welcome covers

Your complimentary articles

You’ve read one of your four complimentary articles for this month.

You can read four articles free per month. To have complete access to the thousands of philosophy articles on this site, please



Returning To Nietzsche • It’s Not Immaterial • Buddhist Recommends Desires • McGavin Rejoins Dennett • Mindful of Tallis • Doubting The Truth

Returning To Nietzsche

Dear Editor: Further to Kathleen O’Dwyer’s thoughts on Nietzsche in the last issue, simple chronology tells us that it is more likely that Rilke was echoing Nietzsche than the other way round. As for the idea of eternal recurrence, Nietzsche is very likely to have Goethe, whom he revered, as one of his sources. For example, Goethe wrote in ‘Selige Sehnsucht’ (‘Blissful Longing’):

Und solang du das nicht hast,
Dieses: Stirb und werde!
Bist du nur ein trueber Gast
Auf der dunklen Erde.

(And until you possess this commandment: ‘Die and become!’, you will be but a dismal guest on the dark earth.)

Some of the links between Goethe, Nietzsche and Rilke are explored in illuminating fashion in Erich Heller’s classic 1952 study of German literature and thought, The Disinherited Mind.

David Howard, Church Stretton, Shropshire

It’s Not Immaterial

Dear Editor: In Issue 93, Graham Smetham seems to share the popular misconception that science describes the world as we see it. In fact, science can only offer tentative representations of parts of reality – and even then these can only be expressed using narrowly-defined concepts. Physics comprises three principal paradigms. First, classical (Newtonian) mechanics, where length and time are invariant. This enables NASA to land a vehicle on Mars. Second, relativistic (Einsteinian) mechanics, where time and length vary with velocity in curved space. This is needed to explain particular astronomical events that are otherwise anomalous. And last, quantum mechanics, in which the scientist investigating the sub-atomic level is very much part of the observations. Quantum theory is meaningful only at the level of the sub-atomic events that it describes and, however exciting it might be to speculate, cannot be linked to free will, life-after-death, or intelligibly associated with Buddhism. In commenting on any science and its influence, no serious argument is served by simply quoting bits and pieces from miscellaneous sources, especially without showing concern for the writers’ intentions.

John Greenbank, Mosterton, Dorset

Dear Editor: Regrettably, I am not a physicist, and I am therefore unable to provide a detailed critique of Graham Smetham’s article in Issue 93. But as someone with an amateur interest in science, I find it hard to believe that, as Smetham suggests, the majority of scientists today accept that the existence of the material world is dependent on consciousness. How would cosmologists be able to discuss, as they do, the billions of years of the universe’s material existence before any conscious being arose?

In support of his views Smetham provides quotes from two of the founders of Quantum Theory, Max Planck and Erwin Schrödinger, so it is worth pointing out that at least one other member of that brilliant group of scientists, Niels Bohr, did not accept the apparent ‘conscious dependency’ implications.

Bohr’s writings on the interpretation of Quantum Theory (which form the basis of the orthodox, so-called ‘Copenhagen Interpretation’) have a philosophical sophistication rare among physicists. He understood the potential problems, and sought a way to avoid the theory’s more improbable implications. For Bohr, every measurement made of a quantum process is an ‘observation’ – but is not necessarily an observation by a consciousness. For example, think of an experiment set up so that its results are marked on a reel of recording tape. The scientists might then go home for the night and leave the tape running to record the on-going experiment. There is little reason to suppose that the tape’s record only comes back into existence when they re-open the laboratory the following morning. Generally speaking, when a quantum process, governed by probability, creates an effect at a macroscopic level, the probability collapses into a definite state. Where we draw the line between the (quantum) observed and the (macroscopic) effect or observation will differ with the process we are considering, yet the designation of this line is an integral part of our description of the situation.

Quantum theory, in Bohr’s view, does not involve a necessary relation to consciousness. For Bohr there was nothing paradoxical in Schrödinger’s famous thought experiment about the cat in the box. A cat is clearly a macroscopic object (and, indeed, a conscious one). The cat itself knows it is alive, without waiting for a scientist to open its box.

