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Philosophers In Chains • A Taking Marks Seriously • CS Peirce, Analytic Phenomenologist • Science, Psychology & Supernature • Morals And Money • The Theists Strike Back • Golden Lines
Philosophers In Chains
DEAR EDITOR: I was extremely impressed with John Lachs’ article advocating a new era of applied philosophy (‘Can Philosophy Still Produce Public Intellectuals?’, Issue 75). He takes academics to task for their technical and inward-looking approach (although university reward mechanisms must shoulder much of the blame), and he points out that this regrettable state of affairs is a relatively recent development.
I wonder whether his argument can be taken further still. Suppose that a couple of pharmacists invent two drugs which provide some relief from the unpleasant symptoms of a pandemic disease. Despite their discoveries, they spend no time attempting to distribute or market their drugs, preferring to argue over which compound is the most effective. In their debates they believe that pharmacists are the only people who know anything significant about the disease in question, and they note with dismay that people generally do not respect or understand pharmacists. They accept that a total cure might never be possible, but think that with only a few hundred years’ effort in their ivory laboratory they might come up with something marginally better – therefore they ought to get back to their research rather than waste time handing out prescriptions. Are they acting morally?
It is fortunate that most pharmacists do not behave this way, but I hope you can see where I’m going. As Lachs says, we are “surrounded by moral problems, public and private. People search blindly for a worthy life.” It is likely that philosophers will never come close to finding anything like a complete solution to this plight, but they have made respectable progress, and certainly have much more to offer than the confused efforts of politicians (hopeless) and priests (thanks for trying, but your answers are founded on faulty metaphysics). Half the population of the world is trying to blow the other half up. The very Earth is choking on humanity. People suspect their lives are empty, and turn to religion, money worship or the endless stream of pap served up by the internet and television. Philosophy is directly relevant to these and countless other problems, and whilst research is important, under the circumstances I think it is incumbent on philosophers to devote reasonable resources to providing whatever assistance they can. Unfortunately, the honourable exceptions who do try to popularise the subject or involve themselves in public debate are pilloried by academics, who thereby make themselves part of the problem. Given our predicament, this approach to philosophy is simply not good enough, and I urge its practitioners to examine their way of doing things under their own moral microscope. The audience cannot be blamed for listening to chat show hosts rather than philosophers if philosophers provide precious little to listen to. Plato and Russell must be turning in their graves.
HOUGHTON LE SPRING, UK
DEAR EDITOR: John Lachs asks, Does philosophy still produce public intellectuals? This question can only have one answer, a resonant NO. Philosophy, at least as espoused in Plato’s dialogues or by Kant’s method of reasoning, is intrinsically opposed to the Geist of any culture in the last two thousand years. The latest evolution of government – the turn from authoritarian to democratic ones – makes it even more difficult for any governing authority to follow the advice of a philosopher, which, after having studied so many thinkers’ logical processes, will always tend to be rational solutions to political problems. However, in politics, nothing is rational. There are much more important considerations which have to be respected, and which are the background of the executive decisions of modern governments:
1) The Vox Populis must be satisfied for re-election. If 90%of the population demands war as the retribution for a terrorist act, then war will it be, even when cooler minds can see the tunnel without end into which the country is driving – as when the USA invaded Afghanistan.
2) Philosophers may have compelling, purely Socratic reasons for or against certain measures, but these have no weight in the minds of the government compared with the pressure applied by the political action committees who financed the executives when they required money and more money to fund the onerous expenses associated with being elected.
3) The last four US Presidents spent every Sunday morning in theWhite House praying, sometimes with a favorite priest or preacher. These sessions defined the character of the thinking of the Chief Executive. The advice of one philosopher, or even of a group of them, based on some logical sequencing of ideas, could not compete with the ‘divine’ inspiration sought in these meetings.
4) TheWestern world is under increasing strain from many factors. Economic factors are prevalent today, and threaten the cohesion of our societies due to unemployment, the threat of inflation and many other woes. In a crisis situation like this, in which we can see long lines of job seekers competing for a few openings in the job market, who has the patience, time and peace of mind to listen to the advice of philosophers – especially those who base their ideas on longdead thinkers, and even worse, who’ve never worked with their hands?
5) Most interesting is the fact that in today’s education programs, at least here in the USA, philosophy is a moot point. Educational authorities are talking about reforming educational syllabi because they want young people to learn what they may need in real life. They want to reduce the amount of calculus, arts and crafts, and languages. Even world history is almost not taught, and philosophy is in no educator’s mind.
