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Thoughtful Responses • Save The Species • The Trolley Debate Rolls Forward • On And On And On With God • Points of Cosmic Order • Delightfully Disconnected
Dear Editor: Professor Di Norcia in ‘Ethics on the Brain’ in Issue 87 is only able to draw his conclusion “Morality is a truly successful evolutionary strategy” by a very selective choice of evidence and definitions of words. First, he writes, “There are six primary emotions: anger, fear, disgust, surprise, sadness and happiness.” Well, sadness is commonly contrasted with joy, not happiness. He also does not say whether the amygdala responds to positive emotions, which is quite important when he links the emotions in the brain to the ‘fight or flight’ impulses. Only by ignoring the positive emotions can he justify his suggestion that “a sense of moral duty can be… based on a fear of punishment, harm or loss.” If we forgive his imposition of the word ‘duty’ on the moral impulse, even duty can be a positive expression of loyalty, to a hero or to group membership. Even in the imagery of religion there can be joy, when someone turns from self-interest to generosity in their attitude.
Di Norcia’s limited expectation of the impulse to moral choice is echoed in his citing of Richard Trivers’ research, which concludes, “Altruism works best… when it is reciprocated, and both agent and recipient benefit.” It is a very unambitious definition of ‘altruism’ where the agent starts off with the expectation of benefit. Surely the truly altruistic agent should expect no benefit save for a sense of well-being? There are even living organ donors who put themselves at risk of suffering and health deficit, ie of a negative benefit, from their altruism. Trivers deduced that his form of altruism ‘works best’: but this validation only means ‘if you accept this limited definition of altruism, then to a neoDarwinist altruism (‘moral behaviour’) can be identified as an evolutionary strategy’.
Trivers refers to the conduct of fish in his experiments, but if sea creatures with no significant brain can work in groups co-operatively for self-protection, and even in symbiosis with other species and appear to have ‘strategies’, where does that leave Di Norcia’s brain theory?
Moreover, Di Norcia’s reduction of the moral impulse to moral duty allows him to lose sight of the difference between having the mental potential to empathise with other people and making the choice to exercise that skill. Over and above the possession of moral intelligence, there can be choices made for good or evil. Individuals from Hitler to banking speculators have made choices to not exercise their skills of moral intelligence. And there is plenty of evidence that amoral conduct can also be a successful evolutionary strategy.
Di Norcia quotes Damasio, referring to the ‘gut-feeling’ for imminent danger which is hard-wired into the brain. Perhaps the source of moral choice is a gut feeling which Di Norcia has not identified because he has only considered the brain, not the whole person. Yet joy, for instance, is an emotional experience, but it is hard to locate its whereabouts in the brain, and hard even for a sceptic not to describe it as a whole body experience.
Neil Leighton, Totnes, Devon
Dear Editor: In Philosophy Now 87, Michael Graziano, Professor of Neuroscience at Princeton, made some contentious claims about philosophy and modern neuroscience. Philosophy, he asserts, “has gone back and forth and around in circles on the question of the mind, with little or no progress.” This characterisation seems to exclude key contributions by philosophers. For instance, John Searle in Mind (2004) points out that most of the great philosophers of mind, such as Descartes, Locke, Berkeley, Hume and Kant “believe that we do not see the real world, independently existing objects and states of affairs in the world. All that we ever actually perceive directly … are our own inner experiences” (p.180). For Graziano it has taken modern neuroscience to appreciate the distinction between the reality out there and our perception of it as constructed by the brain. Yet Kant addressed this very distinction in considerable detail in his Critique of Pure Reason more than two centuries ago. In Chapter III he wrote: “if the senses represent to us something merely as it appears, this something must also in itself be a thing… [so] knowledge must be possible, in which there is no sensibility, and which alone has reality that is absolutely objective.” (pp.266-267, trans. Norman Kemp Smith, 1982.) Copleston and Magee discussed Kant’s distinction in The Great Philosophers (1987): “Kant went on to argue that we can think of total reality as consisting of two realms… [that] of our experience, [phenomena] which is as it is because we are as we are… then there is the realm of things as they actually are in themselves [noumena] independently of us and the forms of our experience.” (p.214.) Their discussion moves on to consider Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860), his reaction to Kant’s distinction, and his conclusions about the nature of reality and our relationship to it. Twentieth century physics has borne out Kant and Schopenhauer in the most extraordinary way; but the philosophers reached their conclusions by epistemological analysis a hundred years before the scientists got there.
