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Cat’s-Eye World View • (Not) Theo Logically Yours • Foucault’s Evil Relativism • More Metaphysics & Mysticism • Seeking Principles In Ancient Greece • Highly Cultivated • Beware the Wrath • Resounding Echoes
Cat’s-Eye World View
Dear Editor: Concerning human-cat bonding and metaphysics (Issue 152), I have three cats: Nala, the prima donna; Nick the magnificent beast, and the all-knowing oracle, Walter. I read to them from Philosophy Now with the intent of imparting the sage wisdom of human scholars. Nonetheless, they react as if I’m absolutely inconsequential and possessing not even a hint of reality. They know the food and water I provide for them are real because such sustains them physically, and the food tastes good. Beyond that I’m no more real to them than the dark interstices of deep space. It’s no wonder ancient Egyptians worshipped cats as gods. Cats seem to have figured out the essence of the universe: what is real is real, what isn’t real is also real, unless, of course, it’s something else entirely – which hints of something between the concepts of real/not real; or if not between then, undoubtedly, beyond. So sayeth the all-knowing Walter. (He tends not to explain himself.)
Only cats fundamentally know and completely understand this. Therefore, it is way beneath them to participate in the academic world of ‘publish or perish’, where discussions of what is real and what is not sustain a huge proportion of the pulp and paper industry – which has no relevance whatsoever to the entire feline population of the world.
According to Nala the prima donna – who really isn’t much interested in philosophy – reality is a comfortable place to sleep, and provides good food to eat (she avoids fine wine) and an occasional willing partner with whom to procreate. She doesn’t know that she’s been spayed, so eating and sleeping are for her enough reality, for this time around at least.
Jess Merrill, Foley, AL
(Not) Theo Logically Yours
Dear Editor: It is always interesting to consider the ontological argument for God (as expressed by Reverend Dr Peter Mullen in Issue 152), since it raises a point of logic; and this subject is, perhaps counterintuitively, in some ways quite contentious. This might explain why the ontological argument, after all this time, still has legs, so to speak.
The argument says God, by definition, is the supreme being, and this must entail His existence, otherwise His unique supremacy would not be. We may conclude from this that if God exists, then God exists. Therefore God exists? No. The point of logic, ‘If P, then P, therefore P’, is simply saying that if P were the case, it would be the case. But this in no way suggests that P is actually true. Of course, this doesn’t show that God doesn’t exist: it just shows that this purely logical argument, independent of other contingent considerations, couldn’t have any hope of proving His existence.
Paul Tissier, Brighton College
Dear Editor: Following on from PN 152, I believe that before discussing the question of God’s existence, one should first attempt to define the concept of ‘God’. When I read philosophy at Swansea in the Sixties I was inspired by the lectures of D.Z. Philips. He was a Wittgensteinian philosopher of religion who rejected a supernatural concept of God but defended religious discourse as being a language game with its own internal conceptual understanding and logic. That model entailed trying to make sense of religious concepts by giving them a new content, such as being about universal human love instead of an external God. The problem is though that most of those who use religious terms don’t recognize this as what they mean when they talk of God. They think of God as a being one can talk to, and who can understand one. ‘Our Father, who art in heaven’ lives somewhere – a place one hopes one can come to when one’s body dies.
In earlier times, when one didn’t have scientific explanations of many natural phenomena, it was natural to use supernatural explanations. This isn’t the case any longer. Supernatural explanations of natural phenomena are superfluous. So, what is left of the concept of God?
Many thinkers believe that one cannot find meaning in the idea of an external God. To them the idea of a God understood as a consciousness one can communicate with, but without a physical body, indeed, a conscious being without all the ingredients that are a precondition for a human consciousness, is untenable. What is left? To me, it seems that the concept of God becomes vacuous. Denying the God concept is, though, not to deny that one can wonder about the world. It does not entail that value judgements become empty. They still have the same weight they always had. Morality doesn’t need (and cannot have) an external justification. Nothing of substance changes.
