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The Truth About Music • Impossible Reality • As Lack Of Evidence… • Not Bewitched • Private Language Studies • The Illogical Existence of God • Free To Be Good • Post Post Post • Bile For Bile

The Truth About Music

DEAR EDITOR: Ed Slowik in Issue 59 said: “Scientific judgement deals with facts and ‘truths’ about our world, whereas music only involves, at best, someone’s idea of what constitutes good aural art.” I think that some would rather argue that music reveals different truths from scientific conclusions, or expresses those truths in a different way. This of course reflects the concept of ‘incommensurability’ mentioned earlier in the article. The word ‘truth’ is determined by the paradigm it’s used in: it is not owned solely by the scientists.


DEAR EDITOR: Edward Slowik presented an intriguing idea in his analogy with Kuhn’s philosophy of science, by the transference of Kuhn’s own paradigm to the classical sonata form. Had he mentioned any other of the dozens of composers writing music between 1750-1820 I would have been tempted to agree with him, but not in respect to the three composers cited. The very idea that Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven were taught for years and in their turn passed on the recipe for how to write in sonata form, is not only an insult to these composers, but downright disparaging. I would most earnestly suggest that before this maleficent idea is spread any further, the writer obtains one of the best books written on the subject, The Classical Style by Charles Rosen (1971). Rosen says, “What unites Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven is not personal contact or even mutual influence and interaction (although there was much of both), but their common understanding of the musical language which they did so much to formulate and to change.”

Charles Rosen is not a musicologist. He has more importantly been one of the leading performers of the classical composers mentioned, and is a highly perceptive, respected musician.


Impossible Reality

DEAR EDITOR: I very much appreciated Mike Alder’s article ‘Help Wanted: Philosopher Required to Sort Out Reality’ (Issue 59). A serious discussion of the weirdness of quantum mechanics is much needed in the philosophical community. Basing his approach on Bell’s Inequality was an imaginative and very brave decision, given the mathematical demands this necessarily implies. It was a pity therefore that there’s a notational confusion in the ‘proof’, where the number of elements in a set and the set itself were confused in Alder’s notation, eg between A and ||A||. I hope this did not result in some readers giving up on what was otherwise a very clear presentation.

Alder did not mention explicitly the famous ‘EPR’ thought-experiment proposed by Einstein, Podolsky and Rosen. This had the intention of showing that quantum mechanics had to be an impossible description of reality. But infuriatingly, this and other experiments always confirm the predictions of quantum theory, however unreasonable they seem to be to most of us. Interested readers should look up an account of the two-slit experiment (in Feynman’s Lectures on Physics, Vol.3, for example), not to mention the other notorious paradox known as Schrödinger’s Cat.

My own unhappy conclusion is to go along with the Copenhagen Interpretation, and accept that our brains have evolved to understand the macroscopic world (and much more besides), but not the world of atomic physics. However, quantum mechanics is routinely used to accurately describe all phenomena at this level, provided the effects of gravity are not significant. The attempts to incorporate gravity (in, say, String Theory) yield further mind-blowing concepts, which I suspect we are just going to have to learn to live with. So keep on taking the (philosophical) pills.


As Lack Of Evidence…

DEAR EDITOR: I was quite entertained by the dialogue written by Stafford Betty [in PN 59] between Theo and Reggie, about the evidence for life after death. I was surprised to see the subject approached in a philosophical magazine. But perhaps this explains the lack of empirical evidence and abundance of pseudo-evidence which Theo heaped on poor unprepared Reggie.

As a physician and a skeptic I have given this issue much thought. I have seen a lot of patients die, and have also watched many nearly die. Only one has ever told me that he had any kind of near death experience (NDE). I’ve had many people nowhere near death describe very interesting hallucinations, including seeing dead relatives, bright lights, moments of peace, etc. But this is all circumstantial. Let’s quickly debunk Theo’s pseudo-evidence.

