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Invalid Arguments • Warmly Disagreeing • Women’s Rights • Of Guns and Philosophy • God and Meaning

Invalid Arguments

DEAR EDITOR: I’m delighted to have such intelligent interest paid to my solution to the problem of induction as that of Joel Marks (Letters, Issue 36). And glad to hear, given his paper in Metaphilosophy, that I’m not out there on my own. Strictly speaking an ‘invalid argument’ could be thought of as an oxymoron, but no more than a ‘broken hammer’, or a ‘sunken boat’ is. An invalid argument is a putative argument in that a claim or supposition is being made about the relation of the statements involved, namely that some follow from others. It is supposed to be an argument. It’s common usage to say when we’re presented with an invalid argument, “That’s no argument!” I don’t in any case think much hangs on this.

I can see why a paradox is involved in the argument: “Aristotle said the Earth is the centre of the universe,” therefore “The Earth is the centre of the universe.” This argument is invalid and it is an enthymeme. All non-valid arguments are non-valid because they are not deductively valid. Any non-valid argument can be made deductively valid by the addition of some suitable premise/s. This of course does not mean such arguments are sound. Until an argument is sound, I have been given no reason, as far as an argument is concerned, for accepting the conclusion as true.

As to informal arguments, I think once you start opening up the possibility of them you are lost in being unable to say clearly what a good argument is. I’ve yet to be shown any informal argument that gives me any reason for accepting the conclusion as true, in the sense that the conclusion follows from the premises, except when one supposes true tacit unstated premises that make it deductively valid. That we fill in these commonplace premises without thinking is the reason we think there is something called informal reasoning where we quite rightly for practical purposes don’t fill in all the steps. What we are dealing with really is deductively valid reasoning, if it’s any good at all, with sometimes many steps actually missed out, but nevertheless presupposed. We can always go back and question such steps if we want to.


Warmly Disagreeing

DEAR EDITOR: I was puzzled by Simon Blackburn’s willingness to believe what NASA and the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration of the US say about global warming. These bodies are, after all, very likely to be sensitive to the requirements of the Bush administration which are, first and foremost, that nothing get in the way of the American energy industries’ capacity to make profits. They have as much a motive for saying what pleases the government as other scientists have for keeping their funding. Indeed those American scientists who insist on the reality of global warming are more to be believed simply because, in the present climate of opinion (if I may be excused the pun), they are more likely to have their funding reduced or stopped because Washington does not like the message.


Women’s Rights

DEAR EDITOR: Mark Goldblatt (Issue 36) whilst giving the impression of evenhandedness, gave a very biassed view of the abortion debate. For a start, if the “unpleasant dinner party” argument had included ‘should’ – a woman should have the right to control her own body – this would have been a perfectly good moral/philosophical stance to take. As John Stuart Mill put it: “Over himself … the individual is sovereign.” Prostitution, organ sales, legalisation of drugs, voluntary euthanasia, etc. Well, why not, Mr Goldblatt? What is the ‘good reason’ which denies this sovereignty? And the position that legal abortions are preferable to illegal abortions most certainly does help judge the morality of the law. (See also the legalisation of heroin). Further, the ‘sick violinist’ analogy is entirely appropriate since, to the woman contemplating an abortion, the foetus appears exactly as a stranger – there is no ‘unique bond’ here. And for an article heading which included the word ‘logic’, God and the American Constitution received an inordinate amount of space.

Finally, since both Mark Goldblatt and I are men, it really has nothing to do with us.



Dr Gerald Lang (‘Moral Relativism and Cultural Chauvinism’, June/July) argues that it’s “simpleminded” to say that ancient Rome should have had equal opportunities policies, stating that “A commitment to equal opportunity legislation is downstream of many more fundamental moral commitments.” I wonder if this argument neglects the fact that some societies that lack such a liberal framework nevertheless have had legal and other provisions making for more gender equality, which we would welcome, while nonetheless regretting the absence of liberalism? For instance, the USSR had levels of women’s representation in the workforce and professions that compared favourably with Western countries at the same time. And in the ancient world, there were societies that granted women a greater role than did the Romans – some Near-Eastern countries had women rulers, for instance, and the Scythians appear to have had women fighting alongside men in their armies. I wonder if his argument rests on too linear a notion of the development of societies and, in them, liberal values?


Of Guns and Philosophy

DEAR EDITOR: I was surprised and confused to read R.A. Uhlig’s letter (Issue 36) decrying an advert in Philosophy Now selling tapes on Philosophy. The offense was, that the spokesman, Charlton Heston, was involved with the National Rifle Association.

History discloses that, for the masses of humanity, all order rests ultimately upon the foundation of violence. As citizens we must ask ourselves who should be the final author of this order. In our times, these two possible authors are Government or the People.

