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Letters

Pro-Pragmatic Post • Lying To Yourself • Being and Appearance • Authors’ Anti-Matter • Abortions and Misconceptions

Pro-Pragmatic Post

Dear Editor: Tibor Machan’s attack on ‘Impractical Pragmatism’ in Issue 95 seems a little intemperate. As a pragmatist I do have principles; my disagreement with Prof. Machan is about the status I grant them. To me they are useful rules of thumb which often work, but no more than that. For hard cases I have to wonder if my rules still apply, look at comparable situations, consider other arguments, consult other people, including those who disagree with my beliefs, and so on. I wouldn’t claim my principles have any absolute truth, nor do I think extending and adjusting them will ever make them such. Consider one example he gives: pragmatists are critical of “ethical thinking that involves basic principles or axioms.” Could Professor Machan provide an axiom of ethical thinking that applies to all cases, and all social arrangements, at all times? If he can, then he is correct about some pragmatists, sometimes. I won’t accuse those who teach their children that they must never, ever lie, of being ‘thoughtless dogmatic people’, but I’d hope they would point out the consequences of perpetual truth-telling. Does my bum look big in this? Am I the best lover you’ve ever had? I want to kill your daddy – where is he?

To take another example from Machan’s list, I oppose torture. It may work sometimes, but that hardly justifies its use. Tossing a coin works 50% of the time, but it isn’t a great decision-making procedure. Pragmatic arguments against torture are among the most commonly used: it doesn’t work in many cases; it creates an atmosphere in which it is likely to be used more and more; it is an admission of defeat, and so on. These are all pragmatic arguments (none are always true in all situations). But suppose we had certain knowledge that a captive had created a doomsday machine which would destroy life on Earth, and we need to find it. Would you say it was better that all life should perish than that your ethical principles be sullied? I fear there are people who have such total faith in their beliefs, and they scare me.

I must concede one point. I can’t identify precisely “when it is permissible or acceptable to be pragmatic.” If I could, I wouldn’t be a pragmatist.

Simon Langley, Bristol


Lying To Yourself

Dear Editor: In his article ‘Lying to Mother Teresa’ (Issue 95), the author Derek Harrison assumes that the intention behind the lie ‘was good’, and his explanation is entirely rational. But there is another explanation, which is irrational, and may therefore be more likely. Perhaps the reason for the lie was not to save Mother Teresa from hearing stock phrases that she had heard a thousand times; perhaps the real reason was that the author desired recognition from Mother Teresa, or wished to elevate his own importance? I make these suggestions without any knowledge of the author, and without any judgment of his actions whatsoever. However, if his irrational intention was to protect his ego, then his utilitarian argument falls away, for if that is indeed the case, then the lie did create harm: it created a nagging feeling of guilt, which may have burdened Derek for the sixteen years since Mother Teresa’s death. Perhaps his anxiety stimulated his confession in this publication. But Mother Teresa was an expert in human nature, so she may also have picked up on the author’s inauthenticity, and she may then have felt sadness for the Haitian convent whose self-appointed representative was not an appropriate ambassador at that moment.

It is with the greatest respect to the author that I suggest these perspectives, and so I should not escape the same scrutiny. Is the reason for this letter to highlight an untested assumption in an otherwise stimulating and thought-provoking article for the good of the readers of Philosophy Now? Or is it to satisfy my deeper feelings of intellectual inadequacy and, indeed, to elevate my ego above that of the esteemed author? Or perhaps this last paragraph is stimulated by anxiety and isolation as I reach out to anyone else searching for themselves?

My wife, who is a Christian, says that God may even have wanted Derek to lie, as Derek’s article may have stimulated more goodness than would have resulted had the author given a stock phrase to Mother Teresa and not thought any more of it. I am not a Christian, but neither am I wholly convinced that my wife is lying.