Richard Challis Bousfield, Copenhagen
Dear Editor: The worst day of my life was the day my parents told me there was no Santa Claus. At the age of 7, I had some difficulty taking it in, and it seemed to me that without Santa Claus Christmas itself had come to a dark and sudden end. But my perspective changed in my teenage years when I had the opportunity to study symbolism in mathematics, literature, and poetry. By the time I was 17, I could see that Santa Claus was the personification of a certain spirit of generosity and kindness that manifests itself most clearly at Christmas. No need to find proofs of Santa Claus’s existence. It was right there in my face, and I realized that by adjusting my definitions I could believe in Santa Claus on a whole new level.
The God articles in Issue 152 of Philosophy Now reminded me of the thought processes I struggled through in my younger years. As a theology student in my early twenties I was fascinated with the Proofs of Aquinas, which seemed to be based on impeccable logic. And Anselm’s ontological proof, though a bit fuzzy to me at first, did seem to fit the bill if God was defined as ‘that which is greater than anything else conceivable’. Theology led me through many theories about God’s existence; but it was my undergraduate program in Philosophy of Religion that changed everything for me. Fowler’s stages of faith development allowed me out of the box.
Until I was introduced to Fowler’s theory, it never occurred to me that faith was a process. Like most people, I assumed that either you believe something or you don’t. Fowler’s stage 3, the ‘Synthetic-Conventional’ stage, seems to be where most people are at. This stage, usually associated with adolescence and early adulthood, is characterised by a sense of identity with an ideological group and unquestioned faith in authority figures. People at this stage frequently retain their literal belief in religious stories and moral rules, and many remain at this level of thinking throughout their lives.
The articles presented in Issue 152 have clearly moved on to Stage 4. This is the ‘Reflective’ stage, characterised by strong reliance on logical processes and rationality. But as long as the writers are searching for proofs of God’s existence they have not yet escaped from the ‘box’.
It was only when I gave my attention to Issue 152’s Fiction section that I found a character who managed to achieve the final stage of faith development. Jeffrey Wald’s professor, with the help of an enlightened student, was eventually able to see God as the encompassment of nature, the universal cosmic energy of which we are all a part.
John Brownridge, Ontario
Dear Editor: I read Lawrence Evans’ article, ‘Aristotle’s Guide to Living Well’, in Issue 151 and found many references to ‘God’. Capitalizing ‘god’ in relation to Aristotle is a little misleading, I think. Aristotle’s concept, divine nous [intellect] was wholly independent of modern references to ‘God’ except, perhaps, in the most fundamental sense, as the unmoved mover. “Aligning the revolutions in our head… with the harmonies and revolutions of the universe” is to say that individuals should think like the divine nous who put those revolutions into motion. This is distinct from ‘assimilat[ing] our thoughts to God’s own’ as suggested by Evans. There is a distinction between thinking in the same manner, and thinking the same thoughts. So I find the author’s conclusion, “what it truly means to live well is to become like God in the contemplation of eternal truths” misplaced. It seems to me that Aristotle exhorts us to think in a manner which seeks harmony and revolution in the universe, not to think the thoughts that God thinks – which would in any case be impossible to identify, and may not even have meaning to a human.
William Fishburne, Greenbelt, MD
Foucault’s Evil Relativism
Dear Editor: Roy William’s ‘Brief Life’ of Michel Foucault in Issue 152 was all adulation and no critique, for a man whose ideas demand critique, even condemnation. Foucault denied all objective moral principles, and so could not decide whether rape should be criminalized, because he believed that law was oppressive and lawlessness was freedom. He advocated lawlessness in order to free humans from all a priori limits, especially concerning sexual relations. In fact, he advocated legalizing pedophilia through the abolition of age-of-consent laws, and called for the release of three convicted pedophiles after three years. Whatever Foucault’s achievements (and I deem him horribly overrated), these ugly aspects of his philosophy should be addressed.
