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Letters

Letters

Rand Stand • Editing Corrupts • Transcendental Truth • Death of Caution • Ecology and Mythology • Population Points • Catching Tallis Out • Science and IDology • Bad Thinkers

Rand Stand

DEAR EDITOR: In Issue 66, at the end of his article, a perplexed TiborMachan asks, “Why, we might wonder, is Rand so appealing to millions of ordinary people while she is derided and dismissed by many academic philosophers and other intellectuals?”Machan’s educated guess is that “Rand rejects a very debilitating aspect of intellectually-championed ethics, namely, the call for relentless self-sacrifice.” That wouldn’t be my guess, however, for the version of altruism she challenges is not one championed by many intellectuals.

In The Virtue of Selfishness, Rand takes ‘altruism’ to be the view that “any action taken for the benefit of others is good, and any action taken for one’s own benefit is evil.” She understands the ‘ethics of altruism’ to entail that “any concern with one’s own interests is evil, regardless of what these interests might be.” But this is really only an extreme version of altruism:W.G.Maclagan notwithstanding, the version of altruism most often defended claims instead that “any action taken only for one’s own benefit is evil.” Certainly today’s arch-altruist, Peter Singer, doesn’t recommend relentless self-sacrifice. I don’t see even Christian philosophers pressing extreme altruism. Consider Philippians 2:4, where Paul states: “Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.”

So why is Rand “derided and dismissed by many academic philosophers and other intellectuals”?My educated guess is that it has little to do with the nature of her conclusions, for there are other ethical egoists who have respectable intellectual reputations. I think it has more to do with the careless nature of some of her arguments. For instance, she claims that selfishness has an undeserved bad reputation, since “the exact meaning and dictionary definition of the word ‘selfishness’ is: concern with one’s own interests.” Not only is this not the definition in any English dictionary I am aware of (it’s usually defined as “excessive concern with one’s own interests”), but the purpose of a dictionary definition is to characterize the actual usage of an expression. If the word ‘selfishness’ has a bad connotation, then a good dictionary definition should mirror that fact! As I see it, either Rand’s conception of selfishness is that of rational self-interest, which is really not a provocative idea; or else she considers selfishness to be the only alternative to relentless self-sacrifice, which is just false.

MARC BOBRO, PHILOSOPHY DEPT,
SANTA BARBARA CITY COLLEGE


Editing Corrupts

DEAR EDITOR: In your editorial ‘Me, Paranoid?’ in Issue 66, you refer to knowledge relating to power according toMichel Foucault. At the end of the article you give this syllogism:

Knowledge = power,
Thus: absolute knowledge=absolute power,
If power corrupts, then absolute power corrupts absolutely
Therefore, absolute knowledge corrupts absolutely.

I would like to challenge the logic of this conclusion in various ways. If you state that knowledge is absolute, would that not indicate full awareness of everything implied by the power – including an understanding of the moral implications of what you are doing? But if the moral implications do play an important part in the decision of how to use the power, eg in terms of being consistent with your values, then surely that would hinder a person from using that knowledge in a corrupt manner? If after considering the moral implications of their absolute power, a person decides to use the power corruptly, you could argue that the corruption is even more corrupt. I would agree that if you have consciousness of the implications of your actions and ignore them then the corruption is greater. But my question is, How would you be able to use absolute knowledge corruptly? Or conversely, would not corruption prevent knowledge from being absolute?

Also, surely using knowledge corruptly would imply that that knowledge is useful. If knowledge is impractical, how can it be corrupting? But absolute knowledge would contain many impractical elements.My knowledge that someone is dying in another country may be useless in my planning to rob a bank.My knowledge may even hinder me from focusing from my corrupt objective, because I start being conscious of something irrelevant, thus preventing me from committing the act.

Knowing that someone is being maltreated somewhere outside my power is not going to help me act even if I intend to act altruistically. It might even make me feel useless and frustrated, as I am not able to help that individual, or myself. And, if I am not able to act well with that knowledge, how could I corrupt the moral aspect of it in the first place?

I would even question the idea that knowledge is power, as power is having the ability and means to perform an action with the desired affect. Consider the knowledge that someone beyond my reach is dying of an incurable disease. Thus knowledge is powerless without the means of attaining a practical result. One could even argue that knowledge itself is sometimes what prevents the practical ability. In conclusion, if you have knowledge of something outside your practical means, how can that lead to corruption, let alone absolute corruption?

