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Electronics Explained • Virtue and the Value of Life • Dismissing Christianity? • Plato’s Ladder of Food • Singer Hits Right Note • Enquiry Not Certainty • Australian philosophers migrating • Hacking the Illusions • We’re All Desperately Wicked • Mysterious Designs • The Death Penalty

Electronics Explained

DEAR EDITOR: Finding out that electronics is “physics plus wiring diagrams” (letter from JJC Smart, Issue 31) ought to be flattering. It means electronics engineers have a bigger discipline than those snooty physical scientists. But instead I’m rather miffed. When you fancy you’re doing something fundamental, to be told you’re just adding things on to someone else’s subject is a bit of an insult. But I won’t repay like with like. On the assumption that philosophers too like to believe they strip away baggage from other disciplines and get right to the essentials, I offer these concise replacements for your “Philosophy in a nutshell” sidebar.

Philosophy is theology without God. Metaphysics is physics without a lab. Epistemology is language without a dictionary. Logic is maths without continuity.

Philosophy of mind is psychology without subjects. Ethics is moralizing without a conscience. Aesthetics is criticism without deadlines. Political philosophy is politics without politics.

Thanks for a splendid magazine.

Virtue and the Value of Life

DEAR EDITOR: One cannot but admire the subtlety and acumen of Arnold Zuboff’s treatment of Plato’s Gyges problem, but I doubt that I’ll be the only one to note that he didn’t really solve it. And it’s no wonder: He tried to derive an ‘ought’ from an assumed set of facts.

Why, if I can commit an injustice with impunity, should I not? If, for a modest reward, I can cause the death of a distant stranger with no possibility of detection, why should I not?

Zuboff says that if I had a perfect grasp of everything involved, then I wouldn’t want to, for in that perfect grasp I would see the full value of the life of that stranger, and thus see that it is worth more than the reward I would gain.

Well, that certainly begs the question. Perhaps my perfect grasp would include the discovery that the stranger is an elderly victim of advanced Alzheimer’s, or perhaps an idiot, or maybe just someone who is very stupid, and it is not clear that his life has any more value than that of a cockroach.

Ah! But isn’t all human life possessed of an absolute intrinsic worth? Wouldn’t a perfect, God-like knowledge include that?

Only if you think that this is an incontestable moral principle. But if that is what is behind all this, then you might as well just say at the outset that I shouldn’t do it, because it would be immoral – and we’re right back where we started.

Plato had the correct answer. Injustice is the debasement or corruption (in its original sense) of oneself. The unjust tyrant doesn’t really get what he wants and, notwithstanding appearances, actually has less power than his suffering victims. Paradoxical, until you understand the ethics of virtue.


Dismissing Christianity?

DEAR EDITOR: I was distressed to read Stephen Anderson’s long letter in Issue 31. For he seems to have construed my short and much reprinted piece on ‘Theology and Falsification’ as constituting a contemptuous dismissal of all the claims of Christianity. But, as he will see if he now takes a second look at the whole article which included the Golden Jubilee reprinting of that piece, ‘Theology and Falsification’ was never intended to do more than set certain discussions of those claims “which were tending to become sterile confrontations … off onto new and hopefully more fruitful lines.”

In that it was abundantly successful. And while there will, of course, be more than one opinion about my own contributions to subsequent discussions their bulk has been indisputably substantial. It is sufficient to mention God and Philosophy (London: Hutchinson, 1966), reissued by Open Court of La Salle in 1984 as God: A Critical Enquiry.


Plato’s Ladder of Food

DEAR EDITOR: In ‘Do You Really know How to Cook?’ Lisa Heldke wants to determine whether or not “Plato is justified in describing the aim of cooking as flattery” (Issue 31). That is, “at what does cooking aim?” In response to this she offers four separate answers – none of which, I fear, I find very satisfying (so to speak). When we talk about the aim of some particular aspect of Plato’s philosophy, I think we must necessarily keep in mind the following: all desires (food, sex, money, even knowledge) are based on love. For love, as it is described in the Symposium by Diotima, is one’s realisation that one is lacking something. And the something, it turns out, is immortality and godliness. This coincides nicely with the ‘ladder of love’ in the Phaedrus. There it is said that the true lover of wisdom – the one on the highest rung – will no longer succumb to his bodily desires (particularly lust) and will live a life of contemplation and meditation with others like him: i.e., he will be somatically indifferent. A healthy body, then, is only necessary insofar as it does not interfere with a healthy soul (see Timaeus). This is why a proper diet must be under the supervision of a health expert (i.e. not necessarily a doctor, but someone who knows about food, including how to cook it). And, as Prof. Heldke rightly points out, healthy food need not taste bad. Thus, Plato’s concern is simply that what we feast on must necessarily be suitable for bodily health, and nothing more, which is perfectly analogous to what our souls’ feast on – the forms – which, after all, are the only things truly suitable for them.


