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Stroll On • Pax Gamez • Not So Bogus • Quantum doubts • Fishbones and Excellence • The Spirit of Zapffe • Different Kinds of Causes

Stroll On

DEAR EDITOR: I very much enjoyed Christopher Orlet’s article, ‘The Gymnasiums of the Mind’. I can only join in the praise of walking as a form of meditation.

To his list of prominent thinkers prone to promenading, I would just like to add perhaps the greatest pedestrian of them all. He made it a matter of principle to foot it rather than ride whenever possible, and made walking a way of life. As a law student in London he walked to and from school and strolled for miles every day (mostly in search of vegetarian restaurants). Eventually he would initiate one of the most famous walks in modern history, the Great Salt March. I’m of course talking about Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, the Mahatma, who could ambulate with the best. We could all benefit from trying his sandals these days.


Pax Gamez

DEAR EDITOR: I found David Gamez’s article on wars of intervention rather weak. For example, he states that his objective is to determine (a) is the spread of utopia a good thing?, and (b) is the spread of utopia achievable? I would have thought that the emphasis would be on the verb spread not the word utopia. Yet the majority of the article discusses whether America has achieved utopia without a clear definition of what David believes utopia to be.

Also, with the exception of an almost casual mention of democracy, freedom, education and the like, the article appears to equate utopia with capitalism. More emphasis should be placed on the means of government the people select, not the means of goods distribution.

I think that the invasion of Iraq is without question an unjustified act of aggression and has no ‘just war’ philosophical support. That being said, I also believe that the war on the Taliban in Afghanistan is a much better model for discussing intervention for self-defense and humanitarian reasons. The Afghanistan situation is not as black and white as the Iraq invasion and provides a better model for philosophers to script different cases and evaluate the justification, if any, for spreading utopia.

From my reading of Rawls it appears that he did not ever feel that any aggression outside of self-defense was justifiable, even against outlaw states. The issue then becomes what constitutes self-defense. What preventative measures are acceptable in a state’s effort to protect itself? As the state boundaries morph, we find ourselves faced with a new concept of state i.e. sets of people who may actually reside anywhere but be aligned through certain ideals and interests and associated through the internet. What rights do liberal democracies have in protecting themselves from these new outlaw states? I think the issue will undoubtedly get to one of collateral damage and the algebra of ends-means but the world is sorely needing some philosophical foundation for action. Gamez does not provide this.


Not So Bogus

DEAR EDITOR: Indignation struck on reading ‘What is Virtue?’ (Issue 45) where Stephen Doty explains that “What is truth?” and “What is beauty?” are only Bogus Questions since neither noun has component parts like nylon, nor do they refer to out of the ordinary objects or processes like curling.

How strange that many of us have not managed to progress a day since Plato in our false grammatical forms.

Mr Doty’s arguments may seem sound from a strictly materialist standpoint, but could it not be said that because truth and beauty are not things but concepts (universals) they might occupy a more abstract realm? Where is the physical space for language and meaning?


Quantum doubts

DEAR EDITOR: Tony Wagstaff’s essay on Bohr was very interesting and informative; but a bit too idealistic and noumenal for my taste. While there are serious epistemological problems around contemporary physics, regarding both quantum theory and uncertainty, they are neither solved nor enlightened by a retreat into unempirical, quasi-religious notions like Kant’s noumena, or 17th century conceptions of perception. Of course we do need a highly sophisticated theory of knowledge to clarify the complex interpretive questions around subatomic physics and especially quantum theory. It should start, just as Wagstaff claims, with the principle that what is being verified is not our coarsegrained perceptions, but experiments, and, I would add, the hypotheses and equations presumed by those experiments. Furthermore, it is no longer helpful to resurrect 17th century views about perception, namely, by saying that “the vibrant colours of a sunset [or any everyday object], don’t actually exist ‘out there’.” If this means that we can’t perceive colours as ‘things in themselves’, all well and good, just as Kant argued. If it means acceptance of a Galilean primary / secondary property distinction, as it appears to, not so good. If it means that the perception of the colour red is ‘neural and mental’, true enough; but that does not mean what is perceived is not in the world independent of our perception. Indeed Wagstaff’s own acknowledgement of electromagnetic waves (and Einstein) implies an objective aspect to colour phenomena. That perception is complex does not mean that what we perceive does not exist independently of our perceiving it. On the contrary an interactive, empirical and testable model of perception as a complex process supports a more objective view of colour perception. Consider the following.

An ordinary human with normal vision, neural optical processing, and a normal brain, will see the flag of China as red with yellow stars. But if you vary the frequency of the electromagnetic waves impinging on the flag, or somehow fog up the relatively clear, translucent air through which the light waves move, say with a dirty brownish-yellow smog, such as one can often see in Shanghai, then one’s eyes and brain, however healthy, will not correctly perceive the red and yellow of the flag. This argument merely assumes that each component of the colour perception process interacts in systematic, predictable ways: the electromagnetic waves, the translucency of the air, the colour of the flag cloth, the functioning of one’s eyes, and one’s eyes and brain. Vary any one of those interacting factors and the perceptual outcome will vary, in correlative, predictable ways.

