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Letters

Letters

So Farewell, Philosophy? • Eat Cuddly Bunnies • Pax Americana • Perceiving and Sensing • Dawkins and Darwinism • Pictures of the Big Bang

So Farewell, Philosophy?

DEAR EDITOR: I read with sadness your ‘obituary’ for the demise of the Philosophy Dept at City University, London.

It seems that you may soon also have to write one for the Philosophy Dept at University of Wales Swansea.

The new Vice-Chancellor of the university has decided that “too broad a range of courses is being offered”, so he intends to do away with Philosophy, Anthropology, Sociology and Chemistry! How can an educational institution call itself a university without these fundamental disciplines?

The Department was founded in 1920 and is home to the journal Philosophical Investigations. Wittgenstein was a frequent visitor, staying in Swansea with one of his favourite students, Rush Rhees, himself a professor in the department. The Wittgenstinian tradition has been carried on by Prof. D.Z.Phillips, so you can imagine what a loss it will be to the academic community.

The Department is trying to gather support from politicians, academics and anyone else who may be able to exert any influence at all.

I am not, myself, part of the Philosophy Dept – I read for my degree at Swansea and am now a senior lecturer at Swansea Institute of Higher Education, but I teach Philosophy on the part-time degree course at Swansea, and am currently pursuing a PhD there.

BRIAN BREEZE
SWANSEA


Eat Cuddly Bunnies

DEAR EDITOR: I was looking forward to a cogent argument in favour of granting animals the same – or at least some – of the rights we give ourselves. Instead, Jeremy Yunt (Issue 44) gave us yet another re-run of the Cuddly Bunny Plea.

OK, let’s all become vegetarians and stop killing pigs and cows for food. Should we also stop killing kangaroos and past-their-sell-by-date horses for pet food, or should we explain to our dogs and cats that they have a moral responsibility to all those creatures further down the food chain?

OK, let’s do away with hen-batteries, abattoirs and research labs. So who’s going to pay for feeding the millions of redundant chickens, pigs and monkeys now that we’re not going to eat them or conduct experiments on them? Tell you what: let’s give them their freedom, and let them starve to death.

OK, let’s ‘find creative ways to pursue our own needs without conflicting with (a butterfly’s or a coyote’s) basic requirements for a sound habitat and food source’. Does this also apply to non-cuddlies such as houseflies and rats? And how far down the line does it go: the malaria-carrying mosquito? The AIDS virus?

OK, let’s agree that “life – all life – deserves safeguarding from harm.” So do we safeguard the noble King of the Jungle by letting it feed where it can, or do we safeguard the doe-eyed Bambi from being eaten? Or do we duck out of that particular argument on the grounds that we shouldn’t interfere with nature? (And while we’re on that subject, it seems to be the nature of an overwhelming percentage of the human race to eat meat as well as vegetables. Why should we interfere with that? Simply because we can? But, then, that’s one of the reasons we rear, slaughter, butcher, cook and eat certain animals – because we can.)

As a Christian omnivore, I deplore the infliction of unnecessary suffering on animals. But I’m also a pragmatic Christian omnivore, and the operative word in my deploring is ‘unnecessary’. Battery farming is cruel; but I’m happy to eat a free-range chicken (not least because it tastes so much better). I’m not going to give up eating pretty little piglets or fluffy baa-lambs; but I agree that abattoirs should be closely regulated to minimise the distress of the animals to be killed. I agree that animals should not be used to test cosmetics; but I’d rather that controversial – but potentially ground-breaking – cures for cancer/ebola/AIDS be tested on animals before being let loose on humans. (Unless we tie this in with another feature in the same issue: why not clone human beings for the sole purpose of acting as lab-monkeys? Would that satisfy Mr Yunt?)

To return to the matter of animal rights, which Mr Yunt promised to address, but didn’t. There is no such thing as a natural right. Rights are granted by those in a position to do so. By all means let’s grant animals the right not to be abused or tortured. In our country (I can’t speak for Mr Yunt’s country), we already have laws covering that, and we have the RSPCA to monitor those laws. And it would be nice to think that Mr Yunt’s invading aliens might see things our way, and grant us a right or two: clean abattoirs, perhaps.

