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Letters to the Editor
Death & Detachment • Is That The Time? • The Mysterious East • The Long Arm of the Law • Things that Think • God and Reason
Death & Detachment
In the article ‘Grief Revisited’ by Michael Williams (Issue 18), I found the idea of detachment, which is put forward as the way we should deal with grief and the prospect of our own death, very difficult to understand. According to the views attributed to Denys, detachment means letting go of everything, even all our ideas of God. He further states that God lies beyond all human conceptualisation, which makes it difficult to see how we can let go of ideas that we don’t have in the first place. Williams concludes that by detaching ourselves from all our ideas of life we can find a way forward. But forward to what? Completely detached from all ideas of life we would have the existence of a vegetable.
I don’t agree that Socrates practised detachment. He was firmly attached to his ideas of life right up to the end. According to Socrates (Apology ), death is either a dreamless sleep which must be a marvellous gain, or it is removal to some other place where he can question those that have gone before, such as Homer and Orpheus. He would give anything for such a rewarding journey, and would be willing to die ten times over to enjoy this afterlife. However, whether Homer and the others would enjoy an eternity of being questioned by Socrates is not brought into consideration.
In Williams’ imagined conversation between Hobbes and Socrates, Hobbes should have been shown as winning the argument hands down.
Peter C. Horn
Is That The Time?
Christopher Tilley states in his letter in defence of solipsism (Issue 18): “The only thing of which I can be certain is that I at the present moment exist … Everything else could be illusory, in particular my memory of the past.”
But does the present moment itself exist? Is it not immeasurable, an infinitely small thing? Time by definition cannot be motionless. No matter how minute the scale, a measurement of time will always be further divisible. It is therefore theoretically impossible to pinpoint an exact moment definable as ‘now’. There can be no present moment. If we also accept that it is not possible to exist either in the past or in the future, then when, exactly, do we exist?
The Mysterious East
Philosophy Now offers itself up as ‘A Magazine of Ideas’. This being so, how is it that your brief appears to cover Western philosophy and philosophers only? In your apparent restrictiveness, are you not just one more contribution to what Ray Billington refers to as “the insularity of Western philosophers to their Eastern counterparts” (East of Existentialism, 1990)?
Although Eastern Philosophy is often characterised as ‘primarily religious’ (ie too metaphysical, not rigorous enough to be worthy of serious attention), Indian philosophers such as Sankara, Nagarjuna, Vasubhandu and Radhakrishnan – to name but a few – are not mere apologists for particular religious traditions but thinkers who engage with many of the topics familiar to Western philosophers – epistemology, ontology, free will/determinism and so forth – often in a highly sophisticated manner and, Radhakrishnan aside, some centuries before equivalent developments in the West. Nagarjuna’s theory of language, expressed in the Mulamadhyamakakarika and other texts, is a case in point, advocating as it does a linguistic relativity of which Derrida et al would be proud. And the Buddhist Yogacara school, whose phenomenological excursions prefigure the work of Husserl by a millenium or more, are as resolutely modern as any of the so-called contemporary philosophers featured in your pages.
As it is no longer a tenable option to hold up the Western intellectual tradition as paradigmatic for all – a fact which the excellent journal Philosophy East and West has recognised for four decades – would it be impertinent of me to suggest that Philosophy Now make strenuous efforts to broaden its horizons – and its readers’ minds?
The Long Arm of the Law
“Would Weinberg rather drop a law of physics on his toe or a rock?” [No17 p21]
Our language is very clever, since it can use different words so as to appear to be referring to different objects and events, while yet in reality they are merely different descriptions or names for the same thing.
If we were to take away the ‘laws’ that govern an object, we would be taking away all that describes it, and therefore there would be no object left. Laws are what we observe objects doing that makes them real.
The problem with God arises only when people avoid the issue and refuse to define the object that they give the name God to. There can be no doubt that there are fundamentals of existence, and if we call that God, then God certainly exists. But if we are to apply that term merely to a being within existence, then until that being taps us on our shoulders it cannot be certain that he is not an imaginary figure, and even then we might be mistaken.
“God became man” is not a thing we can believe in essentially, because it expresses no truth of existence that is experienced. It is only essentially true at the point at which the word God is described in such a way as to be self evident.
Mr RW Standing
East Preston, Sussex
Things that Think
Tom Campbell’s conclusion in his article ‘Thinking About Thinking’ is in error. It’s not useful to ascribe human or even animal emotions to the activity we call ‘thinking’. Loving, hating, feeling sad – all those things we do so well in our minds – are not an essential part of ‘thinking’. Surely the important thing is that computers are processing information – if this is not thinking, I don’t know what is! Otherwise we’ll have to invent a new word for it. Today’s computers can already think more successfully about many problems than humans can, and there’s every reason to believe that computers in the future will be more sophisticated still. I believe the mind to be a property of our physical brain. To say that consciousness is “merely the product of biochemical reactions in the brain” is to not properly appreciate the ‘mysteriousness’ of the physical world, as though physical things were somehow ‘dirty’ – beneath consideration by philosophers.
