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The Truth About Richard Rorty • Time This was Published! • Nifty Arguments • Learning and Evaluating • Minds and Memories • Shock Value • Science as Religion? • Unacceptable Theory • Spooky Stuff? • Pipe Dreams • Drugs & Cheating

The Truth About Richard Rorty

DEAR EDITOR: If Roger Caldwell (‘How to Get Real’, July/August 2003) had read and understood Rorty he would not have quoted Bricmont’s fatuous misunderstanding that Rorty proposes to replace the notion of truth with that of usefulness. To quote Rorty himself:

“Philosophers, like everybody else, should seek to justify their beliefs. ‘True’ is the commendatory adjective we apply to beliefs we think better justified than their competitors. So in an obvious sense we could not cease to seek for truth as long as we seek to justify our beliefs to one another. I do not want to replace the philosophical aim of finding truth with the pragmatist aim of acquiring the intellectual habits which best assist us in coping. The pragmatist’s point is that ‘finding truth’ just is, and always was, the process of acquiring such habits. What is to be replaced is a topic of philosophical discussion, not a social practice” (Richard Rorty, Critical Dialogues, edited by Festenstein and Thompson, Polity Press, 2001, p.201)

By ‘real’ Rorty means what ordinary folk mean – you are real, I am real, this letter is real. So is Roger Caldwell, and all these other things like trees and tables which nobody except philosophers who weary us with the realist/antirealist debate think might not be so.

Really, truly and sincerely yours,


Time This was Published!

DEAR EDITOR: Joel Marks’ Moral Moments column for May/June 2003 discusses the complications of thinking about the nature of time. It has always seemed to me that Serialism, the solution proposed by J.W. Dunne, is unjustly ignored.

Consider the succession of instants which each of us experiences and stack them up along the fourth dimension. The result is 4-dimensional space-time. I almost wrote ‘familiar’. Every graph with a time axis is a 2-dimensional slice of this space-time, and the time axis may be more physically real than the vertical axis, as in a financial pages graph of the exchange rate over the past few days, months, or years. And in some scientific fields, such as special relativity, the 4- dimensional space-time is the basic substrate which may be separated out into space and time in various different ways depending on the observer.

The difficulty is that this space-time is ‘eternal’; how do we put into it the fact that we experience it moment by moment, ie slice by slice? We have to picture a (3-dimensional) slice moving through it. Dunne’s radical but simple answer is that there are in fact two times. There is Time 1, which has become static in the 4-dimensional space-time picture; and there is an underlying or more fundamental time, Time 2, which we can use to measure the rate of movement of the 3-dimensional space-slice through 4-dimensional space-time. We can both eat our cake and have it; we can have a 4-dimensional space-time all of which exists as a unity, and we can also have our movement through time – past, present, and future, with the future flowing through the present instant to become the past.

Dunne presented this theory in his 1927 book An Experiment with Time and developed in it in later books during the thirties.


Nifty Arguments

DEAR EDITOR: I am continuously astonished by philosophers who imagine that they have a tool for discovering hitherto unknown truths, that tool being the ‘philosophical argument’. If your premises are true and your reasoning valid, then lo! your conclusion has got to be true too, maybe something you never knew before.

But if you search any encyclopedic source of knowledge you will find numberless discoveries of anthropology, history, archaeology and the sciences generally, but not one discovery by philosophy of something hitherto unknown. Why? Because for every philosophical argument you can construct an equally plausible valid one for the opposite conclusion. It is not uncommon to find philosophers in the same university, sharing offices, and holding different opinions on just about every philosophical question. You can ‘show’ that God does (or does not) exist, that we have (or do not have) free will, that the brain is (or is not) the organ of thought – whatever.

So it is particularly distasteful when the issue concerns life and death, and someone like Timothy Chappell comes along and says “Don’t pay any attention to the needs of the dying. Relieve their pain and let it go at that. Pay attention, instead, to this nifty philosophical argument I’ve put together.” Those arguments have their place in the classroom or seminar – they get students thinking – but don’t try to shove them down the throats of the dying, and keep them out of the terminal wards, for decency’s sake.


Learning and Evaluating

DEAR EDITOR: I enjoyed Antoni Diller’s thoughts on how we learn. However, I think he exaggerates the importance of evaluation in our learning process. We need to distinguish different types of events.