Pragmatism and materialism are the leitmotifs of today’s thinking. Reading classical literature is an entertainment of the past.Walk into a major bookstore and look what they’re selling – or rather, look for what they’re not selling – and one can form a very good idea of the intellectual level of the average book buyer – which is already a lamentable minority of the general population.
Philosophy is a segment of the general cultural knowledge everybody should have access to, but this requires a certain peace of mind, and also an economic status most students don’t have. Neither did they have this in the last two generations. This is why, outside of academia, names such as Kant, Buber, Heidegger or Habermas are unknown, and the knowledge one can have reading and more importantly, thinking about what these guys wanted to communicate has no impact on any decision-maker in today’s governments anywhere in the world.
HENRY BACK, FLORID
A Taking Marks Seriously
DEAR EDITOR: Perhaps JoelMarks’ next piece of work for Philosophy Now could be about the trouble with determinism (see his ‘Taking Determinism Seriously’ in Issue 75). The word ‘determinism’ is itself a problem. In common parlance, ‘being determined’ means a strong exercise of the will: but obviously that will is not free, in that we are enslaved to nature and the laws that govern there.We have been sentenced to a life of hard labor, pushed around and incapable of changing course. Other words to describe our condition would be more accurate and less depressing than being ‘determined’.
ALLAN SALTZ, BY EMAIL
DEAR EDITOR: In Issue 75, JoelMarks considers Determinism versus Indeterminism in relation to the free will debate. Either physical laws determine everything, including every word I am writing, or everything is random, as in the quantum world (whose effects some parts of our neurons may utilise, as Penrose claimed). However, these are two extremes. Randomness can have degrees, giving probability rather than certainty or chaos. Obviously, if something is 99.999999% probable, it is certain for all practical purposes; and if it’s 0.000001% probable, it’s basically impossible. Yet the range in-between allows for choice, in that everything’s not pre-ordained. The point is that Indeterminism is not the opposite of Determinism, it is just its absence; yet physics tells us that indeterminism is the ultimate basis of our reality.
In the same issue Robert Harries and Philip Villamor (after Camus) compare life to the fate of mythical Sisyphus, doomed to push a rock uphill forever. Yet the rock would wear down to a boulder, then a stone, and eventually a pebble, so the task would get easier and easier, and eventually end. So maybe this myth tells us that even tasks which seem unachievable can be completed with enough work.
The great task of life, it seems to me, is something less individualistic than Sisyphus’s, and more about contributing to life as a whole, especially to the wider human community. Individual death can seem to remove any meaning from our individual lives; but humanity itself could be an almost eternal entity. Certainly we can well imagine human beings all over the MilkyWay in millions of years’ time. We could well also populate other galaxies eventually, and perhaps other universes or dimensions, if such places exist. So although we may be a very small part of humanity, and very short-lived in cosmological terms, any contribution we make could play a part in a much greater whole. Indeed, in a billion years’ time, every person now living on Earth might well be seen as a great ‘Founder’ of a massively increased civilisation – one of the lucky few who started it all. If that doesn’t give meaning to what we do, it’s hard to imagine what could.
JUSTIN HOLME, NORTHAMPTON, UK
CS Peirce, Analytic Phenomenologist
DEAR EDITOR: In his enlightening article in Issue 74, Kile Jones states: “it is almost impossible to find analytic philosophers discussing phenomenology.” I suggest that Charles Sanders Peirce is just such an elusive philosopher. His papers on semiotics, a model of all forms of communication, should qualify him as an analytic philosopher, just as the Tractatus does forWittgenstein. He was also an accomplished logician – his third volume is on logic. There is no doubt that he presumed a scientific approach: he started with a ‘triadic’ sign model, and classified a possible 59049 signs. His semiotics could also model the Italian chin-stroking gesture which stumped Wittgenstein.
Peirce also developed his own model of phenomenology, or phraneoscopy as he called it; devoting to it much, if not all, of the first volume of his collected papers. He also devised a triadic classification system for his phenomenology which he also used to describe semiotics – tying these two subjects together. However, Peirce is a bit of an enigma, as he seems to have his feet firmly planted in both the analytic and the continental camps. His Pragmatism, (or Pragmaticism as he later called it) – that concepts amount to their ostensible outcomes – could possibly be seen as being in the continental tradition.
