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Mary Midgley’s Meanings • Good or Nutter? • Social Survival • The Evolution of Stupidity • Cosmological Dispute Continues • More Probably • What Do You Call A Collection Of Solipsists? A Contradiction • Cleanliness Next To Evil? • Person Holding Forth
Mary Midgley’s Meanings
DEAR EDITOR: Mary Midgley’s article ‘Purpose, Meaning & Darwinism’ (Issue 71) is disappointingly confused and tendentious, especially so as it is from the author of Beast and Man. Surely (in the spirit of the admirable article on philosophical study byWayne Buck in the same issue, though he does not touch on the specific topic of definition) all philosophical writing should begin by defining terms. Yet Midgley does not define ‘purpose’, ‘meaning’ or ‘teleological’, even though two of these terms are in the title of her article and the third term is hovering around throughout. I would have thought that whereas ‘teleological’ (ie goal-driven) behaviour could include non-conscious phenomena like biological growth (eg the acorn which eventually becomes a tree without much outside help), the notion of ‘purpose’ does entail a degree of consciousness or at least mind, because our usual understanding of the word does involve things like motives and intentions. No doubt Midgley might agree with this unexciting distinction, but why does she not discuss such a distinction herself? ‘Meaning’ is something else again, with an inevitably subjective connotation that must make it wider and more passive than ‘purpose’; the music analogy Midgley uses supports this since there is nothing purposeful or teleological about music, however ‘meaningful’ it may be subjectively.
Midgley seems to misconstrue the writings of those like Richard Dawkins, whom she opposes: does she really believe that Dawkins’ opinion that the universe contains no meaning or purpose entails that not a single human or other being within the universe has any purpose? Obviously Dawkins is referring to the universe itself, not to its myriad contents. In the same trivial way, she argues that scientists who believe that the universe has no purpose or meaning are somehow contradicting themselves because of their own dedication to studying it.Midgley gives not a single intelligible reason why we should believe that the universe as a whole contains purpose – or even meaning. She pounces on the improbability of intelligent life evolving: well, yes of course any particular outcome of any situation is extremely improbable, but this argument sounds suspiciously anti-Darwinian.While distancing herself from any “particular religious position” (does this mean that she has a non-particular religious position?) she quotes a scientist, Freeman Dyson, who says that “the universe must in some sense have known that we were coming.”Well, in what sense exactly? Is this universe run by God or not? And are ‘we’ (the inhabitants of one of the many planets of the universe) so unique? Maybe so, but we are surely back to theology and miles away from Darwin – the third item inMidgley’s title.
PETER ELLWAY, EAST GRINSTEAD
DEAR EDITOR: Like many other religious believers, Mary Midgley would like to think that the ancient religious notions which she holds are compatible with a modern scientific world-view. Unfortunately, her attempts to reconcile religion and science merely illustrate once again how difficult and pointless a task it is, like trying to fit a jet engine onto a horse and cart.
The first argument she offers is that the universe is not devoid of purposes because human beings and some other species do have them. That’s true. She then draws the false conclusion that if the universe contains purposes, then there must be an overall cosmic purpose. The religious intention is obvious – lurking in the wings we can see Zeus the Designer waiting to provide His (naturally) cosmic plan. But the existence of human purposes does not prove that the universe has a purpose, any more than the existence of human currencies proves that the universe has a currency. Likewise, the fact that the universe contains toilets does not prove that the universe is one vast toilet.
Later in her article, Midgley uses the converse of her first argument. Now she says that people who do not believe that the cosmos has a purpose are unable to have purposes themselves. A world-view which does not admit a cosmic purpose is, according to her, a “wintry scene where all normal value has been proved senseless.” This argument is no better than the original. Using the example of currencies again, the fact that there is no cosmic currency does not mean there can be no ordinary human currencies. There are. Likewise, the fact that the universe is not one vast toilet does not mean that toilets do not exist. They do. The lack of an overall cosmic purpose has no impact whatsoever on our ordinary human purposes. In short, life has all the meanings that we give it ourselves.
