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Philosophers Overturn Physics • How To Be Fairly Good • Kant Get Enough • Good Life Hunting • Thoughts Emerge • Spinoza Limerick • Interpreting Socrates • Russell and Khayyam
Philosophers Overturn Physics
Dear Editor: Heiner Thiessen wrote a beautiful and moving tribute to the Greek polymath Eratosthenes in Issue 151. But something puzzles me about the measurements and calculations he made. Eratosthenes must have assumed the Sun to be a vast distance away when he made the bold assumption that its rays run parallel towards the Earth. A Flat Earther would have rejected this assumption. He would have maintained that the Sun was merely thousands, rather than millions, of miles away, and explained the difference in shadow lengths as only what was to be expected when the Sun’s spreading, non-parallel, rays hit the Earth. He might even have added that the Sun’s rays never run parallel, and would only tend towards that alignment over a much longer distance. Eratosthenes was therefore actually making it a foregone conclusion that the difference was due to the curvature of the Earth: he was presuming, rather than concluding, that the Earth is a sphere, in order to measure its curvature. Of course, he was right (or nearly so) in his conjecture and measurement. Or was he?
Colin Stott, Somerset
Dear Editor: In Letters, Issue 151, Colin Stott says that we cannot unlight a match by reversing the operation, cannot unbake a cake, nor reverse the ageing process. There is no reason why we – or rather the universe – cannot; but in order to do so, to preserve its homogeneity, the entire universe, including ourselves, would have to go into reverse. Therefore to become aware of this reversal, we would have to be able to isolate ourselves spacetime-wise from the rest of the universe. Imagine you’re watching a movie and at some point you set it in reverse. You can only do so and be aware of it by being isolated from what you’re witnessing on the screen. The universe might be constantly moving both forward and backward, both baking and unbaking cakes – but of necessity we would be unaware of it, because our brain processes would be reversed during the process.
Doug Clark, Currie, Midlothian
Dear Editor: In Issue 151 Matei Tanasa imagined a conversation between ancient Greek philosophers on whether movement is possible. Appearances overwhelmingly suggest that the world contains movement. Nevertheless, I would side with those who argue that movement cannot be real. I think, like Parmenides, that change is not logically possible. In the conversation Heraclitus argues that since the appearance of the world changes, then something changes, even if it is only the appearances in our minds. However, I would argue that change of any kind involves a logical contradiction.
The reason is simple. Any thing must be itself. If at any point a thing fails to be identical to itself, then there is a contradiction. This means that nothing can actually change, because, in order to change, a thing must fail to be identical to itself. Any object X cannot change to the slightly different object X1 without failing to be identical to X.
Some might argue that change is still possible, because although at any one moment what exists is identical to itself, it is different to what exists at another moment, so different things exist at different moments. In that case reality itself would be changing. But logically, reality cannot change either, because it too can never fail to be identical to itself.
This goes very much against how the world appears.There appears to be change, even if it’s only in our minds. But my argument shows that such ‘change’ must be some kind of illusion. It would be contradictory for change to be real. And, of course, without change, there cannot be any movement.
Peter Spurrier, Halstead, Essex
How To Be Fairly Good
Dear Editor: In Issue 151 Robert Griffiths contrasts different approaches to being good advocated by some major philosophers. They are all important, but each is inadequate on its own.
Peter Singer, following Jeremy Bentham, emphasises beneficial actions. But what should impel us to perform good actions at a cost to ourselves? Aristotle by contrast emphasised the importance of becoming the sort of person who naturally does good. Certainly it is easier to do good when it comes naturally; but sometimes we should do good even when we find it distasteful. So, Kant emphasised that we must do good because it’s our duty.
What balance should we strike between the amount of good we do and what it costs us to do it? We cannot help everyone, so how do we choose who to help and who to neglect? That decision will be affected by the severity of their distress and by how it affects us. Do we love them? Are we in debt to them for past favours? Have we made promises? Also, what someone wants is not always a benefit to them. Being really good is really difficult. Most of us have to be satisfied with being fairly good.
