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Transcendental in Trentham • No Problem? • Infantile Art • Improbably Philosophy • Thoughts On Dennett • Further Shots At Freedom • The Music of Understanding

Transcendental in Trentham

DEAR EDITOR: You might be pleased to know that Philosophy Now has reached the little township of Trentham, 90 km NWof Melbourne, Australia. The Paranoia issue appeared here a fortnight ago on the local newsstand, followed this week by the Animals and Philosophy issue.

I would like to comment on Massimo Pigliucci’s ‘A Transcendental Philosophy of Science?’ in Issue 66, for which I took the trouble to contact the group attacked by Pigliucci and referred to by Hans Peter Rickman (Letters, 67) as “obscure” and seemingly “linked only to Kant by the word ‘transcendental’.”

Prof Dr Gertrudis Van De Vijver, Department of Philosophy and Moral Science, University of Ghent, Belgium, kindly sent me two articles written by herself and colleagues. One is from the Research Unit: ‘Evolution and Complexity: Reflecting on Complexity of Biological Systems: Kant and Beyond’. The other is from the Centrum voor Kritische Filosofie, Ghent: ‘The Return from the Suppressed? A Reflection on Van Fraassen’s “Empirical Stance”’ (in Dutch). Both articles demonstrate not only a thorough knowledge and understanding of the progress of science since Kant, especially in the field of biological complex systems, but also a clear notion of Kant’s position on the limits of scientific knowledge, and the fact that Kant did not let his thinking be bound by them.

Kant had an intimation of what the ‘essence’ or ‘noumenal reality’ of living things might be: they seem to be organised by an internal purpose. For me this resonates with Kant’s ethical rule: never use a human being merely as a means to an end. Considering what our ‘civilization’ is doing not only to humans but also to animals, plants and the mineral world, this rule might better be extended to: do not use nature merely as a means to an end. Of course, we need each other and we need nature; but that is not the same as needing to exploit, to quarry, to poison, to pollute etc. The Inuit of Baffin Island used to harpoon seals after asking them permission, as they needed them for food. They would not lose any of them. Since the Inuit started to use rifles they’ve lost 40%, and have also lost their connection with them. At the time of the Vietnam war I remember contrasting the little knives with which Vietnamese farmers reverently used to cut their rice with the American destruction of their rice fields with napalm.

Pigliucci doesn’t see any value in attempts to get closer to knowing the noumenal world. He says he doesn’t know any biologist who does. But being scientifically interested in the inner purposefulness of living beings might be vitally important to stopping the destruction now going on. Perhaps Pigliucci should speak to farmers, foresters, park-rangers, beekeepers, even hunters, or to the philosophers who contributed to the Animal and Philosophy Issue. Or read Rai Gaita’s The Philosopher’s Dog and ponder the origin of the Cynics, who recognized the dog’s (kynos) discernment:

Alexander: I am Alexander the Great
Diogenes: I am Diogenes the dog
Alexander: The dog?
Diogenes: I nuzzle the kind, bark at the greedy, bite louts.
Alexander:What can I do for you?
Diogenes: Stand out of my light!
(Translation by Guy Davenport.)


No Problem?

DEAR EDITOR: I notice your ‘Letters to the Editor’ column has the standfirst of “When inspiration strikes…”Well, over the year, thoughts have struck and I have never known quite what to do with them. I have decided on your Letters.

The thoughts are about the problem of evil. It struck me a while back that man’s ideas were very much a part of nature rather than a separate category. That is to say, if man’s mind is produced by evolution, then his mind is natural, and therefore the ideas that his mind produces (and his inventions) are natural. According to evolution, there is only one tree of life, and all that’s here is because of natural events.

Let me now say what I feel about the problem of evil. Yes feel, because the fact is that for many years this has passed itself off as a rational argument, while the problem of evil is actually an emotional response to actions we find instinctively unacceptable. We are set up genetically: we want to see our genes survive; we want to see our kind survive. Consider a bee hive, where the worker bees will give their lives for the protection of the colony because their sister the queen has the same genes. We want our kind to do well, to survive, and to triumph over competitors. We sometimes call what frustrates this process ‘evil’.

In a spirit of fairmindedness, I am compelled to address suffering, the strongest part of the problem of evil. Why should a good God make a world so fraught with suffering? The struggle to answer this question goes back many years, so I feel I may as well put my two cents in. I think that whatever mind the universe has was forced to use what it had (random energy) and create rules that would turn this into matter. This would mean that whatever mind is out there is limited in power. The natural world it must create is one where suffering, ie the frustration of thriving, is inevitable.


