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Women Respond • Free For All • Not Silent About Zizek • Lucky Guesses • Certainly Uncertain • Move Along

Women Respond

Dear Editor: In response to your postscript in Issue 158’s Letters page regarding the lack of female letter writers, I can proudly say that I have had several letters, and answers to Question of the Month, published by you over the last couple of years. I am always tickled to receive my book in the mail as a prize for an answer published.

I don’t feel you are doing anything ‘wrong’. I suspect there are simply less females who read your magazine and hence less letters sent. I personally love your magazine and am impressed that you often shine a light on female philosophers (I particularly enjoyed the Hannah Arendt articles in 158), and have not seen any signs of overt (or covert) misogyny or mansplaining. Such obnoxious behaviour is fairly common online – I’m a member of a Facebook philosophy page, and the amount of condescending mansplainers on there can be quite astounding.

Also, historically, like many disciplines, philosophy was largely the realm of men, with the majority of philosophy written, read, and discussed by men. Anyone with even a passing knowledge of history will understand the reasons why women did not have an equal seat at the table until relatively recently.

Similarly, I suspect the more traditional philosophy topics (for instance, moral relativism, logic, metaphysics etc) are not necessarily of much interest to many women (at least, I don’t know many other females who are as passionate about it all as I am!) Given this, in terms of improving the rate of female readers and letter writers, I can only suggest more female-focussed topics, including articles about female philosophers – many of whom I suspect may have been overlooked or forgotten throughout the history of philosophy.

And perhaps a more contemporary philosophical focus may be more in tune with today’s women? For example, articles about the ethical considerations of abortion, surrogacy, or the gender pay gap. Additionally, while I can’t speak for all of my sisters, I think many women would be interested in philosophical articles about emotions, relationships, patriarchy and parenthood (particularly maternal ambivalence, which is often not spoken or written about).

Rose Dale, Floreat, Australia

Dear Editor: I appreciate your insightful observation regarding the gender imbalance in our letters section. Why are there so many eager female readers, myself included, who have remained silent until now?

One evident factor contributing to the issue is the disproportionately low number of articles authored by women in the journal. While I hadn’t consciously acknowledged this before, I cannot dismiss the possibility that a subconscious sense of alienation may have deterred me from contributing earlier. However, this explanation is too simple to explain such complex reality.

Drawing inspiration from Hannah Arendt’s thought-provoking theory, I question how ‘banal’ behaviors may perpetuate this exclusion. The seemingly innocuous acts of men seeking other men’s opinions, tolerating a female colleague’s shame to speak out, or encouraging gender-stereotyped activities, are feeding this injustice. These actions may not be rooted in malice, but have become ingrained in our routines, leading to a state of ‘thoughtlessness’ as Arendt describes, that cancels critical thinking.

Regarding female readers, I would wager that none of us attributes men’s intellectual superiority as a reason for not contributing. And it’s obvious that we are not aiming to contribute to the gender gap. Instead, we just do not write, without questioning why. Again, we are ‘only’ failing to realize the consequences of what we are (or not) doing.

But please do not take me wrong. As Hannah would say, this banalization of the issue does not excuse our behavior or lower our responsibility (I actually think it’s even worse). Instead, I urge everyone to be mindful of their actions and the potential gender-related consequences. I guess we all aim to build an inclusive and diverse community that values the perspectives of all its members. So let’s make sure our acts drive us in that direction.

Alba García Rey

Dear Editor: In Issue 158 I see you wrote a note about receiving few letters from women readers. Funny enough, before reading that, I was thinking to myself ‘I should send them my thoughts about Arendt!’ Then I read the letters: the author names were mostly masculine (Roger, Peter, etc…). My mentality shifted to ‘Well… maybe I shouldn’t write to them, since most letters are from men who seem to know what they’re doing’.

