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A Story of Self • ‘Socrates is Dead’ Claims God • Bell’s Notation Note • Kazez Responds • Research Responsibilities • Betty Wrong • I Am Not That I Am • Weight On Your Mind • Good and Evol
A Story of Self
DEAR EDITOR: The article ‘Don Quixote and the Narrative Self’ in Issue 60 rings big bells with me. One of the signs of recovery following a brief depressive illness a few years ago was the ‘reappearance’ of my narrator. As I walked along the street one day I found myself acknowledging that I was walking along a street, going somewhere, for some purpose (I think I was heading for the garden centre). I was suddenly aware of myself in the context of my lived life, of my actions continuing in time and space (mundane though they were at that moment), and with a returning sense of self that had been missing for weeks.
The awareness of self was connected to the action of walking; of progress towards or intention to do something. So yes, I think actions are a form of narrative and do prompt awareness. (This reminds me of the American Pragmatists who maintained, I think, that action precedes self-knowledge.)
‘Socrates is Dead’ Claims God
DEAR EDITOR: I am most concerned that your Socrates is an impostor.
The original would surely have had the capacity to see (in Issue 60) that any real God must have powers beyond even his comprehension. After all, this real God must have conceived and formed the Big Bang, each and every star, dark matter, gravity, all nano-activities, including those in the human mind, and everything else humans have observed. Omni-attention to a mere ten billion humans would hardly be a problem.
The alternative, that these activities have been going on since ever, of their own accord, is not exactly convincing.
You should quietly lay this impostor to rest.
WEST MOLESLEY, SURREY
Bell’s Notation Note
DEAR EDITOR: John Radcliffe in the letters page of Issue 60 approved my courage in writing about Bell’s Inequality (Issue 59), but had some criticisms about notational confusion. The confusion I blame on the Editor, who blames the printer, who blames me. The problem arises from the disinclination of printers to use new symbols. The union of two sets A and B is the collection of all things which are either in A or in B, and mathematicians use a symbol called ‘cup’ which looks like the bottom half of a circle. I used this symbol in my draft and noticed when I got the proofs that it had turned into a plus sign somewhere along the chain. This is certainly confusing, because the number of things in the union of two sets is not just the sum of the things in each set: If A is the set of cows in the northern two thirds of a field and B is the set of cows in the southern two thirds and if A contains three cows and B five, then we cannot say that there are eight cows in the field because there may be some cows in the overlap, the middle third. We have to subtract any doubly-counted cows.
I decided to let the notational error stand on the grounds that (a) anyone smart enough to read the article would probably be smart enough to see the confusion and sort it out and (b) in my case there was nothing in the overlap. This seems to have worked in John Radcliffe’s case. I hope it didn’t stop anyone from working it through.
Yes, I was brave to tackle this subject. So was the Editor. Indeed, by following up an issue on philosophy and its connections to science with an issue on its connections to literary theory he showed enormous courage. Anyone who read both issues has the opportunity to see the consequences of these quite different kinds of thinking. In the scientific kind, you discover that the universe is an amazing place, but we can figure out what it will actually do in simple cases with a lot of hard thought. In the literary kind, you learn to say the politically correct things about story books, and to make this appear profound by being incoherent. Both, no doubt, enormous fun in their own ways. If I were a school student wondering whether to do Science or Arts at University, I’d have found the two issues very helpful. “Do I,” I should have asked, “wish to spend most of my life in the company of people struggling with hard, difficult ideas which might tell me how the universe works? Or do I wish to spend it with bullshit artists who produce their ‘best’ work while stoned out of their skulls? And which of these activities is more likely to get paid for by a third party?” Mundane questions, of course, but not without interest.
UNIVERSITY OFWESTERN AUSTRALIA
DEAR EDITOR: Although it was nice to be commended, I flinched when I read Gordon Haines’ letter (Issue 59) replying to my article ‘How Good Do We Have to Be?’ (Issue 58). He congratulates me for “resisting the blackmail of the monstrous regiment of starving children and opting for raising the quality rather than the quantity of human life.” I couldn’t agree with his description less. Starving children are anything but a ‘monstrous regiment’. They are innocent victims, mostly of the stupidity and neglect of others.
By contrast, I wholeheartedly agree with Ernie Johns, who writes that it would be a mistake if “after we have agonized and laughed at our guilt” we did nothing differently. We should do more to save lives (and more, and more) as he suggests. Though my giving has been on an upward trajectory for many years, I’m still nothing like Paul Farmer, the generous doctor I so much admire. My essay was an attempt to (publicly) come to terms with that fact.
I can accept doing things that are inte-gral to my own well-being, rather than saving lives, just about. It’s the superficial self-gratification I’d like to be better at resisting. In Issue 60, Sean Riley says I shouldn’t bother resisting, because the money I earn is mine to do with as I please. Well, of course. But can moral dilemmas be resolved on such a slim basis? Since I earned my money, would it be okay if I didn’t buy food for my children? Would it be okay if I didn’t lend money to a friend in desperate need? What does the source of my money really tell me about what I should do with it?
