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



Illusion of an Illusion • No-Buddhism • Artificial Unintelligence • Machiavellian Intrigues • A Variety of Universal Moral Laws • Can’t Keep a Good Zombie Down • Natural Philosophy • Why Did The Philosopher Cross The Road? • Condensed Thoughts

Illusion of an Illusion

Dear Editor: I query the arguments of Sam Woolfe’s article ‘The Illusion of the Self’ (PN 97). At one point he calls the self an ‘illusion’, and at another a ‘hallucination’, in both cases implying that it does not exist. ‘Hallucination’ is the more precise term, and my dictionary defines it as “a seemingly real perception of something not actually present.” His analogy is to the supposed illusion of a triangle which is not really there; but in the illustration most of it is there, and I dispute that this is an illusion, still less a hallucination, if these words mean ‘something which is not there’. What Woolfe should be arguing is that there is not a single or simple or complete thing called the self, just as many objects like triangles may not be quite all there or quite perfect. We know that our perceptions are never quite true to reality. Does that mean that everything is an illusion? I think not.

Peter Ellway, by email

Dear Editor: In the article ‘The Illusion of the Self’, Sam Woolfe uses the word ‘illusion’ to describe our consciousness of the self. It is a loaded word, implying that self-awareness is unreal. Like many others, including, clearly, contributors to Philosophy Now, I find much more congenial the thesis that self-awareness is a form of ‘emergence’. My mind emerges from, or perhaps better, within, my body. Within this emergent consciousness, from its interaction with the body and things outside itself, especially other humans, a full sense of ‘I’ forms. This is a particular expression of a general feature of the universe. At different levels of complexity, new things emerge as coherent entities which behave differently from their components: atoms from subatomic particles; molecules from atoms; living organisms from molecules; self-aware beings involving complex social relations from living organisms. The universe is thus. Why deny this is ‘real’?

The idea of emergence enables us to avoid the difficulties of a body-mind dualism of two quite different things stuck together, and avoids the difficulty of a simplistic, dogmatic materialism that asserts, “I’m consciously asserting that I’m not a conscious self.” Yet it allows us to accept the reality of what our common sense already tells us: ‘I am conscious of myself’, ‘I am self-aware’, and enables us to draw from a variety of sciences, from biology and neuroscience to psychology and sociology. There is room too for ongoing development of the thesis.

Tom Berrie, Gravesend, Kent


Dear Editor: Katie Javanaud’s discussion in the last issue on Buddhist philosophy regarding the possible logical contradiction of the no-self doctrine with Nirvana was very interesting. I’m not a Buddhist, although I’ve read a lot about it.

I have a slightly different take on this that may overcome the contradiction in principle, although I’m not claiming that it’s a Buddhist doctrine. If one associates ‘self’ with the Western concept of the ego, then ‘no-self’ equates to being without ego. And if Nirvana can be associated with death as a sense of release, then the two concepts come together at death, since when we die we are finally forced to give up our ego, which is why death is so difficult to confront. In fact, I would argue that the belief in an afterlife is motivated by a desire for the continuation of the ego. If, at death, one can let go of one’s ego, then one may find the release one is looking for. This could be called ‘Nirvana’, albeit one only experiences it right at the end of one’s life.

Paul Mealing, Melbourne

Artificial Unintelligence

Dear Editor: Words put in quotation marks to show they are special always make an argument suspicious. Just so, Alessandro Colarossi’s references in his article on Artificial Intelligence in the last issue to Merleau-Ponty’s ‘lived body’, seem to indicate a circular argument:

1. A ‘lived body’ interacting with the world is essential for something to develop true intelligence and an ‘inner voice’.

2. (by implication) Machines don’t have life, so they don’t have a ‘lived body’.

3. Therefore artificial intelligence will never be more than ‘another simulation’.

I recently bought a robot vacuum cleaner. This has a body (though probably not a ‘lived body’) and it uses it for what Mr Colarossi calls “meaningful interactions with the world” (for example, if it bumps into a wall, it only does so once; the next time it stops half an inch short). It possesses facilities for ‘constructive interaction’: it cleans my carpets better than I do, as well as being able to decide when it has finished, or when its battery is low. In either case it docks itself onto its charging unit. It appears to detect success in cleaning, since it goes over some spots several times before moving on. Whether it has an ‘inner voice’ or not I do not know, but this question doesn’t concern me greatly. (I am not sure whether you have an ‘inner voice’, either.) So, leaving aside the word ‘lived’, I suggest my humble vacuum cleaner already meets many of Mr Colarossi’s criteria for AI. It is of course limited to one simple purpose, but it does that well. Live or not, it appears to move as intelligently as an ant, and I expect that future generations of such AI-enabled devices will be even more impressive, and the boundaries between them and lower life forms even less clear.

