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Mel-Born • Pleasure and Pain • Mad scientist letter • When It Comes To The Crunch • Read any good books lately?
SIR: I found an error in the News page of Issue 27 (June/July 2000). You say that Germaine Greer “is originally from Sydney”, but actually she was born in Melbourne, Australia, in 1939. A fact that us (well, not really me) Melbourneans are all too proud of. She was educated at Melbourne and then Sydney University, before moving to Cambridge. She later returned to take up as senior tutor of English at Sydney University. My source is Who’s Who. Sorry to nit-pick, but I am a supporter of the ‘Melbourne’s got more brains than Sydney’ society. Gerard Vaughan, art historian and former director of the British Museum, is also a Melbournean, as is Barry Humphries (a.k.a. Dame Edna). Cheers!
JUSTIN R. WOODS
Pleasure and Pain
SIR: Professor Richard Taylor (Issue 27) derides “clever philosophical arguments yielding bizarre conclusions.” But his own conclusions about the use of the words ‘pleasure’ and ‘pain’ are not only bizarre and counter-intuitive, they fail to be supported by any satisfactory arguments in the course of his article.
He tells us that “a book can be correctly described as terrible without implying that it strikes terror in anyone.” This is true, but only because the word ‘terrible’ has undergone a change of meaning over the last hundred years. When Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was first published, it could well have been praised for being ‘terrible’, i.e. succeeding in its aim of filling its readers with terror. But if someone today were to call the book terrible, they would mean that they didn’t like it. Exactly the same change in meaning has occurred to the other words (‘awful’ and ‘wonderful’) used in Professor Taylor’s examples. No such change, however, has happened to the words ‘pleasure’ and ‘pain’. Hence these examples do not assist Professor Taylor’s argument, showing only that meanings can (but do not always) change over time. This does not answer the question he sets himself: whether the words ‘pleasure’ and ‘pain’ refer (as we usually assume) to real feelings, private to each individual.
He argues that if we were to see a knife slicing deep into someone’s chest, all that we know unequivocally to be real are the knife, the victim’s body, and the wound. “These are all visible things. The pain here alluded to is not some additional real thing… hidden from the view of all but the person who feels it.” But what if the recipient of this wound were on an operating table, and the wielder of the knife were a surgeon? There would then be no pain, simply because the patient would be under a general anaesthetic. If, however, the patient did feel pain, this would be proof of serious incompetence on the part of the anaesthetist. Hence, contrary to Professor Taylor’s argument, the existence or absence of pain is indeed a reality separate from that of the visible wound.
I would not necessarily wish to conclude from this that pleasure and pain require a separate sphere of existence, a mental realm, in which to locate their reality. But nor do I feel that Professor Taylor’s discussion has contributed to resolving this question. He makes the bizarre claim that “if I say I derive a great deal of pleasure from listening to classical music… I am not saying that this music stirs in me feelings of pleasure.” This suggests that Professor Taylor himself is as anaesthetized as a hospital patient! Most people who enjoy music do indeed experience distinct emotional feelings under its influence. That these pleasures are different from physical pleasures (just as the pain of listening to someone boring is different from physical pain) does not automatically make them less real.
SIR: In ‘Philosophical Viruses’ (Issue 27), Professor Richard Taylor uses an argument which owes its power mainly to the fact that people inexperienced in philosophy usually fail to distinguish between things which cannot be proved because they are unreal, and things which cannot be proved because they are self-evident. In this case, it is not hard to argue that the self and the mind are just words which do not really stand for anything, as no way of proving their substantive being is likely to occur to us, just as we often cannot argue with a paradox.
However, Professor Taylor still believes in the reality of his body and, presumably, of the outside world as well, although there is no more scope for proof here than in the previous case. In relation to the body, self-evidence is tacitly accepted, therefore. But to have the right to do this, we need to have a principle according to which selfevidence is admissible for the body but not for the mind, whereas no such thing is offered in this article. In the absence of such a principle, we should only be able to conclude either that body and soul are both unreal (if they depend on proof), or that both are self-evidently real; anything else could only be prejudice.
