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The Liar Paradox • Unsympathetic Review • Kierkegaardian Waffle • Calling for a Spade • Natural Response • Not the End of Theology • Neuroses and Fallacies • What’s Demeaning of This? • Virtue is its Own Reward • Research Strategies

The Liar Paradox

DEAR EDITOR: Regarding the article ‘The Liar Lied’ (Issue 51), I find the distinction between ‘meaning’ and ‘assertion’ artificial and unconvincing, and I propose an alternative solution.

To begin with, there is nothing by which the truth-value of ‘This sentence is not true’ (let’s call this statement P) can be ascertained. It is neither true nor false, hence it is not true. So it has an initial element of non-truth (N). Since P asserts that it is not true, its truthvalue can now be judged with reference to this first element, and in this context it is true. So it has a second element, i.e. ‘true’ (T). Thereafter it has an infinite sequence of alternating elements N and T.

There is no contradiction here, since the elements are logically sequential, not simultaneous. They refer to different questions: element 1 answers the question ‘Is P true at the initial stage of analysis?’ whereas element 2 gives the answer to ‘Is P true, given element 1 ?’, and so on. The earlier elements remain correct even after the later ones have been added; indeed, the later ones depend on them. P differs from most sentences in that it has a complex pattern of truth-values; but mere complexity does not constitute a paradox.


DEAR EDITOR: There are some arguments that have been settled and are not worth resurrecting. I was disappointed therefore that space was given to Neil Lefebvre and Melissa Schehlein to have another look at the corpse of self-referring sentences in their article ‘The Liar Lied’ (Issue 51). The body was laid to rest a long time ago by Ludwig Wittgenstein. His formal explanation can be found in the Tractatus following the statement “No proposition can make a statement about itself” (3.332). More informally, in his Zettel (691), Wittgenstein says that if someone claims that a sentence containing the words “this sentence” is self-referring, you should just ask; “Which sentence?”

So, if we take the first example of ‘The Liar Lied’, “This sentence is not true”, we could ask, with Wittgenstein, “Which sentence?” or go further and ask “Who said so?”


DEAR EDITOR: If some but not all Cretans are liars (as is probably the case in reality), then Epimenides is lying when he says that ‘All Cretans are liars’ (because only some of them are, him being one of them), and there is no paradox.

By the way, nothing in this letter is true (which doesn’t create a new paradox, as some of it is true, and some not).


Unsympathetic Review

DEAR EDITOR: In your last issue you had a ‘book review’ of Dembski and Rose’s volume, Debating Design: From Darwin to DNA, and Schoeder’s The Hidden Face of God. The reviewer,Taner Edis, is highly critical of both books, and dismissive of the scientific challenges to Darwinism that are evoked to support some sort of ‘intelligent design.’ He makes statements such as “Dembski’s methods are abject failures,” popular books like Schoeder’s are “an embarrassment to scientists,” and much work in this field is characterized as “tripe” or “a threat.”

Of course, the book reviewer, Taner Edis is himself the co-editor of a book, Why Intelligent Design Fails: A Scientific Critique of the New Creationism. He obviously has his own highly-developed views on the subject which may well be correct, and could no doubt make for an interesting essay. But to have chosen him as a ‘book reviewer’ is to do the editors and authors under consideration, and readers of Philosophy Now, a disservice. Instead of a detached assessment of the texts, one receives a polemic from someone predisposed to press his own case.


Kierkegaardian Waffle

DEAR EDITOR: Soren Kierkegaard is the longest-winded philosopher in history. I challenge all readers to find a longer sentence (in a major philosophical work) than the one S.K. wrote as Johannes Climacus in Concluding Unscientific Postscript To Philosophical Fragments V.I. edited & translated by Hong & Hong (1992) and published in New Jersey by Princeton University Press. On page 63 the long sentence begins “If a poor private thinker …” and ends on page 64 “… and then perhaps even of surmounting it!” This remarkable sentence about a thinker in ‘an attic’ held captive by ‘difficult thoughts’ and ‘the hope of understanding himself’ is 316 words. Until someone else can point out a longer sentence, I proclaim this to be the world’s longest philosophy sentence.


Calling for a Spade

DEAR EDITOR: Excuse me for rewriting the headline of Joel Marks’ article in the April issue. To change your mind on a heavy issue is a fine thing. At the least because it signals you have done some serious thinking. But it does not, of course, in itself, prove that your new view is closer to the truth than the old. In my world, the search for truth is the paramount issue in all aspects of life.

But back to Joel Marks. Should we tolerate intolerance? The question makes no sense because the word itself is imprecise. Like the word ‘reasonable’ it has only the value the speaker puts in it. However, if you relate it to the two issues in question, racism and homosexuality, there is a chance of putting more light on the subjects in the search of truth.