I am amused that Mr Colarossi cites a publication dated 2008 which refers to a ‘bodiless mainframe’; an increasingly rare creature in these days of embedded computing. He might have looked at recent developments in neuromorphic computing, or the BRAIN initiative in the US, or the EU’s Human Brain Project, all of which are studying the human brain and attempting to mimic it using existing or new types of computer techniques. ‘Lived’ or not, these will make AI an increasingly valuable part of our world.

David Upton, Richmond, Surrey

Machiavellian Intrigues

Dear Editor: Perhaps for reasons of novelty it is fashionable to take the villains of history and re-interpret their work in a more sympathetic light. This is what Graeme Garrard did in his article on Machiavelli in the last issue. The thrust of his article is that in a world of Realpolitik it is sometimes necessary for those in authority to do nasty things, and so we should not be too squeamish about listening to Machiavelli’s advice.

Prof. Garrard rightly describes Machiavelli as a consequentialist – a believer that the ends justify the means. This is an approach to ethics that I think is deeply flawed. However, I don’t want to debate consequentialism, but to point out that the advice offered by Machiavelli is in general based on very bad reasoning.

Machiavelli’s treatise The Prince can be thought of as a discourse on creating powerful principalities, and on keeping princes in power. Machiavelli largely thought that these two aims were aligned. A powerful state is one that can meet its external threats, maintain public order, and endure, just as a powerful prince can meet his external threats, keep public order, and endure. So for Machiavelli what is good for the prince is good for the state. However, this view simply falls apart when a prince fails to live up to the virtues which Machiavelli conceded the prince needs. When this happens there are no counter-balancing forces – no strong parliaments, independently powerful advisers or other institutions – to limit the prince’s authority, and no fixed code of morals to inhibit his behaviour. On the contrary, the prince has been led to believe that immoral conduct is permissible and that his interests always take precedence. So Machiavelli’s advice becomes the means for keeping bad princes in power and to give them the excuse to behave badly.

A second problem is that Machiavelli fails to see that society can be best served by a plurality of goals. In particular his obsession with public order and military might means that he favours a repressive regime, which is unlikely to foster economic or social development.

A third problem with Machiavelli is the way he argues against one extreme and uses this to justify another. For example, cruelty is acceptable because ‘too much mercy’ will encourage civil disorder, while executions, and by implication, other types of cruelty, only affect the individual concerned. So here we have a suspect means, cruelty, justified because it serves the ends ‘public order’.

Let us pick this apart. Machiavelli argues that those who are cruel will do less harm than those who show too much mercy. This implies that one has to choose between cruelty and too much mercy; but the remedy for too much mercy is not to indulge in cruelty, but to exercise mercy wisely. There is in fact no case made that cruelty is necessary for public order. Machiavelli argues that a cruel act such as an execution offends only against an individual, not society at large. This, we are given to understand, is why it is possible to do such acts without endangering the loyalty of the people. However, this argument is untenable. A cruel act against someone affects their family and friends, serves to justify cruel acts by others, creates a climate of fear, anger and insecurity, and breeds hostility and a thirst for revenge. Cruel acts have numerous ramifications, not least in cultivating the hatred which Machiavelli warns his prince to avoid.

In summary, one can say that Machiavelli built his philosophy on the sands of consequentialist morality – a morality that can excuse any action depending on its ends. He then chose as his ends the creation of unassailable princes in unassailable principalities, without seeing that there may be conflicts between the two, or understanding the need for broader objectives. Finally, he recommended a list of practices, many of which justify cruel and unscrupulous behaviour on very unsound reasoning. The conclusion one draws from this is that The Prince is bad philosophy, and that any attempts to apply it are likely to have bad outcomes.

