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Act Cool • Amoral Letters • The Matter In Mind • Personal Impermanence • Legal Wrangle • Paradoxical Kant • History & Truth • Tallis? Bah! • Incalculable Computers • Everlasting Debate

Act Cool

Dear Editor: In Issue 80, Thorsten Botz-Bornstein’s article on being cool mentioned the Stoics’ attitude: “what depends on us are our impulses, passions, attitudes, opinions, desires, beliefs and judgments.” He omits perhaps the most potent influence we can have, that of our actions. According to Botz-Bornstein, the Stoics also dismiss what we have no influence over, such as the past. However, they knew that we’re the result of the past, and that it’s not uncool to be in touch with it; in fact, without interest in the past, we would all turn dumb. By knowing the past we can intelligently influence the future.

The coolest people I ever encountered were Native Americans, who are very in touch with their past, and respect and value it. They also view the consequences of their actions seven generations into the future, to ensure no harm is inflicted on their descendants or their environment.

I can’t imagine a Hip Hop culture as foresighted as that of the First Nations, nor as cool, as Hip Hop suffers from a malignant self-centered materialism. Of course, there are Native Americans who are short-sighted and indifferent, but they’re those who have been corrupted by the black and white culture of money, status, bling and selfish individualism.

Perhaps in the jazz days, young, cool and black was the case, but the Hip Hop youth of today seem cool only by name and music, certainly less by their actions.

Patou Soult, Brighton

Amoral Letters

Dear Editor: ‘An Amoral Manifesto’ by Joel Marks in PN 80 was a bolt out of the blue; but I wonder whether he is committed to Hard Atheism after all. He says that he came to his conclusion that there was no morality after being “struck by salient parallels between religion and morality, especially that they avail themselves of imperatives or commands.” But after that, he refers only to commands and their need for a commander, completely dropping the word ‘imperatives’. The effect of this is to make it seem as though morality can only exist in a command structure – if there is no moral commander, there can be no moral commands. And there is no moral commander (God), therefore there are no moral commands. Fair enough. But it does not follow from this that there is no morality, because moral imperatives do not necessarily imply a commander, as Kant’s Categorical Imperative demonstrates. And as Nagel says in The Possibility of Altruism, if we have a subjective reason to eliminate pain, then from the impersonal standpoint (ie, objectively) we have a prima facie reason to eliminate pain in others. No commander there, only reason.

Sure, without God a moral command structure makes no sense. It disappears, to be replaced, in some accounts, by something like imperative/obligation. So it does not, surely, follow from the loss of the commander that morality itself disappears – at least not on the argument that Joel uses.

Dick Bellringer, Salisbury, Wilts

Dear Editor: As a committed atheist, I was very interested to come across Prof. Marks’ Manifesto, and found it to be compelling reading. The last paragraph of Part One, however, seriously undermined much of what had gone before, at least for me. I found it too careless and glib, specifically the final sentence, in which Prof. Marks breezily expresses the expectation that child molestation will continue to be prohibited and punished, even in an amoral society, just because … well, he doesn’t really explain why he has this expectation. The fact is, children having a special protected status is a fairly recent development. For most of human history, children have not only not enjoyed a special status, their vulnerability and defenselessness has been used against them to satisfy the needs of adults. In some contemporary societies, among the Pashtuns of Afghanistan, for example, it still is an accepted practice for an adult man to have a boy, a slave essentially, to perform a variety of personal tasks, including sexual ones. I hope that in Part Two [in this issue], Prof. Marks takes more seriously the task of explaining how an amoral society can and will remain civilized in terms of its members’ behaviour towards one another. At this point I’m concerned that he’s not up to this challenge. Take for example Afghanistan. What do we ‘hard atheists’ think of the Taliban?

George Rickerson,

University of Missouri

The Matter In Mind

Dear Editor: I appreciated Kurt Keefner’s review of Alva Noë’s book Out Of Our Heads in Issue 80. Both the book and the review lead us away from Cartesian body-mind dualism. In this, our person is considered to be our body plus our mind. To get away from these divisive concepts requires tremendous effort, involving the transcending of a lifetime’s imprinting through language.