Allen Shaw, Leeds
Kant Get Enough
Dear Editor: ‘Transcending Kant’ in Issue 150 sinks to the naïve realist view that ‘information is knowledge’, and says that Kant’s ‘categories’ of thought are but inert intermediaries, like a pair of glasses, between we who know the world and the world we know. But this will not do. All glasses and telescopes do is make observation keen; but surely, they do not make empirical observations into knowledge, as though ‘the cat is on the mat’ and ‘the chair is red’ and ‘Mars is larger than Mercury’ exemplify knowledge about furniture, felines, and planets. To be aware of how things are is, surely, no knowledge of what things are.
No. Not optical devices, but language, the vehicle of meaningfulness, is deployed by Kant to make knowledge of the world possible. This is put most pungently by the teacher Richard Mitchell: “You are, in a certain sense, unconscious… Language is the medium in which we are conscious. The speechless beasts are aware, but they are not conscious. To be conscious is to ‘know with’ something, and a language of some sort is the device with which we know” (Less Than Words Can Say, 1979).
Bob Gilgulin, Colorado
Dear Editor: Joshua Mozersky’s essay ‘Transcending Kant’ (Issue 150) touches on an aspect of epistemology that is essential, even fundamental, but largely ignored by mainstream philosophers.
He provides an example early in his treatise, citing geometry, specifically the Euclidean theorem that the internal angles of a triangle add up to two right angles. As he expounds it, “This proof is usually carried out a priori, or purely theoretically… There is, however, Hume points out, a great mystery as to how the result of such a theoretical process could apply to real space at all. There is an even greater mystery as to how it could accurately capture the structure of huge swaths of space that have never been, and never will be, observed, as we assume it does.” This may have been a mystery in Hume’s and Kant’s time, but not today. When the sum of the angles don’t add up to 180º, we know we’re observing curved space. This is even true on the Earth’s surface, where the sum of the angles of a large enough triangle exceeds 180º. So there is a relationship between mathematics (discovered a priori) and the physical world overlooked by Kant and many who have followed in his footsteps.
In his conclusion, Mozersky makes the following point: “The fact that access to something is mediated does not mean that how it is accessed is entirely a construct of the mediator.” Yet that is exactly what happens when mathematics is the mediator. Yet it has been extraordinarily successful, from the cosmic scale to the subatomic. (But of course, this is not what Mozersky, or Kant, had in mind…)
Paul P. Mealing, Melbourne
Good Life Hunting
Dear Editor: Thank you for Michael Ferreira’s well written review of Good Will Hunting in Issue 150. While the author makes several salient points about self-education versus university education, and very articulately dismantles the fallacy of thinking them equal, and the potential dangers of this (especially in the current intellectual climate), I feel he missed a crucial more nuanced point in his analysis of Will’s ‘hard-hitting zinger’. The core of Will’s claim is not really about whether one can garner the same breadth of knowledge from library books as from an expensive university education. Rather, Will is commenting more broadly on the elitism or internalised superiority of some educated folk and of academia in general, and the covert exclusion of those who don’t ‘fit the mould’.
I agree with Ferreira’s initial assumption that Will is not just trying to be cutting or pick a fight, and that he does truly believe that library books can provide as much knowledge as an expensive degree. However, I don’t agree that he is dismissive of formal education because he’s convinced it’s of no value. Rather, it’s because he is outside of it, and doesn’t feel worthy of belonging to it. In effect, he’s flipping a middle finger to the establishment, while secretly wanting to be accepted by it. However, while he does know its value, he also understands the limits of formal education – that while it can certainly be useful and beneficial, it does not make a person superior, and is not essential to a good, worthwhile life. So he is scathing of the formal world of learning not because he believes one can necessarily learn more on his or her own than in that learning environment, but because of its elitism and conformism.