We ourselves only ever observe macroscopic events. Indeed, it is a limitation of our consciousness that we necessarily cannot be directly aware of a quantum process. There is no justification for reversing this limitation into a power of consciousness to create events.

Peter Benson, London

Dear Editor: In Issue 93 Graham Smetham very selectively tries to use science, in the form of quantum mechanics, to downplay the importance of matter. However, science has also shown, by radioactive dating, etc, that long before life and therefore consciousness existed, the Moon circled the Earth, the Earth orbited the Sun – not to mention the countless massive spinning galaxies. These objects all have mass, and are therefore defined as being ‘matter’. It is true that matter can be converted into energy, but we still need different words to distinguish between these two forms, as we use different words for steam and water, even though both are H2O. It is therefore not logical to argue that everything is energy, consciousness is energy, and therefore consciousness is ‘immaterial’. Consciousness depends on electrical, chemical, and possibly quantum mechanical activity in a very material brain.

Fred Flatow, Sydney

Buddhist Recommends Desires

Dear Editor: In his article ‘Desire: 30 Years Later’ in Issue 93, Joel Marks said “the Buddha preached that all suffering comes from desire. The Buddha’s recommendation was that we should therefore cease to desire.” In fact, in the Second Noble Truth, the Buddha said that suffering comes from attachment or desire, aversion or hatred, and ignorance or delusion. Thus it is more than just desire that causes suffering. As Joel said, we cannot live without desire; and the Buddha would not have condemned the desire for food when one is hungry, or sexual desire in appropriate circumstances, or the desire for enlightenment. It is only when these desires are taken to excess and they become grasping or attachment that we have a problem. Grasping or attachment are probably stronger than Joel Marks’ ‘strong desires’.

The Buddha’s recommendation was that we should tackle the root cause of desire and aversion, namely ignorance of reality. He suggested a method for doing this, the Noble Eightfold Path, which covers wisdom, ethics and mental development.

Anthony Loukes, Wellingborough, Northants

McGavin Rejoins Dennett

Dear Editor: I do not return the insincere rhetoric of Daniel Dennett in saying ‘I am grateful’ for his letter criticising my critique of him: like his book Breaking the Spell, his letter also is tiresome and silly. Professor Dennett simply does not listen to any voice but his own – even to the point of not reading plain English. In my review, I wrote that it is his method that is particularly crippling, not his purported subject of natural religion. I did not use the word ‘scientistic’, as raised in his letter. I did make the charge, “I judge this is not a scientific book, because a scientific approach requires the adoption of whatever methodologies are best suited to the topic under examination.” Temperate academics, like most other people, employ a variety of epistemologies, and have different ways of knowing different things. Dennett has only one way of knowing, and imputes invalidity to any other ways, regardless of their coherence and truthfulness. For Dennett, any worldview other than his own is wrong and untruthful (‘faith-fibbing’ is the tone of his letter). Eight (!) times he uses my pastoral title ‘Father’ as a term of abuse (a “magician unmasked”), although I also have a civilian Doctorate and I have for decades taught social sciences in world-class civilian universities. My describing Breaking the Spell as “silly and tiresome” does not arise from the “anger” of a “magician whose tricks are unmasked,” as Dennett imputes, but from the fact that this book is a prejudiced ranting from a one-eyed worldview that deprecates any perspective but his own. Breaking the Spell is an extended ideological tract, and deserves to be named as such.

Paul A. McGavin, Canberra

Dear Editor: In Letters, Issue 92 of Philosophy Now, under the heading ‘Dennett Strikes Back’, Daniel Dennett responds to Dr P.A. McGavin’s review of Dennett’s book, Breaking the Spell in Issue 91. The Editor’s heading is indicative of what might reasonably be called a spat between the two authors. In his review, McGavin had described the book as ‘tiresome and silly’, ‘misconceived’, ‘ignorant’ and ‘ranting’, and accused Dennett of ‘condescension, even scorn’ as regards religion. For his part, Dennett in his response likened McGavin to a “magician, whose tricks are unmasked” and hopes that he will “find it in his heart to confess to his venial sin of faith fibbing, and apologise.”

