Your complimentary articles
You’ve read one of your four complimentary articles for this month.
The Paradoxes of Liberty • Nietzsche Is Dead • Arendt’s Public Example • Picking Tallis’ Brain For Thought • Chiselling at Chisholm • Time Sensitive
The Paradoxes of Liberty
DEAR EDITOR: I was glad that your editorial for Issue 76 focused on the implications of free speech, and that in it you addressed the idea of free speech being in danger of falling into a trap. If speech is totally free that would mean it’s open to all possibilities, even for someone to criticize this freedom by showing their intolerance of others’ free views. This means the concept of free speech could become a paradox, contradicting itself whenever it gives space to ‘anti-free-speech’ speech. Otherwise it would be like saying “Free speech for everyone so as long they agree to the concept of free speech.” Yet the moment speech does not allow expression of any view (regardless of its antagonistic nature) then it stops being free. And if free speech was never questioned, the concept of freedom would have to be questioned.
Freedom of articulation will always be at risk of being questioned, since by it you allow people to express themselves, even if their aim is to suppress the views of others.This makes me consider Liberty in relation to Tolerance – which is embracing and allowing circumstances to occur. Our liberty is determined by the tolerance of others. But there are certain circumstances that we choose not to tolerate, such as bullying, discrimination, and other things which compromise our wellbeing and quality of life, or even our life itself. In this, a tolerance for intolerance (of such things) must be allowed, if we want to preserve society. I was glad to read later in the magazine thatMill took this apparent paradox into consideration by putting in place the ground rule of not hurting others.We are allowed to do anything provided we do not intervene with others’ harmless goals or wellbeing.
I was also pleased to know that Mill understood that the concept of free speech would itself have to be constantly reviewed, otherwise it would become a form of dogmatism, with an increasingly contradictory sterility.
ALAN ROLLE, LEATHERHEAD, SURREY
Nietzsche Is Dead
DEAR EDITOR: I greatly enjoyed reading Morgan Rempel’s thoughtful article ‘Dying at the Right Time’ (Issue 76). It is true that Nietzsche’s own death came ‘too late’, but I wonder whether he didn’t ‘will it thus’. A prescient passage from Gay Science (IV, 315) would suggest so: “Storms are my danger.Will I have my storm of which I perish, as Oliver Cromwell perished of storm? Or will I go out like a light that no wind blows out, but which becomes tired and sated with itself – a burnt-out light?” Unlike the Nazarene’s death, Nietzsche’s own was one of postponement – more in the style of Zarathustra. He urged that we should fashion our lives in the way artists fashion their work, so that we become “the poets of our life.” Perhaps it is equally important to be the poets of our death? Or perhaps the composers of our death? An endlessly postponed resolution of dissonance is, of course, the hallmark ofWagner’s music.
Chekhov knew well how to die in style. Holding a glass of champagne in his last hour, he exclaimed: Ich sterbe [I die]. Probably because of the heat (he died in July), his body was transported from the German spa town of Badenweiler toMoscow in a dirty refrigerated van with the words ‘For Oysters’ inscribed on the door. To compound the already comic finale, some of his numerous mourners followed the funeral procession of a general by mistake, to the accompaniment of a military band. Just as in Chekhov’s plays, tears and laughter intertwined.
However, I’m afraid I did not share Tim Madigan’s enthusiasm for Julian Doyle’s play on Nietzsche andWagner, since it is built on a barrage of factual errors. First, Nietzsche, who ‘went mad’ in Turin, was never admitted to a mental asylum there. In early January 1889, while in a very disturbed state, he was transported by his loyal friend Overbeck to a clinic in Basel. A week later he was moved to Jena Mental Asylum, where he stayed for over a year. Presumably, no Italian nun (crossing herself at regular intervals) was in attendance there!
Originally, Nietzsche metWagner not in Basel, but in Leipzig in 1868. Wagner was not on the run at the time, neither from his creditors nor from his political adversaries. After taking up his professorial appointment in Basel the following year, Nietzsche became a frequent visitor to Richard and Cosima Wagner’s villa near Lucerne. This was the happiest time of his life – the memory of which would later haunt him.
