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Camus Is Dead, Long Live Camus! • The Mice of Sisyphus • Epicurean Upgrades • Review Review • Multiverse Probabilities • Selfless Responses • Developing Intelligence • Moral Relativism Is Intelligible • Not Hitler’s Philosophers • Card-Carrying Clairvoyant
Camus Is Dead, Long Live Camus!
Dear Editor: The articles on Camus in Issue 98 revived for me very sweet memories of my student days at University College Dublin, where he was an iconic figure for undergraduate philosophy students. What a talent! And such a loss to a disillusioned generation, to whom he presented an heroic alternative to despair and suicide. His philosophy and literary achievements aside, his triumph over poverty and cultural privation make him a shining light again for the casualties of the recession. Vive Sisyphus!
Frank O’Carroll, Dublin
Dear Editor: Van Harvey’s article in Issue 98 on the possibility of living without a higher purpose was incredibly interesting. However, I am not quite sure that Harvey’s criticism of theism in an absurdist world was rightly placed. Instead of criticizing theism on the grounds that there is too much religious choice, I thought that one should instead criticize theism as simply filling an emotional hole.
As Harvey explains, absurdity explains how humanity has an innate urge to find inherent meaning in life. However, this will ultimately fail because the vast realm of the unknown makes certainty impossible. People are therefore inclined to make the Kierkegaardian leap of faith towards belief in God in order to comfort their otherwise lost souls. However, I must agree with Camus when he contends that this is ‘philosophical suicide’. The problem is not that we are faced with too many conflicting options, as Harvey argues, but rather that people feel it reasonable to jump to one of these options on the basis of blind faith rather than through an approach based on reason. Of course it is ‘intolerably lonely’ to live the meaningless life as described by Harvey, but that doesn’t mean that we need to jump to rash conclusions to satisfy our own anxiety.
Cassian Bilton, By Email
The Mice of Sisyphus
Dear Editor: Thank you for Issue 98 on Camus – hopefully a reappraisal of Sartre is not far behind. I was surprised however, that in this same issue you report that false memories had been planted in mice, the evidence for which is them showing “fear behaviour when placed into a chamber that contained nothing frightening.” The experimenters have clearly failed to account for the mice having experienced the stark terror of the emptiness of the chamber and the pointlessness of their existence therein.
David R Drysdale, By Email
Dear Editor: Brian Dougall’s article on Epicureanism in the last issue touches, I think, on something that many who have read the history of philosophy have pondered. This tranquil, pleasant life of Epicurus in his Athens garden sounds great – but hey, not everybody can go about living like that. And naturally, if you try to go about living nowadays according to the 1.0 version of Epicureanism you will end up under living under a bridge – if you don’t have parents with a big wallet who will take care of the practicalities of life, of course.
But I claim to be a 2.0 Epicurean: I have a family, a non-trivial daytime job that gives me a good income, a house, and the normal stuff you find in a middle-class home. But still, once the things that really need to be taken care of have been taken care of, I have a choice: how much free time do I allow myself, and how do I spend it? This afternoon I read Philosophy Now instead of taking care of the garden, or instead of visiting people I ought to visit, or fixing broken things that ought to be fixed but can wait a little. I have a hammock in my garden which I actually use quite substantially (sadly, the latitude of Uppsala, Sweden has forced it into its winter store now), something that sets me apart from my neighbors. They have their hammocks rigged during the summer too, but you will never find them in it. You will rather find them at the local IKEA, fixing things, driving their kids to sporting activities, or doing family socializing. I do that too, but just on a must-do basis. The rest of my time I’m in my Epicurean garden, reading, taking it easy, talking with my family or friends that I value, or just resting.
Frankly, that pisses some people off, but I don’t care. Of course, I do miss some things that they have, but that’s like all the non-stupid choices you make in life: you gain some and you lose some. And I choose Epicureanism 2.0.
Anders Wallin, Uppsala, Sweden
Dear Editor: Whilst Brian Dougall’s article ‘Epicureanism: The Hobo Test’, PN 98 was immensely entertaining and insightful, I must take issue with his thought experiment. I think it is important to remember that all philosophy is ultimately aspirational, and so for him to render Epicurus’s ideas on pleasure and freedom as outmoded is somewhat unfair. Of course it is unwise to think we are capable of recreating the world of the Epicureans – loitering in ‘blessed Nature’ while shunning the necessities of society. The commune Epicurus set up for himself and his friends near Athens is anathema to modern society’s fixation on both the individual and the market society, and perhaps justifiably so. However, as with all philosophy from antiquity, it is the metaphorical sense that we should derive meaning from. Many of those of the Christian community, for example, recognise that the power of the Bible lies in the symbolic message underpinning the stories.
