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Philosophical Counselling • Freewill & Predestination • Relativism • Suicide • Time • On Being a Philosopher and a Christian (Issue 16)

Philosophical Counselling

SIR: I recently discovered Philosophy Now and am delighted that such a magazine exists!

Though intrigued with the interview of Louis Marinoff (Issue 20) and excited by the concept and practice of philosophical counseling, upon further exploration of various internet sites, I was dismayed to find proposals to license the practice and to attempt to gain insurance reimbursement.

I have been both a professional counselor for ten years and a mental health (now behavioral health) administrator for eighteen years. I have supported many of the reforms involved in managed health care and have designed delivery systems ($30 million in current programs) to function within managed care parameters. The consequence, however, has been a severe curtailing of what is allowable both as the defined problem and the course of treatment.

What intrigues me in philosophical counseling is that here could be a practice to address the needs that are being excluded from behavioral health treatment. I am convinced that this is not only a great need, but an excellent opportunity to define the practice. If third party reimbursement is pursued, it will compromise this very identity, put it under the same financial restrictions and force a competitive relation to mental health professionals who are already suffering from a surplus of practitioners.

It seems that if correctly conceptualized, there is no conflict since philosophical counseling is addressing a different level of development than psychotherapy – one that is not a medical condition reimbursed by health insurance.

There is the related issue of credentialing. This is less important if the reimbursement issue is removed. I would hope that we are not seeing just another ‘guild’ out to carve its perceived share of the pie to the exclusion of others and at the expense of creativity.

More people are becoming frustrated with the limitations of psychological and psychiatric practice as well as concerned about privacy from health insurers. This creates a great opportunity for alternative funding including direct payment by the client. For people without these resources other funding needs to be explored.

Let’s not go down a road that compromises the very advantages and contributions that could now be achieved.


Freewill & Predestination

SIR: In Back to the Future 2, Biff, ageing and embittered in 2005, steals Marty McFly’s time-travelling DeLorean and hot-foots it back to the 1950s there to deliver a twenty-first century sports almanac to his younger self. The latter Biff proceeds to gamble his way to a fortune. With his almanac, he cannot lose. It lets him know in advance the exact outcome of a succession of major sporting fixtures. Thus, in one small area of life, Biff is omniscient. But he is not Godlike, by which I mean he is not like the Christian God. Not even a little bit. Biff knows that certain events will happen but he himself does nothing to bring those events about. They would happen anyway, Biff or no Biff.

There is more than a little bit of Biff in the god Ralph Blumenau (‘Free Will and Predestination’, Philosophy Now, Issue 20) discusses. This god merely knows the outcomes (here, salvation and damnation); he does not cause them. The Christian God, in contrast, knows the outcomes precisely because he caused them. He does not simply know the plot, he wrote the play. Blame him for how it ends. It is all divine caprice.

William Scholes (Letters, Philosophy Now, Issue 20), however, denies that there is any caprice. He proposes that God punishes the sinful because God himself is holy. But think about it. God, who is holy, punishes sinners whom he himself created in full knowledge of their inherent sinfulness and in equally full knowledge that they would reject the prospect of salvation afforded by Christianity. They did not have to be created – God is all-powerful, he has no needs; they have been created merely to be damned. And, contrary to what Ralph Blumenau suggests, to be damned is to suffer more than simply loss. Christian scripture is quite explicit on that point; to be damned is to suffer like you’ve never suffered before. At the very least, there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth and not for some fixed time, but for all time.

All of which seems a tad excessive. I cannot see that most people – us damned in waiting – are as bad as Calvinesque Christianity makes out. (Original sin? I don’t Adam and Eve it. Read Darwin and you won’t either). Most people, most of the time, are quite harmless and many do a lot of good. Yet hundreds of millions of them are due to suffer unimaginably for all eternity because, however blameless or even saintly they might be, they are not part of the preordained herrenvolk. Good behaviour, worthiness, is quite irrelevant. Calvin himself, no doubt anticipating God, had one of his critics burnt alive. Yet Calvin is ‘saved’ and hundreds of millions of ordinary inoffensive people are not. Try as I might, I cannot reconcile this prospect with the idea of a loving God. Neither could Arthur Schopenhauer. And yet it is Christianity followed to where it leads.



SIR: Allegories are a form of analogy and suffer from the weakness of all analogies: they are merely illustrative. They can coax, but they cannot compel. So when Emrys Westacott (Issue 20) tries to put new legs on the old pantomime horse of Relativism by using “an allegorical elucidation”, he is coaxing furiously, but is not in the least compelling.

