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Women & Philosophy • Hume’s Castle • God and Monkeys • Early Christians • Humanity and Nature • Value of Life • Inner Peace

Women & Philosophy

SIR: Thank you thank you for the copies of Issue 21! I’m taking a copy home to read over the weekend.

As to your question “what are we doing wrong?” about the 4:1 male/ female readership ratio – probably nothing. That’s perhaps just a manifestation of centuries of cultural conditioning. Look at it this way, if you’re busy birthing children, struggling to keep a home in a hostile (non-modern) environment the study of philosophy, while it may entice, does not come high on the priority list. I suspect that women throughout time have tended to live their philosophy rather than examine or study it. It has only been a relatively recent occurrence that women have been given, have taken, have found the opportunity or leisure to study the esoteric rather than merely live the practical. It may take us a while to realise that those of us not actively engaged in the study of philosophy as a discipline also have the freedom to explore it as amateurs.

Just my theory. I’ll stick with it until you explain why I’m wrong!


Hume’s Castle

SIR: David Hume’s brilliant and helpful ‘Razor’ concerning miracles must be applied with care (‘Ockham, Hume & Epistemic Wisdom’, Philosophy Now 21). A great castle is set up “It is never rational to believe a miracle (or paranormal event)” and the army of belief is challenged to defeat it. But there are two disadvantages imposed on this siege army: firstly soldiers may only attack and enter the castle one at a time. Evidence for each individual miracle claim is weighed against the overwhelming improbability that any miracle can happen. The poor soldiers are thus easily picked off one by one. Secondly, the powerful siege canons may not be applied: the traditional arguments for the existence of a greater reality outside the natural world are excluded. We are not comparing like with like when the probability of a miracle is set against the probability of false testimony. The former probability can only be assessed using prior assumptions regarding the existence (or not) of some kind of supernatural reality.

Bayes’ Theorem (see New Scientist, 22nd November 1997) helps on both these points. It sets out how you can adjust an initial estimate for the probability of a hypothesis (here that miracles or paranormal events happen) using one item of evidence: often a scientific experiment, here a claimed miracle. That revised estimate can then be further adjusted by application of the Theorem with a second experiment or claimed miracle. The process can be repeated, often until the probability is sufficiently well established to base a decision on it. In science this might be whether to issue a new drug, where the original hypothesis would have related to its benefits. In all cases, the final probability still depends to some extent on the initial probability, which was based on judgement – a hunch, but a wide set of evidence was then applied. However, if the initial probability is set at zero (impossible) or unity (certain) then, whatever evidence is used, application of the theorem cannot adjust that judgement. Rev. Thomas Bayes himself was contemporary with David Hume.


God and Monkeys

SIR: I bought my first copy of your magazine this week and look forward to future issues. One has to ask the question why do philosophers of religion (with the exception of Professor Don Cupitt, and perhaps others whom I have not read) insist on proselytising? Your readers already know the facts discussed. Such a waste of space in Issue 21.

Re. ‘Much Ado About Consciousness’, perhaps David Chalmers, or Andrew Chrucky, who asked the questions, will be kind enough to let us know more about the animal experiments mentioned on p.8, viz.: “..there are some fascinating experimental results with monkeys, aimed at isolating the ‘neural correlate’ of consciousness.” I imagine that the details are too harrowing to be seen in print.

I look forward to a comment…


SIR: Your correspondent Martin Tyrrell claims in the current edition of Philosophy Now (Issue 21) that predestination is the logical consequence of belief in an omnipotent and omniscient God, such as Christians hold. He objects, rightly, to the idea that some people are born to be damned, finding it impossible to reconcile their predestined destruction to a belief in a loving and merciful God.

However, as C.S. Lewis pointed out in dealing with this issue in The Problem of Pain, whilst God is all-knowing and all-powerful, even He cannot do what is impossible. He can know everything that is, and everything that has been, because they are events that are in or have been in the universe to be observed; but He cannot know what is yet to be. He may be able to form a very good idea of what the future will contain by using His complete experience of history and knowledge of the capabilities of everything in the universe to extrapolate forward, and He can intervene at any point, but He cannot be certain of what actions creatures, such humans, with Free Will will undertake. God can no more have perfect knowledge of the future than He can make me be simultaneously a man and, say, a teddy bear.

As I said, God may intervene at point He wishes and I believe He often does, as when offering humanity revelation through the prophets and salvation through Jesus Christ – but if Free Will is to have any meaning, God has mainly to leave things alone so that humans can exercise it. And if humans misuse that faculty, they must face the consequences.


SIR: Apropos the religious controversies aired in your pages, I find myself more and more attracted by a sect mentioned in one of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books, the Church of God the Utterly Indifferent.


