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Beyond Belief • Genocide in Poland • Our Nietzschean Selves • Beyond Mathematics • The New Minimalism • Mind: The Gap • Imagine There’s a God • Your Secret is the Truth
Dear Editor: In ‘Beyond Humanism’, Philosophy Now 138, Robert Griffiths suggests that ‘humanists still need gods so they can argue against them’. Humanists have mainly addressed the question of the existence of God because of the criticisms from theists, who argue that a justification or foundation for ethical conduct can never come from humankind. However, the central belief of humanists is that humanity is the curator of its own interests and does not need externally-imposed standards. Perhaps we should listen closer to the case they make for man being ‘the measure of all things’.
For those who believe that humanistic ethics would result in an unacceptable level of moral relativism, there is an argument to be made that a process of cultural convergence will even out the major differences between different moral systems. There is also a case to be made that the development of social rules, norms, and codes of behaviour are an evolutionary response. Such instincts or intuitions as favouring one’s own kin or tribe, and the development of a ‘herd instinct’ can be argued as the basis for a common general moral instinct which evolved to strengthen social groups.
Graham Hackett, Cardiff
Dear Editor: In his article ‘Einstein & The Rebbe’ in Issue 138, Dr Ronald Pies states that there can be no reconciliation between creationists and science concerning the age of the world. Did it take six days or billions of years? Einstein perhaps himself provided the path to peace. As every science fiction fan knows, if you go up in a suitably fast rocket and return to Earth a month later, many years will have passed on Earth. Similarly, God, working in and from eternity, untrammelled by our restrictive dimensions of time and space, could work so fast that what was to Him six days was to us billions of years.
Richard Heath, Filey
Genocide in Poland
Dear Editor: The article on genocide by Michael McManus in Issue 138 is full of inaccuracies. He rightly highlights the brave Poles who aided and supported the Jewish community in Poland – without mentioning the fact there were problems in Poland with anti-Semitism prior to the War. Secondly, the death squads he discusses were in fact German Ordnungspolizei (Orpo) from Hamburg. Their task was to secure territory the Wehrmacht had captured, ensuring that anti-German elements were persecuted. Thirdly, the vast majority of the Orpo were career police officers; McManus’s idea that they were made up of “labourers, truck drivers, seamen…” is total nonsense! They weren’t acting under compulsion as those members who couldn’t tolerate being made to act like psychopaths could seek a transfer out. Some did, and returned to their cities and towns. I understand that few police were actually prosecuted after the war.
One final depressing point: the SS, Orpo and Einsatzgruppe had a high number of university graduates compared with other units within the Wehrmacht, and the highest Nazi membership by job title was among university professors.
Alan J. Ford, Lincolnshire
Our Nietzschean Selves
Dear Editor: In Issue 137, Paul O’Mahoney argues that Friedrich Nietzsche believed that we do not have free will. One of the reasons we might not have free will is that we “cannot possibly be responsible for who we are, because we have no say in our makeup.” This did not strike me as sounding much like Nietzsche.
Granted, Nietzsche thinks that factors outside of our control have a huge influence on who we are today. However, I think an integral part of his philosophy is encompassed by his tag-line ‘to become one’s self’ (How to Become What One Is is the subtitle of his autobiographical work, Ecce Homo). He thinks we are responsible for examining those factors we have no control over and dismantling them until we find what is authentically and truly us. For example, in ‘Schopenhauer as Educator’, Nietzsche urges the youthful spirit to look at what activities have truly lit up their souls so far, and use these things as clues to discovering themselves. So I think Nietzsche would urge us to find ourselves despite the factors that lie outside of our control, rather than relinquish our control and responsibility because of them.
Beth Pollard, Cambridge
Dear Editor: Interesting article in Issue 137 by Paul O’Mahoney, ‘Our Nietzschean Future’. According to his analysis of Nietzsche’s argument, humans do not have free will because we are pre-determined to act the way we do. Hence, we cannot be blamed for our actions. Apparently, we are doomed to chaos and disorder because our lives are losing purpose alongside losing God, until our lives will becomes nothing more than a game.
