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What Is Life, Anyway? • Coerced Into Liberty • Strung Out Physicists • Divine Hope Dries Up • States Of Souls • Morality Lives On, And On • Poetic Morality

What Is Life, Anyway?

Dear Editor: In Issue 83 of Philosophy Now, under the heading ‘The Soup and the Scaffolding’, Raymond Tallis considers Craig Venter’s changed “view of the definition of life and of how life works” following Venter’s announcement that the team he leads had created the world’s first artificial life form. Tallis goes on to challenge “the implication that it should have the same effect on us” through a detailed analysis of the biochemistry of living cells.

A reader may be forgiven for thinking that Tallis was writing for New Scientist rather than for Philosophy Now. And yet he urges scepticism “toward those who think that current biological concepts – useful and illuminating though they are – will take us all the way to understanding life.” So would not conceptual questions concerning the category ‘life’ be more appropriately considered in this magazine by addressing such matters as the extent of the concept’s rational and logical application, life’s stability or otherwise, its ontological distinctiveness and metaphysical status, etc, rather than addressing the biological concepts on which he focuses?

Colin Brookes, Leicestershire

Coerced Into Liberty

Dear Editor: In his essay ‘What is Liberalism?’ in Issue 82, which contrary to the suggestion of its title is quite didactic instead of informational, Phil Badger writes: “there are ways to defend the aspects of autonomy we want to jealously guard – religious freedom, choice of life partner, etc (I call these our ‘large-scale concepts of the good’) – and simultaneously accept that certain other choices might be curtailed on the grounds of preventing suffering or promoting the autonomy of others (taxation to subsidise support for disabled people, for example).”

First, I am not sure who the ‘we’ are to whom Badger refers – I am certainly not among those who “want to accept that certain choices might be curtailed.” Second, who will do this curtailing, and by what standard? Why should those who want to do the curtailing have power over those who would be curtailed; and isn’t that a species of inequality that would appear to be condemned by the egalitarianism Badger seems to champion elsewhere in his essay? Third, why not advocate vigorous charity, generosity, kindness, philanthropy, donations and so forth – none of which require anyone to take it upon himself or herself to curtail another’s liberty – instead of coercive force in support of helping people? Fourth, isn’t favoring religious freedom, choice of life partner, etc, rather ad hoc? Such exceptions to what may be curtailed are very biased in favor of what most Westerners cherish, but not, for example, many Muslims. Fifth, without, for example, the freedom which protection of private property rights affords, religious and press freedom are impossible, since the government can then be legally empowered to close down the churches and publishers it doesn’t favor based on some trumped-up compulsory purchase reasons or the like.

Prof. Tibor R. Machan, Chapman University, California

Strung Out Physicists

Dear Editor: The kind of critical appraisal of string theory and its offshoots which Christopher Norris calls for in his article ‘Hawking Contra Philosophy’ (Issue 82) has been made quite effectively by physicist Lee Smolin in his book The Trouble With Physics. Thus Professor Norris has not really justified his assertion that scientists need philosophers as a sort of guiding or corrective hand to keep them on the proper path(s): if scientists can do it themselves, Prof Hawking’s assertion of philosophy’s irrelevance may be just. Of course, from a media, social or public opinion viewpoint, it may be useful to have philosophers calling fantasizing scientists to account, thus providing extra support for physicists like Smolin, whose opinions are in the minority in his profession. But this would be true of any intelligent well-informed observer, and so would not necessarily prove the need for a closely trained specialist like a philosopher. Most of us non-philosophers know what proof is, and falsification, and that string theory lacks both.

Charles Zigmund, Carmel, NY

Divine Hope Dries Up

Dear Editor: Hope is not a reason. Hope is at best only a fragile attitude. So, whilst Lawrence Crocker’s tentative probings in ‘The Existence of God: Two New Proofs’ in Issue 82 provoke, tease and entertain, they do not enlighten. To enlighten they would have to convince. But both Crocker’s modified-Pascal-wager proof and his variant cosmological argument for God lack conviction because they are merely pseudo-syllogistic: they only have the appearance of being logical. Even had they been logically sound, the logic would not apply to hope, because it is a Deists’ God that is being appealed to, and Deism does not ascribe to God any power other than first cause. ‘Hope’ can only be a fairly harmless way of tying up loose ends, as it was for David Hume.

Today, beliefs in quite different Gods are often muddled up together, as by Dr Crocker – an unfortunate development since the Enlightenment – and thus the quite legitimate question ‘Why is there something rather than nothing?’ hasn’t any hope of being answered with the analytical tools being deployed here.