ALAN ROLLE, SURREY


Transcendental Truth

DEAR EDITOR: In his article ‘A Transcendental Philosophy of Science’ (Issue 66), Professor Pigliucci makes an invidious attempt to show the superiority of analytical philosophy over its continental, Kant-inspired counterpart for a philosophy of science.

Early in the article, Pigliucci gives a brief but sound account of Kant’s use of ‘transcendental’ (however, his calling space and time ‘categories’ makes one doubt if he has ever read The Critique of Pure Reason). By ‘transcendental’, Kant refers to knowledge about knowledge, particularily in his demonstration that knowledge depends on necessary a priori presuppositions. So a transcendental philosophy of science would only make sense if scientific knowledge required a priori presuppositions over and above other knowledge. Kant, who engaged in a lot of scientific theorising, did not think so.

Pigliucci later refers to post-Kantian developments in empirical science. This seems to be totally irrelevant, as Kant’s transcendental deduction aims to avoid the circle of justifying empirical knowledge by other empirical knowledge, and has little to do with the details of empirical facts. A little later Pigliucci turns to “a small but vociferous group who claim philosophy of science should take Kant more seriously.” Pigliucci does not think this movement illuminates the operations and products of science, but tells us (in rather vague and quasi-mystical terms) that this group claims “we can’t do what we are already doing.” I do not know if Pigliucci is fair and just to that small and obscure group. I note, however, that he shrinks from combat with the great Kant or his major followers. Instead, to claim victory for analytical philosophy over its continental rival, he attacks a group which seems to be linked to Kant only by the word ‘transcendental’.

HANS PETER RICKMAN, LONDON


Death of Caution

DEAR EDITOR: Zachary Colbert says in ‘Death of the Author…’ in Issue 66 that “truth, identity and power are all transient verbs, forever changing in their definition…” No they are not: they are nouns. They can change in their definitions, but they still remain nouns. ‘Death of the Author’ is bad enough, let us not have Death of Grammar too.

EVA TYSON, DALGETY BAY, FIFE


Ecology and Mythology

DEAR EDITOR: I was interested in Rich Grego’s helpful comparison of John Dewey’s andMartin Heidegger’s views on ecology and their application to the current issue of global warming in ‘The Metaphysics of Nature’ in PN 65. The dichotomy between the exploitation and respectful care of nature has existed since mankind first began to think, and certainly long before Dewey and Heidegger expounded their contrasting views on man and nature; even long before the Greek philosophers who inspired these two men.

The Biblical story of creation has its roots in the earliest of writings, viz, Babylonian and Egyptian mythologies of some 6500 years ago.Moses, the author of Genesis, was well versed in such mythologies from his privileged education in Egypt, and he draws on their contrasting thought patterns in writing the early chapters of Genesis. Interestingly,Moses places two environmentally-contrasting views of man and nature in each of the first two chapters. In 1v28, at the pinnacle of creation, mankind is charged by God with the role of dominion over all living and non-living things – very much Dewey’s use of nature to serve mankind through science & technology. In 2v8-15 we have a quite different view of mankind’s role in relationship to the rest of nature: mankind is here charged with the role of caretaker of nature, and is bound by rules given by the ‘Creator Being’. He is not even given domestic animals as food to eat, but is charged with caring for and respecting the environment, responsible to the Being who is the creator of it all. This Heideggerian view of creation also appears to be reflected in the ancient Hindu respect for domestic cattle, which still wander the streets of Indian cities. This type of respect for nature may have come from their Aryan ancestors, who according to geneticists migrated both into theMiddle East and into the Indian subcontinent.

The truth is that we need both of the environmental notions highlighted in Genesis.We need to be confident in using science and technology to better our lives in an environmentally-sustainable manner, and at the same time, we need to embrace with humility the heritage we have been given, recognising that we ourselves are subjects of nature and have ‘higher’ laws to obey, such as loving and respecting the ecology we are part of. We need to have confidence to build cities at the same time as we need to cherish and protect the countryside. So maybe we should be more restrained instead of rushing to develop GMtechnology, for example.Maybe we should concentrate very much harder at helping Brazil to police the illegal destruction of its rainforest, and on similar measures, while at the same time continuing to invest in green technologies.