Andrew Jackson, London


Being and Appearance

Dear Editor: Although last issue’s essay by Peter Benson on the ontological differences between analog and digital photos was intriguing, I think Benson’s lack of acknowledgement of the mechanics of analog photography subverts his argument that analog images show an untampered reality compared with digital. From the very beginning, analog photos have involved a series of decisions even in the making of the negative: choices had to be made with regard to film speed, developing chemicals, developing times, amount of agitation, etc. – all of which affected the characteristics of the negative. Choices once even had to be made with regard to the exposure times, weighting of the image, and even the particular nature of one’s exposure meter, much of which was determined by trial and error. Even after the negative was developed, decisions had to be made in the printing process, such as type of paper, exposure and development time. As photographer Ansel Adams once said, “The negative is the score by which the symphony is conducted.” Having seen Adams’ work over time, I can attest that he printed differently as he got older and devalued the middle ranges. The final images were malleable. Accordingly, the only difference of note is that the digital image is more malleable than the analog. Thus there is only a difference in degree in the ‘ontological distinction’, and it’s possible for the digital image to be more true to life than the analog. Such was taken to be the case with the photo of the Boston Marathon bomber taken with a digital cell phone that led to his being taken in by the FBI.

I think all philosophers ought to read Iain McGilchrist’s work,The Master and his Emissary, on the errors of this type of either-or thinking that excludes a continuum and has been the bane of much of Western philosophy.

Anthony Moore, Tampa, Florida


Dear Editor: In Issue 95, Kathleen O’Dwyer compares the views of Jean-Paul Sartre and Slavoj Žižek on human freedom. Her account of Sartre’s thought is able and accurate, but her discussion of Žižek is significantly incomplete. Quoting from his 1999 lecture ‘The Superego and the Act’, she only discusses the demands of the superego as constraints on our freedom; but in the second half of the lecture, Žižek goes on to consider how we might break free from these constraints “by means of what Lacan calls the Act.” He explains: “In an authentic Act I do not simply express my inner nature. I rather redefine myself, the very core of my identity.” Hence “an Act is not something that can be accommodated into an image of deterministic materialism, because it… comes ex nihilo.” He proceeds to give examples of such Acts from movies and novels. These Acts evade the false alternatives of forced choices by changing the very context of the choice.

Such ideas are not very far removed from those of Sartre. Despite Sartre’s claim of freedom as the defining characteristic of the human, he recognized that only at certain moments in our lives do we actualise this freedom. Mostly we follow the tram-lines of social programming or of our own adopted projects. We are only in ‘bad faith’ if we refuse to accept that such projects and programming can always be called into question and reconfigured. Such a moment of reassessment takes place in the freedom of a Lacanian Act. I would claim, therefore, that Sartre and Žižek have similar views on freedom, despite their respective rejection or acceptance of psychoanalytic theory.

Peter Benson, London


Dear Editor: Has Kathleen O’Dwyer’s article on freedom helped her answer her final question, “Could Sartre’s assertion that there are always options available to us offer a sustainable argument against Žižek’s concept of forced freedom?” I think Sartre’s memorable and sad statement, “there is a depth of darkness within me that does not allow itself to be said” is her answer: and his answer is no.

Sartre’s ‘darkness’ refers to that part of us that we don’t trust. We recognise our, and in others their, façade on display; and we know that with the ‘Death of God’, our mighty ego is ‘abandoned’ to Sartre’s ‘despair’ and ‘anguish’. For my part, Sartre’s call for me to create my own essence by my choice and actions is hugely invigorating, but after seventy years of church-going I don’t feelhis abandonment, or a dark solitude. So my ‘deluded’ (cf Dawkins) nurture has been helpful – and no more fraudulent than Frankl’s idea that we have the freedom to “choose our attitude to circumstances.”

Miles Clarke, USA by Email


Authors’ Anti-Matter

Dear Editor: I wish to respond to misguided comments in the last two issues’ Letters about my article in Issue 93 about matter’s dependency on mind, ‘Known to be False’. This response is condensed. I have posted my full response at quantumbuddhism.com/articles.