A bit of context. I am a twenty-five-year-old woman studying Behavioural Ecology. While I consider myself a good thinker, I am no expert when it comes to philosophy. I am a woman, and I’m young. It is also my first time reading Philosophy Now (I am so happy I stumbled upon it in a library where I study in the Netherlands). On top of that, English is not my first language. All these characteristics mean that when I walk in our society, I feel less listened to, less valuable, less needed. That holds true in academic or intellectual settings, at the very least. It is no secret, and has been researched, that women are less likely to apply for a job if they fulfill all the requirements but one; whereas men are more likely to apply even if they don’t hold all the required credentials. If we want to know why that is, we should better ask sociologists. Regardless, the truth is that our society often teaches women to be less vocal about their opinions. It takes enormous efforts for some women to speak their mind in a room full of men; and when they do it, their voice might be met with interrupting, undermining responses from men. Whether those are evil intentions (hint to Banality of Evil), or just the fruit of societal roles that shaped men to be like that is not for me to say. What is sure is that it has consequences on women saying less.

So, women are societally pushed into the corner, and their ideas become silenced. We live in a patriarchal society, after all. The same would hold true for people in other oppressed groups, right? Of the names in your previous letters page, only one seemed non-white: Mohammed. This does not imply causality, but correlation; that perhaps you also get less letters from people of colour.

Reading the letters of Issue 158, I was feeling increasingly hesitant to send you my thoughts (my ideas were becoming silenced), until I read the note of self-awareness prompting women to send you letters. I was very happy to read that the team of editors not only realized, but also actively sought answers on why less women write. Not too long ago, I held a discussion among women scientists, trying to figure out why less women present papers in scientific conventions, even when there are the same amount of women as men in the audience. Additionally, less women ask questions. This discussion arose from my experiences.

It turns out there are ways to make more women engage in conversation. Most of these ways involve reassuring women that they will be listened to, respected, and their opinions valued. For instance, in a scientific conference, women are more likely to ask a question if another woman asks the first question. If the presenter is a woman, women in the audience are also more likely to ask questions. It boils down to seeing representation and feeling confident enough to combat the societal lessons that have so long trained us to undermine ourselves.

How could this apply to Philosophy Now? How to get more women to engage? Two paths arise here (not mutually exclusive). Firstly, acquiring the help of sociology experts in this topic would be beneficial and desirable. An expert could help redesign the content of the magazine in a way that promotes more women interacting with it. Secondly, you could ask yourselves: how many articles are written by women in this magazine? What does the board of editors look like: are there enough women? How many articles discuss topics from women philosophers? Having more women writers might make women readers more comfortable with sending you their letters. Lastly, explicitly asking women to engage more seems to have worked (at least for me), and so is a good example of ways you can tell women ‘Your opinion matters too, don’t be shy!’

I am not a man, not older and experienced, and not a philosopher. With that in mind, should my ideas matter in this magazine? Are my ideas relevant for you? If the answer’s no, then Philosophy Now would be limiting its opportunities. If the answer is ‘yes’ – if my non-expert ideas might spark questions and engage me to learn more philosophy, if promoting open dialogue is the aim of this magazine – then I encourage you to explicitly communicate that to your readers.

Phew! I feel nervous writing this. But I’ll send it anyway!

Clara Vinyeta, The Netherlands

Dear Editor: Issue 158 was the first time I purchased your journal. I bought it because I was particularly interested in the articles on Hannah Arendt – which I thoroughly enjoyed reading. I also loved your cartoon about Sartre.

In your Letters page you ask why you are receiving so few letters from women. I would suggest that you don’t have enough articles that interest women. I looked at all the other articles in that issue, and I have say that I didn’t finish reading any of the others, as they simply didn’t interest me. I am personally interested in the Continental philosophers of the twentieth century. I would also be interested in reading articles written by the great feminist philosopher Toril Moi, or Edward Fullbrook, who has written extensively on how many of Sartre’s ideas originated from Beauvoir, Margaret Simons who has written extensively about Beauvoir’s philosophy, and Eva Gothlin, who has applied existential thought to sex. You need to provide articles that are engaging to women, then women will buy your journal and write to you! I look forward to checking out future issues in Waitrose. If any catch my eye I will buy your magazine, and might even write to you!