His allegory, in a nutcase, compares rival world-views (e.g. fundamentalist Creationist versus atheistic scientist) to different kinds of bread (i.e. soft versus hard) which are enjoyed in different cultures. Each culture thinks its own bread is perfect and detests the other.

Not only is the analogy quite uncompelling (do world-views really resemble kinds of bread?), but the reliance on that slippery, ambiguous word ‘perfect’ (aesthetically? functionally? emotively? etc.) deprives the argument of any plausibility it might otherwise have had.

If you want to give Relativism its dues, I think you should start by acknowledging that some things in life are relative and others are not. There are times when people have to agree to disagree, and there are other times when it is pretty clear that one side or other is mistaken. And that applies to whole cultures just as much as to individuals.

Thus, if someone says that P Now is excellent bed-time reading, you can try to reason with them for a while, but in the end the subjective nature of their statement of aesthetic taste cannot be disproved. You can only shrug and say, “Whatever turns you off, man.”

Personal and emotive statements are the same. If someone says, “I want to dedicate the rest of my life to P Now”, you might question the honesty, wisdom or sanity of the speaker, but if they hold their ground, then you cannot refute that statement, even though you think it is ridiculus ridiculissimi. Once again, you are reduced to a shrug and a catch-phrase, and you have to accept that this is another area where Relativism rules.

However, if someone claims that holding a copy of P Now on top of one’s head is an adequate parachute when jumping from the tenth floor, that is a different kind of argument and no shrugs are required. We have moved out of the realm of relativistic ‘agree to disagree’ conclusions and into the realm of testable assertions. When you leave the tenth floor via the window, you are no longer dealing with purely aesthetic, or emotive, or cultural matters. There is a realm of brute physical reality out there which acts in predictable ways, as recorded in our scientific laws. In this case, the relevant descriptions will involve acceleration due to gravity, wind resistance of a fully-grown philosopher, surface area of a copy of P Now and the shock absorbing qualities of concrete.

To sum up: shrugs are in order if you meet someone from another culture or planet who assails you with aesthetic, or personal, or emotive statements, including tuneless dirges to the Supreme Boing, last year’s holiday snaps and declarations of undying indifference. That is where Relativism Rules. You can agree to agree or agree to disagree. Or you can fight over it. But once you start making assertions about brute physical reality, then you go beyond the boundaries of the personal or cultural, and brute facts will determine the truth of what you say. Just as brute fact will eventually intrude into the case of the Flying Philosopher and bring that experiment to a .

Yours shrugfully


SIR: Justin Busch’s article ‘Sick to Death?’ is noteworthy for its effort to simplify the issue of suicide. Success on this front does not necessarily infer accuracy (a recurring problem in philosophical debates).

His use of the ‘social construction’ model of disease seems a bit lame when he proposes (and attacks) the medicalization of suicide. If we’re going to reference the medical model, let’s use Dorland’s Illustrated Medical Dictionary 27th Edition, in which disease is defined as “any deviation from or interruption of the normal structure or function of any part, organ, or system (or combination thereof) of the body that is manifested by a characteristic set of symptoms and signs and whose etiology, pathology, and prognosis may be known or unknown.” This is not merely the whim of doctors or insurance brokers. A disease must be proven to exist on scientific grounds. The primary focus is on the individual not with the general public. The social impact of certain diseases is an entirely different matter. If self-termination can be shown to be related to an illness, what’s wrong with treating the underlying condition? Then a person is free to make a more-reasoned choice.

Few serious scientists would classify suicide as a disease. It is a complex behaviour. Choice may be one of the constituent elements, but it certainly isn’t the only one. There are various factors that may influence our decisions. For example, if I were ill, the physiological symptoms of fever, pain, dehydration, etc., might influence me to see a doctor for some assistance rather than tuning in the television for a spot of light comedy. Likewise, a condition that alters the way my brain is functioning might influence the apparent reasonableness of a decision.

Statistics do little to support the notion that suicide is sensible. In the United States, over 32,000 people kill themselves yearly. More than 60% of all people who suicide are suffering from clinical depression. Alcoholics who are depressed increase this figure to over 75%. This being true, there is every reason to see a role for modern medicine in dealing with the complexities of suicide.

Using the medical model, one can propose that many suicides are the result of physiologically impaired brain functioning. To ignore this element is to condemn people to a death they might not choose otherwise. Once the depression is stabilized, few of these men and women see any reason to end their own lives.

Having said this, it is also clear that there may be circumstances in which a person of sound mind and body decides to end his own life. It may be seen as a heroic event (the Socrates option) or it might be cowardly (an adult escapes the consequences of his foul play). One should also make distinctions between youth and adults. Children and adolescents do kill themselves, but we would hardly accept this action as being something that we should not try to stop.