Although Will is a natural genius, due to his socioeconomic circumstances of poverty, abuse and neglect he is excluded from the halls of learning. Working as a janitor in one of them is the closest he thinks he can get. So while he is not literally excluded from enrolling as a student (and indeed, once his genius is discovered, he is actively encouraged to do so, and offered the guidance of staff), he is painfully aware of his ‘other’ status, and that he would be unlikely to fit in within the university environment.
The pompous grad student in the bar riles Will since Will appears to be a person of lower means, and therefore, of lower intelligence. The student assumes that he is intellectually superior to Will based on appearances, and ensures Will knows it. So more than offering a critique of formal education, Will is calling out ingrained class inequality and prejudice.
Of course, Will has gained much of his knowledge from books on his own. But humans are social creatures and, as Ferreira points out, the group environment of a university offers crucial opportunities to discuss and analyse ideas with others, as well as providing a guided, established and informed structure the self-learner may find challenging to replicate. However, despite its clear advantages, it does not necessarily follow that an expensive degree is going to result in better future outcomes for an individual than self-learning. And it sure doesn’t guarantee that the person is of a higher calibre – which is exactly the point Will was making by challenging the smugness and bias he encountered from the more ‘educated’ guy in the bar.
Rose Dale, Perth, Australia
Dear Editor: I write in response to the article ‘An Unholy Trinity’ by Raymond Tallis in Issue 150. Prof Tallis, describing the notion of ‘emergence’ in evolution, says: “It is however, becoming increasingly obvious that ‘emergence’ doesn’t reduce the puzzle of the origin of life, even less the puzzle of conscious intelligent life. Emergence looks more like a description than an explanation.”
In this context, ‘emergence’ doesn’t refer to the classic scientific model of cause/effect. When one billiard ball is struck by another, the motion is classic cause/effect, and sufficiently explained by it. However, in the course of evolution, new ‘hierarchies of complexity’ are naturally created when the components of one level are combined. Yet the qualities inherent in the higher level are never fully or even sufficiently explained as simple additive qualities of the prior level. Rather, new and original qualities emerge. Even if one were to know everything that could be known about the individual elements hydrogen and oxygen, one would still be unable to prospectively determine the quality complexion of their combination, water. The qualities of water emerge from the new order of complexity found in the combination, and are not a simple additive combination of the constituent qualities.
The fact that not every explanation fits the ‘cause and effect’ model has tremendous implications for the scope of scientific understanding. For example, the quantum lack of a cause/effect explanation of Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle is not due to our current state of incomplete knowledge or experimental instrumentation, but is inherent in the nature of the world. Our rules for explanation in our everyday tier of reality are not applicable in the quantum world, due largely to the emergence via complexity from that tier unto our own.
Self-consciousness is also an emergent quality, arisen upon the prior stage of organic biochemical evolution in the brain; and all the attributes native to self-consciousness, such as personality, nature vs. nurture, self-image, subjective perspective, imagination, shame, hope, anticipation, guilt, etc, are emergent, and independent of the preceding levels.
David McQuade, Hancock, Maine
Dear Editor: Richard Oxenberg states that the nature of the relationship between a man and a woman cannot be inferred from a ‘strictly physical’ account of the interaction between them. (‘What is Truth?’ PN 149) However, Oxenberg’s observer will hear the words spoken by them, and will normally understand them. In this way they will be able to comprehend the caring relationship involved, solely on the basis of a physical – in this case auditory – sensation.
Oxenberg further asks, “How does inert matter, through some rearrangement of its form, suddenly begin to care?” He needn’t have gone as far back on the evolutionary trail as inert matter; the arrangements among the higher mammals and birds to ensure the survival of the species would have been sufficient – a dog’s reaction to the pheromones of a bitch in heat that gives rise to a litter of puppies; or the lure of a peacock’s tail. Eternal romantic love in a highly intelligent species whose young remain dependent for a long time (ie, in humanity), is only a more complex example of such evolved behaviour. Of course, the progress from ‘inert matter’ to a dog’s awareness of a scent remains to be explained. But I doubt if Oxenberg would require a moral dimension to account for that, any more than he would for the response of a hungry non-vegan teenager to the smell of bacon frying.