If someone shouts “Fire, fire, get out!” we have to decide on the spot whether we believe them. In that case we evaluate immediately.

If on the other hand I read an advertisement promising “Wizz PCs for sale at rock bottom prices. Buy now! Offer ends tomorrow!”, I have a little time to evaluate the situation and decide whether I believe the hype and indeed whether I might buy one. I may ask a colleague what they think of Wizz computers, and reflect on how badly I need a new one. But even if I don’t buy, I still absorb the advertising material. For instance I may see a similar advert two weeks after and think, “It was a waste of time worrying about it then, because they renewed the offer anyway.” So I evaluated the offer but I also absorbed some information. I learnt.

If The Sun tells me that Tony Blair is a strong leader, I may not automatically think. “Yes, you’re right” or “no, what rubbish. “ Instead I think, “Oh, The Sun thinks Tony Blair is a strong leader.” I simply absorb the information and may or may not take into account when I decide how to vote in two years time. I probably do not evaluate at all. But I have learnt, because I am wiser about the editorial views of The Sun.

So we learn as we absorb information, but we do not always evaluate. Squirrellike we store information away and, who knows, one day we may even use it!


Minds and Memories

DEAR EDITOR: According to Gerard Flanagan’s letter, ‘Music and the immortality of the mind,’ Issue 41, a man whose memory was damaged by disease but retains great musical prowess is evidence for the separate existence of Mind. Essentially, his claim is that the Mind is master of the brain, which only stores memories and acts as a conduit for sensory experience. When parts of the brain are damaged the Mind uses other parts instead. When the brain is gone at death the Mind continues an independent existence.

This was in response to the article, ‘Life after death’, by Stewart-Williams in which is stated the reductionist view that as brain function is diminished by disease, injury and the effects of aging the totality of who we are diminishes proportionally reaching zero upon death. Since all these capacities are functions of the brain, who we are as persons does not survive death. Hence life after death is meaningless.

If Gerard Flanagan wishes to say the Mind, which exists as nothing in a dimension of nothing, can enter and touch us by means of the brain as a conduit, that is his prerogative. However, he cannot say that it is up to Stewart- Williams to prove it is not so. You cannot disprove metaphysical entities. You can only use the reasoning of Occam’s Razor to discard them because they are unnecessary.

Following Occam’s Razor we can more easily place Mind within the brain, not as its master with a separate and eternal existence, but nothing more than an imaginative idea. It is synonymous with Soul and belongs with the other metaphysical entities around which has been built the misleading and unnecessary baggage of religion and superstition.


Shock Value

DEAR EDITOR: As a newcomer to both the deeper concepts of Philosophy and the publication of Philosophy Now, I was greatly interested by Stuart Greenstreet’s article upon the art collection of Saddam Hussein (Issue 42). As a historian/art historian I have been forced to consider the issues surrounding the reception of art, and especially those which are subjective. Whilst reading the article I began to consider how subjective reactions to art correspond to ethics and whether or not they can be considered absolute; across all of time and existence. My instinct said no, but I did decide that those reactions which are ‘negative’ are more widely felt than those which are ‘positive’. In relation to art, it is easier to create something which promotes a ‘negative’ reaction than one that is ‘positive’ such as beauty. To give an example, Marcus Harvey’s portrait of Myra Hindley, built of child hand prints, was guaranteed to raise a negative subjective reaction in the majority of people, especially in the modern social atmosphere. Sadly, I feel that some modern artists have realised that it is far easier to shock than it is to please and as a result have resorted to preying upon obvious social paranoia in order to make a quick name for themselves. I am not suggesting that there is a science to the creation of art, but there does appear to be a degree of hierarchy within the shared experiences of humanity. I realise that the example of Myra Hindley is specific to this country, but her crimes would induce disgust in most people around the world, and in this sense it is not site specific.


Science as Religion?

DEAR EDITOR: Congratulations on bringing the topic of the paranormal into the open in your recent edition of Philosophy Now. However, I am sorry to say that I was less than thrilled by your editorial on the subject. You seem to presume strange things about both science, the normal and the so-called paranormal.

For instance; “So, what is the paranormal? Basically, it is spooky stuff which can’t be explained by the laws of science.” Who decides what can be explained by the laws of science? The materialists, the logical positivist, Darwinists, the brain industry in the domain of psychology or psychiatry? You seem to imply that mentalist or dualist theories of all sorts somehow are intrinsically excluded from science?

