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Representations of Reality • “But Officer, it’s clearly a plant!” • Against ‘Against Veganism’ • Existential Ethical Enquiries • Swift Responses • More Misquoting & Misdirection

Representations of Reality

Dear Editor: I have one or two thoughts about Paul Doolan’s ‘Get Real’ (Issue 146), in which he considers what ‘the real world’ is. First, Doolan says Immanuel Kant thinks our knowledge of the ‘thing-in-itself’ (Ding-an-sich) is ‘limited’ and ‘imperfect’, but for Kant, the Ding-an-sich is an idea of pure reason and we have no direct sensory knowledge of it, and never could have. It is also wrong to say that Kant thinks “We never observe causation directly.” Quite the opposite: causation is part of the order of our phenomenal (sensory) experience. On the other hand, for Kant there is no in-itself causation that our experience of causation somehow ‘represents’.

I also found puzzling this claim: “the closer we come to creating accurate representations of the real, the further the real recedes.” For Kant (and I think he was right) our representations are empirically real, so we might as well call them ‘the real world’. Science doesn’t discover the in-itself world; it just adds more detail to our sensory experience.

Talking about life in a digital age being unreal is a different issue. Watching films and ordering food online is part of reality. We might call it ‘unreal’ in the sense of trivial, or trashy, but it is real.

Kant also deals with Nick Bostrom’s idea that everything could be a simulation. If like Neo in The Matrix we found out that we’ve been in a simulation, our new reality would be the ordered experience of the world in which this was discovered. We would have then learned that the real world was more complicated than we thought it was, but not because we have discovered an underlying reality beyond all experiences.

Robert Griffiths, Godalming

Dear Editor: In his article in Issue 146, Paul Griffiths points out some problems with ‘direct realism’, the belief that we perceive objects as they really are independent of the perceptions. That belief can be undermined by understanding the physical processes involved in perception. A different issue is that subjective experience of the world does not have the same properties as anything physical that’s being perceived. Anything composed of matter will have properties relating to its mass, structure, chemical composition, and electrical charges, as well as properties concerned with its location in relation to every other feature of the physical universe. This fact alone means that the properties possessed by any physical thing are vast. The same applies to the properties of any feature of a physical thing. The truth about what any physical thing really is includes the information about all its properties, because it is the thing that has those properties.

What then about the properties of subjective experience? These are limited to the properties of the experiential content. In other words, its properties are the properties of whatever is subjectively perceived, felt, or thought in that experience. For an experience to have the same properties as a physical thing, the experience would have to include complete information on that physical thing’s location in relation to every other detail of the universe. There is no known case of a subjective experience having such properties. So there is a fundamental difference between what is perceived and the perception of it.

Peter Spurrier, Halstead, Essex

Dear Editor: In his Editorial in Issue 143, Rick Lewis wrote that experience is ‘internal representations’, these representations being connected to the external world causally. I would however contest that what I experience is the world directly (and the world is out there). One can guess what it could be like to experience the world without our conceptual framework – how it would be to see a chair as patterns of colours, without seeing it as a chair as defined by our public agreement of what a chair entails. Perhaps it is rather like hearing sounds before realising that it is someone speaking English. But we see a chair when we look at a chair, not a representation of a chair! The preconditions of being able to do this are having a working brain and sense apparatus. These enable us to have experiences, but they are not the experiences themselves. What go on in the brain are neurological processes, not ideas. Ideas can be found in the mind, not the brain. The problem of regarding experience as representations in the brain, or even in the mind, is demonstrated by the problem of how we then can ever know what really goes on in the world. With representation we have lost the objective reference point where I can check with others whether what I thought I experienced was true. A painting can represent a chair, but then we can discuss whether it fulfils the criteria for being a representation or not: the reference is public, as opposed to supposed representations in our minds.

