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Letters to the Editor
Science and Ideology • No sexism here! • God and the Philosophers • Irritated Subscriber
Science and Ideology
As I browsed magazines at the nearest thing to a ‘newsagent’ in our local mall, here in the ‘other London’ I saw an interesting title: Philosophy Now. I bought it and am enjoying it. How fortunate for me to catch your first Canadian offering, so to speak. I was encouraged to find Bob Harrison’s article.
Regarding the idea that science is an ideology (see Esterson’s letter in Issue 16) I should think that Japanese science is the same as ours because we scientists are initiated into the community of science. Because of the way scientists are made, science could be an ideology, but I find no room in my picture for science where the ideology derives from extra-scientific commitments.
Extra-scientific concerns surely are what give us the big questions that we want science to answer. As well, they dictate what kind of research government will put up money for.
To my mind science is not competent to offer a worldview on a level (spatial metaphor) with other world-views. Others, scientist and lay, cheerfully make Science a worldview anyway. Which brings me to ask if you will be having some articles on faith as the basic dynamic of human living and thinking.
No sexism here!
In Issue 16 you published a helpful letter from Lionel Butcher offering a list of “pronouns which do not differentiate between the sexes.”
As the ones he offers are both offensive to the eye and trying for the tongue, I would suggest to him, in the same spirit of helpfulness, the obvious solution of ‘X’ for he/ she/him/her and ‘its’ for the corresponding possessive.
Would it, however, be unkind to suggest that people who search for pronouns which are not gender-specific, or who consider starting a letter to a magazine “Dear Editor”, should be dissuaded from writing a novel?
God and the Philosophers
In Bob Harrison’s article (Issue 16) he refers to the ontological argument for the existence of God. This was first stated explicitly by St. Anselm. The argument goes as follows:
God is that of which we can imagine nothing greater.
Something that exists in reality is greater than something which exists only in the imagination.
Therefore God must exist both in reality and in the imagination for if God only existed in the imagination it would be possible to imagine something greater – a God that exists in both reality and imagination.
This argument has been the subject of a philosophical debate that still goes on. While the argument has little appeal it is difficult to refute it unequivocally. A contemporary refutation of St. Anselm’s proof was made by a monk called Guanilo. He suggested that by using logic similar to Anselm’s the existence of many other things could be proven and cited a definition of a perfect island.
A perfect island is one of which there is none better or wealthier.
If such an island were only in our minds it would be inferior to such an island that existed.
Therefore the perfect island exists.
Guanilo revealed the difficulty of using ‘existence’ as a predicate. For a further example (attributable, I believe to G.E. Moore):
No tame tigers growl.
All tame tigers growl.
Most tame tigers growl but some do not.
These propositions may be true or false, but they all make sense. Now substitute ‘existence’ for ‘growl’:
No tame tigers exist.
All tame tigers exist.
Most tame tigers exist but some do not.
The first proposition makes sense but is probably false,although for my part I am not going to treat any tiger as though it were tame. The second proposition makes some sense but the predicate does not add to its meaning. The final proposition makes no sense at all.
We can conclude that existence is not like other predicates. In fact any other predicate implies existence, and existence admits any other predicate.
Anselm’s logic can not only be used to prove God’s existence, but also God’s non-existence:
God is that of which we can imagine nothing greater.
If God is not known by everyone then it is possible to imagine something greater, a God that is known by everyone.
Therefore if God exists he must be known by everyone.
God is not known by everyone therefore God does not exist.
A ‘proof’ that can be used to deduce contradictory conclusions must surely be wrong.
Stoke Gifford, Bristol
I read Bob Harrison’s article ‘On being a philosopher and a Christian’ (Issue 16) with some reservations. The title fuelled my suspicions. Are ‘philosopher’ and ‘Christian’ distinct categories? In his book The Sea of Faith (1984) Don Cupitt commented that the early Christian thinkers “…felt a closer affinity with the philosophers...in those days the word ‘philosophy’ signified not so much a body of teachings (dogmata) as an active striving after wisdom….” No need to split one’s philosophical investigations from one’s Christian faith as Bob seems to advocate.