First, anyone who is alive to tell of a NDE did not in fact die. They clearly had brain function and some physiologic activity, albeit quite different from day to day living (which by the way may explain the unusual experiences). But these experiences say nothing about what happens when we die. It is entirely possible that a dying person not yet dead may still feel, hear, see, etc, what is going on around them. It would be quite easy to reconstruct this experience as a NDE, say in order for the brain to make sense of the experience and maintain a time-line.

The great argument that blind people see during a NDE is easily explained. They don’t, in fact. They describe the mental ‘images’ they experience during the near death event, just as anyone else does. Despite the fact that blind people lack the ability to see, they do not lack the ability to imagine or create images based on memories in their brain that can be verbally regurgitated when asked to explain their experience. Clearly, something does happen at some very stressful and unusual near death events. It certainly warrants explanation. But it is extremely likely that this is a natural phenomenon; hence the consis-tency across cultures, which will in time be explained through science. Unfortunately for Theo, the NDE gives zero evidence for life after death: only evidence for unusual brain activity at the time near death.


Not Bewitched

DEAR EDITOR: First I wish to congratulate you on choosing such a range of enlightening articles about the works of Wittgenstein. The problems I have with his work (or at least my understanding of it), were crystallized by the article ‘Bewitched’ in Issue 59. Rather than seeing slogans as a dangerous use of language, I see sloganising as an example of the way we all use language, most of the time: to transmit our subjective feelings and establish our empathetic relations with others. (Bewitching people by action at a distance?) Leaders and politicians have always used slogans (or ‘war cries’), and in Greek times this was seen as part of the rhetorical skills any educated person should possess. I would agree that a logician such as Wittgenstein has nothing to say about this, and therefore, in this case, should indeed be silent.

However, there is a use of metaphysical language where both logic and philosophy play an essential role, and it is one which actually protects us from the ravages of bewitchment by language. We have created some extremely powerful ‘metaphysical objects’ that, like real objects, can be pointed at, named, and then used as part of logical argument. I’m talking about the written law. By pointing to the written law, lawyers make coherent and logical arguments which can justify or condemn actions. For the President of the USA these laws are grounded in the written constitution, and many can thank this document (very much inspired by the philosopher John Locke) for protecting them from the follies of politics based only on rhetoric or indisputable revelation. So I also disagree with Wittgenstein’s Tractatus 7.1 (unless one takes it as a call to the contemplative life), that the philosopher has nothing to say beyond the physical world. It is the philosopher who creates, questions and provides the logical basis for the interpretation of these most powerful metaphysical objects, some of which at least, attempt to protect us from being bewitched by the language of our feelings.


Private Language Studies

DEAR EDITOR: I am writing with regard to Richard Floyd’s article ‘The Private Language Argument’ [PN 58] and Wittgenstein’s contemplations on the impossibility of a ‘private language’. Private languages do sometimes occur in the real world, particularly in the case of acute schizophrenia.

Acute schizophrenia is characterised by hallucinations (perceiving things in the external environment not perceived by other people), illusions (perceiving things in the external environment that other people perceive, but interpreting them differently) and delusions – particularly primary delusions, where in response to an environmental occurrence a belief system is set up which is completely different to other peoples’. For example, a brown envelope coming through the letterbox which to everyone else signifies an electricity bill, may to the schizophrenic signify the start of World War III.

Whilst in an acute schizophrenic state the sufferer may develop their own private language, as evidenced by the use of neologisms (‘new words’). These words are meaningless to anyone else, but have a definite meaning to the schizophrenic as he struggles to describe the inner sensations for which words from the public language are insufficient.

An example of such altered language, taken from Psychological Medicine by Curran, Partridge and Storey, is a schizophrenic describing a drawing: “Cordron. A theme of curved and fancy lines, stcollic st, from steeple word from the point on top of the post collic word matching the point…” etc. I think we might reasonably say that this is a private language, which, as predicted, is unintelligible to anyone using the public language. It is said that if you hold a conversation with someone and you find you have not understood a word they’ve been saying, there is a good chance you’ve been talking to a schizophrenic, or perhaps a professor of philosophy!


