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Letters to the Editor

Meaning and Proof • Immortal Lines • Religious Belief and Santa Claus • Immortal Oaks? • Chappell Not Dotty • Scepticism about Scepticism • Containerisation • Guilt and Nostalgia

Meaning and Proof

Dear Editor,

Anthony Thorpe’s review of Brian Davies’ An Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion tells us that for me “any discussion of the existence of God is meaningless because religious people never make it suitably clear what could count as proof for God’s existence or, more crucially … what would count as proof for non-existence of an Ultimate Being” (PN Issue 8).

The truth, however, is that my Note on ‘Theology and Falsification’, to which Brian Davies was obviously referring, makes no claim that theological assertions are meaningless. My aim was indeed precisely not to echo such Vienna Circle dogmatism but instead to challenge believers to begin to make clear what they do mean by answering “the simple central questions, ‘What would have to occur or to have occurred to constitute for you a disproof of the love of, or of the existence of, God?’”

Because that Note on ‘Theology and Falsification’ has to my certain knowledge been reprinted over 30 times since its first publication in 1950 Brian Davies cannot reasonably excuse his misrepresentation by claiming that its text is so inaccessible that he had to rely on some secondhand account of its contents.

Yours faithfully,
Professor Antony Flew

Immortal Lines

Dear Sir,

I hope you will allow me space to express my gratitude to the several readers who wrote in to the Editor assuring him that Les Reid, contrary to all appearances and his own convictions, is indeed immortal. And to think that one article in Philosophy Now was all it took! Still, a few million years will certainly come in handy for sorting out all the subsequent correspondence.

Unfortunately, Sue Johnson assures me that my second life will not be spent doing anything that I actually enjoy. Apparently that offer has been withdrawn and “oneness with, or concentration upon, God or Ultimate Reality” is the best that I can expect now: It does not grab me somehow. I would have preferred choirs of angels, golden crowns and learning the harp. Besides, I have known oneness – with the dentist’s chair when I was unconscious – and it turned out to be nothingness. Johnson needs to look again at her sources of information regarding this ‘oneness’ and see if they have got the details right. Moses and many other ancient desert dwellers have been shown to be hopelessly unreliable over simple matters of tribal history, so their pronouncements on more abstract issues should be treated with caution.

Roger Farnworth argues that immortality can be linked to the existence of skills. He takes the skill of a composer as his example. Well, he would. But what about my cat? It has got dozens of skills. It can do things that would have left Beethoven with a broken leg. But who wants to spend millions of years of oneness with a cat, no matter if its skills are potential, actual or plain nonexistent? No thanks.

Dr. Bolton turns to music too and throws in some poetry and mathematics for good measure. Now I know what Bolton is talking about here. I have whistled a few tunes, made up limericks and checked my grocery bill with a calculator. However I never noticed the transcendental world that these activities were conjuring up for me. I am left wondering if each tune, limerick and calculation conjured up a different transcendental world, because if so there are going to be several million squared of these worlds to go to afterwards and everybody is going to be totally lost. And what about other activities? For all we know, perhaps watching tv and reading the paper conjure up transcendental worlds too. Zillions cubed. At this rate we will need a strong dose of Ultimate Oneness just to keep in touch.

After these exotic and unconvincing glimpses of immortality, Mark Daniels’ relativism seems a very negative business. He lays waste to evolution, science and history, all in the space of three sentences. Well, not him personally. He assures me that modern philosophers have demolished the lot. So that is David Attenborough out of a job. And what about science teachers, history teachers, car manufacturers, electricians,….. all out of work? I presume that the demolition of science entails the collapse of scientifically engineered technology. In that case I think I will hold fire on my subscription to the relativistic society until I am sure that a bit of voodoo or a magic carpet really will get me to work as efficiently as the partially demolished scientific anachronism that is parked at my front door. Relativism might be all right for Mark Daniels but I prefer things that work. Like David Attenborough, who is now off the dole again.

Yours philanthropically,
Les Reid
Co. Antrim

Dear Editor

As a newcomer to philosophy I have found your publication user-friendly enough to be worth subscribing to (to wit my cheque).

