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Dennett Strikes Back • Enhanced Reactions • More Moral Missives • Duties to the Non-Existent • Reviewer Repents

Dennett Strikes Back

Dear Editor: I am grateful to Father Paul McGavin for his review of Breaking the Spell in Issue 91, since it so excellently illustrates some of the main points in my book. First, as I never tire of observing, there are few folks angrier than a magician whose tricks are unmasked to the audience, and Father McGavin is quite wonderfully furious in his denunciations of my “tiresome and silly” book, with its “crude” analyses. He stoops to name-calling (“positivistic” and “rationalistic” – I’m surprised he didn’t throw in “scientistic”; he might as well call me a blasphemer, a heretic and an infidel while he’s at it). He is apparently not interested in persuading anybody who isn’t a fellow Catholic. I read it as a warning to his flock: “Don’t take this book seriously!” It might have worked in some Catholic magazine, but I don’t think most readers of Philosophy Now will be impressed by these epithets. Instead of name-calling, he should be offering examples of the mistakes I am making or the falsehoods I am expressing, but in spite of his blanket condemnation of the book, he offers only one, and it backfires on him: “A particularly egregious example of this lack of understanding is Dennett’s treatment of the Sacrament of the Body and Blood of Christ, where he makes an appeal to send the ‘wine’ to a biology laboratory for DNA testing! Clearly, he has no grasp of the doctrine of transubstantiation.” What he neglects to note is that I go on to contrast this literal reading with a metaphorical and symbolic meaning. I am perfectly well aware of the Catholics’ attempt to thread the needle between metaphor and miracle, but I don’t buy it. If the wine is not turned into the blood of Christ, where’s the miracle? And if it’s not just symbolic, and also not literal, how is the middle ground occupied? The burden of proof is on Father McGavin, not me.

You don’t just get to say what Father McGavin says if you’re in a discussion of religion as a natural phenomenon. Why not? Because in naturalistic explanations you don’t get to play the ‘mystery’ card, ever. But that’s just what Father McGavin does: “The absence of a rationalistic account of this Sacrament would hardly satisfy the likes of Dennett, but… the inescapable fact remains that a rationalistic understanding does not suffice. This is seen in the sustained naming of these sacramental signs as Sacred Mysteries.” It’s a curious rhetorical move that first accuses me of not understanding transubstantiation, and then insists that nobody else does either! And the fact that I won’t take it on faith as he does is hardly a criticism of my naturalistic investigation. I am pleased with the ambiguity of one of his sentences on this topic: “His method is particularly crippling when he encounters a religion that is at once supernatural and natural.” Indeed I hope my method does cripple any religion that describes itself in blatantly self-contradictory terms. I would also hope to cripple any religion that proclaimed itself both honest and dishonest, both wealthy and impoverished. I doubt that is the reading he intended; but when people are angry they often don’t choose their words as carefully as they would like. Yes, I am well aware that religious leaders love to divert their flocks with such paradoxical assertions, and I daresay they find some strained reading of the paradoxes that saves them from sheer idiocy. But responding to a naturalistic critique with such word games is simply out of bounds .

It is quite clear that Father McGavin is not comfortable with my attempt to expose his religion to sunlight, and he shows it unmistakably by falling into my little trap. I entitled my book Breaking the Spell, and then went to great and explicit lengths to distinguish two different spells: the taboo against studying religion naturalistically, and the (supposedly wonderful) spell of religions themselves. My object, as I made unmistakably clear, was to break the first spell, precisely so that that we can understand what religions are – something we should want to know whether we want to protect them, destroy them, or change them into something better. He must have read these passages, but he willfully suppresses the distinction: “his [my] object is not calmly to understand the life of faith, but to shatter it – to ‘break the spell’.” This is what I call faith-fibbing, being lured by your allegiance to your religion into doing a little, well, strategic misrepresentation of your opponent’s views. (Others call it lying for Christ, but I’m not that rude: I’m the polite one of the Four Horseman.) Father McGavin is not the first (or tenth) critic I’ve caught deliberately ignoring my oh-so-patient explanation of the distinction. I’ve even had a few apologies from some I’ve exposed for this excess of zeal. I wonder if Father McGavin will also find it in his heart to confess to his venial sin of faith-fibbing, and apologize.

