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Criminality and Cannabis • The United Nations • Triads and Empiricists • Angels and Pinheads • The Natural Basis of Ethics • What is ‘Natural’? • Races and Species • Neurotic Science • Convinced Utilitarian • Occasional Liars • Labeling Error

Criminality and Cannabis

DEAR EDITOR: Robert Davies’ critique of arguments against the legalization of cannabis, in Issue 51, made some excellent points with which I agree. It’s on the matter of danger being the criterion for illegality that I wish to comment.

The assessment of risk involved in certain acts, it seems to me, is no valid standard by which to measure criminality. Also, if acts should be banned by virtue of their being dangerous, then a whole host of other risky behaviors, (including mountain climbing, skiing, and sky diving) should suffer a similar fate to that of heroin.

When merely dangerous, consensual acts are lumped together with necessarily coercive and damaging ones, the concept of criminality becomes diluted and the bright line between otherwise tolerable acts and intolerable ones becomes blurred.

What then is intolerable? There are certain acts which are illegal everywhere: Worldwide you will find, in some jurisdictions, nudist colonies, but no rapist colonies. You can find legal heroin, but no legal homicide.

A rough but reasonable rule of thumb for toleration might be: If an act is non coercive and legal anywhere, it should be legal everywhere.

In short, shooting up and happy hour have a lot more in common with jumping out of airplanes and skiing than they do with robbery, rape and murder.

What’s dangerous here is the employment of the ‘dangerous’ standard in determining criminality.


The United Nations

DEAR EDITOR: Richard Winston claimed in the June/July edition of Philosophy Now that “a vast majority of [United Nations] member states are dictatorships.” This is a much repeated but completely false claim. It’s easy enough to check the form of government of each member state (list available at un.org) on the CIA World Factbook website. Doing this reveals that 17.8% (34 states out of 191) of UN members are not democratic, but are monarchies, dictatorships, communist states, transitional, or ‘broken democracies’ (unreliable voting results). The widespread use of inaccuracies like these to defame the only democratic international institution we have is worrying to say the least.


Triads and Empiricists

DEAR EDITOR: I think there are exactly 10 kinds of philosophers: Those that understand binary notation and those that don’t.


Angels and Pinheads

DEAR EDITOR: My daughter bought me my first ever copy of Philosophy Now – March/April 2005 – and I was once again struck by that superficial description of medieval philosophy’s so called obsession with “How many Angels can dance on the point of a needle?” This denigration of the great depth and wisdom of the scholastics needs to be challenged. I recall the simple wisdom of Selwyn Grave, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Western Australia in the 1960’s, who commented on how this question raised the issue of the relationship between corporeal and spiritual realities.

Why do we need to trivialise the debate with a superficial dismissal of the profundity of the real question? Are we afraid of what the scholastics achieved, or of their refinement of logic and their gift to science or simply because we are so limited in our own understanding? If we looked to Quantum Mechanics and the mysteries of entities that both are and are not at the same time, maybe we could appreciate that the medievalists were also grappling with questions like how many muons can fit into a quark? Or how many ideas can be stored in a cupboard?

Hey! Great magazine and lucky for me I’ve discovered it!


The Natural Basis of Ethics

DEAR EDITOR: Tim Madigan’s article in Issue 51 explaining the scientific basis of morality is excellent in presenting arguments against a supernatural basis. It could have been stronger in arguing for a natural one. I disagree with one of his fundamental arguments, “The capacity to care for others is the bedrock of all of our moral systems.” This is only true if morality deals strictly with one’s treatment of others.

Any observer of nature cannot help but notice that self-preservation is the primary motivation of all sentient beings. This tells me it must also be the bedrock of all moral systems.

In Ayn Rand’s ethics, caring for others is part of one’s own rational self interest. Violation of trust and ‘faking reality’ are not. Indeed, the primates do have the requisites for moral behavior. Humans have superior ability to grasp and communicate the reasons for morality, including the fact that all moral choices can be tied back to a single guiding principle that nature provided and we do not need to be ashamed of.

I have taught my children a guiding principle that serves well in every situation and eliminates every apparent social dilemma when reasoned through. Whenever they come to me with a problem, I ask, “What is the guiding principle in life?” Caitlyn, 9-years old, answers, “Do what’s best for Caitlyn.” She understands and lives out this principle, and so does my grown-up daughter. They are two of the sweetest, most empathetic human beings I’ve ever known.


What is ‘Natural’?

DEAR EDITOR: I felt it necessary, although a little late, to comment on the debate about the ‘nature’ of homosexuality. In a letter in response to Mr. Voytinsky’s article in Issue 48 ‘Gay Rights: Choice vs. Nature?’ a reader states: “That is said to be ‘natural’ which accords with what is good for human beings.” Then he goes on to say that, “It is common to the human condition for humans to want to have sexual intercourse with those with whom they should not or when they should not or in ways that they should not.” In general, it would seem that pleasure, (the fulfillment of a desire) in itself, according to this reader’s religiously-determined metaphysics, goes against ‘natural law’. Sex is not pleasure but a duty. Based on these statements, we could also infer that this reader believes, like so many major religions have (and still do) believe, that the female orgasm is also unnatural. Obviously, according to them, the female orgasm is not necessary for procreation, hence unnatural.