Epicurus’s ideas on freedom have enormous relevance to the modern world. Epicurus’s commune could be viewed these days as a liberation from the political and commercial hegemony that has dominated the last two centuries. This does not imply that one must give up one’s job or the roof over one’s head and go running off to the woods, as Mr Dougall argues. Another, more modern, way to test the Epicurean hypothesis is perhaps to repel those elements of society that lead to one’s unhappiness. Rather than physical entities, as with Epicurus, they can be more tacit: greed, jealousy, excess, instant gratification. It is arguably the last that now has society by the scruff of the neck.
Finally, it is Epicurus’s thoughts on friendship that are perhaps most pertinent for the modern Epicurean who wishes to avoid a ‘hobo future’. It is real friendship – not the virtual type – that is of most value in one’s life. The meaning of one’s existence can only be sought if someone else is there to seek it from. Epicurus said, “Before you eat or drink anything, consider who you eat or drink with, rather than what you eat or drink.” In his book America, the French philosopher Jean Baudrillard observed people eating alone in New York city. They were regular people on the street, going to or coming from work, stopping for a while with their sandwiches on sidewalks and park benches. For Baudrillard this was the “saddest sight in the world.” This is what a true modern Epicurean must struggle to overcome.
Aidan O’Donoghue, Fermoy, Ireland
Dear Editor: Anybody reading Les Reid’s review of my book The Things We Do and Why We Do Them (PN 98) would be forgiven for thinking that the book is about the problem of free will. In fact I do not address this issue at all in the book, let alone defend the compatibilist position which Reid ascribes to me. It is true that I write that “the events of our doing things must be explained causally,” but I took this stance to be neutral between event and agent causality. My own sympathies, as I suggest in the final chapter, lie with the latter, which brings my view much closer to the one Reid defends in his review. Indeed, I do not think that determinism is true.
But my book is not about this issue. It concerns itself with the ontology of action, the nature of explanation, and the theory of reasons. None of these are even mentioned in Reid’s review.
Constantine Sandis, Oxford
Dear Editor: In response to Joel Marks’s article in the last issue, if we do live in a multiverse containing an infinite number of universes such as ours, must there be other universes identical to ours? This oft-repeated assertion is highly questionable. There is no reason why an infinite set of discrete objects should contain any identical elements. The positive integers are an obvious example of such a set. So even over infinite time, a multiverse could number an infinity of discrete universes, with again no necessity for any two to be identical. And given the amount of quantum indeterminacy since the Big Bang in both our, and presumably the other universes, the probability of two identical universes is much more likely to be zero.
Anthony Sanderson, Oxford
Dear Editor: I had a rather hard time getting past the title of an article in Issue 97. Here is my problem: Regarding Katie Javanaud’s article ‘Is The Buddhist ‘No-Self’ Doctrine Compatible With Pursuing Nirvana?’ – what a strange and confusing question! Let me just say that ‘no-self’ is not a doctrine, and Nirvana is not something to be pursued. Thus, to speak about their compatibility is a meaningless statement. The Buddhist approach is instead an attempt to reveal the illusory nature of the ‘self’. To believe in the self is like being in the desert and thinking that you are seeing a rather large lake ahead, but on second glance, you realize that it is just a mirage.
From a psychological perspective, we suffer from three major distortions. There is parataxic distortion, or Freudian transference, which means that we project our ideas and thoughts upon the world, and experience it in terms of those ideas and thoughts rather than the world as it is. The second distortion is created by the social filters of language, logic, and taboos. The third major distortion, which is inextricably bound to the other two, is that we ‘think’ our experience.
Perhaps the chief difference between Buddhism and the world’s other major faith traditions lies in its presentation of our core identity. The existence of the soul or self, which is affirmed in different ways by Hinduism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, is not only firmly denied in Buddhism, but belief in it is identified as the source of all our misery. The Buddhist path is fundamentally a process of learning to recognize the essential non-existence of the self, while seeking to help others to recognize this as well.