Daniel C. Dennett, Massachusetts

Enhanced Reactions

Dear Editor: The article ‘Enhancing Human Lifespan’ in Issue 91 is wrong on so many levels it’s hard to know where to start! First let’s examine Dr Foddy’s thesis that our mentality makes us misspend resources on fixing diseases instead of preventing them in the first place. At first glance the 4.0% of the British NHS budget spent on disease prevention seems to support this contention; but to bring this into perspective, they only spend twice this amount (8.3% of their budget) on drugs. But in fact, most of the spending on disease prevention occurs outside the NHS. For example, consumers in the UK spend £8 billon/year for clean water, uncontaminated by sewage. This complex and expensive task has long been recognized as one of the most important disease prevention activities ever undertaken. When you add to that money spent on keeping the environment clean (the Clean Air Act, waste disposal) and the resources spent on accident prevention, then you begin to see the real scale of expenditure to keep the public from needing rescuing from both disease and injury.

Next, consider the so-called ‘political opposition’ Dr Foddy cites to using statins to prevent heart disease. Unlike the public health measures mentioned above, major ethical issues arise when a powerful drug with life-threatening side-effects is used on a healthy population. Then there is the problem that although statins lower cholesterol levels, there is only circumstantial evidence linking high cholesterol levels with heart disease. So contrary to the article’s implication that the ‘political opposition’ is unreasonable, we find a valid basis for an ethical and scientific debate about the pros and cons of using this drug for disease prevention.

Then Dr Foddy asserts that by rescuing people from disease we extend their lives, but only in a state of increased infirmity. Surely he has seen the substantial research work pointing to a contrary effect called the ‘compression of morbidity’. This means that people are living longer yet spending less time in poor health, not more. So the current powerful combination of disease prevention and rescue from disease increases both life span and quality of life.

Finally, we have an apparently serious discussion of a ludicrous solution to his unsubstantiated thesis: that we can trick the gullible health care system into treating death by redefining it as a disease. Given that the author is from the ‘Institute for Science and Ethics’ I find this suggestion an insult to the intelligence and professionalism of all those concerned will the advancement of medical science.

Dr Steve Brewer, St Ives

Dear Editor: In response to Russell Powell’s article (‘Beyond the Blueprint’, Issue 91), it has been clear for some decades that the human genome is too small (by several orders of magnitude) to simply be a blueprint for a human body, with the one-to-one correspondence this would imply. A far better analogy is that of a recipe (for an elegant development of this point see Richard Dawkins in Chapter 11 of The Blind Watchmaker). Recipes, like genomes, contain instructions for processes which crucially depend on the environmental context.

However, given the exponential increase in the rate of progress in genomics, Powell’s suggestion that “the predictive value of genome profiles for complex diseases… may never become clinically useful” may prove premature. Testing of genetic changes in cancer to direct individual treatment is already well established for a small but growing number of clinical scenarios, and it is unlikely that this type of testing will never be of value in testing other complex diseases.

Dr David Bourn, Newcastle upon Tyne

Dear Editor: After reading Persson’s and Savulescu’s article about the technological moral enhancement of human beings, I found that the authors supplied the just cause: with nuclear weapons and global warming, humanity needs such enhancement. The authors also supplied the level of need: desperate. However, what was missing from this type of solution are the guidelines that would make moral enhancement useful. Do we use a ‘hedonic calculus’ to see which people of which country need enhancing most, since not all countries contribute to global warming equally, nor have nuclear weapons? Do we use Kant’s categorical imperative to say that, basically, what should be done for one should be done for all? But then you fall back into the problem we have with the hedonic calculus, that not all are contributing to our current immorality at the same rate. Granted, theirs is a novel idea, using science to solve philosophy (morality), but it needs further exploration into the details.

Corine Sutherland, Lomita, CA

Dear Editor: ‘Moral Enhancement’ in Issue 91 is an intriguing article, but is it right that moral bioenhancement would improve on traditional morality?