I concur with Madigan that the play portrayed the two geniuses as egodriven. It thus missed the complexity and subtlety, as well as the tragedy, of their relationship. They were both highly passionate people, and not only about music. It may well have been Wagner who propelled Nietzsche towards philosophy at the cost of classical philology. In Ecce Homo, Nietzsche confessed thatWagner was the only man he had ever loved; indeed, he worshiped him like a god. In the spirit of the Greek agon, Nietzsche the warrior had to oppose what he loved; moreover, he had to ‘kill’ it. EradicatingWagner from his life proved easier than exorcising him from the heart, alas! All six books which Nietzsche wrote in his last creative year of 1888 have references to Wagner. AlthoughWagner’s feelings towards Nietzsche were less intense, he also confessed how lonely he felt without him. Sadly, the younger man’s highly original genius passed him by.
To end the play, Nietzsche the utter lunatic raves to the soundtrack of Richard Strauss’ flashy ‘Sunrise’ from his Thus Spoke Zarathustra tone-poem. Nothing short of a Pythonesque finale.
EVA CYBULSKA, LONDON.
Arendt’s Public Example
DEAR EDITOR: Prof Lach’s article ‘Can Philosophy still produce Public Intellec-tuals?’ in Issue 75 was timely and very perceptive. The gaping chasm that often exists between philosophy and public life is vast and not very often crossed, but there are individuals who do occasionally manage it. Professional philosophers could benefit greatly by looking at such examples, Hannah Arendt in particular.
While eschewing the title of ‘philosopher’ and adopting that of ‘political theorist’ Arendt applied a philosophical mind to the great calamities of the 20th Century. She achieved a wider audience than a ‘philosopher’ alone might thanks largely to her dedication to the narrative method, which she chose because she felt the depth of her analysis could not be contained by the analytic tradition. It also enabled her thoughts and theories to be more readily accessed and digested. This is not to say her thoughts were diluted; rather, they began from a philosophical seed and she had the confidence to allow them to branch out into other disciplines. People might disagree with her conclusions, but the fact that she created debate is testament to her place as a public intellectual.
Philosophers might also take from her example the ideas that the thoughts they have can have a very relevant effect on public life, and further, that they should not feel bound by the restraints of analytical philosophy. The application of philosophy in public life should allow for free thought, not just channel it through axiomatic notions of ‘structured thinking’.
ED BARNETT, LONDON
Picking Tallis’ Brain For Thought
DEAR EDITOR: I refer to Raymond Tallis’ article ‘Reflections on Epilepsy’ in Issue 75. As always with this author, the article is stimulating and extremely well written. Yet I disagree with him.
Tallis argues that a functioning brain is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for consciousness. My contention would be the opposite: a properly functioning brain, in a suitable system, is sufficient for consciousness, but not necessary. It is entirely possible to entertain the notion that consciousness exists in a Martian who may not have anything recognisable as a brain; in a suitably programmed supercomputer; or indeed, in some structure such as Fred Hoyle’s black cloud from his novel The Black Cloud. Unless we wish to extend our notion of ‘brain’ to cover all these cases, this shows that a brain is not essential (necessary). Even in the case of a person, it is conceivable that connected to an imaginatively programmed computer, she may possess consciousness even if her brain is not functioning adequately to alone underpin that consciousness.
Tallis may reject the notion of consciousness being embedded in anything other than humans. Even the higher animals might be thought of as lacking consciousness. But as with the rest of us, he still has to face up to the problem of other (human) minds.Why do we attribute conscious experience to other people? Presumably we argue by analogy, from our observation of their behaviour, which is now reinforced by observations of correlated brain activity, if we accept that this activity is the source of our consciousness. In the case of Martians, it would be entirely based on their external behaviour, at least initially. If we were able to communicate with them extensively, we may be left in no doubt. This is reminiscent of the Turing Test.
