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The Sound of No Hands Clapping • Minding the Machines • Self Representations • The Sense of Perception • Perspectives on Visions • Ethics, Actions & Effects • No Marks For Marx? • Panned Spiritism • Ethical Chainsaws and Motorbikes
The Sound of No Hands Clapping
Dear Editor: Karen Parham’s article ‘Meditating with Descartes’, Issue 132 mentions the famous koan “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” My answer is, “The cacophony of silence”. I feel that I am now fit to be fast-tracked to a Zen master-hood if I am the first to make this reply; if not, my apologies for unconscious plagiarism. In either case I shall be enlightened. Perhaps I gained my inspiration from P.G. Wodehouse, of his golfer: “The least thing upset him on the links. He missed his short putts because of the uproar of the butterflies on the adjoining meadows.”
One of my favourite koans is of the Master Tsing Hwa. He fell into a ravine when a wooden bridge collapsed, and he was injured. On recovery he would not walk across any wooden structure, even the floor of the temple. Asked when he would use a wooden bridge again, he said “When it spans a solid void.” Then he asked his disciple Boh Da what can be more real than a fictional koan written by a sceptic? Boh Da was enlightened, and left the monastery to become financial advisor to the Zhou Dynasty’s Yu Wang during the last decade of that unfortunate potentate’s reign.
Are these Western koans?: ‘Can reality be doubted unless it is real?’; or ‘Doubt is doubted; be unsure of the sure and unsure of the unsure’; or again, ‘Failure to succeed is failure, but is succeeding to fail success?’ Charles Lamb said that “A pun is a pistol fired off in the ear, not a feather to tickle the intellect.” Koans do both, since they are unanswerable riddles wrapped up in paradox, seductively devoid of meaning intellectually and emotionally. But then, in Zen, pointlessness is the point. Then again, I could make a point of not making a point of not being a follower of Zen – or not, as the case may be.
Is ‘I think therefore I am’ a koan? I think not. To be able to think is an attribute of human existence and so this well-worn phrase is a tautological statement, not paradoxical wordplay. But Descartes’ discussions of mind/soul are unsatisfactory. It seems to me he prejudged the outcome of his theses.
Leaving out these demands of his faith, I read Descartes as a materialist but perhaps not a good physiologist, even by the standards of his time.
Dr David Marjot, Surrey
Minding the Machines
Dear Editor: In his article in Issue 132, Paul Conrad Samuelsson thinks it’s likely that machines will gain consciousness, and that this is the case regardless of whether consciousness is physical or not. I disagree on both points. A machine such as a computer or android has been designed so that its physical components will cause it to behave as it does, the program itself forming part of this physical cause. Therefore, it seems irrefutable to conclude that what causes a machine’s behaviour is physical. This is not to rule out the possibility of machine consciousness, but there seems no justification for actually believing there might be such a thing. We would not normally think there’s any consciousness involved in a simple electrical circuit which is connected to a light bulb, and it should be remembered that a computer is internally the equivalent of lots of those circuits, each performing a simple activity.
The situation is quite different when it comes to a being known to have consciousness. I know I have a consciousness. I also know that this consciousness does not have the same properties as anything physical. Therefore, I think that unlike the case of a machine, there’s no possibility that I am a purely physical system.
I expect that part of the reason why many people believe in machine consciousness is that they’re materialists – they believe that consciousness consists of physical things such as electrical activity of the brain or responses to stimuli. Some machines receive stimuli, causing electrical activity in their circuitry, this then causing physical responses which resemble intelligent behaviour. So, some people believe that in terms of their definition of ‘consciousness’, such machines have consciousness. However, on the contrary, where there are only physical processes, there is no consciousness. In summary, I am not persuaded that machines will have consciousness.