However – and this is a big however – if humans wish to live within a society, there must be order within that society. This means establishing rules the participants in that society need to follow. Few people would want to live in a society where their neighbour can murder them or steal from them and the perpetrator be held blameless because they could not help themselves. Rather, a just society will establish laws so that humans are held accountable for their actions, even if they cannot ultimately be blamed for them. The perpetrator’s programming also means they would most likely not be rehabilitated, and so commit crime again. So the society only has a few options: let the perpetrator go and hope that crime is not committed again; imprison them forever; exile the perpetrator to somewhere they will be unlikely to commit crime; or execute them.
My point is that the ultimate chaos perceived by Nietzsche is improbable. It may exist for a short time, after a war or other catastrophic event; but soon, societies would start to re-develop, and an attempt at order would likely be established. After all, we cannot have our neighbours getting away with murder or theft – even if their lack of free will makes them blameless when they do so.
Brian Fraser, Winnipeg
Dear Editor: In Brandon Robshaw’s article on eternal repetition, Issue 137, a fourteen line extract from Nietzsche’s The Joyous Science (1882) refers to a life lived now which has been lived. But nothing is stated about the future which follows the demon’s sudden announcement of eternal repetition of your life. Hence the demon visiting Madge in the early morning of her thirtieth birthday, say, for the ninth cycle, would startle her as much as the eight previous visits. However, once recovered, Madge has the novel freedom to get on with her life. She does not have to meditate furiously over holidays, boyfriends, debt, or arguments with parents. Madge may become blessed with the robust attitude, ‘Am I bovvered?’ Alternatively, the demon’s visit implies she persists like an automaton in an entirely predictable world where she enjoys no choices in the sense of being able to change anything. But while her ever-recurring path through life may be o bvious for Nietzsche’s demon, is it obvious for Madge? And if not, does it matter?
Neil Richardson, Kirkheaton
Dear Editor: Nietzsche’s affirmation of eternal recurrence in the closing passages of Thus Spake Zarathustra parts 3 and 4 was made in a state of Dionysian ecstacy. He was speaking in his shamanic voice. When he came down to earth he would have been no more capable of affirming such a thing than anyone else. (See Ecce Homo 3, where he confesses that his mother and his sister were the greatest objection to the idea of eternal recurrence!) Zarathrustra needs to be read alongside Mircea Eliade’s great work: Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstacy.
Dear Editor: Do you suffer a daily burden, a repetition, doubt with respect to your questions and answers regarding the illusory reality construct called ‘life’, wherein ‘dignity’ and ‘freedom’ are but social masks worn only to hide an ignorance of absolute truth with regards to meaning? If so, read the Editorial from Issue 137, ‘Nietzsche’s Hammer’, and scan that issue featuring ‘the Prophet’. Yes, life is confusing, but at some point one must begin again, turn things around, and address one’s own curiosities with one’s own questions. Not just for information purposes, but to build a world of clarity with purpose! To test one’s question-and-answer concepts, as well as to build all new world constructs upon those very concepts! What was once a ‘nothing’ is now a lifetime adventure of exploration pleasure.
Len Gallagher, Val Caron, Ontario
Dear Editor: It’s flattering when other Philosophy Now readers mention my name, and in the last two issues this happened twice. For this I should thank David Wright from Sacramento and Ray Shelton from Glendale for their comments on my choice of ‘worst philosopher’ in Issue 135. In fact I dismissed Nietzsche as my candidate for worst philosopher, and awarded that prize to Ayn Rand. But one problem I have with both Nietzsche and Rand is the role played in their books by fancy. You might read them to wind down after a day of binge-watching movies. Hardly problematic. The problem starts when their tight-fisted fantasy gets political and is given priority over people really struggling.
