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Sustaining The Argument • Putting The ‘Me’ In Meaning • Pieces of Minds/Brains • Free Won’t? • Civil Wars Of Words
Sustaining The Argument
Dear Editor: In his article ‘Ecological Ethics’ in Issue 88, Tim Madigan offers the idea, “Some theists have argued that humans occupy a privileged position… This attitude is now being challenged by theists who maintain that God wishes humans to be stewards … of life on Earth – thereby showing the malleability of Scriptural interpretation.” This doesn’t follow. If some of my students believe 2+2=4 and others say 2+2=5, it doesn’t show the malleability of mathematical laws. It might show some of them need a lesson in maths.
In fact, the idea that human beings are privileged stewards is needed not just by theists, but by anyone who wants to make a case for environmental preservation rather than exploitation. For, as Madigan himself points out, there are good arguments to the effect that if human beings are just on the same moral level as other animals, then they (we) have no special moral responsibility to do anything in particular about the environment: we do not ask lions to feel guilty for killing as many gazelles as their instincts lead them to kill, so why should we expect humans to feel any duty toward the environment other than whatever our instincts lead us to do? On the other hand, if human beings are morally responsible in a way lower animals are not, then we must be attributing to humans a special status of some kind, with an attendant duty of environmental stewardship. So we need to ask, What would that special status be?
Stephen Anderson, Ontario
Dear Editor: Thank you for another intellectually stimulating issue in no. 88 – ‘Sustainability’. By the way, is sustainability ultimately a lost cause inasmuch as it conflicts with the three laws of thermodyamics? As C.P. Snow once summarised those laws for the layperson: you cannot win; you cannot break even; and you cannot get out of the game.
I also note a passing reference to Karl Marx in Tim Delaney’s ‘The Five Horrorists’, viz. “He [Marx] suggests it is unethical for people to have children if they cannot provide for them.” Reliant for most of his life on hand-outs from Engels, four of Marx’s seven children died in childhood largely due to their impoverished circumstances. In philosophy of all disciplines, surely one should always be sceptical of those who do not practice what they preach.
Paul Warwick, Ferny Hills, Australia
Putting The ‘Me’ In Meaning
Dear Editor: In ‘The Meaning of Meaning’ in Issue 88, Stephen Anderson correctly says that meaning is associated with conscious entities capable of contemplating their own existence. For example, a stone has existence, but does not need meaning. Other living entities have drives and responses to their environment which control their behaviour, but only conscious life-forms have concerns about meaning. Perhaps then it is a category error to ascribe meaning as a property of existence, rather than as an attribute of consciousness or awareness. Dr Anderson proceeds to argue that meaning implies intent, and that this intent has to exist before and independently of the conscious entity. The problem with his argument for our potentially obtaining meaning from a Creator is that according to Anderson’s rules, that Supreme Being is incapable of creating its own meaning. So Anderson’s argument either means we are bestowed meaning by a meaningless Entity, or it leads to an infinite regress along the lines of the Third Man argument (Supreme Being creates Other Supreme Being to provide Supreme Being with meaning; Other Supreme Being creates Further Supreme Being to provide meaning, etc etc). Neither option is very attractive.
Alternatively, if we accept that meaning is an attribute of consciousness rather than of existence per se, we can say a developing consciousness is capable of making its own meaning in relationship to its environment, via family, friends, society, etc. In this way we can avoid worrying about the meaning of some lifeless planet orbiting a star ten light years away, which would be part of a universal meaning if we associated meaning with existence rather than consciousness.
Russell Berg, Manchester
Pieces of Minds/Brains
Dear Editor: In his article ‘The Minds of Machines’ in Issue 87, Namit Arora makes the case that to work, artificial intelligences “need to come into a social world similar to that of humans, and project themselves in time the way humans do with their physical bodies.” He believes we’re unlikely to achieve this mimicry, and so will be unable to create artificial intelligence.
But a self-aware system need not have cognition exactly like ours. I agree that an AI must “act in the world in which we are immersed” (from Blattner, discussing Heidegger). For this, it needs the ability to act with intention in that world, and to react according to rich, diverse sensory inputs. Now consider the self-driving automobiles currently being developed by Google among others. Their fleet has now driven more than 190,000 miles in city traffic, on highways, and on mountainous roads, with only occasional human intervention. These robotic devices act with intentions (e.g., to proceed from x to y) according to sets of higher-level rules, yet they will also accomplish goals in response to unexpected developments interpreted from low-level sensory inputs.