Is not the pleasure of an orgasm something in accord with what is good for human beings? Or is what is ‘in accord with what is good for human beings’ only procreation? If one would answer yes to this latter, aside from the fact that it is rather presumptuous of the person to be able to determine that only procreation is good for humans, it also reeks of a biological basis. That is to say, if we base what is good for humans on a biological process, namely procreation, then why shouldn’t we consider other related biological processes such as the fulfillment of desires, as also being good for humans? But the reader had already stated his ideas on this matter. “All humans beings are, in fact, in an unnatural and disordered condition”. So, even though this unnatural and disordered condition arises from the same place as the ‘natural’ condition of procreating, i.e. our existence as biological beings, it is not natural/good. So, some things which are ‘natural’ in us are good and others are bad, and we should not permit, (but should even punish), those things in us which are naturally ‘unnatural’. I think I’m beginning to understand religious metaphysics.

To continue with the original question: Is not the pleasure of an orgasm something in accord with what is good for human beings? Although the reader may not be concerned about his wife’s orgasm, Mrs. reader probably is concerned. And her pleasure in sexual intercourse may determine if she is willing to go through any ‘natural’ biological processes. The more one enjoys something the more they may participate in the activity. Even work can be fun! And this leads us to the conclusion that the ‘natural’ which accords with what is good for human beings in part could very well be pleasure. A man and a woman who enjoy sex have more chances of procreating. A gay man or woman in a heterosexual relationship probably wouldn’t engage in so much procreating. More than likely, instead of the production of children, a broken family would be the product. But if kids were produced, that is okay because there will always be a happy gay couple out there that would be more than happy to adopt if that broken family decides they can’t keep the children. In a similar case, there will always be that young, heterosexual couple, which thinking they were complying with the ‘natural’ law to procreate, will not be able support the child as they would like and will have to give it up for adoption. That is also okay because they will always be able to count on the happy gay couple to adopt the child.

Moral of the story: “if everything ‘natural’ comes down to some practical utility, then everything natural will eventually have some utility.”


Races and Species

DEAR EDITOR: Eyvind C. Krogh states (letters, Issue 52) “All human beings on earth today, Homo Sapiens Sapiens, are biologically the same race. This is a truth without question and makes the word ‘racism’ absurd.”

In a philosophical forum it is rash to state that there are any truths without question. I would like to support this statement by questioning the truth of his remark. In fact, all members of the group Homo Sapiens Sapiens are members of the same species (in so far as such a thing as a species exists and is agreed upon) but they are not all one race (given the difficulty of agreeing on what a race might be.)

Nor is the mere word ‘racism’ absurd, though it is much misused. Looking at characteristics of different races might be a branch of anthropology, but when that examination includes ascribing superiority or inferiority to individual races we move into the realm of racism. Note that it is not the classification of difference which is offensive, merely the value judgement: all members of the group canis familiaris are the same species, but they are not all the same breed. It does not seem to me a problem to point out that a Rottweiler is likely to be less friendly to strangers than a Cavalier King Charles, but that does not mean that one is essentially a ‘better’ dog – or even a better pet – than the other.


Neurotic Science

DEAR EDITOR: Leo Westhead and Harry Goldstein (letters, Issue 52) criticize my argument that ‘science is neurotic’ (Issue 51). Both, alas, have misunderstood me. I am sorry I did not make myself clearer.

Leo Westhead says “There is no historical evidence that arbitrary predictions have ever played a part in scientific progress.” I agree. That is, indeed, central to my argument. Horribly disunified theories, making ‘arbitrary predictions’, even though empirically more successful than accepted theories, are rejected, or rather not even considered, because of their disunity. I went on to argue that this persistent rejection of empirically successful but disunified theories means science makes a big, persistent, problematic assumption about the world, and it is this which contradicts standard empiricism.

Harry Goldstein complains that I do not provide any evidence for my claim that standard empiricism is the official philosophy of science. Fair enough. But lots must be left out in a short article. I do, however, provide evidence elsewhere: see my The Comprehensibility of the Universe (Oxford University Press, 1998), pp.38-45; and my Is Science Neurotic? (Imperial College Press, 2004), pp.4-7, especially note 5. Many scientists accept Popper’s demarcation criterion which excludes metaphysics from science: this means they accept a version of standard empiricism. The failure of science courses to discuss explicitly the problematic metaphysical presuppositions of science is another indication. And many scientists have expressed their conviction that, in the end, evidence alone decides what is accepted and rejected in science. Few scientists explicitly declare that science accepts untestable theses about the world as a permanent part of scientific knowledge (which is what is required if standard empiricism is to be rejected).