Early Christians

Sir: Bob Harrison’s article ‘Virtue Ethics and the New Testament’ attempts to show how the early Christians provided “if not the solution, at least a solution…” to conflicts between virtue ethics and act-centred ethics. I don’t dispute that, as he explains it, it’s a novel solution. But it rests upon several dubious solutions. The first is a simple historical one. Who was this virtued, happy bunch of people – the ‘early Christians’? Most reliable biblical scholars would dispute that there was a single belief system, even in the pages of the New Testament. Accepting Bob Harrison’s terminology, there were some early Christians who were more act-centred than the rest. Unity there wasn’t.

Bob Harrison uses a highly selective use of biblical texts to support his thesis. And he uses extra-biblical terminology – the ‘New Birth’, for example. If that refers to being born again (John 3:3, one would have to ask what that meant then, not to us with twenty centuries of hindsight and reflection. A single conversion experience? A lifetime? Or, far more likely, the symbolism of baptism? Furthermore, Bob provides a passive model of the New Birth, where the believer “is simply co-operating with the Holy Spirit…”. This implies that God initiates any redemptive change in a person’s life. Shades of Calvinism? It also makes God culpable where he doesn’t act, preferring to leave someone in a sinful state. However, it contradicts the empirical evidence of human psychology. Human beings are not sponges, soaking up whatever comes along, good or evil. Most importantly, it goes against the rest of the New Testament, where people actively initiate moral change (Matthew 5:16). Bob Harrison only quotes from St. Paul.

Apparently the early Christians used the act-centred Ten Commandments as the criteria for deciding if they had the “real thing”. One small problem here. Very early on, one of the commandments was altered. How many modern Christians “remember the Sabbath day (Saturday)”? Bob Harrison would do better to acknowledge that Christianity has altered somewhat in the intervening centuries. New beliefs, some deriving from elsewhere than the Bible, have emerged – the Trinity, Vicarious Atonement, Transsubstantialisation, Justification by Faith Alone, clerical celibacy, papal infallibility – often causing new divisions in the body Christian. As always, it is easier to idealise a golden age of the ‘early Christians’. But it’s not true.

Finally, Bob Harrison attempts to show the relevance for us today of all this. Even here there is a difficulty. Are these biblical insights for Christian believers (however defined) alone? if so, a contradiction arises, if only for some people, how can an act-centred ethic claim universal validity? I dispute that there is an adequate basis for normative ethics, either in the Bible per se, the New Testament, or in the subjective religious experiences of individual believers. Where does the Bible or the New Testament provide unambiguous guidance on whether to have an abortion, when to go to war, join a trade union, use contraceptives, practice euthanasia or join the Single Currency? If such guidance is sought from those who have experienced, or experience, the ‘New Birth’, what hope is there of consensus? Historical evidence denies it. No doubt Bob Harrison would say that the general spiritual orientation is all that really matters. But without the hard details, what gain is there?

The whole thing requires a radical rethink – or a further and better revelation than the Bible. Come back Aristotle and Kant. All is forgiven. Okay, relatively all.


Humanity and Nature

SIR: The arrival of your magazine continues to be a high point in my introduction to the world of philosophy,initiand the latest issue, No.21, is no exception.

May I make a nitpicking point on Michael Birshan’s stimulating article on Natural Rights? After all, one rather nice thing about philosophy is that it appears to make nitpicking respectable.

He says that “….it cannot be disputed that the whole natural world is superior to humanity, which is only one part of it.” He repeats the point towards the end of the article. From the wording think one may justifiably infer that the author is saying that the natural world is superior to humanity because (last word in italics if I knew how to make this machine produce italics) humanity is only part of it. I do not think that such a claim is logical. Humanity may be inferior to the whole natural world, I do not know, but if it is, then it is surely not simply because it is but one component part of it. If humanity, for the sake of argument, is actually at the peak of the natural world, then how can it be inferior to something, every part of which it is superior to? Smaller, yes, but inferior?

In fact, Birshan effectively concedes the point earlier in his article, when he says that it may be disputed that the European Union is a superior authority to its member states merely because it contains them all.

If my criticism is valid, then in the context of the argument being put forward in the article, the consequence would seem to be that ‘Nature’ cannot confer Natural Rights. The author appears to come to the same conclusion on different grounds, but as said, my point is essentially a nitpick.


Value of Life

SIR: I am currently involved in some work concerning the doctrine of the sanctity of human life within the context of euthanasia and infanticide and have (as one might expect) run into a number of seemingly irreconcilable viewpoints.