John Greenbank, Dorset

Dear Editor: On reading the article ‘The Existence of God: Two New Proofs’ in Issue 82, I am somewhat puzzled by Dr Crocker’s claims as to what constitutes ‘plausibility’. Being of sound mind and, so I am told, of average intelligence, I perform four somersaults at noon each day religiously, in the sure and certain knowledge that the Great Demon will save me and others of our faith.

S. MacDonald by email

States Of Souls

Dear Editor: I would just like to take a moment to help Mr Goldblatt answer the question he poses in Issue 82: “How does this [the brain’s physicality] add up to me-ness?” A wise man once said “A well posed question is half-answered,” and Mr. Goldblatt has done a wonderful job of answering his own question. He is 99% there. He just needs to consider a couple of points, which I’ll label ‘sensitivity’ and ‘pattern recognition’.

Sensitivity is something I never see discussed when considering consciousness, and this is the root cause of all the confusion regarding the ‘ghost in the machine’. The brain is not sensitive to touch, or any other sensation. When the exposed brain is probed it does not recoil from the probe because it does not feel the probe. In the same way, the brain does not feel the electrical activity occurring in it. When a thought arises, there is no physical sensation of the thought. Rather, the thought is the sensation. Thought is the sensation experienced when electrochemical activity occurs in the brain, just like touch is the sensation experienced when your fingertips come in contact with the table top. Thought is the sixth sense, right up there with touch, hearing, taste, etc. There are no magical radio signals coming in from elsewhere.

The other point is that the brain is the master of pattern recognition. I like to use the example of ‘the face in the clouds’. The face does not physically exist in the clouds. What gives us the experience is a pattern of neurons firing together in the brain. These involve the same group of neurons which fired when the experience of the face was first created. This pattern recognition is a physical process occurring in the brain automatically and without any physical sensation to us because the physical brain cannot feel the electrochemical activity. The brain simply recognizes the pattern.

Taking this a step further, this also gives us the sensation of the self. When we first open our eyes in the morning we see familiar surroundings. These surroundings form a pattern that we associate with a certain individual. When we go through our morning routine we recognize that pattern of activity also as associated with a certain individual. And so on throughout the day.

Mike Redman, Washington

Dear Editor: In ‘Epiphenomenalism Explained’ in Issue 81, Norman Bacrac says, “We can have no direct indication of animal consciousness.” But then he says that “insects are not conscious… they have no contents of consciousness” and that “dolphins may experience sensation… [but] no opportunity to explore sophisticated intellectual realms.” How does he know? He has no basis for making these assertions about insects and dolphins other than supposition. He also makes another supposition, more central to his argument. Consciousness, he says, “occurs automatically… when a certain… neural organization is established.”

Although Bacrac does not use the term, this view is a form of emergentism: consciousness is an emergent property of the brain. Yet the well-known problem with emergentism is how to specify the conditions under which consciousness emerges. Just what is the threshold of complexity of organization above which there is consciousness and below which there is none? Evidently Bacrac thinks that insects are below it, and dolphins are above it. But he gives us no reason to believe this supposition. Why not assume that insects also experience sensation?

Using Bacrac’s own definition, some entities have sensory and emotional experience, and some don’t. So the world is made of two kinds of entities: mindful and mindless. Yet if we desire an account of reality that uses as few fundamental principles as possible (see the article on ‘Parsimony’ in the same issue), this will not do.

Bacrac contrasts his epiphenomenalism with other theories, which he finds lacking: eliminativism, physicalism, and Cartesian dualism. But he fails to mention the one theory which really does provide a plausible alternative: panpsychism – the view that everything, from the smallest quantum event to the most complex living being, has an aspect of mentality as well as physicality.

This theory does not assert that rocks have psyches in the same way that humans do, which would be ridiculous, since rocks exhibit none of the complex behavior of humans. But if we take a broader view of mentality – Bacrac’s own view – that mentality consists of sensory and emotional experience, the theory becomes more plausible. As expounded by the early 20th century metaphysician Alfred North Whitehead, it says that the most fundamental level of reality consists not of inert matter, but of events that have two aspects, interiority and exteriority. By ‘interiority’ I mean that events take into account their surroundings in a manner analogous to human experience, albeit in a much more primitive fashion. By ‘exteriority’ I mean that each event can inform other events. Sequences of events form what we know as quantum objects. From there we can in theory construct the variegated world of things that we know in our everyday experience. Perhaps then a better, though clumsier, term, would be pan-proto-experientialism.

The point is, rather than assuming that consciousness mysteriously emerges when brute matter becomes organized in sufficient complex ways, we can assume that a primitive form of experience is present at every level of reality. Then we need make no unverifiable suppositions about which animals are conscious and which are not; nor do we have to puzzle over how mere complexity of matter gives rise to consciousness. Reality becomes a continuum, all aspects of which have some degree of mentality as well as physicality. Thus the theory of pan-proto-experientialism of Whitehead’s Process Metaphysics provides the most coherent and elegant solution to the mind-body problem.

