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The Conversion of Lewis • Heaven and Earth • Disgusted of SE14 • What Do Women Know? • Virtuous Thoughts • An Acrobat Writes • SF: Two Gurus Write • SF: A Body Snatcher Writes • Darwinian Politics? • The Moon Illusion • Does Science Close Philosophical Doors?

The Conversion of Lewis

DEAR EDITOR: I was sorry to learn of the death of David Lewis. I thought you should know that there is something wrong with the Philosophy Now obituary (Issue 34).

I first met David Lewis in the Michaelmas Semester of 1959, which I was spending at Swarthmore College. He was in one of my classes, and asked me to support his application to Harvard. I find it rather difficult to see how he could have been “converted” from science to philosophy by encountering Gilbert Ryle at Oxford at the age of 19 when he clearly was already committed to a career in philosophy before that, when he was in my class at Swarthmore. Had he shown any sign of interest in Ryle at that time I could not have avoided telling him that while I was one of Ryle’s graduate students Ryle showed me a copy of his just published The Concept of Mind, boasting “and not a single footnote from cover to cover.”


Heaven and Earth

DEAR EDITOR: Mary Midgley refers in her article ‘Heaven and Earth: An Awkward History’ (Pbilosophy Now, Dec 2001/Jan 2002), to the strong natural imagery linking Earth (‘lower’ than us) and Heaven (‘higher’), with the upward direction standing for greater nobility over lower earthiness. May I say I am deeply concerned by the profundity of certain difficulties with this view?


Disgusted of SE14

DEAR EDITOR: Issue 34? Not very ‘Now’, was it? In terms of relevance, virtually bringing philosophy into disrepute. Where I had expected debate on the distinctions between ‘war’ and ‘terror’, ‘terrorism’ and ‘resistance’, ‘justice’ and ‘vengeance’; debate on the justification of responding to an attack by nineteen men armed with blades by an army backed by hundreds of warplanes and tens of thousands of bombs; the effective murder, by bombing and the attendant disruption of aid, of at least ten Afghans for every American who died on Sept. 11th (bearing in mind that none of the perpetrators was Afghan); I got facile condemnation of Bin Laden.

I would suggest that one thing demonstrated on Sept 11th is that morality resides in the gut before any rationale. And that those who salute the flag every morning in school are no less brainwashed than kids rocking as they recite the Koran – even the so-called philosophers among them.

Professor Marks’ (‘Moral Moments’) ‘Kantian’ conclusion reads “… the hijackers used the thousands of people whom they killed … ‘simply as a means’ to achieve their goal. This, and not even the intention to kill … is what made their wills wicked, their actions evil. And against this, neither any presumed worthiness of the goal, nor bravura in its pursuit, counts for aught.”

I’m sorry, Professor? If I substitute ‘the Americans’ for ‘the hijackers’ in the above, does it still apply?

Tim Madigan (‘The True Believer Revisited’) remarks “Christianity in the Middle Ages became so obsessed with devils and witchcraft that it justified mass slaughter and the very sorts of atrocities one would normally attribute to Satanic forces.”

I’m sorry, Mr Madigan? What of America’s obsession in 2002 with ‘terrorists’ and the ‘Evil Ones’?

Having withdrawn from every international arms treaty, and spurned international concern for our shared global environment, America has now delivered the ultimate slap in the face to the international community by abandoning the Geneva convention. Meanwhile Israel and India seem only too eager to exploit the new principle, that it’s okay to bomb a nation in response to the actions of a nutcase.

Any comment? If not, and if Issue 35 is as morally bankrupt as the last, I for one will not renew my subscription.


What Do Women Know?

DEAR EDITOR: I am with Susan Haack and against her detractors – Janack & LaRocque – with respect to a feminist epistemology.

If epistemology is the study of how we know and what we know, then it is much more universally human than these feminists wish to make it.

Since objects are known through the five senses, and because each gender is similarly equipped, it should then follow that each gender should similarly perceive.

If there is a feminist epistemology, then women must necessarily perceive objects differently than men. This would mean that prosecutors Marcia Clark and Christopher Dardin could never have agreed on the exact qualities and quantity of the blood evidence discovered in the O.J. Simpson murder case.