The Illogical Existence of God

DEAR EDITOR: To make a logical argument that will stand examination, it is necessary first to declare any assumptions. This is impossible to do completely, and difficult to do adequately. Many philosophers make only a passing effort before plunging into their arguments, and for example Russell and Copleston, in their famous 1948 discussion on God, should first have declared the assumption that the existence of God is subject to logical analysis.

It really won’t do to assume this. The existence of my socks is not subject to logic; a difficult topic like God even less so. It involves matters relating to perceptual experience. Suppose I have never smelt a rose: no words or arguments can give me a knowledge of the smell of a rose. You might however use words to direct me to go and sniff at that pink thing in your garden.

There are other assumptions to be taken into account in logical argument: (1) The words have clear, explicit and unchanging meanings; (2) The grammar [semantics? Ed] of the language – which language? – corresponds to the structure of reality; (3) We know what we are talking about.

None of these assumptions is realistic. The result is that all logical arguments, though they may have some limited value, such as training the logical skill of the intellect, inevitably come to a point of incompetence. For example, to argue about the meaning of “I Am That I Am” (as Miriam Abbott’s ‘Brilliant Masterpiece’ did in Issue 58), is absurd unless you have experienced a certain kind of awareness; and if you have experienced it you know that all words are at best good as hints, not as meanings – like the finger pointing at the pink flower.

May I suggest that philosophers in the West take a look at the work of Nagarjuna, who did a thorough job of demolishing Buddhist philosophers who were arguing about words instead of finding reality.


Free To Be Good

DEAR EDITOR: In a recent article Jean Kazez asks the question ‘How Good Do We Have To Be?’ in relation to a purchase of a television set at Circuit City.

She begins the article by citing a Peter Singer argument that a choice to buy a $2,000 TV set is a choice not to buy the food and medical care that would save scores of lives. Mrs Kazez then asks the question: “How then could the TV purchase be justifiable?” The answer to this question lies in the heart of another question: How did you earn the $2,000?

How did the $2,000 you have in your bank get there? Did someone give you something, or did you earn it in an exchange of goods and services? This is the crucial question Mrs Kazez fails to ask in her highly theoretical article.

I work at a customer service job in which I provide a service to the public, for which I receive compensation. The money is mine to do with as I wish. If I choose to spend it on a TV, that is my right as an individual. It also my right as a participant in a society which exchanges goods and services throughout its communities. If I continue to produce my service, my boss will continue to pay me the money needed to purchase a television or whatever other goods and services I choose to purchase.

I have no moral or legal obligation to give anyone else my money. If I choose to give my money to a poor person, country or society, I will do so for my own rewards. I will not do so because I feel guilty for having the money. The money was not given to me. I did not deserve it. I worked for it. I earned it This is the oversight in Jean Kazez’s article. It is also the error that ad campaigns for charitable organizations make. I believe charitable giving would be more prolific if the ad campaigns focused more on the rational rewards of giving than on the emotive guilt of not giving. Rather than show a small boy surrounded with flies, the campaigns could show us all the individuals who have succeeded in life thanks to our giving.

In the end, Mrs Kazez chooses to blame the world she lives in for her purchase. She absolves herself from feeling guilty by saying she feels she had little to no choice in the matter, due to the amusements around her. If she doesn’t have the will to resist the temptations around her, she should strengthen her resolve, but she shouldn’t feel guilty about not being a stronger person: she should do something about it. The world didn’t create the weaknesses in Mrs Kazez: she creates them herself.


DEAR EDITOR: I enjoyed reading Jean Kazez’s article (Issue 58) on how to be ethical in a materialistic society. True happiness comes from within, and this entails helping others. Due to the 1960’s revolution, American culture has quickly turned into the ‘Self-Centered’ culture. When speaking of culture, I do not mean every American – just how society operates as a whole. Western pop culture teaches the youth to live in an illusion of glamour instead of helping others.