Bill Meacham, Austin, Texas

Morality Lives On, And On

Dear Editor: The several views expressed in your ‘Death of Morality’ articles require a book-length response. Though I happen to be working on such a book, I will keep this response brief. Simply put, the source of our morality is not religion, and it is not culture. The origin of our morality is our own nature, and it’s expressed in the form of care; about ourselves, and also about each other. This inherited natural emotion wells up from the core of our being as a moral force. Life is care’s only source. It is not a supernatural phenomenon.

On the other hand, the powerful forces of religion and culture have covered over, distorted and deformed this caring instinct. But in spite of being co-opted by various religions and abused by various cultures, our morality has survived this onslaught. Proof that morality still lies within us is revealed by the fact that we need to rationalize our less-than-moral actions to justify them to ourselves. For example: only by deciding that ‘they’ are evil beings, or monsters inspired by a devil, could we behead people. Only by telling ourselves that ‘they’ are not humans but inferior animals, could we enslave them. Only by convincing ourselves in advance that it is only fair, could we smile while destroying another person physically, economically, psychologically or emotionally. The need to rationalize affirms our morality.

Please understand that embracing our inner morality is not the same thing as returning to superstition. If we were only laboring under an externally-imposed moral system we would need only to justify our actions to that system, and not rationalize them to ourselves. The morality is there within us, it’s just that we don’t always listen to it or abide by it! But then, that’s another story.

Ernest Mullings, Lansing, Michigan

Dear Editor: Richard Joyce’s ‘fictionalist’ account of morality is ultimately little more than an untenable posture. Only a philosopher or a psychopath could present such a statement as “it is untrue that punching babies is wrong.” Joyce’s approach to morality cannot be supported by his comparison with the foolish belief in astrology either, as there are over-riding reasons to reject the latter. Perhaps a Kantian approach would be more apt. Just as Kant viewed causality, for example, as being something that allows experience to be meaningful rather than something that we discover empirically, so we might view our moral imperatives as allowing us to have meaningful discourse with each other in the first place. If someone cannot understand that punching a baby is simply wrong (and not just in some utilitarian or functional sense), then we have nothing more to say to that person – though we might need to lock him up. This is not to deny the complexity of moral debate, or to deny that there are huge grey areas. But Joyce’s stance would lead him to the unwelcome scenario in which if his own baby was punched he would be unable to condemn the attack with anything more than some linguistic convention. This is psychologically untenable and philosophically unnecessary.

Kaz Knowlden, Bristol

Dear Editor: In the essays concerning moral fictionalism and moral abolition in Issue 82 of Philosophy Now, I believe we can clearly see how difficult and perhaps impossible it is to abandon traditional morality. In his essay on moral fictionalism, Richard Joyce employs the example of Dave, a man who “doesn’t believe that punching babies is morally wrong.” Professor Joyce describes scenarios where he believes that it is acceptable for Dave to on occasion lie about this fact in order to avoid unnecessary conflict. Dave is essentially presented as a normal individual who knows how to maintain peace amongst individuals with different beliefs. This is supposed to demonstrate the utility of moral fictionalism. Yet Professor Joyce loads the dice beforehand by telling us that Dave “is no fan of baby-punching… He believes that baby-punching ought to be prevented and perpetrators severely dealt with.” We are then told that he believes this on “non-moral grounds.” Surely this is highly implausible? Why on earth would Dave have such an attitude unless he found baby-punching morally repugnant? It strikes me that Professor Joyce is attempting to have his cake and eat it.

We see something similar with Joel Marks’s essay ‘Coulda Woulda Shoulda’. Professor Marks claims to have abandoned morality, and declares that his ethical inclinations are entirely the result of his life experiences. Yet at the conclusion of the piece he claims that if non-vegans were exposed to the kind of experiences he has had regarding “the horrors of factory farming” they might well become vegan too. But why should anyone other than Professor Marks regard these things as horrifying? Again, we see the claims being made that morality is entirely personal, yet also that there exist objectively horrific things in the world. You can’t have it both ways – hence the inconsistency and self-undermining nature of the authors’ arguments.