It was issue no 8 that persuaded me to fork out my money. The articles were interesting, but one thing I found particularly interesting was a letter from Mark Daniels, Oxfordshire. In his letter Mr. Daniels lists the great intellectual achievements of our existence – the demolition of religion (by science), the demolition of science (by philosophy) and the demolition of history (by philosophy).

I didn’t realise philosophy was such a violent and destructive indulgence, but surely Mr. Daniels’ assertions beg a few questions:

1. if philosophy destroyed science, didn’t it, by implication, resurrect religion?

2. if philosophy destroyed history, how does he know – or, to put it another way, when did this happen?

3. will philosophy be demolished by linguistics, or

4. what is philosophy’s self-destruct button?

Yours faithfully,
Craig Brown
Birstall, Leicester

Religious Belief and Santa Claus

Dear Editor,

I share Les Reid’s doubts (Issue No.7) about the validity of religious belief, but I am sorry that he has fallen into the trap of stating them as dogmatically as the most cocksure of religious apologists.

Earth, under its surface beauty and grandeur, is a dangerous and frightening place in which natural catastrophes, famine, and plague kill or maim millions of innocent human beings, a place in which the lives of the vast majority have been, and are, “nasty, brutish, and short.” It is difficult to believe in a beneficent creator of such a world.

Yet does this mean that we cease to respect the religious beliefs, even if we do not share them, that have led some to dedicate their lives to the service of their fellow human beings? There are countless instances, but one might mention in our western tradition: Elizabeth Fry, Florence Nightingale, Nurse Edith Cavell, Mother Teresa of Calcutta. I am not aware that a belief in Santa Claus has ever inspired anyone to heroic virtue.

If one accepts that ‘mind’ is the brain thinking, leaving aside – a large aside! – the mystery of how the brain manages to do it, may not ‘god’ be the cosmos thinking? “There are more things in heaven and earth … than are dreamt of in your philosophy”. Les Reid approves of Locke, so let Locke have the last word:

“For where is the man who has incontestable proof all that he holds, or of the falsehood of all he condemns, or can say he has examined to the bottom all his own, or other men’s opinions? The necessity of believing without knowledge, nay often upon very slight grounds, in this fleeting state of action and blindness we are in, make us more busy and careful to inform ourself than constrain others.”

All good wishes,
Mary Mitchelson
Kendal, Cumbria

Immortal Oaks?

Dear Sir,

Christopher McKnight’s letter (‘Oaks and Acorns’, Issue 8) was a very neat way of attempting to justify the practice of abortion. I enjoyed his argument. It holds together well providing we accept that human beings have no dimension to their being which is above and beyond the physical, i.e. that there is no spiritual side to our nature which distinguishes us from oaks, and indeed from other animals – even from evolutionarily advanced primates.

The moral standing of a human foetus, to the Christian theist, is that it is valued as a potential soul which does not evaporate or disappear even when the body dies, but is somehow eternal. It may be difficult, if not impossible to prove this in philosophical terms; it is after all a religious or theological argument. Nevertheless, though it is the “oak’s mortality which makes it less valuable than we would otherwise rate it”, it is the human soul’s immortality, to many minds, which makes the human foetus far more valuable than Mr. McKnight would rate it.

Maybe the morality of abortion is therefore not something which philosophers can decide ultimately. After all, do we humans really feel that we are simply on a par with oaks?

Yours sincerely,
Graham A. Fisher
Aylesbury, Bucks.

Dear Sir,

It is not clear whether McKnight has fully examined the consequences of his reasoning. Let us suppose that life is valued solely by its past and its potential future. A bias to the future would rate a foetus higher than a random 30-year-old. A foetus has a fair chance of living to 30 and would have the shared potential for life, decay and death from that age as the 30-year-old. With no bias to the future or the past, they are of almost equal value (the foetus would lose out slightly because of the risk that its lifespan will be shorter). It is only if we bias towards the past and devalue the future that the foetus loses out badly, whereas a geriatric patient becomes particularly valuable.

Perhaps only the present matters? This might mean we are worthless in our sleep and for much of the day with occasional moments of usefulness. (So killing someone watching SKY 1 might be acceptable!) Or perhaps our worth is determined by how other people value us. McKnight raise interesting issues but the key question in relation to the foetus is not how much or little we value the past or present but whether it is reasonable to value the future.