Sadly, your comment on the materialistic bias is all too true: “Nowadays, most philosophers are materialists, and Dualists are an endangered species – not yet officially extinct, but so rare as to be like the Tasmanian Tiger, virtually mythical.” This sad state of affairs has disastrous consequences for the free spirit science and philosophy. Nietzsche pronounced God dead towards the end of the nineteenth century. As the cult of fundamentalistic physicalism spreads ever wider, science is rapidly turning into the religion of our days with the professors functioning as high priests.

If you take a good look at the evidence for ‘the paranormal’ it is in fact overwhelming. For a start, just allow your brain some access to the massive work – almost totally neglected by mainstream science – of psychiatrist Ian Stevenson on the subject of reincarnation.


Unacceptable Theory

DEAR EDITOR: Concerning the excellent article ‘What is Materialism?’ by Professor Michael Philips in Issue 42, it is deplorable that metaphysics must be entirely superseded by the ‘New Physics’. The view that “the methods of physics can provide us with a complete account of how things are”; and that “matter is whatever physicists finally decide it is”, is totally unacceptable. Of course these scientists must find the practical study of waves and particles far more exhilarating than any so-called supernatural or psychic phenomena associated with metaphysics. But surely this constitutes the ‘reductionist’ method of scientific research, as opposed to an overall study of the structure and function of the universe, which is necessary in order to supply valid answers.

To perceive everything as nothing but physical processes is to take away all the beauty and grandeur of the world.


Spooky Stuff?

DEAR EDITOR: The question of what is normal and what is paranormal rests on what can be explained and what cannot be explained. What can be explained rests in turn on some form of causality, which again rests on specific notions of space, time and motion. After the advent of relativity and quantum theory, however, it is generally accepted, at least in the physics community, that causality breaks down at singularities like black holes and at the quantum vacuum, the latter presumed to exist absolutely everywhere.

Now the paranormal is considered paranormal precisely because it doesn’t yield to accepted criteria for causality (the same goes for consciousness to some degree). The question here is whether philosophers still live in Newtonian times. Could it have escaped their attention that causality no longer is a simple-dimensional affair, subject to simplistic either-or thinking? Or is it simply too much of a challenge to look for more complex and more comprehensive kinds of causality?


Pipe Dreams

DEAR EDITOR: The mystery of Susan Blackmore’s ‘out of body’ astral projection in her student days can easily be explained by the fact that she admits that she was smoking ‘dope’ prior to the event occurring – rather than being due to any form of paranormal experience.

The concentration of tetrahydrocannabinol ( the active ingredient in ‘dope’) in cannabis in this country in her student years was much lower than it is now – about 0.5% compared to 3-4% now. At such a low dose the ‘hallucinogenic’ illusion-inducing properties of the drug are not so pronounced and it may well have been that she came across a more potent ‘smoke’ unawares.

There is nothing like the effect of a ‘consciousness altering’ drug to confirm the fact that ‘consciousness’ is a materialistic construct of electrical impulses and shifting neurotransmitters!

It would seem more likely than otherwise that paranormal experiences really are more related to alterations in biochemical ‘consciousness’ and it is a shame that Susan Blackmore spent five years researching the paranormal to discover that paranormal entities probably do not exist, rather than realising at the time that she had experienced a rather excessive drug-induced ‘trip’.


We’ve had to brutally cut various perfectly good letters here for reasons of space – so please keep your letters short and snappy!

Drugs & Cheating

In Issue 41 we asked you to say whether it is cheating for athletes to take performance-enhancing substances. We published some of your letters in Issue 42, but more have arrived since. Here are some of the best.

• DEAR EDITOR: Your invitation to write (Issue 41) made specific reference to the question of drugs in sport, an issue generally guaranteed to elicit kneejerk condemnation rather than sober reflection. It’s something of a hackneyed reflection that our designation of ‘drugs’, as distinct from ‘medicines’, is somewhat arbitrary, the pejorative terminology masking a very difficult determination. This is at least as true in sport as in any other field, where it is routinely the case that athletes who speak out against ‘drug cheats’ themselves reach for the medicine chest in the face of injury or illness. Traditionally, such apparent double standards would be explained away by reference to the purported distinction between ‘treatment’ when something goes wrong, and ‘enhancement’ of that which is already functioning adequately. Yet consideration of what actually happens in top level sport illustrates that, from an ethical point of view, this is a questionable distinction.