Karl White, Cork, Ireland

Dear Editor: Professor Garner’s essay calling for the abolition of morality overlooks the realistic possibility that both religion and morality have significantly contributed to the survival and flourishing of mankind. Thus his references to the many very real horrors perpetrated in the name of religion or morality don’t tell the whole story. To begin with, he assumes without evidence that bizarre interpretations of the Bible, Koran or other religious texts by troubled extremists accurately portrays the moral teachings of the religion in question. Yet arguably, many of the horrors referenced by Prof Garner were perpetrated by those who for their own personal gain intentionally articulated an extreme interpretation of religious teachings. Most agree that the current batch of Islamic extremists are a relatively small minority of those who profess Islam. If we condemn religions and their associated systems of morality simply because they have the potential to be misused by evil or deranged people, must we not also condemn science, the misuse of which led to eugenics and the subjugation and murder of minorities in the last century or so? It is also important to remember that we don’t know what we don’t know. Thus, history might have been quite different if our morality hadn’t driven us to curtail the use of nuclear weapons.

Finally, if we all agreed that religion and morality were pernicious lies rightly cast into the dustbin of history, what are we left with? Without a belief in some absolute right and wrong, how do we move beyond a dog-eat-dog, me-first mentality? I submit that were the human race to wholly abandon religion and morality as Professor Garner advocates, the horrors perpetrated in the name of religion would be a pale shadow to those that would rip through humankind.

Eric Geiser, By email

Dear Editor: Richard Garner’s article for moral abolitionism in Issue 82 fails to make the case. First he sets up the straw man of moral realism (the belief that morality is something real that we discover), then he draws parallels between this and belief in God. But you don’t need to be either a moral realist or a theist to engage in morality. Utilitarianism demonstrates that this is possible. Another straw man is his claim that, because arguments about morality are capable of going on forever, they can immobilise anyone who takes them seriously. Well, yes they can; but of course, they needn’t. Similarly, we’re told that “strong moral beliefs can convince us that compromise is surrender to evil.” Yes, that can happen too. Then Prof Garner uses emotive language to denigrate moral reasoning, caricaturing it as “moralistic meddling.” But the most unconvincing part of his argument is the proposed replacements for morality: we should communicate attitudes and feelings, and in the case of difficult choices, for instance about abortion or euthanasia, we should allow decisions to be made by those involved, along with medical advice. This suggestion is contrasted with decision-making by priests, politicians and profiteers, but the proposal (with its emotive language again) simply sidesteps the issue. The first and most important matter is what sort of decision this is rather than who should take it. As Garner acknowledges, whatever your stance on abortion, the decision involves balancing the rights of the woman against those of the foetus. The foetus or the person in a vegetative state cannot communicate attitudes or feelings, so decisions cannot be made by negotiation; but their rights have to be considered somehow. How can moral reasoning be avoided here? The examples offered by Garner himself provide strong evidence against his own thesis. He nowhere shows how we can do without moral reasoning.

Roger Paxton, Northumberland

Dear Editor: The first problem I have with Joel Marks’ ‘Amoral Manifesto’ is that he defines ‘relativism’ so that it is easily knocked down and dismissed. I proclaim myself to be both a moralist and a relativist. I am a moralist within Joel’s definition, in that I accept “an external source of moral imperatives.” But for me this external source is not universal, and it is certainly not absolute. My external source is the norms and values of the society in which I live. This to me is relativism, too. Morality is relative to a society and its culture. It is a product of that society’s history and evolution. Within my lifetime of almost 70 years here in the UK, I have witnessed considerable changes in social attitudes regarding sexual morality, the sanctions of criminal justice, and what are now called ‘human rights’. Whilst I would not try to predict the future in any detail, I feel safe to predict that 70 years from now the social norms and values of Western society will be different from those of today. There could be a reversion to earlier values, or alternatively, some of today’s remaining taboos could become accepted behaviour.

My second problem is Marks’ slide into absolutism: “morality in its very concept and essence is supposed to be universal and absolute.” This is an assertion, presented as a self-evident axiom with no justification needed. It implies that morality must be objective. I reject this. I see relativism as the opposite of absolutism. Belief in absolute moral values is about the greatest evil that pollutes the human ‘noosphere’ [ie culture]. It is the source of fundamentalism in all ideologies, from Roman Catholicism through Marxism, to the Taliban’s. It is also the motivation behind the arrogant liberal condemnation of the social standards and penal policies of contemporary states whose societies are centuries behind the West in their social evolution.

Leo Westhead, Scarborough

Poetic Morality

Born in the tomb of the Nazi’s 3rd Reich,
Blood and bones were what was accepted;
In an upbringing of murder and hurt alike,
My unusual was everything except it.
People say that culture breeds morality,
But who’s to say our salvation is wrong?
Where you live, killing is brutality,
Yet isn’t that what made the Crusades so strong?
Brackish blood in the sand, rich ruby wine for celebration,
Your traditions are whitewash-clean,
and mine a filthy, dishonest mutation?
We need to look beyond what is seen
Tracing our origins around the world’s blights and heights
Who decided what is good and legal?
For every more and civilization has its slights
But it’s up to us to decide what’s moral.

Emma Steer, Vancouver, Canada

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