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Robotic Responses • Beware of Derrida • The Myth Of The Myth • Swan And On • Suffering Is Good Shock • Mary Midgley Matters • Defending Dennett

Robotic Responses

DEAR EDITOR: JoelMarks in his article on robotic moral agency asked how we could not ascribe moral agency to a machine that was programmed to act exactly as a moral human would. I would ask, how can we even ascribe agency, let alone morality, to such a device? Surely the relevant agent is the programmer. It’s like being a passenger onWendellWallach’s hypothetical train bearing down on five people and being redirected to kill only one. Obviously the passenger is involved in the incident, in the sense that they are present, but they’re not aware of what is happening and have no control over events. The passenger could hardly be blamed or praised for the results. A non-conscious, completely pre-programmed robot would be in exactly the same position morally. ‘Here I stand: I can do no other’ can only be properly uttered by an entity that is self-aware and therefore also has some self-direction.


DEAR EDITOR: Thank you for Issue 72 and the ‘Moral Machines’ theme. Obviously no thinking person would object to those interested in AI gaining an insight into ethics by attempting to make machines capable of moral thought. However there is one question that was not asked: Just how humanoid do we want our machines?

Since Homo habilis, man has used tools. The hammer is invaluable for banging in nails and its derivative, the claw hammer, for taking them out again. So far so good; but when we introduce tools with a little more intelligence, say the electric toaster, things get more difficult. As it stands, the toaster allows us to choose how burnt we want our toast. The addition of a magazine loaded with sliced bread and a simple timer would allow the toaster to make toast at a set time and possibly wake us to enjoy fresh toast for breakfast.We are still in control. But what would happen if we equipped our bed with a weight detector linked back to our toaster and included a chip to calculate our body mass index? The toaster then could decide how much toast we ought to have for breakfast in order to remain healthy. All of a sudden we have lost the ability to choose. Making decisions and choices is what’s fun about being human. Don’t let’s give it up.

One more point.We’re living on an overcrowded planet.Why are we talking about making more, albeit mechanical, people when we have ample already?


Beware of Derrida

DEAR EDITOR: It may seem discourteous to criticise a fellow contributor to Philosophy Now, but I cannot allow Peter Benson’s defence of Derrida (‘Beware of Truth!’, Issue 72) to pass unchallenged. There is much that is wrong with his article, but space obliges me to ration myself and I shall make just three points.

Firstly, Benson’s grasp of the history of philosophy is shaky. For example, his claim that “philosophy began when it separated itself from sophistry” is astonishing. Has he not heard of Thales, Anaximander, Pythagoras, Heraclitus et al–all of whom preceded those intellectual barrow boys, the Sophists?

Secondly, the critique of Derrida does not consist simply of sophistry, the hostility of ill-informed philosophers, and the jeers of uncomprehending journalists with their factoids. There have been very detailed and careful examinations of Derrida’s thought which have engaged with his ideas and found them wanting. How do I know? I wrote two of them. My Not Saussure (1988, 1995) devoted 70 very closely-argued pages to demonstrating the confusion at the heart of Derrida’s claims about, among other things, the relationship between language and reality, and, in particular, his misunderstanding of the implications of Saussure’s linguistics for the possibility of reference. My Theorrhoea and After (1999) documents how the claim ‘He never said that!’ is used again and again to deny what Derrida actually said, as a last ditch defence once what Derrida said has been shown to be selfrefuting or otherwise nonsense.

Finally, the suggestion that opposition to Derrida’s honorary degree at Cambridge (in which those who opposed it cited my critique) was part of a pattern which included the anti- Semitism that led to his expulsion from school in Algiers and his arrest on a trumped-up charge of drug smuggling in Communist Prague, is outrageous. The campaign against his degree was based on the conclusions of those, such as myself, who had read Of Grammatology and his other major works, found them intellectually derelict, and took the trouble to say why.