Dr Douglas Groothuis, Denver Seminary
Time & Everything Else Slips Away
Dear Editor: With regard to Issue 152’s mini feature on Time, could time be the simple running down of the Universe, or increase in its entropy, its disorder? Entropy is often called ‘Time’s Arrow’. We always observe entropy increase: a cup falls and breaks, never rises and reassembles. But systems that don’t change (a hydrogen atom in a rock) exhibit no time, nor does a totally disordered system. There is a cosmic speed limit to all such changes as falling cups; the speed of light. As you approach it, time goes more and more slowly for you. If light’s speed was infinite, everything would happen here and now and the universe would have zero length in all dimensions, space and time. With a finite speed for light we can still have self-determination, as we can choose whether to drop that cup or to expend energy holding it up. So, intriguingly, life locally reverses entropy – in its youthful stage; old age is when the organism can no longer keep reducing its internal entropy; and death is when rising internal entropy overwhelms all the body’s entropy-reduction mechanisms. However, outside the bounds (or the skin) of lifeforms, entropy must rise. Even more intriguingly, some scientists propose that information is a form of energy. This is a kind of negative entropy, since you can reverse entropy with energy. Maybe reversing entropy with info is what humans are here for, as we are the only species we know of that can systematically create information.
Dr Hillary J. Shaw, Newport, Shropshire
More Metaphysics & Mysticism
Dear Editor: I was intrigued by Kevin Novis’s article ‘Was Spinoza Actually An Atheist’ in Issue 151. Novis is correct that this depends how one defines ‘God’. Most theists believe that God is external to the world or nature. If that was not the case, how could God create the world? But Spinoza did not believe that God could create anything, as that would imply a deficiency in God, which Spinoza would not accept.
This unconventional use of ‘God’ indicates that the theist/atheist paradigm is not the best way of understanding Spinoza. A better model would be to link these ideas to top-down panpsychism, in which the world has a spiritual element or divine will/consciousness which permeates everything (an analogy would be a beehive which has an awareness in which the individual bees partake).
Brian Morris’s article on Daisetzu Suzuki in Issue 151 comes closer to Spinoza’s perspective when Morris discusses the ‘absolute oneness’ of things as the ‘divine mind’ or a ‘cosmic consciousness’ that saturates and infuses everything with spiritual significance. This is also a good definition of top-down panpsychism (in contrast to bottom-up panpsychism, in which spirituality is an emergent property, which grows and develops as the world becomes more complex). Perhaps a more illuminating article about Spinoza could compare his ideas to Eastern mysticism.
Russell Berg, Manchester
Dear Editor: Thank you for the interesting article on Daisetzu Suzuki by Brian Morris in PN 151 – interesting also for what is omitted. I strongly object to the opinion of Prof Morris that Zen is ‘detached from morality and politics’, as he puts it in the last paragraph on the Absolute Self. For instance, I think fascism and Zen are mutually exclusive, at least as I understand the fascist regimes that ruled Germany and Italy. Prof. Morris also does not mention the Four Noble Truths which are at the core of Buddhism, including Zen. The fourth Noble Truth contains the Noble Eightfold Path, which you could compare to the Ten Commandments of Judaism and Christianity. The Noble Eightfold Path has clear recommendations on how to live that no fascist would accept, as I’m sure Suzuki would have agreed.
In my opinion Zen is, among others things, a worldview that refers to everything, including morality and politics. I would not however call Zen a philosophy, because it aims also at what lies beyond words and concepts. The practice of Zazen is most important where you just sit (Shikantaza) and are.
So reality is one concern – form and emptiness another. Both make up our existence. Many Zen adepts around the world chant the words of the ‘Heart of Great Perfect Wisdom’ Sutra: “Form itself is emptiness, emptiness itself form.” As Ludwig Wittgenstein put it in the last sentence of his Tractatus: “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must remain silent.”