Suppose we accept that the foundations of our morality have developed through evolution. What that does not capture is our ability to reason morally, in the sense that, as Stuart Greenstreet notes in Issue 90, “rational judgements do not depend on a causal relation… but on a logical relation.” Again, suppose it is true that, as Greenstreet attests, logic is distinct from nature, either as a ‘given’, or something that humanity has developed independently of, or at least beyond, biology: then a morality based on enhancing human biology (moral bioenhancement) would be a retrograde step. Furthermore, the attempt to reduce moral reasoning to biology can lead to oxymorons like ‘reciprocal altruism’. This is an oxymoron because an altruistic act is a disinterested one intended to benefit others, and cannot, therefore, be designed to be reciprocal. For all its flaws, although in some ways still in its infancy, our moral thinking is already superior to anything biology can drum up. In this sense ‘moral bioenhancement’ is itself an oxymoron.

It is remarkable that the blind process of evolution has produced at least one being capable of conceiving and carrying out acts of altruism. It is also remarkable that the same being is able to contemplate whether or not it would be right to subject itself to moral bioenhancement. Perhaps in being capable of such contemplation, it has already demonstrated its advance on the biological process.

Dick Bellringer, Salisbury

More Moral Missives

Dear Editor: I enjoyed Bill Meacham’s recent review of Sam Harris’s The Moral Landscape in Issue 90. Meacham ably demonstrates how, at a number of critical stages, Harris assumes what he has to prove. However, Meacham might be exaggerating when he declares that the Right and the Good comprise “two competing domains of discourse regarding ethics.” Typically, the terms ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ are used to characterize actions, whereas ‘good’ and ‘bad’ are used to characterize outcomes or states. According to this usage, saving an innocent life is right, but an enjoyable meal is good. If the terms are used in this manner, then the domains of the Right and the Good do not compete with one another; rather, the question is how the two domains relate. Some believe that the right action is always the one that produces the most good. Such people are consequentialists, and Sam Harris appears to be one of them. Consequentialists often act as though their position was obviously true, but this position is very controversial, unless one simply defines all the morally salient features of an action as ‘consequences’. I don’t think this contradicts the thrust of Meacham’s critique of Harris, but I believe that viewing the Right and the Good in a complementary manner makes it easier to discuss the issues.

Peter Stone, Dublin

Duties to the Non-Existent

Dear Editor: Walter Ott argued in ‘Are There Duties To The Dead?’ in Issue 89 that we don’t have a duty to the dead. If this view is accepted (and Ott’s case is strong in its favour), then can we assume that we don’t have a duty to the unborn because they’re not alive either?

Many ethical paradigms we inherit from the past, especially the religious ones, put far higher value on filial piety than on any parental duty to offspring or the present’s duty to the future. The Ten Commandments orders people to honour their fathers and mothers, for example. Hindu children traditionally accept their parents’ marital arrangements for them. Chinese culture honours, fears and appeases the spirits of ancestors, but has no role for the spirits of posterity.

The ethical paradigms of the post-Enlightenment present have an implicit rather than explicit place for posterity in most cases. Inherent in all consequentialism, including utilitarianism, is an attribution of stakeholder status to anyone affected by actions or omissions, including future generations. Kant’s Categorical Imperative would have us behave such that our actions could be made into universal laws. ‘Universal’ is a word that extends far beyond the present, and Kant therefore implies a role for posterity too. Care theory is based on a concern for kin, then clan, then other members of our identity groups, including our posterity.

What these paradigms do not make explicit, however, is the calculus of concern. For instance, care theorists are comfortable with concentric circles of concern starting with myself, then my mate, my offspring, and so on outwards. It follows that I care most for the next generation of my family, next for the one after that, and so on, until say the tenth generation, where I care little for my posterity compared to you or a complete stranger in the present. Utilitarians of a more universalist outlook would (ideally) make no distinction between their posterity and anyone else’s, but they could discount the interests of more remote posterity faster than the interests of more immediate. The present value of the tenth generation from now would be close to zero, so we could say that utilitarians would be concerned only with the next two centuries or less. This applies even if we believe the human race will live infinitely far into the future, because the discount rate effectively values far future posterity at zero. There is thus a moral distinction between near posterity and far posterity. This is not symmetrical with duties to the dead, where no distinction is made between the recently dead and the long deceased. This in turn implies that ethics does not treat time equally: the past has no accountabili ty claims; the present is ethically supreme; and the future has claims which decrease as we look further and further ahead.

