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The Irish God Question • Economic And/Or Political Justice • Tallis Time • Hardy Schopenhauerian • Drugs and Other Enhancements • Judgement, Punishment, Forgiveness

The Irish God Question

Dear Editor: I always enjoy discussions about religious subjects, to see how people try to convince others about things they themselves do not know. In the article in last issue, ‘Is God Irish?’, towards the conclusion Professor McCann says: “So because ‘God exists’ is likely to be logically undecidable, I conclude that God is more likely to exist than to not exist.” Then at the very end he says “The existence of God is not only more unknowable than we suppose, but more unknowable than we can suppose.” I cannot understand how someone can say God is more likely to exist than not to exist – even more so if we are dealing with something unknowable. What about thinking that the concept of God is the result of human imagination, and therefore God’s existence cannot be treated as something that can be decided, or not? Before discussing how badly a donkey could land, we have to demonstrate that a donkey can fly, otherwise we could waste a lot of time.To say that God exists although this is something we cannot know, is like saying that anything of our imagination can exist, even if we will never know. What is this useful for?

Human beings can imagine many things that are not part of our world (unlike many other things which can be proved by experimentation). There is nothing wrong with that, but this doesn’t mean that we must take these fantasies into consideration. They are just fantasies, which should not be considered unless those who propose them create a meaningful, not a dogmatic argument, for them. Life should not be based around dogmatic ideas invented by people. Although some principles of some religions are good, those principles are what people have devised through experience. On the contrary, merely dogmatic principles generate only incomprehension, confusion, and tensions.

Fabio Copponi, London

Dear Editor: In his article ‘Is God Irish?’ Roger McCann writes, “in 1931 the Austrian logician Kurt Gödel (1906-1978) proved his Incompleteness Theorem, which says that within any rationally-definable logical system, statements exist that are neither provable nor disprovable using the axioms of that system.” Not so. Gödel proved that within any formal axiomatic system containing a certain amount of number theory there are arithmetic statements that are undecidable in that system. So to McCann’s question, “Could ‘God exists’ be one of Gödel’s logically-unprovable statements?”, the answer is an obvious ‘no’, unless he’s referring to a special case where we turn ‘God exists’ into a formal mathematical statement and then attempt to prove it using axioms that contain number theory. Even then the question might still be settled with a different axiomatic system. God’s existence may very well be undecidable; but if so, the undecidability does not stem from Gödel’s famous theorem.

Steven Reilly, New York

Dear Editor: At the risk of being nit-picky, in the article ‘Is God Irish?’, you show a picture of God wearing a stylized Irish hat with a 4-leaf clover on it. The so-called ‘Luck of the Irish’ notwithstanding, the symbol of Ireland is the 3-leaf clover or shamrock. St. Patrick would have had a difficult time explaining the Trinity with a 4-leaf clover. Also, the Johns Hopkins University is, and has always been, in Baltimore.

Stephen J. Harrison, Baltimore

Thanks to everyone who wrote in to say that Johns Hopkins is in Baltimore, not Philadelphia, as was wrongly stated last issue – Ed.

Economic And/Or Political Justice

Dear Editor: I believe that Helen McCabe did an outstanding job on presenting the positions of both Nozick and Rawls in Issue 92. However, I do question if it is vital to society for philosophers to establish a good understanding of justice. I tend to believe Walter Kaufmann in his astute statement that the UN (and by implication, society) would be better served if leaders and citizens focused more on reducing brutality and dishonesty than on trying to establish rules for distributive justice. Is it not a better objective for political philosophers to establish rules for reducing brutality and dishonesty? I think that’s both a more noble and a more attainable goal. That said, I also believe that if philosophers do feel that distributive justice is a noble goal, then we might consider that technology may be a tool for establishing Rawls’ Original Position.