Goldstein goes on to accuse me of holding that science is not so very different from religion. What I actually argued was that scientists are reluctant to acknowledge that science presupposes that the universe is comprehensible out of fear that this will make science look too much like religion. I do not think science is at all like religion. If Goldstein looks again at Diagram 2 of my article he will see that, at level 4, there is the conjectural assumption that the universe is physically comprehensible, quite different from the presuppositions of religion and politics. I agree in part when Goldstein says science is an extension and refinement of common sense, but in my view it also does violence to common sense in presupposing the physical comprehensibility of the universe. Goldstein mentions Alan Sokal. As it happens, Alan Sokal agrees with my hierarchical conception of science (personal communication). Finally, I too want to defend science from the attacks of irrationalists, as I make very clear in, for example, the Preface to my Is Science Neurotic? But it is very important that we defend a genuinely rational conception of science, and not, as so often happens at present, an irrational, neurotic one which represses problematic assumptions, concerning metaphysics, values and politics, associated with the aims of science.


DEAR EDITOR: When I got towards the end of Nicholas Maxwell’s article, ‘Is Science Neurotic?’, it occurred to me that it was a satire, and that I had been duped into taking it seriously. But, in the past, I had met and argued with academic philosophers who shared a similar view, specifically relativism, which maintains all theories are equally valid, so I decided to take it seriously. It’s not Maxwell’s philosophical premise that I have a problem with, but his use of fictional scenarios to justify a distorted interpretation of how science is realised. About half way through his essay, he makes the following statement: “Most scientists and philosophers of science would agree with the argument so far. It’s the next step which will provoke horrified disagreement.” Well, no, the rest of the essay contained elements I agree with; it was the preceding misrepresentation of science which drew a horrified response from me. I can’t believe that any scientist or philosopher of science would agree with his belief that “almost all the infinitely many equally empirically successful (and more successful) rival theories [to Newton’s and Einstein’s theories of gravity]” even exist. As for meta-theories, they are even more scarce. The problem with Maxwell’s argument is that these alternatives, which he presents as valid representations, are all fictions. And the problem with his treatise is that people unfamiliar with science will not realise this. He is right in quoting Popper, that all scientific knowledge is conjectural, because that is the secret of the success of science, and why our knowledge and comprehension of the natural world is never complete. It is the discovery in the natural world that doesn’t fit the current paradigm that provides the key to the next paradigm. It is also worth noting that only future generations know how ignorant the current generation is. But this does not lead axiomatically to the premise that there are an infinite number of empirically valid theories to a specific natural phenomenon, unless one assumes, as Maxwell apparently does, that there are an infinite number of possible natural worlds, of which we only live in one.

Despite his relativist arguments and misleading representations of science, I think his philosophical point, concerning the comprehensibility of the universe and its link to a metaphysical raison d’etre, is a valid one. But this is a philosophical point arising from the study of science and not an avenue that science can investigate, hence the ‘neurosis’ metaphor.

Philosophers are very good at creating cogent, but ultimately irrelevant, arguments based on fictional suppositions, and that’s exactly what Maxwell has done. The evidence? Science is not ‘swamped by an infinity of empirically equally successful rival theories’, because the events that support these so-called rival theories don’t exist in the natural world.


Convinced Utilitarian

DEAR EDITOR: I always find Moral Moments thought-provoking but Joel has surely got it wrong in preferring Kantianism or deontology to utilitarianism.

The terrorist knows it is right to kill just as surely as I know it is wrong. How can we justify one course of action against another except by reference to the consequences? If we don’t, the terrorist will just continue to say, “I kill innocent people because it is right. That is what my faith tells me to do.”

So we need to consider the consequences in justifying actions and only utilitarianism allows us to have a serious ethical debate and assess the respective merits of different courses of action.


Occasional Liars

DEAR EDITOR: I think that the authors of ‘The Liar Lied’ (Issue 51) are a little too restrictive in their solution to this paradox. What about “This sentence is true.”? Is this sentence any more meaningful than “This sentence is not true.”? I think one of their original proposals, that a sentence cannot meaningfully make an assertion about its own truth value, is adequate to cover both these cases.

As for Epimenides, at least two other articles in the same issue (‘A Logical Vacation’ and ‘Symbols Made Simple’) make short work of his ‘paradox’. Is ‘All Cretans are liars’ true or false? It’s false; sometimes they lie and sometimes they don’t, and this is an example of the former. Just because it’s false that someone always lies doesn’t mean they always tell the truth.


Labeling Error

DEAR EDITOR: There is a labeling error in the article by Mike Alder (June/July 2005).

On page 19 Alder refers to the second syllogism as EAE. The syllogism is actually AII in the first figure. ‘Some A’s are B’s’ is an I statement, not an E statement. Second, the premise that contains the predicate of the conclusion is usually stated first. The syllogism should read

All B’s are C’s.
Some A’s are B’s.
Thus, Some A’s are C’s.

The syllogism itself is valid.


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