Peter Spurrier, Halstead, Essex
Dear Editor: Avoiding glossy descriptions of the robot cars, robot dogs, and robot welders which have appeared in recent years, only one brand is named in Richard Baron’s review in Issue 132 of Living with Robots: Paro, a toy seal which responds to its name. I’d have liked to learn a little about Paro’s cost and reliability, and, like the robot in Lost in Space, any ability it might have to flail mechanical arms while warning owners of ‘DANGER! EXTREME DANGER!’
All the ideas in Living with Robots stem from a core theory, that we should no longer think of consciousness only in terms of an internal mind which manufactures thoughts and emotions and then launches the consequences on an external world, but in terms of the relationships that agents have with the world. Unfortunately, the authors’ idea, quoted by Baron, that the mind is “neither in the brain, nor in the head… but in the relations that obtain between epistemic agents” upset my modest confidence that I’d grasped the book’s core theory. To recap on the logic of the book’s central theory via a catchphrase from the 1960s TV robot: This does not compute.
Neil Richardson, Kirkheaton
Dear Editor: I enjoyed the article, ‘Humanity, Metaphor & the Recursive Mind’ in PN 130 and wrote this poem. Hope you like it. I have a book of poetry, called The Last Hint of Epiphany, available through Amazon.
A Mirror Cracked
Is it a metaphor
you are after?
a recursive thought?
Embedded in your own
My mind is racing!
Is this a mirror
on our true selves?
the visual delight
of synaptic impression.
Yet, metaphors are slow
Not pictures moving.
Welcoming and warmly inviting
they take their own course.
cut their own recursive thoughts
a splintering and shattering
– a mirror cracked!
Geoff Johnston, Saskatchewan
Dear Editor: Issue 130 was a great issue. Frank Robinson’s article provoked some thoughts. Self, Mind, Brain: are these all the same? Why must there be one unquestionable place where self resides, and must it have one specific path? Could self be the result of culture or specific circumstances, the order of their presentation derived from our cultural past? Too much brain is spent on the need for a simple answer to a most complex issue.
Perhaps self is an accident of time/space. Could it not be that one change in my past and I might have been a different self? I am 87 and have been married 61 years; my wife claims she has been married to five different men.
If we are trying to create a still picture that we can place in one place, it will never happen. Myself is throughout me, and it is a moving picture.
The Sense of Perception
Dear Editor: I would like to make a few points regarding ‘Locke’s Question to Berkeley’ in Issue 131. First, I think it’s important to pin down what we mean by ‘perception’. The author appears to find Berkeley’s argument (‘To be is to be perceived’) implausible since scientific instruments can detect various properties of matter which cannot be discerned by the naked human senses. Indeed, the underlying molecular structure of an apple cannot be discerned from merely tasting it or examining it within our hands. However, scientific instruments are designed to reveal data to those very senses. It is our eyes that view the atoms on the screen of an electron microscope. As such, the ultimate nature of the apple, as far as we can know it, is still within the grasp of our perception. How could it be otherwise? Our brains only have the senses with which to judge. (The only caveat may be in the theoretical domain, with mathematics. But here, very often, as with String Theory and others, the conclusions are rendered untestable.)
Is there any reality beyond what our experiments might probe? We don’t know; perhaps we never will. The apple can either be reduced to mystery, or kept within what we can know via experiment. I am certainly open to mystery and speculation, but as far as we know so far, the senses are the only way for the human mind to understand reality.