Finally, I think it is paramount that any discussion about politics and distribution of resources makes an effort to conceptually separate the political system from the economic system. Maybe Nozick is right about the economic system, and Rawls is right about the political. In a free market system the rules of entitlement are only relevant to property owners. I believe that in the American constitution, only those rights associated with the pursuit of happiness are relevant to Nozick’s position, and that rights associated with life and liberty (which actually take precedence over rights associated with the pursuit of happiness) are relevant to Rawls position. I would also propose that the rights associated with life and liberties are equal for all citizens. It’s only in the pursuit of happiness that we have wiggle room for distributive justice.

Terry Ortlieb, by email

P.S. Of course God is Irish. That’s why calling God from America costs $5,000, but from Ireland it’s a local call.

Tallis Time

Dear Editor: Professor Tallis (Issue 92) raises the question ‘Did Time Begin With A Bang?’ But is that the right question?

We humans use the concept of time in at least two distinct ways: as a day-to-day reference; and as a ‘fourth dimension’ in measurement and computation. It differs from the spatial dimensions in particular in that we cannot visualise time at all. Yes, we may base our measurement of time on the properties of the caesium atom and relate this to rotations of the planet. Many million such rotations have passed since time began (if it did). But the critical point is that time is inextricably related to movement, which itself means a change of states. Change we can visualise, and ‘time’ is simply the human construct by which we measure change. This seems to me to be close to Kant’s saying that time is no more than an idea. Could there be time if there was no change? Perhaps then the question Professor Tallis should ask is, “Did Change Begin With A Bang?”

James Malcolm, Molesey, Surrey

Dear Editor: I have many times been impressed and inspired by the thoughts of Professor Tallis. However, I was seriously disappointed to read his views on the subject of time. I feel strongly that his project “to rescue thinking about time …from domination by physics” is a fool’s errand, especially because he considers time as an entity on its own, whereas it is clear from physics that time and space are intimately related. You can’t have one without the other. I was also particularly disappointed by his trite dismissal of Stephen Hawking’s very helpful analogy referring to the impossibility of items being north of the north pole. The purpose of an analogy is to aid the understanding of difficult concepts by an approximate mapping onto ideas closer to home. Perhaps Hawking’s analogy would be better stated thus: “It is meaningless to talk of points on the surface of the Earth lying north of the north pole. Likewise it is meaningless to talk of time and space before the Big Bang.”

We can only speak with any validity of matters in this Universe. All our scientific knowledge is based on observations of things in it. This is not to say that other Universes cannot exist. They may well do. But anything said about them is speculation, and ultimately no more valid than speculations about deities. (Our confinement in this Universe brings to mind another analogy, of Plato’s Cave.)

Space and time as we know them are features of this Universe. It is possible that equivalents of them may exist outside of our Universe, but we cannot assume they do, nor can we assume that they will have the same properties. The concept of the Big Bang does not require extra-Universe speculation. It is a consequence of sound inductive reasoning from very well validated physics. This physics shows, beyond reasonable doubt, that our Universe had a beginning. And at that beginning space and time as we know them came into existence.

In my opinion, time is not a philosophical issue, it is a matter of physics. I see time as a consequence of the expansion of space. If that expansion stopped, so would time. If space went into contraction, time would reverse.

Leo Westhead, Scarborough

Dear Editor: Raymond Tallis’s argument in Issue 92 that one can be north of the North Pole trades on an equivocation regarding ‘north’, but in the way we ordinarily use and understand the word, there is no further north when one is at the North Pole, so Hawking’s analogy holds. Moreover, in a quantum world there is no time zero: the coming into being of time is not “presumably instantaneous, or at least not extended through time” as Tallis claims. As I understand the standard quantum cosmological account, the universe starts off at Planck scales, where there is quantum indeterminacy, and so the origin of time is better understood as being smeared out in uncertainty. This is significant, because it undercuts the ‘problem’ that vexes Tallis and Kant, of time starting instantaneously in time. Instead the universe had a beginning with time, as Augustine and physicists assert. The wrinkle is that rather than being instantaneous, the beginning was uncertain.

That said, I echo Tallis’s complaints about cosmologists who trash philosophers while speculating about things like multiple Big Bangs and bubble universes (especially if in doing so they are assuming some further background space-time arena). Speculation of this sort is fine, but it’s no longer science, or even good philosophy, for that matter.

