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Intelligent Responses • Seeing Red For Green • Resistance is Profitable • Operation Peace • Not Choosing But Drowning • No Philosophy • No Excuse • No Surprise • No History, Please!
DEAR EDITOR: Two very thoughtful letter- writers complain in Issue 65 that I have been unfair in connecting Intelligent Design Theory (ID) with Creationism.
They are quite right that one can read ID texts without noticing this connection, because the authors make selected concessions to modern science.Michael Behe, for instance, freely allows that the earth may be ancient and that some ‘microevolution’ does take place by natural selection. However, for ‘macroevolutionary’ change – a real novelty – to occur, a designer is absolutely necessary. He explains how this may have worked:
“Suppose that nearly four billion years ago the designer made the first cell, already containing all the irreducibly complex chemical systems discussed here and many others…The cell containing the designed systems then was left on autopilot to reproduce, mutate, eat and be eaten… and suffer all the vagaries of life on earth.” (Michael Behe, Darwin’s Black Box, pp.227-8.)
This is just one of many places where Behe insists that the step needed was ‘irreducibly complex’, requiring a supernatural interruption of the natural process. Thus the regular causal processes which science studies can always be interrupted by intrusions from outside. This idea is far more extreme than the perfectly sound criticisms of ultra-Darwinian evolutionary theory your correspondents cite. They are quite right that natural selection alone cannot possibly be the sole source of evolutionary change, for many reasons, perhaps centrally because of the lack of time available. It is interesting that Darwin himself emphatically denied that natural selection was this sole cause, though he did think it was the main one. And recently many respected evolutionists, such as Francisco Ayala, Stephen Rose and Brian Goodwin have made this point, while, on the wider issue of what else should supplement it, thinkers ranging from Paul Davies to Simon ConwayMorris are willing to invoke some conception of cosmic purpose. Indeed, simple logic surely shows that natural selection cannot be the universal explanation because ‘selection’ only makes sense against a clearly specified range of choices – an idea to which far too little attention has been given.
Self-styled ‘Darwinists’ do however now often exalt natural selection as the sole cause, so it is not surprising that Creationist campaigners hope to destroy the current scientific view of evolution by attacking this monism. If Behe’s suggestion of a scientifically-intelligible process sporadically interrupted by a designer had been proposed on its own as a compromise here it might perhaps have looked plausible, even though it is not particularly impressive from a religious angle. (As Charles Kingsley said, “It is just as noble a conception of the Deity, to believe that he created primal forms capable of self-development…as to believe that he required a fresh act of intervention to supply the lacunas which he himself has made.”)
However, that proposal does not appear on its own. It is part of a powerful, well-funded campaign by Biblical fundamentalists to spread their doctrines more widely, both inside the US and to an ungrateful outside world which has so far resisted them. This connection is no secret. Behe and the other writers expounding ID are all fellows of the Center for Science and Culture, a part of the Discovery Institute, the right-wing think-tank in Seattle which is the main power-house of Creationist propaganda in the US. Though the ID theorists do not explicitly preach ‘young earth Creationism’, when asked about this doctrine, they explain that they wish their ideas to be viewed as part of a ‘big tent’ that can include this too. But by avoiding mention of the more extreme views, they never have to make it plain – as the evolutionary theorists just mentioned do – that their ‘evolution plus’ views are not compatible with literal Biblical accounts. They are, in fact, happy to let extreme Creationists use ID theory simply to dodge the veto which the US constitution imposes on the teaching of religion in schools. ID is therefore now taught quite widely in the US, supposedly alongside the Darwinist account, and it is beginning to be so used over here. This will not, I fear, prove to be a means of educating children in a critical approach to science, as correspondent Graham Martin hopes. For that, the much better criticisms of Darwinism by well-qualified scientists I have just mentioned would be the proper tool. Instead, this fudge can surely lead only to deep confusion, quickly followed by renewed indoctrination.
Let me also say a quick word to the other correspondent, Professor Stone, who accuses me of unfairness because I call Dawkinsian atheism ‘fundamentalist’. Stone reports that there are ‘mountains of evidence’ against the existence of God. What mountains? This is a surprising claim – much bolder than that of Dawkins, who only says that there is no evidence for God. Since Dawkins apparently means by this evidence from physical science – which is not where any sensible person would look for it – this lack is not surprising. But the central point about fundamentalism is tunnel vision – the power of altogether failing to see what other people can possibly be getting at. And in this art Dawkins appears to me to be a real virtuoso.