Anthony MacIsaac, Institut Catholique de Paris
Perspectives on Visions
Dear Editor: In his article ‘Beauty versus Evil’ (PN 132), Stuart Greenstreet makes the assertion that Leni Riefenstahl’s 1935 film Triumph of the Will is ‘flawed as art’ because it’s a work of Nazi propaganda. His argument is that art is inevitably tied to moral attitudes and values so judgments about it cannot be confined to matters of formal brilliance, however spectacular or overpowering. But isn’t this going too far in the direction of moralism? In practice, aren’t we always making a distinction between moral judgments and judgments of talent and skill, both in the field of art and in everyday life? A star footballer, say, may have undesirable personal qualities and moral failings aplenty, but this doesn’t stop us admiring his brilliant skills on the pitch. We don’t say his performance is flawed by his character, or that he’d be a better player if he were a better human being. It’s surely the same in the world of art, where plenty of great works have been produced by degenerates. As Oscar Wilde said of Thomas Wainewright, the talented writer, artist, and murderer, the fact of his being a poisoner is “nothing against his prose.” So regarding Triumph of the Will, it’s surely possible to appreciate its originality, technical virtuosity and power of presentation, though knowing that it’s a work of Nazi propaganda and regretting that Leni Riefenstahl didn’t devote her genius to better causes. In this way it can be seen as something morally bad but artistically impressive, a striking example of propagandist art in a long line of propaganda poems, paintings, operas, etc, which a strict moralism would condemn as flawed, but which are widely admired.
Anthony Kearney, Lancaster
Ethics, Actions & Effects
Dear Editor: In PN 132 Michael Jordan asks why it may be right to divert a runaway trolley onto a track where it will kill only one workman, not five, but wrong to kill a pizza delivery man to give his organs to five patients needing transplants:
1. Killing the delivery man would be murder. Diverting the trolley would not.
2. As Aquinas said, actions which do much good but some unavoidable harm (diverting the trolley) are widely acceptable, but it’s very problematic to perform intrinsically bad actions (killing the pizza guy) in the hope of achieving a greater good.
3. The pizza man’s attacked physically, but there’s no contact with the man on the track. It is natural that doing the former should feel worse than doing the latter.
Allen Shaw, Leeds
No Marks For Marx?
Dear Editor: It was disturbing to read a major part of Issue 131 devoted to Karl Marx, who formulated the most economically failed, wrong, and lethal body of ideas in history. A favorable or neutral discussion or weak criticism of Marxism is as absurd as an agreeable treatise on a geocentric universe or the flat Earth. It should be unequivocally condemned as the anti-human dogma it is.
In his editorial, Grant Bartley set the tone for the issue by commenting on that well-known quotation attributed to Marx but which he did not originate: “I still think ‘From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs’ is a great social ideal, even if it sometimes seems impractical in our corrupt cosmos.” What makes the statement great, Mr Bartley? What exactly would make it practical? It’s a recipe for and a sanction of universal larceny – one of the lesser perversions in Marx’s dystopian doctrine.
Writers in Philosophy Now have lamented the decline of philosophy in contemporary society while ironically advancing it further toward irrelevance.
Michael H. Davison, Author of America’s Suicide
Dear Editor: In Issue 131, Karl Popper is quoted as saying that ‘Marx failed’. But Popper is wrong! The modern limiting of the absolute power of the state and market has mainly come about due to the fears of the Victorian ruling class that not reforming would fuel revolutionary socialist movements. Ruling classes of the world, unite in reducing the numbers desperate for revolution! Strengthen liberal democracy so you can enjoy your wealth safe in your offshore tax havens!
Jason Palmer, Kent
Dear Editor: I enjoyed your features on my (distant) relative Karl Marx in PN 131. However, I’d like to suggest that despite Professor Qvortrup’s assertion that “Marx rarely dished out complements”, that ‘Marx and Engels’ is in fact a complement par excellence. He was, no doubt, less forthcoming with compliments.
I would get out more, but I’m still working my way through Das Kapital.
Ezriel Carlebach, London
Dear Editor: Does Steve Taylor (Issue 131) really expect anyone to take his panspiritism seriously? Isn’t it quackery? What quacks do, be they medical, religious or psychological quacks, is invent a set of metaphysical concepts, imbue them with the magical quality of being able to interact with the physical world (for which there is no evidence), and then present them to the gullible as the answer to something troubling. In this vein, Taylor claims that in addition to our individual consciousnesses there exists a ‘fundamental consciousness’ that both generates matter and operates in matter. It gives ‘internal consciousness’ to living things, but exists as an ‘external consciousness’ in things like rocks and rivers. It is supposed to be an answer to the mind-body problem and shed light on consciousness. It does neither!