DEAR EDITOR: Peter Benson’s article ‘Beware of Truth!’ attempts to rescue Derrida from his detractors by claiming that he never proposed the dreadful things alleged of him. Rather than being an enemy of truth, as supposed, we are told that he is its friend–if not a defender of Truth, he is at least, like Lyotard, a defender of truths in different domains. Rather than claiming that texts are indefinable, he is as happy as anyone else to defend the meaning of texts.

This ‘normalization’ of Derrida is certainly contestable. After all, as J.L. Austin once said of philosophers in general: “There’s the bit where he says it and the bit where he takes it back.” But if Derrida never proposed the muchridiculed theses attributed to him, it is pertinent to ask why so many misunderstood him and, even more to the point, what exactly is so path-breaking in his work that demands our attention today. Benson tells us that Derrida’s ‘metaphysics of presence’ is roughly equivalent toWilfrid Sellars’ ‘Myth of the Given’, but not how the former is an advance in clarity over the other. He tells us that Derrida draws out political implications–for example, that democracy is always an aspiration rather than a finished product–but surely one hardly needs Derrida’s barrage of neologisms to arrive at this less than stunning conclusion. Nor do we need Derrida to tell us that moral propositions are not the same as empirical propositions, which most of us have known for rather a long time. In Benson’s hands it appears that the effect of normalizing Derrida is to make him innocuous to the point of redundancy.

But this is not the end of the matter. In his article Benson also normalizes Lyotard, claiming that in The Postmodern Tradition Lyotard is only reporting as a matter of sociological fact the postmodern loss of belief in grand narratives of progress; that he is being descriptive but not prescriptive. This is clearly not the case: Lyotard’s whole oeuvre is centred around what he sees as the failure of the great narratives such as Hegelianism or Marxism to encompass reality. To Lyotard it is not merely that we have ceased to believe in them, but that we are right to have done so because they cannot ever live up to their explanatory claims. For him, truths lie only inside each of a myriad ofWittgensteinian language- games: there is no meta-truth by which we can adjudicate between them.

This is rather more challenging than simply being suspicious of someone who comes along proposing Truth because in looking at the big picture one is liable to lose essential smaller yet important truths. Instead it is to say that it is impossible to look at the big picture at all. Surely a main point of many critics of philosophers like Derrida and Lyotard is that they’re trying to say things that cannot consistently be said (hence the difficulty in making sense of their writings). Cases in point: to proclaim the death of all metanarratives is itself a metanarrative; to claim that there are no general truths but only truths operative in specific domains, is itself to offer a general truth. To this extent, they are offering us theses that are not worth exploring because, by virtue of self-contradiction, they cannot be true in the first place.


The Myth Of The Myth

DEAR EDITOR: In ‘The DragonMemes, Culture and Evolution’, Issue 72, Daria Sugorakova attempts to use Dawkins’ writings to understand this mythological beast.We are told that the Dragon concept is a survival machine whose only purpose is to replicate its memes. As Dawkins now confesses, genes, and presumably memes, themselves are not actually selfish: that’s just a very misleading metaphor. However, the beast emerging from the genes contained in theWestern European dragon’s egg most certainly is selfish. It destroys communities in order to hoard their hard-won wealth for itself, then sits in the deepest recesses guarding its treasure. The heroic quest of the dragon slayer is to seek out its dark and dangerous lair, destroy the dragon, and release its wealth back into the world. So if you want to understand the dragon, a good place to start is Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces.When you understand the real purpose of the Dragon myth, you may be surprised just how real and close to reality it is!


