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Don’t Let Life Drag On • Epistolary Environmentalism • Aping Tallis • Meaningful, Meaningful, Everything Is Meaningful • History Is A Thing Of The Past • No Rush To Patent

Don’t Let Life Drag On

Dear Editor: Surfing on my iPad last week, a lucky wave carried me to Philosophy Now, a lode of gold for me to plunder, ponder and enjoy. Oh how we love to tie ourselves up in linguistic tangles of Humpty-Dumpty verbiage defining what other words really mean in attempts to express ideas!

I am impelled to offer my thoughts on Nick Bostrom’s ‘The Fable of the Dragon-Tyrant’ in the last issue, where the dragon represents death. Aged 91, I haven’t long before boarding my own ‘dragon train’. I am hoping my trip will be easy, and not horribly prolonged. I wish that booking a ticket on a high speed Pullman Car were possible in that country – ideal for one who believes that death is absolute and ends in utter oblivion, and therefore sees no point in enduring an arduous journey. (Since 1993 I have been a member of the Voluntary Euthanasia Society, which has, in these days of catchy sound-bites, been renamed Dignity in Dying. They lobby for legal rational alternative ways to deal with our mortality.) But as the late marvellous Joyce Grenfell says, in the character of a professor’s wife giving tea and a sympathetic ear to an anarchist college student: “Yes… but I DO worry about who will look after the drains” – a nugget of philosophy in a few words.

The moral of my Dragon-Tyrant Fable is: good quality far outstrips quantity in life, but youth or physical good health are no guarantee of comfort and happiness. They of themselves do not provide purpose, nor remove dullness, drudgery, sometimes even degradation – unhappily experienced by probably the large majority, with at best brief windows of pleasure and satisfaction, as we scramble in the Darwinian battle of life.

Arthur Morris, Eastbourne

Dear Editor: Concerning Nick Bostrom’s and Mary Midgley’s somewhat opposing viewpoints on mortality: it will not be sufficient that our descendants extend their lives indefinitely – the advance of technology must continue, eventually to recreate the past and all the people who previously perished.

If the materialists are correct, and my self-awareness can be mapped to physical phenomena in this universe, then it must be possible to recreate this system artificially. It follows then that I – not a replica or simulacrum, but the actual me – could thus with sufficiently advanced technology be restored to being. It is interesting to note that if such technology were possible, then the ‘End Times’ stories of major religions – the idea of the resurrection of the dead and a Judgement Day – would actually come to pass, for we would not resurrect all previous human beings, save perhaps just long enough to tell some that for the evil they committed in their lives, they will be denied the opportunity for life extension. (This also eliminates the urgency for overcoming death Bostrom discusses.)

If all generations are given the option of extending life, perhaps indefinitely, then the issue of what to do with one’s life becomes universal. I suggest that a new culture of extended living would then emerge, and so some of the issues Midgley discusses would become for the most part moot. I can imagine any number of ways I would spend multiple lifetimes. We could evolve societies that allow individuals to work in one career for 25 years, say, then train for another for five years. We could witness many major historical events first-hand, perhaps recreate prehistoric times, and so on. There would be no reason to be bored.

Thomas E. Delaney, Houston, TX

Dear Editor: I read with interest Nick Bostrom’s article ‘The Fable of the Dragon-Tyrant’ in Issue 89. But does he not miss the main benefit of death, i.e., disposing of tyrants when all else fails? Imagine if the dragon people had perfected a way to bring dead dragon-tyrants back to life. Then immortality would guarantee perpetual tyranny. History throws up a host of unsavoury characters only death was able to remove.

Henry Lynam, Dublin

Epistolary Environmentalism

Dear Editor: Re the ‘Sustainability’ theme in Issue 88: Popular language use is not instructive for the philosopher, but the debasement of meaning in such terms as ‘sustainability’, ‘environment’, and what is ‘natural’ is disconcerting.