Singer Hits Right Note

DEAR EDITOR: Issue 31 contained several interesting articles on food but I feel only one actually presented well how philosophers should regard food. That was the interview with Peter Singer.

I say that because for a philosopher to be less concerned with the origin of his food, would mean that person had not given much thought to the subject in a moral sense. I think that more articles should have been included on the ethical issues regarding where our food comes from.

It is not difficult to differentiate between plants and animals. The latter contain nerves in their bodies and have some form of intelligence however primitive. It can thus be said that animals do feel pain.

So how does a morally sensible philosopher justify his continued existence at the expense of the death of other life-forms when there are alternatives available (vegetables of course)?


DEAR EDITOR: I know that Peter Singer is controversial, but I think he is so for the wrong reasons. He should be controversial because his ethical regard for animals does not go far enough. His ethic remains an ethic of exclusion, for although he has extended ethical relevance to animals, he denies it to plants and stones, to everything in nature other than suffering sentience, a suffering sentience like our own. But we need not draw such lines in the sand. We can, instead, “augment his understanding of the good by consideration of ethical difference in a way that does not begin ethics with human beings and does not end with sentience.” (Steven David Ross, Plenishment in the Earth: An Ethic of Inclusion, SUNY, 1995)

For anyone interested in such a critique of Singer by another vegetarian, Ross’s book offers what I believe to be a more profound argument, certainly a more inclusive one.


Enquiry Not Certainty

DEAR EDITOR: I thought Ralph Blumenau’s article on Kant (Issue 31) was beautifully clear and focussed. It placed strong emphasis on ‘tools of understanding’, and the correct handling of these tools. Too often, it is suggested or implied that Kant’s ‘noumenal’ world must lead the wisest thinkers into an impregnable fortress of solipsism, where they get to feel strangely safe. Hume’s scepticism has similar impact. But there is much we can ‘know’, and much constructive thinking we can do in the ‘phenomenal’ world. Even here, as Popper reminds us, we must constantly test our ‘knowledge’ with attempts to falsify. What emerges is a manifesto for honest, humble enquiry, with no room for blind prejudice or dogma. As Stephen Gould has said, “We leave assertions of certainty to preachers and politicians.” That, I think, has always been the message of Philosophy.


Australian philosophers migrating

DEAR EDITOR: Being one of the expats you mention, (Issue 31 news report: Strine Brain Drain?) I should like to mention that it is probably true for most who have left that it isn’t anti- Australian sentiments that drove us out but the disastrous funding policies of the conservative government of the day. This combined with the sad fact that many vice-chancellors have become the enemy within the gates rather than a defender of public universities, has left many with little choice but to emigrate. The phenomenon you describe is not limited to philosophy departments, by the way. There can be little doubt that most humanities specialities had a net loss of intelligence.


Hacking the Illusions

DEAR EDITOR: In Robin Beck’s prize winning essay on the movie The Matrix, he holds that we would not be able to tell which pill, red or blue, would lead to the true reality. He argues that both worlds would seem equally real. I submit that this may be true of most people, but it was not true of Neo and that is why Morpheus wanted him.

Neo was a hacker. He hacked computer programs for a living and the matrix was one big computer program. This is why Morpheus needed him. At the end of the movie, Neo hacks the matrix and gains control over it. Hence he could tell the difference between the matrix world and the real world.

This distinction between illusion and reality is more than just the subject of fictional movies; it is highly relevant to Roger Caldwell’s article on necessary illusions. He holds that distortions of our reality may be hard wired into our consciousness by our genetic programming. He even argues that the acceptance of such biological determinism may be rejected by our genetically programmed psyche because of our emotional need to believe in self-determination or free will.

Before you pass this off as just another hypothetical argument, consider the fact that the moon looks larger on the horizon. Most people believe that this is due to some atmospheric effect that magnifies the image of the moon, but it isn’t. The magnification is all in the mind. The brain magnifies everything on the horizon because, over the millions of years of our evolution, it is from the horizon that opportunity and danger have come. This distortion of our vision has been selected for by natural selection and is encoded into our genetic makeup. There could be other such distortions, or illusions, that affect our perception of the world.

It may be possible to break out of our genetically programmed illusions and embrace reality. For instance, you can take a camera and photograph the moon on the horizon and then when it is directly above. You will find that the moon looks smaller in the photograph on the horizon than it seemed to be when viewed with the naked eye. In fact, in the photograph on the horizon, the picture of the moon will have the same size that it has in the photograph taken when it was directly above.