Mr Riley chides me for blaming the world for my purchase of a new TV. What I said was “In the world we live in, resisting the latest amusement is no easier than sticking to a diet.” With the abundance of new and wonderful stuff to buy, it's hard to keep your wants in check. Is that controversial? Of course, the responsibility for my choices ultimately rests with me. That’s why I ended my article by saying “I feel guilty. And I should.”
DEAR EDITOR: Besides the AK47 and the atomic bomb, I think that there could be many other examples of how researchers’ designs could turn evil. I believe that Dr John Forge chose to write his article ‘No Consolation For Kalashnikov,’ (Issue 59) about the AK 47 because it was the first mass-produced assault rifle, and its notorious use by many countries and militias around the world make it a prime example of the problem. If Kalashnikov felt guilty for his invention, that’s too bad because its use was intended only for the greater good of helping his people at the brink of war. It is just unfortunate if he cannot accept that it’s not his fault that the unused weapons were sold off by his country so that they’ve been used to kill civilians in unnecessary wars run by terrorist groups and other armies. People are not killing in the name of Kalashnikov, but they use his tool of destruction for their purposes. They show their compliments to the inventor by using his weapon more than any other rifle in the world.
Let’s take something else that has killed people but was not intended to do so: the motor vehicle. The inventors may have created this for simple transportation; but it has changed from the Model T to the wide variety of vehicles that include tanks, humvees and other vehicles of war. The gun can be used to kill for food, but it can also be used for murder or destruction. Similarly, the car can be used for transportation, but has been modified by weapons researchers for war. If Henry Ford was still alive, should he feel guilty for every fatal accident that has happened in the world? Should he feel guilty that his innovative designs have been modified into vehicles of war? The answer is no: but he did make a tool for destruction, even though he may not have realized in it in the beginning.
We cannot blame inventors of these machines for these deaths. I agree with Dr. Forge that an inventor should put a patent or copyright on their work, just so they do nominally have the ultimate say in how their product is developed. Even this may not solve the problem, but it is a first step. There will always be independent inventors who will break the law to get ahead of the competition. These are the types of inventors that can turn a copyrighted benign product into a tool of destruction for a cause that is unjust.
The only way to stop the killings by the AK47 assault rifle is to put an even more effective weapon into the hands of militants. But I don’t think Kalashnikov’s invention will ever go away, or that the bullets from his gun will ever stop killing people. The bow and arrow is still used in modern times to murder. In human hands the AK47 will always be a weapon.
Just like the unattainable plan to halt weapons research when not in wartime, we cannot take every car off the street solely for the reason that people die in them every day. The only way to stop automobile accidents is to replace the car with a new method of travel, where people don’t actually drive. In other words, artificial intelligence could coordinate travel so that human beings are not a factor when it comes to controlling the vehicle. This is the same as having a gun decide for the combatant to only shoot bad people so that a bullet is not used to kill civilians.
It is through the human mind that we decide how to put our inventions to use, and the only way to prevent all the killing would be to attain world peace, and accept that it is in our human nature to create things that eventually turn destructive.
DEAR EDITOR: In his descriptions of an alleged afterlife, Stafford Betty (Issue 59) is peddling an old-fashioned elixir of immortality as if it has some new, scientifically- confirmed ingredients. Unfortunately, it doesn’t.
He rests his whole case (of snake oil?) on Near Death Experiences. Such reports of seeming to fly about and feeling like one is in a tunnel are taken by him to be convincing evidence of the existence of spiritbodies and an after-life. They aren’t, any more than imagining a dinosaur under the bed proves that there is one there.
Near Death Experiences are a very unreliable source of evidence because the people who enjoy/suffer NDE are in very poor health. When he was very ill, A.J. Ayer had such an experience and he began to indulge in fantasies like Betty’s friends. However when he recovered he said, “It is difficult enough to talk sense when one is in good health. It is almost impossible when one is seriously ill.”
In his article, Betty writes of people who have had NDE, “They’re the experts. We should be listening to them.” I disagree. Placing this reliance on the claims of NDE is like saying that only people dying of malaria are experts on the diagnosis and explanation of malaria. In fact, people dying of malaria are probably in the least favourable state to investigate anything, including their own disease.
Hume argued against immortality on the grounds that body and mind are mutually interdependent and inextricably conjoined (‘Of the Immortality of the Soul’, 1755). He wrote: “The weakness of the body and that of the mind in infancy are exactly proportioned, as are their vigour in manhood, their sympathetic disorder in sickness, their common gradual decay in old age. The step further seems unavoidable: their common dissolution in death.” His argument is still compelling today because the basic facts of physical development proceeding side by side with psychological development remain unchanged.
There is nothing mysterious about death. It is as natural as birth. It is part of the normal cycle of life: birth, growth, maturity, decline, death, decay. All sorts of organisms are dying all around us every day: plants, insects, animals, humans. There is no good reason to suppose that the natural cycle is dramatically different for only our own species, and that our species alone only appears to die, but secretly lives on in an immaterial form. Indeed, given the close relationship between humans and primates, and the less close relationship between humans and all the mammals, etc etc, as established by evolutionary biology and DNA analysis, the likelihood of an afterlife for our or any species is vanishingly small.
