Your complimentary articles
You’ve read one of your four complimentary articles for this month.
You can read four articles free per month. To have complete access to the thousands of philosophy articles on this site, please
Letters About Nothing • Climate of Change • There Are Others • Freedom & Bondage • Face Values • Modern Omniscience • Bad Thoughts? Full Marx! • Philosophy: What Is It Good For?
Letters About Nothing
Dear Editor: In Issue 136, Sophia Gottfried considers non-existence and nothing. She mentions pure nothingness, and asks whether empty space would contain such a pure nothing, or instead constitute something. In my view, the purest kind of nothing means the same as ‘none of anything’ or ‘not anything’. A good way to define that kind of nothing, would be to say that if ‘nothing’ possesses a particular attribute X, then attribute X is not possessed at all. By this definition, empty space would not be nothing, because if empty space has any attribute(s), then that attribute is possessed by the space.
Gottfried wonders whether there can have been a time when nothing existed. Surely, for there to have been such a time it would have had to exist. There seems to be a contradiction in the idea of nothing existing. In fact, this appears to provide an explanation of why there is something rather than nothing: nothing existing is a contradiction.
Gottfried also discusses what does not exist. I think there is also a paradox regarding what does not exist: it would seem that some things have to not exist in order for other things to be able to exist. For example, a round Earth can only exist if a flat Earth does not. But nothing can achieve the impossible feat of being something that does not exist; so, on the one hand, some things are unreal, but on the other, nothing can be unreal. On my website I explain why I, unlike Bertrand Russell, believe that this is a genuine paradox.
Peter Spurrier, Halstead, Essex
Dear Editor: Sophia Gottfried’s essay about nothing reminded me of a philosophical joke about cars. “Nothing is better than a Ferrari. But a 1993 Ford Escort is better than nothing. So, a 1993 Ford Escort is better than a Ferrari.”
Helen Jarvis, Aberdeen
Climate of Change
Dear Editor: As Wendy Lynne Lee’s ‘Dewey and Climate Denial²’ (Issue 135) suggests, it is crazy-scary how people seem to be so immersed in corporate/capitalist values. The high priests of it preach about ‘thinking outside of the box’, but it seems the one box they can’t seem to think outside of is consumer capitalism. As a result we’re reduced to our value as producer/consumers. We see this all over the media, especially in TV ads. The result? Go-getters who live to accumulate, or budding entrepreneurs who are perfectly willing to devote the time between birth and death to an accumulation of wealth. And if it’s not that, it’s people driving in the latest update of a vehicle in some beautiful panorama, with music that suggests that we’re living in a golden age thanks to consumer capitalism! We also have ads pimping services that can get you out of the debt the other adverts got you into in the first place. It’s as if to say that it doesn’t matter what consequences the market creates, the market can always, for a small fee, come up with a solution. It’s become a kind of religion even. It use to be: pray hard and follow these principles, and you too may enter the kingdom of heaven… now it’s: work hard and follow these principles, and you too may enter the kingdom of success!
D E Tarkington, Nebraska
Dear Editor: In Issue 135, Wendy Lynne Lee uses the term ‘Climate Denial’ to condemn capitalism as an unnatural pursuit of individual greed destined to destroy the world. Presumably, the deniers carelessly cause species to die out, rivers to dry up, sea levels to rise, crops to fail, etc. because they are foolish, uneducated renouncers of true knowledge. If only we didn’t have cars, plastic, meat production and businesses in general making profits, the planet would be saved from destruction. Future generations will thank us in centuries to come for our actions to curb freedom and consumption in the 2020s.
Therein lies the real danger of ‘the climate crisis’: urgent (always urgent) social engineering. Here, the ‘deniers’ are frequently the protesters and activists. Many deny they want to change people’s behaviour, for example. Of course they don’t: they want to impose upon it.
Whilst the world and its billions of people determine how to deal with increasing temperatures, fears and crisis scares are unhelpful and often misleading. They appear aimed not at ‘saving the planet’ (which is unlikely to stop orbiting the Sun), but at dictating lifestyles and restricting democracy: Socialism in a Green wrapper.
The term ‘climate change’ is all-encompassing: it can literally be used to cover any demand to restrict people’s choices. Anyone who raises concerns is ‘denying climate change’. Moreover, because it is a ‘global issue’, this allows interest groups to justify overriding, or just ignoring, national or regional concerns, frequently using the legal system to enforce unrealistic laws on unsuspecting citizens. Those who vow to save the planet by denying others cheap fuel, meat and other resources, are seeking to socially engineer penance on billions of people by threat, fear and intimidation.
Capitalism, by contrast, requires co-operation. Industry innovates, governments regulate. Capitalism can reduce energy consumption because it wants to produce goods more cheaply and efficiently; it can create products which use less resources by efficient production. Other innovations, such as 3D printing, which will reduce the need for transporting goods, are led by capitalist innovators. All this happens because of capitalism, not in spite of it. Lumbering public bureaucracies are inflexible to change, and often misguided by whims. Where capitalism errs, those errors are either corrected or the company disappears.