John Greenbank says that I “share the popular misconception that science describes the world as we see it.” But instead, I think that idea is nonsense derived from some misguided philosophers of science. Physics attempts to discover the ultimate nature of reality; this is why scientists built the Large Hadron Collider. Recent books about its results, and conclusions recently published, indicate that the ultimate constituents of reality consist of immaterial quantum fields. Greenbank also says that “the sub-atomic level is very much part of the observations.” In other words, he is agreeing with me! The only conclusion that one can reach is that the ultimate nature of reality is 1) immaterial, and 2) entangled in some way with ‘observation’ – which implies consciousness. As for his assertion that quantum theory “cannot be linked to free will, [or] life-after-death,” Stapp and others have indicated that quantum theory can so linked: I suggest he consults Stapp’s paper ‘Compatibility of Contemporary Physical Theory with Personality Survival’.

Peter Benson appeals to Niels Bohr. Bohr was very disturbed by the implications of quantum theory that indicated observer dependency – so he tried to cobble together metaphysical formulations that avoided this conclusion, thus forming the absurd obfuscation of the Copenhagen Interpretation. This move on Bohr’s part was not a “philosophical sophistication rare among physicists,” but a desperation to avoid obvious conclusions. Later he perhaps began to realize the error of his ways and suggested a link with Buddhism (for the relevant quote see my full response). Moreover, Bohr died fifty years ago, so why refer back to him when things have radically moved on and we know much more? A current physicist with perhaps more philosophical capability is Bernard d’Espagnat, who has written that “The doctrine that the world is made up of objects whose existence is independent of human consciousness turns out to be in conflict with quantum mechanics and with facts established by experiment.”

Fred Flatow says I am selective in my choice of quotes. I challenge him therefore to select a few quotes from major physicists stating that matter is completely ontologically independent of mind.

Matthew Rapaport says that mind “is agnostic with respect to morality, and is not itself will.” But Henry Stapp has concluded that the quantum situation does leave a gap within which free will operates; he also indicates how this impacts upon our notions of morality. Rapaport should consult Stapp’s paper ‘Philosophy of Mind and the Problem of Free Will in the Light of Quantum Mechanics’, freely available on the net.

Pat Caddick asks if a fundamental level of consciousness is universal. The brief and rough answer is ‘yes’; and it must reside within the fundamental immaterial quantum fields. The essential point is that in order for this ground-level fundamental mind-energy to manifest, it creates a material world (which is not solid: there is actually hardly anything there at all) and the sentient beings within it. One might say that fundamental awareness becomes aware of itself through sentient beings. She also asks why she cannot make the material world ‘go away’. The answer is that the material world is a collective illusion built up over vast time-scales by incalculable numbers of sentient beings. (See my full response for a quote from John Wheeler.)

I hope this clears a few things up!

Graham Smetham, Brighton


Dear Editor: In last issue’s Letters Page, Kaz Knowlden seized upon my claim in Issue 93 that education can help us to choose to act in less globally-destructive ways. Much of her criticism is based on the perfectionist fallacy. That is, unless the Green or other movements can perfectly achieve their aims, then they are “complacent and unrealistic” and therefore not worthy of our efforts. This is what Sartre would call ‘giving in to despair’ – deciding that I will not do my part since I alone cannot make the world conform to my wishes. If we all took up the challenge of being the change we want to see in the world, instead of passively letting other, more responsible people do the work, the world would be a much less dangerous place. Knowlden’s response seems little more than defeatism.

Terri Murray, London


Abortions and Misconceptions

Dear Editor: With regard to the article, ‘A Matter of Consent’, by Simon Smith in Issue 94, let me say that I firmly agree that abortion, at medically appropriate times, is right and necessary for numerous reasons, many of which were stated beautifully in this article. The author was able to present my thoughts better than I ever could. However, as I read it I couldn’t help being bothered by one thing. In our society, barring extreme ignorance or youth, I doubt if anyone is unaware that unprotected sex can result in pregnancy. So absent any coercion, doesn’t the fact that a woman has unprotected sex give tacit consent to a possible outcome of this act being the use of her body for nine months? If that is the case, then how can we view her rights to abort as more ethical than those of the fetus to live?