It would be irrational to conclude that two scientists of differing genders conducting the same experiments could ever consistently reproduce the same results if indeed feminist epistemology was a fact.

Far from refuting Susan Haack, the authors manage, over the course of three pages, to not make an argument. Their most ludicrous charge against her, of being “uncharitable”, is a judgement on her morals, not her reasoning.

It might have been helpful in arguing the proposition that “science is social” if the authors had explained what “the low percentages of women engaged in scientific work,” and “the evaluation of the impact of science on women’s lives” have to do with actual scientific methodology. Does female science produce different results than male science? Or is this inquiry merely another inherently sexist, male construct?


Virtuous Thoughts

DEAR EDITOR: I realise that it’s rather late but I would like to respond to Sarah Conly’s article ‘Why Feminists Should Oppose Feminist Virtue Ethics’ (Issue 33). I appreciate that virtue ethics has its shortcomings but I think that Conly fails to prove her case against it, either generally or with particular reference to feminist issues. I find the examples she uses to illustrate her argument unconvincing, and I am not sure that I understand the precise nature of the new duty ethic that she proposes as an alternative to traditional duty ethics.

Her argument is that virtue ethics, by focusing on character rather than on action, leads one to continuous scrutiny of one’s emotions and motives, and that this continuous self-scrutiny together with the lack of an external standard by which to guide our actions, is alienating and unreasonably demanding.

But virtue ethics does provide such an external standard; it states that in a given situation we ought to do what the virtuous person would do. This may not be as simple to apply as a set of rules which state that one should do action x, y or z, requiring as it does the exercise of judgement in affirming a picture of the virtuous person and their likely course of action. But I do not think that the more critical approach which this entails is a bad thing, especially when one considers how uncritical compliance with received ideas of duty and obligation has affected women’s lives in the past. To say that virtue ethics requires intelligent application in order to guide our actions is not to say that it provides no guide for action. Nor does it simply demand that we are constantly overflowing with virtuous feeling. The development of the virtuous character is important in virtue ethics, but I think Conly exaggerates when she implies that it leads to ceaseless scrutiny and evaluation of our emotions. One can of course interpret it in this way, but one can also interpret a duty ethic so as to allow oneself no respite from the demands of duty. This kind of extreme attitude owes more to a tradition of contradictory and excessive expectations of what women ought to be than to adherence to either a virtue or a duty ethic.

As regards Conly’s examples, why should a virtuous person find it more difficult to deal with the conflicting demands than a dutiful person should? Conly says, “in duty ethics we are familiar with a kind of priority system”, but anyone’s everyday experience includes difficult situations where duties conflict. Virtue ethics involves a greater focus on the role of judgement in morality, and this should make it easier rather than harder for the virtuous person to cope with making a decision here.

Conly’s main example is based on The Mill on the Floss. It is fair to say that Tom is dutiful and that Maggie is, to an extent, virtuous, but she is not the virtuous person that virtue ethics tells us to emulate. She has an abundance of certain virtues which makes her immensely sympathetic, but she lacks others, not least prudence, which Aristotle said is “closely linked with moral goodness”. Her cousin Lucy provides a better model for the virtuous person; and it is worth noting that the mature Maggie, while wishing she could be more like Lucy, is not torn and made miserable by the comparison the way that she is by her failure to do right in Tom’s eyes and gain his approval.

I don’t think that Conly is correct in saying that it is Maggie’s virtues which “lead her (and those she loves) to misery”. Having fallen in love with her cousin’s fiancé, it is difficult to see how the situation could have been resolved without suffering all round. It is not clear that her renunciation of Stephen owes more to virtue than to duty. Maggie herself cites duty as a reason for leaving him. Conly says that Maggie “courageously renounces (Stephen)” and “loyally, courageously and lovingly hurts all those around her.” But courage, though commonly termed a virtue, is not a motive for action; it is, rather, a quality that enables one to carry through one’s chosen course of action, however decided upon. Even if we allow that Maggie’s decision is the result of virtue rather than duty, would a duty ethic have led her to a different decision and if so, would that decision have been better? The tragedy of Maggie’s situation is that she cannot avoid hurting those she loves. Conly’s arguments suggest that she might herself have suffered less guilt and confusion if instructed by duty rather than virtue, but even if this is true do we want a society composed of people who in such a situation could escape emotional cost to themselves by saying “I did my duty”?