All human beings on earth today, Homo Sapiens Sapiens, are biologically the same race. This is a truth without question and this makes the word racism absurd. The word is a repeated lie, equalled with Hitler’s ‘The Jewish race.’ It must be abolished before we can get any further.

Before we comment on homosexuality (as against hetrosexuality) we must ask if it is an inherent virtue that people of today should multiply and continue its further life on this planet. (The philosopher Peter Wessel Zapffe questioned it). But if the answer is yes, then it does in fact mean that we need hetrosexuality. At least evolution has chosen this way to multiply. On the other hand, the spread of homosexuality might benefit an obvious need to get the population on this planet reduced. Is this then one of evolution’s own steps? If that is so it is yet another reason not to bother that group of people as long as they don’t bother you.


Natural Response

DEAR EDITOR: Paul Kokoski (in his letter ‘Not Natural?’in Issue 50) says that “The word ‘natural’ has a metaphysical meaning.” This may be true, but the word also has a plain English language meaning: ‘Natural’ is that which occurs in nature. ‘Normal’ is that which most often occurs in nature. ‘Metaphysical’ is that which some of the thinking portion of nature thinks should occur in nature.

Kokoski explains that ‘natural’ is that “which accords with what is good for human beings.” He states that “Homosexual acts are contrary to the natural law because they close the sexual act to the gift of life.”

Isn’t it possible that pleasurable acts per se can meet the general qualification of being ‘good for human beings’ without having to produce progeny? Is there no ‘good’ in mere gratification?

Kokoski continues: “They” (homosexual acts) “do not proceed from a genuine affective and sexual complementarity.” If I might venture to translate, he seems to be suggesting the absence of genuine affection, and to be alluding to the ‘wrong parts’ issue. If there is no genuine affection among homosexuals then why do so many of them live together and want to get married? As for the ‘complementarity’ issue, I guess if you have genuine affection for someone you are willing to make some ‘accommodations.’ (To quote the late Johnnie Cochran: “If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit.”)

In short, homosexuality is natural, although abnormal, and metaphysically good, it would seem, for those who find pleasure in it.

Perhaps this is an issue which a particular portion of ‘thinking’ nature might want to re-think.


Not the End of Theology

DEAR EDITOR: I was interested to read Mark Goldblatt’s announcement (in Issue 50) of the end of theology based on the argument that, regarding God’s emptiness of being (logically entailed by the impossibility of an actual infinite), no meaningful rational statement can be made because emptiness of being allows equally the predication to God of ‘y’ and ‘not y’.

But surely the mystics of all the world’s great religions have claimed that the realisation of the inconceivability of God is the very source of all transformative religious experience and hence the origin of theological speculation?

Theology has never claimed to be a purely rational science. In my experience theologians philosophise only to the extent that they wish to communicate with those who are intellectually and spiritually bound by the ‘laws of rational thought’. Theology itself engages all the human faculties: reason, emotion, sensibility, imagination; psyche and soma. It cannot therefore be ended by the exercise of only one of its departments.

Furthermore, it can be argued that the so-called ‘laws of reason’ are merely the constructs and constraints of human thought and do not exist inherently (or, as Buddhist philosophers may say, ‘from their own side’). If so, they have no ultimate or metaphysical reality of their own. Human thought (though infatuating) may not (contra Aristotle et al) be much more sophisticated (under the aspect of eternity) than the thoughts of other animals, in which case it is human arrogance to assume that logical reasoning can fathom all that is and is not.

The inconceivability of God to rational thought is the beginning of theology which is, essentially, an act of worship. Without understanding this, philosophers and theologians who engage with the philosophy of religion will continue to talk at cross purposes. The one discipline is as powerless to put an end to the other as is the discipline of physics to put an end to the discipline of dance. The project itself is mistaken,


Neuroses and Fallacies

DEAR EDITOR: I see some value in Nicholas Maxwell’s hypothesis (Issue 51) about Scientific Neurosis, but the main thesis in his attack on what he calls ‘standard empiricism’ is just plain wrong. There is no historical evidence that arbitrary predictions have ever played a part in scientific progress.

Consider his example of rivals to Newtonian theory. For any such rival to be taken seriously it would first have to state its departure from or its additions to Newton’s initial assertions. Then it would have to demonstrate that in all known cases it produces the same results as Newton, and finally it would have to show that direct logical and mathematically rigorous consequences of the initial assertions lead to predictions of new phenomena. I would not claim that this is impossible (after all Einstein did it) but it is certainly not easy.

Predictions of new phenomena cannot be arbitrarily asserted. They must be deduced from initial, basic assertions which have been, at least partially, validated by quantitative conformance with known phenomena.


DEAR EDITOR: Nicholas Maxwell (‘Is Science Neurotic’, Issue 51) perpetrates some familiar fallacies about science. As these have too frequently been the basis of irrationalist, post-modernist attacks on the scientific enterprise, it is worth stating these and dealing with them.