Colin Brookes, Leicestershire
Dear Editor: One alternative to the question in Issue 87 of how the matter of brains can be reconciled with the consciousness of minds, is to reflect on the fact that ‘matter’ is a (mental) concept. Without consciousness there can be no distinct brain, no body, no world. Materialists start with matter, without considering that a priori there must be mind to even conceive ‘matter’. The ancient Indian philosophy of Non-Duality, for instance, takes the stand that all is consciousness in its various manifestations. Ernst Mach also considers that the ‘I’ of the observer comprises both the seeing subject and the object of sight. And the cognitive scientist Donald Hoffman has proposed a Conscious Realism, which gets rid of matter and replaces it with consciousness. All this leads to a different self-world view from the current conventional Western one.
Hans Heimer, Cheshire
Save The Species
Dear Editor: Paul M. Keeling in his article ‘Greening the Gadfly’ in Issue 87 said that it is something of a mystery why the major media do not consult environmental ethicists about oil drilling and climate change. I think this was a rhetorical question meant to elicit a response from readers. Here is a version of an answer.
While environmental philosophers would be too modest to claim comparison with Socrates, the moral and logical implications of what they have written is no more welcome to contemporary business leaders than what Socrates said to the wealthy of Athens, which caused them to have him executed for ‘corrupting the youth’. That all living things have intrinsic value which generates immense human duties of restraint (Holmes Rolston III); that evolutionary survival depends as much on cooperation as it does on competition, and so we should treat other species like loyal allies (Aldo Leopold based on Charles Darwin); and that groups of species should be respected and treated like other ‘peoples’ (Black Elk), are very subversive truths. The fact of nonhuman moral considerability constitutes a threat to our leaders’ plans to ‘build out’ Earth’s ecosystems and resources for short term profit and power, while hiding behind humanistic-sounding justifications which say we have a moral obligation to end poverty before we preserve species and stop polluting and destroying Earth’s air, water and soil. However, in his book Feeding People versus Saving Nature, Rolston points out the reality that, as Christ said, “the poor will always be with you,” and that we do many things like educating our children and getting them the best of healthcare, when we could donate the cost of these activities to feeding many more of the desperately poor. So why should we develop pristine areas under the guise of making jobs and feeding people, rather than saving these habitats for wildlife? Moreover, the cornucopian fantasy that perpetual growth in the size of the human enterprise – which will soon destroy 50% of species on Earth – is possible in a finite world, transforms to a moral horror when we consider that our leaders have been furthering poverty by sabotaging access to family planning.
Regarding the interests of the powerful, who by definition believe they can survive the environmental catastrophes of their own creation, it would not do to have all this discussed ‘above the radar’ on anything like a continuing basis. But at least to date they have not had to resort to the execution of environmental philosophers. However, wildlife biologists who point out that merely reducing the environmental degradation caused by ever more human intrusion into natural systems is morally suspect, may find themselves unemployable. And, given the overwhelming mass of media stimulus bombarding citizens’ minds, and the increasing economic distress which has been caused by the same ‘no limits’ thinking which threatens the ecosphere’s survival, it has been enough for the business owners who pay for the advertising which supports the media to simply not seek out the opinion of environmental philosophers on pressing environmental issues, and to not have the books they write in their stores.
Winthrop R. Staples III, Newbury Park, California
Dear Editor: Earth’s ecosystems are the last or near-last concern on most people’s minds: the economy and jobs are at or near the top. Yet why do so many people fail to seriously consider, “What good is creating or preserving businesses, jobs and a strong economy when the planet is deathly polluted and people are getting sick and dying because of mass industrial and vehicular pollution?” Then again, perhaps that majority would ask me, “What good are clean and healthy global ecosystems when there are no jobs from which people can earn the monies to afford to take a vacation and breathe the fresh air in the lush forests?” You can’t have one without the other, they might say.
Frank G. Sterle, Jr, by email
Dear Editor: Dr Bowden’s ‘common sense’ concerning animal exploitation in Issue 86 Letters could not be more different from mine. Too many years ago I worked on cattle properties and for abattoirs, and I can tell you that the animals about to die knew all the fear which goes with that knowledge. Further, there is plenty of evidence of animals fleeing predators in fear, and that their fear is the fear of pain and death. Even under the cover of the wonderfully-named ‘animal research’ the animals know with foreboding that what’s happening in the experiments is no good for them.
Excluding animals from sentience is a bit like what some people with power try to do to other people; but with the animals we don’t have to look as closely at what is being done, do we?
Michael Burns, Queanbeyan West, Australia
The Trolley Debate Rolls Forward
Dear Editor: I love the application of Bentham’s utilitarianism [in Issue 86] to the Trolley Problem in which you have the choice of acting to save five people at the consequence of killing one. Performing an act which promotes benefit and limits pain is central to this issue of ethics, I think, and Phil Badger well captures the consequences of this problem. A few years ago, I taught this problem to an ethics class in which I had a student who liked making jokes. This student said that he would run over the five on the one set of tracks, and then, to be fair, he would back up and drive over the one on the other track. But this sent a message to me that there is no single answer to this problem, and that the solution can be imagined from many perspectives. I think Badger’s article does some justice to this idea by pointing out the plurality of arguments addressing the Trolley dilemma, which always seems to escape being broken down into simple black and white terms.