George Berkeley’s (1685-1753) immaterialism points in the right direction with his statement ‘to be is to be perceived’, claiming that perception is the essence of reality. Ernst Mach (1836-1916) reached the same conclusion in his The Analysis of Sensations. In another book, Knowledge and Error, Mach referred to the conventional self as the ‘limited I’, with the ‘unlimited I’ being everything we experience, whether labelled physical or psychical. Donald D. Hoffman, Professor of Cognitive Science at the University of California agrees when he says in his paper ‘Conscious Realism and the Mind-Body Problem’, that “Consciousness creates brain activity and indeed creates all objects and properties of the physical world” (Mind & Matter Vol 6, #1, 2008).

We need to realise that our perception of the physical world, including our own bodies, is a form of awareness which arises when we wake. These forms cease in deep sleep, or are replaced in dreams. Consciousness is the name we give to the source, the essence, the ever-present.

Hans Heimer, Cheshire

Personal Impermanence

Dear Editor: I write this as a personal annotation to my article in Issue 79, ‘A Buddhistic Contemplation of Impermanence from Death Row’. Sentenced to die by lethal injection, for the first time I was confronted by a potentially ‘premature’ rendezvous with ephemerality which was far too impending to employ the standard remedies of ignorance, denial, or delusion. Ironically, it was this reluctant introduction to my own human vulnerability which awakened me to the vulnerability of others.

Contemplating impermanence slowly eroded the detritus of pathological egocentrism that had previously characterized my life. Eventually I realized that this accumulation of narcissism was a mask that concealed an underlying psychological hell of worthlessness, fear, and ultimately, a covert self-hatred – a toxic aggregate of cognitive constructs which seemingly justified an inauthentic existence so entangled within my own vacuousness and defensive hostility that other human beings were demoted to insignificant objects which orbited the malignant nucleus of my own self-importance. The feelings of others I (at best) subordinated to my own, or (at worst) disregarded altogether. This pernicious self-absorption was exclusive to the point of solipsism: not only was my suffering the only relevant kind, to me it was the only kind that existed.

Accompanying my new understanding was the obligation to change: but although the instruction to ‘know thyself’ is axiomatic among seekers of wisdom, this notion was previously alien to my existential algorithm. Thus my initial insights into myself were sobering and poignant, as they forced me to admit that my previous appraisals of self and world were distorted, maladaptive, pathological. And so, under the influence of an eclectic variety of edifying thought systems – philosophy, psychology, Eastern religion – I imbibed bitter but purgative doses of reality, and came to acknowledge that I alone was the perpetuator of my own misery; that I myself was my only enemy. Confucius aptly summarizes this liberating attitude of self-honesty: “In the archer there is a resemblance to the mature person: when he misses the mark, he seeks the cause of his failure by looking inward.”

Searching within for the solution has enabled me to become the person I long ago was incapable of imagining I wanted to be. I have learned wisdom and compassion from the folly and cruelty of my former self – yet, strangely, I remain ungrateful to that teacher.

Shawn Harte, Death Row, Nevada

Legal Wrangle

Dear Editor: Frederick Ochieng’-Odhiambo’s “common sense” assertion in Issue 79 that “there is some connection” between law and justice overlooks that fact that there have long been two competing theories of the philosophy of law. Natural law theorists posit that law is founded on a system of morality. Legal positivists, on the other hand, believe that law is simply the expression of the will of the ruler or ruling class. For legal positivists, therefore, there is no necessary connection between law and justice.

However, it is in his discussion of the legal ethics of defending a ‘guilty’ person that Ochieng’-Odhiambo comes unstuck. For example, he refers to a lawyer who “knows very well that his client is guilty and keeps quiet about that fact.” A defendant in a criminal matter is innocent until found guilty. Guilt is a finding on two issues: the facts and the law. A lawyer may have seen his client fire the fatal shot, but that does not equate to being guilty of murder: the client may have been acting in self-defence, under a mental disability, or in the course of his legal duties and powers (as a policeman), to name just a few possibilities. Since a finding of guilt is made by a judge at the end of a trial, it is logically impossible for the defendant’s lawyer to “know very well that his client is guilty” during the trial!