These terms are now tossed around in commerce, the media and by politicians to desperately project meaningfulness. Ministers of Finance worldwide use the term ‘sustainability’ in almost every speech (the Greek Minister of Finance excepted). The word ‘environment’ seems to refer in popular language to a person’s or community’s immediate experienced physical surroundings: urbanites see ‘the environment’ as their citified world, as if smog is a city thing, not a sky thing. All sorts of products are labelled ‘natural’ although they are synthetically engineered to the hilt. Isn’t ‘nature’ that which humanity has not brought into existence, redesigned or reconfigured, changed, or consumed? Humanity itself is part of nature, since humanity’s make-up is partly the result of processes humanity did not create.

Some decades back, at the beginning of the activist environmental movement, the term ‘sustainability’ was employed to lead us to a deeply philosophical question: Is modern humanity able to maintain a balanced relationship with nature, all the while meeting its basic needs to produce and consume; or are humanity’s wild consumption levels, unregulated production methods and resource exhaustion leading to a profound imbalance that imperils future generations? We had to think about the state of nature, humanity’s place in it, and the (im)morality of human consumption patterns.

Humanity dwells in and is part of nature, yet such is humanity’s capability to think and create, that this can alter our relationship with nature. We also seem on the way to altering human nature. The common use of the term ‘sustainability’ cannot sustain such lines of thought. The debased current meaning seems to evoke this line of thinking only: Can we protect the status quo of material wealth and comfort and continue to spend so much, consume so much, etc? No wonder politicians’ speechwriters everywhere junk their speeches with such terms.

I keep wondering why the discipline ‘philosophy of nature’ is on the ropes. Could it be that popular language use is diverting philosophers’ reflection from the substance of the matter?

Christopher Gill, Nova Scotia

Dear Editor: In ‘Three Challenges For Environmental Philosophy’, in Issue 88, Jim Moran makes reference to Albert Schweitzer’s ‘doctrine’ of ‘Reverence for Life’. I have some doubt as to whether Schweitzer would refer to his foundational ethic as a ‘doctrine’, since it was meant as a broad guide to behaviour rather than as a formal principle. The ethic is also rather vapid unless understood in relation to Schweitzer’s worldview, which saw nature as a stark arena of competition and violence and without revelation as to its ultimate meaning, at least in human terms. Allied to this weltanschauung is the idea of the will-to-live as being universal in all living things, enabling human beings to find common ground with other species. Schweitzer’s project encapsulated in the aphorism ‘Reverence for Life’ is at one level practical, in terms of kindness to all life, and at another mystical, in its being symbolic of deference to and sharing in the common experience of life. It is a shame that this great thinker is not better known in our time, for his philosophy is sorely needed.

Peter Marstin, Canberra

Aping Tallis

Dear Editor: Daryn Green’s review in PN 88 of Aping Mankind by Raymond Tallis reminded me of the ancient Greek philosophers’ obsession with finding out what stuff is made of, even though they didn’t have the tools to find out. Democritus secured his place in history by nailing his name to his atomic theory, but that was a fluke, a lucky guess. For knowledge we had to wait until science demonstrated that stuff really is made of atoms. Philosophers had always fallen out about the shape and size of the universe too – until science allowed us to measure it, date it, and move the Earth from the centre of it. Now philosophers ponder the relationship between brain and consciousness, but with the same problem – the lack of the tools to understand it. Science is the best (and in fact the only) tool we have to try and understand consciousness, but we have to be patient; we’re not there yet.

It’s ironic that in the same issue there were several articles about the damage humans are causing to ecosystems. As it is the ecology that keeps us alive on this planet, we need to find a way of existing that does not damage it. The globalised, growth-obsessed capitalism of corporate-controlled ‘democracy’ is clearly not it. Surely it is the task of philosophers to come up with a better one, instead of wasting time and energy pondering problems for which only science can provide answers – eventually.