Swan And On

DEAR EDITOR: I enjoyed Issue 72, especially the articles about Hemingway and about the film Venus. I found this film very interesting, mainly because, well before it was released and before the Velazquez exhibition went on show at the National Gallery, I attended a talk there about the painting. The art historian was Spanish and furnished us with a large amount of information about that painting. Later, when the exhibition was on, many so-called ‘experts’ on TV bluffed or blatantly lied about that painting. This reminded me that people rarely say ‘I don’t know’–which is something we can also learn from The Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. Also, the film reminded me of Death in Venice, and of how, in the past, one could celebrate human beauty with no carnal motive but through pure, intoxicating, enjoyment. Such peak experiences are something we all seek, and something ColinWilson has been investigating for many years. I am sure that one day, someone will fuse the ideas from The Black Swan, The Outsider and the theory of ‘reflexivity’ proposed by George Soros to produce a true breakthrough in philosophy. Incidentally, I noticed that the Question of the Month ‘Who is the Best Philosopher’ answers in Issue 70 didn’t mention Colin Wilson. This is a great shame, as he is without doubt, the greatest philosopher. He may not be as famous as many but his theories run parallel to those of George Soros and give us great hope for mankind.


DEAR EDITOR: Unlike Mark Frankel in Letters PN 70, I’ve read Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s The Black Swan. Frankel does not understand Taleb’s fundamental premise, which is that certain high-impact events cannot be predicted within the confines of standard risk analysis. They come out of left field and surprise us. They are paradigm-breakers. For instance, a casino had a risk management policy that included setting the odds in favor of the house and detecting cheaters through surveillance. Its biggest losses came not from the gambling floor, but from events completely outside the domain of their policy–a performer maimed by a tiger, a clerk’s failure to file required Internal Revenue Service documents, and the like (The Black Swan, pp.129-130).

However, I find fault in Taleb’s reply to Frankel (Letters, PN 71). Taleb does not adequately answer Frankel’s complaint about his “contention that the more improbable an outcome, the higher its impact.” Some highly improbable events might have very low impacts.We would not pay any attention to them, so for practical purposes they don’t matter. That may be Taleb’s point. If so, he does not make it clearly.


Suffering Is Good Shock

DEAR EDITOR: I read your editorial ‘God or Nature?’ in Issue 71 with interest. You ponder why God would allow suffering? Look at what suffering does: how pain wakes us up to what we once had, and hopefully to what we have now. Suffering and loss are roads to gratitude and appreciation. By contrast, those who have everything simply feel entitled to it and appreciate nothing. And without appreciation, there can be no happiness.

Look at the trajectory of a human life: it’s a story of loss. Loss of health and vitality, youth and beauty, loss of capability – and if we live a long time, loss of all our friends and loved ones. Is this all random? Who knows. But if we pay attention to life’s lessons, we’ll become aware of all the things we can do without and still be happy.We’ll learn, finally, that we need nothing to be happy.We’ll see that it’s being alive that counts, simply being. What greater gift is there than to know this? And it’s a gift of loss. So could a good God allow suffering? Absolutely.


DEAR EDITOR: Your editorial ‘God or Nature?’ missed an opportunity to enlighten readers when it said that “Imaginative theologians might reinterpret the text [of Genesis 1] in modern cosmological terms.” That statement misleadingly suggests that such Biblical texts are about cosmology, and thus need modernization. But contemporary Biblical scholarship, as well as a long line of Christian tradition preceding today’s fundamentalism, has treated that initial text as a theological discourse expressing worship of God and joy for the goodness of the world. Focusing on the cosmology, which is only in the text’s background, and trying to reconcile it with modern cosmology would be like trying to reconcile Jesus’s parable of the sower with modern agricultural technology. The point of it would be entirely missed.


DEAR EDITOR: I was delighted to read ‘Searching For Santa’ at the end of Issue 70: a brilliant story by Sam Morris which demonstrates how the same irrational arguments for the existence of a God can be applied to the existence of Santa Claus.

I closed Issue 70 and opened Issue 71 only to take a giant step backwards with Grant Bartley’s editorial ‘God or Nature?’ in which he claims “God is not vanquished [by evolution].” He seems to find validity in the supernatural because the majority believes in it. But didn’t a majority vote for GeorgeW… twice?

As Richard Dawkins has said, there are mountains of evidence that prove there is no God. Said evidence is available to anyone who wants to look it up. However, my experience has been that most people don’t want to know the truth. Perhaps for major enlightenment to occur, we need to move beyond the delusions of the supernatural to address why people don’t want to know the truth about it.