Claire Phoenix

Free For All

Dear Editor: In your article in Issue 159, you (AKA Grant Bartley) argue in support of free will and ask the following good question: How can determinists account for the evolution of consciousness, since, according to them, consciousness has no effect on our behaviour? Some determinists might consider they could answer that by saying that evolution can involve the accidental acquisition of characteristics that make no difference to survival. However, if we examine the contents of consciousness, I think this question becomes harder for them to answer. We are generally likely to feel attracted to things that help the survival of ourselves and our genes (these could be food, shelter or sex, for example ) and to feel repelled by things that would have the opposite effect (disease and danger, etc). The fact that we evolved to have these particular feelings only makes sense if our feelings made a difference to our behaviour and therefore to our chances of survival. If our feelings did not affect our behaviour, we would be just as likely to have evolved to hate food and sex. But given the ways that we actually tend to feel, it seems very likely that our feelings do lead us to behave in one way rather than another. That strongly suggests that it’s because the feelings lead us to make choices, within consciousness, which then affect the physical brain, and therefore affect our behaviour.

If the only cause of mental events is physical, that would indicate there is no free will. However, the preceding argument seems to show not just that physical events cause mental events, but that mental ones also cause physical ones. The extent to which the mental has power over the physical, rather than the other way round, is not yet clear. But this situation in which the relationship of the two is not just the physical causing the mental, allows the possibility that to some extent, the mental may not be caused by the physical, or by anything outside itself. If that does occur, and it features choices being made, then it does suggest free will.

Peter Spurrier, Halstead, Essex

Not Silent About Zizek

Dear Editor: I enjoyed reading the article on language by Slavoj Žižek in PN 159. It brought to mind arguments made by Robert Alter in The Art of Biblical Narrative, which may pose limiting cases for what Žižek claims regarding poetry, and particularly the technique of repetition. As Alter demonstrates, repetition doesn’t appear much in the Hebrew Bible, either because of clumsy editing on the part of ancient scribes, or because of limitations in the literary methods they employed. In fact, though, repetition was an essential part of their craft, as the same words, motifs, or themes, appearing across different contexts, enrich the meaning of the notions they describe. It is precisely because of the comparison of contexts that the inexpressible can be discerned: that it can be known from its effects, through its relation to a whole spectrum of lived experience. Language here remains essential, in constant and necessary interplay with the dramas of human living. It need not be poetic, but can express the inexpressible in prose. In some sense, this may indeed be unique to the Hebrew Bible.

Anthony A. MacIsaac, Paris

Dear Editor: Slavoj Žižek on diversity and inclusion in PN 159 has been better in his books when arguing that tackling inequality, exploitation and injustice should be prioritised over ‘intolerance’; that the unconditional spiral of productivity ruins the environment; that religion is a big source of murderous violence; that “Today’s anti-immigrant populists are the true threat to the emancipatory core of the European Enlightenment” (resulting in distrust in the rule of law); and that Brussels protects minimal workers’ and refugee rights.

Mike Bor, London

Lucky Guesses

Dear Editor: I always read Raymond Tallis’s column. He’s thought-provoking even if you don’t agree with him, which is what philosophy is all about. When people discuss the inherent unpredictability of the Universe, they tend to concentrate on quantum mechanics, when it’s chaos that determines virtually everything we observe and experience. We associate chaos theory with the weather, but it also describes biological evolution and the orbits of the planets.

In Issue 158 Tallis uses the tossing of a coin as his prime example to support his argument, but it’s the most easily demonstrated example of chaos one can find – though it’s not the actual toss that makes it chaotic but the surface it strikes – the same with dice (see Marcus du Sautoy, What We Cannot Know).