When, ten to fifty years from now, your car acts according to your voice commands (iPhone’s Siri is one precursor) to accomplish a complex goal while interacting within a messy, unpredictable world, what more will you require from it before you’re willing to grant it a mind and cognition – albeit one not quite like your own?
Robert H. Anderson, California
Dear Editor: In philosophy a chosen example is rarely just an example. The features taken to be typical extend the general point being made. So when Michael Langford (in Issue 87) illustrates the differences between free will and determinism with a grossly sexist narrative, we should not ignore this, for it indicates salient features of the issue.
He gives as a “classic example of having an intention” the decision to “ask Jane to come on a date, and then plan a series of manoeuvres to get her to agree.” Can this be explained by deterministic neurological activity? Is Michael determined by his neurons to act as he does, or does he have free will in adopting this intention?
I would suggest that we should also think about the status of Jane’s free will in this situation. She is being manipulated by Michael to agree to dating him. He is conducting ‘manoeuvres’ in order to subjugate the freedom of her will to his own intentions. It makes no difference whether it is Jane’s neurons or Jane’s mind that is being manipulated. In either case her choice is being subjected to forces outside herself. Here lies the distinction between a free and an unfree will – in the individual’s degree of autonomy, the extent to which their choice is determined within their own mind or brain, and not by another. The hypothetical distinction between neurons and mind serves as a distraction from such crucial practical and political issues.
Peter Benson, London
Civil Wars Of Words
Dear Editor: In a rebuttal to a previous letter by me, Raymond Tallis writes in his column in Issue 88: “So the case for animal research is clear cut; or it is if one subscribes to the view that human suffering and premature death is more important than animal suffering and premature death… The world would be a ghastly place if people placed the suffering of frogs or badgers on a par with that of their own children, or would be happy to allow their neighbours to starve if this were necessary to keep animals well fed.”
My main objection to this passage is not its sentiment, with which I am in partial agreement. Rather, it is the moralism of it. For example, it is not enough for Tallis to care more for humans than other animals; he feels it necessary to insist that human suffering and premature death are “more important” than that of other animals. Furthermore, it is not enough that he is willing to kill mice to aid humans; his so willing is also deemed “proper”. It’s this (atheist) version of God-is-on-our-side that I find most difficult to swallow. The world might be a ghastly place for humans if “people placed the suffering of frogs or badgers on a par with that of their own children,” but it wouldn’t be so ghastly for the frogs and badgers.
Who would deny that we often show a preference to our fellow humans over our fellow animals? But this is no argument for there being an objective stamp of approval on what we quite naturally prefer. After all, I would show certain preferences to my children over those of my good neighbor Tallis, but I would not do so on the basis of my children having greater inherent worth than his.
Nor is this just a matter of not adding insult to injury, since attitudes have consequences. Thus, I would wager that the researcher who who ‘kills mice to cure children’ and sees the human race as morally privileged will be more likely to countenance killing young cows because she would enjoy eating them, than a research colleague who does not presume human preeminence to justify her work.
Joel Marks, Columnist, PN
Dear Editor: I am grateful to Daryn Green for his generous and thoughtful review of my book Aping Mankind: Neuromania, Darwinitis and the Misrepresentation of Humanity in Issue 88. I would also like to address some of the worries he expressed at the end of his review:
1.) I do indeed believe consciousness confers no evolutionary advantage. This seems counter-intuitive unless one takes the long view and begins at the beginning, with replicative entities that are simply pieces of matter. Once you are dependent on conscious it is a good idea to remain that way; but the things achieved through unbreakable laws of nature not guided by consciousness – the building of a brain in an embryo, or the evolutionary process itself – are infinitely more impressive than anything consciousness brings about. Indeed it is very difficult to put one’s finger on what consciousness brings to the party, and there are many disadvantages to consciousness – hesitations and mistakes being the most obvious. Green suggests that consciousness would confer the “social leverage which our fuller awareness of self and others brings,” but of course that is an advantage only once complex consciousness is already in place.
2.) And yes, I do believe that consciousness is a pre-condition of having a viewpoint, and that this is a problem for materialism. One illustration of this relates to the viewpoint which divides time into the no-longer, the now, and the not-yet. Such tensed time does not exist in the material world, as Einstein (and many after him) pointed out. This is a problem for anyone who wants (say) to find a neuromaniacal (that is to say, a material) account of our explicit memory of the past or of our explicit sense of the future.
