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Scapegoating Israel • Falsifying Thoughts on Popper • You Must Be Joking • Focus on Philips • The Nun’s Priest’s Choice • A Philosopher Changed My Life, Too • Life and Death • Kant and Babies • Original Texts Pointless? • Faith and Reality • Home on Mars

Scapegoating Israel

DEAR EDITOR: In your news column in the Oct/Nov 2002 Philosophy Now you write that Mona Baker “was widely condemned for targeting [Israeli] individuals rather than [Israeli] institutions.” You seem to imply that boycotting Israeli institutions would have been kosher. Mona Baker was widely and properly condemned for injecting politics into academics and for scapegoating Israel.

That unfortunate lapse aside, I must say that I loved your magazine.


Falsifying Thoughts on Popper

DEAR EDITOR: In ‘Philosophy of Science: A Brief History’ (Issue 38), Rick Lewis distills Karl Popper’s philosophy to a single point: falsifiability as the chief criterion of science. This may be the contribution for which Popper is mostly remembered, but it neglects the larger question with which he wrestled – namely, how it is that human knowledge progresses, in light of the inescapable limits of perception and reason.

Lewis asserts that Popper would have us toss out any scientific theory upon encountering a single falsifying observation. Apparently, to Lewis, the heedless onward march of science in the face of contrary evidence sounded the death knell for Popper’s epistemology.

However, Popper was all too aware of the flaws in scientific theories. In the first place, it is helpful to remember that he did not believe that theories were anything other than bold conjectures. “I think we have to admit that most successful scientific theories are lucky over-simplifications.” He did not believe it was possible to evaluate the quantity of truth in any of them. In the second place, for him, the whole progress of science did not rest on the truth or falsity of isolated theories, but in the competition between various theories on the same subject. In other words, in Popper’s philosophy, the central question was not, “what constitutes sufficient reason to accept or reject theory A?” but rather, “what constitutes sufficient reason to prefer theory A over theory B?”

While Popper always argued that the aim of science was truth (in that it was a motivating factor), for him the subject matter of science was not truth, but problems. “Science always begins and end with problems. The progress of science lies, essentially, in the evolution of its problems. And it can be gauged by its increasing refinement, wealth, fertility, and depth of its problems.” “A theory always remains hypothetical or conjectural. It always remains guesswork. And there is no theory that is not beset with problems.” A falsifying observation simply identifies a problem with a given theory.

But Lewis is quite right in suggesting that Popper failed to describe science as it is usually practiced. Instead, Popper attempted to describe science at its best – those occasions when it produces real advances in human knowledge. Popper understood that we must forever strive to improve the methods by which all forms of inquiry are pursued, science among them. And no doubt he understood that critiquing the behavior of scientists (in the collective) is not the same as critiquing the impact of science.

And if David Papineau (quoted in the article by Bora Dogan) is correct that “nobody works with Popper’s assumptions any more,” then perhaps we need not look very far to explain the oftlamented decline in critical thinking and in the quality of science education.


DEAR EDITOR: Alan Haworth (Issue 38), in his article on Karl Popper, made two small factual errors, the correction of which allows for the brief telling of a more interesting story. Howarth writes that Popper worked at Wellington University in New Zealand during the war. Not so. Popper was at Canterbury College in Christchurch which at the time was one of four constituent colleges of the University of New Zealand. A young student, Peter Munz, studied philosophy with Popper and then did postgraduate work at Cambridge with Wittgenstein. He was one of several at the seminar where legend has it that Wittgenstein waved a poker at Popper. Munz, now retired, was Professor of History at Victoria University of Wellington (not Wellington University but at the time of Popper also a constituent college of the U of NZ) and in a paper delivered to the Popper centennial conference at the University of Canterbury last year recounted the true tale and went on to offer a scholarly view combining both Popperian and Wittgensteinian arguments, with special emphasis on the need for open societies.


You Must Be Joking

DEAR EDITOR: I have an addition to Trevor Curnow’s ‘Philosophy and Humour’ (Dec. 2002/Jan. 2003):
Marquis de Sade: What is a logician’s favorite pornographic book?
Leopold von Sacher-Masoch: Venus Infers!


Focus on Philips

DEAR EDITOR: It’s been common for philosophers to refer to correspondence theories of truth or to the predictive success of our theories to justify our accurate (or approximate) representation of the external world. Michael Philips has used these very arguments himself in recent issues. Indeed, the use of these arguments by some philosophers has been effective in refuting local skepticism of the external world, but they are quite ineffective against Cartesian Global Skepticism.

René Descartes was the first to formulate this brand of skepticism, but Hilary Putnam’s more up-to-date ‘brain in a vat’ example is just as insightful. It asks us to consider the possibility that one might be just a brain floating in a vat of nutrients, while being electrically stimulated so as to produce all the experiences that would otherwise be produced by an external world. If you can imagine that, how do you know it isn’t the case? The question then becomes: How can you be justified in believing in an external world as we normally conceive it?