For McGavin, a key point seems to be that the wine and bread, as ‘sacramental form’ is not a ‘mere’ symbol, because “Catholic sacraments convey that which they symbolize.” To him this is a mystery not subject to rationality – which would apparently “reduce the mystery inherent in sacramental communication of supernatural Presence and of supernatural grace.” (Issue 91). However, if neither a ‘rationalistic understanding’, nor a ‘positivistic perspective’ will suffice as an explanation of the mystery of transubstantiation, what might?

In her classic Imagination (1976), and subsequently in Imagination and Time (1994), Mary Warnock explores the pervasiveness and significance of the capacity of the imagination. My suggestion is that, in her senses, the concept of the imagination is especially apt here, for it may provide a bridge between the two apparently irreconcilable positions exemplified by Dennett and McGavin. In the conclusion to Imagination she wrote:

“there is a power at work in the human mind which is at work in our thoughts about what is absent, which enables us to see the world, whether present or absent as significant, and also to present this vision to others, for them to share or reject… and [to] envisage situations which are non-actual.” (pp.196-197)

Thus in the minds of devotees, during the ritual of the Eucharist, the imagination enables that which is ‘absent’ to become ‘non-actually’ present and ‘significant’. Indeed, the components and ceremony of the ritual prompt the imagination to engage. To this end, over centuries, and especially during the Counter Reformation, the Catholic Church has drawn very effectively on the imagination and skills of architects and artists to render this mystical experience extraordinarily vivid and appealing, utilising the senses – visual, tactile, aural, orientational and olfactory. A supreme example is Gianlorenzo Bernini, for instance in his sculpture The Ecstasy of St Theresa in the Cornaro Chapel, Santa Maria Della Vittoria, Rome (1645-1652). The experience of the Eucharist, for many devotees in such a location or similar, combined with the ritual, would make the ‘truth’ of the ‘mystery’ seem irresistible and undeniable.

If this is persuasive, we are perhaps still left with a query about the origin and status of the imagination. If it is regarded straightforwardly as a product of evolution, then any mystery is ‘all in the mind’. If on the other hand, evolution notwithstanding, it is regarded as a faculty of human kind created by God, then it is the mind working to God’s design or purpose. In the light of these possibilities, it seems appropriate to wonder if either Dennett or McGavin – or perhaps even both of them – would be able to live amicably with such an ambiguity.

Colin Brookes, Woodhouse Eaves

Mindful of Tallis

Dear Editor: After reading ‘Tallis in Wonderland – Did Time Begin With A Bang?’ (Issue 92) I wanted to make a few brief comments. As expressed in the article, Kant’s view is that time and space are modes of perception: the form in which the mind perceives our world. Using our imagination we can imagine almost any objects (a world without stars or tables hanging from the clouds); but what can’t be imagined is the absence of time and space, anymore than we can imagine non-existence. So if the Earth came into being 4.56 billion years ago, and life originated 3.5 billion years ago, the question is: Prior to life, was there time? If there was, then Kant was apparently mistaken.

For the sake of argument, let’s assume that there was a world 4 billion years ago, long before there was life. What this world looked like or how it appeared we can’t know. But let’s assume there was a world of some kind, in some form, before there was life, and that in this unknown place there was time. Then time would not be internal, as Kant proposed. Time would have to be essentially external. And if time was external 4 billion years ago, why wouldn’t it be external today? Furthermore, if it isn’t external, why can’t we think it away?

Dave Nebret, New Orleans

Dear Editor: I too, like Raymond Tallis in Issue 91, have many times expressed to others how extraordinary it is that as a species, we just switch ourselves off at fairly regular intervals in the blink of an eye, and think it not odd. Often I have dreamed and a few times fainted, particularly when a teenager. When I faint I sometimes have a ‘Beam me up Scotty’ experience. This takes the form of an extreme sense of rushing and finding myself somewhere else. I’m quite used to this experience now, and only a little shocked when I suddenly find myself back in my hang-glider or down the shops. Once I was giving blood, and as I turned to face the nurse and saw the ten gallon syringe with my (!!!!) blood in it, my systems switched myself off, and I apparently fell off the bed.

