Your complimentary articles
You’ve read one of your four complimentary articles for this month.
You can read four articles free per month. To have complete access to the thousands of philosophy articles on this site, please
Mistakes and Table Legs • Beware of the Triads! • Burning the Library • The Misuse of Language • Species and Families • Some Learned Disputations Upon St Thomas Aquinas • Dworkin’s Death is Philosophy’s Loss • So What Is ‘Natural’?
Mistakes and Table Legs
DEAR EDITOR: At the risk of further trying Mike Alder’s patience, I would like to address the point raised by his response to my criticism of his article ‘Newton’s Flaming Sword’.
I would like to make clear that I am not claiming, as did the philosopher in his essay, that there is a “fundamental difference” between minds and computers that can never be gotten around. The mind is a machine; I have no reason to think otherwise. The question is whether it is a machine similar enough to the neural nets that Dr Alder is working with, so that the study of the latter will shed light on the former. A table leg and a human leg are both legs, but medical students do not dissect table legs in order to prepare for operations on human legs. A metaphor can be stretched too thin. Whether or not the metaphor in question, ‘Machine’ Mistake versus ‘Real’ Mistake, has been stretched too thin is an empirical question, and one that cannot be simply waved away. If Dr Alder’s machines make mistakes in the same way that tables have legs, then I’m afraid Dr Alder knows no more about the human mind then a carpenter does about the human body.
His example of the child who has “imperfectly mastered the recognition of Arabic numerals” nicely illustrates this point: when a teacher “writes down a, possibly malformed, 3” and the student, after a struggle, says ‘five’, the teacher could reasonably claim, as Dr Alder says, that the child has ‘made a mistake’. But things are not so simple; did the child correctly identify the shape, and misapply the name, or, alternatively, see the malformed 3 as a 5, and correctly name what it saw? These are two separate mistakes, and I’m inclined to think that only the first was the child’s mistake, the second was the teacher’s. And even an unsophisticated child can make this distinction; or if there is no clear distinction in the child’s mind at first, she will learn to make these kinds of distinctions. This is what ‘learning to identify a five’ consists of, at least in part. Will Dr Alder’s machines acquire these same distinctions? Will they have opinions, not only about numerals, but about their own opinions about numerals?
If not, then, no matter how good his machines become at picking out fives, they will not tell us very much about the human mind.
Beware of the Triads!
DEAR EDITOR: Roger Daniher caught me out in committing what looked like a ‘triadism’ in my article on the Psychology and Psychopathology of Philosophers (Issue 48), in which I described the Triadism of Kant and Hegel as a sign of ‘abnormality’. But I would plead that I do not continually or compulsively force everything into threesomes in the way in which Kant and Hegel do. I agree with Daniher that “the human mind seems to have a special affinity for the number three” (my italics), and my own explanation for this is that in a child’s world the threesome of its father, its mother and itself is its earliest intense experience. (Melanie Klein maintained that a child’s very earliest experience is of itself and its mother, and at first sight that might be a source of the equally pervasive affinity with the number two, which may manifest itself, among other things, in Dualism. In fact, however, Dualism usually assumes opposition, whereas Triadism is almost always a search for harmony or completion.) However, mental affinity is one thing, correspondence with reality may be something else; and it surely is something else when Triadism is imposed on phenomena which are actually more complex than that.
DEAR EDITOR: Regarding the letter in Issue 50 which attempted to prove that categorising things into threes was normal behaviour, I would disagree, although it might be common amongst philosophers. Empiricists have always used two categories. Indeed one can divide the world into two categories – those who divide the world into two categories, and those who do not (including philosophers).
Burning the Library
DEAR EDITOR: I see in your discussion of Medieval thinking (Issue 50) a mention of the destruction of the Library of Alexandria by the Muslims. I am quite disappointed that your journal would promote such a fallacy. I thought that by now people would stop mentioning this story as fact, as the library was pretty much history by the time the invaders reached Egypt.
NASSIM NICHOLAS TALEB, PHD
DEAN’S PROF. IN THE SCIENCES OF
UNCERTAINTY, UNI. OFMASSACHUSSETS AT AMHERST
[Editor’s note: My apologies! Apparently most scholars now think that the Library was probably incinerated either by Julius Caesar in 47BC or by a Christian mob in the late 4th century CE, and that the story about Caliph Omar burning it down is a later invention.]
The Misuse of Language
DEAR EDITOR: I just became aware of your publication yesterday and it is with delight that I feel compelled to join in the conversation. I’d like to start by commenting on Scott O’Reilly’s review of Peter Singer’s book on President Bush as the issues it raises go to some wider observations. Regarding Bush’s tense relations with the UN, it should not be forgotten that the world body was originally a creation of the world’s few democracies and that its express purpose was to further the spread of democracy. Now the vast majority of member states are dictatorships and while they can hardly be blamed for deflecting the UN’s original aim of displacing them, it remains a fact that the interests of democracies and the interests of dictatorships are antithetical.