At the end of the book, Maggie and Tom both drown. Conly says “it is not clear that Eliot sees the ethics of duty as triumphing” because Tom drowns too. I think that if we accept that Maggie represents virtue, and Tom duty, it is in fact clear that Eliot sees something quite different. When they are together in the boat they are reconciled. But for the first time in their relationship, it is not a question of Tom bending to forgive his erring sister. Rather, “… pale with a certain awe and humiliation…” he has finally come to appreciate Maggie’s moral worth, and his own fallibility.

But, Conly says, the problem with both virtue ethics and traditional duty ethics is not that it makes us unhappy, but that it leads to fragmentation. The new duty ethic that she proposes still says actions are right or wrong but allows contextualism, and acknowledges the value of the “personal, emotional, non-universal aspects of the person.” Does this simply mean admitting that actions inspired by natural sympathetic feeling have genuine moral worth? If so, surely this is duty enlightened by virtue rather than duty opposed to virtue.


DEAR EDITOR: Sarah Conly concluded her fine essay on ‘virtue ethics’ in Issue 33 with these words: “it is within the scope of ‘duty ethics’ to say that the demands made on humans should be ones they can meet.” Since when has it become a possibility for humans to meet the ethical demands set before them? They are always impossible to meet, and always will be.

Yet one need not see this as reason for crushing guilt (although it may be reason for humility and a profound respect for the nature of our responsibility, an infinite one). How can any one of us meet the demands of an infinite responsibility? Shall we settle for a less demanding ethic in order to obtain a unified and integrated character? There is something deeper than a unified and integrated character‚ that propels and orients (disorients) those who choose the sea of infinite responsibility. This something does not care if I am a good person or not. This something of which I speak is groundless. Infinitely groundless.

It also seems to me that all ethics of duty must perforce be founded upon an ethic of virtue. How could one come to the idea of ethics at all without a certain stability and depth of character? Only an ethic of virtue could pose the questions faced by an ethic of duty.


An Acrobat Writes

DEAR EDITOR: I would like to thank Raymond Tallis for his essay on Carpal Knowledge in Issue 33. It was so thought provoking that I felt the need to write to hopefully clear up some concerns I have. First, evolution is not progress, and if every human partakes in the evolution process then no human is more progressed or more adept than any other organism involved in this process. Sure we are the only organisms with moral agency, but I don’t believe that makes us any more suited for survival in the long run, in fact it seems it has made us less so. We are the only species to seek intercourse for pleasure. I can hardly concur that this is better since we have been subjected to diseases associated with these ‘unnecessary’ urges. Second, even if we were such a distance from nature as Tallis supposes, I don’t understand why the foot can’t be a part of the agency as much as the hand is.

The experiment in which we are asked to slip off our shirts and touch our shoulders with our hands only proves to be vacuous since you can do it with your feet too. [No I can’t. Ed.] Furthermore, my mother can write upside down and in reverse with her toes; is that not manipulative indeterminacy? Lastly, as far as anyone is concerned I could be a quadriplegic where my only means of sending this letter is to recite it to someone so it can be put into text form. Would my lack of hands mean I am not a moral agent?


SF: Two Gurus Write

DEAR EDITOR: It was interesting to see the science fiction special issue of Philosophy Now in my local Blackwells, especially as the Philosophy department here in Liverpool runs a module on ‘Time and Consciousness’ for our MA in Science Fiction Studies. SF of course, tackles numerous questions of ethics, perception, and epistemology. That’s why people write it and read it.

So where do people go from here to explore this field and how it can help? Well, your readers might be interested in Foundation: the International Review of Science Fiction, published by the Science Fiction Foundation (www.sf-foundation. org), which is one of the leading journals of criticism and review of SF. Or researchers with an interest in SF might find a visit to the Science Fiction Foundation Collection at the University Library rewarding: we have the largest collection of science fiction books and magazines and books about science fiction in Europe. Or they might be interested in the various other organisations to do with SF, such as the American-based Science Fiction Research Association, whose 2002 conference we are pleased to be hosting in New Lanark this June. Information on all these things can be found at the SF Collections website, www.liv.ac.uk/~asawyer/sffchome.html
Warning: you can begin to like it.