Michael H. Smith, by email

A Variety of Universal Moral Laws

Dear Editor: Julien Beillard (‘Moral Relativism is Unintelligible’, Issue 97) may be correct in his argument that there are moral absolutes, but I don’t see what difference it makes. All advocates of a moral law must find ways of dealing with anomalies and conflicts. Usually they do so by adding some contextual conditions: a utilitarian may allow that one person may be killed for the greater good of the whole, rights ethicists may accept that rights must sometimes be suspended, etc. To take an analogy from chemistry, claims about the behaviour of H20 are subject to provisos about temperature and pressure. We don’t expect H20 to have the properties of a liquid at -20ºC and normal pressure. Equally, we don’t know what conditions might form part of an absolute moral law. It could be that the law has the form, ‘In such and such conditions you should do this’. So perhaps human sacrifice was moral for the Aztecs but isn’t for us because the conditions are different, yet we may both be obeying the same absolute moral law. Other possibilities might include the condition ‘if someone sincerely believes X’; or even that at any one time there may be many morally correct choices. What evidence is there that morality must be single-valued?

This argument doesn’t weaken the case Beillard makes against moral relativism. My fear is rather that all too often, the arguments for a single moral law are followed by claims that we know what it is and you don’t.

Simon Langley, St Werbughs, UK

Can’t Keep a Good Zombie Down

Dear Editor: The philosophical concept of zombie – not the bloody kind, but the kind supposedly without consciousness (‘The Zombie Threat to a Science of Mind’, Philosophy Now Issue 96) – is not only ridiculous but meaningless. By definition, this zombie is an exact physical duplicate of a conscious human, and there is no possible way for anyone to distinguish this zombie from a human being as they both act exactly the same. As William James says, “What difference would it practically make to anyone if this notion [X is a zombie] rather than that notion [X is a human being] were true? If no practical difference whatever can be traced, then the alternatives mean practically the same thing, and all dispute is idle” (What Pragmatism Means). Because the concept of ‘philosophical zombie’ is meaningless, it has no bearing on the question of how mind and matter are related. We’d all be better off if we quit wasting our time in idle disputes about it.

Bill Meacham, USA

Dear Editor: In his article ‘The Zombie Threat to a Science of Mind’ in Issue 96, Philip Goff makes use of a thought experiment. The problem with thought experiments is that there are no agreed methods of demarcation between good and poor ones. Goff accepts that a good thought experiment must not be self-contradictory. However I propose that good thought experiments have to meet other criteria as well. For example, a good thought experiment must be consistent with observation. Zeno’s Achilles and the Tortoise fails this test, but Lucretius’s Spear is consistent with observation so is a better thought experiment. For a thought experiment based on the properties of an entity to be good or useful, I further believe that there must be a Rational Development Path (RDP) proposed for that entity. Goff does give such an RDP for a flying pig: it could evolve on a smaller planet (less gravity) where there could still be liquid water. However, Goff gives no RDP for his zombies.

To illustrate, let’s imagine a person who instead of eating food, for energy plugs herself into the electricity supply every night whilst sleeping. A viable RDP for this electric person is that her ancestors had a stomach to digest food, but this was replaced by genetically modified cells which could store electricity and which could safely transfer current from a grid system. Hence the electricity infrastructure must have existed before the electric person. Non-viable RDPs would be that the electric person spontaneously came into existence; or electric people always existed; or that electric people evolved from an electric creature with the same intelligence as a lemur. The problem is that such a lemur-like creature could not develop and maintain a suitable electrical grid system to power them during sleep.

Going back to philosophical zombies, we might suggest that they arose from a degeneration of normal people. For example, drugs could be used to inhibit the parts of the brain giving rise to pain and other experiences. But this degeneration would be as useless an argument against physicalism as one that uses as examples damaged or diseased brains.

The problem with instead claiming that philosophical zombies evolved from dumb creatures similar to primates (except that they feel no pain) is that the very properties needed for the evolutionary steps would be missing. For instance, our metabolism relies on the cooking of food; but for this to occur requires imagination, which is an attribute of consciousness, thus lacking from the philosophical zombie twin. Further, for language to develop there needs to be creativity, which would also be lacking from a zombie devoid of consciousness. These logical impasses in the evolutionary development of philosophical zombies are as great as for electric people evolving from electric lemur-like creatures. As there is no RDP for the possible evolution of philosophical zombies, the thought experiment fails to pose a serious threat to physicalism.

Russell Berg, Manchester

Dear Editor: When I saw a zombie on the front cover of Issue 96 of Philosophy Now I hesitated, but on reflection I got my copy, but only on the condition that I make my point about zombies, which I failed to do when a student of philosophy at Glasgow University.

