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Letters to the Editor

Nonexistent Elephants • Anglo-Saxon Attitudes • Science and Prejudice • In a State • What’s a Chair? • Philosophy Now? • Existentialist Penknives

Nonexistent Elephants


Congratulations on your fine magazine which I purchased here in Saratoga, California. (Issue 15). I much enjoyed Mike Fuller’s article and most everything else. It was a definite ‘impulse buy’, due no doubt to the jazzy action photo on the cover.

My question refers to the classifieds, books wanted section, in which someone is seeking a book about nonexistent objects. Please tell the dude that I went to the nonexistent bookstore and was told by the nonexistent proprietor that the book does not exist! As he escorted me to the door he did mention, however, that he had a few remaining nonexistent elephants in the back and a nonexistent parallel universe in pretty good shape but they would cost a lot of nonexistent money!

Later, dude.
Ronald Ringsrud
Saratoga, CA

Anglo-Saxon Attitudes

Dear Sir,

As I see it, there are two problems with Peter Lloyd’s article ‘The Dangers of Moral Certainty’ (Issue 15). The first – Lloyd’s fundamental misunderstanding of Professor Crellin’s position – is dealt with adequately in Crellin’s response to Lloyd’s article (p.26). The second, however, is ignored by Crellin in his response, presumably because it is not relevant to his obscure notion of ‘authenticity’.

The problem lies in Lloyd’s account of Anglo-Saxon moral subjectivism. We are told (p.24) that “it is the strength of moral conviction that leads to action, not the philosophical view that one takes of the nature of those convictions.” But it seems to me obvious that the ‘philosophical view’ that one takes of one’s own moral beliefs greatly affects the strength of moral conviction. In other words, if one views one’s own moral beliefs as merely subjective and the result of personal choice, then how can the moral conviction be strong? (It is also highly arguable as to whether it is even possible to view one’s own moral beliefs as subjective while authentically acting upon them). Surely the only way a moral conviction can be strong is if the moral beliefs are viewed as objective (even if the moral agent is intellectually aware of the subjectivity of the belief)? In fact, this would seem to be the defining criterion for a strong moral conviction: the view that the moral belief is the right belief or that the moral act is the best act in the circumstances.

We can extend this to Lloyd’s democracy example. Lloyd interprets British democracy as the result of the Anglo-Saxon ethical principle that there are no objective moral truths and that all moral viewpoints are subjective. This is a valid interpretation given his premises, but it does not account for the apparent strength of political conviction found in many at election time. Most people do not actually feel that their beliefs are subjective (if Lloyd disagrees, I’d like him to meet some of my local party canvassers) and believe that their ideas should be put into practice. Democracy has arisen because we recognise on on an intellectual level that our beliefs are subjective and that democracy is the best way of dealing with this fact. (There are, of course, also various economic and political factors that have contributed to democracy’s rise during the 19th and 20th centuries).

My objection essentially derives from a disagreement with Lloyd over his claim that “recognising that one’s moral values are subjective does not diminish their strength.” I believe that Lloyd has muddled our intellectual view of our moral beliefs (subjective) and the feeling that accompanies belief (objective). The former does in no way entail the latter.

Yours faithfully,
Tom Nuttall
London NW6

Dear Editor,

Peter Lloyd’s critique (Issue 15) of Professor Crellin’s moral certainties resolves no issue. In the absence of objective moral truth, his appeal to science and democracy (where all individuals are exposed to failure) is qualified by the requirement to safeguard ‘the rights of minorities’. Where are the moral certainties to define those rights?

Yours sincerely,
G.R. Steele
Halton, Lancaster

Science and Prejudice

Dear Sir,

Karl Popper never argued, as Mike Fuller claims, (Issue 15) that it was anathema to suppose that “science itself might be prey to distortion, prejudice and ideology.” What Popper asserted is that the critical approach inherent in scientific practice, in the long (and sometimes short) run, works to correct such distortions.

