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Mind and Morals • Mirroring Metaphysics • Chinese Minds • Guns and Thoughts • Impersonal Remarks • Iron Mountain • Socrates’ Prison • The Logic of Nuclear Deterrence • The Point of Philosophy • Women’s Rights • Naked Intimidation • Whose Word is God’s Word?
Mind and Morals
DEAR EDITOR: I read with interest the articles in Philosophy Now on Mind and Morals. I wonder if it is possible for a philosopher like Ludwig Wittgenstein to write philosophy on morals when he was so guilty and conflicted about his cottaging behaviour on the Prater in Vienna? Of course writing about philosophy, which had nothing to do with morality or ethics, would not be a problem. It would appear to me that his behaviour on the Prater and other places was the reason he said that there were things that we have to remain ‘silent about’.
PROF. MICHAEL FITZGERALD,
TRINITY COLLEGE DUBLIN.
DEAR EDITOR: I find myself agreeing entirely with Michael Philips about Mirroring Metaphysics. I know I should take the anti-correspondence theories seriously, but I just keep drifting off to jokes about them: In the middle of winter in Calgary, Canada, the meter may read -30C. Richard Rorty’s personal language tells him that it is actually an Arizona summer outside, so he dons his swim trunks. When he goes outside he soon requires medical attention at the nearby hospital. And the nurse is perplexed. When she tells him he has frostbite over 80% of his body, Rorty insists, still shivering, “no, that’s a sunburn, I forgot to put on sunscreen.”
LEO J.A. PAQUIN
DEAR EDITOR: Michael Philips makes some pertinent points in his article on money – our language can obscure our actions – but seems to imply that words might have a clear and fixed usage. Wittgenstein argues otherwise, claiming that the meaning of words is always contextual, and relative to a way of being, or ‘form of life’. After all, if I ask for a screwdriver in a hardware shop, I will not be given the same object as if I were to ask for a screwdriver in a cocktail lounge. Here Philips may be interested to learn that, in the UK at least, a ‘Philips’ screwdriver is a generic term for the tool that fits those screws which have two slots for driving home. And ‘driving home’, of course, can mean many things. Driving home an argument is not the same as driving home a screw or a car, and there is little in common between breaking glass and breaking wind. As Heidegger has pointed out, little is gained by calling certain statements ‘metaphors’, beyond harking back to Plato’s claim that there is a ‘real’ language and a metaphoric one. How does one know, and how does one prove, that a ‘metaphor’ is less accurate than a dictionary definition? If I understand what is meant when someone tells me to ‘keep my shirt on’, would I be bettered informed if he were to say “Why don’t you calm down?” Notice I say ‘he’. Philips uses the pronoun ‘she’ when giving his examples of lending money. Does he believe that only women do this? What price the pronoun? He also says that ‘one could argue that…’ Who is this ‘one’ who does the arguing? Similarly, he suggests that ‘yield’ has biological associations. It does, indeed, but it also means ‘to surrender’. The last thing I would want when I put money into shares is that it gives up on me. But I have to admit that the ‘surrender value’ of a financial document may be of considerable ‘interest’.
Philips ends with a plea for a ‘sophisticated account of money’. Overlooking the fact that ‘sophisticated’ means ‘false’ (OED), how would a ‘true’ account offer his wished-for explanation? At best we would get a clear description (which is not an explanation) and which certainly may be of use, but it would be unwise to assume that everyone has failed to grasp the literal. No doubt there are those who might believe that the money they invest just magically grows by itself, but others have no doubt that they are buying into the labour of others, and living off the proceeds.
Philips and I may have our disagreements, but we have something in common. We both have the same first name: Michael. What does this word actually designate? I would like to think that it means me, but he may be of a very different opinion.
CHAIR, SOCIETY FOR EXISTENTIAL
DEAR EDITOR: Massimo Pigliucci (issue 36) describes John Searle’s Chinese Room experiment as a “Criticism of simplistic ‘mind=brain’ equations”. It may be a point of detail, but I don’t think Searle would accept this description. The point of the thought experiment seems to me more about the claims made for Artificial Intelligence. In fact, Searle explicitly rejects positions that Mr Pigliucci mentions, including dualism and functionalism, in favour of an understanding of the mind more rooted in physical structures. As he writes in his Chinese Room essay, “Brains cause minds … that is just a fact about how the world works.”
Guns and Thoughts
DEAR EDITOR: I am amused by R.A.Uhlig’s letter about Charlton Heston’s appearance in your magazine. He writes that he almost fainted on seeing Heston’s picture. I say that philosophy is not for the faint of heart.
Heston does not advocate killing or maiming. He seems to believe that a responsible individual has the right to own a gun in a free society. I keep a revolver in my garage and enjoy shooting it now and then. I hope to keep this freedom.
DEAR EDITOR: One good reason for not accepting “the ontological simplicity of a godless, impersonal universe” [John Bach, letter, Issue 37] is that the position is illogical. We are persons, and we are in the universe, so what can it mean to say that the universe is impersonal?