But, for all our moral angst, let’s try to keep a grip on reality.

PETER MOTTLEY
PANGBOURNE, BERKS

p.s. Mr Yunt asserts that “a plantbased diet is repeatedly proven the most healthy for the human body.” My own reading indicates that it’s been repeatedly proven that a balanced diet including a certain amount of meat is most healthy for the human body. I guess it all depends on where you choose to read your surveys…


Pax Americana

DEAR EDITOR: After reading David Gamez’s article - ‘Pax Americana’ (Issue 44), I would like to respond to a few interesting points that he raised regarding “problems with the spread of Utopia by force of arms”.

Point 1) “Although the pre-colonial government in Iraq used force, torture and secret police to maintain its rule, it still depended on the cooperation and support of a substantial number – perhaps even a majority – of its citizens. One man cannot repress twenty three million alone.”

Does this mean all dictators received support from a majority of their citizens? If America uses Saddam Hussein’s way to run Iraq, it will certainly have an impressive result – gain 100% “support” from Iraq people. Is this statement extremely unfair to people all over the world who are still suffering from torture by dictatorship?

Dictatorships blot out every form of internal freedom and independent thinking. As a result, only docile and subservient people are allowed to survive.

Point 2) “interventionist wars generally have nothing to do with the achievement of utopia but are motivated by paranoia, greed and a slack domestic economy.”

America will have to pay $80 billion for the rebuilding of Iraq. Is that good to their economy?

Some Canadians heavily criticize US with respect to War on Iraq and Canada did stay away from this War despite both US and Canada sharing the same values – democracy and freedom. As neighbors to the US, it seems to me that criticizing George Bush is the safest thing we can ever do. However, just a decade ago, Kuwait was simply overrun by their socalled brother Iraq in a matter of hours even though Kuwaiti people did not dare to criticize Saddam Hussein.

While some continue to doubt the real intention of America for both the 1st and 2nd War on Iraq, do Kosovo in Europe and Somalia in Africa have oil fields?

Point 3) “Downtown LA is an expanse of dirty and decaying streets lined with homeless people, hookers and madmen.”

There is no a perfect system in the world. The American political system is perfectly imperfect. At least, it does not need to establish something like the Berlin Wall. America does not need to hide its problems. Those homeless people have rights to vote against the government, and hold hopes for tomorrow, to say the least. Democracy is not a medicine for all ills, but dictatorship is a sure poison to everything.

Point 4) “Americans might actually suffer more poverty than the people in the country that they are invading.”

Why are a lot people around the world afraid to fall behind others to enter US both legally or illegally every year? Why do a lot of parents send their children to receive education in US? Does that ever happen to Iraq?

Point 5) “If the expansion of Empire extends the negative effects of capitalism without making the American dream into other countries’ reality, then we have little reason to support it.”

Some may even argue the United Nations should be the ones to bring justice. Not so long ago, Libya held the presidency of the U.N. Human Rights Committee. Do we want to apply the human rights standard of Libya in our society? How many UN members are still controlled by wicked oligarchies? How convincing is any conclusion drawn from such an organization? In a civilized society, we are not obliged to go to War easily, but we are obliged not to be indifferent towards right or wrong. Dictatorship is the common enemy of all who respect human rights. After all, “We are citizens of the world.”

Point 6) “There is the fact that over the last fifty years America’s record of achieving utopia anywhere outside of its borders has been extremely poor.”

Without America’s intervention, would Kuwait still be on the map today? Without America’s intervention, what would be the fate of South Korea or Kosovo?

When Winston Churchill talked about the Nazi threat, he said: “If we do not stand up to the Dictators now, we shall only prepare the day when we shall have to stand up to them under far more adverse conditions. Two years ago, it was safe; three years ago, it was easy, and four years ago a mere dispatch might have rectified the position. But where shall we be a year hence?”