3.) And, finally, yes, I do oppose the crass materialism of many mind-brain identity theorists, but I am also pessimistic about our developing an enriched notion of matter that will have fewer problems with consciousness. It will most certainly not come from post-classical physics, as many believe, which does not amend ‘the disappearance of appearance’ (ie, of consciousness) which quantitative physical science results in.
This said, may I reiterate my thanks for a review so in tune to the preoccupations of the book, and my delight that Green, too, is an ontological agnostic.
Raymond Tallis, Stockport
A. Is Dawkins criticising only Abrahamic religions, or religion more generally?
I do concede Colin’s point that in The God Delusion Dawkins is speaking very much about the Abrahamic religions, and especially about Christianity. However, Dawkins chooses to call Chap. 8, ‘What’s Wrong with Religion?’ instead of ‘What’s Wrong with Theism?’ or ‘What’s Wrong with Abrahamic Religion?’ He knows that ‘What’s Wrong with Religion?’ is a much more digestible soundbite than the more wordy alternatives, and chooses the punchy title over the accurate, consistent message. His general attack on the supernatural is also an explicit criticism of religion as such. If I were a Hindu, Buddhist, or Sikh, I would feel criticised when Dawkins writes “the take-home message is that we should blame religion and not religious extremism” for atrocities and violence (p.306).
B. Is uncritical religious faith the key demon?
Colin suggested that I missed the point when I argued that it is very difficult to separate religious phenomena from cultural phenomena and so lay the blame for various evils discretely at the door of religion alone. He suggests rather that it is uncritically-held religious faith which is harmful because of its lack of veracity or ethical foundations. However, it is highly questionable that blind religious faith is the key causal factor leading, say, to terrorism. Dawkins gives a couple of anecdotes to suggest this on pp.304-305, but that does not constitute an argument. Certain forms of blind religious faith lead to pacifism. Other forms lead to violence. What makes for such difference? Different texts? No. Fundamentalist Christians are to be found of both persuasions! For answers we need to study the historical and cultural contexts, and this is arduous. By contrast, it is lazy and thoughtless to blame most of the evils of the world on blind religious faith. And while people focus wholesale on blaming religion, they miss the dangers of blind faith in nationalism – an ideology that, unlike religion, to my knowledge never spawned pacifism or compassion for all.
C. Is Dawkins’ ethical critique of religion based on any ethical theoretical framework?
Contrary to my view, Colin Brookes suggests that Dawkins does base his criticisms of religion in ethical theory, and points to TGD Chapter 6 for this. However, in this chapter Dawkins is mainly seeking to establish that morality does not depend upon religious faith, rather, that we are evolutionarily wired to be moral. Dawkins mentions deontology and utilitarianism, but does not use these theories to help him make ethical judgments about religion. To acknowledge the significance of these theories and then not use them is my criticism. Dawkins’ text needs a theoretical basis in ethics to offer an effective ethical critique of religion.
D. Dawkins’ case against religion: a series of anecdotes, or a compelling argument?
Colin suggests Dawkins’ evidence that religion is harmful is compelling, especially in Chapters 8 and 9. Contrary to my claims, Colin suggests this evidence consists of more than umpteen anecdotes, and that any good in religion results from its ethical underpinnings. He also says that to claim religion is a source of goodness runs counter to my alleged view that religion is so culturally embedded that it is not identifiably good or bad. But my view is that because it is culturally embedded, we cannot wholly blame or praise religion. By the same token, religion plays its role like everything else, and so cannot escape praise or blame.
Colin’s view that the ethical underpinnings of religion are to be praised but religion itself is to be condemned seems bizarre to me. How did religion get its ‘ethical underpinnings’? A study of Martin Luther King Jr. tells us that his ethics had religious underpinnings rather than vice versa. Also, why should we make such a sharp distinction between a religion and its ethics? For most religious people their faith and ethics are inseparable. The distinction between religion and religious ethics is a secularist assumption that does not withstand scrutiny.
Finally, anecdote is so often at the heart of Dawkins’ arguments, yet these create the weakest possible inductive reasons while packing the maximum emotional punch. This is Dawkins’ project: an act of persuasion, emotional if necessary, of dubious rational quality, and lacking in disinterestedness: as he says at the outset of his book, he wants to convert you.
John Holroyd, London