DEAR EDITOR: I think Mary Midgley’s comments on Creationism and ID in Issue 64 are a breath of fresh air. This shouldn’t be a battleground at all. It’s more a battle between ignorance and level-headedness. In Australia 3-4 years ago, in the Federal election before last, theMinister for Education (a doctor in a former life, now leader of the opposition), as well as the shadow education minister of the time, thought it a good vote-winner to suggest that both sides of this debate be taught in schools. This was the result of a new party emerging as a possible political power-broker which had affiliations with the Assemblies of God church.What was interesting and unexpected was the overwhelming opposition from mainstream religious leaders and theologians, who stated categorically that this was not the domain of religion at all and they should stay out of it.
Mary Midgley is right when she suggests that there is fundamentalism on both sides of this argument. I don’t mind that Richard Dawkins is an atheist, and I agree with a number of his arguments; but he is being fundamentalist when he insists that everyone else should be an atheist as well. I define fundamentalism as any claim to have a monopoly on truth. Scientists risk falling into this category when they claim, implicitly or explicitly, that any question science can’t answer is not worthy of consideration. Atheists are not necessarily intellectually superior to theists any more than theists are axiomatically morally superior to atheists: both positions are as fatuous as each other.
DEAR EDITOR: Mary Midgley expresses dismay at the ongoing conflict between creationists and evolutionists. It’s like biscuits doing battle with the tea, and I do appreciate her views. As a Christian who taught literature in public high schools for thirty years, I find the issue a rather silly distraction from the real problems of education. One point, however, needs correcting. The US Constitution doesn’t ban the teaching of religion. It says only this: “Congress shall make no laws respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” The Founding Fathers intended to protect us from a different sort of tyranny – the state church. Having taught both comparative religions and philosophy to inquisitive adolescents, I can assure you that problems arise only when evangelicals and the American Civil Liberties Union contrive them.
ELIZABETH CITY, NC
Seeing Red For Green
DEAR EDITOR: In Issue 65 Paul Keeling asks “Have I offended anyone?” at the end of his article ‘Mocking Nature’. I admit that he has offended me by reading me and all of human life out of nature.
Keeling and other environmentalists are fond of the wilds. Nature, however, includes much more than the wilds. Office buildings are part of nature, as are cars, SUVs, TV sets, etc. Keeling & Co prefer the wilds to the rest of nature, but by insisting on referring to the wilds as nature, they score against human life and all of its permutations by subterfuge.
The fact is, people produce, create, invent a lot of natural stuff, some of it good, some not so good, some outright vile. The tough thing to do – which is what philosophers are supposed to help with – is to figure which is which and why.
PROF. TIBOR R.MACHAN
HOOVER INSTITUTE, STANFORD UNIV.
DEAR EDITOR: Paul Keeling asks us to accept that “the universal principle of respect for another’s beliefs can be readily acknowledged.” The problems with such a idea are many. To begin, the proposition that any belief should be universally respected prima facie is anti-philosophical. The idea that others’ beliefs are universally respected is observably wrong. The idea that merely holding beliefs entitles a person to respect from others with regard to his holding them only exemplifies the idiocy that is political correctness. You may believe in a thing, but unless that thing exists, you are simply mistaken. And you certainly are not entitled to respect for simply maintaining the belief – nor, especially, are you entitled to any expectation that the belief itself should be respected merely for the fact that you hold it. (You are entitled to ‘respect’, if this means you are allowed your belief, but this is an equivocation of the word.) There is no reason whyMr Keeling’s arguments could not have been made without building them on the crumbling foundations of such a premise. Furthermore, his arguments are better off made on different grounds, since the natural world is a real thing, whereas gods are certainly not real things. By establishing his argument on the premise that appreciation of the natural environment is religious (which it is not: religion traditionally explains the natural world), Mr Keeling is simply trading indignation for indignation. It is a shame that our race has deemed it necessary to despoil the natural world in pursuit of lesser objectives, and I myself am an outspoken environmentalist; but please, let’s be reasonable! TheMuslims who took up arms because they were ‘offended’ by the cartoons depictingMohammed, or the Christians who were in uproar over The Last Temptation of Christ do not deserve respect simply by virtue of their beliefs, nor because of the sheer numbers that go in for their particular beliefs.We must not tolerate such plainly unreasonable demands as are made by these groups.Had we continued to respect the belief in shapeshifting, we might still be persecuting witches; or, as is the case today with radicalMuslims, they might be exploiting our naïve and rampant political correctness to persecute us nonwitches. So settle down,Mr Keeling, it’s not your belief that’s insulted by inappropriately named SUVs – it’s the environment: and that’s real, not metaphysical.
