers must accommodate everything for which God is purportedly responsible, directly or indirectly. So if God exists he must be ‘necessary being’. He must also have certain other absolute qualities: infinity, unity, free will, unified purpose, and so on. Speculation must also accommodate human experience; the physical universe of time and space; that we are made out of physical stuff; that we have minds, have an apparent free will; and are in a vague way aware of values such as truth, beauty, goodness, love and so forth. From necessity, infinity, and unity, we get Leibniz’s deduction that God must create the ‘best possible universe’ – something that we have certainly not got on Earth. If we can imagine better – a hate-free world, for example – then so can God. I have written books and essays on the subject of why God created this universe, or indeed, anything at all. A quick summary:
1. ‘Best possible universe’ must be taken diachronically: It isn’t the best possible now (we are in time), but it will become so.
2. A physical universe of purposeless mechanism conjoined with limited, purposeful, value-sensitive free will must have something to do with the process of achieving the best possible universe.
3. This works when people freely use their will to instantiate values into the world: when they choose to revere truth, produce beauty, behave lovingly…
4. God created this particular universe to have partners in the achievement. Only thus will there come to be, eventually, the best possible universe as God conceives it – and nobody thinks bigger than God. If there were a better way to get there, God would have chosen it.
Matthew Rapaport, San Francisco (author of Why This Universe?: God, Cosmology, Consciousness, and Free-Will)
Dear Editor: In his article in Issue 128, Carlo Filice admirably lays out many of the elements involved in trying to answer the question ‘Why is There a World?’, and he puts forward a possible ‘penultimate’ answer. I would like to draw readers’ attention to my psychological theory, which provides a possibly ‘ultimate’ explanation for the co-existence of the physical universe of limitations and a state of fundamental, unlimited being.
I was not considering universe-level states of being when I undertook the research that led to my developing the theory: I was researching the state of mind (in myself and in people generally) that compulsively and unconsciously denies awareness of its true state of being. I was motivated to research this because as a nonviolent activist I was constantly confronted with self-destructive behaviour (and not just by the Trumps of the world) without any adequate explanation for it. Like any good philosopher, I took my time (see Siobhan Lyons’ article in the same issue); but I was finally able to apply what I had learned in studying the individual and social self to the universe as a whole in a way that felt genuinely insightful.
It was only when I thought to explain the universe in terms of insanity that everything finally began to make sense. Shocking though it may seem to both atheists and theists, the physical universe was created by an insane mind. This mind exists ‘without reason’ and therefore has no genuine cause, but blindly follows its own internal logic of compulsive self-contradiction.
If you’d like to read more about my theory you can do so at: anitamckone.wordpress.com/articles-2/the-unbelievable-truth. I’d love to hear from anyone who would like to comment on it.
Anita McKone, Daylesford, Victoria, Australia
Shades of Gray
Dear Editor: In his column in Philosophy Now 127, Raymond Tallis exquisitely skewers John Gray’s Straw Dogs. I consider both works to be polemics; but Tallis’s is the better one, due to the constraints of writing a column. His argumentation has to be tighter, whereas Gray’s is comparatively thin because he had to fill a whole book. Nevertheless, I cannot agree with Tallis in the end.
Gray’s central contention is that humanism, in the sense of a belief in the special nature of humanity, is both false and dangerous, or at least futile. Tallis refutes this logically and empirically. First he points out that Gray is contradicting himself by basing his assertions on human scientific accomplishments which, by Gray’s own reasoning, must be a hill of beans. Then Tallis seals the deal by reference to a new book by Hans Rosling which details the undeniably impressive progress humanity has made on so many fronts in recent times.
One problem I see with Tallis’s brief is that it relies on quantifiable measures to make the latter case. I see two liabilities here. Firstly, this ignores the relative relevance of various quantities, and it may amount to cherry-picking. For example, where are the statistics about any improvement in happiness or the perceived value of life? Maybe far fewer humans die in childbirth or infancy, and average life expectancy has increased dramatically: but has human misery thereby been reduced? Perhaps more people are more miserable than ever, and for longer than ever. Secondly, the numbers themselves can be misleading. For example, Tallis cites the statistic that “In the last twenty years, the proportion of the world population living in extreme poverty has dropped from 29% to 9%.” But that is 9% of a substantially increased population, so the comparison isn’t quite as favorable as at first glance. Even more telling is that the number of people in extreme poverty is still 687 million souls, which is equivalent to the entire human population when Voltaire wrote Candide back in 1759. Do we now live in a better real world? Numbers alone will not answer this.