MIKEWEEKES, REIGATE, SURREY


DEAR EDITOR: I read with interest your editorial, ‘Nature & Nurture’, in Issue 65. Here you suggest that we might think about global warming in terms of Pascal’s Wager. Just as Pascal argued that it’s a good bet to believe in God even if we are uncertain of his existence, so too must we take steps to deal with global warming even though we are yet uncertain about whether or not it is occurring. If it is occurring and we take steps, then we will at least have tried to deal with it, even if unsuccessful. Alternatively, if it’s not occurring and our worries are unfounded, then taking action to prevent it will not cause any harm. Therefore, whether or not global warming is in fact occurring, we should act as if it is.

This is a very interesting application of a famous philosophical argument. Yet applying Pascal’sWager in this way is fallacious, and dangerously so. The problem starts when we consider your claim that the only consequence of acting on global warming (even though it is not occurring) would be “considerable trouble and expense” with “no dire consequences beyond that.” One hardly needs be an economist to realise that this is almost certainly false. In a world where resources, time and money are necessarily finite, it is absolutely crucial that we allocate them in the right way. To waste “considerable trouble and expense” on counteracting something that is not occurring means we would have neglected dealing with other, real problems, eg arms proliferation, corruption, disease control, hunger and malnutrition. This shows that Pascal’sWager is not applicable to global warming because, unlike belief in God, taking action to deal with it generates considerable opportunity costs. In short, it is vital that we assess the extent and likely effects of global warming before we devote resources to counteract it.

PHILIP GOOD, BY EMAIL


Population Points

DEAR EDITOR: I’ve been a subscriber to Philosophy Now for over three years. Nor-mally I am very enthusiastic about your magazine. However, perusing your green philosophy issue, I was perturbed that it did not address what I would consider to be the root cause of global warming and a host of other environmental issues. Even most ordinary people are beginning to believe what environmental scientists have been saying for several decades. The amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is growing, and this very likely will lead to great, probably catastrophic, changes in Earth’s atmosphere.Much (though not all) of this warming is due to humans emitting increasing amounts of carbon dioxide: what environmental scientists call anthropogenic carbon dioxide.

By training I’m a scientist and by profession an engineer. Scientists and engineers are used to dealing with causes and effects.We engineers though have refined causal analysis. There are proximate causes and root causes. Eliminating a proximate cause will not normally erase an effect: generally it only deters its action. If you want to eliminate an effect, you must address the root cause, and eliminate or at least mitigate that.

Applying causal analysis to global warming, the root cause is clearly unrestricted human population growth, which by the way has more than tripled in my lifetime (and at a modest 68 years I hardly qualify as aMethuselah). This suggests that if we control human population size we will be much better off. Of course, to many people this suggestion is odious. It goes against the deeplyingrained religious tenets of most (all?) religious faiths, and our cherished beliefs in the sacredness of the family, etc. Be that as it may, it must be done, and in the near future – by the end of this century or even sooner.

Of course this has profound ethical and political overtones. As far as I know, the only country to attempt to control its human population size is China, and it seems very likely to me that the form of political government most likely to succeed at this is an authoritarian one. I can’t imagine any politician in aWestern democracy seriously proposing population control. S/he would be ejected from office so fast that one would hear the whoosh of air as they were flung out on their ear.

Reading Mr Curley’s letter in the same issue (another engineer), I’ll express the root concept without any philosophical jargon. Think of a bathtub on full and the water going down the drain. If the water is pouring into the tub faster than the drain can handle, the tub spills over. I’d say the water in our tub is near the brim. And if we don’t do something very, very soon, Nature will intervene and impose its own population control. Need I add that from a human point of view, Nature’s ways are roughshod and brutal?

JOHN K. BONNER, TUJUNGA, CA


DEAR EDITOR: I read the green issue with great interest. It seems clear to me that the root of the problem is a failure by the public to change their lifestyles or vote Green, thus producing proper pressure on policy. The Voluntary Human ExtinctionMovement suggests that we all should simply cease to breed; and it may well be that future policies to restrict breeding are the only solution. But this could be an opportunity to raise the average IQ and thus reduce social problems. Plato was wrong: we need not philosopher kings, but philosophical citizens!