Perhaps John Bach means to imply that we are not really persons. Or is he excluding us from the universe? His is a common position but incoherent none the less, it seems to me. Have I missed something obvious?
DEAR EDITOR: The authors of the Report from Iron Mountain are to be commended for adopting an objective and dispassionate approach to what is an intensely interesting and topical subject. They have effectively avoided the expression of sentiment. What they have to say may be less than appealing, and may leave one in an uncomfortable frame of mind, but that should not prevent us from taking their thesis seriously and examining it realistically.
Ultimately the legitimacy of the state is determined by its ability to secure and protect the welfare of it citizens. That is, to protect them effectively against the depredations of external and internal aggressors. Protection may occasionally necessitate pre-emptive action; that is, pre-emptive declaration of war. The failure of a state to protect the security of its citizens automatically de-legitimises that state, which thus effectively ceases to exist. Its government must then be replaced with a new regime, which inspires the allegiance of its citizens because it has the capacity and energy to defend the sovereign realm. History, over a very long period of time, teaches us that we are unable to look forward with any degree of confidence or realism to an era of universal peace, other than perhaps within a community of states and for a relatively short period of time. To suggest otherwise is to give expression to a utopian dream, thus ignoring the lessons of history. Those who indulge in such unrealistic fantasies fail to understand the world as it actually is, or as it will be, and those fantasies frequently serve to paralyse thought and action. War appears to be an essential part of the human condition: it is often the guarantor of national integrity and freedom and has been so over an extended period of time. This is not to glorify war and conflict. A realistic stance is both prudent and advisable in present circumstances – and into the foreseeable future. We must also realise that war and conflict are, or can be, productive of beneficial outcomes.
DEAR EDITOR: In the March/April issue this year ‘Socrates’ tells of going back to his prison in the park on the hill near the Acropolis and also coming across the ‘Socrates’ Prison’ taverna in a side street nearby. I take it as his innate self-effacement that he does not mention that whilst the ‘prison’ is on all the tourist maps and on the finger posts found in the park it is easily missed and when you do find it the barred cave comes with lots of water bottles and the other rubbish that tourists leave behind them. At any rate that is how it was in 1999 when I finally tracked it down. I wrote to the Greek embassy to ask if the place could be cleared up and better signposted and got back the expected “I will draw the attention of the responsible person in Athens to this etc.”
It could be, of course, that it has been smartened up since then but I think visitors to Athens amongst your readers should be asked to monitor the situation. Indeed, given that the Olympics are in Athens in 2004, should Philosophy Now be leading the charge for making this site as much a feature of Athens as the Acropolis and the Agora already are? After all, if the provenance of the cave-prison is good it was the site of some of the most sublime moments of Western philosophy. We cannot hope to get the Elgin Marbles back to Greece, it would seem – I tried a personal campaign in various newspapers in 1998 – but we might make progress in this area at least.
I can recommend to your readers both the taverna and also the bus-trip to Delphi that Socrates mentions in the June/July issue (see photo below!).
The Logic of Nuclear Deterrence
DEAR EDITOR: Imagine an artificial system which has some advantages while it is functioning correctly, but in the event of its breaking down, would have unlimited negative consequences. It would be reasonable to use that system if and only if there was a zero chance of its breaking down. If there is a greater than zero chance of the system breaking down, there is no reasonable balance between its advantages and its disadvantages, since the latter so greatly outweigh the former.
Now let us apply this model to the nuclear deterrence system. The primary advantage is that nuclear deterrence raises the threshold at which nucleararmed states go to war with each other.
The key question is therefore this: is the chance of a breakdown of nuclear deterrence greater than zero? When we consider the characteristics of a complex that is composed of automatic early warning devices, human interpreters and reporters, military command and control systems, and political cabals and think tanks, the answer is clearly that the chance of breakdown is greater than zero.
An interesting aside arising from this concerns the position of the Roman Catholic church, who after solemn consideration concluded that while it would indeed be a sin to engage in nuclear war, it was not sinful to keep the peace by threatening to engage in nuclear war. But to use deterrence without running the risk of falling into sin assumes that a human system of deterrence could be perfect. By adopting this standpoint, the Pope has fallen into the Pelagian heresy of human perfectibility, and ought by rights to excommunicate himself.
Unfortunately, all of these considerations are ultimately sterile, since as your writers in Issue 37 have pointed out, terrorists have no fear of the retaliation which lies at the heart of deterrence theory. Terrorism can only be defeated by such measures as international and intranational equity, and a thorough control on bank accounts and money flows, measures which are clearly well beyond the competence of our political leaders.
DR RICHARD LAWSON
The Point of Philosophy
DEAR EDITOR: Jeremiah Conway (June/July 2002) in ‘What Can You Do With Philosophy, Anyway?’ argued that Philosophy was a “movement of wonder” and, as such, important to humanity despite being otherwise ‘useless’. Being no fan of Heidegger, I found Conway’s argument ingenious, but not convincing, and it served to further confirm my misgivings about that Nazi philosopher. I would have thought that the character and purpose of philosophy was self-evident – ‘clarity’.