Mike Fuller writes that the view that science provides an accurate description of reality has been countered by the argument that if you change the human purposes you change the idea of ‘what works’ and of what ‘provides an accurate description of reality’ relative to this different purpose. Scientific methodology has led to the eradication of smallpox and the development of penicillin, each saving countless lives. Several branches of physics have contributed to the development of worldwide satellite communications. To say that the scientific knowledge on which such achievements are based is only ‘an accurate description of reality’ relative to ‘a certain purpose’ is true only in a banal sense which lends no support to relativist views.

If science is an ideology impregnated with unconscious cultural assumptions, how is it that the Japanese, with their own ancient cultural traditions, have made such substantial contributions to modern science? Why is there not a ‘Japanese physics’ to which Japanese scientists give their allegiance? If the cultural relativists are consistent, they should have no objection, in principle, to the notion of ‘Jewish physics’ prevalent in Germany in the 1930s.

Yours faithfully,
Allen Esterson
Hammersmith, London

Dear Editor,

Mike Fuller has given a clear and concise presentation of the argument that scientific statements are true, or objective, only because they are considered the best way of describing the natural world by most human beings and not because such statements correspond to a real world apart from human purposes and language (‘Is Science An Ideology’ Spring/Summer 1996). But the title is misleading, because the word ‘ideology’ can imply that the standard, accepted theories in physics and biology are similar to such political theories as socialism, political democracy, Feminism, and the various religions, about which we expect and respect different views among intelligent people. We do not,of course, feel the same way about those who question the basic equations in physics, or the periodic table of elements in chemistry; and we certainly would agree with Richard Rorty when he says that before going on to the view of knowledge that he calls ‘Hermeneutics’, “we must first see ourselves … as described by those statements which are objectively true in the judgment of our peers.” (my emphasis) (Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, p.365).

And by “we”, I include Fuller because his example of the new philosophy is W.V. Quine’s statement that although a chair is a chair only because we live in a community that agrees to call certain objects ‘chairs’, we all live in such a community, and anyone who would not agree to the distinction between chairs, tables, and windows, etc. would be considered mad. But do not all of us also live in a community that agrees about the basic theories or facts in science, and doesn’t ‘all’ include women, non- Europeans, and neo-Marxists, as well as capitalists and European males? And, consequently, can we not also look at ‘feminist biology’ as something that cannot be justified by appealing to the views of Kuhn, Rorty, Quine, et alia?

A good account of the Kuhnian view of science should make clear that it does not give any support to the current efforts to politicise science; and Fuller’s article fudges this point by his use of the word ‘ideology’.

Yours sincerely,
Lawrence Hyman
(Professor Emeritus, Brooklyn College CUNY)
Ridgewood, New Jersey

In a State

Dear Sir,

I think that Brendan Larvor’s criticism (Issue 15) of what he considers to be Will Hutton’s conclusion in The State We’re In, viz. “Rationality is too difficult for human beings to cope with”, does not give an entirely accurate picture of the model of rationality which Hutton presupposes in his book. The quotation is taken out of context and fails to do justice to the arguments presented at various points in the book which do indicate that Hutton is aware that classical economics works with a flawed conception of human rationality. For example, on p.101 the refusal of unemployed people in many cases to accept work at less than the going rate in the trade (as classical economics predicts) is attributed to a perfectly rational decision that it is not in their long-term interest to bid down the level of wages.

More generally I think that Larvor’s arguments fail to take adequate account of the central problem which besets the economic agent – that of lack of knowledge. He tells us that “classical economics has a hard time explaining why anyone would go into nursing” but does not offer reasons why this might be so. Nursing and teaching are unusual professions in that they have extraordinarily high profiles. We have all been to school and most people have spent time in hospital before making their career choices and both professions enjoy favourable portrayal in the media, in TV programmes such as Casualty. Everyone thinks she knows what it is to be a nurse or a teacher. Therefore these professions continue to attract people despite poor pay and often poor working conditions whereas accountancy, for example, which offers excellent longer-term rewards has at times had difficulty attracting people. The latter fact may be largely attributed to public ignorance of the work accountants do. More generally, there is reason to believe that labour market distortions arising from such lack of knowledge will probably increase because of the variety of new and increasingly more specialised occupations which an increasingly technological and complex society generate. If people generally are ill-informed about accountancy (a profession in which I worked briefly before becoming a teacher), how much more prone to ignorance are they likely to be about jobs such as actuarial work and patent examining (the occupation I entered after leaving teaching)?