I suggest people believe in things contrary to what has been proven because they have been terrified into accepting dogma.Moreover, the terror is inflicted on most believers at an early age, when they are children, too young to reason for themselves. How does religion terrify children? Isn’t God et al about love? Let me give an example. Suppose parents told their children, “We’re going to meet a bunch of people at a hall. And we’ll be drinking our friend’s blood and eating his flesh.” A child asks if doing this will hurt the friend. “Oh no: our friend has been dead for thousands of years. He loves it when we eat him.” Outside a religious context, parents might be locked up for child abuse if they terrified their children in this manner. In church, this behavior is taught to be perfectly normal. But in the impressionable minds of children, terrifying rituals such as cannibalism are bound to have a profoundly deleterious effect, ie, cause irrational thinking fueled by fear.

Could it be that the mechanism which twists people’s minds into suicide bombing is at work in believers in general? If so, accepting the truth about the supernatural, ie that it is unnatural, ergo unreal, could lead humanity to an unprecedented era of peace and enlightenment.


Mary Midgley Matters

DEAR EDITOR:What a wonderful tool the English language is (no doubt other languages are too). In Issue 71 Mary Midgley calls on Aristotle to help in justifying using the word ‘purpose’ in a continuum of meaning. I suggest that she is thereby evading the issue. A hierarchy of meanings would make a far more helpful contribution to the debate: there is a world of difference between the ‘routine’ or unconscious purpose of a selfish gene or a seed germinating under a stone, the ‘responsive’ impulsive purpose of an animal or human trying to get out of a trap; the ‘planned’ purpose or ‘intention’ of a Dawkins challenging Creationism; and the ‘spiritual’ purpose of any Spirit or spirit there may be.

Granted, there is a degree of continuum with these purposes as soon as there is self-consciousness, but surely the fundamental debate is whether or not any distinction can be made between the last two levels of the hierarchy.What is at issue here is whether there is free will, and if so, whether it can be explained scientifically or whether it calls for a spiritual explanation. Is Dawkins, you, or I, acting as biological person, spirit, or both?

To conflate ‘bad’ with ‘evil’–a word with clearly different connotations–evades the same question. Surely the words ‘evil’ and ‘selfish’ imply intention?


DEAR EDITOR: In her article in Issue 71 Mary Midgley intriguingly remarks: “The concept of matter turns out to be quite as puzzling as the concept of mind; indeed perhaps even more so.” Continuing in a mode of earnest enquiry, whether in the evolutionary context or otherwise, should we not first pose the primordial and quintessentially philosophical question:Why is there matter?


Defending Dennett

DEAR EDITOR: I write to comment on the letter of Graham Smethan in Issue 70 attacking the views of Daniel Dennett on ‘Emergent Consciousness’.

I never have supported the extreme edges of Dennett: that consciousness is so linked to its atomistic origin that a conscious machine can be created. That seems to me to be at odds with, among other things, his own ideas on emergence, qualia and intrinsic intentionality. But Smethan’s arguments against Dennett’s more supportable views on mind’s emergence fail on several fronts, linked by Smethan’s evident belief that material reality itself has mind.

First, he uses arguments from Buddhist philosophy against something emerging from its opposite.Well, first, Buddhism is not a recognized scientific discipline; and besides, matter, although perhaps mindless, is not the ‘opposite’ of mind.

Next, Smethan reverses quantum mechanics to make the same argument. But quantum science says that the mind has an impact on observable physical quantum phenomena, not that quantum phenomena themselves are ‘idea-like’.

But most important, Smethan ignores the scientific work of Stuart Kauffman and the Santa Fe Institute in proving the scientific and mathematical laws of Self- Organizing Order and Complexity–a partner to natural selection in the work of evolution, and a strong support for the emergent theory of consciousness. Whether emergence has created something beyond replicability or even scientific comprehension is another matter.


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