MARTINWHEATMAN, BY EMAIL.
Science, Psychology & Supernature
DEAR EDITOR: To say, as Professor Rickman does in Issue 74, that psychology is not a science because it does not share a scientific method with physics, is a weak argument. Philosophers of science, from Carnap to Feyerabend and Quine, by way of Popper and Kuhn, have not been able to agree what constitutes science, and there is little prospect of an uncontestable scientific method emerging. In this, the history of scientific method is like the history of physics itself: a history of progress strewn with the wreckage of falsified and abandoned theories. Indeed, the history of science amply demonstrates that there never was an infallible physics, or some ideal Form of Science, to which the alleged paradigm of the physical sciences could conform. It was a decidedly religious turn of mind that sought the last word in the physics of Aristotle, and where did that get us? Hence, the evidence of history shows that physics cannot be a paradigm of science, for psychology or any other science. Hence Professor Rickman has not succeeded in showing psychology is not a science – nor could he, given the facts of history. Rather, it would appear that the meaning of the word ‘science’ is now breaking free of its 19th and 20th century positivist moorings, and branching out into myriad avenues of exploration and discovery, of which psychology is only one. Far from being unscientific, psychology is teeming with competing explanatory theories awaiting the tests of fallibility. Psychology is not only exciting science but, in probing into consciousness, it is science conducted at the very edge of empirical evidence.What more could you ask for?
DEAR EDITOR: In reply to Professor Rickman, I say that until we recognise that subjective aims and purposes are as important as biochemistry, we are never going to understand the evolution and development of consciousness. I suggest that we start by realizing that what we think of as an isolated ‘embodied mind’ is actually a dynamic ‘mindful body’ exchanging and processing data with its local environment. Fortunately, medical science ignores the mind-body separation. By combining the insights of psychology to make behavioural models, medicinal chemists have developed medicines to improve the subjective state of mentally ill patients.We can also directly change the mental state to alleviate physical illness using placebo treatments. It is also possible to consciously alter one’s own subjective state by using meditation, the bodily effects of which can be seen by brain imaging technology. Scientists brought up on purely reductionist philosophy derived from the physical sciences must grasp the need to incorporate subjective aims and purposes if they are to fully understand the functioning of our ‘mindful bodies’.
For me, good science only emerges from an investigator who studies the world with an open mind free from dogma. If he/she maintains this openness, there will come a moment of sudden insight when a collection of data and partially-formed ideas become understood in one simple hypothesis. I like Popper because he reminds us that however clever a hypothesis or theory is, it is never an unassailable truth. By understanding this, we can ensure that a theory (including Darwin’s) never becomes a dogma, but is always open to improvements, or even disproof, by new insights or data. Creationism and ID theories are maintained in the face of a great mass of contradictory data merely because they support a narrow religious dogma. As such they are not scientific.
DR. STEVE BREWER,
ST. IVES, CORNWALL
DEAR EDITOR: Russell Berg’s attempt to revive a demarcation between science and pseudoscience (Issue 74) runs into difficulty with his first criterion, ‘Does the theory use natural explanations?’ The terms ‘nature’ and ‘natural’ are notoriously ambiguous. In scientific research we assume that the processes under investigation are orderly and coherent. We then seek algorithmically-compressible descriptions of this order, meaning, we look for descriptions that are more concise than a listing of the observations themselves. The assumption of order rules out capricious acts such as the Greek gods were notorious for. It does not rule out the actions of a god who sustains the ordered processes. Such ubiquitous action would occur beyond the level of scientific description, but makes the common presumption of a useful natural/supernatural dichotomy questionable if not fallacious. Twentieth century attempts at demarcation failed repeatedly, as Larry Lauden’s classic, The Demise of the Demarcation Problem showed. But do we need it? ‘Young earth’ interpretations never provided the best explanations of the observations. The situation will be different if any of the bolder multiverse theories is confirmed. These hypothesize that any physical possibility is realized in some alternate universe. There could be universes containing disembodied Boltzmann brains or spontaneously-generated animals. A universe could be a computer simulation. There would also be a universe somewhere which operates exactly as young earth creationists conceive it.