In the case of humans, I believe that having a properly functioning brain, in an appropriate environment, is both necessary and sufficient for consciousness. Does Tallis agree that any two people having different mental states (or a person having different mental states at different times), must have different brain states? That is, does he accept supervenience? Tallis rejects the mind-brain identity theory on the grounds that “however hard you look, you will not find sensations, affections, and reasons in bits of the brain, or even distributed throughout the brain.” This is a very old argument, going back at least to Leibniz’ mill. Tallis surely cannot believe that any mind-brain identity theorists are not fully aware of this argument and take it into account. For many of us it is simply not a clinching argument.
It is true that there is no satisfactory theory of consciousness. I find that functionalism is currently the least unsatisfactory of the competing theories, and I am also impressed by Daniel Dennett’s approach in Consciousness Explained. His ungainly term, ‘heterophenomenology’, describes a procedure which promises to take us beyond mere correlations of mental and brain activities.
It’s doubtful whether philosophers will ever be able to solve the mystery of consciousness alone.We can hope that developments in neuroscience and complexity theory, perhaps along the lines suggested by Stuart Kauffman, will make substantial progress. There seems to me a parallel with the situation regarding the notion of life in the 19th Century. The need for a life-force (élan vital) then seemed essential to many. As more was learnt this requirement gradually faded, and would not be supported by any biologists now. I hope the same may happen with the ‘emergent’ theory of consciousness.
WELWYN GARDEN CITY, HERTS
DEAR EDITOR: In ‘Reflections on Epilepsy’, Issue 75, Ray Tallis considers the inadequacy of materialist accounts of consciousness. The purpose of this response is to suggest how a sense of the gap between a materialistic scientific explanation and our experience might persist, and why it may be misplaced.
Our perceptual systems linked to our brains furnish our minds with conscious sensations, which can be very vivid and rich – sometimes overwhelmingly so. Take for example our experience of a live orchestral concert, which typically engages auditory and visual senses in relation to contextual understandings of the music, its theory and history, instruments and performers. So enthralling can such an experience be that it’s possible to assume we’re witnessing something not mediated by our ‘apparatus’, but directly, unmediated – seeing and hearing that which, using Tallis’s terms, is “causally upstream…the source.”What leads us to this kind of conclusion is the assumption of non-mediation; that we are experiencing the world-in-itself (Schopenhauer’s term) directly, as distinct from the world as we experience it specifically due to the working of our sensory apparatus (or as as Kant would put it, the noumenal world as distinct from the phenomenal world).We then unthinkingly compare these two concepts of what (or how) we are experiencing, see that there is no difference, and almost unavoidably confirm that we are grasping things directly, as they are in themselves. Then we ask ourselves the question, “How can the mere physical explanation of perception and consciousness explain this?” Unfortunately, though, we cannot truly compare the world as we experience it with the world as it is in itself – all we have are our mediated sensations, and they inevitably (but unwarrantably) appear to be too rich and vivid to be explicable materially and causally. The example above of a concert was selected because although Schopenhauer regarded the aesthetic experience of music as enabling us to come into contact with the world-in-itself (‘will’), manifestly, even such aesthetic experience is sensorily mediated.
It is an irony that the functioning material organism – in particular, our perceptual systems and brain – brings about the very experiences which lead us to deem it incapable of so doing. Nevertheless, Tallis’ deeper point is that the human organism is a part of the material world its consciousness transcends. Yet if a part of the material world, the organism is part of something else as well, something non-material. So, of what other world is the organism a part? For Tallis, this something else significantly comprises “the pooled transcendence that is the public space of mind,” existing, presumably, transcendentally. If not a version of Platonic Idealism or Cartesian dualism, this seems like mystical dualism. Perhaps it’s a combination of all three.
There is little doubt that our consciousness appears to transcend its organic, material being. This is a feature of its extraordinary evolved facility.Making the varieties of experience so rich and varied that we are led to believe that consciousness is somehow independent of its material source elevates its value, and us, and enhances our capacity to survive. As for the notion of ‘pooled transcendence’, this pool is more muddy than clear. Rather than being transcendental, the ‘public space of mind’ exists materially in the vast range of accumulated cultural knowledge and understanding available only through the diverse media of communication – physical, and in recent years, electronic.We have access to this range materially, not transcendentally, and it becomes part of our consciousness. There is no need to “stuff this public space back into the individual brain” as Tallis disparagingly asserts – this is where it resides anyway, in the organic structures of neural pathways and networks, developed and refined through evolution, experience, varieties of engagement, learning and study.