Nietzsche professes that the Overman can control his passions, but Nietzsche rejects religious morals. Some churches have fallen prey to materialism as they resemble more a corporation than a faith organization. As Schopenhauer claims, the will can never be satisfied. But this means helping others can bring more joy. A Buddhist monk may give away all his possessions to receive spiritual bliss, knowing that external objects will not give him true happiness. Similarly, we need to learn how to help others instead of helping ourselves, which is easier said than done. This does not mean you have to quit your job or give up a hobby: it means donate more to charity or serve in a soup kitchen. From Plato to Sartre, philosophers have tried to teach people how to live a better life. Simply getting outside of yourself will teach you much more about yourself.


DEAR EDITOR: Great piece by Jean Kazez in Issue 58. I really enjoy the pieces in which philosophical problems are couched in everyday terms. It makes it easier to sink one’s teeth into the issues!

Anyway, it seems to me that the solution to Jean’s question, ‘How good do we have to be?’ is actually quite straightforward, as provided in Zen Buddhist thinking. Zen Buddhism argues that the clearest path to doing ‘the good’ is to pursue quality in one’s work. Thus the doctor in Haiti can enjoy himself AND do the good simultaneously because his calling is such (medicine) that it can be done in a tin shack in Haiti. By contrast, Mrs Kazez’ calling could not be pursued in a tin shack in Haiti, so it doesn’t make any sense – either ethically or common-sensically – for her to go there. By the way, Robert Pirsig handles this issue wonderfully in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. The whole book is a meditation on quality in work and the ethics surrounding that.

Last point: There’s a great new book out now called The White Man’s Burden by William Easterly. The subtitle is Why the West’s Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good. Easterly’s point, demonstrated with crushingly compelling charts, is that doing for others what they can or should do for themselves creates perverse incentives – worsening situations instead of making them better. Basically, the more money a country receives in aid, the worse it does. (That said, Easterly also argues that health-care-related aid is actually quite effective. So the doctor’s efforts in Haiti are indeed probably helping.)


Post Post Post

DEAR EDITOR: I’m thrilled to finally read in print (by someone other than myself) that postmodernism is dead (Issue 58). Sure, there will be those that linger, creating more postmodern entertainment fit for toddlers, but the trend is elsewhere, and beyond, as the article said so well. Postmodernism always seemed so negative, sarcastic and deprecating, and I’m glad to see it leave.

My one criticism of the article is its lack of focus on writing without technology. Yes, technology is playing a vital role in the transformation of how words are used and appreciated, but that same zeroing-in on the reader/observer/etc will also play a vital role in more traditional forms of text.

How exactly this will take place is where my excitement begins and my knowledge ends. Already though, in the world of poetry, we see a proliferation in the number of small presses and literary journals. This demonstrates the tendency for more readers to take an active role in the publishing process (print and webbased), selecting their own favorites instead of letting ‘experts’ choose for them… Of course this leads to what the article pointed out – the non-experts are selecting what isn’t always great writing. There is “a triteness and shallowness” that dominates; but it does not dominate all.

I look forward to watching how print writers will adapt to accommodate the reader’s whimsy, self-centeredness and intelligence, which may not be slow and enduring, but quick, like instinct: powerful and unexplicable.


Bile For Bile

DEAR EDITOR: After reading Brian Morris’ review of I Am Not A Man, I Am Dynamite [Issue 58], I feel sullied. Given the reviewer’s obvious contempt for Nietzsche, the book’s editor, most of the ideas discussed within, several of the authors in particular, and of academics in general, the tenor and ‘substance’ of the review were predetermined. Indeed, this wasn’t a review at all, merely an excuse to spew venom. A review should be considered, thoughtful, reasoned, and should attempt to gauge the quality of a book regardless of prior biases.

I hope we won’t be treated to this man’s ill-tempered rambling again.


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