Gabriel Donleavy, University of Western Sydney, Penrith, NSW

Reviewer Repents

Dear Editor: Philosophy Now published my review of Professor Julian Young’s book Friedrich Nietzsche: a Philosophical Biography in Issue 83 (March/April 2011).

In the autumn of 2011, The Journal of Nietzsche Studies (42) published Professor M. Anderson’s analysis showing how numerous passages from the above book were reproduced from an earlier biography by Curtis Cate, Friedrich Nietzsche (2002). Professor Young never denied his ‘unauthorised copying’. As he explained: “certain phrases lodged themselves in my mind without my retaining any memory of their original source.”

As I mentioned in my review, I had been surprised to read Young’s diagnosis of Nietzsche’s madness: “Probably the most plausible description of Nietzsche’s condition is… bipolar disorder with, in its later stages, psychotic features” (p.560), since here is my own diagnosis, published ten years previously: “Nietzsche’s overall clinical picture meets DSM-IV criteria for bipolar affective disorder, consisting of brief manic episodes with some psychotic features…” (‘The madness of Nietzsche: a misdiagnosis of the millennium?’ Hospital Medicine, 61, 2000). Although there have been a number of subsequent psychiatric revaluations of Nietzsche’s illness, my formulation remains unique. The fact that Young, as a non-clinician, ventured into a diagnostic territory at all is only symptomatic of his arrogance.

Professor Anderson’s report, with Professor Young’s response, can be found at hunter.cuny.edu/jns/discussion. With hindsight, my praise and recommendation of Young’s book is potentially misleading, and I wish to withdraw these. I suggest anyone interested in Nietzsche’s life should read the sources mentioned.

Dr Eva Cybulska, Psychiatrist

Dear Editor: In Issue 91 Eva Cybulska makes at least four important errors of fact while claiming that Thomas Hardy’s character Tess of the D’Urbervilles is a life-denying nihilist. Tess does not will herself to death on the altar at Stonehenge, but is hanged at the fictional equivalent of Winchester for the crime passionnel of murdering Alec D’Urberville. Nor did she “from the outset long for an extinction of consciousness.” At her first appearance in the novel we see a poignantly hopeful girl whose “peony mouth” declares her innocent sensuality, and her identification with nature as life and growth. Nor had Tess perversely chosen to “walk alone in a dark wood.” She is in the wood very reluctantly because Alec takes her there after a quasi-chivalric rescue from threatening company. Once she is exhausted and helpless in the wood, Hardy does not unambiguously present us with a rape, but with something much more misty, with Tess’s natural sexuality playing its part. Then in the following year, after the birth and death of her baby, Tess begins to recover from a social, not an existential shame, and feels that “the recuperative power which pervaded organic nature was surely not denied to maidenhood alone.”

Hardy as an artist delineates the subtle lights and shades of life and its intrinsic dualities, rather than trying to sell us the crude monistic pessimism so weirdly admired in Schopenhauer.

Dr Christine Avery, Plymouth

Philosophical Wine Menu

Michael Langford’s article in Issue 91 on the philosophy of wine attracted the attention of some serious oenophiles. Those who wish to drink even deeper of the wisdom of the philosophers might like the details of three books cited by Professor Langford:

  • Barry C. Smith (ed.), Questions of Taste: The Philosophy of Wine, Signal Books, 2007 £12.99/$17.95 hardback
  • Roger Scruton, I Drink Therefore I Am: The Philosophy of Wine, Continuum, 2009 £11.99/$19.95 paperback
  • Cain Todd, The Philosophy of Wine: A Case of Truth, Beauty and Intoxication, Acumen Publishing, 2010. £19.99/$29.95 hardback

In particular, if you are interested in arguments for the objectivity of people’s judgements about wine, you should read Prof Barry Smith’s own excellent chapter on ‘The Objectivity of Tastes and Tasting’ in the collection he has edited.

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