Corine Sutherland, California
Dear Editor: I’d like to thank those in Issue 87 who wrote in about my Trolley Problem article in Issue 86 for their interesting responses. However, I must take issue with Peter Ellway’s critique of my Kantianism. Firstly, I do think that some actions, including torturing babies, are absolute wrongs, and to explain this we need the ‘Kantian baggage’ he would like us to ditch. Where I depart from Kant concerns ‘autonomy’. For Kant this meant the capacity to step back from all of our deepest feelings and commitments in order to evaluate them from a place in which our inclinations have no influence. By contrast, I suggest the psychologically more plausible position that we should respect each others’ right to have the commitments we happen to have. This is consistent with recognising the possibility that these commitments might change in the light of experience and debate. I maintain the Kantianesque view that to will the universalization of disrespecting each others’ ‘large-scale concepts of the good’ would be self-subverting and incoherent. I sought in the article to give space to the idea that the consequences of our actions do have a moral significance, while maintaining that these consequences are not always paramount. I think I managed to do that by arguing that we could rule out the significance of an individual’s large-scale concept of the good when it was in principle impossible to know what that concept was. Further than that I’m not prepared to go.
Phil Badger, Sheffield
On And On And On With God
Dear Editor: As a new (yet mature) Theology student, I’m also a first-time reader of your publication, finding it a refreshing discovery which reflects the general nature of my own studies.
I was attracted by John Holroyd’s article in Issue 86, ‘Between Dawkins and God’, and found myself agreeing with much of the piece – not least with the highlighting of flaws in Dawkins’ thinking. But Holroyd’s assertion that “blind, unselfcritical faith” is abundant in mainstream church life deserves addressing. He offers up just one example in support of his argument – the Alpha Course. He admits he has no personal experience of it, yet he claims it omits to engage “with questions of Biblical criticism.” Yet if he were to attend such a Course, he would find those questions in Session 5. Moreover, he’d find a forum for ordinary people of all kinds to express their doubts, questions and insights, and to discuss them with others. That’s the nature of Alpha. Furthermore, critical reflection is an intrinsic part of the training of church leaders just about everywhere these days – something they later facilitate themselves at retreats and church awaydays. Critical debate can also be had in spades at festivals like Greenbelt. When Holroyd rightly challenges Dawkins for making sweeping generalisations without proof to back it up, it jars when he too makes general claims where the evidence appears to be to the contrary.
John Cheek, Chester
Dear Editor: John Holroyd’s article ‘Between Dawkins and God’, discusses Dawkins’ evangelical atheism, which wants to make the world a better place by stamping out irrational belief in a deity. How is it possible to justify that? I realize that religions evangelize all the time, but atheism pretends rationality. Yet the non-belief in a deity is just as emotional and irrational as belief in one. Or am I missing something?
Robert E. Banks, Paola, Kansas
Points of Cosmic Order
Dear Editor: I think Professor Tallis is right to be suspicious in Issue 87 of the mathematicians’ habit of treating their tools as though they were real. A good example is Special Relativity, accounts of which give the impression that time slows or speeds up according to your relative velocity. No it doesn’t. What we experience is due to atoms exchanging messenger particles, the most familiar of which are photons. That particles of light travel at the speed of light is a tautology; but if the recipient is travelling at the speed of light, a message will never arrive. Without an exchange of particles, nothing happens: atomic clocks for instance, don’t tick. This is very different from the claim that time stops. Professor Hawking has accused philosophers of not keeping up. I suggest that part of the reason is that some of us recognise two-and-a-half-thousand-year-old Pythagorean mumbo-jumbo when we see it.
Will Bouwman, London
Why space must be quantized:
A) Objects are able to move.
B) If space were an infinitely-divisible continuum, then nothing could move. Think of Zeno’s paradoxes.
C) Space must therefore be quantized.
D) If space is quantized, then to be able to move, the smallest particle cannot be smaller than a quantum of space, unless it is capable of teleporting from one quantum of space to the next.
Kenneth Eng, Flushing, NY
Dear Editor: What a relief to read through Peter Benson’s excellent article, ‘Marshall McLuhan On The Mobile Phone’ in Issue 87. I was beginning to think I was the only person on this planet between primary school age and retirement who has never owned, or indeed wanted to own, a mobile phone. I wonder what percentage of people are in my category, i.e., not eternally suffering from ‘permanent connectedness’?
Keith Sherwood (aged 64)