Phil Hoffman, Canada

Dear Editor: In his latest column, Raymond Tallis refers to the ‘domination of physics’ as if this domination were unearned, when it’s scientists who are at the coalface of knowledge (sometimes literally underground, as at the LHC). There is a danger of unfairly tarring all physicists with the same broad brush. The physicist Victor Stenger, for example, who has written for this magazine, would agree with Tallis in thinking that Hawking and Mlodinow are wrong about philosophy being dead. In his latest book, Stenger is prepared to “give philosophers some credit for clarifying what models can and cannot tell us about ‘the true nature of reality.’’ He also reminds us that “space and time are human inventions, defined operationally by what one measures with a meter stick and a clock.’’ Tallis is right to pick up on physicists who are doing philosophy badly, but it is also possible for philosophers to do physics badly.

Jon Wainwright, by email

Hardy Schopenhauerian

Dear Editor: From her letter in Issue 92, Dr Avery is clearly not a Schopenhauer admirer. Little does she know that Thomas Hardy was steeped in his philosophy at the time of his writing Tess of the D’Urbervilles during 1883-1912. For examples, on p.34 of the novel, nature reflects the heroine’s melancholy frame of mind: “the occasional heave of the wind became the sigh of some immense sad soul,” and on p.97 she confesses: “I wish I had never been born.” Hardly the kind of utterances one would expect from a “poignantly hopeful girl” as Dr Avery claimed Tess to be.

The novel ends with a mystical dissolution into nothingness, and Tess’s hanging is only implied. In the final chapter, entitled ‘Fulfilment’, she confesses to Angel, “What must come will come” (p.498), and a little later “I don’t want to go any further” (p.502). If not her body, then certainly her ‘will to live’ dies on the altar at Stonehenge: her soul, liberated from passions and sorrows, attains peace with itself and the world. This is, I think, Schopenhauer’s philosophy at its most poignant. (The philosophical underpinnings of Hardy’s writings can be gleaned from the book Authors in Context: Thomas Hardy by P. Ingham.)

Eva Cybulska, London

Drugs and Other Enhancements

Dear Editor: Brian D. Earp’s ‘Love and Other Drugs’ (Issue 91) strengthened my curiosity about the roots of peoples’ objections to drug use, both recreationally and potentially productively. Even the idea of love drugs gave me a sense of discomfort, despite the wealth of good they could do. Recently I heard on a radio show that eating fish and beetroot before watching a comedy would make you more likely to laugh. My impulsive response to this was to question how purposefully planning what you eat to enhance your experience (a socially acceptable act) is different from consuming drugs to enhance your experience. I tried to pinpoint what exactly it is that incites a negative attitude about even legal drug use. Maybe it is because a person on drugs may not seem themselves, and the ease at which their identity and how they act can be influenced is disconcerting. Maybe it’s jealousy of the ease at which drug users achieve laughter, ecstasy and, as mentioned, potentially love. They do not need to put in effort or time to achieve these feelings, which may seem to be cheating, the emotions felt not deserved or genuine.

Addiction seems an obvious reason to condemn drugs (beetroot is certainly not addictive). But would an addiction be considered detrimental if it were to something with no threatening effects? So maybe it’s the danger to your health that is the problem? Yet we all take risks regularly. Do we just not like the idea of being physically dependent on something?

Lastly, maybe the difference between using beetroot to make you laugh and using a recreational drug, is that we categorise food as a necessity because it has nutritional value. Our inability to live without food gives beetroot a role that a drug lacking nutrition does not have.

Phoebe Hill, Dorset.

See also Terri Murray in this very issue – Ed

Judgement, Punishment, Forgiveness

Dear Editor: In response to Dr Wendell O’Brien’s article, ‘How Not To Forgive’ in Issue 91, although I agree with his opinion that forgiveness exudes a sense of moral superiority, I disagree with his idea that to truly forgive someone they must not be punished. O’Brien stated that to be truly forgiving, one must “treat others as you would like to be treated” and if I were to commit a morally malign act against an old man, what I’d want is to not be punished as a result. Despite the man wanting to punish me, since I do not want to pay for my actions, I cannot be punished, since the man who could forgive me would not wish to be punished if he were in my situation.