Religions were devised when people had little understanding of natural phenomena and the world they inhabited. Unlike us, those people did not have the benefit of centuries of accumulated scientific research and explanation. Their world-views are like ancient maps which feature potato-shaped countries clumped around a misshapen Mediterranean and which assume that the Earth is flat. Trying to reconcile those ancient maps with modern maps is a waste of time. They are of antiquarian interest only. If you want to find your way about, just use a modern map and have done with it.
LES REID, BELFAST
DEAR EDITOR: As a biochemist I fully support Mary Midgley’s arguments that life must have a purpose (in ‘Purpose, Meaning & Darwinism’, Issue 71). I believe that an animal must ‘care’ for its own survival if natural selection is to cause more complex organisms to evolve. An organism that cares for its life really struggles for survival and makes use of any small genetic advantages it has gained through chance. Note though that for objective science, it does not matter whether the organism actually cares, but only that it acts as if it cares. The problem for Darwin and evolutionary scientists is that for organisms to fully act even as if they care, they need some form of mind, and this is associated with brains and neurons. Since single- celled organisms have no brains, it is arguable that they cannot have minds. Therefore evolutionary scientists have produced a theory that denies even the appearance that simpler organisms care for their own life, and which is instead based entirely on a series of highly unlikely events. The process philosophy of A. N.Whitehead provides an escape from this problem. He argues that the fundamental reality of the universe is based on processes (see his Process and Reality). By treating all inputs to processes as data, and all processes as data processing systems, then some form of ‘mentality’ is always associated with the entire system. Using this approach we see that the complex biochemical systems used by a cell to assess its outer environment and to adjust its inner state can be described as an incredibly sophisticated chemical computer: its computations just happen to be based on DNA protein-chemical interactions acting in negative and positive feedback loops, rather than on neuronal networks in brains.What can be agreed on is that this complex biochemical computational ‘mind’ is always acting to retain the cell’s viability. As a philosopher, I would agree withWhitehead that negative and positive feedback loops are indeed the basis of a subjective self, but as a scientist, I now see the necessary cellular-level process that behaves as if it is struggling for survival. The ‘struggle for survival’ of this embodied chemical ‘mind’ drives the earliest stages of evolution towards collaboration with other cells. This has resulted in the evolution of our form of consciousness based on electrical circuits between neurons. By thus helping us to see how we can introduce ‘mind’ into even the most simple of living bodies, Whitehead’s Process Philosophy strengthens evolutionary theory while opening up the possibility for understanding the origins of selfhood and the universality of purpose.
DR STEVE BREWER, BY EMAIL
Good or Nutter?
DEAR EDITOR:With respect to the editorial in Issue 71, I believe that Grant Bartley is too much influenced by the American ‘evangelical HQ’ when it comes to the Christian understanding of Biblical authority. Traditional Christianity has never accepted that the Bible is literally God’s spoken word in the manner for example that the Muslim scripture the Koran claims for itself. The Biblical text only ever claims that it is written by human beings under the ‘inspiration’ of God’s Spirit‚ which is quite different from the belief that it is literally the dictated ‘words of God’. This means that the text and thoughts are human and set in the cultural and human context of their time. If we want to hear a message from the Creator God, we will therefore need to allow God’s Spirit to open our mind to understand what God is saying to us through the received text. This will always need to be tested by our own convictions and our faith in the Creator God who communicates.
It is faith in the God who communicates that gives Christians peace of mind, and not the infallibility of Biblical text as Grant implies. Traditional Christianity has always been open to give sound reasons and arguments for faith while recognising that no one can come to a personal faith without God’s Spirit revealing the truth of God’s love to them. Such reasoning is never closed to what science has to say, while recognising that science is limited to understanding only the creation and not the Creator.
MIKE WEEKES, BY EMAIL
DEAR EDITOR: A little research would soon show that some of Grant Bartley’s assertions in his editorial ‘God or Nature?’ do not hold.
Firstly, very few if any Christians, including literalists, would say that ‘God dictated the Bible’. Inspiration yes, dictation no.
Secondly, ‘infallibility’ is not an ‘Evangelical’ doctrine but a term associated with Roman Catholicism.