The moon on the horizon is a simple physics problem, however. When it comes to the emotional minefield of our morality and other beliefs, breaking down the illusions may be more difficult. Nevertheless, people with a genetic disposition where the illusions are weaker, or people with the right background needed to challenge the illusions, may be able to dispel them for the truth. But as we charge forward with our elitist convictions out to save the world from its own deception and expose the truth, I think we need to keep Robin Beck’s argument in mind: would we really know the difference?


We’re All Desperately Wicked

DEAR EDITOR: As mind-boggling as it is to imagine two Rwandan nuns committing atrocities, we in ‘civilized’ society should be careful to not feel too smugly self-righteous as we look down our proverbial noses to condemn the evil acts of one ethnic/religious/cultural group or another.

As I once heard a philosophy professor say, on a television documentary, all of us should avoid believing that somehow we’re not at all inherently predisposed to committing atrocities. Indeed, he said, contrary to what’s claimed or believed by many, down deep inside, there’s a tyrant in each of us that, under the right circumstances, can be unleashed.

And the proof of this is in the proverbial pudding: although some ethnic/religious/ cultural groups have been the victims throughout history a disproportionately- large number of times (and quantity each time), very often the victims of one period become the victimizers of another period.

Though I’m not one who holds much faith in the Bible, I tend to give credence to its claim that man/woman is indeed ‘desperately wicked’.

Mysterious Designs

DEAR EDITOR: While Todd Moody has convinced me that his version of Intelligent Design is a legitimate scientific hypothesis, he did not convince me that it is viable as a general program.

Attributing a wide range of phenomena to an intelligent agent or agents unknown to science doesn’t shed any light on such phenomena. On the contrary, it puts a cloak of mystery over them.

Intelligent Design can serve as a gadfly, not a paradigm.

DEAR EDITOR: Todd Moody (Issue 31) presents a distorted and erroneous picture of Intelligent Design (ID).

The definition he gives for Irreducible Complexity (IC) is incorrect. In Behe’s own words: “By irreducibly complex I mean a single system composed of several well-matched, interacting parts that contribute to the basic function, wherein the removal of any one of the parts causes the system to effectively stop functioning.” To assert that Darwinian evolution cannot produce IC, and thus to posit design, amounts to personal incredulity coupled with an argument from ignorance.

Moody mentions William Dembski but doesn’t go into detail about his ideas. Dembski claims that his explanatory filter and notion of Complex Specified Information (CSI) can be applied to biology and will show that design is the explanation. Despite this claim Dembski has so far failed to produce the required scientific evidence that any biological system or organism exhibits CSI.

Neo-Darwinism does not tell us that we won’t find irreducible complexity in nature. In fact, H.J. Muller before 1940 discussed the sort of mutations that would need to be involved in producing IC – although he was looking at fertility and viability.

The objections to ID are not merely philosophical in nature, as Moody implies. I have read many technical critiques of ID ‘theories’, and they show that ID does not live up to the promise that its proponents make for it. Much has been written about Intelligent Design, but it hasn’t been taken up in science because it has more shortcomings than promise.


The Death Penalty

DEAR EDITOR: Terri Murray attacks the materialist view because it is a materialist view without making an argument against it.

To argue in favor of the pacifism of Jesus and Socrates one needs to explain why allowing evil acts is morally superior to rebuffing or repaying them. Evil acts are not mere intentions or ill will, they are also material altering events with materially painful consequences The subject matter of morality and law is not primarily concerned with what people think, but rather what they intend and (most importantly) what they do. We tend in our laws to leave ill will alone unless it engenders manifestly material consequences. Indeed, the old addage “sticks and stones will break my bones but words (and/or thoughts) will never hurt me,” is true.

The idea that we can do ourselves moral harm by intentionally harming others is to take far too literally the idea of morality. Harm occurs physically – at least as far as we know here in the sensible world – not ‘spiritually’.

Justice in all its incarnations is always a leveling process, and getting what one deserves in one form or another is invariably what is thought of as just. Virtually all of us accept the positive aspect of justice: He who does the work should get the grade; she who does the work should get the pay etc., but when it comes to the negative aspect of earning we recoil. For instance: he who earns the death penalty by intentionally initiating a deadly attack against someone (not in response to a prior attack) is given a pass at his just deserts because what he deserves strikes us as distasteful. This is purely a matter of taste and has nothing to do with reason. Justice is clearly presented to us and we have no stomach for what is required. As it turns out punishments are not as much fun to administer as rewards.

It is curious, I think, in an article considering criminal justice, wherein the alleged nether world of Socrates and Jesus is invoked, that the concept of justice, itself a rationale for the death penalty, is never seriously explored. This is the heart of the matter, and although good points were made on a number of other issues, I believe the subject at hand was inadequately addressed.

There is a fair and just time to take a life – when a life has been taken. Please explain the pure injustice in this.


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