The supposed tension between Christianity and philosophy only applies when either of them hardens into a rigid, monolithic system. Philosophy can do this trick just as well as any brand of religious faith. However, true philosophers are, as Nietzsche pointed out, ‘free spirits’. Nietzsche is popularly regarded as hostile to religious faith. However, he said: “What sets us apart is not that we recognise no God, either in history or in nature or behind nature – but that we find that which has been reverenced as God not ‘godlike’ but pitiable, absurd, harmful, not merely an error but a crime against life….” Strong language perhaps, but no stronger than similar criticisms made by many latter-day Christian writers. Every system must cherish a degree of self-criticism in order to survive. Bob Harrison might deny these writers a right to the epithet ‘Christian’ but, in the face of so many different versions of Christianity currently in existence, is that fair, intellectually honest or even‘Christian’?
It is a cliche that most modern varieties of Christian faith are very different from what began with the Carpenter from Nazareth. Bob Harrison’s version of Christianity, albeit sincerely believed, is a very idiosyncratic evangelical interpretation. Thus his references to “the God of the Bible” are misleading. Ideas such as the Trinity evolved into their present form centuries after the canon of the Bible closed. No-one should deny Bob Harrison’s desire to speak from his own understanding of the Christian faith. What must be recognised, however, is that it is – like Pascal’s – a subjective interpretation, and able to change. Seen from this perspective, Christian faith becomes as lonely and tentative an intellectual path as that of any ‘modern’ sceptical philosopher.
So, although Bob Harrison is correct in acknowledging that we cannot ever understand God completely, is he also correct in relying mainly on trust rather than on the intellect in our dealings with Him? God still leaves clues for us, not just those who are Christians. We are rational beings because God, as traditionally believed, is the ultimate Rational Being. Bob’s analogy of a relationship is slightly misleading (even to an ex-cleaner like me!). Even in a relationship, the mind is not a peripheral extra. In answer to a question bordering on the philosophical, Jesus is reported to have said: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” (Matthew 22:37). The mind is last, but definitely not least! Of the semitic religions, only Christianity has had this constant suspicion of the intellect. As it says in the Muslim tradition, the first thing God created was the intellect. In seeking to know God, we cannot relegate philosophy to a subordinate position. On the contrary, it is essential – since God gave it to us.
David J M Leyshon
Some of the crazier religious sects of the 17th century used to cast themselves entirely upon Divine Providence. They reasoned that, since God has a Plan which we cannot see and She is in complete control, then the best that they could do was to give themselves up to Her Plan and let Her take charge of their lives. Accordingly, they cast themselves adrift on rivers, wandered off on horseback or did whatever the Bible told them to do when they flipped it open at a random page. Theirs was religion in the fast lane, foot to the floor and with eyes closed. It was exhilarating, but doomed for practical reasons to remain a minority sport.
So it was quite a surprise for me to realise that the Roman Catholic Church, despite being one of the largest cults today with millions of followers, perpetuates the same weird line of reasoning. This was made clear in Thomas D’Andrea’s article on marriage and contraception (PN No.16). There he made great play of the fact that heterosexual relationships, pregnancy and procreation are ‘natural’ and so they are part of God’s Plan. Catholics should be “…in permanent openness to the children God wishes to send them.” They should not use condoms and the pill because they are not ‘natural’ and so they are against Her Plan. Therefore, like the Holy Rollers above, Catholics should cast themselves adrift, metaphorically speaking, in the bedroom and let God determine the outcome.
But condoms and pills are not the only things that we use that are not ‘natural’. Clothes, cars, electrical appliances, cooking… utensils the list is pretty formidable. Why pick on condoms and pills? After all, we could stop wearing clothes and thus present ourselves in permanent openness to all the colds, flu, ridicule and mirth that God wishes to send us. We would also be in a better state of readiness to comply with Her wishes about multiplying and filling the Earth, should the occasion arise. Clothes are not ‘natural’, so they must be against God’s Plan, surely?
