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Materialism For… • …and Against • The Real Richard Rorty? • A Phenomenally Pragmatic Point • Death Penalty • Earth: Mostly Harmless? • What about AIDS, eh? • Join the Professionals? • Philosophy & Divination • Minds versus Brains! • The Philosopher as Choreographer
DEAR EDITOR: In his article, ‘What is Materialism?’ Michael Philips (Philosophy Now, Issue 42) asked whether materialists have to wait for the final, complete theory of physics before knowing what materialism is. I believe that the answer to that question is ‘No’ – in fact one does not need to know any physics to be a materialist.
This is because materialism is a metaphysical theory about the world, formulated prior to physics, rather than being a theory in physics. It is crucially the proposition that the source of all complex, intelligent, mind-like features of the world can be reduced to and shown to be the product of the behaviour of entities that are simple, unintelligent and not mind-like. Life and mind depend on the life-less and mind-less, not, as conceived by religion and idealist philosophy, the other way about. Thus evidence for materialism will grow in so far as this project of reduction is successful, which it certainly appears to be. Life is explicable as the activity of ordinary matter (without any extra magic ingredient) and mind is now seen to be a function of the material brain. Consciousness is best understood as an epiphenomenon of the neural processes which cause our behaviour and is not a substance with its own causal effect on the brain.
Since it is the aim of theoretical physics to account for the complexity of the world in a few fundamental laws, the fate of materialism depends on the above-mentioned success of physics but not on its particular empirical findings, whatever they turn out to be. Thus neither physics nor materialism are committed to the idea that matter is atomic, consisting of small, massy particles moving in the void, just because the earliest materialist philosophers such as Democritus and Lucretius found this concept to be such a powerful explanatory tool. Materialism is equally indifferent about whether the ultimate entities turn out to be discrete particles, continuous waves or indeed tiny strings, moving in a finite or infinite space-time world (of 4 or even 11 dimensions) in a deterministic or random fashion.
Michael Philips please note: there is one proviso attached to the ‘blank cheque’ materialists give the physicists – “Do not be satisfied to employ any ‘lifeforces’, ‘psychons’, demons etc. in your Theory Of Everything.”
One source of confusion is to mistakenly regard energy, a term imported into physics, as very mind-like and then claim that matter itself has become almost mind-like. A proper understanding of E=mc2 (energy has mass) would show that this is nonsense. Philosophically, the term ‘matter’ is the name for the substance of which the universe consists.
DEAR EDITOR: First and foremost thank you for the magazine and your efforts to keep philosophy in the limelight. And as a Portland State University Philosophy graduate (1982) it was great to see Mike Philips as one of your contributors. What struck me about Mike’s article in Issue 42 was the temerity we still show to this day whenever the authority or authenticity of the Materialist point of view is called into question. Kudos to Mike on his attempt but surely there are many of us who recognize the strange nature of continually denying the existence of the Human Mind, the most elegant of all of Nature’s creations. We must come to grips with the fact that the Mind is not merely a location in the brain and that thinking is a function of our universe like breathing,eating and procreating. As difficult a prospect as this approach presents us with in attempting to understand human existence it is the only plausible way to explain how any theory of mind/brain came into existence in the first place,the concurrence of the Human Mind and the world it observes,thinks about and thereby comes to understand.
The Real Richard Rorty?
DEAR EDITOR: Dr Atcherley (Letters, Issue 43) informs us that, for Rorty as for the rest of us, such entities as trees, tables and Roger Caldwell exist, and dismisses as wearying “the realist/antirealist debate”. Strictly, for Rorty, the question cannot even arise, given that for him any notion of objective truth is to be jettisoned in favour of the aim of communal agreement. Thus such questions as whether God, quarks or social structures exist are ruled out of court to begin with.
In practice Rorty is happy to admit that there would be such entities as giraffes, and the earth and sun, even if there were no humans around to achieve consensus about their existence. (If so, the notion of objectivity, despite his disclaimers, is not dissolved away.) Yet if, for Rorty, the sun and earth exist, there is no truth to the matter as to which orbits which. Rather, it is advantageous, in the age of space travel, to believe that the earth orbits the sun, just as it was advantageous in the age of Christian faith to believe that the sun orbits the earth. Contrary to Atcherley’s claim, then, the realism that Rorty presents us with is a very attentuated one.
Further, given that Rorty tells us repeatedly that the aim of inquiry is utility for a purpose rather than that of finding the truth, one can understand how Bricmont’s “fatuous” mistake arose of supposing that Rorty attempts to replace the notion of truth with that of usefulness. Perhaps Bricmont, as a scientist rather than a philosopher, fails to give a sufficiently nuanced account of Rorty’s texts. Yet one might also think that his outsider status best positions him to see that the (postmodernist) emperor has no clothes, and that in science as in everyday life we cannot dispense with the notion of truth. The question of whether the earth orbits the sun or not, or who committed a murder, remains a matter of objective fact, regardless of whether we achieve consensus about it or not. Indeed, as Thomas Nagel argues, writing against views such as those of Rorty, “There is no way of determining that a belief is rationally acceptable except by thinking about whether it is true.”