‘Clarity’ is certainly not a thing that fetches high market prices today; perhaps it was never meant to be a commodity in the first place. ‘Clarity’ often also means ‘difficulty’ and in an age of ‘quick-fixes’ this is no positive endorsement.
The usefulness of ‘clarity’ is, perhaps, something beyond price, which may be the heart of the problem. Philosophy, as an exercise in clarity, depends on the labour of previous thinkers without which the whole thing would become an endlessly repeating cycle, which is all that intellectual autonomy can aspire to. But creating clarity would seem to me to depend on being clear about what has already been made clear, a process which leaves precious little room for autonomy, but a lot of space on which to build.
As for ‘the movement of wonder’, that Conway sees as the purpose of Philosophy, perhaps the greatest ‘wonder’, moving or otherwise, is how people can miss the most obvious virtue of their field of study.
LESMURDIE, WESTERN AUSTRALIA
DEAR EDITOR: I was very intrigued by Jeremiah Conway’s article ‘What Can You Do With Philosophy, Anyway?’ (Issue 36). As a new philosophy student I’ve encountered this question three times since I read his article yesterday. However, and forgive any naivety that shines through here, it seems strange that Mr Conway would address a question of what one can do with philosophy primarily by citing a thinker who was far more concerned with being than with doing. It seems quite obvious that the question asking what we can do with philosophy should be addressed toward the branch of philosophy that is related most with action: that is, ethics. Yet Mr Conway cites Heidegger, who, characteristically, makes the question metaphysical. Certainly for many people philosophy is the beginning of wonder, as Conway and Heidegger suggest, but the hope is that it will lead them to some other, perhaps more concrete, end. Namely, a clearer idea about how one’s life should be lived.
DEAR EDITOR: Like Ian Andrews I was uncertain for a time whether Mark Goldblatt (Issue 36) was writing a philosophical article or one on American jurisprudence. However, the question of women’s rights regarding abortion is insoluble by logic as it depends on the answer to two questions – first, when, if at all, does the foetus become human, and second when, if ever, is the taking of innocent life legitimate.
The answers to the whole of the first, and the margins of the second, are examples of Humean reason being the slave of the emotions in that, whether from upbringing or otherwise, we take a position first and find supporting arguments afterwards.
Goldblatt accepts this emotional bias as far as what he terms ‘popular’ arguments are concerned, but excludes it from the views of moral philosophers. But from both the strained nature of their arguments and the fact that, even from their higher plane, they are no nearer agreement than the rest of us, it seems evident that they too are relying on faith rather than logic.
Therefore it seems that since there is no chance of a rational solution and also that no two cases are identical, the decision be best left to the one most closely involved in the matter. A prolifer would no doubt argue that this is the foetus, or rather its anti-abortion representatives. I would argue that this is the mother.
A conclusion I draw from life in a grossly overcrowded England, is that the greatest threat facing humanity is overpopulation destroying the environment and seriously damaging the quality of life. From this it follows that not only should abortions be encouraged – the more the better – and that it is time to move the debate away from this overworked ground into that already broken by the Chinese and the (Asian) Indians as to the circumstances in which abortion among other forms of population control should become compulsory.
DEAR EDITOR: I was intrigued by the report by Karen Adler on the conference about the future of Marxism (or lack of one); not because I am particularly interested in Marxism, but because she ended with a description of a situation that I have found to be a growing trend. I, too, have been present at conferences at which speakers from the floor have felt it necessary to give an account of themselves via an oral CV as though this qualifies and justifies them as an authority before actually saying anything. This gives the silent majority a cause for their silence, a sense of inadequacy, acting as an intimidation to prevent their input in case they reveal that they see the emperor has no clothes on! It was precisely this kind of expertise that led to the demise of religious/political alliances in the past, leading to a reaction that gave birth to science and the Enlightenment.
Whose Word is God’s Word?
DEAR EDITOR: I am writing in response to Kristine Kerr’s letter in Issue 37. I must point out that my primary interests are epistemology and metaphysics (must keep a look out for blood-crazed empiricists!) and that my criticism of Ms Kerr’s letter is not based on any theological study but rather on the paradoxical nature of her main claim. Her claim is that “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)”. Hmmm! My problem here is not in the theological ramifications of which medium is the correct agent for God’s word but rather that Kristine’s claim is senseless and paradoxical. If the Bible is not God’s word how are we to trust the Bible’s claim that Christ is? I could further argue that, as the only set of writings in existence that claims to document the words and actions of Christ, the Bible contains God’s word within it, and without it God’s, Christ’s and St John’s claims of where God’s word comes from would not exist.
Kristine’s next claim about the Bible is that “the authors are human and human beings can be impinged upon by factors such as culture of the day or limited knowledge.” But surely this also applies to St John and therefore to his gospel that claims that Christ’s is God’s word; as a human St John must be subject to the fallibility of being human, as must every contributor.
UNIVERSITY OF GREENWICH