Thirdly there is no ‘evangelical HQ’, and there are a significant number of evangelicals who accept the concept of the Bible as being inspired and authoritative but who also can accept evolution. Historical research shows that this has always been the case. Darwin’s ideas were accepted very early on both by evangelical theologians (eg BenjaminWarfield) and evangelical scientists (eg Asa Gray). Indeed, Asa Gray was instrumental in getting the Origin published in the USA, and Darwin assisted in the circulation of Gray’s reflections on evolution.
GEOFF BAGLEY, NOTTINGHAM
DEAR EDITOR: On Page 4 of Issue 71, Mr Bartley wonders whether, if God lied, He would “be morally any better than Descartes’ all-deceiving demon”? However, if the demon is all-deceiving to Descartes, then necessarily the deceit must include his evilness. Therefore, the truth must be that he is not evil. Perhaps he therefore is deceiving for a non-evil purpose. Perhaps God does this too.
ADRIAN MARK ARMSTRONG, BY EMAIL
DEAR EDITOR: I think it’s logical to think that Darwin’s theory of evolution, which emphasizes adaptation and renewal in nature, also applies to society. As explained in the article ‘Social Spencerism’ by Tim Delaney in Issue 71, Herbert Spencer made this connection.
The article made me think about how Spencer reacted in 1858 when he first learned about the second law of thermodynamics, the law of entropy [the increasing chaos of closed systems]. That law, he probably reasoned, must apply to human constructs as it does to nature. On learning of that law Spencer said, “I remember being out of sorts for some days afterwards.” He would have been out of sorts on hearing about entropy’s deteriorating effects because that must have meant that civilization would someday come to an end. He equated entropy with social decline. This particularly bothered him because he believed in progress – thatWestern civilization would continue to evolve indefinitely. If it doesn’t it’s all for nothing.
Perhaps he felt better after returning to his theory about economics, with its social implication that through economic activity humans advance through selection. As Delaney’s article said, economic activity develops new methods and technologies that help humans survive. He probably also felt better by rightly thinking that technological advances help combat and reverse both the physical and social effects of entropy through a process of renewal and rejuvenating.
There is merit in Spencer’s theory that if a social order keeps inventing new technology and systems it will successfully address the natural imperative of renewal.We can see that he was right by comparing capitalism and communism. Communism collapsed because it stagnated, lacking the resources and agility to reinvent itself, particularly in human governance, in order to reverse the political and social decline that plagued it.
Tim Madigan’s article on ‘Dewey and Darwin’ in the same issue also got me thinking. It makes sense that pragmatism was born in America, because of the broad dichotomies that exist there.
In The Sociology of Philosophies Randall Collins writes, “Pragmatism was the product of interaction between religious Idealism and the research sciences fostered by American university reform.” From this one can conclude that pragmatism was born as a means of bridging the growing divide between those who chose to remain religious – traditionalists – and those who chose to believe in evolution and science – modernists. To this day America remains a divided country, where a majority still don’t believe in evolution. However, America’s philosophy, pragmatism, is a philosophy of compromise and reconciliation. It is a philosophy that puts theory into practice, becoming an operational philosophy as John Dewy believed philosophy should be. Through deeds and action, this philosophy cultivated a middle, practical ground in law and education.
If pragmatism hadn’t been invented, America may have been as torn apart by its contradictory camps of traditionalists and modernists as it was by the Civil War. Instead pragmatism laid the common ground on which differences could coexist. Ironically, pragmatism began to take root after the CivilWar, perhaps as a spirited means of healing the rift that was exposed by the war.With pragmatism America invented its own truth, that people from all walks of life and beliefs can live together – a rationale that had never been tested before in human governance. And to this day that truth still binds together people who are not always like-minded. Pragmatism, in how it traverses the divide, is what makes the illusion of equality a reality.