DEAR EDITOR: At a recent gig, (a growly nu-metal band – The Harpies), I was lent the last issue of Philosophy Now by an acquaintance, as I had for over ten years been Chair of the Peterborough Science Fiction Club. It is always interesting to see how others view a genre that I so enjoy.

To follow on the article on women who write SF (the abbreviation I prefer over sci-fi) I would recommend two books. First, The Feminine Eye, edited by Tom Staicar from Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., New York (1982). Secondly, In the Chinks of the World Machine by Sarah Lefanu, The Women’s Press, London (1988).

On Invasion of the Body Snatchers, apparently the script was co-written by an uncredited Sam Peckinpah.

On the review of The Ethics of Star Trek, I wonder how many of the scriptwriters of the various series over the years might have studied Philosophy at college. The problem with these sorts of readings of texts by diverse hands is that the characters have been worked on by different writers, admittedly working to a ‘bible’ drawn up by the production crew.

If your readers are interested in discussing the themes that your publication touched upon I would recommend some of the various conventions held each year; either the Eastercon, (the National convention held at Easter, this year in Jersey, next year at Hinckley in Leicestershire), or the Unicon, (a much smaller convention held at a university each summer, this year at Cheltenham). Publications to look out for are Foundation, published from the SF Foundation, or Vector from the British SF Association.

Anyway, good issue, hope you will revisit the genre if and when your writers offer suitable articles.


SF: A Body Snatcher Writes

DEAR EDITOR: I have seen The Invasion of the Body Snatchers in its original form and in the 70s version, although I have never read the book, and while I agree with the main thrust and spirit of the article by David Suits, I think it should be remembered that the original film remains faithful to the Hollywood cliché and has a predictable ending. The invaders are uncovered, the people suddenly realise the danger and set fire to lorry loads of pods. Nonetheless, the main thrust of the film was indeed to ask: what kind of life would it be if there were no emotions?

But that was nearly fifty years ago. Today, the death of emotions would not be fought as vigorously as the film suggests. Or should I say, it has not been the case, since our times are subject to an iconic form of reasonableness in which emotions have little involvement. In a recent lecture, Bill Clinton argued the case for aiding foreign countries as opposed to going to war with them on the grounds that it cost less financially. In other words, the thinking is purely practical, and bears no concern for the feelings of a particular population. What does this say for the logic if, suddenly, it became cheaper to wage war? Again, in a recent radio broadcast, Anthony Grayling stated that one could believe in fairies at the bottom of the garden, as long as this did not extend beyond the bounds of a private belief, and did not influence the public domain. Does this mean that only public knowledge of the scientific kind (and those forms of thought that imitate its working methods) should be publicly expressed? In which case, all churches should remove their spires, since they are a public expression of a private belief. My point is that the culling of the emotions would not require a visita-tion from an alien world; we are doing a fine job of it ourselves. Not only that, but we are doing it willingly. If Hans Christian Anderson were writing today, the boy who proclaimed the Emperor’s nakedness would be swiftly silenced. Emotions are fast becoming an appendage that is superfluous to an understanding of existence. The only feelings that matter are the feelings instilled into us of confidence in the prevailing orthodoxy, and of fear were it to disappear or be threatened. Ironically, the one inaccuracy in the film concerns the significance of death to the emergence of the emotional body and emotive knowing. No discussion of meaning can fail to exclude the significance of death. Without death, there would be no need for procreation and reproduction, since we would be effectively ageless. But since there is death, it becomes an active participant in the fabric of life by creating the urge to reproduce, and that in turn entails a whole gamut of emotions. Since the pod people died quickly, they are a little inconsistent. More to the point, what this suggests is that the ageless life would be the life of bacteria, asexual and mindless. In the larger sphere of the public domain, I fear that the shape of it already bears witness to a state of affairs in which emotions are missing, presumed dead, while civilisation marches onward with the illusions of an ageless life. Such things, incidentally, are allowed to travel freely between the private and public realms, so what does that say about the current state of philosophy and its absence as an influence in the political domain? Our bodies have already been snatched away from us, but insidiously, and with our consent.