My main gripe with Tallis, however, is one he and I have grappled over before: his belief that non-human animals do not measure up to human beings in the cosmic scheme of things. If one wants to talk about humanistic progress in the contemporary era, how can the exponential increase in animal suffering and death at human hands during this period be ignored? Sentient life as a whole is much worse off since the ascendancy of humanity, and it’s a trend that shows no sign of changing for the better.
Nevertheless, I agree with Tallis that we should not therefore succumb to pessimistic quietism. I rather favor the advice of the Bhagavad Gita, which (on a benign interpretation) counsels carrying on with conscientious action without regard to the prospects. There are even good instrumental grounds for doing so, since sometimes efforts do pay off against seemingly insurmountable odds. But this ethics can be pursued even in the face of genuine hopelessness.
Joel Marks, Professor Emeritus of Philosophy, University of New Haven
Dear Editor: I found Raymond Tallis’s item on Hans Rosling and John Gray in Issue 127 thought-provoking and engaging. But having worked for several years in researching, producing, and publicizing statistics, my response is cautious, because I am aware how easy it is to use them to bend them to one’s own message. For example, free-marketeers use such figures as Rosling used to assert how well capitalism benefits humanity to justify unfettered capitalism, markets and economic growth, and reject intervention to improve the lot of the many who remain in poverty. Reality is always more complex than statistics can ever fully encompass, and it is the real people behind the statistics, their lives and relationships, that matter. I suspect that Rosling was aware of this and not a naïve believer in automatic progress, his work showing that there is room for both optimism and pessimism, and therefore much for humanity to play for.
I read John Gray’s Straw Dogs (2007) some years ago. Rather than ‘malign’, Gray seemed to me to be arguing that, without the Jewish/Christian assumption that human beings are created in God’s image, there is no reason to give Homo sapiens a privileged position amongst animals, or expect any particular behaviour from them as a species. Like all animals, they simply behave as they have evolved to behave. One could also conclude that this supports a broadly Nietzschean view that there can be no privileged position for any morality, intellectual system, or worldview (including secular humanism). It is also not self-evident why we must give a preferential place to human beings, care about others and further the common good of humanity. All of this requires reasoned consideration. In Straw Dogs, Gray claimed that there is no point in trying to do so, and he recommended particularly the ancient work of Zhuangzi, focussing on wu wei – a life of unattached, natural spontaneity within the natural flow of life. I do not believe that this is enough to enable us to provide a cogent and convincing response to meet the significant challenges that now face us. However, I have great respect for the long tradition of Chinese thought, including that of Zhuangzi, and it is significant that the Chinese have always used several philosophical approaches in tension, balancing the Daoist with the Confucian, Legalist, Mohist, various strands of Buddhist, and latterly, Western, thought. It is desirable, and possible, similarly to develop a humanistic consensus which can unite all committed to the progress of humanity, whether they be secular humanist, theistic, Buddhist, etc., and from varied philosophical traditions. This is increasingly urgent.
Tom Berrie, Leicestershire
Dear Editor: It seems to me that Raymond Tallis fails to appreciate the true root of John Gray’s work. Yes, much good has been realized in the last two hundred years or so, particularly in medicine, poverty alleviation, and the general provision of the necessities of life, much of which is due to technological development. What Tallis fails to mention is that these things have come at considerable cost to the natural environment. He says population trends are ‘reassuring’; but we cannot be happy that the mass of humanity together with the animals we have domesticated far outweigh the mass of the wild animal kingdom – completely overturning the position ten thousand years ago.
This state of affairs is at the root of John Gray’s worldview. Moreover, Gray believes (as do many environmentally concerned people) that we are not doing anything like enough to turn the tide: even worse,we are unlikely to do so until it is too late. We have sown the seeds of our own destruction and are too concerned with ‘making life better’ by economic growth and technological advance to do anything about it. The end result of this neglect will be enormous loss of human life by starvation, disease, and conflict. Gray may have gone too far by referring to humanity as ‘slime’; but if it helps to awaken our will to do something, his pessimism will not be in vain.
