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Nietzsche Eternally Revisited • Meaningful Jobs • Stoicism Recycled • Thoughts on Tallis on Thought • Viruswise • Trolley Takes Its Toll • Beauty and the Beast

Nietzsche Eternally Revisited

Dear Editor: In PN Issue 137, brave Brandon Robshaw takes on Nietzsche’s eternal recurrence analytically! Oho!

Eternal recurrence works as a literary and even a philosophical tool. Any mental romance ended there for me as a young man. What did strike me was the way the idea evolved in Nietzsche, starting with its epochal realisation as he sauntered by the shore of Lake Silvaplana, pondering the great pyramidal boulder there. The idea of eternal recurrence shook him. I found it a pity that he didn’t write more about it; it would have gone well with his liking for Darwin, had he accepted the possibility of an evolutionary component to the idea. The idea is also at odds with happiness in contrast to fate. For a man such as Nietzsche, who felt happiness meant struggle and change, wouldn’t it make more sense that the participant were a responsible agent with an unknown to struggle with, rather than just repeating the same? At any rate it works beautifully in his works.

Thanks for the Nietzsche edition. It’s hard to fault him. Many sense the übermensch as a master figure, but careful reading demolishes this idea – with a hammer, as it were.

Bernard Rooney, Nimbin, Australia

Dear Editor: Paul O’Mahoney’s article in Issue 137 makes the implications of Nietzsche’s philosophy so clear that it’s a wonder how anyone would want a future governed by Nietzschean principles. But it’s unclear whether O’Mahoney himself accepts the Nietzschean case against free will or whether he is merely illustrating its reasoning. Although he highlights the scientific evidence, he fails to point out that it was science’s commitment to truth that Nietzsche most despised in his Third Essay on the Genealogy of Morality. Nietzsche perceived the scientific enterprise to be the most pernicious and ‘subterranean ally’ of the Christian unwavering commitment to truth (GM III: 25). And in a Nietzschean world, science is stripped of its fundamental assumptions necessary for operating. For instance, when a scientist contemplates new hypotheses, conducts new experiments, and makes deductions from those experiments, the scientist must assume at every stage a will that’s free to choose between an array of explanatory candidates. Any notion that suggests that free will is illusory, such as Nietzsche’s determinism, renders the scientific enterprise futile, removing the ability of science to make the case for anything, not least Nietzschean philosophy. Indeed, Nietzsche would have found this use of science bizarre and obscene, given his view that science was the ‘pre-eminent form’ of Christian ideals (GM III: 23). Indeed, it’s true that the modern scientific enterprise was borne not from an atheist womb, but from the metaphysical presuppositions of Christianity. The pioneers of modern science held two distinct presuppositions that enabled science to flourish. The first was that nature had been created by a God who ordained regular laws which nature obeyed. Nature was not, therefore, arbitrary in its behaviour, but consistent. The second was that God had created the human mind in His very image. The ability of the medieval natural philosopher to uncover the laws of nature, was hence justified, and with it so was doing science.

One must ultimately admit the incoherence and self-refuting nature of Nietzsche’s philosophy. Under determinism, the free will of the audience is stripped bare, so none are truly free to believe anything. Nietzsche’s determinism would imply that his philosophy is itself determined, so having no real truth value. It is therefore no wonder that a pure Nietzschean world has not yet fully emerged, nor ever will, since the concept itself is not only morally distasteful but fundamentally self-refuting.

Nietzsche himself stated that “all great things destroy themselves by an act of self-cancellation.” Here he was writing of the future death of Christianity (GM III: 27). But unwittingly, Nietzsche laid the seeds for the collapse even of the Nietzschean dream itself.

Oliver Iglesia Victorio, London

Dear Editor: How predictable that in answer to the question, ‘Who Is The Worst Philosopher?’ (Question of the Month, Issue 135), the readers name Nietzsche more than anyone else. I had planned an angry rant about this, but am disarmed by the hilarity of the term ‘basement übermenschen’, as proposed by D.E. Tarkington, in his letter.

