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Letters

Letters

The Clone Wars • Trolley Problem Rumbles On • Return To Zen, Duh • In His Image • A Spirited Response • Errata Philosophica Extra

The Clone Wars

Dear Editor: In his article ‘DNA & The Identity Crisis’ in Issue 133, Raymond Keogh seems to largely overlook what is arguably the more important implication for him of the definition of identity he provides from The Oxford English Dictionary, ‘The condition or fact that a person or thing is itself and not something else’: that a thing cannot be objectively identified as itself purely on the basis of DNA. For example, a tomato would only be distinguishable from its clone – another thing – through its position and history, as opposed to its genetic structure, which would be identical to the original. Therefore, I posit that an object’s place in time and space is a more precise identifying factor than its DNA. Let me summarise this in a philosophical haiku:

When cloning is done
We are forced to reinstate
Place as defining.

Thomas R. Morgan, Essex


Dear Editor: Raymond Keogh (PN 133) makes a valiant attempt to resolve a metaphysical question – ‘What is personal identity?’ – by referring it to a physical (indeed, physiological) basis – a person’s DNA. Sadly, his proposal does not stand up when faced with our current biological knowledge.

Keogh states that “it’s possible that even identical twins do not have exactly the same DNA” (my emphasis). I admit I was unaware that there was any doubt about this issue. In any case, it is possible to create a clone of a human being – that is, have two human beings with identical DNA. The technology would be the same as was successfully used in 1996 to produce Dolly the sheep (ironically one of the few sheep ever to have been given an individual name – precisely because she was an identical clone of another sheep!). Only moral qualms prevent the production of human clones.

If I had a clone, then according to Keogh’s definition, he and I would share the same identity. This would give me the capacity to be in two places at once – an ability previously only shown by sub-atomic particles. Furthermore, if my clone committed a crime, it would then be considered perfectly just that I should be punished for it. Such a consequence does not easily fit with our usual intuitive concepts of personal identity. It is also true that modern gene therapy can change the DNA in at least some of the cells of a person’s body – but we would not generally regard such therapies (used to curtail genetically inherited diseases) as changing the person’s identity.

Peter Benson, London


Trolley Problem Rumbles On

Dear Editor: Michael Jordan’s article ‘Ethics & Uncertainty’ in Issue 132 expresses some of the dissatisfaction I have always felt with the Trolley Problem. He is perceptive in noting how the problem highlights the distinction between utilitarian and deontological bases for ethical decisions. Yet my thought is that while the Trolley Problem does help illuminate how we think about ethical problems, its hypothetical nature limits its value. The assumption of the problem, “What if you knew with certainty that…” almost never applies in the real world. People say which way they would divert the trolley, but the implausibility of the scenario renders this moot. It’s easy for me to talk big about what I would do if some impossible condition were true: ‘If I had a ton of kosher bacon, I’d give it all away!’ says more about how I want to appear than about my actual morality.

Issue 132 had a ‘West Meets East’ theme; in karmic thinking the ethical quality of an act is determined by the intention behind it. Here too, hypothetical scenarios have limited value, since what we actually do might depend on small and fleeting differences in a situation. One constant, though, is our motivation: is our action impelled by selfishness or by altruism? If I were to kill someone who was about to detonate a nuclear bomb in the heart of a city, the question of whether my act was utilitarian or a deontological might be debatable; but the act could still be completely wholesome from a karmic perspective if I felt loving concern for the citizens and also for the bomber, who might be prevented from accumulating even worse karma than he already has.

Paul Vitols, North Vancouver


Dear Editor: In Issue 132 Michael Jordan put forward a modified version of Philippa Foot’s famous Trolley Problem, where now the choice is to save either five serial killers or else one’s own mother. He argues that ‘the vast majority of people’, in opting to let the serial killers die, would have stopped thinking like utilitarians and would have exposed themselves as biased and judgmental. On the contrary, it is very much the utilitarian option to minimise suffering by ridding the world of five people who will kill many more. To craft a valid counterexample to utilitarian calculations, Mr Jordan would have been better off testing whether people would rather let five (kind and caring) mothers die than their own (rather indifferent) mother.

Denise Hunt, Cheshire


Return To Zen, Duh

Dear Editor: I disagree with Karen Parham’s idea in Issue 132 that Zen koans cannot be solved, only responded to. One implication seems to be that they cannot be understood, only certain feelings of euphoria experienced. But Zen enlightenment is a form of understanding – indeed the most complete kind of understanding obtainable; that’s why it’s called enlightenment.