JOHNW. HALL, VICTORIA, BC
Morals And Money
DEAR EDITOR: I wonder if Charles Taylor knows how he came across in his talk with Chris Bloor in Issue 74? Receiving the Kyoto Prize which he “didn’t expect” became more understandable to him once he realized the judges not only wanted someone who had “done something important intellectually” but whose motivation was “to help mankind [sorry ladies] and so on.” And so on? What else might go on the list – perhaps ascending to heaven?! I don’t think he’d have to worry too much about going there, with his cool $2 million; although maybe he is pinning his hopes on some miracle to get the camel of his soul squeezed through the eye of that needle.
With $2 mil you might have thought that some modest percentage could go to his starving and suffering neighbours (he is a Catholic, isn’t he?) Instead, what he planned to do with the money was move around himself and others he works with (other economically-distressed jet-setting theologians?) who “need to meet together.”He doesn’t say what for, precisely, but presumably it’s some productive activity that will help mankind. I don’t wish to be too rude or impertinent, but I wonder if he’s considered video conferencing? He could save a packet, and maybe have a few shillings left for the multitudes who live in refugee camps, or who have multiple sclerosis, or even orang-utans. (Even?) I was greatly comforted to read that some of his spoils will be spent on these important people who will be enabled to meet not only inNew York, Chicago, or Europe, but even in Delhi. Even? Perhaps some slumdog nonmillionaire who works in his 5-star hotel can hope for a fat tip? It’s so brave and bold of him to meet in Delhi – those beggars can be so persistent and annoying.
Sorry for the ad hominem broadside; but maybe, just maybe, such pietistic posturing deserves its comeuppance. I’m sure he’s a very nice man – just not very sensitive, nor taking his Gospel too seriously. It’s a pity that he failed to get into politics, where his talents might have been more appropriately deployed. As one who takes cues from Heidegger, who was politically very well-connected, he might have done so much more to ‘help mankind’.
I’m with Nietzsche, who is paraphrased by TerriMurray on p.42 of the same issue: “we would do better to study the motives that drive philosophers and preachers to their particular moral conclusions than to concern ourselves with their ‘truth.’” As for Professor Taylor’s ‘truth’, I connect with it hardly at all. It’s probably my limited intellect, but I can’t get into it. There’s only one thing worse than philobabble, and that’s theobabble!
Speaking of philobabble, I’m reminded of another of Professor Taylor’s influences, Michel Foucault. According to Daniel Dennett, John Searle asked Foucault why he was so hard to understand in print when he was so clear in conversation. Foucault responded, “in order to be taken seriously by French philosophers, twenty-five per cent of what you write has to be impenetrable nonsense.” Dennett coined a term “in honour of Foucault’s candour” to designate this tactic: eumerdification. I admit I’m slinging it about a bit myself; yet I can’t help but get a whiff that Professor Taylor may be improving on Foucault’s percentage.
DELTON HEDGES, TASMANIA
The Theists Strike Back
DEAR EDITOR: I enjoyed Terri Murray’s analysis of ThereWill Be Blood in Issue 74 in light of Nietzsche’s teachings, but her stereotyping of orthodox Christianity at the end of the article was irresponsible. It’s hard to know exactly what she meant in so cavalierly throwing out the statement “orthodox Christianity reeks of hypocrisy, fully supporting in its very doctrines the abdication of personal moral responsibility” but I suggest that she would better be as careful in her analysis of the faith as she is of Nietzsche.
If she means that, as a ground rule, orthodox Christianity teaches that justification only comes through the redemptive work of Christ and nothing we do, well then, that is certainly true. But if she’s suggesting orthodox Christianity advocates irresponsibility in the ethical sense (this is certainly how it reads), then she doesn’t know Scripture or history. Hasn’t she heard of the likes ofWilliam Wilberforce, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Luther King Jr. or Mother Teresa? Countless Biblical references could be quoted to counter her statement. If she’s confusing hypocrites with the faithful, she lacks discernment. Jesus called hypocrites out to show the difference between them: she ought to do the same.
FORT COLLINS, CO, USA
DEAR EDITOR: Prof Tallis’ ‘Why I Am an Atheist’ in Issue 73 is a thoughtful, considered article, but one with which I have a few points of contention.Why, for example, does his requirement for sincerity in agnosticism include one attempting to comprehend God as an amalgam of all conceptions of God? That would create a self-contradictory picture, true… but why paint by such rules? Yes, there are conflicts between the thoughts of the religious; but why not instead build up a contradictory picture of atheism from the thoughts of all its diverse thinkers, and likewise dismiss that?