The criticisms of Nietzsche clearly indicate that most still have an image of him brought to us by propagandists, such as by the Nazis and by his sister. In the Foreword to Walter Kaufman’s Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist, it says, “Kaufman’s book brought about a radical reversal of the popular image of Nietzsche as a raging, totalitarian anti-Semite… It marks a turning point in Nietzsche’s posthumous reputation.” This book hit the market in 1950! The criticisms of Nietzsche leveled by your readers indicates we can do them a huge favor by telling to them to go (and waste no time) to their local library, seek out Kaufman’s book, bring themselves up to a modern level (well, up to 1950 anyway) of understanding about Nietzsche, before blowing huge plumes of empty hot air.

David Wright, Sacramento, CA

Which is worse –
A hard death
Or a hard birth:
To bless one’s blessing
Or to curse one’s curse?

Benjamin L. Pérez, San Quentin, CA

Meaningful Jobs

Dear Editor: As I read Dr Thorsten Botz-Bornstein’s description of the post-industrial workforce, it seemed to me that he almost got away with it.

When the magazine landed on my doormat I found myself isolated but oddly still capable of carrying on with my ‘meaningless’ role of ‘mindless hyperactivity’. Of course, had Dr Botz-Bernstein made his point in Issue 136 of Philosophy Now, even I might have agreed with him. Who hasn’t asked themselves ‘What’s the point of it all?’ But far from being meaningless, the administrative and ‘box-ticking’ jobs continued, as those suffering from ‘Busy Bee Syndrome’ were dispersed to kitchen tables and spare bedrooms to make sure that nurses, refuse workers, drivers and police officers continue to get paid in a regulated and tightly administered system which ensures that the ‘productive’ workforce can continue to be safe and treated fairly. This new-formed network of home workers were free to pick up the childcare and emergency delivery to elderly relatives. They were connected with each other through ‘bullshit’ social media, and maintained the viability of the post-industrial supply chain so that academics didn’t run out of toilet roll. So, Dr Botz-Bornstein nearly got away with what? Well, bullshit, of course.

Welcome to the twenty-first century.

Paul Ramsay, Post-Industrial Worker, Windsor

Dear Editor: In Issue 137, two of your contributors, Dr David Ronnegard and Dr Thorsten Botz-Bornstein, cite the contemporary meme that around 40% of jobs are pointless, or ‘bullshit’. When answering a poll, many people will say that their jobs are pointless; but at the same time, all around the world, our life expectancy, standards of living, and so on, continue to increase. How much better might we do if everyone did useful jobs?!

Perhaps it isn’t surprising that many of your contributors – mostly middle-class academics – might feel quite smug about their own roles, while looking down on the roles of others. In fact, companies and organisations wouldn’t employ people who didn’t contribute, and the service sector jobs which were cited as ‘bullshit’ play a massively important role in moving things on. For example, the telemarketer might be selling low-carbon electricity, or the management consultant might be invigorating the fortunes of a charity. The value of a role lies as much in its place in a system as in what is done day-to-day. In the book Sensemaking, Christian Madsbjerg argues for the role of education in the humanities, specifically in philosophy, in making sense of the world around us and saving us from big data and scientism. Part of that is for us to start thinking about our role and not rely on machines to do the thinking for us. I would argue that alongside attention to the minutiae of life a broader system-wide approach is required, so that when people think their role is pointless, they should look at it as functioning within a wider society. Of course, if they still think it’s pointless, maybe it’s time to change jobs!

David Hall, Cheltenham

Stoicism Recycled

Dear Editor: I want to address the article in PN 136, ‘A Stoic Response To The Climate Crisis’ by Matthew Gindin.

