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Deliberative Deliberations • Democracy and Terror • Animal Welfare and Pain • Plato and the Heatwave • Philosophy in Peril • Despair, Hope and Pleasure • The Evolving Debate • Zeno and Zero • Virtue and Context

Deliberative Deliberations

DEAR EDITOR: Paul Gregory’s suggestion for specialist assemblies may well solve the problem of ‘bundling’ in democratic systems but the cure is worse than the disease. As the author admits, voter turnout is likely to decrease and decision-making will be left in the hands of ‘specialists’ (i.e. single-issue campaigners and other political anoraks).

A more democratic solution is the new movement for ‘Deliberative Polling’. Over the last decade the political scientist James Fishkin has conducted experiments during which randomly-selected groups of citizens (usually several hundred at a time) are invited to spend a weekend deliberating major issues of public policy. The experiments have shown that participants greatly increase their understanding of the issues and often change their minds as to the best course of action.

Why not introduce such a system as a replacement for elective democracy? Selection by lot is the most ancient form of representation and is generally accepted as fair (how much better it would have been if Lord Hutton had left the verdict of the Kelly enquiry to a jury). And modern sampling theory could easily establish the necessary sample size for randomly-selected political juries. I explore all of these issues at length in my new book The Party’s Over (overview at www.imprint.co.uk/societas).


Democracy and Terror

DEAR EDITOR: I read your issue on Democracy and the State with great interest and some fellow-feeling. I was, however, surprised to find that no mention was made of the two greatest threats to present-day democracy. The first is that of terrorism. Terrorism, threatening and harming the masses to attain an end, only makes sense under a democratic system where fear could manipulate the people to topple the government and force a change of political direction. Spain has proved that this can work. The second is the loss of effective power. The politicians cannot do what they want because they will be removed by the people. The people cannot have done what they want because their vote is swallowed up by ‘representative voting systems’ and the bland ‘package deals’ offered by the few parties they have to choose from in the first place. If the people do not have the power and the politicians do not have it does anyone have it at all? This could all be enlarged upon but you have asked us to keep the letters short and the themes are adequately covered in the work of Jean Baudrillard. Perhaps Democracy is done for as it stands, but what shall follow? There can be no way back to what once was.


Animal Welfare and Pain

DEAR EDITOR: Alistair Robinson accuses animal welfare advocates of anthropomorphism, yet the charge rests on an extremely dogmatic anthropocentric metaphysics of his own.

Robinson claims that when we talk of non-human suffering we neglect to consider the essential ‘experience’ of suffering, of which he supposedly knows only humans are aware. This may merely seem to suggest that experience is something unproblematic which we all impute to other people – and straightforwardly identify through phenomena such as behaviour and neuro-psychology – and no doubt we tend to think this way. Yet it is precisely these perspectives which Robinson believes overlook the uniqueness of ‘experience’ (for animal behaviour and recent neuro-pyschology suggest they too share pain).

Robinson wishes to give ‘experience’ a uniquely subjective metaphysical essence. The upshot would seem to be that ‘experience’ cannot simply be taken for granted in our dealings with people. Indeed, if ‘experience’ is uniquely subjective, then surely the problem of recognising the subjective experience of pain in other people – which is the essence of the famous ‘problem of other minds’ – is no different from the problem of recognising the subjective experience of pain in animals. There is no basis for a metaphysical human/animal divide.

He is, furthermore, decidedly equivocal on the status of neuro-science. For after categorically side-lining the significance of neurological study of fish brains (which has claimed to prove they feel pain) on the basis that it fails to take to account the nebulous ‘experience’ of suffering, he goes on to resurrect the value of neuro-science in light of further research on fish-brains which allegedly shows they cannot experience the ‘unpleasantness of pain’. Either this ‘unpleasantness of pain’ is a stale tautology which has no place in a formal scientific investigation, or it would seem to invoke those subjective ‘qualia’ which not even philosophers of mind can straightforwardly prove to exist – in any mind, that is – as, for example, the socalled redness of red. We are no doubt astonished to learn from Robinson that fish science has settled the famous problem of qualia once and for all: humans have them but fish don’t!!!