I would encourage Stafford Betty and any other would-be immortals to lay off the snake oil and to savour instead the cold, clear spring of reason to which Hume guides us. Unlike other sugary concoctions, it is totally non-fattening and does no damage to teeth or brain.
DEAR EDITOR: Thanks for your fine magazine – I spend an entire pleasant and stimulating day with each issue (and subscribed at last just a few minutes ago through the magic of cyberworld).
Issue 59 was very thought-provoking and may be one of the best ever, except for Prof. Betty’s attempt to enlist NDEs as evidence of post-mortem survival. This was undoubtedly the worst article ever to appear in Philosophy Now.
I don’t have to list the author’s many sins against philosophy – I expect a host of other readers to render them for you in detail. Nor do I have to point out his publication history – I assume you were already aware of his anti-Darwin, pro- ID, pro-demonic-possession views. [No, but it’s irrelevant. We consider each article on its own individual merit – Ed.]
I can’t imagine how this work made it into the magazine. You alerted us about John Lanigan’s hilarious spoof but said not a word about Prof Betty’s contribution in your opening editorial. Could this article have escaped your advance notice?
Keep up the (otherwise) fine work!
Your newest subscriber,
I Am Not That I Am
DEAR EDITOR: Please allow me to express frustration with the inaccurate translation of God’s description of Himself to Moses in ‘A Brilliant Masterpiece’ in Issue58. I am Greek and well versed in the Koine [the Greek of the translation of the Old Testament]. The mistranslation led me to wonder, “Why don’t they ask a Greek?”
The point is that I AM THAT I AM is nonsense in any language, leading translators and interpreters into intellectual adventures which confuse the reader even more.What the phrase really means in the Greek is “I am the existing one.” When it comes to who sent Moses, it is not the first part – “ ‘I am’ sent you” – which is nonsense – but the second part: “‘the existing one’ sent you.” Afterwards, the on-going reference would be to ‘the existing one’. What’s more, if you look at any Greek Orthodox icon of Jesus, in his halo there is always the same threeletter inscription ‘O½N’ (‘the existing one’). Have mercy! It’s been there a long time, and it’s not that difficult to grasp.
Weight On Your Mind
DEAR EDITOR: In Grant Bartley’s review of Mind by Eric Matthews (Issue 59), regarding the mind-body problem, Mr. Bartley indicated that he is ‘pedantically’ a dualist. I wonder if I might be permitted to ask Mr. Bartley a simple question, which has probably never occurred to him, or to any rational mind for that matter. The question is, How much does a thought weigh?
Everything that exists weighs something. If we answer “Nothing” then we find ourselves in the position of either denying our thoughts’ existence, or postulating some magical mind stuff different from the matter stuff we are familiar with… But there is another option, which presents itself through the principle of the equivalence of matter and energy. Let me restate my question like this: How much does energy weigh?
Now, we know that energy exists, and through the equivalence principle we can even get a weight. This suggests a connection between energy and mind stuff.
Here is a thought experiment. Imagine two motors encased in a sound proof room behind thick glass. These are fine precision motors, and no vibration is detectable. The motors are connected to transparent fuel tanks, which are full when the experiment begins. What we are trying to find out is which if any of the motors are running. After a while we begin to notice the fuel in one of the tanks getting lower. Observing the motors with light filters then shows us that the motor with the lowering fuel level is emitting heat. That motor is running.
Now do the experiment again with two brains. One of them is encased in a person sitting reading and listening to music; the other is in a cadaver lying on a slab. Over time we see no change from the cadaver’s brain. However we do notice the sitting person consuming snacks from time to time. Brain scans show hot spots in various parts of the sitting person’s brain as he is stimulated by the music or reading material. So the sitting person is thinking and has a mind.
Mind is like a motor running. As we experience consciousness we are literally burning thoughts. What we experience when the brain converts fuel to heat is consciousness. And what is this mind/brain process doing? Why, assembling a picture of reality from moment to moment, from all those millions of little essences we have stored away in our billions of synapses. We can conclude that ‘mind’ is not a thing, but rather a process.
Good and Evol
DEAR EDITOR: E.L.C. Long’s evolutionary examination of the morality of religion (Letters, Issue 58) suggests a more general approach to morality based upon the examination of that which constitutes right action. From the interplay of perception and abstraction the human mind can gain knowledge with which to judge how best to act. The quality of such knowledge depends on its testability, the surest knowledge having best withstood repeated and ongoing attempts to show that it is false. Irrefutable (non-testable) knowledge (such as religious knowledge) cannot be judged true or false, and to do so is to compromise right action. For example; a belief in life after death can give rise to wrong action qua an undervalued present life.
There is a conflict here between the moral imperative of right action and the irrefutability of religious conjectures. Acceptance of the latter compromises the former and thereby creates the feeling of guilt and need of salvation which is associated with many religions. Rejection of the latter looks like an attractive alternative to me.