Although I admire stoicism for its emotional and psychological benefits, I find that as an ethical system it is somewhat limited, and is highly inappropriate to tackle an issue of the magnitude of the climate crisis. Whereas stoicism is primarily a self-directed discipline, climate-related problems require a shift of perspective from the centrality of the stoic individual to things that are not the self. In fact, making any real headway in preventing the continued destruction of our planetary environment will require a willingness to make painful sacrifices. Gindin’s recommended ‘training for a world of lack and hardship’ is quite different, and, I would venture, less inconvenient, than putting one’s self out and making an effort before the final hardship. Furthermore, as opposed to merely ‘doing what we can’, a combined social effort is required. The stoic response alluded to in Gindin’s article might bring about psychological relief for the individual, but rather than spurring productive action, could very easily turn into apathy or fatalism, another unhelpful caveat about stoicism. Urgent ethical decisions do not flow naturally from the stoic mind-set, given that Stoicism emphasises the cultivation of the ‘good’ character. This may not leave much time for fixing the environment. Sometimes, to establish a more general, social, good, we just have to act, albeit mindfully – particularly given that a conducive environment is needed in order for the lofty discipline of reasoning to take place at all. I summarise this in a haiku:

Stoic demeanour
Whilst checking one’s responses
Could stop short of more.

Thomas R. Morgan, Westcliff-On-Sea, Essex

Thoughts on Tallis on Thought

Dear Editor: May I comment in response to Professor Tallis’ stimulating article, ‘Against Neural Philosophy of Mind’, in Philosophy Now Issue 137?

I am a retired psychiatrist. When I was with a patient, we would discuss the way we think, feel, and act – a meeting of minds. We might agree the patient needed to change, via a process of persuasion or psychotherapy. I could also decide that the patient is depressed, and that this mood is without apparent environmental cause, and is moreover unusually prolonged and intense. So I prescribe an anti-depressant on the basis of a putative disorder of chemical transmission in the brain. It seems to me that as a psychiatrist I worked in two distinct fields.

The field of the meeting of minds concerns self-consciousness, self-awareness, and introspection. Since the study of self-consciousness is called ‘phenomenology’, I call this ‘the Domain of Discourse of Phenomenology’. When I prescribe brain medication I am operating in the scientific mode: I like to call this ‘the Domain of Discourse of Science’.

The Domain of Discourse of Phenomenology is characterised by:

1. Action within the organism.

2. Non-determinism – free-will.

3. Specific causality – mental events.

4. Phenomena are subjective – they cannot be observed by ‘outsider’.

5. The three faculties of psychology are: will or conation; emotion or affection; cognition or intellect.

It is within this domain that we woo our partners, raise our children, relate to our colleagues, argue with our enemies, talk to our patients, make our laws. It’s the domain of persuasion and propaganda. It is also the language of literature, philosophy and science before the shift into the modern domain of scientific discourse that came with Galileo. Though it has disparagingly come to be called ‘folk psychology’, it is a functioning system.

The Domain of Discourse of Science concerns the manipulation of the world largely outside of the organism, via our artefacts. In my view the domain includes:

1. Objectivity – experiences of the phenomena can be shared by observers.

2. Act within and without the organism.

3. Experimental since Galileo.

4. Deterministic – no free will.

5. Causality: not mental activity; ideally mechanistic, akin to movements of a planet, a steam engine, or a computer.

6. If possible, modelled by mathematics.

Too often there are attempts to meld the domains, such as cognitive psychology; a melange of the two realms. In clinical practice I cheerfully worked in whichever was the most useful domain. But they are incompatible, or in the technical sense, incommensurable. If we accept their incommensurability, we should resolutely abandon any attempt to explain one domain in terms of the other, and so cease to use these domains in our conceptual struggles over body and mind. This would free us to take a fresh look at our ideas about the nature of our existence, released from the straightjackets of the two domains of discourse.

If my thoughts are valid, incommensurability requires stepping into the conceptual unknown with the need for a revolutionary change in our outlook and understanding over mind and brain.