Wes Milliman, by Email
Dear Editor: Katie Javanaud’s ‘No-Self’ article indicates something of a misunderstanding of Buddhist philosophy and practice, revealed by her statements that “what the Buddha meant by… the ‘unborn’… is unclear” and “we cannot assume that the Buddha intended to posit an eternal entity which is ‘unborn’.” Another term for ‘unborn’ is ‘unconditioned’. In the Dhammapada (277-9) it is stated that all conditioned phenomena (experiences) are impermanent and unsatisfactory, and that all phenomena – including the unconditioned – are without Self. This indicates that the sphere of the unconditioned is permanent, satisfactory yet lacking Self. In fact in the Udana the Buddha stated that “if there were not that unborn, unbecome, unmade, unfabricated, it would not be the case that emancipation… would be discerned.”
Furthermore, for Buddhists, the realm of the unborn is where the minds of enlightened beings dissolve at death. So why did the Buddha say that enlightened beings are “not reborn, but neither not-reborn, nor both, nor neither?” The answer is that the sphere of the unborn is beyond all existence and non-existence – neither existent, nor non-existent, nor both, nor neither (the ‘tetralemma’). How remarkable, then, that today we have discovered the objective nature of the unborn! As physicist Giancarlo Ghiradi has pointed out, quantum entities “could be neither here nor there, nor in both places, nor in neither place.” So the realm of the unborn corresponds to the realm of unconditioned awareness which resides at the level of quantum fields. Readers interested in this idea can visit my website quantumbuddhism.com where they will find an article entitled, ‘The Quantum Sphere of the Unborn’.
Graham Smetham, Brighton
Dear Editor: Bruce Hood is quoted by Sam Woolfe in PN 97 thus: “Beyond the experience, there is nothing we can identify as the self.” But could the experience be the self, and still be a thing rather than a no-thing – not there like a table is there, but there like, say, love? Love is not detected via the five senses, but if, for example, mum was told that her love for baby wasn’t there, she would disagree.
If the self is some sort of illusion, it’s still there, because an illusion is there – otherwise what are we clapping at after a performance by a master magician? Of course there’s a difference between ‘there’ and there, and yet the two aren’t so far removed, if the latest theories of particle physics are correct. And everything isn’t physical; even ‘physical’ in the traditional sense of the word isn’t so physical now.
I wrote this email my ‘self’, and ‘you’ are there reading it.
Kristine Kerr, Scotland
Dear Editor: As a father of two under-fives I found Alessendro Colarossi’s argument in Issue 97 that consciousness must be embodied in an environment in order to develop somewhat self-evident. Indeed it seems unfortunate that most people who have the time to pursue philosophy either have not yet had children, or had children so long ago that they have forgotten the challenges faced during a day in the life of a toddler. In the last week I have had to try and teach the lessons, “That pain in your tummy is called ‘hunger’ and will go away if you eat”; “If you cover yourself with a blanket, that uncomfortable ‘cold’ feeling in you feet goes away”; “If you push down on the lid of your toybox at the same time as having your fingers in the box it will make you cry”; and perhaps most challenging of all, “That grumpy feeling is caused by tiredness and if you would only just close your eyes and go to sleep you will feel happier when you wake up.” These lessons seem somewhat incredible to an adult who is used to the way the world works, but are entirely new discoveries for the little mind developing in the toddler. Spending time around a toddler is thus by far the strongest argument for the necessity of embodiment for the development of mind. However, even accepting this argument, I am not convinced that without embodiment “artificial intelligence is in danger of a dead end.” Granted, without embodiment, intelligence ‘like us’ is unlikely to develop; but that does not mean that other types of intelligence cannot be developed. What is needed for artificial intelligence to make progress is less emphasis on recreating ‘mini mes’, and more attempts to think about what intelligence is within the context of artificial environments. Doing this you will not be able to recreate a toddler, but it might make it possible to create a new type of intelligence based upon ‘digital embodiment’.
Simon Kolstoe, Botley
Moral Relativism Is Intelligible
Dear Editor: I am not surprised that Julien Beillard finds moral relativism unintelligible in Issue 97, as he seems to be missing an essential piece of the moral puzzle. The essential piece missing from his article is the framework within which moral rules are derived.