Heston has long held that the People themselves should hold these ultimate reins of Power. History proves the danger of Government enjoying a monopoly on order-bringing violence. When push comes to shove, the sword is mightier than the pen. For a viable democracy – the electorate must be armed.

Heston is one of the few actors of our age who can actually ruminate on matters of substance. This is why he is both spokesman for Philosophy tapes and the NRA.


God and Meaning

DEAR EDITOR: In response to ‘Religious Guidance’ in Issue 35. Dr Laura Schlessinger is correct in saying that God’s word is eternal and unchanging; however, the Bible is not God’s word, really it’s not, Christ is. Even the Bible itself admits this (check out the first verse in John’s gospel).

The Bible is a collection of Judaic and Christian writings. While the collection may contain some inspired and very ‘godly’ compositions, the authors are human and human beings can be impinged upon by factors such as culture of the day or limited knowledge. Perhaps a bit like Dr Laura and the anonymous writer of the open internet letter?


DEAR EDITOR: In his article, ‘The Meaning of Life’ (Issue 35), Daniel Hill argues the impossibility of meaning in a universe without God. According to Hill, “life has meaning only if there is an explanation of it in terms of the purposes of an agent that brought life about.”

I would very much like to (re)introduce Dr Hill to the excellent term, ‘impute’. It’s often used to identify the process by which human beings attach to a thing its meaning. Contrary to Hill’s assertion, meaning is not imputed to things exclusively in terms of the agents that brought them about – we constantly invent new purposes for the objects at hand. The purpose of a coin is obviously established by the minting agency: and yet it takes on an entirely new meaning when tossed into the air to decide the receiving team in an American Football game. Clearly one may impute meaning onto an object beyond that which was originally intended by the object’s designer.

Now, in the case of life, the alleged Designer did not leave a reliable imprint of Her intentions. We do not have the benefit of the alleged Designer’s opinion, so whatever meaning we find in life can only be imputed by the agents considering the question -- that is, human beings. In essence, the universe is a ‘found object’ and whatever meaning there is to be had must be imputed by human ingenuity.

Dr Hill may not find this state of affairs very satisfying. This is no doubt why he strives to impute to the universe a meaning associated with an anthropic projection that he calls “God”.


DEAR EDITOR: I think Daniel Hill in his article ‘The Meaning of Life’ should have considered counter-analogies, since people putting forth analogies as evidence often fail to understand that an analogy exists to fit whatever point-of-view is most useful at the time. His analogies were intended to show that the most meaningful thing to know about something is its original purpose. A counterexample would be fire , which is created as a waste product of chemical reactions and electronic transitions. For a million years humans created two crucial meanings for fire, warmth and better food, though its original ‘purpose’ was not known, and knowledge of its origin was ultimately less crucial than the purpose humans gave it. The same could be said, although more tongue-in-cheek, of the dead tree branch which became the club. Even so, along with other articles, such as Maxwell’s ‘Cutting God in Half’, I thought many good issues were raised.

I read my first issue of the magazine today and was impressed. It’s good to have a magazine that is rational in vision yet not beyond my technical training.


DEAR EDITOR: In ‘Cutting God in Half’ (Issue 35), Nicholas Maxwell confronts the contradiction between an omnipotent, all-loving God and the world of unconscionable suffering we inhabit. Maxwell’s resolution is to break the traditional concept of God into two and recast it as the mutually compatible ‘God of cosmic power and God of cosmic value’. This is purportedly done with a view towards examining the Goddoctrine in an honest, intellectually responsible way, and Maxwell is earnest that the God-thesis be treated as any other hypothesis about the world.

However, though his reformulation of God may be logically consistent, it is far from clear how we are to make a sensible evaluation of the new God concept as a viable conjecture about the true nature of things. Unlike scientific theories, God theories do not seem to be falsifiable even in principle. Do they make any concrete predictions which can be tested? If, as Maxwell states, the God of power is “that physical property of the fundamental physical entity”, how would we ever come to know that? As far as Maxwell’s God of value, which “is the soul of humanity, embedded in the physical universe”, this seems more an emotional interpretation or poetic metaphor than a hypothesis which we can use reason or empirical method to evaluate. Any explanatory, theoretic usefulness of Maxwell’s God (or any God-thesis) seems ultimately empty if we have no means to confirm its validity. It appears impossible to arrive at God as a successful thesis in the intellectually compelling way Maxwell would like us to do.

And with all due respect to Maxwell’s rehabilitative efforts, it would seem more logically efficacious to apply Ockham’s Razor to the problem of evil and cut God out of our view of the world altogether. Why multiply assumptions by incorporating the God concept at all? Why not accept the ontological simplicity of a godless, impersonal universe, in which we as evolved inhabitants use our complex brains to try to understand our world and our place in it, and in this context create value and meaning in our lives? Based on the evidence at hand, this seems the most intellectually honest view.


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