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Sartre Wars • Sceptical Inquiries • Don’t Believe This Letter • Secular Arguments • Miracle, Probability and Law • Race and Science • Missing Virtues • Load of Balls • B*llsh*t! • Let’s Get Physical

Sartre Wars

DEAR EDITOR: Thank you for the high entertainment value in the Sartre Bumper Issue. The two sparkling contributions on Sartre’s cack-handed politics from the UK Society for Sartre Studies included many bon-mots on Sartre’s status as a ‘critical traveling companion’ of Soviet Communism. Thus we have from Benedict O’Donohoe: “Sartre’s unshakeable commitment to freedom meant that he was always on the side of the oppressed and dispossessed”, and “Sartre denounced the Gulags … as early as 1950”. How impressed one is by an ‘early’ recognition of a systematic campaign of mass murder twenty five years after it began depends on whether you think Sartre can have somehow failed to notice such obscure and unreported events as: six million dead in the politically-engineered Ukrainian collectivization famine, the Soviet agitation against the Spanish Republic, the Nazi- Soviet pact, the fact that Stalin was Hitler’s ally when he occupied Paris, the 1939 Soviet invasion of Poland, etc etc. It is not as if there weren’t people on the progressive side of politics pointing out these facts (e.g. Orwell and later, Camus). When the writer tells us that the USA carried out “the annexation of Western Europe through the Marshall Plan” we get some insight into the ‘commitment’ that lies behind these lame excuses, and into the general technique. I guess ‘annexation’ can mean anything at all, if it can mean that gift of American taxpayers’ money in discount loans which helped put food on the plate in Western Europe. I note that O’Donohoe doesn’t use ‘annexation’ to describe what happened at that time in Eastern Europe (presumably Stalin’s coups and murders were not annexation but the ‘violence of the oppressed’). Perhaps O’Donohoe’s political commitment is too obvious and laughable to be sinister, but his capacity for flying in the face of the facts is truly breathtaking. Did Orwell write in vain?

Then we come to Ian Birchall, fellow UK Society for Sartre Studies member and “longstanding member of the Socialist Workers Party”, who at the same time as extolling the merits of terrorism as “violence… to raise… consciousness” (that is, in plain language: death by political advertisement) asks fatuously “whether democracy, in any meaningful sense, can be achieved by the bayonets of an invading army”. Well yes, France liberated from the Nazis would seem to be one paradigmatic case of a democracy achieved because of an invading army (i.e. the US army), although I wouldn’t like to argue that the snap-on bayonets organised the whole thing by themselves. By the way, exactly how does videoing yourself chopping the head off a water-engineer ‘raise the consciousness of the oppressed’? I am also mystified by such thoughts as that “a history which developed through predetermined stages to a necessary conclusion…. [is] a travesty of Marxism.” The travesty of Marxism that’s in Das Kapital, you mean? Marx may well have to be expelled from the Party.


DEAR EDITOR: Ian Burchall (Issue 53) asks “whether democracy, in any meaningful sense, can be achieved by the bayonets of an invading army’. Can he be unaware of the history of Germany and Japan since 1945?

Incidentally, is the phrase “in any meaningful sense” in any meaningful sense meaningful?


DEAR EDITOR: In his article ‘Why Sartre Matters’, Benedict O’Donohue points out that for Sartre it is “the nature of consciousness that makes humans the authors of moral value … Moreover, in most situations, we can conceive of more than one way to change things: in short, we can – indeed, we have to – choose.” As Sartre puts it man is ‘condemned to be free’.

A basic point of Sartre’s philosophy is his rejection of the idea of a fixed self that would circumscribe our freedom. We are always free to reconstruct the self that limits our freedom. But Sartre doesn’t explain how, if there is no controlling self and consciousness is just a reflection of objects we can think of consciousness as pure freedom.

But if Sartre wishes us to remake ourselves whenever we choose, he doesn’t discuss how we are to change ourselves if there are no enduring features of the old self to provide motivation. The Sartrean self is only pure potentiality and floats in a void. As William Barrett has argued “What is happening here is no less than an attempt to reverse the whole philosophic tradition of the west. This tradition first expressed by Aristotle holds that actuality is prior to potentiality. Because a thing is constructed in a certain way it will have certain powers or potentialities. This implies that possibilities are limited by the actual nature of the person”

Because Sartre had eliminated the transcendental ego from his phenomenology he was unable to develop a system of morality. A morality is essentially a philosophy of freedom, but this becomes meaningless without some idea of a permanent self. The consequence is that this freedom which Sartre describes as total can become unbalanced and demonic.


Sceptical Inquiries

DEAR EDITOR: Michael Philips’ article (‘Is Skepticism Ridiculous?’ Issue 53) was interesting, but the problem he sets out to address seems to be based on an unjustified assumption. There is only a problem with skeptics acting ‘normally’ if not having a rational reason to believe something is equivalent to not having a rational reason for acting as if that some- thing is true. If they are not equivalent, then a skeptic can believe for example that there is no rational reason to believe in an external world, but act as if there is an external world, with no inconsistency whatsoever.