WOODHOUSE EAVES, LEICS.
DEAR EDITOR: Since reading Prof. Tallis in Issue 75, several ideas have come to my mind/brain. His claim, “you will not find sensations, affections…in bits of the brain” reminds me of a man who, failing to find his wallet and keys in the house, concludes that they must be somewhere else. Not necessarily so. Consider alcohol, a physical group of molecules. Now consider inebriation: can it be found purely in the alcohol, or must we look at the combination of alcohol with a person to understand inebriation from observable behaviour? Tallis suggests such an analysis for consciousness when he writes that it requires a body and a physical environment. Yet his formulation of the mind/body problem creates a gap, pitting two different modes of description against one another: a thing (the body) with a state of affairs (the mind). I suggest this category error is a common source of confusion in discussions of consciousness.
Perhaps he wishes to preserve the specialness of humans – “persons operating in a public space of a kind not known elsewhere in nature.” Yet anthropocentric claims ignore our similarities with other entities in nature: bees ‘dancing’ directions to flowers, predators hunting in concert, primates grooming one another. Human consciousness is extraordinary, but it’s unnecessary to detach it from nature.
Our knowledge of the brain is still rudimentary.We can point to the various structures and systems interacting (and conflicting) in complex ways with each other and with external stimuli. Questions about the relation of consciousness to the brain are unlikely to be solved by the physical sciences alone, and philosophy’s task is to clarify the issues and demand better questions.
My thanks goes to Prof. Tallis for stimulating this particular consciousness.
CHRISTOPHER TYNDALE, FROM A
SERIES OF BRAIN STATES IN DEVIZES
Chiselling at Chisholm
DEAR EDITOR: I was a bit shocked by the hyper-eulogistic style of Professor Davidson on the work of Roderick Chisholm in Issue 75. I think philosophy should avoid falling into the trap of other disciplines, which have converted some of their exponents into demi-gods whose opinions and work are above all. Though I appreciate Matthew Davidson’s admiration and respect for Chisholm’s work, in no way would Chisholm deserve a Nobel Prize in Philosophy (if there were one). There is no question that Chisholm was very careful in his definitions, but if we consider his two main philosophical theses as mentioned by Prof. Davidson, they are not a major contribution to philosophy.
The first, “to know that some proposition p is true means that one must be able to discern that in believing p one is not violating any obligations one has with respect to forming beliefs appropriately” is of no value, as it is necessary to demonstrate that truth is generated in this way. As to his second idea, in seeking to explain how it’s possible for something to be if everything is subject to change, Chisholm is actually taking us back to early Greek philosophy, and using old arguments. This was one of the major questions of Parmenides – a question which might reasonably be said to be the starting point of Classical philosophy. It was this problem which led Plato to conceive of the world of Ideas as where the immutable in Being existed, or Democritus to invent atomism – atoms being the immutable within things – or Aristotle to find a solution to the paradox through the notion of substance, this remaining the same in spite of the change brought about by the ‘accidents’. Chisholm’s thesis on this is nothing new; at most it might be considered a combination of the Aristotelian explanation and atomism posited in a new language – but not to the extent that Leibniz reinvented the atomistic explanation with monads. Moreover, it does not help. Who in common sense will believe that “human persons must be tiny (ie unextended or point-like) substances that are spatially located, probably inside the brain”? I think it’s precisely these kinds of conclusions which have discredited philosophy. Moreover, I am of the opinion that the superlative attribution of talents to any philosopher (or scientist) is very detrimental to the progress of the discipline, as it leads to the assumption that since ‘Aristoteles dixit’, a hypothesis – nomatter how absurd – is unquestionable.
JULIAN M. GALVEZ, BUENOS AIRES
DEAR EDITOR: I have recently become an enjoyer of Philosophy Now. I have only one question. Should not all issues except for the current one be retitled Philosophy Then?
PETER ANDREW DAY,