In the absence of metaphysical certainties, then, let us understand the issue of animal suffering most naturally as an ethical rather than a metaphysical one. For animal welfare is really quite as simple a concept to grasp as human welfare. While we profess to abstractly believe that humans share a universal capacity for the experience of suffering, our actions often betray otherwise. The moral ideal between humans rests on treating one another with equally maximal ‘humanity’, yet in its antithesis, barbarism would seem to rest on denying that very ‘humanity’ to those who bear the brunt of moral neglect (whether we think of African poverty or those sacrificial hostages in Iraq). Though, to be sure, the concept of humanity expresses our loftiest ideals, we must be sensitive to all those excluded from this moral club. In the same way, then, morality demands we impute all animals with as full a capacity for sentience as we are practically morally able. So let us be sensitive to maximising animal welfare in any way we can rather than dogmatically closing our minds to the whole unsettling spectre of animal suffering.


Plato and the Heatwave

DEAR EDITOR: Stuart Greenstreet’s article on why we will collectively fail to do anything adequate about man-made climate change managed the impressive feat of making Philosophy Now sound even more pessimistic than The Ecologist. I’m not wildly optimistic myself but I do see the odd glimmer of hope.

Greenstreet’s article boils down to an argument from authority: “Plato said people are like this…”. Certain kinds of argument from authority can be legitimate (in fact we can’t live without using them) and Greenstreet quite rightly accepts the scientific authority which asserts that global warming is taking place and is very dangerous. However, although Plato was wise and his analogies persuasive, they are not the last word on human behaviour. There are examples of the type of collective behaviour which we would need, for example the willingness to accept rationing in wartime.

Second, Greenstreet asserts without support that sustainable development would deprive people of “hard won comforts and convenience”. This obscures a more complicated situation and I think his day job as a ‘business manager’ may have prevented him noticing this.

Sitting in traffic jams (for example) is neither comfortable nor convenient, although the price of the 4x4 in which you sit was certainly hard-won. Much of our unsustainable behaviour (much of our behaviour of any sort) is not particularly chosen, nor does it give us a huge amount of pleasure. We just do it because everyone else seems to be doing it, or because we seem to have no choice, or because we’ve just kind of ended up doing it, or because we don’t see a better way to achieve some acceptable aim (even though such a way does or could exist). So it is not a simple question of asking for virtuous renunciation: change might bring gain and that means there is some leverage for change to be chosen.

I also suspect Greenstreet implicitly assumes that sustainable lifestyles involve some sort of blanket renunciation of technology, but in fact a sustainable lifestyle presents the opportunity to be technologically smarter than ever.

In fact Greenstreet gives the impression that he has only just been alerted to the climate change issue and is unaware that people have been chewing on the problem for quite some time. He thus provides a nice extra illustration of Mike Alder’s comments in the same issue about uninformed but overconfident philosophers.


Philosophy in Peril

DEAR EDITOR: I am a mature student who has been studying Philosophy (alongside English) and I have commented to my teacher how good the magazine is – especially for those who have come to philosophy with no previous experience of the subject. Unfortunately, both the English and Philosophy departments are under threat of closure at University College, Northampton. Philosophy is now down to one lecturer to deal with three years of students in the forthcoming year. The English department is shedding five teachers by April 2005. What is happening to our universities? It is sad to think that these two core subjects are considered as almost irrelevant to our modern society.

Unfortunately, both departments are non-profit making in the sense that they rely almost entirely on student admissions and do not receive sponsorship as do subjects on business. When our finite resources have been expended we will have to have recourse to philosophy to determine a new way to organise human society.


Despair, Hope and Pleasure

DEAR EDITOR: I am mainly a magazine reader and Philosophy Now is usually the most interesting and challenging read I have on a regular basis. Thanks for putting out such a thoughtful, stimulating and quality publication.