These frameworks are based on:
1) The group or society’s perspective on reality;
2) The priorities of the group or society;
3) The identity of the members of the set the moral code is meant to favour.
These three facets are included in all moral frameworks. Intelligible questions can be asked about all these facets as well as the appropriateness of the rules for the moral framework. The Aztecs believed that human sacrifice was necessary for the rising of the sun, and this belief was encapsulated in their moral framework. Hence their rules encouraging human sacrifice were appropriate to that framework. The problem was not in the appropriateness of their actions relative to their framework, but in their perspective on reality. Similarly, a Catholic might claim that it is moral to have a large family, whilst an environmentalist would claim that a small family is preferable. Again the conflict can be understood by scrutinizing the frameworks giving rise to these rules.
Russell Berg, Manchester
Dear Editor: In Issue 97 Julien Beillard says that the only type of morality that is coherent is absolute morality, and that relative morality is meaningless. He is right to say that disagreement as to what the supposed absolute moral code may be is not a proof that it does not exist. This is hardly relevant, however, in view of the fact that we are still awaiting any hard evidence that there actually is one. That it is a logical possibility, or even the fact that the vast majority of people may think that one exists, is obviously not enough. We used to think that the Earth was the centre of the universe. Complete confusion over what the rules of absolute morality are hardly helps the cause. If, however, those asserting the existence of absolute morality cannot even now tell us what its rules are, then surely it is time for us to look for an alternative explanation for our behaviour.
It was only because we feel pressure to act in accordance with some sort of behavioural norms that the idea of a moral code came about in the first place. Even those who do not believe in absolute morality feel pressure to act in certain ways. Why? I suggest that certain types of behaviour – those commonly associated with the more mainstream moral codes – seem to have survival benefits. The mechanisms that have evolved to give us our day-to-day moral codes (and so our laws) include our empathetic nature, our desire for fairness, our reciprocal altruism, and peer pressure – all of which also exist in other animal species. So I would suggest that what we call ‘morality’ is based on the behaviour we find – consciously or unconsciously – to be in our best interests as a group – whether our family, our tribe, or our nation. This behaviour seems to get set in stone and billed as an absolute moral code, until modified under pressure to adapt – rather like the punctuated equilibrium seen in biological evolution. All absolute moral codes that I am aware of have either been modified in some way over the millennia, or swept aside – which means that our supposed moral rules are simply tools which adapt over time to enable human society to function in a way which promotes its survival.
And so we have laws which, in a democratic society, change as society’s requirements change, but which have for millennia made illegal those things such as murder, rape and stealing which would obviously undermine the trust required for any successful society. I don’t have to feel that these things are morally wrong in order to decide not to do them, although the empathetic nature we have evolved does normally create this feeling. But whether for any particular law I do or do not, it’s still part of the deal with the society in which I live that I should abide by its rules, or suffer the consequences in the here and now.
Paul Buckingham, Annecy, France
Dear Editor: Regarding Joel Marks’ ‘amorality’ in Issues 80, 81, 97: Professor Marks is patently educated and industrious, and probably largely beneficial to humanity, and hardly ever knowingly acting in any way to do harm. Surely this is not an amoral man – except by his own peculiar meaning of the word?
I claim that morality is intrinsic to the evolution of life; an essential mechanism of the survival of the fitter. It’s rational, naturally yielding altruism and involuntary acts of heroism, even ‘consciences’. Actually this was implicitly accepted by Marks in Issue 81: “by instinct, we often behave as the moralist would enjoin us.” Our innate moral behaviour, proven by immemorial trials and errors, is not absolute, but involves mutable norms, also evolving as circumstances change. Human moral codes are moreover developments arising from our outstanding capacities for visual/aural communication via language and art, as records of historic behaviour, and making educated guesses or reasoned forecasts. Viable moral codes, including those of major religions, have much in common just because they must all contain sufficient beneficial injunctions (with effective enforcement) to give cohesion, strength and biological success to their communities. Yet the Law of the Jungle still applies: hence internecine strife and our brutal religious/ideological battles, these being the natural way to select the fitter moral code. It’s not a fault of religions/politics/ideology per se, rather, a facet of evolution – one whose worst excesses we should desire to avoid.