As an example of how they may differ, take the case mentioned, of whether there is an external world. I do not have a rational reason to believe that there is an external world; but nor do I have a rational reason to believe there is not an external world. Yet I have to act as if one or the other proposition is true. The only other possibility would be to not act at all, which I can only truly achieve by ceasing to live. (Ockham’s Razor does not help me choose: I don’t believe that it tells me anything about the truth or falsity of propositions, it merely gives useful guidance in how to do research.)

Am I therefore in the position of Buridan’s ass, unable to choose between two bales of hay? Maybe not, because when I try to live by these propositions I find that life is quite different for each one. If I act as if the external world exists then I’m reasonably content, thank you. But if I try to live as if the external world does not exist, then life seems less comfortable. No, I don’t bump into things; before I even get to that stage I find I’m struggling with the effort of working out how to act as if the world doesn’t exist, and I don’t seem to be getting an answer about how to do this. Admittedly, for me to act on the assumption that the external world exists means also assuming that my past experience is a guide to the future, but I am not committed to this course: if it didn’t seem to be working I could change the way I act.

So holding skeptical beliefs and acting normally can be without contradiction provided that it is rational to act expediently. That’s a whole new can of worms, and one which is far more than I could hope to tackle in this letter (or probably at all).


Don’t Believe This Letter

DEAR EDITOR: Must we believe in belief? Must we believe (or disbelieve) in the strings of string theory, the unconscious, Plato’s Forms, the gods and things-in-themselves? Could we not just suspend judgement pending ongoing critical investigation? Where such conjectures appear useful, attractive or enjoyable, we could proceed as if they were true and explore the mass energy structure of the universe, analyse dreams, do geometry, attempt to satisfy certain emotional needs and examine perception. A serious demarcation problem arises when one insists that certain conjectures must be believed. This is well illustrated by Michael Philips’ ‘core beliefs’ (Is Skepticism Ridiculous?, Issue 53). These core beliefs inhabit a separate domain beyond critical examination.

There must be a reason for such a strategy. Perhaps emotion charges certain beliefs with an aura of apparent truth which stays the hand that would otherwise reach for Ockham’s Razor. And perhaps, way out in the wilderness, a less philosophical hand reaches for a weapon to enforce the emotion-charged truth of some other belief. Perhaps we would be better served by the peace and tranquillity of mind (ataraxia) which is alleged to follow the suspension of judgement “like a shadow” (Diogenes Laertius 9-107).


Secular Arguments

DEAR EDITOR: I was reading a piece about the Archbishop of Canterbury in the Daily Mail (9th Nov. 2005) where he berates the ‘advancing tyranny of wholesale secularism’, albeit referring to the offenders as ‘well meaning secularists’. I am not a fan of the Archbishop, nor do I belong to any religious group but it seems to me that secularism tries to carry with it the implication of being either a self-evident truth or one which is scientific and therefore somehow provable. This is not the case. A religion is something that a person believes in even though the basic tenets of the religion cannot themselves be proved to be true, (ie: the existence of God cannot be proved, so you have to believe in him, if you wish).

The other side of this is, of course, that you cannot disprove the existence of a God, nor of a non-physical life beyond this one, you have to simply believe that. Secularists choose to believe (as is their right) that this is the only existence and that there is no other, but they can’t prove it. Secularism is therefore a new religion without symbols that denies its name.


Miracle, Probability and Law

DEAR EDITOR: Although I think that Stephen Anderson’s article ‘Can Mythology Save the Miraculous?’ (Issue 52) is excellent, I think a wee bit of clarification is in order for two of his claims.

Firstly, Anderson writes: “The very most that one can deduce from the existence of [scientific] laws is that miracles are unlikely – to which the believer in miracles always has the cavalier rejoinder, ‘No kidding’.”

The believer in miracles should rather reply “I think not.” Why? Because it would be more accurate to say that the most one can deduce from the existence of scientific laws is that a miracle is unlikely only if those laws express all the goings-on in a universe without God or, if in a universe with God, the laws express all of God’s intentions concerning the universe. But we know neither that God does not exist nor that the laws of science express all of God’s intentions, if God does exist.

Secondly, Anderson writes: “In order to bring scientific laws into conflict with the miraculous, it is necessary to add an additional premise, known as the Uniformitarian hypothesis: that is, the supposition that all laws continue as they have been since the foundation of the earth, without exception.”

I think that Anderson’s analysis here is also a bit off. Why? Because laws of nature would continue without exception even if a miracle were to occur. As Anderson correctly acknowledges, scientific laws apply ceteris paribus, i.e., all other things being equal. In other words, laws of nature are rules about how the stuff (i.e., matter/energy) to which they apply operates when there is no interference. When there is interference, say, from an introduction of additional stuff into the system, it doesn’t change any rule about how stuff operates when there is no interference. For example, throwing an extra billiard ball onto the table into a group of billiard balls in motion does not change the laws of motion; rather, the material conditions to which the laws of motion apply have been changed, and so only our predictions which continue to employ the unchanged laws of motion will be changed. Therefore, contrary to Anderson’s claim, all laws can continue without exception since the foundation of the earth and there can be miracles. Perhaps Anderson’s Uniformitarian hypothesis should be restated as the supposition that the stuff to which the laws apply hasn’t been added to since the foundation of the earth.