D. READ SPEAR
DEAR EDITOR: The environmental number (Issue 65) was most interesting and relevant. I was really exasperated however by the opening paragraph of Paul Keeling’s article, particularly the phrase “universal principle (emphasis added) of respect for another’s beliefs”. This is nonsense. Is it supposed to apply to the beliefs of Nazis or other genocidal killers, of slave owners or child abusers, or of other sick minds, from genital mutilators to rapists? To adapt the Biblical phrase, you ought – perhaps– to respect the sinner, but certainly not the sin. To respect culturally uncomfortable beliefs is one thing; to respect those of the Heinrich Himmlers of this world is quite something else.
A point too on Stephen Juan’s review. I think I’m reasonably familiar with Sartre’s life and work, but though there’s plenty about him to criticise, I can’t find anything either in his writings or biographies to suggest he was “obsessed with incest towards his mother” (unless it’s a fanciful Freudian interpretation of his dislike of his stepfather), and though he certainly discarded many lovers, he also remained on good terms with a fair number of others till the end of his life.
Resistance is Profitable
DEAR EDITOR: Concerning the article ‘GM vs Climate Change’ in Issue 65, the quick decay after death of the hypothetical GM trees would release carbon diox-ide into the atmosphere, not absorb it.
The actual predominant use of GM technology is to develop weedkillerresistant varieties of maize, oil seed rape, and soya so that the sale and the use of weedkiller can be increased. Both GM seeds and weedkiller have to be brought afresh each year from the same supplier, such as Monsanto. The effects of this on sustainable and organic agriculture are disastrous, for example the collapse of organic soya farming in Canada.
DR ROBERT EDMONDSON
DEAR EDITOR: As I was working away framing pictures I was also trying to frame a philosophical idea in my head. Framing pictures and framing ideas are similar activities: both need boundaries to help define and animate them. The idea I was trying to animate has to do withMajor Todd A. Burkardt’s article ‘Operation Rebirth: Captain American and the Ethics of Enhancement’ in Issue 64. Burkhardt portrays Captain America as an individual, but his creator might have intended him to represent all Americans. In other words, Captain America is symbolic and representational of the exceptionalism of America, in terms of its focus on freedom and liberty for all.
I think Kant would have liked the representation of Captain America as emblematic of peace, because he wanted to see people and nations live in peace. And Kant was right to speculate that democracies needn’t go to war with each other. Creating enhanced soldiers, as Burkhardt advocates would be counterproductive to the world’s continuing efforts through agencies like the UN to make wars a thing of the past. Creating enhanced soldiers would send the wrong message, certainly not one of peace. Instead we should be working to enhance democracy so that countries don’t go to war with each other, thus having no need for enhanced soldiers. Enhanced soldiers, like any soldiers, can’t impose democracy, as we have recently learned with Iraq.
Not Choosing But Drowning
DEAR EDITOR: I am writing in response to StephenWang’s article in Issue 64 on Sartre, freedom and identity. Although the article explained Sartre’s ideas clearly, I felt it did not take them to the next level. I quote: “Mathieu, in Sartre’s novel The Age of Reason, wants to justify his actions and base them on good reasons or at least on some overwhelming desire; but by interrogating his motives, by trying to establish whether they are compelling, he distances himself from them. The process of examining his motives shows that they have no binding power over his future.” I agree with this, for I myself have experienced this detachment. However, in response I ask, What now? Once one steps back and looks at the infinite abyss of possibilities, how does one now make a choice? On what criteria does one base one’s conclusion if all reasons are fabricated and thus not necessary? I am swimming in a state of confusion. Possibilities float around me. I become paralyzed. I will drown soon if I am not pushed in one direction by an undeniable force.