A Phenomenally Pragmatic Point
DEAR EDITOR: I’d like to point out two seeming inconsistencies in Issue 43. I refer to the excellent articles by Cornelis de Waal (pp.8-11) and David Boersema (pp.12-15).
First, would a non-philosopher (or even a philosopher) have a problem with the following? On page 8 Cornelis de Waal writes, “For Peirce, philosophy itself can be divided into three areas: … Phenomenology is the most basic of the three.” But then on page 12 David Boersema, emphasizing that Peirce and Sartre are of “different philosophical traditions”, writes of “Peirce, as a pragmatist, and Sartre, as a phenomenologist”. A reader might wonder: where is Peirce with respect to phenomenology? And: are we talking about two different kinds of phenomenology here?
Second, in the box on page 10 (part of the Cornelis de Waal article), it is stated that “Peirce and his wife often went for days without food or firewood, and lived mostly in poverty”, yet the illustrations with their dates seem to show that at the same time the Peirces were making lavish additions to their house. To try to make sense of what is given here, I wonder whether things might have gotten much better for them financially in the last few years of Peirce’s life. If that happens to be true, it should have been added where it was emphasized that the two lived in poverty.
INDIANA UNIV. OF PENNSYLVANIA
DEAR EDITOR: I’m in favour of the death penalty for capital-murder killers; however, it’s cases such as that of John Graham that make me doubt the convictions that lead to the death penalty in many other cases.
I’m certain that, for example, the reintroduction of capital punishment in Canada would result in the wrongful conviction and eventual execution of innocent men.
Some people might say that one innocent man out of five, ten or a hundred (etc.) truly-guilty men is worth the sacrifice (recent studies have found that about 40 in every 300 convictions based on eye-witness testimony are flawed by such testimony).
But would these people feel the same way if it were their son, brother or father who was wrongfully convicted and sitting on Death Row, and the public at large was clamouring for his execution. Too many people hold the erroneous belief that one need not worry of such injustice if one is not guilty.
The very scary reality is that anyone can be falsely accused and wrongly convicted of a crime. I learned this for myself (albeit on a much smaller scale) about 18 years ago when I was wrongly accused and found guilty of possessing alcohol as a minor. The two officers who’d testified that they’d apprehended me with alcohol – the truth is that they had not – had written that the offender had brown hair and blue eyes, whereas I have red hair and brown eyes. This blatant contradiction alone should have cleared me of the false charge, which might explain why my counsel had such a difficult time getting the accusing officers to bring their contradictory description of me to court. But even with all the evidence in my favour – which included an alibi – the judge still found me guilty.
I’m not comparing the seriousness of a capital murder charge to a liquor-possession charge; however, my experience has left me convinced that no one is 100 per cent secure from being wrongfully convicted.
FRANK G. STERLE, JR.
WHITE ROCK, B.C., CANADA
Earth: Mostly Harmless?
DEAR EDITOR: As a new subscriber to your magazine I have just received, as an extra, Issue 41 and reading Edward Ingram most excellent review of David Lamb’s book The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence I was rather surprised not to find anywhere a definition of Intelligent Life Form.
Therefore, how can I be sure that we are the only intelligent life form on this planet? I presume that being conscious of our environment and of other life forms around us is part of being Intelligent, (apart from rational/logic thought) yet we are not fully aware of how conscious other forms are of ours or their own existence.
Can we assume that any extraterrestrial who is capable of efficient space travel is far ahead of us on an evolutionary scale? If so they are more likely to find us than we ever are of finding them. Now, such a thing as civilization must become part of the equation. What is civilization? I see it as a state of mind in which individuals are incapable of harming others because they are aware of their responsibility to them. In this sense we are not yet civilized – which puts the extraterrestrials in more danger from us than us from them.
It seems to me that most of the arguments against ETI are due to our egotism and inherent fear of the unknown.
HERNE BAY, KENT
What about AIDS, eh?
DEAR EDITOR: Joel Marks insists in his article, ‘We Hold These Truths to be Self Evident’ (Oct-Nov issue 2003) that there is no issue about males having sexual feelings for each other.
How can AIDS be legitimately regarded as, “… no issue at all?”
LEEDS, WEST YORKSHIRE
Join the Professionals?
DEAR EDITOR: Congratulations must go to the setting up of the British Philosophy Association.
However, a teacher would remark “A step in the right direction but could do better.” Why? Because of the failure to allow non academics into the Association.
The BPA should not be elitist – to deprive philosophers (whatever their educational status) is a crime against philosophy in itself. Philosophy within Britain requires an injection of enthusiasm from like-minded people of all ages and educational status.