Dave Darby, Winslow, Bucks

Dear Editor: Raymond Tallis (‘A Conversation with my Neighbour’, Issue 88) misunderstands the classical animal rights position, which does not need to assert that non-human animals are of equal value to human animals. Judging relative value is in fact a mug’s game, because there are no objective criteria to help us: rather, it depends who you ask, person A or person B; or person A or dog B. But the critical question is why someone of greater moral value (assuming this could be established) is morally permitted to deliberately cause suffering to those he or she considers of less value. Professor Tallis fails to address this fundamental issue. Instead, he chooses to draw his circle of ethical concern around his own species, and justifies the cruel exploitation of those falling outside the circle, at least in some circumstances, such as medical research. Tempting, no doubt; but is it consistent with principle?

Suffering lies at the core of ethics – we have ethical codes only because others may be adversely affected by our behaviour (or, indeed, positively). Prof Tallis does not dispute that animals, including lab animals, are sentient. So why is it permissible to cause suffering to a lab animal, non-consensually and for someone else’s benefit, when (as he says, and we would all agree) it is impermissible, in fact repulsive, for monsters like Mengele to do the same to a person?

The problem is that if I choose to draw my ethical circle with a certain diameter, uninfluenced by a possible victim’s capacity to suffer, what answer do I have for someone who chooses to draw their circle even smaller – around their race, gender, religion, sexuality, able-bodiedness, inner-city gang membership, even? As Bentham famously wrote: “The question is not Can they reason? nor Can they talk? but Can they suffer?” He said that about animals, but it could equally have been about people with advanced dementia. Including all humans in our ethical ambit i s logical because we have shared interests; but including only humans is not self-evidently correct. It needs justification – based on ethical principle, not on self-interest, or on mere solidarity with one’s own. Should we teach our children that causing pain, even great pain, to others of perceived lesser value can be acceptable if our group stands to benefit – in other words, that might is right? If so, where do we draw the line? And how does this fit into traditional ethical frameworks, under which might is assuredly not right? Armed with the developed consciousness which Professor Tallis so champions, one would hope that humankind can do better, both ethically and scientifically.

David Thomas, Chobham, Surrey

Meaningful, Meaningful, Everything Is Meaningful

Dear Editor: Steven Anderson’s article, ‘The Meaning of Meaning’ (Issue 88), was excellent. Yet I believe there is even more to say than Anderson wrote of.

The question is: Is there is an objective meaning to existence which can be revealed through logical analysis? I occasionally use ‘freedom’ and ‘happiness’ as being synonymous with meaning. So, is meaning (happiness) a function of logic? As Kant once said, “Happiness is an ideal, not of reason, but of imagination.”

There is no one objectively correct meaning. Consequently, I must proceed with relativism. Dr Anderson’s students presupposed that meaning must refer to existence as a whole. The logical conclusion was then that a divine source gives meaning to the world. But I will use two characters, David and Jake, to demonstrate a sense of meaning that goes beyond this impasse of cold logic.

David is a linguistic philosopher who feels that ‘meaning’ is only a concept. He cannot get past the word. But Dave’s friend Jake does not believe that. However, Jake’s situation is not good. He does not have a steady job: he’s a down-and-out writer who makes some money by translating novels into English for a French writer. He doesn’t make commitments to women, and is always trying to find places to live rent-free. He glides through life in a fantasy world. He’s lazy – yet feels that his lack of discipline and his neglect of his talents are a real source of freedom, and hence meaning. However, as Jake loses his bearings, he begins to see that his life lacks meaning, that is, authentic happiness. Thus a crack forms in his armor – a crack large enough to let in a few shafts of light. Jake begins to see that he’s made some bad assumptions about his activities; but he still has enough insight to disagree with Dave that meaning is only an idea.

Jake’s true freedom is hard won. Here gaining meaning involves a humbling knowledge of ourselves. When he finds this, unlike Dave, Jake absolutely knows that meaning is more than just a word.

Thus Dr Anderson has not fully answered to my satisfaction the real problem with finding meaning; but I feel that some shafts of light have been encountered. Meaning evidently involves both the use of analysis, such as Dr Anderson employed, and the inner experience. If we could only fuse the two aspects, then perhaps goodness and freedom could become twin aspects of meaning, all moving on the same path.