Rob Wilkins, Perth
p.s. You might ask Richard Dawkins to comment on Taylor’s take on evolution.
Dear Editor: I have two questions for Steve Taylor (PN Issue 131) regarding his article ‘What is Panspiritism?’:
(1) Where is your evidence?, and
(2) What is panspiritism’s ultimate aim?
Terry Grapentine, Ankeny, Iowa
On Failing To Be Magnanimous
Dear Editor: Raymond Tallis (‘On Failing to be a Philosopher’, Issue 131) claims that the vast majority of the population choose not to be philosophers. I must disagree. Is there anyone who does not give thought to what is right and wrong and undertake activity in ethics? In 2018, 5.7 million people visited just one art gallery, the Tate Modern. Were these people going for some other reason than to explore aesthetics? Concerns over ‘fake news’ exercise minds in the field of epistemology.
I accept that the vast majority of people do not use the technical language of academic philosophy. Equally, I accept that the names, let alone the ideas, of great philosophers are relatively unknown. But one of the great beauties of philosophy is that anyone can participate profitably with little or no preparatory knowledge. It would be rather elitist to discount the philosophical activity of most people because it’s quality did not reach some arbitrary threshold.
Michael Shaw, Huddersfield
Dear Editor: While empathetic with a lot of Raymond Tallis’s ‘On Failing to be a Philosopher’ (Issue 131), I’m confused as to how he pinpoints the emergence of ‘post-truth’ politics to postmodernism, and indicts it as the cause of such authoritarian manifestations as Trump. Half-truths, mythologies, and outright falsifications have been the tool of authoritarian regimes since the beginning of civilization. And these things were clearly at work in the Nazi Party, which is what the thinkers he attacks (being mainly French) were basically responding to. I hope he’s not going down the same path as Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont in Fashionable Nonsense. As one critic of that book pointed out, the authors’ dismissal of Deleuze basically consisted of repeating that they did not understand him. As Barthes parodied in Mythologies: “I do not understand; therefore, you are ignorant.” I have a little more respect for Tallis’s intellect than that. My guess is that he is taking what they say too literally. He, in his scientific mindset fails to see these thinkers as inhabiting the no-man’s land between science and literature, leaning towards literature. And I can assure him that most people, even relativistic hippies, know better than to step in front of a moving bus, regardless of how much Baudrillard, Derrida or Deleuze they read.
I bring this up, Dear Editor, not to defy an established Philosophy Now icon, but to address a misdirect. By focusing on a group of thinkers who happened to engage in a little conceptual play we are distracted from our very real problems: the dissemination of information via technology, and the slow erosion of editorial authority that has resulted; the emergence of an oligarchy via globalism; and the very fact that you cannot have a handful of people feasting at the table whilst everyone else fights for the crumbs, and not expect the problems we’re having.
D.E. Tarkington, Nebraska
Ethical Chainsaws and Motorbikes
Dear Editor: Philosophy will never die. We can’t let those flat-minded, self-denying neuroscientists take away our interest in life. You don’t have to have set foot in an academy to philosophise. You don’t need to have a PhD to have a symposium. The mechanical and chemical determinist is no fun at all. He, she or it can stay in their hermetically-sealed, temperature controlled lab peering down the microscope of their fundamentals. We’ll be juggling ethical chainsaws riding a Harley on a existential highwire in or out of university. Philosophy isn’t even sick.
Kate Stewart, Bellthorpe, Qld, Australia
Remembering Mary Midgley: A Centenary Celebration
Dear Readers: Many of you will remember Mary Midgley, either from her wonderful philosophy books or from her numerous articles in Philosophy Now. In September she would have been a hundred years old. Her sons are organising a Centenary Celebration, including philosophy talks. It will be held in London’s Conway Hall on 7 Sept 2019, 12:00-4:00pm.
For further information and to reserve a place, please email David Midgley on firstname.lastname@example.org.