Arthur Morris, Eastbourne
Not Hitler’s Philosophers
Dear Editor: In ‘Bertrand Russell Stalks the Nazis’ (Issue 97), Thomas Akehurst critiques Russell’s efforts to link German philosophers – particularly Nietzsche – to Nazism. Akehurst seems to find Russell’s critique of Nietzsche inexplicable, but there is a natural explanation for Russell’s connection that Akehurst completely ignores. After Nietzsche’s final descent into mental illness, he became totally dependent upon his sister Elisabeth, a rabid anti-Semite and white supremacist. (Her husband attempted to found a whites-only settlement in the mountains of Paraguay.) Elisabeth took control of Nietzsche’s books and papers, selectively editing them and adding her own thoughts to make Nietzsche’s vision appear the same as her own. And she lived long enough to cheer the creation of the Third Reich; she even met Hitler, and told him that he was advancing the cause championed by her brother. It was not until after World War II that philosophers (led by Walter Kaufmann) were able to disentangle the real Nietzsche from the crazed Nazi caricature created by his sister. Little wonder, then, that Russell and many others regarded Nietzsche as a Nazi; they had no less an authority than Nietzsche’s own sister behind them.
Peter Stone, Trinity College, Dublin
Dear Editor: David Clarke’s malicious assessment of Martin Heidegger in Issue 97’s Letters must not be allowed to pass unchallenged. Like Yvonne Sherratt in her book, Hitler’s Philosophers, both writers simplistically assume that membership of the National Socialist Party is to be equated with total agreement with, and hence complicity in, the excesses of Naziism. There is no recognition in Clarke’s letter of the complexity needed to analyse Heidegger’s motives for all manner of actions during the Nazi period.
Anyone intent on establishing Heidegger’s guilt ought to examine the sources that offer a rather different interpretation of events, for example, Rudiger Safranski’s judiciously balanced account in Martin Heidegger: Between Good and Evil. The following passage from that book should suffice to demonstrate the foolishness of attempting to draw a one-dimensional negative portrait of Heidegger:
“Was Heidegger anti-Semitic?… It is significant that neither in his lectures and philosophical writings, nor in his political speeches and pamphlets, are there any anti-Semitic or racist remarks… The situation, as he saw it, was this: he had, for a short while, committed himself to the National Socialist revolution because he had regarded it as a metaphysical revolution. When it failed to live up to its promises, he had withdrawn and pursued his philosophical work, unaffected by the Party’s approval or rejection. He had made no secret of his critical distance from the system but openly declared it in his lectures… When Heidegger refers to the perversions of the modern will to power, for which nature and man have become mere ‘machinations’, he always, explicitly or not, also means Auschwitz. To him, as to Adorno, Auschwitz is a typical crime of the modern age.”
Stefan Krzeminski, Nottingham
Dear Editor: I wanted to respond to some of the questions raised by an article on Fortune Telling in a recent issue (96).
As a Tarot Card Reader, I often have to defend my profession against disrespect from both religion and scientism. Some fanatics think what I do is pure evil, and get me drummed out, but adherents of scientism can also be scornful. I explain that I know it is all projection, and that I simply help people think through their issues with greater clarity. I show that I do more or less what psychotherapists do.
But I am being disingenuous when I pretend psychology is all that’s involved. Every day I see something supernatural in the Tarot. Most rational people are amused by clairvoyance, even when it happens before their eyes, but I like living in a world where the irrational is still a useful part of the mind. Tarot is a way of thinking that does not know that science, art and religion are separate. I would be fascinated to know how the Tarot works, but I am cozy with the mystery.
Reading Tarot is a collaborative process, like a negotiation. Based on randomly chosen cards, I give people a picture of what’s happening in their lives. People respond to this picture, modifying what I tell them. Thus we gradually come to an agreement about what the cards mean. I never tell them something is fated. I talk about possibilities, suggest choices, and discuss outcomes. I remind people that our fortunes also depend on others, and that we cannot control everything, or other people. I also always try to empower the person, reminding him or her that whatever happens, we choose how to respond. A lot depends on how we phrase the questions: not “What is going to happen with X?” but “How can I best succeed with X?” Not saying “this is wrong” but “this will be a challenge in the following way…”
I believe I dispel delusions more often than I reinforce them. I am not cheating people, any more than a priest or psychotherapist or sympathetic mother figure is. Synchronicity happens!
Anna Gurol, Olympia, WA