John Gamlin, Colchester
Taking the Moral High Ground
Dear Editor: Does anyone own the moral high ground now? Gerald Jones’ article ‘Moral Blind Spots’ in Issue 128 nails everyone’s self-justified ‘moral fabric’ as hypocritical: the centuries of sacrifices and slavery, murders for circus ‘entertainment’, torture of prisoners, genocide of ‘witches’, animal slaughter, unfettered consumerism, child labour, environmental destruction, and the smug minority of the very rich. But is our problem really our moral myopia, complacency, cognitive dissonance or ignorance; or is it the shattering truth that humans committed the Holocaust, and, as a murderous species, we exist knowing of smaller genocides all the time? As Arthur Koestler commented, “If the past were admitted to weigh on its conscience, every nation would be compelled to commit hara-kiri.”
Mike Bor, London
Derrida True Reader
Dear Editor: It is flattering to be quoted. So I was gratified when Mike Sutton, in his article on Derrida in Issue 127, referred back to my essay in Issue 100. Nevertheless, I can’t agree with everything Sutton says about Derrida. In particular, his claim that Derrida thinks (this time quoting Hilary Lawson) that “there is no single meaning of the sentence ‘the chair is black’… And we will each conceive the meaning of the statement differently.” This leaves me wondering how human communication and collaboration would ever be possible. But I don’t accept that Derrida ever made such an assertion. If he did, I would need to know where and when; and I would require a quotation from Derrida, not Lawson. Derrida’s Of Grammatology uncovers the limitations of various theories about language, rather than showing any supposed limitations inherent to language itself. The book deconstructs the theories of Rousseau and Saussure; but one cannot ‘deconstruct’ a simple statement like ‘the chair is black’, nor has Derrida ever sought to do so.
Margaret White in Letters, PN 128, asks for “a demonstration of deconstruction as Derrida would do it, with philosophical texts.” Happily, this request is easy to satisfy. Nearly all of Derrida’s essays are exactly that: analyses of particular philosophical texts through a deconstructive approach. So there are literally dozens to choose from. Good examples include: Plato’s Pharmacy which deals with Plato’s Phaedrus; the discussion of Rousseau’s Essay on the Origin of Language in Of Grammatology; the discussion of J.L. Austin’s theories in Signature, Event, Context; and there are many more. You should always prepare yourself by first reading the texts he is talking about; and then hours of fascination await you! Derrida’s work is always engrossing, and is never as difficult as people pretend.
Peter Benson, London
Dear Editor: This was inspired by the article about Heidegger on Celebrity in Philosophy Now Issue 125:
Look at me! I’m on TV,
Plain to view, for all to see.
What you get is what you want.
Paint by numbers, fill the gaps.
Go to worship on an app.
Buttons pushed. Adulation. Endorphin rush.
Discernment, logic, truth, good taste;
Suspended critique floats in the air,
Out the window, down the stairs.
Insect queen she draws you in.
Pheremone mediated, anything goes,
Nothing’s a sin.
Adored and adoring manacled, shackled.
It’s the tally that counts, as the game becomes tactical.
Numbers, degrees of being, equate to fame.
Clicks, likes, tweets,
Magazines, booked seats.
It’s all the same.
While the river of fame and celebrity gently seeps
Into a God-shaped empty hollow within.
Media fans the flames of fame,
Dispensing glowing cinders of contagious fallacy.
The question is, and we ask you now,
Will you ever return to reality?
Who can resist the Medusa’s call
That holds all who see her tight in thrall?
The poor, the sick, the dispossessed,
Give not a rat for Selena’s dress.
As for the rest, we fear them thus.
With nothing to lose, next stop it’s us.
Hyperactive, self obsessed.
Tap dancing. Eighteen.
Got long legs and sexy hips,
Her name is formed by a thousand lips.
But they know me not,
Not who I am.
Celebrity is such a sham.
Dr Mike Buck, Cardiff