JASON PALMER, ENGLAND


Catching Tallis Out

DEAR EDITOR: In ‘Who Caught That Ball?’ in Issue 65, Raymond Tallis uses cricket as an example from which to explore problems of free will and the matter of ‘self’. Specifically, he asks, can a fielder really claim to have made a catch, or was the event so spontaneous and quick that the role of an intentional self has to be discounted, and the occurrence explained in terms of split-second sequences of very complex physical events of which the fielder’s conscious self could neither be aware nor control? Libet’s experiments are cited by Tallis because they appear to confirm this possibility.

Tallis then gives a detailed account of the many antecedent circumstances upon which the catch in question was contingent, affirming that all of these required conscious decisions – thereby underpinning the role of the intentional self in making the catch, and rendering its momentary and immediate nature nonpivotal in resolving the question of responsibility. However, all the antecedent features are themselves contingent on a context of physiological, psychological, social, cultural and neurological factors associated with the game of cricket, including a talented predisposition for its peculiar intricacies, including good hand-eye co-ordination, and so on. In crucial respects, given such a complex of conditions, it was inevitable a catch would be made, irrespective of the further hypothesis of an intentional self. Rather than “always positioning ourselves” we are always positioned by circumstances, in which apparent choices are tightly constrained, if not determined. So, appealing to antecedent circumstances doesn’t provide a case for an intentional self, and still leaves “our brain… calling the shots.”

The initial part of Tallis’ conclusion is good: ie that his argument “does not entirely refute the notion that we are small mechanisms in the great mechanism of the universe.” However, contrary to what he finally asserts, the mechanistic notion is less, not more, difficult to hold.

COLIN BROOKES, LEICESTERSHIRE


DEAR EDITOR: In ‘Who Caught That Ball?’ Raymond Tallis supposedly defends free will by undermining its nemesis, determinism. His assault is somewhat misplaced, however. His arguments are directed solely atMaterialist Reductionism; a doctrine which often goes hand in hand with determinism but which is not synonymous with it. Instead, a no-frills explication of determinism might be that ‘we can explain events only by means of a cause.Where cause is lacking so is explanation. The only comprehensible Universe is a deterministic one’.

Tallis introduces a number of emotive terms which he believes are patently extant in the world, but contradictory to determinism. This includes voluntariness, intentionality and wilfulness. He should mind, however, that determinism does not refute the existence of a will, but rather free will. Still pending is a coherent account of what this will is free of.

PETER RYANWOOD,WIRRAL


DEAR EDITOR: Raymond Tallis is a very smart and amusing champion of free will against determinism, a one man whirlwind of well-intentioned, well-expressed, but ultimately misguided arguments to the effect that to be free and responsible, human beings must transcend causation in some respect.

He asks whether the fielder deserves the praise coming from his teammates after an amazing catch. Tallis seems to think that broadening our explanation to include the person and environment somehow escapes determinism. But the plausibility of determinism isn’t abrogated by personhood, since after all we are fully embodied beings. Nor is it abrogated by our being very complex, recursively self-modifying beings that have reasons and intentions. There’s no basis to suppose that our choices to selfmodify, and the reasons for those choices, aren’t fully explicable as a function of the intricate causal interplay between us and our ‘larger background’. As NanceyMurphy andWarren Brown argue in Did My Neurons Make Me Do It? (pp191-237), reasons aren’t opposed to causes, they are a type of cause. Indeed, to understand ourselves rationally requires that we analyze our choices and reasons in a deterministic fashion, to see them as causal operators with their own antecedents in our desires and motives, which in turn have their causal antecedents in our life history and genetics. Without this sort of understanding, our behavior ends up an inexplicable, indeterministic fluke. In short, there’s no antinomy between determinism and personhood, between determinism and fullblooded voluntary intentional agency, or between determinism and the ability to modify ourselves or the environment to our own advantage. To suppose otherwise, as Tallis does, is to think that to be properly dignified and self-shaping we must be something more than natural. But this ‘something more’ can only be an inexplicable, a-causal mystery.