As I’m sure philosophers have already noted, correspondence and causal theories fail as a solution because those theories would be corresponding to, and caused by, an ‘external world’ that is generated by a stimulated envatted brain. Using the predictive success of our theories to justify accurate representation fares no better, since those theories would again be referring to a stimuligenerated external world, and it would be possible for one’s envatted brain to be stimulated so as to supply one’s predictions with accurate realizations. Even the concept of parsimony could have been fed into one’s envatted brain, making ineffective the use of Ockham’s Razor in refuting the Skeptic (Ockham’s Razor being another tool for Realists). Unless Cartesian Global Skepticism is effectively dealt with first, then mere arguments for accurate representation seem futile, for it is the external world itself that’s being questioned, not its accurate correspondence with our theories. Unfortunately, I think this is one reason for postmodernism’s excesses.

I do think, however, that one of the more successful attempts in fighting off the Cartesian Skeptic, has been that of the late Willard Quine. Quine argued that one should naturalize epistemology by basing it in the natural sciences. He contended that we should reject traditional epistemology and just focus on how humans construct their ‘conceptual scheme’ from stimuli. Quine claimed that, as a result, there would no longer be a perspective outside our ‘conceptual scheme’ from which the Cartesian Skeptic could frame his epistemological challenges. According to Quine, to inquire into the nature of the ‘real’ world from outside a ‘conceptual scheme’ is nonsensical, since words like ‘exist’ and ‘real’ can only make sense from within a ‘conceptual scheme’. In the end, one can still be a ‘Realist’, as long as it’s again recognized that the term only makes sense from within an already established ‘conceptual scheme.’


DEAR EDITOR: In his critical anaylsis of Searle’s Chinese Room, Michael Philips (Issue 39) may have been clutching at straw men. Searle’s argument does not require a computer to ‘have’ syntax. What is required is an algorithm that is able to change the entities of a formal system into meaningful strings. Searle believes that such an algorithm exists. Philips argument is better interpreted as believing that this algorithm does not exist. That Philips maintains his attack on computers as syntactic machines reveals why others have not approached Searle’s argument as he did. Since both agree that thinking is not defined at the level of the algorithm it would be better to focus on algorithmic information theory rather than the level of syntax to impose limits on the application of Searle’s Chinese Room.

As for the remainder of Philips’ article Searle’s argument is not a behavioural test for anything (reductio ad absurdum from Philips’ basic premises) and Functionalism is alive and well so Searle’s approach does not obscure other approaches any more than questions about the nature of my existence prevent me from existing.


The Nun’s Priest’s Choice

DEAR EDITOR: There’s a painfully obvious error in Les Reid’s ‘The Nun’s Priest’s Tale’ in Issue 39. This error concerns the nature of human freedom of action. If I predict that you are going to take one step to the right, and you take one step to the left instead to prove me wrong, your course of action is still determined by my prediction since you are trying to prove me wrong. Of course, my prediction could also be a clever attempt at tricking you into taking one step to the left since I may know that you will do the opposite of what I say. Reid states, “confounding predictions is one way to exercise freedom,” but I believe that any prediction will determine your choice, right or left, action or no action. No, I am not a Calvinist indoctrinated with the predestination doctrine, just an amateur devils’ advocate. Good article, nonetheless!


A Philosopher Changed My Life, Too

DEAR EDITOR: I recently picked up my first copy of Philosophy Now and was pleasantly surprised to find Nancy Bunge’s very thoughtful article on the late philosopher-theologian Paul Tillich. I first discovered the writing of Tillich when I was doing an undergraduate degree in Environmental Studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Though Tillich passed away four years before I was even born, as I sat reading his ideas in the back of a cold, makeshift used bookstore (following the big 1989 California earthquake) I felt as though he were right there in my time, expressing my concerns‚ in a way no one had ever done before. It was a ‘revelatory’ experience to my young and questioning mind/soul.

I was so moved by Tillich’s thought that within three years I had read just about everything he had published, as well as some unpublished works I stealthily acquired. I went on to do an interdisciplinary Master’s degree in Ethics and Depth Psychology, and met and studied under two of his former teaching assistants from his days as University professor at Harvard. Each time I met someone touched by Tillich, the response was somehow similar: For all his humaness, Tillich spoke to them with a strange, yet tentative, authority of what it truly means to be.

As someone keenly interested in the direct relationship between religious/philosophical and environmental perceptions, I found Tillich’s ideas crucial to my own evolving observations on our ecological situation. The thesis I eventually wrote was a study of his deep and continuing relevance to contemporary environmental philosophy and ecotheology. As we become more and more interdependent as a world, and thus more dependent on the technologies facilitating this connection, Tillich’s ideas continue to confront us as not only prescient, but more importantly, as inspirational. As Tillich put it, “There is no salvation (salvus: to be healed and made whole) of man if there is no salvation of nature, for man is in nature and nature is in man.”