Which brings me to my main point: when we are dealing with political speech the first thing we should note is the absence of truth or sincerity as conditions of success. Hence the absurd dance Bush has made about WMD, UN resolutions and the rest; likewise, the UN itself presents the absurd spectacle of naming Cuba and Syria to the Human Rights Commission, while they are among the worst violators of human rights in the world. Obviously, the use (and misuse) of language in the poisoned atmosphere of world politics is what Singer should be studying if he finds politics worth studying at all. Bush may be guilty of not helping clarify this murky situation but his voice is, as Dylan put it, merely another “gargling in the rat-race choir.”
Finally, much as I enjoyed the articles on Kant and Hume, Rousseau and Aristotle, I was most glad to find an appreciation of Derrida. Even though I am not great fan of his work, at least Derrida was playing in the right ball park. I can’t help hoping that the general tenor of the conversation would not be hurt by the inclusion of some discussion of the ideas of J.L. Austin, P.F. Strawson, John Searle and Umberto Eco. If the episode of the Bush rhetoric vs. the rhetoric of the UN demonstrates anything, it is that there is no truth, only the latest ‘best’ story.
LONG BEACH, CALIFORNIA
Species and Families
DEAR EDITOR: I refer to Massimo Pigliucci’s application (Issue 50) of Wittgenstein’s idea of ‘family resemblance’ to the specification of a ‘natural kind’ such as a biological species, as characterized by “a diffuse network of more or less loosely interconnected properties”. I fear that he has given Wittgenstein too much posthumous credit. In Ernst Mayr’s Growth of Biological Thought (1982), page 190, I read the statement of Vicq d’Azyr (1786) that a biological group “may be perfectly natural, and yet have not a single character common to all the species that compose it.” The idea of family resemblance has thus existed in biological thought for some time, even if initially used in relation to taxa higher than species. Mayr noted that the feature was not given the formal name ‘polythetic’ until 1962. He commented that “the characterization of taxa by polythetic character combinations signalled the final demise of an essentialistic definition.”
Some Learned Disputations Upon St Thomas Aquinas
DEAR EDITOR: I think Mark Goldblatt is unfair on St Thomas Aquinas’ views (Issue 50). Aquinas was careful to distinguish theology from philosophy, stating “the believer and the philosopher consider creatures differently. The philosopher considers what belongs to their proper natures, while the believer considers only what is true of creatures as they are related to God, for example, that they are created by God and are subject to him, and the like.” (Summa Contra Gentiles, Bk II, chapter 4). For him, ‘theological’ discourse “is characterised formally by the fact that its arguments and analyses are truth-bearing only for one who accepts scriptural revelation as true.” (Ralph McInerny, in the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy entry on St Thomas Aquinas, 1999). Aquinas says also that “different ways of knowing give us different sciences.” (Summa Theologiae, Ia, q.1, a., ad 2). At another juncture, he separates theology out into two strands – the ‘philosophical’ and the ‘scriptural’. He thinks that ‘philosophical’ theology is very close to metaphysics as pursued by philosophers, and that ‘scriptural’ theology exists ‘to make the divine manifest’ (Exposition of Boethius’ ‘On The Trinity’, q.5, a.4). In dismissing Aquinas’ theology does Mark Goldblatt have both strands under consideration, or just the ‘scriptural’?
DEAR EDITOR: It may have been editor’s planning, but I suspect serendipity when in Issue 50 Mark Goldblatt’s article, ‘Talking About God’, appeared along with Chad Trainer’s ‘Finding a Philosophy in Leonardo’. In the latter, we learn that there has been an awareness in some thinkers from the 16th century to the present that mental discourses in logic and mathematics may end with false or useless conclusions unless fused with empiricism. Seeking rationalism in Biblical and medieval language in order to discard today the idea of God as Being fails to meet modern basic standards in Biblical, historical and language analyses. A strong anachronistic odour arises from Goldblatt’s attempt at a logical argument.
Northrop Frye saw three phases of language development. He explains that most of the Old Testament was written in the metaphoric phase. The metonymic phase began with the Greeks like Plato and Aristotle and lasted until the Age of Science when the third usage developed as descriptive language. In chapter one of his book, The Code, Frye explains concepts of God in each phase.
In short, Goldblatt errs in putting forth the first sentence of Genesis as a rational thought (p.12). I remember Paul Tillich in his Systematic Theology using the analogy ‘Once Upon a Time’ in his discussion of Genesis I:1. The point being that this was not an attempt at rational language
However it is in the a priori thought upon which Mark Goldblatt begins his logical argument where he first leads us astray. To use the words of Thomas Aquinas, “the creation of the world is the creation of being”, without a discussion of how Aquinas might view the world and think of God seems incredible to me in today’s scholarship. When I use my own small knowledge of his world, three hundred years before the 16th century, I can come up with a second or even a third conception of what these words might have meant to Thomas apart from the one imposed by Goldblatt.