Richard Challis Bousfield, Copenhagen

“But Officer, it’s clearly a plant!”

pot plant
Innocent of all charges

Dear Editor: Charlie White’s article in PN146 was spot-on in highlighting the uselessness of much moral philosophy, particularly of far-fetched thought experiments. More widely, philosophy is often about nothing (or even nothingness), whereas philosophy should be about how we as humans should behave towards each other, towards the natural world, towards the very planet itself. For myself, I don’t care what people believe, only how their beliefs impinge on others. In any case, for most of us, moral questions are not black and white; they are a multitude of greys. This can make ‘doing the right thing’ very difficult.

Here is a real moral issue from my own life. We put out wild bird seed regularly on our bird-table, and the squabbling birds and squirrels can make a mess of seeds all over the gravel beneath it. One morning I came out, and seemingly overnight one such seed had sprouted in apparently sterile gravel and was at least a foot tall. The plant seemed suspiciously familiar, so I sent this photo to an old school friend who is a Professor of Plant Biology, who confirmed my suspicions.

What was the right thing to do, given that in the UK cultivation of this plant is a criminal offence? (On a personal note, as a corollary of Bentham’s greatest happiness principle, ‘pursue actions that result in the greatest reduction in human misery’, then if we are going to criminalise any plant, the import, supply, sale and cultivation of the Leylandii tree should be top of any Government’s legislative agenda!) Should I just ignore my guest plant on a live-and-let-live basis, and hope it isn’t spotted by a nosey neighbour? Should I tell the cops and risk criminal prosecution, and getting my home turned over? Should I tear it out of the gravel and toss it on the compost heap? Is that any way to treat the natural world? If the plant had been Japanese knot-weed, then on the basis of reducing human misery I would have reported it to the authorities. Ditto if it had been an Australian gympie-gympie or stinger, a thousand times more toxic than the garden nettle. What to do? Well, purely in the interest of science, I carefully scraped back the gravel, gently lifted the plant out by its root ball, then repotted it in the conservatory in rich, moist compost. Within a week it had died a death.

Terry Hyde, Yelverton

Against ‘Against Veganism’

Dear Editor: Dr Chris Belshaw’s line of argumentation against veganism in Issue 146 asks the reader to cede a number of points which on closer inspection constitute dubious assumptions; for example, killing other animals is self-evidently regarded as less serious than killing humans. And by asking the reader to consider ‘humane farming’ rather than factory farming, he ignores that an overwhelming majority of all meat is produced on factory farms. Disregarding this ratio already renders his thought experiment moot. The term ‘humane’ is also misleading, because any ‘humane farming’ inevitably entails practices that would result in criminal prosecution if done to humans. In addition, copious investigation has refuted the notion that the deaths experienced by farm animals are less gruesome than those of their wild counterparts. This unfounded claim again undermines Belshaw’s argument.

Irrespective of the bad assumptions, the very premise of engaging in a thought experiment about eating other animals is highly questionable in the contemporary global context. Society no longer lends credence to those who offer ‘opposing viewpoints’ about genocide and slavery. In the same vein, debating the permissibility of the willful slaughter of other animals evokes those who condone those other atrocities. Consider Belshaw’s statement: “What we should think about well-tended farm animals… is that even if their lives aren’t the best possible, they are nevertheless worth living, and generally the best lives available for them.” Replacing ‘farm animals’ with ‘oppressed minorities’ or ‘slaves’ here well illustrates the flawed reasoning.

The reductionist view that veganism is merely a diet disregards that its ethical and political core is the aspiration to boycott animal cruelty and exploitation in all its forms in an effort to promote justice. We have evolved beyond the necessity of eating other animals, and have agreed to consider the interests of all sentient individuals, at least in theory. Considering current social movements and their trajectory, this consideration will be achieved for nonhuman animals soon.