On this reading the colours we perceive are a complex product of the interaction of the relevant physical and psychological conditions of colour perception, and their interaction. Colours are thus both objective and subjective. A similar reading of the subtleties of quantum theory, I submit, might eliminate the need for talk of ghostly entities like noumena (though I doubt it will solve the other challenging difficulties of sub-atomic science).

Finally, my thanks to Tony Wagstaff and Philosophy Now for printing so demanding, and intellectually invigorating an essay.


Fishbones and Excellence

DEAR EDITOR: Your March/April 2004 issue contains a persistent misprint. Again and again you print ‘arête’, which is a two-syllable French word meaning ‘fishbone’. By witty accident this misprint sticks in the gullet You need to write ‘aretê’ (properly, a?et?), which is a three-syllable Ancient Greek word meaning ‘manliness’, ‘courage’, ‘excellence’ or ‘virtue’. The third syllable should be pronounced rather like the vowel in ‘air’, or so my schoolmasters taught me many years ago.

Please continue to write about founding notions like ‘aretê’, but the needs of clear communication require the word to be made pronounceable.

Incidentally, the word ‘aretê’ is a clear case of the ancient world’s admiration for manly as opposed to womanly virtues. For in Greek the root of the word is ‘war-’ and in Latin ‘vir-’, meaning ‘man’. In Greek the God of War (Ares) and the word for ‘best’ (aristos) are both derived from this root. What a change has overcome the word ‘virtue’ over the centuries!


The Spirit of Zapffe

DEAR EDITOR: The great intellectual ability which Peter Wessel Zapffe displays in ‘The Last Messiah’ (Issue 45) would seem to have been employed to isolate himself from the rest of Humanity, and in the process to have used a number of false assumptions – or assumptions which he would have been unable to prove if challenged. But then, of course, he was a proclaimed existentialist, and therefore not bound to rational argument.

I was particularly struck by the fact that from a number of references he made to ‘spirit’ he has no difficulty of thinking of man as a spiritual being in the sense that he has a spiritual dimension – he speaks of man’s soul – yet at the same time considers him to be essentially a physical being. This really doesn’t add up. How was ‘spirit’ conceived by him? Usually, to those who believe that man has a spiritual nature, it is that aspect of him which will be considered to be his ‘higher’ part: in other words, that he will be thought of, essentially, as being an embodied spirit. But this is not the case with Zapffe. He can write about man as being a “species [which] had been armed too heavily – by spirit made almighty without, but equally a menace to its own well-being,” making it quite clear that for him man is first and foremost a physical being, and that being endowed with spirit has simply messed life up for him!

If man is thought to be possessed of spirit and a soul, it is those elements of his nature in which he will be rooted. But for Zapffe this is not how it is, so he can write: “Despite his new eyes, man was still rooted in matter, his soul spun into and subordinated to its blind laws.” There is a growing body of opinion, in all branches of science, that the laws of matter are far from being blind, but are, in fact, purposeful. But then he would not have known about the anthropic principle which did not really take off among cosmologists until 1974. And as for his assertion that Man has “lost his right of residence in the universe,” I wonder if he would have written that if he had known of the Big Bang theory? Clearly, under this theory everything in the universe – material, mental, psychic and spiritual – come from a single source, and therefore must be interrelated, belonging together: nothing in the universe, therefore, can ever be considered as being, in any sense ‘an outsider’ – least of all Man.

The whole of the essay is permeated by the idea that the very existence of man is without meaning – but, of course, he is unable to validate that idea. What it amounts to is that Zapffe is unable to – or unwilling to – ascribe meaning to man’s existence. A far truer idea would be to postulate that since man was a ‘production’ of the universe he must have a purpose, and since his consciousness has made him aware of his ‘higher’ spiritual nature, his ultimate goal must be a spiritual one.

It is quite true, as Zapffe writes, that man “has eaten from the Tree of Knowledge and been expelled from Paradise.” But when he then goes on to say that man “curses his might [given him by spirit] – as purchased with his harmony of soul, his innocence, his inner peace in life’s embrace” he would seem to ignore the fact that it is only through his spirit-given consciousness that he can have the concepts of what he has lost! What he cannot entertain is the idea that through his consciousness – (which caused his expulsion) – he can regain, this time in full awareness, ‘Paradise’ – known, of course, in the major Eastern religions as Nirvana.


Different Kinds of Causes

DEAR EDITOR: In his response to Peter Williams’ critique of Richard Dawkins, Alan Keith makes overmuch of inductive inference and ignores what Williams actually said in this regard, viz. that scientific knowledge and evidence are not the only kinds of knowledge and evidence. The belief that they are was one of the pillars of logical positivism – a now superseded doctrine. The assumption that Darwinism entails Atheism ignores the distinction, familiar since Aristotle, between different (and therefore not necessarily incompatible) concepts of cause. The distinction was lost on Mr Keith who caricatured it, as he did much else of what Williams wrote.

Is John Woodhead’s admonition against “trying to reconcile religious faith with facts” directed at proselytising atheists too? – or only at the soft targets to be found on the fringes of theism?


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