Patrick Phillips’ article ‘Talking to the Animals’ was fair as far as it went, but most of the examples given talk about the ability of animals to learn a new language imposed by human experimenters. This is a very anthropocentric way of looking at things. Why isn’t more thought given to humans learning the languages that animals already speak? After all, to give an example, if a whale announces to the whale community that it has some new offspring, would we be aware of the fact? If we don’t know how to ‘listen’, how do we know such messages aren’t being transmitted? If we ever meet alien intelligences from other worlds, we won’t get very far trying to impose our languages on them. What hope of discourse when we can’t even understand the ‘aliens’ with whom we share this planet – ie, the other animal species.
Malcolm E. Wright
I greatly enjoyed Issue 18, Canon Williams’s article in particular providing an admirable example of the accessible philosophy which I understand you try to publish.
I would like to offer a thought which was provoked by Patrick Phillips’s ‘Talking to the Animals’. It seems to me that we overlook one important dimension when we investigate the ability of non-human animals either to converse or otherwise to behave in what we consider to be an intelligent manner. We start by assuming – correctly I am sure – that we humans represent the apex of the living world in terms of intelligence; we then go on to see how other species stack up against us, in due course arriving at this or that conclusion, which is unlikely seriously to disturb that first assumption.
What we do not appear to do is to view non-human species in terms of their own development through time. Yes, humans are, I believe, ‘top creature’ just now, and probably will be so for a good few tens of millenia yet, should the planet last that long. But our own evolution has been fairly dramatic, and measured in geological time, very rapid. Were early man’s first linguistic efforts so very different from the signs and sounds of today’s apes or dolphins? At the time I write this, there are reports that dolphins have (only recently) been observed using sponges to protect their snouts from damage on the seabed. The suggestion is that this is a new development, something that certain dolphins have only just learned to do.
Perhaps our species is the first to have reached our levels of intelligence, certainly of applied intelligence, but shall we necessarily be the last?
God and Reason
Parts of Peter Horn’s letter in Issue 17, on Bob Harrison’s article ‘On Being a Philosopher and a Christian’ (Issue 16) are wrong.
Mr Horn claims that “If we cannot establish the existence of God by reasoning, then we have no reason for believing in God.” Apart from the fact that this in itself is not true, it is further not the case that belief in God can be written off as “no more than wishful thinking.” Surely the existence of any person cannot be established by reasoning alone, but this does not mean that we can have no reason at all for believing that they do in fact exist.
My belief in my Mother’s existence is not entirely based on reason, but has proved itself to be very useful over the years in the acquisition of food, love and money. My belief is based predominantly on experience – which admittedly is not itself foolproof, but is reason enough for my claims to her being in the world. Similarly, the Christian’s basis for belief in God is experience of His activity in their life and in the lives of others. Rather than there being no reason for belief in God I maintain that there are innumerable reasons to believe in God, it is simply the case that they are not the sorts of reasons we might have for believing that all circles are round.
Undoubtedly, anyone who tried to make Mr Horn see that he had no reason for believing my Mother existed – I might be a robot and therefore not need a mother, anyone who reports meeting her may be deluded etc – would be met with the utmost scorn, which sceptics rightfully face these days. I cannot establish the existence of Mr Horn by reasoning, but this does not mean I have no reason to believe he exists, for I have read his letter. Yet anyone’s claim to know that God exists is treated in the very way we have come to deride – as if we can know nothing substantial, or talk meaningfully about it.
Mr Horn’s conclusion that “the most that we can reasonably conclude is that [God] may or may not exist”, is true for those who have not met Him, but his reason for this conclusion is incorrect. To use his own argument, if we cannot establish the existence of anything by reasoning, then we have no reason for believing in anything, including the truth of this statement. Mr Horn has committed the age-old sceptic’s paradox, and I would beg him to return to a more sensible way of thinking.
Oh, the pains of linguistic ambivalence. In Issue 18 Ian Tonothy attributes opinions to me that I attacked in my previous letter (Issue 17). He asks ‘Who are the Christians?’, which is precisely what I sought to do. Insofar as “Christianity is whatever Christians say it is”, (his words, not mine), that is the main problem. It is a historical truism that Christianity has developed in some peculiar ways, far removed from its origins. That is the reality; I didn’t invent it. Bob Harrison’s article came from a personal understanding of evangelical Christianity. He couldn’t claim to speak for all Christians. indeed, according to his interpretation, some ‘Christians’ are not Christians at all!
Most mainstream Christians would agree on a minimum core belief, e.g Jesus as Lord (and Saviour?). The difficulties arise when one proceeds beyond the first grade. There are, for example, some present-day ‘Christians’ who deny the existence of a personal God, a belief presupposed by Bob Harrison. Somewhat naively Ian Tonothy suggests we start with Christ and the four gospels. Unfortunately over a century of biblical scholarship makes that an untenable option. A recent ‘Christian’ writer argues that we should begin with the letters of St Paul, since much of mainstream theology owes more to his writings than to the gospels. There are even rival ‘Christianities’ within the New Testament itself.
Yes, its a bit messy. All I said in my original letter was that Bob Harrison’s arguments reflect his own subjective, Eurocentric standpoint regarding being a Christian. Moreover, that his juxtaposition of Christianity and Philosophy is unrealistic. Both are shifting, evolving perspectives, not static, monolithic ideologies. Seen that way, there is no inherent conflict between them. It’s that simple.
Wakefield, West Yorkshire
p.s. Now if someone can explain how I am related to Humpty Dumpty….?