My idea of a zombie was the undead (they have been so since The Epic of Gilgamesh, c. 1800 BC), until I met with the philosophical one: a creature used in thought-experiments. Of course we know they don’t exist, as Philip Goff admits; but if that’s the case, then surely there isn’t a Zombie Problem? Any argument from the possibility of zombies in some possible world doesn’t work either, because there’s only this actual world.

As a student I thought this non-starter of a concept wouldn’t further the subject of philosophy, which sometimes did seem to be struggling. Shortly after this thought, the philosophy department was moved from the main building where it had been for two hundred years and a business department took its place.

I noticed your ‘Question of the Month’ is about the nature and future of philosophy. It’s not with zombies.

Kristine Kerr, by email

Dear Editor: In Issue 96, Philip Goff wonders whether philosophical zombies are possible, and Dien Ho quotes Richard Taylor’s argument that the wear and tear of the unfolding universe will eventually undo all of our work, all of our ‘temple building’. The former position may or may not be due to a bit too much philosophical imagination, and the latter to a lack of it.

Starting with the first point – can I pucker my lips and plant them on yours without a kiss happening? Surely no-one would suggest that two sets of puckered lips could meet without a kiss happening. So why do some philosophers believe that all the necessary physical elements of a sensation of pain could exist without the concomitant sensation?

And the second point – although Dien Ho points out that human achievements are not completely subject to the laws of thermodynamics, nevertheless, one of two scenarios await our descendants: extinction, or evolution into ever-more complex species. Extinction would make all of our achievements pointless, as well as erasing the memory of them, but so would evolution, eventually. Who now remembers even the most impressive achievements of our primate ancestors?

However, there is one type of achievement that would be immune to the ravages of time. We are currently damaging ecology at such a rate that human extinction appears a more likely outcome than our continued evolution. But if one of us comes up with an idea that gets us off our ecology-damaging path, and allows evolution to continue to have its way with us, the repercussions of that achievement could last until the heat death of the universe, possibly even beyond, if the species that evolution eventually produces either a) can stop the heat death of the universe; b) can build itself a new universe; or c) doesn’t need a physical universe any more.

Dave Darby, Tooting, London

Dear Editor: I have responded to responses to my zombie piece in the Letters pages of last issue on my blog conscienceandconsciousness.com. Thank you.

Philip Goff, Liverpool

Dear Editor: You zombie edition made me think, as I guess it was meant to. Why have the living dead walked through Tinseltown, emerged from placid Alpine lakes, and even rippled the still yet deep waters of Philosophy Now? What is Hollywood suddenly so scared of?

These questions, which crawl over the surface of twenty-first century culture, can’t be easily (or flippantly) answered by reference to botox and facelifts – albeit that Joan Rivers and Jocelyn Wildenstein (insert favourite Hollywood Actors or Actresses here) have been redefining what life after death might look like for the past 40 years. But something is happening now that the moneymen in Los Angeles are cashing in on: there are new cultural anxieties to probe, new economic scars to pick at. The folk with their cigars in their mouths and their feet on their desks are acting in the practiced tradition of modern story tellers: making money from our fears. And there is a lot of fear – and a lot of money. Not so much World War Z as World War $.

Robert Kirkman’s amazing graphic novels aside, zombies are primarily inhabitants of the parallel earths that exist on the other side of our television, cinema and gaming screens, and until recently they were the backward country cousins of Hollywood’s mainstream horror family. In twentieth century cinema it was creatures of the dark that cast shadows over us as we tried to sleep: werewolves and vampires, Dracula and Frankenstein, the phantom of the opera and those in The Cabinet of Dr Caligari. The terrors that hid in the black corners of horror films were our fears of what was secret, what was unknown: the psychopath, the serial killer, the subversive communist… it was nightmares that horror films once captured so well. But fear has now stepped out from the dark, and the twenty-first century zombie brings horror into the daylight. Watch any, every, episode of The Walking Dead, and the images of characters you love walking into a peaceful field, or along a suburban road, or through a sunlit forest, carry with them such feelings of dread that it makes this grown man hide behind the sofa. Even the beautiful, peaceful revenants of The Returned bring chills shuddering across the landscape of the sublime.

So what terrors are modern zombies exposing to the sunshine? If zombies represent our known (as opposed to unknown) fears, what is it that we are now so fearful of, and so compelled to watch?