Ochieng’-Odhiambo concludes by claiming that courts are supposed to establish the truth. From this he argues that defence lawyers should have the same goal, and that they are guilty of “moral dishonesty” if they do not present evidence that is adverse to their client’s case. This would be news to most defence lawyers. The role of the courts is to administer the law. In the Anglo-American system, ‘innocent until proved guilty’ is an integral part of that law. Among other things, it means that the prosecution bears the burden of establishing the facts which prove that the accused performed the alleged criminal act. The accused is not required to prove his innocence. In other words, there is no requirement for an accused to produce any evidence at all. That being the case, it would be illogical to require the accused to produce evidence of his own guilt.

Stephen Magee, Epping, NSW

Paradoxical Kant

Dear Editor: “Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-incurred immaturity. Immaturity is the inability to use one’s own understanding without the guidance of another.” So says Immanuel Kant in a pull quote in Issue 79. So anyone who uses Immanuel Kant for guidance is immature, un-Enlightened.

Leonard D. Long,

Trinity Gardens, South Australia

History & Truth

Dear Editor: I particularly enjoyed reading Grant Bartley’s review of the book Logicomix in Issue 79. I agree with his statement that “there are many different ways to understand, and they’re not necessarily in conflict, but may be complimentary, and indeed necessary.” The particular kind of formal logic which Bertrand Russell pursued is not the only kind of reasoning. The recognition of logic’s inherent limitations is surely an achievement for rational thinking and not its defeat. We must remember that in empirical science it is the ‘failed experiments’ that are frequently the most significant in their consequences.

Mr Bartley interprets Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem as suggesting that we must go outside a system of ideas in order to see clearly their truthfulness. Now, there is a sense in which human beings are always ‘outside of themselves’. I mean the sense in which we are always one step outside our history. And surely self-knowledge begins with reflection on our history. The problem is that we tend to carry our historically-created mind along with us, and therefore tend to carry our historical blind spots along as well. Getting outside this system of ideas is not an easy matter. Nature almost solves this problem by creating a new generation, which is formed through a new experience of the world, and therefore tends to form new ideas about what is and what is not to be taken as self-evident. But each new generation is also largely formed by the instruction it receives from its parent generation. In that way, the sins of the fathers and mothers are frequently passed on to the children (especially the obedient children). So it would seem that our best hope for escape from recurring problems would be through a careful, open-minded and critical study of our history. History is the building of one story upon another, and the more clearly that we can understand our own history, the more clearly that we can see the proper foundations on which to build. And the book Logicomix would seem to be an excellent example of gaining greater self-knowledge through the critical study of history.

I agree with Mr Bartley that to be human is to be uncertain. (So the only certainty is uncertainty? At least we can be certain about that. Or can we?) But I would certainly quarrel with the final cartoon panel, which shows a young Wittgenstein advising Russell that we cannot rationally talk about how to live. What a dismal idea! I assume the older Wittgenstein changed his mind about that.

D.N. Dimmitt, Lawrence, Kansas

P.S. Is the idea of an ‘inexpressible truth’ a rational idea? And how about the idea of ‘limits to reason’? How are we to discover such limits? I suppose there will not be a stop sign. We certainly discover our limits when we find problems that we cannot solve. But on the other hand, a problem that we cannot solve today may be solved by someone else, or even ourselves, tomorrow. So it would seem that even the limits to our thinking must remain uncertain. (If there are limits to reason, would they be reasonable or unreasonable limits? They would have to be reasonable limits. If they were unreasonable, we’d have no reason to observe them. But if they were reasonable, it would be unreasonable not to observe them. So the only limits to reason must be the limits reason imposes on itself.)

Tallis? Bah!

