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Letters to the Editor

Feather-free • Altruism? • Philosophy When? • Descartes’ Monads • A Cry for Help

The letters page of Philosophy Now is a space where readers can express their opinions about anything philosophical. It is nice to see that people are doing just that. Keep those letters rolling in, folks!


Dear Sir,

In his brief critique of Antony Flew’s and mine own articles on free will, Roger Squires questions my accusation of verbal trickery applied to Daniel Dennett: “When has the making of a distinction, which (if correct) would invalidate an influential argument that overlooks it, been dismissible as a trick?”

Most philosophers writing on the subject do so in an attempt to show that we have free will; the anti-free will group is relatively small. However, as the cognitive sciences have developed a new factor has been added to the discussion, and that is whether we have a variety of free will worth wanting, to hark back to the title of Dennett’s book. Suppose I defined “having free will” to mean “the property of being a featherless biped with teeth”; this is a bit silly (and a questionable etymology) but we would certainly have free will under such a definition. Is this worth wanting? A great deal of philosophical work has been done over the centuries on a certain conception of free will, and it is that conception which van Inwagen writes about and, I think, that conception which fits our everyday use of the expression. Van Inwagen would probably not consider Dennett’s version of free will “worth wanting” and we may not want to either, if we want to hold to our everyday use. Thus, if we took that view, Dennett’s reformulation would seem to be mere word-play, just as my featherless biped reformulation would seem.

Yours sincerely,
Mike Norwitz
Clapton, London


Dear Sir,

I can understand the unease felt by Tony Skillen that “the theoretical egoist tends to collapse all human action into a single model” so that “so-called unselfish desires … are essentially no less ‘selfish’ than so called selfish ones”; and he comes to the conclusion that “the very idea of disguising the selfish as the unselfish seems ridiculous.”

Philosophically speaking, I do not accept that there is such a thing as altruism – that is to say, I do not believe we ever perform actions purely for the sake of others without regard to our own comfort (a word I prefer to Skillen’s use of the word “desire”). In that sense, all our actions are egoistic.

But I agree with him that we need to keep alive “our capacity to discern the many possibilities and varieties of human egoism”, and I have always made a distinction between higher and lower egoism. The higher egoism is the product of a strongly developed sense of morality, obligation, compassion, commitment or conscience. This is expressed, in its extreme form, by such thoughts as “I couldn’t live with myself if I had acted other than the way I did.” Why not? Because acting in this other way would have left me acutely uncomfortable, irrespective of any worldly consequences (such as figure in six out of Tony Skillen’s ten examples where the driver stops to give help.) Likewise, this higher egoism (displayed in the examples numbered 15, 21, 22, and 23) demands that you do not “do the right deed for the wrong reason”: not for the thrill you get out of martyrdom or because you can give yourself a pat on the back, not for the approbation of others, or in order to gain any other advantage by doing the right thing.

In ordinary parlance we give expression to our recognition that a person with a highly developed sense of morality etc. is more admirable than a person with a blunted or absent conscience by using the word “altruism”, which does not, in Tony Skillen’s words, “retain the aura of a substantial cynicism” which the word “egoism”, however qualified, cannot in common parlance shed. But that is no reason why philosophers should be panicked into refusing to recognize the higher egoism for what it is.

Yours sincerely,
Ralph Blumenau
London W11

Philosophy When?

Dear Philosophy Now,

Congratulations on starting a magazine which aims to bring Philosophy to a wider audience. Two issues on, you are beginning to establish some identity as a magazine. Maybe its time to reflect on whether it’s one which your title would suggest. Interesting and engaging as many of your articles have been, as a whole there is little to suggest that this magazine started in 1991, rather than any other time in the last twenty years. A first issue with a lead article by Antony Flew, with all due respect, doesn’t strike me as very now-ish! The 1990s have led to a variety of distinct challenges to the norms of philosophical inquiry which your magazine is adopting. Apart from the two reviews by Geoff Wade, where is there any reflection of the widespread interest in postmodernism, the critiques and alternatives deriving from feminist philosophy, or even the enormous expansion in Applied Philosophy?