Patricia Herron, Salem, Oregon

Dear Editor: I enjoyed Stephen Anderson’s discussion of ‘The Meaning of Meaning’ in Issue 88. But he appears to conclude that there are only two possibilities, which are polarised, which is a bit like saying there are only two possibilities concerning consciousness: materialism or dualism. The polarised views are that there is either no meaning to existence, or meaning requires a supreme being. The problem is that the only purpose this supreme being serves in the argument is to give us meaning. In other words, the argument is a bit circular.

However, the fact that the universe gave birth to life and consciousness, even if only on one lonely planet, makes the idea of a meaningless universe meaningless. We give the universe meaning just by existing; and if there is something grander in the scheme of things, then we fulfill it by living our lives rather than by contemplating it. In other words, if there is a greater meaning, it’s not ours to know.

Paul Mealing, Melbourne

History Is A Thing Of The Past

Dear Editor: I confess to being baffled by Ben Adams’ article on history in Issue 88. What point is he trying to make? On the one hand he appears to dismiss those who attempt to assign grand narratives to history and suggests that it must be concerned with the study of everyday people; on the other he says that “comprehensiveness must replace… localisation.” I’m not sure these goals are compatible.

Much of the article appears to be an attack on the notion of historical objectivity. However, I am not aware that many historians today would pretend that history can ever be objective: that idea pretty much went out of the window with orthodox Marxism. Instead, historians accept that all conclusions are provisional. Historians are also intensely partisan, and, like philosophers, frequently engage in quite vituperative disputes. The only historian Ben Adams actually quotes, A.J.P.Taylor, is a case in point. His The Origins Of The Second World War (1961) was highly controversial. I’m not sure how many history books Ben Adams has read recently, but they are often far from dispassionate: A People’s Tragedy by Orlando Figes (1996), The Third Reich by Michael Burleigh (2000), or White Heat by Dominic Sandbrook (2006), are all examples of accessible history written by professional historians who are passionate about their subject matter and not afraid to make their views known.

The section entitled ‘A Brief History Of History’ is misleadingly named. It says nothing about the schools of history that have often fought each other over the past 300 years or so. He debunks the ‘Great Man (and Woman)’ approach to history as though that were an innovation. In fact, this approach has been under attack for over a hundred years. For instance, the Annales School of History, which is very much focused on history ‘from below’, has been thriving for decades. Theodore Zeldin’s monumental five volume History of France from 1848-1945 is an excellent (if sometimes a little stodgy) example of this. But the idea that each “individual’s actions, omissions, and everyday life… [is] worthy of study in its own right” would make the historian’s job impossible. Manifestly, it cannot be done. I assume this is a mere rhetorical flourish, aimed at promoting the Annales approach; but as I have already pointed out, this idea is nothing new. History from below is alive and well (I recommend the excellent Britain After Rome by Robin Fleming (2010) as a recent example), but to argue that we are all equally important or influential to the flow of history appears to me a pretty unsustainable position.

Having previously been dismissive of the genre, the eminent historian Ian Kershaw surprised himself by writing a two volume biography of Hitler. In the introduction to the first volume (1998) he reflects: “No attempt to produce a comprehensive understanding of the phenomenon of Nazism without doing justice to the ‘Hitler factor’ can hope to succeed. But such an interpretation must not only take full account of Hitler’s ideological goals, his actions, and his personal input into the shaping of events; it must at the same time locate these within the social forces and political structures which permitted, shaped, and promoted the growth of a system that came increasingly to hinge on personalized, absolute power – with the disastrous effects that flowed from it.” [my italics] This appears to me a sound historical position, and not entirely objective!

Colin Jenkins, Highams Park, London

No Rush To Patent

Dear Editor:

How to use time travel for space travel:

A) Build a time machine.

B) Travel far enough into the future for the target planet, star, etc to have moved to your location in space.

C) Of course, the target will be much older now. Furthermore, creating a time machine is probably more difficult than making an interstellar spaceship.

Kenneth Eng, Flushing, NY


Thank you to everyone who wrote in to tell us that Bertrand Russell was brought up in Pembroke Lodge, Richmond Park, not Pembroke House, Regent’s Park, as was wrongly stated in last issue’s Brief Lives.

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