Dear Editor: We all know recently-developed imaging tools are currently enabling a boon of experimental data and discoveries in neuroscience, which will inevitably lead to better theories of mind. It is an incredibly exciting time, as these discoveries will affect many areas of philosophy and public policy, and hopefully reform psychology into the paradigmatic science that true progress requires. With this in mind, I thought Raymond Tallis’ humbugging of Eric Kandel’s research in Issue 78 rather incomplete, since he neglected to offer us a better theory of memory or other cognitive phenomena. And in Issue 79, apparently for rhetorical effect, Prof. Tallis quoted Michael Gazzaniga on the abuse of brain scans. But by doing so he seemed to place himself in agreement with Gazzaniga’s crusade to keep defendants in criminal proceedings from using brain scans as part of their defense. An analysis of Gazzaniga’s writing on the subject reveal an argument fraught with logical fallacies and ultraconservative bias. How Gazzaniga presumes to dictate the evidentiary merit of brain scans is the real mystery of neuroscience, since his conservative America already leads the industrialized world in rates of incarceration, where prosecutors commonly enjoy near-100% conviction rates, yet hundreds of innocent people have been exonerated by subsequent DNA evidence. Perhaps Prof. Tallis would care to expound on this issue in a forthcoming article.

Ronnie M. Gurganus,

Cuero, Texas

Incalculable Computers

Dear Editor: Regarding William Byers’ and Michael Schleifer’s article ‘Mathematics, Morality and Machines’ in Issue 78, I wonder why critics of the ideas of artificial intelligence regularly fixate on ‘algorithmic’ computers? In the early Eighties I sailed on a large container ship which operated under Unmanned Machinery Space rules (UMS) on the Melbourne-Europe run. In the early morning at sea, only two personnel might be awake: a duty officer on the bridge and his lookout. But the ship had several hundred engine room sensors, which were connected, in parallel, to alarms, distributed analogue control systems, and electronic logic circuits for, say, switching to a standby pump. The ship could, almost, sail itself for hours at a time, even automatically applying weather information using a crude but clever bridge circuit. Yet no recognisable algorithmic computer in today’s sense was on board, except in our calculators. I do not think Byers and Schleifer have fully appreciated the evolving power of Parallel Distributed Processing, particularly if coupled to the tiny microprocessors found in in phones, GPS receivers, digital cameras, etc. Automated shipping in the near future is not a vast conceptual leap.

While mathematicians struggle with the provability or not of algorithms, or whether ‘real’ mathematics about infinity or randomness can be done by computers, the electronics industry surges forward, giving us GPS directions to a Chinese restaurant, or face recognition software for our cameras. It seems to me that a future system that appears to be ‘moral’ to a fair observer need not operate within the bounds of a single algorithm or device, or within the rules of human mathematics. A recognisable computer is not the only way to imagine an artificial ‘morality machine’. A massively redundant Connectionist machine, with evolving ‘connection weights’, or some form of Parallel Distributed Processing, might do the trick.

Alan McCallum, Drumborg, Vic.

Everlasting Debate

Dear Editor: May I respond to my critics from the Letters Page in Issue 80? Graham Martin claims that I claim that “my religion is true because that is how truth is defined within my religion,” comparing me to his Muslim interlocutor who says that the Koran must be the Word of God because it says so in the Koran. He can’t have read my article very closely. I argued that the New Atheists’ critique of religion on moral grounds is futile, since one must first decide whether a religion is true or not to be in a position to decide whether it is doing good. I completely agree with him that a Catholic should be able to make a rational defence of his religion to non-Catholics, and not simply appeal to authority. This has been done over the centuries by for example St Augustine, St Thomas Aquinas and Blaise Pascal. The best modern book of this kind that I know is Apologetics and Catholic Doctrine by Michael Sheehan.

C.W. Pincus ironically accuses me of a lack of compassion “in confining the benefits of the Inquisition to heretical Catholics.” But I did not say, as he implies, that the rulers of Catholic countries should have no concern for the souls of non-Catholics. They can certainly require all their citizens, of whatever religion, to follow the main precepts of the natural law. But they should not force non-Christians to become Christians, as this would be likely to lead to many bogus conversions. That is why the Inquisition only had jurisdiction over those who had already been baptised, and not, for example, over Jews.

Fr Thomas Crean OP

Holy Cross Priory, Leicester

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