Infantile Art

DEAR EDITOR: Inspiration has struck! The essays by Cathal Horan and Eva Cybulska on ‘Freud, Psychoanalysis and Philosophy’ in Issue 68 are lucid surveys of Freud’s affinity and debt to his philosophical predecessors, whether acknowl-edged by the Master at the time or not. By virtue of my own interests I was especially struck by Cybulska’s comment on Freud’s concept of infantile sexuality, when she says: “Freud interpreted Renaissance Italian paintings portraying baby Jesus… looking ‘desirously’ at the Madonna’s breast, as alluding to the hidden sexual impulses of an infant. He would not accept that this was merely an artistic convention of the time.” This comment by Cybulska aligns itself with my notion of how Freud came by a revealing and delightfully precious phrase when he referred to the narcissistic nature of the human infant as ‘His Majesty the Baby’. His use of this phrase appears in his essay ‘On Narcissism: An Introduction’ in 1914. Here I quote Freud’s words: “Illness, death, renunciation of enjoyment, restrictions on his own will, shall not touch him; the laws of nature and of society shall not be abrogated in his favour; he shall once more really be the centre and core of creation – ‘His Majesty the Baby’, as we once fancied ourselves.” (italics mine)

Freud was familiar with Italian Renaissance paintings through frequent visits to Italy, as well as through his personal library of art and antique books, notably the works of Jacob Burckhardt, “the Swiss art historian who championed the Renaissance and who was eagerly read by Freud…” (The Sphinx on the Table, J Burke, 2006, p.143.) Freud’s personal library contained the two-volume edition of Burckhardt’s The Cicerone: Or, Art Guide to Painting in Italy (1917). It is my contention that Freud was inspired in part by the proliferation of depictions of the Christ-child as an omnipotent creature seated with his beloved mother (usually surrounded by admiring figures associated with the faith) to employ the above phrase as an apt and vivid expression for infantile narcissism.

Freud’s own admission was: “I may say at once that I am no connoisseur in art, but simply a layman… Nevertheless, works of art do exercise a powerful effect on me.” (The Standard Edition of the Complete PsychologicalWorks of Sigmund Freud, ed. and trans by James Strachey with Anna Freud, 1914, vol 13, p.211.) Thus Freud was very inclined to incorporate artistic references and metaphors into his psychoanalytic work. The employment of the phrase, ‘HisMajesty the Baby’ shows his use of such a reference to embellish on the realities of the infant’s psyche as he came to understand it.


Improbably Philosophy

DEAR EDITOR: I have not read Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s books, but the conversation between him and Constantine Sandis in Issue 69 doesn’t give me reason to think they contain much philosophy. Taleb’s theories sound like commonplace risk analysis, of the kind he would have been familiar with in his days as a trader. Risk analysis is a management tool involving weighting possible events according to their likelihood and impact. It is a tool for decisionmaking. It’s not rocket science, although it can be used in rocket science, and most other areas of human endeavour. But it is also not philosophy. It presupposes that events can be defined and aggregated. This is where Taleb comes unstuck as a philosopher. His main contention is that that the more improbable an outcome, the higher its impact. This depends on what possible events are selected for analysis. For example, climate change is highly probable and will be huge in its impact globally. As Joad would have said, “it all depends what you mean by…” – in this case, the event in question. None of it has anything to do with the problem of induction, Hume, Popper, or Uncle Tom Cobley (although Uncle Tom could have used some risk analysis on his way toWiddecombe Fair).


Thoughts On Dennett

DEAR EDITOR: In the second instalment of his autobiography (in Issue 69) Daniel C. Dennett refers to “the manifest fact” that we are “composed of trillions of mindless robots and nothing else.” This attribution of mindlessness recurs throughout Dennett’s work in various guises, often formulated to suggest that the fundamental mindlessness of reality is an established fact. For example, in the first essay of his collection Sweet Dreams, Dennett claims that “we understand life enough to appreciate that each cell is a mindless mechanism”; in Consciousness Explained we’re told that all consciousness and meaning is a result of the collective machinations of “mindless scraps of molecular machinery.”

This is the hallmark of Dennett’s Dangerous Idea: mind emerges from mindlessness, consciousness from the non-conscious. The extraordinary feature of such a claim is that it is treated with any credence whatsoever. At least other misguided attempts to validate an emergent view of consciousness by appealing to some kind of mystically potent terminology such as ‘supervenience’ or some other sleight of thought, try and cover over the fact that they propose the transformation of something into its opposite by the sheer weight of numbers, so to speak. Dennett’s stance, however, is essentially pugilistic, battering his interlocutors into submission with often unintelligible and generally irrelevant ‘intuition pumps’ without a coherent argument anywhere in his anti-mental armoury.

Let us take the assertion Dennett makes in so many variations: simple forms of molecular units, which in themselves completely and absolutely lack any trace of consciousness, can club together in special ways to produce a quality completely foreign to them: consciousness. The important phrase here is ‘completely foreign’. If some aspect of reality is defined as absolutely mutually exclusive to another aspect, then by definition it cannot share any common qualities with its opposite. Therefore, as a matter of conceptual coherence, it is impossible for one aspect to be generated from the other. As the 6th century Buddhist philosopher Chandrakirti observed: “If something can arise from something other / Then deep darkness could arise from tongues of flames.” It is conceptually incoherent to claim that absolutely mutually exclusive concepts can have a significant connection. As Buddhist philosophy describes this situation, such exclusive definitions are concepts of ‘mutual abandonment’. And Dennett does claim that matter is irredeemably mindless.