Consider the career of five times Tour de France winner, Miguel Indurain. It is something of a truism to say of Indurain that he was blessed with a degree of ‘genetic luck’, since this must be true of any top class sportsman, but in his case it was particularly true, since Indurain’s lung capacity was measured at an astonishing eight litres, fully two litres more than even his competitors on the cycling circuit, an obvious advantage in long-distance endurance events. However, Indurain was also badly afflicted with an allergy to pollen and dust. Supposing in a fit of drunken exuberance I were to challenge Indurain to a cycling race; would it be as acceptable for me to compensate for my genetic shortcomings by taking staminaboosting ‘drugs’ as it would for Miguel to compensate for his with antihystemine ‘medicine’? And if not, why not?

One answer might be that in scoffing Prednisone (which boosts lung capacity), I would be seeking an unfair improvement on my normal functioning, whereas Miguel’s popping of the Piratin would be an attempt to restore normal functioning. But normal for who? The genetic lottery has assured that, in the absence of chemical assistance, neither of us could sprint-cycle to the top of a steep tree-lined incline on a hot summer day without gasping for breath, yet conventional wisdom holds that only one of us should be able to do anything about that.

The frequent use of medical or surgical treatment for injury is another example more problematic than may first appear. At first glance, rebuilding a shattered ankle or torn cruciate ligament, or alleviating the pain from old injuries, may seem entirely straightforward exercises in restoring normal functioning. But how is rebuilding a shoulder to be able to clean-and-jerk 250kg or hurl a cricket ball at 150kph, or a knee to be able to withstand running 100m in under ten seconds, in any sense restoring ‘normal’ functioning?

The standard, it might be argued, should not be normal for most of the population, but rather, normal for the athlete in question. Yet on that basis, it simply was normal for Miguel Indurain to have hay fever, for Garry Mabbut to have diabetes, for Paula Radcliffe to have asthma.

For the record, I have absolutely no problem with any of these fine athletes using all the wonders that modern pharmacy has to offer to circumvent the barriers the chromosomal lottery has bestowed upon them. What I do have a problem with is being told I just have to live with mine.


• DEAR EDITOR: Tim Delaney (Issue 41), like others before him, struggles to define sport. The definition is simple. If performance-enhancing drugs are required to excel at an activity then the activity is sport. Hence chess is not a sport but athletics is. Golf is not a sport but swimming is.


• DEAR EDITOR: In competitive sports, cheating is the use of a dishonest or illegal practice to gain an unfair competitive advantage. An illegal practice would be one proscribed by the rules and regulations of a particular sporting contest. An unfair competitive advantage would result when a participant wrongfully and improperly benefits from the utilization of an illegal or proscribed practice. Clearly, the use of an illegal or banned substance would violate the rules of a particular consequence and would constitute cheating per se.

Clear examples of cheating would be the use of a ‘spit ball’ or a ‘corked bat’ in baseball, which are both illegal practices that disadvantage the opposing player. The use of an illegal substance would be similarly proscribed since the substance, such as an anabolic steroid or a controlled substance, may give a short term advantage, but may be injurious to the athlete’s health. The anabolic steroid is a particularly noxious problem since this substance harms the user and encourages violence and aggression, including felonious assaults related to so called ‘roid rage’.

The use of legal and non-injurious supplements should not be considered cheating. If the supplement is not harmful to the athlete or to others, and is part of an ordinary training regime, it should not be proscribed. For example, superior eyesight is an enormous advantage in baseball, particularly on offense. Prime examples of players who benefit from superior eye sight would be Wade Boggs and Jason Giambi, both of whom are blessed with 20/10 vision. In contrast, NY Yankee centerfielder Bernobe Williams wore corrective lenses until he received laser surgery. Should one consider Mr Williams’ glasses or his eye surgery to be cheating? Clearly not.

Also in baseball, powerful legs result in faster pitching speed. Roger Clemens developed his fastball as a result of a vigorous training program that emphasized his legs. Andy Pettite, who had not been renowned for his fastball, adopted Clemens’ training methods and was able to increase the top speed of his fastball to 95 mph. Is this cheating? Of course not.


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