Freedom of choice is hard won and easily lost. Without individual agency as ‘climate change crisis’ fatigue drains people of innovation, the temperature may well simply cease to be a concern. If all this makes me a ‘denier’, so be it.
Michael Stables, Hertfordshire
There Are Others
Dear Editor: I thoroughly enjoyed Prof Kaufman’s ‘The Ethics of Discrimination’ in Issue 135. Discrimination affects us all to a greater or lesser extent, either as discriminators or as the discriminated against. He points out ways of using reason to identify discriminatory behaviour in ourselves and others in order to avoid its pitfalls. However, perhaps our starting point should be accepting that none of us is entirely responsible for either our attitudes to others or our reactions to them. Each of us is the current sum total of our previous life, our genes, and the fate or fortune of the circumstances into which we were born. We have hardly any say in how we develop and relate to others. It’s mostly a question of our histories to date, and pure luck.
‘What has this got to do with discrimination?’ you might ask. Changing our basic thought and behaviour patterns and our prejudices is difficult, and often requires psychotherapy and learning to look at life differently. It would be much easier if we all accepted one another as ‘subjects in progress’. Discriminating against others can only end with being discriminated against ourselves. What goes around comes around.
Mike Joslin, Dorchester
Freedom & Bondage
Dear Editor: Gary Cox, in his valuable interview discussing existentialism in PN 136, recognises insufficiently that existentialism often puts too much emphasis on our inalienable freedom and too little on our inalienable bondage. But we are bound by many things. We are bound by our genetic inheritance. If our parents were small, most professional sports will be closed to us; if they were of low intelligence, then we will be unable to enter the learned professions. We are bound by the chances of conception. If a gamete bearing a Y-chromosome fertilised your mother’s egg, you will never bear a child. We are bound by our upbringing. If your parents denied you an education, then again the learned professions are closed to you. (This happened in my extended family.) There are many ways in which our early life limits our choices. But mostly we are bound by our situation. If you are born into a peasant family in an impoverished Third World country, your choices are very limited indeed.
It is not true that anxiety has been encouraged by growth in the number of ‘support’ professionals. Pathological anxiety is a distressing and disabling mental illness. It’s recognised more these days, but still inadequately treated, because of a lack of trained therapists. However, Gary is right that it is a mistake to hope for or to seek perfect happiness.
Existentialism is currently popular with middle class European intellectuals. Like many philosophies of life, it emphasises an important truth: we are responsible for the effects on ourselves and on others of our freely chosen actions. Existentialism’s scope is, nevertheless, somewhat limited.
Allen Shaw, Leeds
Dear Editor: In her article in Issue 135, Sally Latham proposes the theory of Emojivism, which is based on the premise of emotivism, that ‘moral judgments do not have factual content but are expressions of emotions’. To consider this I would like to recall the theory of speech acts first introduced by John Austin, then worked on by John Searle.
According to this theory, speaking is not only an action, it contains action. For example, when I say “Murder is wrong”, I am not only claiming that I disagree with murder but also condemning murder, as well as trying to persuade others that they should not commit murder. This is vastly different from just expressing emotions, as emotivism suggests. The fundamental problem is that the article is based on this proposition, which proves to be problematic when compared to the Speech Acts theory. Also, the closeness between action and fact implies that moral propositions have a basis in fact, even if they centre in my emotions. It would have been beneficial for the article to reflect about all this, or at least to have a deeper concern with philosophy of language, in order to fortify its own basis.
David Alves, Madeira, Portugal
Dear Editor: I heard a super cute story that made me laugh. Two philosophy professors were at home having a debate about the existence of God. Their seven year old son was listening nearby and suddenly interrupted to say, “Don’t worry. I’ll Google it.”
Terri Murray, London
Bad Thoughts? Full Marx!
Dear Editor: I was not surprised to see Ayn Rand make your feature ‘Who is the Worst Philosopher’ in Issue 135. However, I was somewhat confused by the two authors’ reasoning. Tipton claims that “the work of a poor philosopher is liable to consist of unclear and indistinct ideas.” I agree; but according to this standard Rand should be considered a great philosopher: she regularly defined her terms, and illustrated them with clear examples. As she wrote, “Definitions are the guardians of rationality, the first line of defense against the chaos of mental disintegration.” Tipton also claims that “a great philosopher always recognizes their influences, paying close attention to and acknowledging the ideas of their predecessors.” Again, I agree. And although Rand wrote, “The only philosophical debt I can acknowledge is to Aristotle”, she also openly admired Aquinas and Locke, among others. Finally, Tipton claims, “A great philosopher’s ideas must be highly original.” Rand’s theory of concept-formation as based upon ‘measurement-omission’ is unique. Her theory of the needs of our form of life as the basis of values and ethics (which predates Philippa Foot’s view) is also entirely original.
Tarkington groups Rand’s ideas with Spencer’s and Nietzsche’s. This is odd since Rand explicitly rejected the ideas of both men: asked her opinion of Nietzsche, she responded, “It’s a low estimate, philosophically, I disagree with him emphatically on all fundamentals… Nietzsche was a subjectivist and an irrationalist.” She condemned Herbert Spencer because he “chose to decide that the theory of evolution and adaptation to the environment was the key to man’s morality – and declared that the moral justification of capitalism was the survival of the species… that whoever was of no value to the race, had to perish.” Finally, Tarkington claims Rand believed in ‘corporate servitude’. Does this square with her remark, “The principle of individual rights is the only moral base of all groups or associations. Any group that does not recognize this principle is not an association, but a gang or a mob”?