I just read Peter Zapffe’s essay, ‘The Last Messiah’ in Issue 45. Despair seems to play a big part in his writing and thinking. Also the affliction of being a thinker, and particularly a philosophical thinker, is apparent. This essay seems to be coming from a despairing or depressed person, but that does not take away from the real ring of truth it evokes. He is looking unflinchingly at human existence and the conclusions he draws seem valid. Life is pointless despite all our efforts to give it meaning in all the ways he describes.

Now the problem becomes how to lead a perfectly pointless and meaningless life. Zapffe did not kill himself (although maybe he was trying with all that mountain climbing he did). I wonder if he might have actually enjoyed a good deal of his life. I suspect he did enjoy a good part of his life, as many of us do. Could it be possible that the real foundation to existence is not despair, anxiety and terror (as we encounter the void at the heart of our being) but pleasure and bliss? What would Epicurus have to say about all of this? Remove the pain and what you are left with is pleasure. Then the question becomes how to remove the pain. That, I should think, is an avenue worth exploring, and I do on a daily basis. As a yoga teacher and massage therapist it is the essential but elusive goal of my profession.


The Evolving Debate

DEAR EDITOR: It is puzzling to see the fallacies Professor Massimo Pigliucci and his graduate class on evolutionary thinking commit when writing on “the alleged fallacies” of Richard Dawkins (Issue 46). This goes especially when insisting that “while it is certainly true that there are great traditions of rational inquiry within Christianity, do we need to remind Williams that the Church always put very strict limits on such ‘free inquiry’? Just think of Bruno, Copernicus and Galileo.”

I leave it to others to decide whether this falls into the category of ‘Straw man argument’, ‘Poisoning the well’ or ‘Wishfull thinking’. I would strongly suggest that the authors check their background knowledge in this area, as such things often have an influence on one’s philosophical preferences.

It is fair to provide at least a short summary, even if a lot more should be said. Like other human institutions (scientific ones no exception), the Church has often used political measures to strengthen its position. Still, Copernicus never met any opposition from the Church. Bruno was not executed for any rational inquiry. His biographers like Frances Yates sees him instead as an impetuous and occult pseudoscientist also suspected of political treason. Galileo and Kepler were not sympathetic to Bruno in their writings, not the least due to his distaste for mathematics. And the case against Galileo had little to do with religion, as is shown in Science and Religion: Are They Compatible? (edited by Paul Kurtz), a book where Pigliucci himself is one of the contributors.

In short one can provide little evidence to back up Pigliucci’s constructs.


DEAR EDITOR: According to Peter Williams (‘Darwin’s Rottweiler’, Issue 44) Richard Dawkins says you would have to be mad to doubt Darwinism. But in 1989 Dawkins wrote in a New York Times book review that:

“We are not talking about Darwin’s particular theory of natural selection. It is still (just) possible for a biologist to doubt its importance, and a few claim to. No, we are here talking about the fact of evolution itself, a fact that is proved utterly beyond reasonable doubt. To claim equal time for creation science in biology classes is about as sensible as to claim equal time for the flat-earth theory in astronomy classes. Or, as someone has pointed out, you might as well claim equal time in sex education classes for the stork theory. It is absolutely safe to say that if you meet somebody who claims not to believe in evolution, that person is ignorant, stupid or insane (or wicked, but I’d rather not consider that).”

(see www.world-of-dawkins.com) Here Dawkins deliberately excludes Darwinism as one of the things you would have to be mad to doubt.


Zeno and Zero

DEAR EDITOR: It seems to me that in his piece about Bohr, Kant and Zeno (Issue 45), Tony Wagstaffe confounds the concepts of zero and the concept of infinitesimal. Zeno breaks the motion of the arrow down to a series of points in time (thereby anticipating the calculus of Newton and Leibniz by twenty one centuries). But these points cannot be instants “lasting exactly zero seconds” as Tony says, for two reasons. First the zero points would be timeless, and therefore nonexistent, at least insofar as we know existence. Second, the arrow would not be moving, since just as a finite spatial line cannot be composed of a large number (not even an infinite number) of points of zero extent, since zero multiplied by any number always produces zero, so also an large number of instants of time units of zero extent would also result in zero time.