For example, I have read that many medieval theologians had changed from the older three level mind picture of the world to one which was more like the layers of an onion. To them God lived transcendent to this world, that is, apart from it, but also in close touch. Thomas may have thought of God as first and foremost Creative Being in His transcendent mode able to bring His life, thoughts and ideas into existence in any world He felt led to make. The very idea that for Thomas Aquinas God has characteristics not of this world like immutable and omnipotent would seem to support my conception of the way he might have thought of Being. I suspect that if Goldblatt could present his argument in person to the medieval Aquinas, Thomas would be astonished at the limitation put on his words.
Perhaps there are many people using third phase language who need to stretch the verb ‘to be’ an awful lot farther. I felt this tension recently as I read an up-todate cosmological mind picture of our world today in the May ‘05 issue of National Geographic.
OWEN SOUND, CANADA
Dworkin’s Death is Philosophy’s Loss
DEAR EDITOR: Andrea Dworkin’s death is a dreadful loss to philosophy: all the greater because the philosophers of our generation have failed to acknowledge her as one of our number, or appreciate her contribution. I am a moral philosopher. To my shame, I allowed myself to be put off reading Dworkin’s work for many years by ignorant anti-feminist smears which portrayed her as ‘antimen’, ‘a victim-feminist’, and ‘an extremist’. When I finally read her work, I was surprised and humbled to find myself in the presence of a real genius. Dworkin’s textual criticism, conceptual analysis and arguments are all brilliant and original. A couple of examples: her exposés of misogyny in Intercourse and elsewhere, and her critique of de Sade in Pornography are unprecedented in the history of philosophy, and unmatched for their clarity, rigour and determination in making unpopular, implausible but essential points in the teeth of the scepticism and affected boredom of a complacent patriarchal world badly in need of such critiques.
One brave philosophical colleague, Martha Nussbaum, did us all the favour of bringing discussion of Dworkin’s work into the philosophical mainstream a few years ago. The only pity was that Nussbaum seemed to allow a couple of criticisms made by Dworkin’s enemies to stand – Dworkin’s work was for Nussbaum ‘too angry’, too ‘lacking in mercy’. I have had it on my ‘to do list’ for over a year, to write a paper arguing on the contrary that Dworkin is not too angry to be philosophically rigorous – rather, the rest of us are not angry, fearless or clever enough. The painful thing for me now, is that I blithely believed I would sometime be able to share those thoughts with Dworkin herself, thank her for her example, and let her know how much her work has lit up my philosophical life and given me hope in dark times. Now I will never have the chance.
UNIVERSITY OF DURHAM
So What Is ‘Natural’?
DEAR EDITOR: In the March/April 2005 edition of Philosophy Now (Issue 50) Paul Kokoski responds to Michael Voytinsky’s article ‘Gay Rights: Choice vs. Nature?’ The focus of Kokoski’s letter is the concept of the ‘natural’ in natural law. He maintains that “were it to be proven that some individuals have a genetic determination to homosexuality, in itself this evidence would not invalidate the long tradition among all major religions in the world that homosexuality, according to the ‘natural law’, is an unnatural or disordered condition.” His reasoning is that “‘Natural’ does not … refer here simply to what is in accord with biological processes of man. Nor does it refer to what is innate…Rather; the word ‘natural’ has a metaphysical meaning… [that] which accords with what is good for human beings.” From this he concludes, “Legal recognition of same-sex unions would act to obscure basic moral values causing a further deterioration of the family … Michael Voytinsky, therefore, is incorrect in arguing that homosexual unions are not harmful to society.”
Kokoski is right to demur a simplistic appeal to nature as a standard of human goods. However, the definition of ‘natural’ he does use is ultimately too vague and selective. The tradition of a ‘metaphysical meaning … what is good for human beings’ is a long-held one in the literature of natural law theory. But what is this metaphysical meaning? By stripping ‘natural’ of objectively verifiable meaning (the ‘biological processes of man’ or ‘what is innate’) he evacuates the term and leaves the derivation of human goods indisputably open, disingenuously dismissing out of hand qualifications commonly employed by natural law theorists (even Aquinas) to bring definition to this concept of humanity’s metaphysical nature. The values of life and procreation are often expressed, clarified and justified with reference to biology by natural law theorists. And the rational nature that Aquinas wrote of is apparently an example of ‘what is innate.’
Further, in reaching his conclusion Kokoski employs a facile slip from the moral interpretation of natural law theory to the legal. To argue that morally natural law theory proscribes homosexuality is one thing. But to transfer that judgment to an arena of positive laws is another. Natural law theory (under the moral or legal interpretation) requires a principle of divine providence to have any normative impact. Although Kokoski’s Canada does not traditionally have as clear a separation of church and state as my U.S., in both, the determination of public policy upon a theory inclusive of an adoption of a specific divine providence would constitute an unjust entangling of church and state and would not, (in various ways) “defend personal freedom and dignity…”
MICHAEL D. DAHNKE