Darwinian Politics?

DEAR EDITOR: Massimo Pigliucci (Sept/Oct 01) argues that it is “because of the perception of the moral consequences of evolutionary theory that a large percentage of Americans fiercely opposes the teaching of Darwin’s ideas” – that those ideas legitimise selfishness. Could he then explain why it is that the Midwest heartland states where that opposition is strongest voted in the last election for the ‘rugged individualist’ policies of George Bush?


The Moon Illusion

DEAR EDITOR: The moon looks bigger when it is near the horizon than when it is near the zenith: this familiar observation has recently invaded the letters pages of Philosophy Now, though without a discussion of the philosophical as well as physical and psychological relevance of such phenomena as optical illusions and paradoxes. (E.g.: why does a mirror image seem to be reversed left-to-right, but not inverted top-to-bottom?).

The moon illusion was discussed at least 1,000 years ago, and one explanation is attributed to Ibn al-Haytham, the 11th-century astronomer commonly known as Alhazen. Research into the moon illusion has been published in the psychological literature for more than 100 years. I, however, have always believed that the moon illusion can be explained by the refraction of light as it enters the earth’s atmosphere. Indeed, most writers now believe that this is the explanation of a related phenomenon; namely that the horizon moon appears flattened or oval, and I have worked out a simplified three-dimensional optical model that explains – or should I say ‘seems to explain’? – both phenomena.

Unfortunately, it is alleged that the angle objectively subtended at a terrestial observer’s eye by the horizontal diameter of the horizon moon can be measured to be substantially the same as (indeed , because of the slightly increased distance, very slightly less than) that subtended by the zenith moon. If this is really so, and not just folklore handed on from one writer to another without experimental testing, then the explanation must be a psychological and/or physiological one, not a physical one. I am doing a little research into this myself, though it has been hampered by weather. In the meantime, though, the following website, created by a Professor Emeritus of Psychology who has studied the moon illusion for some 20 years or more, critiques the ‘explanations’ published so far (including those similar to the ones recently advanced in Philosophy Now), provides an extensive bibliography and proposes a radically different new theory, explained in clear text and diagrams that can be understood without specialized knowledge.

This new theory is apparently gradually gaining acceptance, but I personally have some doubts. I have begun to correspond with the Professor. As soon as my investigations into the objective angular size of the moon and my correspondence on the matter are complete, I shall share the outcome with readers of Philosophy Now; but the engagingly presented but rigorous material on http://facstaff.uww.edu/mccreadd/ is fascinating and worth reading in full.


Does Science Close Philosophical Doors?

DEAR EDITOR: In his response to Joel Marks on the relationship between science and philosophy (letters, Issue 34), Roger Caldwell makes some dubious claims. Caldwell argues that science tends to close the door on philosophical options, citing as an example a Darwinian account of the origins of human morality, which he claims renders various schools of thought in ethics untenable.

First, claims about the philosophical implications of biological explanations of the origins of morality are notoriously controversial. Even if there are biologically grounded facts about human nature, failure to observe the difference between such facts and how we ought to behave runs foul of the ‘isought’ fallacy. As Katherine Hepburn admonishes Humphrey Bogart in The African Queen, “Nature, Mr Allnutt, is what we were put on this earth for to rise above.” (Strangely, Caldwell goes on to concede that it is hard to see how science can throw light on our ethical values.) Furthermore, science can also spark or even rekindle interest in various areas of philosophy. Attempts to interpret quantum mechanics, for example, have led to renewed interest in (Berkeleyan) idealism and antirealism, and more generally played a significant role in the rehabilitation of metaphysics in the latter half of the twentieth century.

As for the question of whether science is concerned with generating new facts, perhaps a compromise between the claims of Marks and Caldwell is the most plausible position. In conjunction with technology, science can certainly generate new phenomena (think of the results of experiments using particle accelerators), but, as Caldwell points out, science is also in the business of illuminating existing phenomena.


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