Jack Hastie, Renfrewshire
De Vino Veritas
Dear Editor: I bought my first issue of your magazine today, and I am very grateful for it. I notice that in ‘Philosophers on Wine’ in the ‘Shorts’ section of Issue 150, Professor Matt Qvortrup quotes Aquinas in favor of drunkenness, saying “getting hammered was not something that troubled” Aquinas. Qvortrup quotes from Aquinas’s 150th Question; but his quote is the first objection to the first article of Q150, which Aquinas goes on to refute in his first reply by saying “the vice opposed to drunkenness is unnamed; and yet if a man were knowingly to abstain from wine to the extent of molesting nature grievously, he would not be free from sin.” The implication is that both extremes are sin. Qvortrup’s piece was written with humor, and he may have meant his point sarcastically; but I don’t think it’s part of the Summa.
Samuel Gates, Charlotte, NC
You can’t but be impressed by Spinoza,
It’s the feeling that he really knows ya,
His Ethics sublime,
Is truly divine,
The West’s path to becoming a buddha
Bernard O’Connor, Brussels
Dear Editor: Dennis Sansom in Issue 151 offered an interesting critique of Nussbaum’s presentation of Socrates. Yet while I am sceptical of taking philosophers out of their historical contexts, I don’t see how else we can continue to tease out new insights without interpreting them in a more modern light. Philosopher Alan Goldman argues that the purpose of interpreting art is to maximise its artistic value. Is not the purpose of interpreting philosophy to maximise its philosophical value? Does it really matter whether Socrates was a through-and-through cosmopolitan if such a viewpoint can widen our perspectives?
Sophie Andreae, London
Russell and Khayyam
Dear Editor: I cannot possibly let a typo in your Issue 150 go uncorrected, for it is emotionally important to me. In your report headlined Bertrand Russell Branches Out, you reported the philosopher’s birthday as May 16. In fact it is two days later, and it is important to me because he shared it with someone he admired very much: his fellow mathematician and freethinker of the eleventh century, Omar Khayyam, on whose biography I spent a decade of my life.
I regret that I did not know this myself before Russell died in 1970. As one of his millions of fans all over the world, and as a member of the Bertrand Russell Peace Foundation, I had a slight correspondence with him by the time he had retired to Wales. He would have enjoyed to know of the coincidence. He would also have admired Khayyam even more had he known that his Persian idol had calculated the average length of the year to within five seconds of what an atomic clock would have given him, despite the immense inaccuracy of the measuring instruments of those times. For the achievement, astronomers have named a crater on the Moon after Khayyam, but I think he deserves better.
A story may amuse your readers. When my Kurdish father in western Iran learnt of my admiration for Russell, he admonished me for it, for he objected to Russell’s atheism. Soon, however, a fine pipe carved out of cherry wood arrived in the post as a present to the atheist. I regret to say I was too embarrassed to send it on. It was too large, as it was carved for dervishes in which to smoke cannabis seeds. Now that I know more about Russell – his son Conrad later became a friend – I think that the old man would have been so moved by my religious father’s gesture that he would have had himself photographed with it for the record.
One more point, please. Why did it take Russell’s philosophical admirers here in Britain so long to set up a British equivalent of America’s Bertrand Russell Society? It is true that Russell’s world-wide fame – and possibly his greater importance – is due to his later political activities, his championship of humanism devoid of ideological dogmas. But more and more of us now believe that he was the more important, the crucial, member of the trio who founded analytical philosophy. He introduced Frege to other logicians and he was teacher and mentor to temperamental, unstable Wittgenstein. And it is analytical philosophy that has now become the dominant school of philosophy in the world. Where would we be without it? So power to the elbows of the new Bloomsbury Chapter of the Bertrand Russell Society. I shall certainly apply to join it.
Hazhir Teimourian, London