David Marjot, Weybridge, Surrey

Dear Editor: Raymond Tallis has argued that the mind is not neural activity (Issue 137). I wonder if he could do a follow-up article on the nature of this non-material mind ? It would be particularly interesting to know how the mind relates to the grey matter through which it appears to operate. In the case of severe brain injury, this mind appears to have difficulty in getting through. Is it that the thinking continues separate from the brain, but is simply blocked from communicating, like a radio receiver with a broken loudspeaker? What’s going on?

Barry Williams, Liverpool


Dear Editor: I have been reminded by the inroads into our lives of COVID-19 of the idea of panpsychism – that rather strange assertion by certain philosophers that consciousness is inherent in every aspect of matter, down to the smallest subatomic particle. Well, the coronavirus is a very large molecule. Its chemical formulation enables it to ‘take over’ our cells’ production lines and substitute the replication of the virus. No-one in the scientific world, however, is proposing ‘intention’ here. What’s happening is no different in principle to the reaction of hydrogen and oxygen to produce water: ultimately, certain molecules simply interact. The virus is itself a mutation of one of its forebears, typically found in bats. Does this mean that its alleged self-awareness for panpsychists was involved in that mutation, knowing that there were bigger and better hosts to parasitise? If not, and if its reproduction is not dependent on self-awareness, we are left asking what its consciousness actually amounts to. If the molecule is not actually aware of its awareness and cannot use it for anything, then in what sense does it have awareness? Isn’t panpsychism better characterised as mumbo jumbo, a fairy story?

Paul Buckingham, Annecy, France

Dear Editor: I have not seen discussed a difficult moral point which comes with panpsychism. If everything does indeed have self-awareness, then surely that must bring with it a knowledge of the consequences of actions, and so, moral responsibility. How then does the coronavirus justify its actions? And how do we justify our genocidal attempts to rid ourselves of what panpsychism tells us is a sentient being? We’re not even in a position to anaesthetise the virus to stop it suffering as we destroy it.

Clearly we need to rebuild our entire approach to morality to enable us to remove this dilemma. I suggest that we repurpose the somewhat neglected concept of purposivism: the idea that intent or purpose is to be found in all human and animal life. We could perhaps call it panpurposivism. This would state that all matter has purpose. We would have to accept that purpose may vary according to the configuration it then has. For instance, the purpose of hydrogen can vary considerably, from providing the sun’s heat by fusion, to being part of the water molecules essential for the formation of life as we know it. Combine hydrogen with oxygen and carbon, and we get ethanol – a substance which a major recent international study tells us is dangerous to human life at even the smallest dose; but which is nonetheless a comfort for many in a time of coronavirus lockdown.

In the case of the virus, its purpose is to multiply at our expense. One of our purposes as human beings is to defeat its purpose. Each of those conflicting purposes is, however, fully justified morally, because the purpose is imposed on it and us by our panpurposivist configurations.

Thomas Jeffries, Warwickshire

Trolley Takes Its Toll

Dear Editor: I solved the trolley problem: instead of deciding whether to kill one person or five people, you make the decision to sacrifice yourself.

Think of it this way: you’re with four friends, and they’re lying on their deathbeds, close to dying. You’re also lying on your deathbed. There are four life-saving vials of medicine. The ethical thing to do is save your four friends and sacrifice yourself. I would make that decision without having to think. I hope you would make that decision too.

Gage Bennett, Age 13

Beauty and the Beast

Dear Editor: I’m responding to Patrick O’Callaghan’s letter in Issue 136 about my article ‘Beauty versus Evil’, concerning Leni Riefenstahl’s film Triumph of the Will (Issue 132). I did not say that both the form and content of works of art should merely be ‘taken into account’ when judging them. I wrote that in the best works of art the form is actually fused with the content, so that it is impossible to assess one without the other. In other words, the value of such a work of art (as art) is not something that can be judged apart from the moral quality of its content.

Incidentally, I have just read in an English daily newspaper that Riefenstahl’s film is regarded as “so toxic that it still can’t be screened publicly in Germany.” (The I, 9 March 2020)

Stuart Greenstreet, Lewes, East Sussex

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