While I would not question Ray Shelton’s authority as concerns Ayn Rand in his Letter to the Editor in Issue 137, I think he plays the same game as many apologists for rightwing nonsense by nitpicking over technical matters that have nothing to do with the main argument. There’s a big difference between grouping Rand with Nietzsche and Herbert Spencer, and claiming her as their direct descendent. Clearly there were differences, as Shelton points out; but that hardly dispenses with the overlaps. For instance, I don’t doubt that Rand distanced herself from Nietzsche because of his ‘irrationalism’ – she was, after all, the architect of ‘Objectivism’ (a lot of talk about there being hard facts in the world in order to make general claims about the world and treat them as if they were hard facts). But she certainly shared Nietzsche’s distaste for what he called ‘slave morality’, as well as his concept of resentiment (see her The Virtue of Selfishness). She also shared his propensity for the fanciful and mythic: she preferred the narratives of heroes, while disdaining narratives about the struggling masses. While she may not have shared Spencer’s glee for eliminating the weak, she seemed just as indifferent to their suffering. This is the slippery slope she shares with Nietzsche and Spencer in their ‘let the cream rise to the top and the rest be damned’ approach. There is a reason she is to this day the darling of rightwing libertarians and free market fundamentalists.
D.E. Tarkington, Nebraska
Dear Editor: In Issue 137 Owain Griffin discusses numerical infinities. I don’t doubt that the concept of mathematical infinities is useful for some mathematical or scientific disciplines. What I do question is, how true is this language? Mathematics only exists in our minds. Humans have invented a mathematical language that describes the universe; but as Korzybski has pointed out, ‘the map is not the territory’. A map that has infinite locations between 0 and 1 does not seem useful, especially if it describes a territory that only exists in our minds.
Dear Editor: I found Les Reid’s article ‘Return to Infinity!’ in Issue 137 very interesting. He argued that it may, after all, be possible that both space and time extend infinitely. I have an argument as to why that isn’t possible.
The idea that there are some points separated by an infinite distance from some other points may be rejected as nonsensical. For instance, if a pair of points are an infinite distance apart then nothing can be further away from one of those points than from the other one. Yet for there to be nothing beyond them, those points must be at the edge of the universe.This would only be possible if the universe is not infinite. So the idea of a universe which is infinite because it contains points which are separated by infinite distance contains a contradiction. It follows that the universe must be finite in size.
Reid argues that the Einsteinian model of a universe that is finite but without edges may be wrong, in which case, the universe may actually have edges. But if we ask what’s on the other side of the edge of the world, the answer is that there is no such place. My preceding argument shows that there must be an end to the extent of points or locations. Therefore, there could be no locations beyond that limit. And the principle of this argument applies to any dimension, so it applies to time as well.
Peter Spurrier, Halstead, Essex
Dear Editor: We obviously have problems with mathematical infinity. I think a comment from Bertrand Russell is appropriate here: Mathematics may be defined as the subject in which we never know what we are talking about, nor whether what we are saying is true.
Larry Curley, Huntingdon
Dear Editor: I read Sophia Gottfried’s essay on Nothing (Issue 136) with interest. It seems the thought-laws we use do not allow examination of absolute nothing, since, similar to an elementary particle, simply observing it apparently alters its nature. So for me, Heidegger’s dictum on Nothing remains the wisest: it simply nothings. At the cost of meaning, this evades treating it as other than no-thing.
Derek Parfit comes closest, perhaps, to laying the ghost of Nothing to rest . He said that if there were nothing at all, this would still entail the truth that there was nothing at all – so, not nothing at all (TLS, July 1992). Someone might demur that if there were nothing, logic itself would not hold. Does this imply that you can’t think about nothing? (And how can you think about no thing? – there’s nothing to think about. You’ve got to think about something…) Is the problem of nothing just a question of thinking about no thing; or one of trying to think about a thing that can’t be thought about? Could nothing none the less ‘hold’ in some sort of supralogical mode – justifying the assertion that there could have ‘been’ Absolute Nothing?