Mr. Busch makes his points, based on his premises, but misses the mark by excluding other factors that knowledgeable people would consider. By doing so, he attains an internal consistency, but limits the applicability of his hypothesis.

No, suicide is not a disease. But it is not typically a well-conceived choice either. Were this so, I believe we would see a lot more of it.

Clinical Professor of Neuroscience
*Source: The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention


SIR: On reading Cliff Stagoll’s fascinating article, ‘Killing Time’, on John McTaggart’s view of time (that time does not exist), I was struck by the similarities with J W Dunne’s approach, though Dunne came to very different conclusions. Dunne was a physicist rather than a philosopher (he was a pioneer aviator). His best-known book is An Experiment with Time; it attracted wide popular interest in, I think, the thirties, but it seems to be largely forgotten nowadays.

McTaggart’s analysis involves two time-line series, A and B. The B series (can I call it a Being series?) exhibits all instants together, side by side – a God’seye view, as Stagoll puts it; the A series (can I call it an Advancing series?) has a ‘now’ point moving along it (or moves along past a ‘now’ point). Dunne expended much effort in justifying the time-line principle, and accepted the distinction between A and B. But I think he would say that there are two views or ways of looking at a single time-line, rather than saying that there are two time-lines. If you draw a timeline, as he did, you start by locating events on it, giving the B series. You then mark a ‘now’ point on it and put an arrow on that point to show that it is a moving point; that turns it into an A series.

This is where Dunne really starts. On a B series time-line, events are separated by intervals which are measured in time units, but these intervals are space-like; there is some essential aspect of time which they do not incorporate. One actually shows them as distances, with a conversion scale (1 mm = 1 second, for example). To get at the essence of time, one has to add the moving ‘now’ point. Dunne asks, how can one measure the movement of this moving point? Time – ordinary time – has been turned into distance on the B time-line, and one can’t use that time to measure the rate of movement along that very line. So there must be a deeper time, T2. One can now measure movement along the ordinary space-like (T1) time-line. An observer living in T2 time can observe the ordinary time-line as a B time-line, all (past, present, and future) there at once; and this observer can also observe the advance of the ‘now’ point along this time-line.

The observer need not be God, of course. We can observe ordinary space, just by looking around us. But we can’t observe the whole of space (although we can move around), and our powers to adjust space (or the things in it) are strictly limited.

On the A series, Stagoll explains McTaggart’s argument against its reality, then what I think I can call the obvious or layman’s rebuttal, and then two replies by McTaggart to the rebuttal. McTaggart’s second reply is, Stagoll says, that the layman’s rebuttal only makes sense if we assume a second A series underlying the first. Dunne’s absolute or T2 time corresponds to this.

McTaggart’s reply continues by arguing that if we explain the original A series by a second A series, we will have to explain the second A series by a third, and so on. In a later book, Dunne acknowledged that this approach involves an infinite regress. But Dunne says that if that is the way reality is, then that is the way it is; the philosophers’ horror of infinite regress is not logically justified.

Dunne argued that the fact that we are bound by T1 and our inability to appreciate the existence of T2 results from the nature of our consciousness and the fact that we have evolved to live in a world in which T1 exists and has to be dealt with; we have to live for the moment, or moment by moment. But, he suggested, these constraints are relaxed in sleep, and in dreaming, we come closer to access to ‘absolute’ time, T2. So we can dream of the future just as we can dream of the past. And the ‘experiment’ of his title was a challenge, to record one’s dreams; he claimed that insofar as one could assign specific (waking) events and experiences to one’s dreams, one would find that one dreamt as much of the future as of the past. So he claimed that his philosophy was experimentally verifiable.


SIR: re ‘Killing Time’ (Issue 20)

The problem may be in the term ‘event’. ‘Event’ is essentially ‘present event’. ‘Future event’ is nonsense; it may not exist at all (my 100th birthday), and also cannot now be precisely described.

You cannot have (the actuality of) a past event, merely recollection of an event once present.


On Being a Philosopher and a Christian (Issue 16)

SIR: Peter C Horn believes that there is no better ground for belief than perception. Further, he claims that where there is no perception there is no reason for belief – hence his lack of belief in anything transcendental.

I am confused. If perceiving is believing, and he has never perceived me, how has he formed the belief that I exist, to such an extent that he takes the trouble to reply to my complaint?

I do not claim to have incontestable proof for the existence of God, but I do maintain that I have as much reason to believe in Him as anyone who reads this letter has to believe in me.

I apologize for calling Mr Horn a total sceptic, but my request for him to become more sensible in his way of thinking still stands.

Yours indubitably

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