D’Andrea needs to explain why God’s preference for the ‘natural’ should be confined to contraception. He also needs to explain how “permanent openness” to procreation can be reconciled with “the natural regulation of childbirth” (alias the rhythm method). Who does the regulating? – the couple who are trying to avoid pregnancy. In other words, they set their will against God’s will. Instead of maintaining ‘permanent openness’ they operate a system of near permanent closedness with an occasional openness, usually accidental, when they are liable to be landed with an unwanted pregnancy. The latter event can be a minor disaster, of course, but at least the unhappy couple have the consolation of knowing that they are doing their bit for Her Plan (i.e. to swamp the planet with human beings and drive every other species off the map).
I know that God is supposed to move in mysterious ways, but I find it hard to believe that She cannot distinguish between the mysterious and the downright ridiculous. Is it possible that D’Andrea may discover in the hereafter that She has greatly resented the blatant nonsense which he and his kind have attributed to Her? I hope that She will excuse Philosophy Now for its part in promulgating the slander.
Greenisland, Co. Antrim
Susan Feldman’s argument from irritation – “the world is just too irritating not to be real” [Philosophy Now, Issue 16] underestimates how clever our minds really are in creating a comfortable world for us. Just think what it would be like if we didn’t have the everyday irritations and distractions that provide us with the perfect set of excuses for under-achievement. Imagine, we would have no option but to actually complete all those life-long dreams, those half-started projects, our New Year resolutions, our goals and objectives from all those career planning sessions. How would we feel if we couldn’t say, “Well I couldn’t finish my thesis on ‘Cartesian Deception and its relationship to drinking hot milk at bedtime’ because it was too hot / too cold / too noisy / the computer crashed / the cat ate it.” No, it is the distraction of the final demand for the gas bill and Philosophy Now subscription that keep us sane. If they didn’t exist, we would invent them.
Well that’s OK, I hear you say, but why invent the runny nose? Its just makes us feel miserable. Yes, but don’t you secretly enjoy feeling miserable and getting all that sympathy? Anyway, without the runny nose we wouldn’t be able to skive a day off work (not that Philosophy Now readers would do such a thing). Well, you say, I can see that, but if all those projects (and work) aren’t real anyway, why do we have to invent ways of avoiding them? Well what else would occupy our disembodied minds? If our life wasn’t full of things we were trying to avoid, then we would be happy and content all the time. Then what would we have to look forward to? More important, if we can’t tell the difference between being awake and dreaming, then we still have to invent all the excuses, just in case we are awake!
Postmodernism offers no solution either. You can’t have a sub-culture without a culture and there is no point in having a sub-culture unless you can criticise the rest of culture and pour scorn on everyone else’s subculture. Elitism would be dead. If our favourite music was always playing at our local venue, then we would feel obliged to turn up every day. Much better to be able to say, “well there’s nothing on tonight except that rap/jazz/opera stuff, but next week there is some proper music on.”
By now you can probably guess my answer to the Evil Deceiver argument. If the devil deceived you all the time then he (or why not she) would be acting consistently. Intolerable it may be, but you know where you stand with perpetual deception. The real genius is to keep you guessing to heighten the irritation. Just once in a while it doesn’t rain on the barbecue which just gives you that little glimmer of hope, “well, it might just stay dry on Saturday.” No, it is clear – distress may be intolerable, but irritation is interminable.
The final conclusive disproof of the argument from irritation is plain and simple. If the world wasn’t irritating we would have nothing to talk about when on holiday. There can be no doubt that if subjects like the weather/ price of petrol/self-assessment/cats being sick on the carpet, etc., didn’t exist, then we would surely invent them. So as we sit by the fire in our dressing-gown, our copy of Philosophy Now in our hands, dreaming about how warm it would be if we had paid the gas bill, we can at least be thankful that our minds can create such an irritating world. Otherwise everything would be perfect; now that really would be irritating!
Martlesham Heath, Ipswich