The article also briefly brushed upon what Sartre believes to be human action, and what, I suppose, he would call a reaction. One example noted was hiccups. Hiccups would be classified as non-action since they are involuntary: one does not have a choice to hiccup or not to hiccup. Sartre believes that an ‘act’ is the result of a conscious choice. However, I search for deeper understanding here too. Can one choose to fall in love? Can one choose to be depressed?We have discovered that most events Sartre may call conscious acts are instead the unconscious result of chemicals and neurological relations in the brain. Furthermore, how does one distinguish the madman who could not control his actions and killed someone from the man who carefully constructed a detailed plan of attack? Are they both insane?
I want to know what I have control over and what I do not: I do not want to waste my time searching for something I may never be able to have. In addition, I am tired of feeling detached from my options. I want to feel an undeniable pull in one direction. I do not want to drown.
NYSSA FRANK, UNIVERSITY OF
CALIFORNIA AT SANTA BARBARA
DEAR EDITOR:When I saw Peter Stone’s article ‘Pi and theMovieMind’ in Issue 64, I was thrilled at the prospect of an exploration of the philosophical ideas in one of Aronofsky’s earlier works, in which the protagonist discovers the name of God. Unfortunately I was disappointed. Instead of a philosophical discussion, I received a pedantic mathematical rant. Stone chose to spend the article illustrating the implausibility of writing down 10216 216-digit-long numbers.Whilst I can see his point and agree when he says that “Pi makes a serious mathematical blunder”, I feel that he should keep in mind that that is what it is: a mathematical blunder, not a philosophical one.
This was all Stone had to say about the film. He didn’t ask any philosophical questions at all – eg could the ‘God number’ possibly be an argument for God’s existence a priori – an ontological argument in numerical form?What about the protagonist’s decision to undergo a backstreet lobotomy in order to forget the God number – is he making the wisest decision, by purposely choosing ignorance? Allusions to John StuartMill’s higher and lower pleasures might be considered; perhaps it is better to be the dissatisfied pig? Stone even brushed over the philosophically seismic event in the film, where the God number induces a computer to process self-conscious thought. Perhaps it’s just me, but I had hoped that would receive a little more attention than the logistics of writing down numbers.
I am not criticising the article because it was about mathematics, but rather because it was not about the philosophy of mathematics.Whilst it’s true the film may be based on an impossible premise, we shouldn’t disregard the opportunity for philosophical thought it presents. After all, Todd Burkhardt’s article ‘Operation Rebirth’ in the same issue didn’t confine itself to the scientific implausibility of creating the comic book super-hero Captain America, but instead explored the ethical implications such an idea presents.
I feel the article was unnecessarily cynical and ultimately disillusioning to young philosophers like myself. Hypothetical situations are a means to exploring ideas, not instances which we consider likely to happen. Any argument that criticises the possibility of such a situation has quite simply missed the point.
DEAR EDITOR:Michael Rockler in Issue 64 tries to sell us that sleazy old utilitarian justification for the dropping of two atomic bombs on Japan duringWorld War Two: “dropping the bombs on Japan… cost less lives” than forcing a surrender through a lengthy conventional attack. But the dropping of atomic bombs on two Japanese cities can only be justified under utilitarianism if it would likely produce the smallest number of deaths compared to all the other options available. Rockler, though, offers us a false dichotomy by only considering a single alternative, that of a conventional offensive. He conveniently overlooks less deadly options, such as threatening Japan by dropping an atomic bomb on an unpopulated Japanese island. To ignore such options and drop, not one but two atomic bombs on populated Japanese cities was not a sober utilitarian decision, but mostlikely, blood-thirsty retaliation. It is disturbing to see philosophy perverted to justify such an atrocity.
DEAR EDITOR: Peter Cave’s puzzler regarding the unfortunate adventures of Logical Lo, the young lass who believed she could escape her seemingly imminent execution through a logical loophole appears compelling, up to a point (Issue 63). The point in question being Dr Cave’s assertion that Lo’s ‘surprise’ execution could take place any day of the week, including the last possible day – in this case, Friday.