However, central to one’s opinion on euthanasia is one’s view of the relevance of the past. Do we view a woman who cannot remember her name as a once genius who would rather die than deteriorate so? Clearly viewing people as ‘not what they once were’ will reduce their value in our eyes and engender pity more often than respect. Alternatively, do we view people largely as they are? With this latter view it is possible, in my experience, to value both young and old mentally handicapped people. Thus, the only thing that is clear is that nothing is clear. What decisions are we willing to take when any opinion may be wrong?

Yours sincerely,
Frank Humphreys
Wolfson College, Oxford.

Chappell Not Dotty

Dear Sir,

I cannot see anything in the least dotty about Tim Chappell’s ‘How to be Car-Free’ (Issue 8) and would like to add some critical comments with a view to deepening the analysis:

Tim Chappell’s argument does not differentiate between the ‘addiction to’ and the ‘projection on’ the internal combustion engine. By projection I mean the quasi-religious value that is invested in the car and which the advertisers exploit to the full. Addiction-projection constitutes a vicious circle that cannot be broken by a simple act of will in the way Tim Chappell suggests.

The attachment to the car that now characterises the collective psyche is inseparable from a deeply-entrenched ideology of individualism. As long as this remains in place the call for a superogatory act of renunciation will make no sense either logically or psychologically.

I hope these remarks will encourage further discussion on such an important issue.

Andrew Burniston

Scepticism about Scepticism

Dear Sir,

I’m not quite sure what Peter Mottley’s position (in ‘Eating People’, Philosophy Now No.8) actually is. Does he think (1) that any moral proposition is true at any time? Or (2) that any moral proposition is true at some time?

If (2), then he’s not a moral sceptic at all: he’s a situation ethicist. If (1), then he is a moral sceptic, but his position is incoherent. For one of his moral beliefs is the proposition “I should not believe in moral scepticism.” Hence, if his moral scepticism is false, he should not believe in it; but if his moral scepticism is true, he should not believe it. Therefore he should not believe it.

My suspicion remains that Mr. Mottley, like everyone else I’ve ever met who claimed to be a moral sceptic, doesn’t really mean it. I’ve never come across a moral scepticism that wasn’t principally designed pour épater les bourgeois.

Yours sincerely,
Tim Chappell
Merton College, Oxford


Dear Mummy,

My head is spinning with Russell’s Paradox (‘Mummy, Mummy’, Issue 8).

If we conceive of sets as linguistic containers, in the sense that they lock within and operate no entry barriers, then it is obvious that the contents, e.g. tennis players, are not the container, which does not play tennis.

The container of all sets is also not one of its contents, i.e. the set of all sets is not as you state a member of itself. It is therefore in exactly the same situation as the set of all sets which do not include themselves.

The container of paradoxes if empty does not exist and the contents are never the container unless they are a letter to the editor.

Yours truly (perhaps)
Roger Farnworth

Guilt and Nostalgia

Dear Friends,

Is there a subject that philosophy does not cover? Why do we look back with nostalgia at the ‘good old days’? Why do some people listen to records, knowing that old wounds will be opened? I am a thirty seven year old hospital porter. Why do I feel so guilty living in the northern hemisphere? After all, it’s not my fault I was born into such a materialist society, is it? Why isn’t the wealth of this world more evenly distributed? Why should charity begin at home when we have fleeced the South of its wealth and resources? Are we aware of our selfishness or are we indoctrinated with the concept of ‘success’ to the exclusion of all other goals or feelings?

Perhaps one of you learned people could add some substance to the above mentioned, especially on the feeling of guilt and hopelessness. I await in eager anticipation!

Also, do you plan to issue a binder to hold your excellent magazine and at what price? Hopefully at a nominal price (free to those who have subscribed from Issue 1!) I would like to add that as your appeal grows, don’t be tempted to issue P.N. every month or other month as it would dilute the feeling of great anticipation as the time for each issue to appear arrives. Keep up the good work!

Yours sincerely,
Patrick Moore

[Note from the Editor: We’ll look into the possibility of Philosophy Now binders and report back. I’m delighted that so many people are now writing to me – it makes a welcome change from gas bills and junk mail.]

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