Dennett, however, also claims that putting enough non-conscious bits and pieces together in special ways creates consciousness. This kind of materialism reaches a pinnacle of absurdity when Douglas Hofstadter, a thinker for whom Dennett expresses great admiration, tells us in his book I am a Strange Loop that a complex mechanism made up of millions of empty beer cans could develop a rudimentary consciousness. Hofstadter is, indeed, a very strange loop… one can only wonder how many of the cans he consumed while writing the book. This is an extreme example of materialist madness, but is not different in kind to Dennett’s assertion, explicitly made in Sweet Dreams, that the problem of the nature of consciousness is no different in essence to that of “metabolism, growth, self-repair and reproduction” and will therefore be explained in a similar (physical) way.

In his thoughtful and measured book on the implications of quantum theory for our understanding of reality, Mind, Matter and Quantum Mechanics, the physicist Henry Stapp says that the results of quantum mechanics, the most delicately precise and irrefutable theory in physics, clearly indicate that “reality is idea-like rather than matter-like” – and ideas are more akin to consciousness than to the classical concept of matter. Along with many other eminent physicists, Stapp is adamant that quantum physics indicates that consciousness is the ontologically primary aspect of reality. Therefore consciousness is not reducible in the way Dennett claims. Indeed all ‘emergent’ theories of mind, which are in essence closet materialisms, are instead completely demolished by the experimentally-based quantum evidence.

Consciousness is an indispensable aspect of the quantum realm. Dennett, no doubt inspired by some overheating intuition pump, casts aside this hardwon scientific evidence. Such notions, he considers, are evidence of a ‘bandwagon’ – a “loose federation of reactionaries” who “speculate that the solution [to mind] will not come from biology or cognitive science but – of all things – physics!”

Hand me a can of beer – if it’s not engaged in any sentient activity, of course. I need a drink!


Further Shots At Freedom

DEAR EDITOR: In Issue 67 there were three letters responding to Raymond Tallis’ free will article ‘Who Caught The Ball?’ in 66. Each writer mentions determinism, as did the author. But we pretty much know this is not the way the world works. Quantum theory is indeterministic, so everything in the universe is. However, in large enough numbers quanta have emergent properties which are almost deterministic in their behaviour, as seen with planets, machines and people – even neurons. Some aspects of the human brain operate at quantum scales and are therefore entirely random. However, at larger levels these random impulses can be edited and redirected in a more organised way. It is these higher-level systems we influence by our decisions and actions, as does the cricketer by practicing. This larger universe of things is 99+% deterministic. The remaining 1% indeterminism doesn’t mean our choices are totally random, it just means they are occasionally. This fits with my own experience.

As philosophers, we should take the best and most up-to-date guesses of science, not the old idea of determinism.


DEAR EDITOR: Philosophers and politicians go looking for freedom and free will as though they were things, entities: the landscape beyond the wall. What happens if we focus on the door in the wall?

In human affairs we have built-in limits. I can’t jump ten feet, buy a jumbo jet or understand Einstein. But we also have a curious need to prevent others doing what they’re capable of doing – curb their energy and imagination, stop them moving in certain directions, talk about certain topics, do certain things. Much of moral philosophy examines which of these constraints are justified and which not.

We all know what it feels like to be confined, frustrated, helpless. We also know what it feels like when the rope breaks, the door opens, the air flows in, the traffic gets moving. We are then able to do what we want – whatever our life experiences and abilities equip us to do. We can do what we will. You can’t make me a present of freedom, but you can get off my back. The ‘problem of freedom’ is a disguise for the real problems, of oppression and poverty. Freedom is the absence of constraints and the feeling that goes with it. That’s all.


The Music of Understanding

DEAR EDITOR: I was listening to Stevie Wonder’s ‘Sir Duke’ at work and it has a lyric that states that music is a language we all understand. Interestingly, I first misheard it as “A language that is beyond understanding.” This misunderstanding led me into questioning the function of understanding in language. Could language possibly exist without understanding? It seems not. Ferdinand de Saussure, the Swiss linguist, defined language as a difference of signs – the sign being created by signifier (the method of communication, such as pen or voice) and the signified (the concept being communicated). Charles Peirce stated that we need to interpret a concept to allow it to become a sign. The function of understanding is to decipher signs we can then use in a language.

Now to question what Stevie actually said, about everyone understanding the language of music. A language has a structure which is set by rules. Yet it seems that there are many people around the world who listen to music (myself included) who have not learned about rhythm, tempo, beat, composition. Yet that does not stop them (us) appreciating music. Also like languages, you have different types of music. But ‘understanding’ music depends on moods and personal tastes. People have different tastes, and sometimes their preferences and ignorance can lead to discriminating against styles of music. I cannot pretend that I appreciate all types of music. Despite how much I try to open my mind to new styles, there are certain styles that I can never claim to understand, like hip hop, garage or drum and bass. Yet I have learned to appreciate jazz recently, and learned a few years ago (without knowing about it, through an identification made by other people) that I like soul. Is Stevie talking about the understanding of all music, or just some types of music? How many styles do you have to understand to justifiably say you understand music in general?

My ignorance and speculation is enough to question a general statement made by one of the world’s most recognized musicians of a particular style, which I might add I’ve loved since a kid, but I didn’t understand the name of until recently.


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