Here are few ideas:

1) Economic fears: with an ever-increasing gap between rich and poor, for some commentators the unwashed, dishevelled, untouchable, badly-clothed zombies represent the middle-class’s fear of the underclass, the long-term unemployed, the shuffling, thoughtless proletarian masses. On this Marxist theory of zombies, they are ‘the Other’ threatening our homes, our property, and our lives, and overwhelming us with their vast numbers.

2) Dystopian fears: our future is going to Hell in a handcart, as geographers smugly tell us on a weekly basis: global warming, global cooling, greenhouse gases, the end of fossil fuels, all point towards an horrific Malthusian ending to the short spell of success that humans have enjoyed for the last ten thousand years. It was good whilst it lasted, but we’ve buggered it up – civilisations will collapse, as predicted by Jared Diamond, and it will be like the Dark Ages, except without the illuminated manuscripts and Gregorian chants. In this highly probable future, but before the last human dies alone, our descendants will step out of their homes to the very same fears (of being hunted, killed, and eaten) as our ancestors did. The never-ending threat of zombies is an atavistic one, that we will someday soon live again in the way that animals have always lived; in mortal terror of the world beyond our caves.

3) Corporeal fears: the wafer-thin veneer of being civilised and rational that we’ve sustained since the time of Socrates has never really hidden what we all know: that we are animals; that men can barely hide their blood-lust and rage (24 Days Later sped up zombies to capture this frenetic hatred); that our bodies fall apart and decay, and that this disgusts us. And, of course, we fear this exposure. We part quell our fears by revelling in the special effects and make-up that bring our future bodily deterioration into our living rooms in visceral close-up, in the characters of zombies.

Related to this, and perhaps the thing we can all agree on, is that we…

4) Fear death: our death, the death of every friend, loved one, family member and pet we will ever have. Woody Allen’s quips don’t cut it anymore, so we’ve turned to zombies to help us cope with mortality. But The Returned doesn’t need rage, cannibalism, decaying limbs or bullets-to-the-head to impress on us what its ‘revenants’ are about: these perfect living dead disrupt our lives, bring grief to the fore, peel back the façade with which we cover up death. Zombies, in the final analysis, are us (not ‘them’): one day we’re all going to die, and that terrifies us, so we might as well enjoy life whilst it lasts, by watching zombie films.

Gerald Jones, London

Natural Philosophy

Dear Editor: It was good to read in ‘On Naturalism’ by Massimo Pigliucci, Issue 96, that philosophers and scientists can get together to try to advance our understanding of the world; but I did wonder what value there is in promoting naturalism as a philosophic movement. As Pigliucci’s report of the ‘Moving Naturalism Forward’ workshop pointed out, there is disagreement among naturalists on basic issues such as reductionism, free will, and values. Yet if (nearly) everyone is a naturalist now, as Pigliucci asserts, the term becomes vacuous: ‘naturalist’ as opposed to what? I would have said the opposite of ‘natural’ is ‘unnatural’. Are there any scientists looking for ‘unnatural explanations’? If so, I think we would doubt their scientific credentials.

I tend to get the impression that because materialism (behaviourism, physicalism) has been (largely) discredited, ‘naturalism’ is seen by many philosophers-scientists as a way of not being tarred as a dualist. One sees this, for example, in the work of John Searle. There is much to admire in Searle, but in order to avoid being charged a dualist, he opts for describing his position as ‘biological naturalism’. David Chalmers is less coy, and is happy to use the term ‘naturalistic dualism’ to describe his position.

Having said all this, if philosopher-scientists (or plain philosophers or plain scientists) want to call themselves ‘naturalists’, it is probably harmless, and, if it brings together individuals from a range of disciplines, will do some good.

Robert Clive-Barnby, Pontypridd, Wales

Why Did The Philosopher Cross The Road?

Dear Editor: I made up some philosophy jokes:

Why did Sartre cross the road?
Because he chose to.

Why did Hobbes cross the road?
Because it was a nasty, brutish, short-cut.

Why did Nietzsche cross the road?
Because it was staring back at him.

Why did Plato cross the road?
He didn’t. He crossed The Road.

Anthony D, by email

Condensed Thoughts

Dear Editor: Here’s a haiku:

A libation! To
our ancestors, who made us
what we think we are.

Julian Hodgson, Lanarkshire

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