It also seems misrepresentative to present one “comical, and certainly infantile” notion of God and imply that all the faithful adhere to similar unrefined conceptions. I don’t require him to accept someone else’s atomic materialism; why should he think my God must be an ‘Angry God’ or an ‘ontological monstrosity’?
If it was a choice between the theism presented by most atheists, or atheism, I’d be an atheist. There are, however, subtle, thoughtful, beautiful alternatives to such straw men. And that’s why I believe.
R. SCOTT, AUSTRALIA
DEAR EDITOR: In his article in Issue 74, Stephen Anderson writes, “Pluralism is the most serious problem facing liberal democracies today”. On the contrary, I think pluralism is one of the big things liberal democracy has going for it.
What makes liberal democracy attractive and the only expanding form of governance in the world is that it encourages and celebrates pluralism. Pluralism does make liberal democracy more complex, but that complexity has made it more durable and resilient, as shown by 9/11, from which it recovered and has continued to expand. Moreover, the competing interests of pluralism have served to make liberal democracy more sophisticated and agile. In comparison, liberal democracy’s chief rival, communism, collapsed because it lacked the energizing push and pull of pluralism that could have helped rejuvenate and keep it relevant and legitimate. Even liberal democracy’s name resonates pluralism, in that it is fashioned out of two contradictory theories of governance (forming a kind of governance DNA): liberal, referring to free market competition; and democracy, based on cooperation and equality.
So ironically, pluralism has helped bolster the Golden Rule, not hinder it as Anderson seems to suggest. As history can attest, the Golden Rule has not always been that solid a rule. It is an essential good start; but on its own it is generally toothless, as with another good start, ‘all men are created equal’.What gave that declaration meaning was that it was backed up by a constitution.
Generally, the Golden Rule has had tacit acceptance for like-minded people of common ethnicity. But for the Golden Rule to be meaningfully binding it’s had to speak of universal mutual respect and empathy – that is, it condones pluralism. What gives the Golden Rule even more credence is the political commitment to expand human rights and eradicate tribalism. Furthermore, that commitment has helped put people throughout the world on an equal footing, despite their opposing interests.Without such a commitment and the added pressures of pluralism, on the whole the Golden Rule would have remained an ideal.
Contrary to what Anderson seems to imply, the Golden Rule did stand the test on 9/11, as that attack did not spark a clash of civilizations as many believed it might. That it didn’t, I think is due to the depth of pluralism that had accumulated between nations and peoples, which grew out of the increasing interdependence of the world and agencies like the UN and WTO which cultivated pluralism and internationalism to maintain world peace.
DAVID AIRTH, TORONTO
DEAR EDITOR: Stephen Anderson’s article in Issue 74 is a stimulating read, but falls into the trap of over-analysis. If you worry over every word of each version of the Golden Rule, you can miss the spirit or intent of the thought. All the versions imply the concept of kindness and respect for other human beings. This includes the idea of sacrifice – doing something good for someone else, even if you get no ‘reward’. Even the negative version of the Rule implies the positive version in spirit. For example, “Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful” not only advises us not to purposefully hurt others, but to avoid hurting them by failing to help them or make sacrifices.
The real problem is to sort out the practical implications of trying to follow such a rule. Two examples:
(1) Imagine a situation in which, in order to save another person I must give up my own life, or that other person must give up his life to save mine – eg, one parachute left between us in a plane about to crash. Do we argue about who gets the parachute? Do we flip a coin? Or do we hang onto each other and hope the chute will hold both of us?
(2) If someone kills my beloved friend in cold blood, do I forgive him immediately, without asking for or expecting him to be punished, or do I reason as follows: If I had done this to his beloved friend, I would expect to be punished for it, so let me seek punishment for him?
Maybe an article that examines the practical problems of applying the rule would be a good follow-up.
Robert Howell’s article on cheating predestination in the same issue makes me puzzle over the contradictions implied between the terms ‘omnipotent’, and ‘omniscient’. This becomes apparent when thinking of God and predestination. Assuming that a perfect, allknowing, all-powerful God exists, if He already knows how things will go in your life, and that you’re headed for Hell, can He have mercy and change His mind and save you anyway? If He can’t change his mind, then he is not omnipotent – in a sense He is a prisoner of His own infinite knowledge.
MICHAEL STRAND, BY EMAIL