If, in fact, mind meant nothing more than intelligent behaviour expressed by the body, it would mean that intelligent behaviour as such was uncaused. Although the living body is a necessary condition for intelligent behaviour, it is in no way a sufficient condition, because the world is full of creatures with animate bodies which never display anything we would call intelligence. Similarly, we could conclude that the word ‘wind’ did not signify any actual entity, because we could say that light objects just happen to move, and trees wave about, if causality was not an issue, and we should not have to think in terms of some invisible and formless moving thing.
By the same kind of argument, we could also deny that living beings have life in them, since being alive would just mean that the body moved itself about and made sounds. But here again, we should be claiming an effect without a cause. Bodies soon after death are no different qua bodies from what they were when they were alive, although they now cannot move or make sounds. In reality, having (or being) a body is not enough in order to be alive, just as having (or being) a living body is not enough in order to have a mind.
DR R. BOLTON
Mad scientist letter
SIR: One of your readers (Letters, Issue 26) presents the duck-billed platypus as possible evidence for the humour of a Creator. But I challenge the reader to unequivocally demonstrate that the said Creator was pulling our legs during the design of the DBP, since the opposite scenario may be closer to the truth, namely, that the good old Creator was quite serious during the creation of the DBP, but revealed his boisterous side in none other than the… platypus-billed duck! Correct me if I am wrong, but perhaps the notion of the DBP is nothing but a reflection of European (Northern Hemisphere) chauvinism, the members of which had known about ducks long before they encountered the down-under platypus, hence relegating the latter to a secondary level of existence with the accusatory assumption that it actually copied its bill design from the ‘original’ duckian blueprint.
Unfortunately, science throws at us yet another factual brick in the shape of an extinct dinosaur, perhaps related to the Pachycephalosaur, perhaps not, which also was in the habit of using a ‘duck’ bill (platypus bill, in case any of the above has any pedagogical virtue). Here we have a 50% increase in the number of creatures carrying the same bill, yet, being from very different evolutionary lines, they all may compete quite successfully for the “I was only kidding! – God” title. I invite your readers to figure out which one it is while I switch gears and next tackle the much harder topic: Which came first,the platypus or the egg? But wait! This is amazing indeed: all three animals that share a bill design also happen to hatch from an egg! Does it mean that they all taste like chicken? Does duck taste like chicken? Bon apetit!
YARON SHEFFER PHD
ASTRONOMY, UNI OF TEXAS, AUSTIN
When It Comes To The Crunch
SIR: I enjoyed reading Trevor Emmott’s article on “Hume’s unreasonable view of cause and effect.” and it was most convincing. However, I believe that I have also found a fundamental objection to Hume’s treatment of cause and effect. Hume writes:
“It appears, then, that this idea of necessary connexion among events arises from a number of similar instances which occur of the constant conjunction of these events.”
An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (section VII, part 2)
Now my objection lies in Hume’s use of ‘arises from’; surely this is just the same as saying ‘caused by’? Thus, Hume in my view states a causal relationship between two events, namely, the constant conjunction of events and the idea of necessary connexion. On the basis of Hume’s own argument he is not entitled to do this. It is in this area of the relationship between external events and ideas that his argument fails. While it may be true that we cannot observe or directly measure a causal relationship between events and ideas, Hume fails to talk of such relationships without using language that implies a causal connexion.
Read any good books lately?
SIR: My name is Chaachi Deane and I am 15 years old. I realise that I am very young to be reading such an intellectual magazine; to be honest although I understand the gist of most of the articles, when they refer to certain books I have no idea what they are talking about. Anyway although I have noticed that you do not give replies to the letters I was wondering if this could be the exception.
As I live in London there are a wide range of philosophical books that are available to me. However, I don’t know where to start! I have read a beginners’ guide to philosophy but that was really brief and just went over things that I thought before. I am not interested in political or moral philosophy, I am interested in thinking about whether there are really any facts, because evidence proves facts and evidence is made by man so how can it count for anything?
I am also interested in how we’re here, like are we really living in a solid thing? We could be a thought in God’s mind.
I don’t want to read anything that I could have thought up myself. I really want to give my brain something to think about.
I understand that I am being very forward writing this letter and now I realise that you won’t print it as I have just noticed that all the letters in this magazine are written in much more formal language than this one, but surely philosophy isn’t just for those who know how to use all the right words!
Anyway I hope you reply because it would help me a great deal if you could recommend some books for me to read.