On one hand the mainstream Christian position affirms that human life, irrespective of any other influence, is of irreducible value (the value of life cannot be reduced to anything else, such as happiness or quality) and infinite worth. This view is derived from the Biblical teaching that man is made in the image of God and thus has an inherent value. This position, however, is vigorously attacked by the likes of Peter Singer and Helga Kuhse (extensive writers on this subject who work from a utilitarian background) who claim that this doctrine is ‘speciesist’. It marks out human beings for special attention and so killing a human being is of unique moral significance. Such a statement might seem acceptable at first glance, but Singer and Kuhse assert that it is very wrong to say that the value of a human being (and thus the wrong in taking the life of a human) rests on what can only be called ‘speciesism’. This is the ‘crucial mistake’ of the doctrine of the sanctity of human life. The distinction of species is giving weight to something which is morally irrelevant. According to Singer and Kuhse, to claim that such a distinction (of kind) is a relevant factor is precisely the kind of claim which a racist might use when defending a racial murder.

So what is morally relevant when considering the value of a human life? The most acceptable answer (to Singer and Kuhse at least) is that which is presented by Joseph Fletcher in his Indicators of Humanhood, in which article he suggests that human life has special value because “humans are self-aware, rational, autonomous, purposeful, moral beings, with hopes, ambitions, life-purposes and ideals.” According to this approach one is not saying that human life has sanctity, but rather the characteristics of ‘humanhood’ have sanctity. The value and worth of a human life exist solely in the qualities which that life displays. So if the individual is a member of the human species, yet does not possess any of these characteristics. (S)he cannot rightly be classed as a ‘person’ and so does not have an equal right to life.

The implications of following such an approach, however, are quite difficult for those who subscribe to the traditional Christian view of human life. Does this mean that those individuals who do not display these characteristics do not have a right to life? It would logically follow that this is the case. Severely retarded infants, for instance, could have their lives terminated (as has been witnessed recently in the case of Baby L) within the boundaries of moral acceptability.

It is clear that the concept of the worth of a human life raises a number of difficulties. Perhaps the good readers of this magazine could shed some light on the matter. I would be be very interested to hear your opinions on how we should view and deal with human life? Is there a case for euthanasia and infanticide or should we protect the lives of human beings at all costs?


Inner Peace

SIR: I was in Cambridge, Mass, in August and was fortunate enough to alight on the Spring issue of your magazine, the first of the relaunch. Maybe it had been waiting in that bookshop all those months just for me (!) It is great that you are making such an effort to make philosophy amenable to the general public.

I have to say that I was, however, less than favourably impressed by your new columnist’s piece.

Peg Tittle makes points about ‘inner peace’ which reflect fairly commonlyheld, but as it happens, erroneous views. Such views arise quite naturally from ignorance of and misunderstanding about what is meant by inner peace. It is easy to demolish such an idea by supposedly ‘rational’ argument based on quotations taken out of context. Such an approach hardly does much credit to your magazine or to the subject of philosophy itself. Indeed one of the main difficulties in relying on rational thought is to ensure that it really is rational and not an intellectualisation of some prejudice. What I read here is not a good example.

This is not to say that Peg Tittle's points are not useful. One may indeed imagine that it is possible to achieve some kind of inner peace by disconnecting from the world and indeed that is just resignation and is inappropriate for a fully functioning human being. I would agree that this kind of inner peace is to be avoided.

However the inner peace as found in such traditions as Zen and the Society of Friends (publishers of The Friend, quoted by Peg Tittle) is altogether different. It arises not from withdrawing from the world but by connecting with it, from realising that one is just part of it and by learning to live skillfully in harmony with it and with oneself. The word ‘just’ is un mot juste here. The point is that our intellect may be unusual and wonderful, but it does not alter our fundamentally biological nature in which we are very much part of the universe at large and in no way separate from it. From the wisdom of that simple realisation comes a natural caring for other people, other beings and the world at large.

Sorry, but the “presence of frustration, anger and disappointment” are not a measure of one's caring but merely of an inflated view of one's own ego and our own role in any situation. Indeed, on a practical note, such emotions are often counter-productive in a caring situation. Those with inner peace realise that they can do only what they can do and just get on and do it; no ego-confirming show is required.

I do not wish to address each and every point made in Peg Tittle’s column, but let me just finish by saying that the way one ‘thinks spontaneously’ is to switch off that reliance on strictly point to point logical rational processes for long enough to give those wonderful subconscious creative processes a chance. Ask any working scientist whether the good ideas come before or after their (very necessary) logical justification. Without people thinking spontaneously for much of the time there would be no science, art or poetry and precious little useful philosophy.


From the Web Discussion Board:

Dead Air

SIR: Maybe Peg Tittle should come out West to appreciate silence. In Alberta, lengthy silences are not “considered rude”. When neighbours ride over to “visit”, quite likely the silences will be longer than the talk. As a stranger (only here for 48 years) this disconcerted me at first; now it doesn’t. After a long neighbourly silence, sometimes broken by a shake of the head and a brief “Yup!”, my guest goes outside, tightens the girths and mounts his horse. “That was a nice visit.” he says. I now know exactly what he means.


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