DAVID AIRTH, TORONTO
The Evolution of Stupidity
DEAR EDITOR: I was reading about Darwinism in your recent issue and thinking about the evolution of human intelligence. Massimo Pigliucci’s article ‘The Evolution of Evolutionary Theory’ proposes an interesting argument that evolution does not necessarily lead always to the best result. This argument can be applied to the evolution of human intelligence. I think that stupidity evolves along with intelligence. (Sometimes it’s the result of intelligence. I once read a comment that a certain idea was so stupid it could only have been thought of by an intelligent person.) The more sophisticated our intelligence becomes so does our stupidity. How can this be? One proposal is that some people are convinced that the more complicated an idea is the more intelligent it is because it appears to involve considerably more thought. Thankfully we have ‘Occam’s Razor’ to disprove this. This principle states that the simplest explanation is the best. By becoming more complicated we become distracted from our initial idea, and go somewhere completely irrelevant to where we want to be. Yet in our vanity we can mistake simplicity for stupidity. Why does this happen?We become so self-conscious and consumed by our intelligence and results (sometimes even taking credit for others’ work just because we are of the same race), that we forget the most obvious details under our noses. Edgar Alan Poe makes this very point in his story ‘The Purloined Letters’ by illustrating how we often overrate mathematical logic and forget the simplest solution.
In Gulliver’s Travels Swift compares how the Yahoos embrace and accept their brutality, and yet humans feel the need to create reasons to justify their brutality and to make themselves look more intelligent, often illogically trying to make stupid brutal ideas look intelligent. How could we resolve this situation? I propose by referring to Socrates’ famous saying, “Wisest is he who knows that he doesn’t know” – in other words, by recognizing our ignorance. Accept that we don’t know everything. Although it may look like we are less intelligent by admitting our ignorance, we are actually making considerable progress as we allow our awareness of our ignorance to guide us, thus avoiding the pitfalls of our intelligence, enticed by our arrogance. Through accepting ignorance and the fallibility of our intelligence we are more attentive in how we apply that intelligence. In a paradoxical way, the more intelligent we try to appear the more our stupidity is revealed, and it’s only by accepting our stupidity and ignorance are we able to show how intelligent we really are. Also paradoxically, while I’m trying to derive intelligence in contemplating my stupidity, I suspect that someone reading this would see the stupidity within my intelligence
ALAN ROLLE, SURREY
Cosmological Dispute Continues
DEAR EDITOR: While the reasoning in Bill Capra’s piece – or should I say BILLY Capra’s piece – ‘Everything is a Goat’ in Issue 71 is impressive, in the end it’s fatally flawed.We all know that everything is, in fact, a platypus.
MARK CYZYK, BALTIMORE
DEAR EDITOR: Nassim Nicholas Taleb in Letters, Issue 71, still has some work to do to defend his logic. Challenged by Mark Frankel on his assertion that “the more improbable an outcome, the higher its impact” Taleb actually defends the entirely different proposition that (in certain circumstances) “larger (impact) events have a declining probability.” To consider these equivalent without further argument would be to commit the logical fallacy of affirming the consequent. That larger impact events necessarily belong in the tail of the distribution does not mean that everything in the tail of the distribution is a larger impact event.
TIMOTHY ROWE, BY EMAIL
What Do You Call A Collection Of Solipsists? A Contradiction
DEAR EDITOR: Professor David Lethbridge’s refutation of solipsism (Letters, Issue 71) falls down on a simple error. It is a simple error, yet Professor Lethbridge should not worry that it is a stupid one, unless we want to go round calling great philosophers stupid.
The proof Prof. Lethbridge offers is: “The Solipsist Position:
1) A exists and B does not.
2) B exists and A does not. Refutation:
3) It is logically impossible for Propositions (1) and (2) to both be true. Further,
4) It is logically impossible to determine which of Propositions (1) or (2) is, or might be, true.
5) Therefore, the only possible logical response is that persons A and B do in fact simultaneously exist.
6) By implication, if both A and B exist, then the external world must exist.”
Step (5) is the issue, and within step (5) the use of the word ‘logical’. If the word is used as a synonym for ‘consistent’ then ‘both A and B’ is consistent, but not the only consistent possibility: ‘A and not-B’, ‘not-A and B’ and ‘not-A and not-B’ are equally consistent. For step (5) to hold, some other condition must hold. This condition is, I suspect, that “you must be justified in holding any belief.” The argument at (4), correctly, is that neither A-solipsism nor B-solipsism can be justified. The argument at (5) is, incorrectly, that the negation of (1) & (2) is justified by our inability to positively justify them. This idea can be readily dispensed with: whilst I am not justified in predicting that the next toss of a coin will be heads, I am not thereby justified in predicting it to be tails.