HONG-LOK LI
UNIVERSITY OF BRITISH COLUMBIA


Perceiving and Sensing

DEAR EDITOR: I think Joel Marks got confused between perceiving and sensing when he refers to the ‘sense of gravity’ as having nothing “to which we need or even can attend” as compared to our five senses. This is not comparing like with like. Our senses allow us to receive information (sounds, smells, etc.), but we do not ‘receive’ gravity – it acts upon us and does so irrespective of us having any means of controlling it (we cannot close our eyes or plug up our ears to it). Gravity is an external reality which (like the sound of the proverbial tree falling in the forest) acts irrespective of our ability to perceive it or not. It also acts without us having any means of shutting it off or otherwise controlling its effect on our bodies. In any case, we do not “perceive” gravity through its “direction”; what we perceive is our direction, or anticipated direction, in relation to its force upon us. The question, however, of what we ‘sense’ when we feel ourselves being out of balance remains. As a rock climber, I am acutely aware of the problem of maintaining my balance – particularly when there’s a lot of air between me and the ground. So what do I perceive when I feel myself starting to peel away from the cliff that tells me I’m out of balance? I perceive a long drop earthwards (and a desperate need to stop that happening). What I sense is a different matter altogether. What I sense, i.e. the sensation I have, is fear. This sensation is obtained from previous experience; what I am fearful of, am anticipating, is hurt and pain (and although I have taken what is known as a ‘ground fall’ and know what its like to drop at 9.81m/s2, all that is necessary to anticipate pain is to have experienced falling over as a child; everybody does that). Therefore, I don’t think it’s possible to talk about ‘sensing gravity’, we can only experience its results. You don’t feel falling, you just feel the ground when you hit it! What I ‘sense’ in relation to gravity is my desire to avoid its negative effects.

The only reason Joel Marks can experience light by imagining it when he’s in a dark room is because he is drawing on previous experience. I would suggest that it’s not possible through imagination to encounter (with any accuracy) an experience you’ve never actually had (although ‘identikit’ approximations may be possible). It may very well be the case that “certain types of consciousness… are useless”, but gravity is not a helpful metaphor. The extent of consciousness may be defined by its contextual relevance. However, if that is the case, and given the above, what is it that we are receptive to (sensing), what sort of consciousness are we referring to, when we talk about having a ‘sense of direction’?

There is perhaps in this phenomena a metaphorical clue about moral objectivity.

STUART B CAMPBELL
PORTSOY, ABERDEENSHIRE


Dawkins and Darwinism

DEAR EDITOR: The attempt to discredit the logic of Richard Dawkins and thereby discredit Darwinism and atheism (guilt by association), did not succeed very well. Dawkins can be accused of being outspoken and offensive (ad hominem) yet it is hard to accept the other logical criticisms levelled against him by Peter Williams. There is a dichotomy in the way different people perceive the world. Some see enchantment and inexplicable wonders of demons and divine purpose, while others see a world of natural philosophy, where experiment and observation can enable reason to deduce cause and effect. The two sides cannot meet in agreement because no amount of prayer will change Dawkins’ mind and no amount of evidence will shake Williams’ faith. There is a danger that ‘creationists’ and ‘intelligent designers’ will make themselves look foolish by chasing the red herring of trying to reconcile religious faith with facts.

Jesus did not come here to tell us about evolution, dinosaurs nor the Earth going around the Sun and whatever is ultimately discovered about the detailed nature of evolution it will not remove the need that some people have to believe in God. Nor the lack of such a need in other people.