If you are really reflecting Philosophy as it is practiced now, rather than the 50s or 60s, these currents need to be given a higher profile. A connected point. Had you noticed that out of twenty six contributions, only two were by women – another bit of Philosophy then-ishness?

Yours sincerely,
Kathleen Lennon
Lecturer in Philosophy, Hull University

I am aware of this imbalance, which is causing me some concern. If the postmodernists and the feminists would stop contemplating each other’s navels and write some decent articles instead, I would be delighted to publish them. [Editor]

Descartes’ Monads

Dear Sir,

Love the magazine..! But hasn’t this Descartian nonsense of a helpless monad gone far enough? (“The Very Real Ghost Of A Demon” – Paul Tappenden – PN 2) I’m surprised that writers as astute as T.S.Eliot and Samuel Beckett – not to mention countless philosophers – should have taken it seriously.

Descartes’ suggestion that all he believes he perceives as a real world might be nothing but “the illusions of a dream” engendered in him by a demon only demonstrates how confused a young man he was! To accept the reality of dreams is necessarily to accept the reality of a waking state; the one presupposes the other. And the waking state is defined, surely, as that condition in which we respond to the impressions coming from the operation of our sense-organs as well as to those derived from memory and imagination. In other words, waking consciousness is always a dual consciousness, involving both outer and inner stimuli, whereas dreaming – as a rule – involves only the latter. Is it not this duality of waking consciousness which convinces all of us that there is indeed a physical world existing independently of anyone’s perceptions? The quantum physicist may tell us that a table is “really” a ballet of subatomic particles, but he eats his dinner off it just the same!

John Green’s exploration (“The Best Of All Possible Next Worlds” PN 2) of what it would be like to experience everything at once – which I grant would mean to experience nothing – leads him to conclude that an omniscient God could have no perceptions at all. But a God capable of creating this world would surely have been capable of playing any part He chose, including a participation in human perception? (A Christian might say this was the whole point of the Incarnation.)

Green’s confident assertion that “the gods do not exist independently of our conception of them” reminds me of a rather traumatic dream I had some years ago, of which I remember nothing but that I awoke repeating to myself, “Only the false gods are made in our image; the real ones are terribly strange.”

Yours truly,
Peter J. Lorden
Calgary, Canada

A Cry for Help

Dear Editor,

Please help! I read with interest the first edition of Philosophy Now. I am a general practitioner who is besieged by people suffering from stress. As doctors we have become confessors to catholics, a reassurance to people who have lost their faith and curers of mental illness. Yet we cannot define what we are trying to achieve.

The Concise Oxford Dictionary defines philosophy as:

“Seeking after wisdom or knowledge especially which deals with ultimate reality or with the most general causes and principles of things and ideas and human perception and knowledge of them physical phenomena and ethics…. systems of principles for the conduct of life……”

The articles in your first edition mention dozens of topics which bear this definition, but nowhere do I detect any sense of direction. Philosophy appears like the behaviour of a headless chicken.

Our knowledge of ultimate reality consists of:
Einstein’s theory of relativity
The Quantum Theory
Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle
The Chaos Theory
The Big Bang and continuous creation theories

Our knowledge of these in turn depends on science, which in turn depends mostly on Sir Karl Popper’s Epistemology.

Please philosophers, tell me how we survive in such a hostile environment as our universe and please tell me how we should behave towards each other. In other words tell us what we are. Give us advice about lifestyle. Explain why so I can advise patients how to conduct their lives.

Yours truly
John J. Shenkman (Doctor)

Dear Sir,

One ponders as to whether or not there is any correlation between the use of recycled paper and the publication of recycled ideas in many magazines and newspapers.

Yours faithfully
James Ashworth
Trawden, Lancashire

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