Tillich understood that to be concerned with Being-Itself (God) was to live in the world as if all of being mattered and was ultimately connected. Could anyone use religion or nature in the harmful ways we do now if such wisdom became commonplace?


Life and Death

DEAR EDITOR: I wonder whether Steve Stewart-Williams’ strongest argument against survival after death is actually that strong. Suppose that my mind, which is not the same as my brain, produces any dreams, visions, etc. that I may have. While I am alive, these always correspond to brain-states, just as when I view a scene I experience a particular brain state corresponding to my view of this scene. When I die, there are no more brain states of mine corresponding to the view, but, presumably, nobody would wish to argue that the scene ceases to exist. Is there any justification, then, for concluding that my mind ceases to exist?


DEAR EDITOR: Ted Honderich is confused and deeply sentimental in his comments on September 11. Human beings killing hundreds of unknown people they regard as their enemies, and sacrificing their own lives in the process is not some new, fundamentalist phenomenon; it has happened since the beginning of recorded history. It is clearly easy to persuade men and women that foreigners are responsible for the inadequacies or ills of their lives, and that by eliminating them, somehow things will improve. And to some extent, that is right. The standard of life in the West was clearly improved by imperialism, even if that meant occasionally killing off hundreds of unknown people. Furthermore, all kinds of groups or societies have valued selfsacrifice as among the most honorable of actions, to be rewarded by medals, state funerals and statues, thus inspiring young men and women to imitate such glory. To enhance the glory societies then invented posthumous rewards: Paradise, Valhalla. Islam is in this tradition, as the cheering crowds proclaim, promising not only honour and glory to your family, but untold happiness and sexual gratification after death.

To assume that this age-old philosophy of honour and reward has anything to do with the possible suffering of other people, or with some sense of moral responsibility for them, is outlandishly misconceived.


Kant and Babies

DEAR EDITOR: Neill Furr, in his article ‘Baby Products’ (Issue 38), urges us to consider, without resorting to inadequate familiar attitudes, the moral issues of reproductive technology. I applaud his attempt to highlight the issues of such a controversial and emotive area but I would like to explore one of his ideas. Furr misquotes Kant when he writes “we ought only to treat people as ends in themselves and never as means” for Kant actually said “use humanity always at the same time as an end, never merely as a means” (my emphasis). Kant would have agreed with Furr that people are used as means but he would have insisted that this use also have regard for the person as an end. So, in the case of a child being selected (to be born) as a bone marrow donor for a sibling, it is arguable that such selection is having regard for the child’s ends, if a legitimate end is the desire to be born. However, Furr contends that at the time of selection the embryo has no rights (so no ends?) but is being selected for its future use as a means. I would suggest that the child’s future ends must also, therefore, be considered. A possible conclusion is that if the use of the child as a means also has regard for the child as an end, in this case the child will exist via its use as a means, then it is justifiable. Bear in mind that this conclusion would advocate slavery if one would rather be a slave than not exist. Or can ends only be ascribed to those people that already exist? In which case I would have liked Furr to explore this question. Given that some people believe that newborn babies do not have the characteristics of persons and are still potential persons, when does a person come into being?


Original Texts Pointless?

DEAR EDITOR: Roger Caldwell’s complaint that Ralph Blumenau was over-reliant on secondary sources for his book Philosophy and Living is what philosophers call ignoratio elenchi – true but irrelevant. Blumenau’s aims are: (modestly) to introduce philosophy to the general public, and (unfashionably) to examine the bearing that thinkers of the past have on the way we live now. It matters not one jot whether he struggled through Kant in the original.


Faith and Reality

DEAR EDITOR: In a world where life is engulfed and predicated by multinational companies through consumerism and addiction, the philosophy of religion has fallen into mistrust. As the world is exposed to the negativism of religious sceptics, the media confirms this mistrust by the slow destruction of the major religions. The newspapers are filled with stories of abuse by Catholic priests, the zealousness of the Muslims, the fastidiousness of the Jews and the hypocrisy of the Church of England. In a world of mass communication, these stories spread like fire, burning through the hearts of humans, voiding them of faith. How can those who follow God and believe and trust in His goodness spread His word through such a disastrous and cynical modern world? Are we, as humans, about to face a similar fate to Sodom and Gomorrah? If even one person refuses to conform to the rudeness and slavishness of today’s society, it can make a difference. One doesn’t have to become a religious zealot, yet one can still strive for a higher goodness, one which involves pure and utter reverence, to make this world a better place in which to live.


Home on Mars

DEAR EDITOR: When Paul York tells us in Issue 38 that “having a second home on Mars may effectively remove any incentive for solving Earth’s problems – we can always pollute the Earth, secure in the knowledge that there is an alternative home, should Earth become uninhabitable,” he seems to support the quite outlandish thought that on Mars we could create in a fairly limited time something close to the equivalent of Earth’s myriad of complex ecosystems. Surely we would not happily give up our incredibly rich inheritance for a pale imitation?

Although York is way off track in this assertion, it does not affect his main argument, which is of interest.


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