Wendell is assuming that punishment is merely a tool for someone to vent their anger towards another. However, he does not acknowledge the other purposes of punishment. With another example, one can see that a punishment is not solely interlinked with forgiveness as Wendell implies. For instance, imagine a younger brother who looks up to his older brother in all situations. Now suppose the two brothers go into a bookshop. Without any ill intention, the older brother takes a copy of Philosophy Now and forgets to pay for it. One can easily forgive his actions. However, first a punishment may be necessary to ensure that he does not grow up repeatedly doing this. A punishment is also necessary to ensure that other children who witnessed this action, for example the boy’s younger brother, do not mistakenly think this is the right thing to do. Therefore, punishment is not always purely linked with (un)forgiveness, but is important for other reasons too, such as deterrence.

Rohan Giblin, North London

Dear Editor: In ‘How Not To Forgive’ in Issue 91, Wendell O’Brien argues that “there is some kind of incoherence in the Sermon on the Mount, for in it we find both the commandment ‘Do not judge’ and the commandment ‘Forgive’” and that “to forgive, one must first judge.” All that is required to show that this is incorrect is to provide a counterexample: A person beats you up, and you decide to forgive him. In this case it is not necessary to judge. Hence, his conclusion is false.

P. Z. Mangion, by email

Dear Editor: After reading Elizabeth Laidlaw’s ‘Plato’s Neurobiology’ in Issue 90, I agree with her Platonic thinking that being moral requires good reasoning. I was also glad she recognizes that internalizing moral laws require good brain development. However, I want to discuss her concept of moral truth.

In Platonic thinking, justice is about achieving inner harmony, encompassing the three parts of the soul (reason, spirit and appetite) through knowledge, by means of recollection, education, thinking, logic and love. Justice is the force that leads one to see the possibility of the Good and the unity of all things. The Good is like the sun, giving life to the earth. As Plato says, “This kind of knowledge is a thing that comes in a moment like a light kindled from a leaping spark which, once it has reached the soul, finds its own fuel.” One could say that this is a mystical vision. So this is a paradox, if, like Laidlaw, we want to center our moral thinking only what is reasonably derived.

I’ll briefly mention Plotinus, who sought the mystical in Plato’s thinking. With both Plato and Plotinus, what is ‘not many’ is logically, the One. Plotinus thought that the One, or the Good, is the highest reality, and the source of everything. The One, or God, is the Good that everyone’s searching for.

Patricia Herron, USA

Dear Editor: Paul McGavin’s review of Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell (Issue 91) was an embarrassment to Philosophy Now. When one reviews a philosophy book, one normally lays out the point that the author is trying to make and the argument that the author provides for it, even if one thinks the argument is badly flawed. McGavin’s ‘review’ contains almost none of this. He barely finds time between throwing insults at Dennett (‘tiresome’, ‘silly’, etc.) and tossing out bits of Catholic dogma to mention that Dennett is considering an evolutionary view on religion.

McGavin apparently thinks that mentioning his dogma is enough to refute Dennett. He seems unaware that to non-Catholics most of what he says sounds like blather. What’s that, you say? The wafer and the wine at communion don’t look (or smell, feel or taste) like the body and blood of Jesus, but they really are the body and blood of Jesus – just in ‘sacramental form’? Wow, thanks, that makes everything much clearer. I can’t see why Dennett failed to grasp that point.

One of Dennett’s major points, I gather (though not from reading McGavin’s review), is that there are social norms protecting religion from the kind of scrutiny that is taken for granted when other topics are on the table, and attempts to challenge these norms are frequently met with uncomprehending anger and wild, mindless hostility. McGavin’s review does an excellent job of proving this point.

Peter Stone, Dublin

Dear Editor: As a naturalist I wish to thank you for publishing Rev Dr Paul McGavin’s review of Dennett’s Breaking the Spell. I cannot imagine a better case being made against religious belief.

David Howard, Shropshire

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