First, the familiar straw man of empiricism, which Maxwell claims to be the official philosophy of science. Maxwell presents no evidence that science has an official philosophy, let alone that this is it. Perhaps he could borrow some evidential rigour from the scientific enterprise here.

This empiricist straw man leads Maxwell to his major fallacy, again a common one. Science (shock, horror) assumes a set of concepts, such as that the universe is comprehensible, and that the laws governing it will not change arbitrarily. This, he tells us, means that science is not so different from religions, and other similar (presumably socially constructed) worldviews.

To see the fallacy, let us take a parallel argument. Daffodils are a form of biological organism, just as much as lions are. But we would hardly be justified in deducing from this that daffodils hunt zebras! The obvious point here is that daffodils are a different kind of biological organism from lions, and this difference is crucial in understanding the behaviour in question. Similarly, we have to show that the concepts that underlie science are of a fundamentally different kind from those we associate with say religious or political ideologies.

It seems to me that this is the case – that the concepts to which Maxwell refers (and we could add the principle of causation to the list) are simply fundamental to what it means to live and act in the world; that every time we act – turn a doorknob, throw a stone, or write a letter to Philosophy Now – we are assuming, whether consciously or not, precisely those basic concepts. Modern defenders of science such as Alan Sokal argue precisely in this way – that scientific practice is simply an extension (albeit a highly sophisticated one) of the common-sense way in which all of us, without exception, relate to the world. This is what makes these concepts utterly different from higher-level abstractions such as God, or the theory of class struggle, or the great cycle of being, which we can genuinely choose to accept or reject. After all, even the most other-worldly religious sects tend to advertise next Sunday’s service without considering the possibility that the laws of nature might change on the intervening Tuesday.

It seems to me that it is this clarity of understanding of what science is that will rescue it from the irrationalist assault to which it is currently subject, and not a further diversion such as Maxwell’s.


What’s Demeaning of This?

DEAR EDITOR: How can your ‘science columnist’ Massimo Pigliucci demean science thus? (See Issue 50) Paraphrased: “Science usually suffices to solve empirical problems – whereas philosophy is meant to clarify conceptual issues.” From his own field: isn’t Evolution (especially biological) a concept that arose out of science? Many scientists find the essence of science in finding out what question to ask (and then to answer it). And science used to be called ‘natural philosophy’! There are signs that perhaps now the flow reverses and philosophy may become more scientific – to its enrichment, not impoverishment!

The ‘network’ model of ‘definitions’ is well taken – and a case in point.


Virtue is its Own Reward

DEAR EDITOR: Tim Madigan’s article, ‘The Basis of Morality,’ in Issue 51 raises several reasonable criticisms of characterizing ethics as received wisdom from God. Madigan’s naturalistic alternative relying on ‘sympathy-related traits’ and some kind of overarching ‘social instincts’ seems equally unsatisfying, however. The author’s argument that ‘reciprocal altruism’ is a specieslevel survival characteristic may be true but it implies that ethics and morality are nothing more than the cumulative perception of others and wholly unrelated to any intrinsic standard of right or wrong in the acts themselves. In essence he argues that if I believe you are acting in my best interest, I will be more likely to act in yours. Our mutual reliance benefits us both and in an evolutionary sense, the species as a whole. If the standard is perception, however, then organized religion seems equally up to the challenge of persuading individuals to act in an evolutionary enhancing manner. There seems no difference between convincing me to be virtuous because you will do the same for me or because God will reward me later. The goodness or badness of the act is, in each case, tied to the perceptions of some being outside ourselves. If, however, ethics and morality are in reality an internal function substantially unrelated to the perceptions of others, then it seems that insistence on a speculative and unproven neurobiological or instinctual genesis to the absolute exclusion of a divine genesis is just as dogmatic as ‘ancient writings’ and ‘priestly authorities.’


Research Strategies

DEAR EDITOR: In his article on critical realism and postmodernism (Issue 50) Roger Caldwell described the practice of science as “that of gathering evidence to support a theory.” This is an unfortunate choice of phrase as it suggests partisan procedures biased toward particular viewpoints. Researchers usually have opinions about the outcomes they expect. But to be well designed, their experiments must test their hypotheses, providing as much opportunity for refutation as for confirmation. Good researchers are open to the unexpected.

One particularly effective research strategy is called ‘the method of multiple hypotheses.’ In this approach, researchers start by thinking up as many hypotheses that might reasonably account for the phenomena as they can. Subsequent research efforts are aimed at discriminating among these hypotheses. Each remains a contender until there are sufficient data to show that it is false. Adoption of this strategy reduces tunnel vision and the temptation to controversy.

To use the above methods enough must be known about the phenomena to formulate hypotheses. When this is not true, research is aimed at collecting data for use in suggesting them. In this earlier stage of research the data are used in a perceptive rather than a judgmental manner.

By now, Caldwell has probably been sufficiently chastened for referring to polio viruses as bacteria.


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