Furthermore Larvor’s treatment of intransitive preferences is totally unsatisfactory. The example which Hutton offers in his book of non-transitivity between Coca- Cola, lemonade and fizzy water is context-free whereas Larvor’s example of the house guest, the two differentsized apples and the orange is highly contextualized. However, the fact that more than one factor may be important in determining choice does not of itself account for intransitivity: nor does it alter the fact that a general lack of transitivity in such choices is irrational. The irrationality in such cases arises from a lack of knowledge (insufficient awareness of the factors that influence the subject’s preferences) or from a failure to utilise such knowledge: the intransitivity would be removed by a correct identification and analysis of the reasons underlying the choices.

Yours sincerely
Frank Falls
Munich, Germany

What’s a Chair?

Dear Editor,

I thought I was alone! In my search for a definition of a chair I have driven all my friends to the point where they are considering slipping hemlock into my beer. Then, standing in Smith’s one day, depressed by the fact that not one of their six million magazines interested me, my eye fell on Philosophy Now.

Where have you been all my life? I want a subscription!

David Clarke’s letter (Issue 15) in which he attempts to define a table, was particularly helpful. Perhaps I can help him (and others) in return. In a novel I am writing I have found it necessary to invent pronouns that do not differentiate between the sexes. They are:

shhe for she/he

herm for her/him

hirs for hers/his.

Yours sincerely,
Lionel Butcher
Benhall, Cheltenham

Philosophy Now?

Dear Sir,

Michael Bulley’s demonstration that events cannot happen in the present moment destroys a central tenet of Buddhism. Awareness of the present moment is said to reveal its character and contents as transitory. However, because “nothing can be happening now”, events such as change and decay cannot be directly experienced. Just as Wittgenstein said, “Death is not an experience of life”, so we can only experience the plenitude of the present moment and never its waning.

Yours truly,
Roger Farnworth
nr. Bodmin, Cornwall

Existentialist Penknives

Dear Sir,

A penknife has essence prior to existence, i.e. its form and purpose are in the mind of its manufacturer before it is made. Nigel Warburton uses this (in Issue 15) to illustrate Jean-Paul Sartre’s argument that humans, by contrast, exist before they have an essence – humans are without purpose or reason until after they have come into existance. Yet, it seems to me, the very use of the word ‘human’ implies certain human traits, as opposed to say the traits of a monkey. Therefore, Sartre is not talking about an amorphous life force which has as yet no identity or potential essence. The word human therefore identifies, if not defines, a potential essence prior to existence. Human beings carry the genetic blueprint of future human beings. Encoded within this blueprint are potentials and proclivities which will shape that human being’s essence regardless of his desire to be whatever he chooses (albeit that this desire will undoubtedly figure in the plans somewhere). If for example he is born congenitally blind, it is unlikely that he will drive the Clapham omnibus despite his fervent desire to do so.

Our freedom to choose is limited by circumstance – not just the circumstance of birth, but the random circumstances of our everyday lives, over which we have no control. Freedom, on the other hand, cannot be qualified – either you are free or you are not. Circumstance is our jailer, and we cannot bribe nor reason our way beyond the reach of its influence. Are we not therefore condemned by circumstance not to be free ?

If Sartre wanted to say, and I think he did, that within the limits of our control we are free to choose this or that course of action then yes we are, but limiting freedom in this way seems to weakens the thrust of his argument, attractive though it is.

Yours faithfully
Sylvia Philpot,
East Bergholt, Suffolk

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