To the BPA I would say: re-think your acceptance procedure – as a newly formed association you need the support and finance of everybody with an enthusiastic long-term interest in philosophy.
USHAW MOOR, DURHAM
Philosophy & Divination
DEAR EDITOR: Trevor Curnow (Issue 42) makes some valuable observations about the nature of knowledge and what is potentially knowable. Just because ‘science’ is our preferred concept today does not automatically imply that previous concepts are of no validity at all.
Recently there was an article in the Sunday Times magazine about an investigation into Alexander the Great’s death. When Alexander approached Babylon he saw, according to Plutarch, fighting ravens in the sky which fell to his feet and were dead. Shortly afterwards the great Greek conqueror himself died. The journalist felt the urge to write: “To modern science, of course, omens are superstitious nonsense.” That might be so, but at the same time it smells of the petty arrogance of contemporaries who think their forefathers were utterly dumb (I wonder, what the next generations might think about some of our ideas, like gender being a social construct).
In my opinion, history of science sometimes tends to view things past through a contemporary lens. The very basis of scientific reasoning is the assumption of cause and effect. But in pre-scientific times (how judgmental!) people used different assumptions about how reality works. In India one can still find omen readers using techniques which must have been invented thousands of years before our calendar calculation. How do they view the world? Instead of cause/effect they rather think in ‘associations’. Two basic ideas are: a) time runs circular and b) there are forces operating that either further life or destroy it. Not very unreasonable, one should think.
So when a fortune teller is approached by someone with a question he very carefully watches any sign of change in the immediate environment. Let’s say the visitor requires to know whether her ill mother is going to die soon or will recover from her illness. The omen reader now carefully tries to assess the quality of this particular moment in time. Please bear in mind that contemporary science is based on quantification and not very fit to make qualitative judgements. The seer will probably notice a black bird struggling to land. He will look for further confirmation and then give a negative answer to the question. Black being a colour of one of Saturn’s manifestations (the planet Saturn represents an inhibiting, destroying force), the omen reader concludes that this very moment is ‘negative’ – but not in a general sense, only in reference to the question put to him. This is crucial. Later people not in the business of making divinations concluded that a black animal is a bad omen per se. That is superstition because it expects an effect caused by the animal. But there is no effect from the colour black and the fortune teller never insisted on one.
I’m convinced that every divinatory system in the end is based on omen reading, even the rather complicated astrology. When contemporary astrologers try to gain the favour of science they must, in my opinion, utterly fail. It appears to be rather convoluted thinking to construct a case by suggesting that the planets with their gravity influence the sun which in due course changes the electromagnetic atmosphere which in turn leaves traces in our life. How can this determine the outcome of an event? Divination was never meant to causally connect the ‘omen’ with what happens later in time. Due to its circular concept of time divination has to assume that the outcome of any event is fixed (the nourishing and destructive forces never cease to operate).
Minds versus Brains!
DEAR EDITOR: In Issue 41 a letter joins the mind vs brain controversy. Allow me to suggest a different, existential approach.
Imagine this: You must have major surgery. You lose consciousness as anesthesia is administered. You wake four hours later, remembering nothing of those four hours, nor will you ever. It was not like sleep; in sleep there is dream-life, which one can recall. No, it was most probably like death – nothingness – except you woke.
Surely it is consciousness (that which one calls ‘me’, ‘myself’) which most hope will survive death. For those who believe there is a ‘mind’ (or ‘soul’) apart from brain functions (which include consciousness), ask them where it was while the brain was anesthetized. In regard to consciousness, an anesthetized brain is like a dead brain, that is, non-functioning, and when this occurs there is no ‘me’. Without a ‘me’, a ‘mind’ or ‘soul’ which is separate from brain function is as good as nonexistent since there is no ‘one’ to be aware of it.
Do you wish to live forever?
Nothingness might be transcended, though you will undoubtedly suffer considerable loss of personality. Watch for my paper called Nothingness and Uberabsurdity when it is published.
The Philosopher as Choreographer
DEAR EDITOR: In his article ‘The Philosopher as Choreographer’ (Issue 41) Peter Rickman highlighted a generally overlooked role philosophy has, that of mediator and facilitator. Apart from coming up with some great ideas, philosophy, through its dialectical nature, has assisted many of them in becoming concrete and operational.
I think Professor Rickman has helped put to rest the argument by some that philosophy doesn’t matter. Those who argue that it is an illegitimate method of understanding human affairs and history, because it tends to be too speculative, haven’t considered the origins of our economic and political systems. The crux of modern history has been constructed by philosophical discourse, most of which started during the Enlightenment. Democracy, for instance, is essentially a philosophical construct. So also is the world’s predominant economic system, capitalism. In other words, philosophical constructs are determining the course of our history.
Philosophy’s role as choreographer is also in the fact that it has been the principal means of transcending humankind’s less admirable aspects and transforming them.