For additional discussion, I recommend Robert A. Larmer’s Water into Wine? An Investigation of the Concept of Miracle (McGill-Queen’s Univ. Press, 1988). See too my PhD dissertation on ‘Miracle Reports, Moral Philosophy and Contemporary Science’ (University of Waterloo, 2004)!


Race and Science

DEAR EDITOR: Ian McKechnie claims that race is a legitimate scientific category, and that it is merely the designation of one race as superior to another which is racist. Whilst I accept the second part, I reject the first. In anthropology race is a completely defunct category. Studies have shown that geographical regions from the very smallest to the very largest show commonalities in the gene pool. For example, a study found common genetic inheritances in different regions of North Wales, yet this is no case for saying the people of North Wales comprises a unique race, or even several unique races. There is no legitimate scientific means of demarcating a race. In fact, historically, the science of race has been more concerned to identify the very racial superiorities which McKechnie claims is a separate issue. Race science inaugurated both phrenology and eugenics. Hence, we should rather claim that race is an entirely social, cultural and political construct.


Missing Virtues

DEAR EDITOR: Joel Marks (Moral Moments, Issue 52) presents only two schools of ethics to choose from, deontological and utilitarian. But this gives us a false alternative – surely Aristotle’s teleological eudaimonist ethics (developed by many contemporary philosophers such as David L. Norton, Martha Nussbaum, Philippa Foot, et al.) should at least be mentioned as a contender. Marks’ discussion of schools of ethics resembles someone’s discussion of who the best tennis player is mentioning only Bork and Connors, without Federer, McEnroe or all the others who have made a mighty strong showing and may even surpass the first two.

Marks also mentions Ockham’s Razor as favoring Kant, but by that standard even Mill has it over Kant. Kant, after all, had to assume a very complicated, arguably bizarre if not altogether incredible, dualistic metaphysics/ontology to support his deontological ethics. Moreover, arguably no one can practice Kantian ethics, given that to be ethical would, for Kant, amount to having no motivation of one’s own involved in doing the right thing, not even to become a good person!


Load of Balls

DEAR EDITOR: Whilst searching the shelves for Photoshop magazines I chanced upon Philosophy Now (Issue 52). Here in Australia, 83% of our population, including women, are called Bruce, and I flicked the pages hoping to find an article by local philosopher Bruce ‘Bung’ O’Hearn, but was pleased to find one written by Mike Alder from West Australia. I have already lost two good friends arguing about his balls. I still favour the thousand ball box. If Bayes is correct I should choose the ten ball box, but the chance of my name appearing in the thousand ball box is much, much higher before my choice has to be made. I wish I had paid more attention to my prof, but in those days I was busy protesting against the war in Vietnam and looking for beads and ribbons for my long hair and beard. The balance in your magazine between heavy, light, contemporary and traditional is good and I actually laughed at Shannon Kincaid’s ‘Philosophy Video Game’. I would like someone to contrast Tillory’s article about John Lennon with one on Bob Dylan, and I was pleased to have my instincts about George W. Bush’s threats confirmed by Paul Keeling: “Threatening terrorists is one thing, but threatening the citizens of the world … is another.”

Schop had it right.



DEAR EDITOR: I enjoyed Peter Nuessam’s review of Harry Frankfurt’s book On Bullshit and was struck by two things.

Firstly, that bullshitters always have an intention to mislead. By this I mean the bullshitter either aims to convince people that they know what they are talking about when they don’t or they pretend to say something meaningful when in reality there is no content of any consequence.

Secondly, Issue 53 was largely devoted to Sartre, who whilst deserving such attention as an important philosopher was also guilty of extended and often impenetrable bullshit on occasion. “Slime is the revenge of the In-Itself” might be seen as an example of this. However, this may be better thought of not as an example of ‘bullshit’ per se but as simple nonsense. In other words, Sartre didn’t intend to mislead the reader into thinking he was saying something meaningful when he wasn’t (he remained committed to telling the truth). Instead, whilst he genuinely thought he was saying something of substance, he was wrong.


Let’s Get Physical

DEAR EDITOR: Surely Michael Philips (‘Physicalism & Empathetic Understanding’, Issue 52) must know that scientists are skeptical of parapsychology not because they are wedded to the notion of ‘physicalism’ but rather because countless experiments to prove psychic phenomena have failed.

Philips says, “We can only begin to guess what physics will look like a hundred years from now.” I will go out on a ‘metaphysical’ limb and confidently predict that 100 years hence physics will still look ‘physical’.

I would also remind Mr Philips that energy is matter and not “neutral between the physical and the non physical.”

Finally, strictly speaking, qualia cannot have causal powers so long as we can choose not to scratch – otherwise merely being conscious of an itch would always result in the same response. Effects necessarily follow causes.


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