The good news for Professor Lethbridge is that he is in exalted company. The argument from non-justification to the justification of negation lays at the heart of much of philosophy: Berkeley’s idealism (we cannot justify the world beyond our ideas, thus the world beyond our ideas does not exist),Wittgenstein’s private language argument (we cannot know whether we use a private word in such and such a way, therefore we do not use it in such and such a way), Logical Positivism in toto (if you can’t justify it then it is gibberish) etc. The bad news for all of us is that this argument lies at the heart of some of the most irritating and wrong-headed rubbish around: Presuppositional Apologetics, Creationism, Postmodernism in toto. I find myself in agreement with Popper’s pupil and colleague David Miller in thinking that philosophy would be better off if it cured itself of its ‘addiction’ to justification.
TONY LLOYD, LONDON
DEAR EDITOR: Unfortunately, there is indeed a problem with the logic of Professor Lethbridge’s argument about solipsism in Philosophy Now Issue 71. The problem lies in the difference between a proposition being true as a contingent fact and a proposition being logically true as a necessary fact. Hence the difficulty resides in the step from his point (4) to point (5).
Points (3) and (4) I readily agree with. But the fact that we cannot determine (and certainly not logically determine) which of (1) or (2) is true, does not exclude the possibility that one of them might be true as a contingent fact. Hence we cannot logically conclude that A and B do, indeed, simultaneously exist.
I doubt very much that there is any watertight logical disproof of solipsism. But I equally doubt that anyone could seriously adopt a solipsist position and consistently behave accordingly. Professor Lethbridge’s own discipline of psychology might be better able to elucidate the impossibility of holding such a belief and remaining sane.
In his account of ‘the reef of solipsism’ in Being and Nothingness, Sartre also rejects any possibility of the logical proof of solipsism’s falsity. Sartre finds evidence for the existence of other consciousnesses in the phenomenology of consciousness – in the experience of being looked at. Unlike G.E.Moore, Sartre’s concern here is not just the existence of other objects, but the existence of other consciousnesses. Incidentally, Bertrand Russell claimed that he once received a letter from someone who wrote: “Personally, I’m a solipsist, and I can’t understand why there aren’t more of us”!
PETER BENSON, LONDON [Article p.26]
Cleanliness Next To Evil?
DEAR EDITOR: The News section of Issue 71 tells of a recent study in Psychological Science indicating that washing hands or other acts of physical cleaning make one more accepting of unethical activities. This finding probably comes as a surprise to most people, but it shouldn’t be. In life a certain amount of grime is always present, so cleaning inevitably adds a measure of artificiality which might be expected to have a compromising effect on moral standards.
The finding also might raise the question whether religious purification prayers and rituals have an effect opposite to what is intended. I would say not. Purification can make an individual feel closer to the divine, because such concepts as faith, goodness, and justice are enhanced by thinking of them as simple and pure. Washing one’s hands or putting on clean clothes encourages such thought. This influence would likely outweigh the effect of compromising moral standards.
DANIEL SHIVELY, BY EMAIL
Person Holding Forth
DEAR EDITOR: Reading ‘First Person, Second Person, Third Person’ in Issue 69, I got a kick out of Joel Marks’ notion of the “inner Ralph Kramden.” Generally, it seems obvious that we fall into various roles while interacting. Here’s a trend I find especially annoying: I’m in a conversation with someone, a brotherin- law say, and while he speaks I make comments, for example, rephrase what he’s said, to show that I’m listening, to show I’m interested in what he’s saying. Next thing I know he takes my polite acknowledgements and argues with me! While he’s disputing me, I’m usually standing there with a cocktail in my hand thinking, ‘I never disagreed with a thing he said and now he’s arguing with me? How can this be?’
I think the underlying reason for this annoying phenomena is a competitive nature motivated by a superiority complex. That is, many interlocutors don’t care about truth or the advancement of ideas: rather, they want to argue to show they are a superior person.
To all those who argue merely to feed their own ego, I say, “You’re going to the moon Alice!”