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Letters to the Editor
In Defence of Religion • Oaks and Acorns • Nietzsche Calls
In Defence of Religion
The following letters are all responses to Les Reid’s article Santa Lives: The Challenge for Philosophy (Issue 7), which called for religion to be discarded.
Les Reid uses his Santa Claus immortality test to discard the ‘spirit in charge of the universe’. But doesn’t he find the existence of matter improbable? By what probability should we expect that there should be anything rather than nothing?
He dismisses immortality because a person only exists in his body’s actions so the skill of the lyre player is found only in the notes he plays. But consider the skill of a composer just before he wrote your favourite masterpiece. Was not the skill potentially there before he had written a note and if so how did the potency reside with him prior to the composition?
p.s. ‘Yours truly’ is surely the only way for a philosopher to sign off!
A better title for Les Reid’s article might have been “The Inevitability of Question-Begging. ” Once we make the assumption that the immortal soul is an additive which exists ‘in’ the body, or which is a ghostly attendant on it, the task of disproving it is too easy. Just to make it one more phenomenon in relation to other phenomena suffices to negate it and save the effort of further argument.
But if we should make the contrary assumption, and allow that the soul transcends phenomena, such that the body and the physical universe are ‘in’ it, along with numerous subtler worlds like those of mathematics, music, and poetry, we can readily be assured as to its reality. Too readily, perhaps. Could this be begging the question the other way? If so, this way at least does not involve the absurdity of equating the soul with a natural phenomenon.
Dr. R.A.N. Bolton
Les Reid’s article consisted mostly of a demonstration of how science demolishes the foundations of religion (a 19th Century debate). He ignores the more recent success of philosophy in its demolition of the foundations of science (a 20th Century debate). This is especially relevant to his triumphant brandishing of a theory of evolution which might be more accurately regarded as a historical theory than as a scientific one (the philosophical demolition of history has been even more complete than its demolition of science).
Life, mind, thought and consciousness are great mysteries which have not yet been explained by science and logic, and who knows what happens when the candle of human life is snuffed out by death? It seems a pity if all the knowledge and experience we have acquired in life should finally be wasted. Yet it is not lost entirely but only in an individual sense for the best of it is preserved in our literature, philosophy, sciences, arts, music and in the children of humanity. Perhaps it is already there inherent in the universal intelligence always waiting to become conscious in a person. In that sense reincarnation may be possible.
Oaks and Acorns
An acorn is a potential oak tree, which is to say that, barring accidents, it will eventually turn into one. If we value oak trees we may say that this fact about an acorn makes it more valuable than it would be if it lacked that potential. Equally, however, it is a fact that oak trees eventually die; so that every mature oak is potentially a dead oak. If we assume that dead oaks are at any rate less valuable than live ones why can we not say that an oak’s mortality makes it less valuable than we would otherwise rate it? In other words if a thing’s potential for maturity raises its value why does its potential for death and decay not lessen that value?
Let us apply this thought in an obvious way to the question of the value of a foetus. Those who argue that the foetus has a moral status often do so on the ground that, though it is at present simply a mass of cells, it will, if nature is allowed to take its course, turn into a mature person, which is a valuable thing to be. Its present value is enhanced, it is argued, by the value of the thing which it has the potential to become. But, just as with oak trees, so mature persons are naturally subject to decay and death. Today’s captain of industry may well be a geriatric patient in ten years time and will certainly end up a corpse. Geriatric patients possibly and corpses certainly are less valuable than mature persons. Why, if the fact that it is potentially a mature person is allowed to enhance the value of a foetus, should not the fact of being a potential corpse lower the value of our distinguished businessman?
Here is another point. There seems no particular reason why, if facts about a thing’s future are allowed to raise or lower its value, facts about its past should not do so as well. Again the results will be double edged. The geriatric patient and perhaps even the corpse will gain extra value because they were once chairman of ICI (perhaps our respect for dead bodies is based on such a consideration). If however we revert to considering the foetus, its past consists at most of being a sperm and an egg, neither of which seem intrinsically of much value. Such an argument would serve to decrease the foetus’ moral standing. But is there any reason other than a bias towards the future for preferring the earlier argument to this one?
Queen’s University of Belfast
Thanks for the latest issue of Philosophy Now. I’ve had an erratic summer in terms of picking up my mail, so I know this response is quite late – sorry!
My article in Issue 5 was about the interpretation of Nietzsche’s comment “Supposing truth is a woman – what then? ”. I find Leo Westhead’s letter in Issue 6 rather interesting and illustrative of the point I was trying to make in my (supposedly humorous) piece – that women might have a rather difficult time understanding and appreciating this metaphor. While I certainly agree with him that the gist of Nietzsche’s metaphor is that our usual, representational notion of truth is unattainable, I must take some umbrage at his shift from ‘woman’ to ‘ideal partner’. His attempt to render the metaphor genderless is problematic in two ways and only underscores the ‘maleness’ of the metaphor. It would never have occurred to me, a heterosexual woman, to make the jump from ‘woman’ to ‘ideal partner’ (although ‘Kevin Costner’ would have made me leap to it; however, I fear had Kevin Costner been equated with truth that Mr. Westhead would not have been inclined to make the comparison). Secondly, shifting from ‘woman’ to ‘ideal partner’ suggests that ‘woman’ is always thought of first in relationships with men, and then in sexual relationships at that. There are a myriad of other possible relationships of ‘woman’, including mother, sister, lawyer, or dogmatic philosopher. Feminists may well agree with Nietzsche that Absolute Truth is illusory and still be perplexed by “Supposing truth is a woman… ” In any case, I am thrilled to learn that at least one person read the article !
Kent State University, Ohio