JOHN WOODHEAD
REEDHAM, NORWICH


DEAR EDITOR: I read Peter Williams’ critique of Richard Dawkins with a sense of morbid fascination as one misinterpretation followed another. The arguments put forward were so flawed it is difficult to know where to start. Peter Williams starts by criticizing Dawkins’ statement that his daughter should doubt anything that is not well founded on evidence. He finds this statement to be self-contradictory because it is not itself based on evidence. If Richard Dawkins had been a philosopher he would no doubt have expressed it differently, exhorting his daughter to question statements not arrived at by induction on the basis of empirical evidence – which as far as any scientist is concerned amounts to the same thing and is clearly not self-contradictory at all. Statements of fact arrived at by induction are usually held to be valid and of course are the basis of all our scientific knowledge, not just the bits about evolution to which Peter Williams takes exception. If Williams genuinely doubts this and doesn’t trust the evidence of his own senses or the power of human reason, the world must be a frighteningly unpredictable place and one wonders that he has the courage to get out of bed in the morning! In any case Williams goes on to use empirical evidence or the absence of it quite freely in the rest of his article. Essentially this is the same evidence that Richard Dawkins uses, the evidence for the evolution of species by natural selection being necessarily somewhat limited by the passage of aeons of time. He continues his argument by criticizing Dawkins for saying that only a gradual accumulation of small genetic changes could do the job of producing what appear to be great evolutionary leaps in structure and function on the basis that this is a circular argument. Indeed on the face of it this does sound a bit like a biological version of the ontological argument. Richard Dawkins does not of course intend this to be a logical proof of evolution at all; he is merely making a point in a rather grand style. A point which is however soundly based on the empirical evidence and argument he so eloquently puts forward in Climbing Mount Improbable. Williams goes on to comment on the lack of functional intermediaries – a matter which occupies almost the whole of Climbing Mount Improbable and for which Dawkins gives the most cogent explanations; all based of course on that troubling scientific evidence for which Peter Williams can see no logical case. It is also worth noting at this point that the evidence for this gradual evolutionary change is no longer confined to the fossil record. We now understand the mechanism by which it takes place, essentially, faulty copying of DNA; evidence which gives powerful support to our understanding and appreciation of the timescale involved and the incremental nature of the change. The theory of evolution by natural selection is now a highly cohesive theory.

Williams’ next pot shot consists of accusing Richard Dawkins of creating a false dilemma. He seems to believe that the theory of evolution and the idea of creationism are not mutually exclusive and that it is logically possible to hold both theories to be true. If this is so one wonders why he has spent so much time trying to suggest that the gradual progression of evolution through intermediate functional forms is so improbable. Unfortunately his assertion is not true, the reason being is that the theory of evolution specifically excludes any form of divine intervention, guidance or design. Evolution, which is of course still visibly going on all around us, albeit very slowly, is and can only ever have been driven by chance and necessity. The whole of life is merely a fortuitous accident driven by random mutations in DNA, the only ‘design’ coming from the exigencies of existence. If Williams has examined the theory of evolution and believed it to be consistent with an element of design, he has misunderstood the theory and created a quite new and very different theory of evolution which is not consistent with the original one and which would of course require more of that scientific evidence that he has so much trouble with. Creating a distortion of the original theory like this is exactly what Williams goes on to accuse Dawkins of doing when he suggests that Dawkins has produced a ‘straw man’ argument. I would like at this point to deal with Williams’ comments on equivocation. Once again Richard Dawkins’ account perhaps lacks the precision in the use of words that Peter Williams as a philosopher would like, but is perfectly easy for any fair-minded person to understand. The meaning is clear: that some things that appear to be designed are not in fact designed.

The rest of the article consists largely of an attack on Dawkins’ views on religion and Williams concludes by saying that Richard Dawkins deduces evolution from his own atheistic world view. He has clearly done nothing of the sort; what he claims to have done is to deduce atheism from the theory of evolution. Whether he has or not, it is certainly not possible to deduce any sort of theory of intelligent design from the scientific evidence as Peter Williams claims to have done.

ALAN KEITH
ROTHERHAM, SOUTH YORKSHIRE


Pictures of the Big Bang

DEAR EDITOR: If you are looking for a photograph of the Big Bang (‘Did the World Have a Beginning?’, Issue 44), a theory that was suggested by the Russian scientists George Gamow in 1948, I suggest that you contact NASA, as they may be able to assist.

In June 2001 a satellite was launched to map the details of cosmic microwave radiation. There is available a photograph of this which shows in detail the thermal ripples of the birth of the universe over thirteen billion years ago, so confirming the theory of the ‘Big Bang’.

This theory may still not be the complete answer to all our questions of ‘why?’ or ‘how is it?’ that we ask from the dawn of our childish thinking ability, but I think it is a possible way forward to understanding our place on this earth, in our galaxy, in this universe rather than the logic chopping of desiccated med-evil-ists.

JOHN JACKSON
BECKENHAM, KENT

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