Each of these states seem very real at the time, like falling asleep in front of the fireplace. But unlike my dreaming and fainting to date, another experience made me extremely sceptical of Descartes’ route out of doubt, since, as a result, I have since asked myself “What constitutes thinking, for the ‘I’ to be deemed to be existing? Is it only thinking in words or pictures?” While out during surgery (unconscious?) I was nowhere – no words, no awareness that there could be words, no black empty space, no knowing of spatial dimension (which I have in normal dreaming and fainting), no knowing what form I could exist in, no idea of form, just a profound sense that ‘I’ was. I also sensed an extreme panic, although I had no notion of body. I felt an urgency that I must quickly find any reality to latch onto, in whatever form. It is difficult to relate this experience to others as I have to use words to describe a non-word experience – a contradiction. My profound experience throughout was that ‘I’ still existed, as a sense, despite not having language or images or – dare I say it? – thought. Neurologically, does that mean many of my brain areas that I use to construct a reality while sleeping or otherwise were shut down (lacking blood), while those systems that create a sense of ‘I’ existing, can still function? Is it coherent to say, “I don’t think and I still am”? Dennett may say that continuous consciousness is an illusion, but I am confused by Goethe saying, “Optical illusion is optical truth.”

John McGlade, Castlemaine, Victoria

Doubting The Truth

Dear Editor: I thoroughly enjoyed John Corcoran’s farewell letter to his students in Issue 92, concerning his lifetime’s question ‘What is Proof?’. It was awash with wonderful phrases like ‘creative doubt’ and ‘loyalty-motivated self-deception’. However, Jesus’s motto, ‘The truth will set you free’ is not the wrong way round, as suggested – in favour of ‘Be free to find truth’ or perhaps ‘Doubt sets you free’. For instance, when Professor Corcoran discovered a truth about himself, ‘I had been afraid to doubt’, this set him free to be a more explorative philosopher.

Kristine Kerr, Gourock, Renfrewshire

Dear Editor: The daunting task of keeping entertained throughout an eleven-hour flight to South America seemed the most negative aspect of the free holiday in Argentina I was kindly offered by the BBC after somehow emerging through their ‘Total Wipeout’ auditions successfully. However, the journey was made somewhat interesting when I overheard a lady in the row behind me preparing a presentation with a colleague. She was discussing the impact of flying on global warming, and stated how commercial flights pump more of the greenhouse gas CO2 into the atmosphere in one year than all of Africa together, adding that one international flight is more polluting than over twelve months of individual car travel.

At first, the fact this lady was travelling on an aeroplane while preparing to lecture vast numbers of people about the catastrophic effects on the environment of flying seemed unbelievably hypocritical. She was doing exactly what she was telling others not to do. However, like me, she knew full well that the impact of her own flights on the environment was negligible. If she refused to fly, global warming would not be delayed by as much as a second. What is needed is mass change and policy change, and her work, which clearly involves flying around the world advocating this, could thus be part of the solution. Refusing to fly would simply be a hollow, counterproductive gesture.

It is sometimes comforting to think that ‘every little helps’, but is this true? If every person in Britain gave £1 to a charity appeal, together they would raise (say) £62,641,459. Nobody would have done much individually, but collectively they would have raised a huge amount. If all but one person donates, then the total sum raised is £62,641,458. No significant difference whatsoever.

Reflecting on these facts, it is perfectly rational to reason that one’s own individual contributions are insignificant, but that it would matter terribly if everyone reasoned in this way. The lady was obviously attempting to persuade a large number of people that their individual contributions do matter. If enough of them wrongly believe this to be true, then we get the favourable effect we desire. This amounts to a programme of honourable deception. The collective effort works, not the individual one, but unless people think the individual effort matters, you won’t be able to muster the collective one.

Oscar J. Pearson, by email


Contrary to what was said in last issue’s ‘Nietzsche’s Dance With Zarathustra’, ‘Zoroaster’ is a Greek version of the Avestan name ‘Zarathuštra’. The German anthropologists whom Nietzsche was reading also followed the Greeks in using ‘Zoroaster’.

This site uses cookies to recognize users and allow us to analyse site usage. By continuing to browse the site with cookies enabled in your browser, you consent to the use of cookies in accordance with our privacy policy. X