The New Minimalism
Dear Editor: I found a parallel of the ‘least publishable unit’ (LPU) from ‘Escaping the Academic Coal Mine’, Issue 137, “that refers to the commonplace strategy of maximizing your count of academic publications by making each one contain the smallest possible contribution to the field needed for it to get published.” There’s the same concept in athletics, which could be called the ‘least prizeable performance’ (LPP). It was practiced by top Russian pole vaulter Sergey Bubka, world record holder between 1983 and 1997. He overcame his own world record thirty five times. With this strategy he collected thirty five important cash prizes – one for every new world record he attained.
Eduardo Helguera, Buenos Aires
Mind: The Gap
Dear Editor: I do enjoy Raymond Tallis’ articles; but when it comes to meditating about consciousness, as he does in his article ‘Against Neural Philosophy of Mind’ in Issue 137, there are key issues Prof Tallis does not address. One is the distinction between things and processes. The other is the distinction between the way we use language and the way things actually are.
Taking the first point first: neural activity is a process. Prof Tallis’ initial doubt about the credibility of ‘thoughts being electrochemical activity’ is almost simply rhetorical when expressed that way; but replace ‘thought’, which sounds like a thing, with ‘thinking’, which is a process, and see what happens: “Thinking that all thinking is electrochemical activity in my prefrontal cortex is itself electrochemical activity in my prefrontal cortex…” The manifest absurdity has vanished.
This brings me to the second point. In the way we use language we (unthinkingly) speak of thoughts as if they’re things. If thoughts are things then they’re mental entities and cannot conceivably be physical entities. One alternative hypothesis is that there is no such thing as a thought; but there is a process – the neural activity we think of as thinking.
John Searle refers to the distinction between things and processes in his analogy of water molecules (things) and slipping (a process). Tallis seems to think he’s missed the point about things and processes. He’s interpreted Searle’s idea as a comparison of things seen one way and things seen another way, and hence thinks he can answer it as ‘the scale of attention’ being different in each case.
If consciousness is not ‘merely’ activity in the brain, what is it? If the answer’s in his latest book, I promise to buy it!
Dave Mangnall, Wilmslow
Dear Editor: Panpsychism seems little more than a re-branding exercise. If consciousness is a property of elementary particles, and that’s all there is to it, then the planet Jupiter should have a far greater consciousness than our kilogram of grey mush, since it consists of considerably more particles. Gaia notwithstanding, there is no evidence for this, at least in any way that relates to our experience of being conscious.
What then is the big difference between a bit of grey mush and a planet? Let’s call this difference ‘coherence’. It follows that the grey mush must have far more coherence than large quantities of gas giant stuff. Furthermore, give our mush a good wallop, or cut off its blood supply, and it soon ‘decoheres’, no longer showing signs of consciousness. But what is this ‘coherence’? And why don’t all aggregations of matter become coherent in the brain’s way? Replace ‘coherence’ with ‘consciousness’, and you’re asking an identical question. One or other is redundant. Nurse, pass me my Ockham’s Razor!
Andrew Wrigley, Scarborough
Imagine There’s a God
Imagine there’s a God, who thought:
“I will create a universe
composed of matter that conforms
to rules of my devising.
I’ll light the blue touchpaper, then
step back and watch as it goes “Boom!”
and see how things develop.
Perhaps, in time, something will grow
which can imagine there’s a God.”
Your Secret is the Truth
This side of truth, everything is fuzzy
Deductive reasoning doesn’t work
Most of the time science and the soul
Get in each other’s way:
The secrets of physics/The duality of man
Time is relative/The spirit is eternal.
But from God’s side things are crystal clear
No aberrations or misplaced thoughts.
He looks in at us and knows exactly why
We understand nothing at all.
If only he could explain to us.
But truth is in his way.