Your readers may wish to take a more considered look at the work of Ayn Rand.
Ray Shelton, Glendale, CA
Dear Editor: John Talley (Philosophy Now 135) rates Karl Marx as history’s worst philosopher. I’d like to suggest radically different perspectives on the three areas of Marx’s philosophy which he highlighted for special criticism.
First, Talley claims Marx’s philosophy led to inhumane political regimes. Let’s consider China. Their communist revolution occurred sixty six years after Marx’s death, and it was not the result of his philosophy; rather, it was the product of over a century of foreign invasion, occupation, exploitation, and civil war. It was much the same story for most other socialist regimes, including the Soviet Union and Cuba. Furthermore, despite this prior devastation, the Chinese people made major gains during the Maoist era. Amartya Sen, winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics, compared the mortality rates of India and China between 1949, the time of the Chinese Revolution, when they were almost identical, and 1979, three years after Mao’s death. His conclusion – that had India experienced the same mortality rates as China, its population would have been over 100 million greater by 1979 than it was – is surely a significant corrective.
Second, Talley claimed that for Marx “the means of production determined human history”. But in reality Marx (unlike Hegel) was not a determinist, and was loathe to make predictions. Rather, he was an analyst of contemporary capitalism and of its inherent instability. Adam Smith and David Ricardo had both noted the long-term tendency under capitalism for profitability to fall and lead to recurrent crises. If there were inevitabilities within capitalism, they were these crises. What Marx added was an empirically-based theory explaining this instability, based on the ‘labour theory of value’. For Marx, history was driven, not by the means of production, but by the fetters which the ‘relations of production’ – the way that people relate to the means of production – put on the productive forces. While this is a highly esoteric part of Marxist theory, there can be no better illustration of this in our own time than in John Talley’s own country, the USA. There, despite an apparently healthy 80% growth in productivity between 1973 and 2000, the bulk of the population, far from benefitting, experienced an actual fall in wages of 10%.
Talley’s third claim was that, according to Marx, there is no real human agency in history, and ideas have no effect in it. But this is not so. It was precisely because of his recognition of non-material factors in social and political change that Marx was so keen on the promotion of political education while many revolutionaries around him were urging immediate insurrections across Europe. Like countless historians for centuries before him, he did however consider the economic ‘base’ of society to be a more powerful force for change than the ‘superstructure’ of social institutions such as the church, the media, and systems of public education. (The superstructure is listed by Terry Eagleton as ‘the state, law, politics, religion and culture’.) For Marx, the primary role of the superstructure in class society is to give moral legitimacy to the base: as Marx put it in his Grundrisse (1858), “the class that is the ruling material force of society is at the same time the ruling intellectual force.” Its primary function is the maintenance of its privilege. If this was so in Marx’s day, consider how much more so it is today, when the media is increasingly under the control of huge corporations. In France, Le Figaro is owned by the Dassault Group, an arms manufacturer, while in the USA the CEO of Amazon, Jeff Bezos, owns the Washington Post.
Karl Marx’s analysis of the dynamics and inner workings of nineteenth century capitalism will continue to have powerful resonance and provide inspiration and hope for those seeking a safer, fairer, more stable and more peaceful world.
Neil Thomas, Cardiff
Philosophy: What Is It Good For?
Dear Editor: Many people outside the philosophical community make the criticism that philosophy has drifted into mere debate for debate’s own sake. Some add that it’s simply become an exercise in putting out novel ideas with little to no evidence behind them. Much of this criticism comes from a religious perspective, some of it from the scientific.
So where are we at? Well, I think for starters that we need to recognise what philosophical dialogue aims at, and what kind of discussion is most profitable. To my mind, all philosophy is the pursuit of truth, of understanding, and thereby of wisdom. This means that when we do engage in debate or argument, our goal should be nothing less than this truth.
How do we get there? Here is where reason becomes significant. Each claim and counter-claim, thesis and antithesis, needs to be vigorously dissected and tested. Floating theories founded upon sheer speculation is all well and good, but more of an imaginative and even an artistic exercise that philosophy can improve upon. This is not to denigrate such speculation. Indeed, were it not for our imagination we would not have the poetry of the Qu’ran and the Upanishads, the architectural wonder of Chartres Cathedral, or the symphonies of Mozart. Imaginative and spiritual thinking gives us religion, and much else besides, setting our sights on the infinite, and on what lies beyond reason’s ken. Maybe we can better organise our philosophy by taking into account Stephen Jay Gould’s ‘Non-Overlapping Magisteria’? For myself, I enjoy dipping into both the transcendental mindset and also the scientific. Yet, when logic and reason begin to lose ground I take stock, lest my mind be lost in an ocean of conflicting assumptions and theories.
Anthony MacIsaac, Institut Catholique de Paris