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Letters to the Editor
God and the Spice Girls • What’s a Theory? • Solipsists unite! • Meanings and Illusions
God and the Spice Girls
A couple of letters in Issue 17 caught my eye. David Clarke is right that existence is not like other predicates. But the oddity of “Most tame tigers exist but some do not” is not due entirely to the nature of existence, as we see if we substitute “characters in David Hare’s plays” for “tame tigers”. And his attempt to use Anselm’s logic to prove God’s nonexistence fails because at least one of his premises is at the very least suspect. He implies that a God known by everyone is greater than a God not so known. Well, it may be that The Spice Girls are greater musicians than the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, and even that Andrew Lloyd Webber is a greater composer than James MacMillan. But I don’t think it has anything to do with how widely known they are.
In his reply to Bob Harrison, David Leyshon seems to be saying that Christianity is whatever Christians say it is. This reminds me of a story called “The Gostak Distims the Doshes”, in which our hero meets a gang of zealots who try to convince him of the truth of their eponymous belief. “But what’s the Gostak?” he asks. “It’s what distims the doshes.” “What are the doshes?” “They’re what are distimmed by the Gostak.” “What’s distimming?” “It’s what the Gostak does to the doshes.”
“Christianity is what Christians say it is” is similarly infertile. Who are the Christians? I suggest that the trail begins with their first six letters and proceeds, via a good dictionary, to the four Gospels. In short, we need to know what ‘Christianity’ is before we know who the Christians are. I readily concede that the trail doesn’t stop there. People hold beliefs which differ from Christ’s teaching by various degrees, and I have no simple rule of thumb. Even the Gospels describe only a fraction of Christ’s life. But they’re a start, and I think Bob Harrison is a lot closer than David Leyshon to the target, and a lot further from the Humpty Dumpty theory of meaning.
Bob Harrison’s article ‘On being a philosopher and a Christian’ (Issue 16) was interesting. I take his point that the existence of things that are completely unknowable, such as God, cannot be established by reasoning. Nothing meaningful can be said about unknowable things.
It seems to me that in doing philosophy we use our reason in attempts to discover the truth. Part of the process is having the honesty to admit our ignorance about certain questions. Once we depart from reasoned argument we enter into an area of speculation.
If we cannot establish the existence of God by reasoning, then we have no reason for believing in God. Bob Harrison does not want to use the bolt-hole ‘a plea of mystery’, instead he uses ‘simple faith’ and ‘trust’ as boltholes. By this means he supports his belief that, not only does a god exist but also that this god has certain qualities. To have faith or trust that such an unknowable thing exists seems to me to be no more than wishful thinking.
Of course we are all free to speculate about the possible existence of all sorts of supernatural entities; but the most that we can reasonably conclude is that such entities may or may not exist. However, if we do not accept ‘mere’ reasoning, then we are free to conclude whatever we wish.
Peter C Horn
What’s a Theory?
May I pick on a point made in passing by Richard Mason in his ‘A Place for Relativism’ (Philosophy Now, Issue 16)? He considers the Ptolemaic and Copernican theories: does the sun go round the earth or vice versa? Is one true and the other false (rather than it being just a matter of perspective)? Yes and no, he says, because (I paraphrase):
Any given set of ‘facts’ can be adequately explained by an infinite number of ‘theories’ (with consequences including the erosion of the division between ‘facts’ and ‘theories’ (or ‘interpretations’), and undermining the notions of a true theory and of truth itself).
Well, to use Mason’s words, yes and no. It depends what you mean by ‘theory’. If we ask for something which has at least some vague reasonableness – plausible, rational, predictive, accuracy, or something like that – then the answer is certainly no.
The sun problem is unusual in that there have been several theories (primitive stories about gods labouring each night to make a new sun; Ptolemy; Copernicus; Kepler/Newton; special relativity; general relativity). The problem in science is often that we can’t even find one acceptable theory; the biggest possible contrast with the alleged ‘infinite number’.
The situation is similar in recreational mathematics puzzles. For example, what is the next number in the series 1, 2, 4, 8? No rational person would give anything but 16. It is trivial to construct a formula which gives say 7159 as the next number; but it is precisely because of that triviality that nobody would attempt to maintain it seriously.
Actually, there is a genuine problem giving a non-16 answer. The problem is, what is the largest number of pieces into which a ball can be cut by n plane cuts? For n = 0 to 3, the number of pieces is 1, 2, 4, 8; but for n = 4, the number of pieces is 15, not 16. This particular situation is notable precisely because of the rarity of this sort of coincidence.
The discussion on realism versus idealism and solipsism in Issue 16 of Philosophy Now, in particular the definitions of those three -isms on page 11, and the idea of an omniscient God in the article ‘On Being a Philosopher and a Christian’ (in the same issue), have set me thinking.
When I was small, along with everybody else, I never doubted for a moment that the world was completely deterministic and that it existed independently of our experience of it. Over the last ten years or so, however, I have gone completely over to the opposite view – solipsism.
You say that solipsism is notoriously difficult to disprove. I believe that it is the viewpoint that makes most sense of the data, and if it is difficult to disprove, that is because it is true! You say that few people actually believe in it; but then there is no accounting for what other people think!
The only thing of which I can be certain is that I at the present moment exist, together with my present perceptions and plans of action. Everything else could be illusory, in particular my memory of the past. We live in a perpetual timeless present, where all that can be known of the past is what can be deduced from the traces the past leaves in the present. But how do I know this past ever existed in the way the present does? We tend to think of the past as known and the future unknown. In reality both past and future are a mixture of the known and the unknown – although the sort of things we can know about the past (e.g. from personal memories) are different to the sort of things we can know about the future. Moreover, what is unknown about the past and beyond deduction from the present is forever unknowable, because the past is a place you cannot go back to or bring fully back to life in the present. How do we know that we are not being transported back and forth from one universe to other very similar ones at each and every moment?
It occurred to me on reading this issue of Philosophy Now that there is no unique past, only a range of possible pasts consistent with the present. It also occurred to me that Quantum Theory lends support to this possibility.
At the quantum level, quantum indeterminacy reigns supreme, tending towards complete determinism only at the everyday level and above. So the physical world is not completely deterministic but has a small random element. This must be particularly so every time we detect or otherwise influence an elementary particle, even if in no other way. Once again we have no unique past, only a range of possible pasts consistent with the present. But this time every possible past has its own probability value. We might pick out the past with the greatest probability, say, as being in some way the unique true past, or perhaps the past which optimises our situation, our security or well being, through time. But neither of these choices leads to a past that can meaningfully be said to be any more real than any other. By the nature of the situation, not even an omniscient God could know which path through time is the ‘real’ one.
As to why I am experiencing the present at precisely this moment in time rather than any other, however, seems to be a question without an answer!
Meanings and Illusions
I have read most of your Issue 17, and was amused by your Editorial. The reason why philosophers remember an urgent appointment when asked about the meaning of life is that there isn’t one.
You ask contributors to avoid what A.J. Ayer (according to Jane O’Grady in her introduction to Ayer & O’Grady: Dictionary of Philosophical Quotations) called “woolly uplift”. But what else can be expected? You will get nothing but what another philosopher called “sophistry and illusion” but I expect to see no warming conflagration from the result. If life has a meaning, it is something to do with DNA.