Descartes believed that absolute knowledge consists of clear and distinct ideas. Yet Buddhist meditation requires us to disengage our reasoning faculties and find enlightenment by avoiding ideas; perhaps by a different mode of understanding entirely (see my book The Logic of Enlightenment, Iff Books). So the ideas Descartes was clinging to for understanding are the very things Buddhism rejects during meditation as obstacles to understanding! Hence, far from engaging in a similar search for understanding to Buddhism, Descartes is doing the complete opposite. His insistence that truth is confined solely to clear and distinct ideas is the very antithesis of the Buddhist view that there is a form of enlightenment beyond ideas, and inexpressible by them. Indeed, I believe Buddhism criticizes the insistence on confining oneself to specific ideas as a form of attachment. However, by admitting both an idea and its negation (an idea therefore, that is neither clear nor distinct), a koan allows the possibility of a ‘middle way’. An example of this is the Buddha’s acceptance that there neither is nor is not a self. This paradox could itself be used as a koan.

Dave S. Henley, Graaff-Reinet, South Africa


Dear Editor: I feel Karen Parham’s article on Descartes and Buddism in Issue 132 missed a good connection: she discusses Descartes’ famous quote ‘I think, therefore I am’ without referencing a fairly well-known saying by the Buddha himself alluding to the same idea: ‘All that we are is the result of what we have thought.’ In fact, putting these ideas together, I would contend that ‘I think’ is a tautology, because the ‘I’ you perpetually self-reference is your thoughts and nothing else.

Descartes saw God as an ‘objective’ creator who exists outside his creation. But there is also a ‘subjective’ idea of God as a transcendental experience, which could be likened to the Buddhist experience of enlightenment, or satori in Zen. This represents God as a heightened consciousness. It means that God is something we find inside ourselves and not ‘out there’. Perhaps then God is the end result of consciousness, and not the progenitor of the Universe that allowed consciousness to emerge.

Paul P. Mealing, Melbourne


In His Image

Dear Editor: I send this poem in response to Raymond Tallis’s column in Issue 133, ‘In Measure Began Our Might’:

With the pyramid
there is no quarrel
about grace, shape,
proportion, or creation.
The pharaoh’s stone is squared just so:
face, shoulder, hip, torso,
each according to the code,
written and unwritten,
master to apprentice,
as sun and stars, wind and moon
comb and toss the desert folds.
Pictures on a pedestal
tell who we tell ourselves
this god, this goddess, was, and is.
But maker of this god, this goddess:
How shall we know him?
Elbow to open hand
is the measure that he used –
a signature of sorts: his and his alone,
the rhyme and rhythm of his bones:
face, shoulder, hips, torso
repeated in the stone,
and so by his creation,
the measure of a man is known.

Richard Gilmore Loftus, Eaton Rapids, Michigan


A Spirited Response

Dear Editor: In response to Rob Wilkins’s letter in Issue 133 criticising my article in Issue 131, I believe that panspiritism is at least as worthy of consideration as other metaphysical systems, such as panpsychism and materialism.

The idea that materialism (or physicalism) is a metaphysical system is often overlooked by materialists. However, materialism is constructed from a series of assumptions which are taken for granted by most of its adherents: for example, that consciousness is produced by the brain; human beings are essentially biological machines; anomalous phenomena such as NDEs and spiritual experiences are brain-produced illusions, etc. However, there’s no hard evidence for these assumptions: in fact, in many cases, evidence contradicts them. It’s becoming increasingly evident that materialism is unable to explain humanity or the world. It certainly cannot explain consciousness, or the relationship between the mind and body. So we need alternatives to materialism. This is why ‘post-materialist’ perspectives such as panpsychism are becoming more popular. However, the explanatory power of panpsychism is limited, whereas panspiritism can offer a wide-ranging and integrated explanation for a variety of phenomena for which materialism cannot account (see my book Spiritual Science for a detailed discussion of these).

Wilkins wonders what Richard Dawkins would make of my take on evolution. He seems to be unaware that Dawkins’ own take on evolution is doubted by many contemporary biologists and evolutionary theorists. This stems from recent findings in such areas as adaptive (non-random) mutation, and epigenetics. Dawkins’ scientific fundamentalism now seems archaic, whereas perspectives such as panpsychism, idealism, and panspiritism are undergoing a renaissance.

Steve Taylor, Manchester


Errata Philosophica Extra

Dear Editor: I suppose it was inevitable that you would quote Newton’s “standing on the shoulders of giants” for the science theme in Issue 133. However, he was not merely standing on their shoulders but quoting them. The original quotation is from Bernard of Chartres (early twelfth century), as recorded by John of Salisbury in 1159. Bernard, more humbly than Newton, spoke of “dwarves standing on the shoulders of giants.”

On behalf of mediaevalists everywhere, may I plagiarise Muir and Norden and say: please can we have our line back?

Martin Jenkins, London


Dear Editor: The sublime, which is inherent in and revealing of the essential nature of a thing, such as its beauty, its worthiness, or its intrinsic value, cannot be interchangeable with awe – a state aroused in us appropriate to our apprehension of sublimity – as was claimed in the first paragraph of Robert Clewis’ article in Issue 132. I refuse to read further until this awful malapropism is sorted.

Robert Gilgulin, Colorado Mountain College

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