Linda Chase, Brooklyn, NY


Dear Editor: When in his article ‘A Matter of Consent’ Simon Smith states that “talk of murdering babies may or may not be accurate but it is irrelevant” this is of course absurd. It is the crux of the abortion issue. Smith then says that the pro-life argument falls into ‘self-contradiction’. The argument is that babies are human, humans are persons, it is unjust to deprive a person of life, therefore depriving a baby of life is wrong. This argument is self-contradictory how? Smith also states that women have a right to decide what happens in and to their bodies. Strictly speaking this is not correct either, as most of the things happening in their bodies are beyond their decision-process. In any case, babies are not part of their bodies at any stage of the baby’s development – easily proven by the fact that roughly one half of babies are male. Even the placenta is the baby’s. So it would seem that if a woman consents to a sexual act resulting in the creation of a new person, that new person’s right to life supersedes the woman’s right to control. (And even in the case of rape, the baby is still innocent and should not be punished for its father’s crime.) Choice doesn’t enter into the argument, as the choice is made prior to the initiation of the sexual act, not somewhere down the road. The whole discussion of the ‘nonconsensual use of the body’ is misdirection from the point at which the ‘choice’ is made. In fact, if this principle of nonconsensual use of the body is applied evenly, then the nonconsensual use of the baby’s body through killing it should negate abortion. But any argument used to justify abortion must employ similar sophistry. For instance, suppose we say ‘women have a right to their own bodies’ – why doesn’t that ‘right’ apply to unborn women?

Barrie Norman, New Westminster, British Columbia


Dear Editor: With regard to responses last issue to my article ‘A Matter of Consent’ in Issue 94: it’s weird, but students, other philosophers, even normal people do seem to struggle with Thomson (and me). I find this completely baffling; but let me clarify a few things.

The issue here – and I think this is morally fundamental – is one of use. To make use of someone for whatever purpose is to treat them as an object, not a person (I’ll come back to that alleged abstraction in a minute, if I may). But caring for a sick child or partner (John Cheek’s examples) isn’t ‘use’, obviously. And being arrested does not constitute being used (as David Pitts implies) either, any more than abortion is using the foetus. As I argued, refusing to maintain someone’s right to life doesn’t entail that you’re making use of them. Of course the right to be treated as a human being and not an object is absolute. In fact, it’s the basis of all other moral considerations, and so it can’t be switched on and off at the whim of society, or that of the father of a foetus.

I agree with Dr Pies that we need a fuller discussion of rights, not least because this whole discussion points to a deeper existential, or rather, metaphysical, issue, concerning not rights, but obligations. It’s about the basic truth that human beings are essentially a social reality: we are who and what we are because of those who make us so. Exactly what role rights play in this, I’m not yet sure. One thing I’m certain of, though: we do have an absolute obligation to treat others as persons.

There’s that dreaded word ‘person’, and all the supposedly ‘vague concepts’ that go with it. Actually, there’s nothing vague about it. It means ‘a human being’ in the fullest sense: morally, spiritually, emotionally, and intellectually. I don’t tend to use the expression ‘human being’ because it has too many biological (or in Peter Singer’s nice coinage, ‘speciesist’) connotations. Human beings are a particular kind of organism. Persons are usually, but not exclusively or necessarily, human. (There’s been heaps of research into dolphins as persons lately.)

‘Personhood’ concerns the ways in which we treat one another. It’s not just moral, though, because it’s also about how we become the kind of ‘thing’ that can treat others in this particular way. I become a person by creatively and constructively participating in the development of other persons. The fulfilment of my nature depends on being able to recognise that process as interconnected with yours. That’s what I meant by it being existential or metaphysical. It’s about what I am, not just what I do. I’ve written about this elsewhere. My paper in the journal Minerva is straightforward (www.minerva.mic.ul.ie). No one has said it more beautifully than the philosopher and theologian Austin Farrer; and Charles Conti’s ‘Metaphysical Personalism’ is a brilliant analysis of that and much else. Or you could always try us at www.spcps.org.uk. We’re quite an interesting bunch. Some of them are even more wildly enthusiastic than me.

Simon Smith, by email

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