Ursula Posratschnig & Blake Shedd, Klagenfurt, Austria

Existential Ethical Enquiries

Dear Editor: The Editorial in Issue 145 rightly identifies existentialism as ‘a guide to how we should live’. Of course, one might reasonably argue that this goal has been intrinsic to all Western philosophy since the time of Thales. The holy grail is perhaps eudaemonia in the Aristotelian sense of flourishing [see Peter Adamson’s column this Issue, Ed].

Your articles, covering some of the main players of existentialism, offer insight into how far they were able to obtain their own flourishing life. Kierkegaard was not a happy soul, but he was prepared to suffer in order to lead an authentic life, including a broken engagement and considerable hostility from the wider community in response to his writings. In contrast, Sartre, also a prolific writer, appears to have believed that alcohol, drugs, and promiscuity were important for the good life. If judging with the contemporary standards of #metoo, one might suggest that he used his fame in a predatory manner to seduce women.

Putting that aside, Sartre’s theory of ‘the Look’ is incomplete. A much richer understanding is found in another existentialist. Martin Buber’s ‘I and Thou’ (Ich und Du) articulates clearly the distinction between thinking of and treating others as object (thing) or subject (person). Curiously, Buber does not limit this to human interactions, and describes looking into a cat’s eyes thus: “The world of It surrounded the animal and myself, for the space of a glance the world of Thou had shone out from the depths, to be at once extinguished and put back into the world of It.”

Michael Connolly, Wellington, Somerset

Dear Editor: In Issue 145, Cameron Hendy attempts to rehabilitate the Norwegian existentialist Peter Zapffe, a figure largely forgotten even in Norway. However, surely some thinkers are deservedly forgotten, and for all Hendy’s efforts one may be forgiven for suspecting that Zapffe is one of them. Sartre dismissed him as a salaud (swine), while others have seen him as a rather incompetent plagiarist of Schopenhauer, and put his sincerity as a writer into question.

Zapffe tells us that the human race is a blot on the face of existence, and urges us not to reproduce. By having children we merely perpetuate the round of misery on Earth. Yet he himself is credited with fathering at least two illegitimate children, and rather than curtailing his own existence, died only after he had become a centenarian. He was reputedly also, in his youth at least, something of a bon viveur. Clearly he is one of those moralists who doesn’t care to follow his own precepts. Hendy describes him as “an eccentric mountaineer”; however, one would have been more likely to encounter him down the pub than up a mountain!

Surely his main value as a thinker (if he has any) is in his account of those mechanisms by which human beings are led to deceive themselves – not least about the nearness of death – rather than his pernicious antinatalism, which Hendy so uncritically applauds. He offers only a very partial view of Zapffe, based on his single text which happens to have been translated into English, The Last Messiah. Had he been able to consult the bulk of his work in Norwegian, he might have come to a very different verdict, and revise his finding that Zapffe was ‘not a man who wished to be misunderstood’, for some of his boldest theses are evidently intended as provocations rather than as gospel truths. Indeed, whatever one’s doubts about his philosophical competence, there can be little dispute that, like Kierkegaard, he is a master ironist – to such a degree that to take him at face value, as Hendy does, can mean that one is perilously close to being spoofed.

Roger Caldwell, Bristol

Dear Editor: As someone who started out thinking it his manifest destiny to become a rock star, and who was heavily influenced by such artists as Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, and Janis Joplin, I think I can offer a little insight into the supposedly self-destructive drug consumption of Sartre as described by Sam Kelly in ‘The Adventures of Jean-Paul Sartre’ (Issue 145). In fact, many, if not most (maybe even all) letters or answers to the Question of the Month I have had published in Philosophy Now have benefited from alcohol and listening to music, or written while I was sober and edited and revised while buzzed. It’s as Nietzsche said: “One must still have inner chaos in order to give birth to a dancing star.” The interesting thing is that Nietzsche himself didn’t partake (outside of, per rumor, opium); instead, he was in the process of having a mental breakdown. Nevertheless, the connection between psychological instability – whether through mind-altering substances or one’s natural biology – and creativity is well established. The only difference is that while Nietzsche arrived at that state through ‘natural processes’, many creatively and intellectually curious people arrive at it through applied means. This is all over our culture, and it has a long tradition; but not only Western culture, of course. Ancient Japanese poets are said to have drunk a watered-down mixture of mercury and lead so that while it ate their brains they could utilize the madness to write better poetry. We see a related dynamic at work in American Indian peyote rituals, which help the shaman to create new mythologies for the tribe.