Chaos is a mathematical phenomenon as well as a natural one, and the reason the behaviour it describes is unpredictable is because one would need to calculate the initial conditions to an infinite number of decimal places to make an accurate prediction. The relevance to Tallis’s thesis is that the information in a chaotic phenomenon is indeterminable. It’s also the reason I’m confident that we are not in a computer simulation. Even a quantum computer can’t compute to infinite decimal places.

But chaos theory also has what’s called ‘strange attractors’ that are stable, the best known being the giant red spot on Jupiter, which is a gaseous whirlpool that could swallow Earth. Your heartbeat is another example of a chaotic stable attractor. (Ian Stewart, Does God Play Dice? The New Mathematics of Chaos.)

Regarding Tallis’s reference to John Wheeler’s quote, ‘No phenomenon is a real phenomenon until it is an observed phenomenon’, this is a direct consequence of Schrödinger’s equations, which entail all the weird quantum stuff, including Heisenberg Uncertainty, superposition and entanglement. Schrödinger’s equation only gives us probabilities of something happening. Once it’s happened – been observed – it no longer applies. As soon as you have a probability of One, it’s in the past. As Freeman Dyson pointed out, this has nothing to do with consciousness: “the ‘role of the observer’ in quantum mechanics is solely to make the distinction between past and future… We do not need a human observer to make quantum mechanics work. All we need is a point of reference, to separate past from future, to separate what has happened from what may happen, to separate facts from probabilities.”

Paul P Mealing, Melbourne

Dear Paul: My reason for invoking the tossing of a dice is to highlight the fact that the information content of an event is dependent on the interests of a conscious observer. I do this to challenge the claim that the universe is made of information. Under normal circumstances, coins are tossed in order to generate one out of two outcomes, each of which would count as one bit of information. In the absence of this framework established by conscious subjects, there is no definite information content. Or, indeed, any information content.

I was particular struck by your quotation of Freeman Dyson. Inadvertently, he reinforces my point about the need for conscious subjects. As Einstein pointed out, there is no ‘now’ – and hence past or future that are referenced to now – in the physical world as portrayed by General Relativity. For more, see my book Of Time and Lamentation, whose middle section is devoted to tensed time.

Raymond Tallis, Stockport

Certainly Uncertain

Dear Editor: I enjoyed Rob Selzer’s discussion on uncertainty in issue 156, but took issue with his election example. If votes are multiplied by their confidence rating, this would only benefit extremists who were die-hard fans of their chosen politician, and negatively affect cautious or nuance-aware voters. Taking the political climate of the US as an example – a popular phrase these days is that ‘Both are bad choices, but if I don’t vote for Y it’s a vote for X’. This voter would not be able to give a 100% confidence rating for their vote of Y because he is aware of the complexity of choosing either candidate, as they are both poor choices, but by using the confidence multiplier, his vote counts less than someone who may blindly (and confidently) vote for X with 100% confidence. I liked Selzer’s acknowledgement of uncertainty, and I agree that in some cases, such as assessments, incorporating confidence intervals could help make systems more accurate, but in other cases, a confident choice is perhaps less important than a conflicted choice.

Anisa Rawlinson

Move Along

Dear Editor: Like philosophers everywhere, I squirm whenever I read reports or articles that claim something ‘begs the question’, when clearly the writer means it raises a question about something or another. As philosophers we must both recognize this common logical fallacy and avoid ambiguous use of the term.

Imagine my absolute horror then when reading Dermot M. Griffin’s otherwise excellent article on Stoicism in Issue 157. In explaining Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations, Dermot exclaims, “This begs the mind-boggling question: why would a man write a book not to be published?” It may well raise such a question, but there is no evidence that anyone’s begging any question. I beg your pardon if I’m being too picky.

Jon Brownridge, Canada

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