The problem with Dr Cave’s analysis is that he fails to take into account a fundamental dichotomy in human nature. Simply stated, humankind consists of two types of people: normal people and overthinkers (eg philosophers).Most normal people would be too worried about their impending execution to spend their precious few remaining hours fretting over the sheriff’s enigmatic proclamation that their execution would come as a surprise. Consequently, having not given much thought to the exact timing of their demise other than to lament its regrettable nearness, they would be surprised to be led to the gallows virtually any day – ‘surprised’ in the innocuous sense that although they expected to be executed in the next five days, they had hoped it wouldn’t be that particular day. However, on Thursday, the fourth and next-to-last day of waiting, all but the most oblivious of condemned prisoners would realize that they inevitably must meet their end the following morn. A Friday execution definitely would not surprise these Thursday survivors!
So, although it’s probable that overthinkers like Lo would conclude that their execution is a logical impossibility – hence would be genuinely surprised when led to the gallows, even on Friday – most people would know on Thursday night that Friday morning would be their last opportunity to witness the sun’s ascent.
The sheriff, for his part, cannot know, a priori that he is dealing with an overthinker like Logical Lo. Odds are much greater that the condemned is just a normal person, plus or minus a standard deviation on the logical-thinking scale. If the sheriff is as clever as he appears to be, he must realize that a Friday execution would surprise only over-thinkers like himself, not normal people. To ensure that his prophecy of a surprise execution is satisfied – regardless of what type of person the condemned is – he therefore must conduct the execution some day other than Friday.
STEVEN D. PINKERTON, PH.D.
No History, Please!
DEAR EDITOR: The excellent letter by Larry Curly in PN 65 mirrored so many of my frustrations as someone trained in science. During my training in a wide range of disciplines, I was taught that in publishing the outcome of academic work it was usual to present a hypothesis or idea, describe and identify relevant material arising from a review of the literature, examine the evidence, and reach a conclusion, even if it was contrary to the original supposition. The latter is a rare consequence in academic literature!
Coming late to philosophy I find it a very difficult, muddling sort of subject: the more so when the learned papers I read so often tend to be clouded by obtusity and sesquipidalianism! And some sentences are so lengthy that in reading one becomes bored, with a consequent loss of interest in following the exposition: a situation that is aggravated when I need to consult my thick dictionary, which of necessity I keep close to hand. As Larry Curly indicates, modern philosophical writers are only too willing to embellish their work by rehearsing bygone positions, even when this makes little positive contribution to the endeavour.
My recent philosophical training at nightschool indicates that metaphysics, a key element of our course, doesn’t readily lend itself to objective, empirical evaluation. Then again, I seeMartin Heidegger called metaphysics “the series of mistakes made during the historical development ofWestern philosophy.”
Meanwhile, can any of your readers recommend an undergraduate course in philosophy not too far from my home, suitable for this Grumpy OldMan?
DR JOHN DOUGHTY
DEAR EDITOR: In his letter published in Issue 65, Larry Curley voiced his concerns about the over-use of historical references in philosophy articles at the expense of original philosophical writing. Although I understand his exasperation, especially concerning the elitist use of Latinate phrases, I also think he should realise one or two things.
Firstly, some works are designed to be about the history of philosophy. He makes it quite clear that he isn’t interested in the historical context of a thinker, but I find it absolutely fascinating. I feel it is enlightening to know the socio-political climate of a specific philosopher so that I can assess the factors that made them say and not say what they did. Contextualisation not only leads to a fuller appreciation of the works and concepts of a thinker but is worth studying for itself, as many History of Ideas students will tell you. Also, and perhaps Larry would agree with me, there is a great deal of room for reinterpretation of many of the most-famous philosophers’ works. Sometimes, therefore, an author’s purpose is to re-envisage, clarify or crystallise a thinker’s ideas.
There might seem to be a drought of wholly original work, but that is not the fault of these other, equally valid, strands of philosophical work. Having said this, it would still be interesting to see what would come of Larry’s project whereby an issue of Philosophy Now would contain only articles that make no references to other works.
As far as jargon goes, excessive use should be avoided, but often philosophers have invented quite distinct concepts, and so original terms are needed to denote these concepts without the clumsy reusing of multiple-word explanations.