For conceptual purposes, as Tony (and Kant) rightly say, lines can be broken down or reduced to infinitesimal points, and periods of time can be broken down into infinitesimally small periods. This is useful for purposes of conceptual manipulation; but we must not make the mistake of imagining that our conceptualisations are reality itself. A line is more than a series of dots, and movement is more than a series of positions. More importantly, a word is more than a collection of letters, and a man is more than a collection of living cells. Analysis, whether it be scientific, aesthetic or philosophical can describe the workings of the parts, but it results in a view of one aspect of reality, not of reality itself.

It is not uncommon for specialists in any field to have problems moving from their analytical field back into the real world of relationships and washing up. The great Flann O’Brien tells of a philosopher by the name of De Selby in his novel, The Third Policeman: “all the commentators have treated de Selby’s disquisitions on night and sleep with considerable reserve. This is hardly to be wondered at since he held (a) that darkness was simply an accretion of ‘black air’, i.e., a staining of the atmosphere due to volcanic eruptions too fine to be seen with the naked eye and also to certain ‘regrettable’ industrial activities involving coal tar byproducts and vegetable dyes; and (b) that sleep was simply a succession of fainting fits brought on by semi-asphyxiation due to (a).” De Selby also had views on time (nothing but an illusion created by a series of instants, as evidenced by a cinematographic film) and sound (due to the breakage of small sound particles, evidenced by the effects of striking a hammer on an anvil, when a great number of them are broken at the same time). De Selby was the reductionist’s reductionist.

There are many kinds of reductionism, but arguably the most pernicious is the reductionism of the monetarist, which knows price to everything and the value of nothing.


Virtue and Context

DEAR EDITOR: Agreeing with both you and Socrates (Issue 45) that virtue is connected with the improvement of one’s soul might I suggest that what Plato and other ancient Greek philosophers indicated was that while ethics should be guided by the virtues or virtue ‘behind’ them, virtue itself depends upon being and the concomitant level of consciousness that carries with it. One might call this ‘knowledge’– but only knowledge that is a property of, is ‘subtended by’, a certain state of being this is dynamic rather than static. ‘Knowing’ would be a better word for it – but the best is, and was, ‘wisdom’

So virtues vary with – are instruments of – wisdom. They are not self-sufficient entities in themselves. A code of virtues is as limited as a code of morals, though of course it is a lot better than nothing. But if you have ‘wisdom’ you don’t have to worry about being virtuous. You simply do what is right. Even though it may not always look right on the face of it.

Virtues are not static, rigid things. One must know how and when to exercise them. Which requires a knowledge of the context, an understanding of the situation. For example, is tolerance always a virtue? Should we tolerate injustice? Patience is a virtue. But are there times when one should be ‘impatient’? Kindness is wonderful. But we all know that sometimes “one has to be ‘cruel’ to be kind.”

Thus virtues, like rigid ethics, can become fixed templates for action, which may prevent the doing of the really good thing to do – which is not necessarily the obvious thing. Lao Tse understood this with his concept of ‘Tao’; Confucius, with his elaborate moral code, didn’t. The Sufis, who believe that deep intuition is the only real guide to knowledge, convey the idea I have been discussing (and others) in this story of the incomparable Nasrudin:

What Has Gone Before…

In a dark alleyway an agile pickpocket tried to snatch Nasrudin’s purse. The Mulla was too quick for him, and there was a violent struggle. Eventually Nasrudin got his man down on the ground. At this moment a charitable woman passing called out: “You bully! Let that little man get up, and give him a chance” “Madam,” panted Nasrudin, “you ignore the trouble which I have had getting him down”.


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