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Letters | Issue 158 | Philosophy Now

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High Impact Thinking • Computations & Cogitations • Postmodernism Lives! • (M)Eat To Live • Right & Wrong Still Debated • A Multiplicity of Meanings • A Quantum of Freedom • Letters from Women Readers

High Impact Thinking

Dear Editor: I was pleased to see asteroids mentioned in many of the answers to Issue 157’s Question of the Month: ‘How will humanity end?’ Including comets would have been even better. But a couple of misconceptions about our vulnerability to this type of apocalypse need correcting.

One of the writers stated that “all very large asteroids are tracked.” No… only the ones we have discovered. It is true that a number of NASA folk have said that we have found all of the near-Earth asteroids that would be large enough to wipe us out, but this is premature and misleading. Statistically, we have indeed found almost all that are thought to be out there; but we can never know if we have found all of the objects that might significantly impact Earth. In particular, we do not know of any comets from the Oort Cloud, or any interstellar objects (likely also comets) from another system that may be heading our way until they arrive in the inner Solar System, since, being on parabolic or hyperbolic orbits, they show up only once.

Another writer stated that “with the advancement of science, predictions of such events are becoming increasingly accurate. Preventive actions would therefore be possible…” No again: we could prevent such a strike only if we’re prepared to deflect or destroy such an object ahead of time, which we are not. This is because such an object (especially if it’s a comet coming from the Oort Cloud or another star system), will only become visible when there is very little time to stop it from hitting us. Kepler’s Second Law is the culprit here.

Planetary defense against asteroids and comets has made tremendous strides in its short (forty-year) history. Unfortunately, it has been hobbled by fallacious reasoning about risk and probability. As a Socratic gadfly to the planetary defense community, I have brought this to the attention of many people, and not had to drink any hemlock yet. The main problem is bureaucratic mindset: NASA is charged with scientific research and exploration, not defense, and military powers are oriented to defense against human adversaries, not a space rock. So the necessary funding has not been made available. Interested readers can find more details here: online.fliphtml5.com/uokwb/maid/#p=16.

Joel Marks, Prof. Emeritus of Philosophy, University of New Haven, CT

Computations & Cogitations

Dear Editor: I was interested in Jared Warren’s article ‘Solving the Mystery of Mathematics’ in Issue 157. I certainly agree that mathematics is mysterious. Some patterns which follow mathematical sequences are present in nature, such as spirals in flowers, snails, and galaxies following the Fibonacci sequence. As Warren states, just as the disease of tuberculosis predates its concept being formulated in the nineteenth century, so this pattern predates Fibonacci creating his sequence in the thirteenth century. Also, leaves and tree branches are fractal in nature. Musical patterns being reduced to mathematical ratios was first postulated by Pythagoras, who probably was the first philosopher of mathematics. But other mathematical concepts, such as the square root of minus one, are not easily identified in nature. In this sense, then, mathematics can be split into the patterns which are the abstract objects of mathematics, and pattern analysis, which is the practise of mathematics. Taking this approach, Warren’s mathematical conventionalism makes sense, as using rules and conventions to analyse objective patterns.

Russell Berg, Manchester

Dear Editor: ‘Solving the Mystery of Mathematics’, in Issue 157, was a long article, well-elaborated. But I don’t attach mystery to math, just as I don’t to physics, medicine, and science generally. I consider these disciplines as progressions that advance at a measured pace. Certainly, it was significant that Newton and Leibniz worked on developing calculus independently, each without immediately knowing of the other’s work. Was that mystery, or, was it like-minded contemporaries, whose backgrounds were commensurate? There are notable examples of such parallel achievements in other fields of human endeavor.

More generally, what is reality? Well, it depends. Like J.L. Austin, I argue that reality is contextual. We make it up as we go. And belief is contextual, mostly consistent, yet sometimes having plasticity. Years ago, transgender ideology was not widespread. The idea of boys being girls and girls being boys was abhorrent, if not abomination. The Kinks changed all that with ‘Lola’: if boys could be girls, and girls could be boys, why not? The notion caught on, and has become a movement. This movement transmuted into medical breakthroughs. So now, boys become girls, girls become boys. The worms in the can are beginning to stir. But it does show what Foucault and others have said about power: Reality is whatever someone says it is: here, there, and anywhere…

Paul D. Van Pelt, USA

Postmodernism Lives!