The shaman is the example we should be following. The mistake Jim Morrison made was assuming that acquiring the knowledge of the shaman was simply a matter of taking the same drugs. He failed to recognize the footwork involved – the sober rituals, whether sweat lodges, or heavy meditation or shooting the peyote with tiny bows and arrows.

That said, drug-induced creativity may not be a matter of self-destruction so much as living a life so intense it’s worth paying attention to. But let’s not romanticize it. No doubt the drugs Sartre took made his work possible; but we still have to respect the footwork needed.

D.E. Tarkington, Nebraska

Swift Responses

Dear Editor: Reading ‘Taylor Swift’s Liar Paradox’ by Dr Theresa Helke in Issue 145 reminded me of Mullah Nasruddin’s quandary when he reached the gate of a city. The guard told the Mullah that the king had decreed that anyone who told a lie would be executed by hanging. The guard then asked Mullah Nasruddin what his purpose was for entering the city. “I am going to my hanging,” the Mullah replied.

Howard Isaac Williams, San Francisco, California

Dear Editor: I greatly enjoyed Theresa Helke’s exploration of logical paradoxes and self-reference through the lyrics of a pop star. I teach Philosophy to secondary school students [11-16 year-olds] and am always looking for ways to make the material more engaging and accessible to them. Unfortunately, this is not always easy, not helped by the structure of our [British] education system. What my students want more than anything is to get good grades. I cannot offer them a GCSE certificate in Philosophy or in Logic, because none exists! I wrote to the Department for Education about this and pointed out how other countries can access philosophy at an earlier age than the UK. I even offered to help create a qualification. Unfortunately, they were not inclined to help. I hope that as philosophy becomes more accessible through magazines such as this, it will be recognised as a valid academic subject for children under the age of sixteen.

Rob Haves, Kent

What Is Philosophy For?

Dear Editor: I want to thank you for John Shand’s critique of Mary Midgley’s book What is Philosophy For? in Issue 144. Although I think his criticism on the use of ‘for’ was taking the title too literally, this did emphasise the difficulty of finding anything negative to say about it. I bought the book immediately.

Midgley talks about philosophy as a connector between different disciplines. As a management consultant in all areas of industry and the public sector, my greatest successes were breaking through the silos of departments and hierarchy. In many of the organisations I worked with, mutual benefits were demonstrated when these barriers were torn down. However, the human need for control and power was too great to withstand the replacement of those silos after my departure, despite the losses in efficiency that resulted. Barrier-breaking works: it is the implementation that is difficult.

Richard Tod, Northants

More Misquoting & Misdirection

Dear Editor: I always enjoy Seán Moran’s articles. In his piece about Brussels in Issue 144, he mentioned quoting Psalm 14 as an example of a Straw Man. Might this also be an example of Aristotle’s enthymeme, meaning, a bad rhetorical argument? In Psalm 14 are the words ‘there is no God’. Taken out of context this could be misleading: it has a very different meaning when it’s acknowledged that it’s preceded by the words “The fool says in his heart…” In his Rhetoric, Aristotle noted the use of the ‘out of context’ dodge by lawyers and politicians in his time. But it’s still alive and kicking, with ever wider use in advertising, news media, social media, and international intelligence jousting. I have even noted it in refereed scientific papers – perhaps as part of academic competition over truth, or precedence. Should we be more wary of missing, or faulty, premises?

David Ward, Bridgetown, Western Australia

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