Lúðvík Eckardt Gústafsson, Reykjavik
Dear Editor: In his interview with Annika Loebig about the connections between morality and happiness (Issue 152), Nat Rutherford states, “you recognise that you don’t know yourself that well…” and suggests that this realisation is ‘quite beneficial’. The understanding that we don’t know ourselves that well gets us closer to the Buddhist concept of ‘no self’ (Anatta/Anatman). If ego allows the accommodation of this concept, then the question of how to be happy dissolves, since there is no one to be happy. There is no fixed, constant thing to be at all. Happiness passes through – ‘a nice by-product’, as Rutherford remarks. It is an epiphenomenal nomad that not only defies definition but is lost the moment there is an attempt to grasp or own it. After all, who is doing the grasping?
Andrew Lewis, Blackwood, Wales
Seeking Principles In Ancient Greece
Dear Editor: I was studying Aristotle’s critical writings about the pre-Socratic philosophers while reading the writings of Aristotle and other Greeks in Issue 151.
Aristotle’s criticisms follow two paths. Firstly, he tells us about the pre-Socratic period directly, and accurately. Aristotle also uses the philosophers of the pre-Socratic period as a tool and a basis for his own system of thought. By discussing with them, evaluating them, he forms his own thought structures.
Until Socrates, apart from the Sophists, there was perhaps, no one who focused on understanding society and human beings. But before Socrates, the arkhe, the elusive fundamental principle of things, was paramount. So we are faced with another dilemma. Should one know oneself first, or should one first know the arkhe? Which one can be a source and which a response to the other? And if we still haven’t found answers to the questions Anaximander or Zeno of Elea were focusing on, can we really say that we have made any progress?
Firat Kazanci, Izmir, Turkey
Dear Editor: In Issue 151 Raymond Tallis claims to “embrace Darwinism, and yet acknowledge[s] the distinctive nature of humanity: that of finding a biological account of what has set us on the road to becoming distant from biology.” In fact, cultural evolution does account even for this nature. It was two million years after the evolution of the grasping hand that the first civilizations arose. It has taken only a few thousand years for cultural evolution to create the ‘great distance’ of our thought from out biology.
Also, his statement that “millions of years of evolution of non-human primates haven’t delivered anything more impressive than the use of stones to crack nuts” is a misunderstanding of evolution. It’s as if he’s reproaching chimpanzees for failing to have become human. Evolutionary changes are only made in response to the need to adapt to a particular environment. Evidently, chimpanzees were successful in doing so, having survived in their environment for ten million years (compared to the one million years humans have existed, whilst bringing extinction to many other creatures). Stone tools were first used by our ancestors 1.5 million years ago. Had it given only a slight advantage to the individual who first used a stone to crack a nut, the benefit would have been immediate. The advantage of that discovery would then have been copied by those who were able to recognize it, introducing a new kind of evolution. That and similar innovations that could be learned would have spread rapidly throughout a tool-making culture. This is a different kind of evolution, changing our relationship with the environment from a passive to an active one. Biological adaptions would then have focused on the brain greatly increasing its size.
Reg Beach, Penzance, Cornwall
Beware the Wrath
Dear Editor: The article on gender by F.J. Camacho Jr in PN 150 was cogent, balanced, precise, and extremely well-written (unlike the impenetrable quote by Judith Butler in the first para). Camacho is listed as a writer rather than a university academic, so students will not be able to picket university authorities demanding his sacking because he is ‘worse than Hitler’ for slightly questioning their orthodoxy. So upon whom will the activist gauleiters vent their wrath? The obvious target is your good self, the Editor, for having the audacity to publish such dangerous propaganda. I await news of your replacement in due course.
Terry Hyde, Yelverton
Dear Editor: In Letters, PN 151, Michael Shaw notes that Ukrainian philosopher Pylyp Orlyk is a character in Tchaikovsky’s Mazeppa, and challenges us: “Does any other philosopher feature in an opera?” Well, yes they do. I’m surprised if no-one else has pointed out that the stoic Seneca appears in Monteverdi’s Coronation of Poppea. And for an extra point, Leibniz is mocked as ‘Doctor Pangloss’ in Leonard Bernstein’s musicalification of Voltaire’s Candide. Any more?
Martin Parkinson, Bristol