It’s ironic that by objecting to “stuffing all this back in the brain,” Tallis actually distributes part of the responsibility for our choices to the wider context of action, including other people. This is not what a defender of a buck-stopping free will would want, one supposes. But the point (an own goal, perhaps) is nevertheless well-taken: seeing that choices arise within a larger background, that we are not ‘stand-alone brains’ as he puts it, militates against the idea of an uninfluenced, self-caused chooser within the person that bears ultimate responsibility for action. Tallis ends his article on a tentative note, saying that his argument “does not entirely refute the notion that we are small mechanisms in the great mechanism of the universe, but it makes it more difficult to hold.” This concession gives away a great deal, since the difficulty of holding a properly nuanced idea of ourselves as mechanisms is not that great. Remember, Tallis thinks for us not to be mechanisms we must transcend cause and effect in some important respect; if we don’t, then we are mechanisms. Since we don’t transcend determinism (and importantly even if we did, that wouldn’t help us be responsible agents) we are mechanisms, by Tallis’ definition. But notice what amazing mechanisms we are – the kind Tallis describes in his essay: capable of all sorts of self-modifying, intentional, conscious and voluntary actions.We are a far cry from simple, inflexible mechanisms, which is usually what people mean by the word. So perhaps we should use a word that better suits our capacities. How about person? So long as we don’t have something supernatural or contra-causal in mind when thinking about persons and their capacities, this is the way to go.

Tallis’ desire to wiggle free of determinism in defending free will necessarily introduces an obscurity into his account of human action. This is too bad, since otherwise his is a first class article.

TOM CLARK, DIRECTOR, CENTER FOR NATURALISM (centerfornaturalism.org)


Science and IDology

DEAR EDITOR: I must take issue with Paul Mealing’s silly letter in Issue 66. Richard Dawkins is not a fundamentalist simply because he holds his views strongly, and to suggest this is surely an abuse of language. All opinions exclude at least some other opinions, and in this sense all views claim a ‘monopoly on truth’ so this can’t be a mark of fundamentalism either. Fundamentalism requires some sacred book to which the fundamentalist adheres literally, and atheism by definition has no sacred book. Dawkins would like everyone to be an atheist, but unlike fundamentalists he uses only reason to further his views, not the pressure of convention or threats of violence.

PETER ELLWAY, EAST GRINSTEAD


Bad Thinkers

DEAR EDITOR: Philosophers Behaving Badly by Rodgers & Thompson, reviewed by Stephen Juan in PN 65, draws attention to historical examples of philosophers who were intellectual giants but moral pygmies. However, bad behaviour is hardly a phenomenon of the past. The staff of the university department at which I studied in the mid-90s included several of the most dysfunctional and unpleasant human beings I have ever encountered. The ability of two lecturers in moral philosophy to dissect ethical theories was matched only by their childishness, arrogance and insolence. Some members of staff considered that they had an absolute right to any female student they fancied; and I knew personally two women whose lives were shattered by their encounters with one eminent figure. There were also rumours of violence threatened against students, and numerous instances of shocking rudeness. Seeing Dr X have a tantrum because a disabled student inadvertently distracted him during a lecture, or the elderly Professor Y scream with rage at a late-arriving student, demonstrated pretty conclusively that intellectual prowess does not necessarily go hand in hand with good manners.

How is it that a significant proportion of academic philosophers seem less capable of behaving decently than many ‘ordinary’ non-philosophers? The answer I believe lies partly in the professionalisation of the discipline. For many academics, philosophy has become merely a means of demonstrating their technical expertise, and they seem to have lost sight of the immeasurable importance of their subject matter. I have attended many seminars where the chief aim of the speakers was not to reach any kind of shared understanding, but rather to score points off other people and to flaunt their apparent mastery of impenetrable jargon.

A further problem is that the academic treadmill, combined with the inherent difficulty of the subject, demands a very high degree of commitment from those entering academic life. As a consequence, philosophers have little time for pursuing other interests. Evidently a narrow concentration on academic philosophy to the exclusion of other areas of experience, can produce blinkered and emotionally immature people. Thus we have the paradoxical situation that those who spend their lives studying the most fundamental questions arising from everyday experience often seem most remote from that experience, and are thus frequently unable to make the necessary connections between their academic work and real life.

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