Dear Editor: Thanks for the book review in Issue 157 of Metamodernism, concerning life after postmodernism. But I suspect that there’s still life left in postmodernism. Its major ingredient is relativism. Relativism implies that any ideas may be valid to someone. Indeed, some versions of relativism assert that all ideas are equally valid. If this is the case, relativists are presented with a vast buffet of ideas to select from, or, indeed, from which they might select collections of ideas. This is philosophical pluralism, and, of course, it raises the question of how to select. One possible criterion is to select those ideas that are useful to an individual, a group, a class, or a society. This is philosophical pragmatism. And usefulness might mean contributing to the eradication of oppression. What more could you ask for from postmodernism?

Douglas Bell, Sheffield

(M)Eat To Live

Dear Editor: Prof Brown is appalled that each year some seventy billion animals are killed so that we can eat them (Issue 157). But those animals would never have had a chance of life if we did not farm them. Surely the moral aim must be to give them good lives and easy deaths – better than would be likely in nature – not to deny them life? As for fish, we do not know how distressing their natural deaths are, nor how many smaller marine animals are spared because we eat them.

Brown claims that scalewise, killing farm animals is a bigger moral problem than any human misery. But several factors determine our duty to relieve distress: including the number distressed, the severity of the distress, the cost of relieving the distress, and the moral proximity of the distressed creatures to us. We have a greater duty to humans than to cows, and a greater duty to our own family than to strangers. If I saved three stranger children from a burning house instead of my own two children, my priorities would puzzle many. The distress of a pig is important, but the distress of a person is more important, to people.

The complete adoption of veganism would have problems. Some land is suitable for pasture, not crops, and that would be wasted, while humans go hungry. We are descended from hunter-gatherers, and our digestive systems are adapted to a mixed diet. One study suggested that children grow better when they eat meat, which, unlike plants, contains all the amino acids we need. Meat is also rich in iron, and menstruating vegan females who do not eat iron-rich vegetables may become anaemic. Vegetables are mostly poor in vitamin B12. Its deficiency causes pernicious anaemia. If veganism became general, we should all take it in tablets, and some might not. Also, we would still need to kill wild animals to protect crops.

Professor Brown should advocate the humane treatment of farm animals, not their extinction, alongside alleviating the widespread misery of humans. It would benefit our health if we ate less red meat.

Allen Shaw, Leeds

Right & Wrong Still Debated

Dear Editor: The article by Paul Stearns, ‘Right And Wrong about Right and Wrong’ in Issue 156, is magnificent! It includes an incisive examination of moral thought over the centuries. The theories on what it is to be moral or ethical are frequently reduced to three: Deontology (or Kantianism), Utilitarianism, and Virtue Ethics, each of which has several sub-categories. ‘Internecine warfare’ is how one academic philosopher described the conflict between Utilitarianism and Kantianism. Meanwhile, Stearns asserts that moral people at all times and places seek to reduce unnecessary suffering, create order, be fair, and treat people with respect. This statement is near to being a universal moral code. Thinkers have set out a similar moral code for two thousand years, starting perhaps with Solomon in the Book of Proverbs about 1000 BC. For instance, Proverb 3.27 says “Do not withhold good from those to whom it is due, when it is in your power to act”, while Proverb 3.29 is: “Do not plot harm against your neighbour, who lives trustfully near you.” A thousand years later Jesus promotes the Golden Rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” (Luke 6:31), which in its reverse wording is, “Do not do to others…as you would not wish them to do to you” (Confucius). And in the Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain philosophies is the concept of Ahimsa: “Respect for all living things and avoidance of violence towards others.” Marcus Tullius Cicero wrote similar thoughts in about 60 BC in On Living and Dying Well, and John Stuart Mill repeatedly condemns harming others in his book on Utilitarianism (1863). Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, says: “Our prime purpose in life is to help others. And if you cannot help them, at least don’t hurt them.” This is the wording I prefer.

Given the near universality of this moral code, and its direct applicability to the many controversies we see, it is a total enigma to me why there are so many competing moral theories.

Dr Peter Bowden, New South Wales

Dear Editor: In ‘Right & Wrong About Right & Wrong’ in Issue 156, Paul Stearns dismissed moral relativism and presentism, stating that we share the same basic moral obligations even when we have different cultures. One example he gave was quite controversial: Eskimos killing a newborn for the survival of older siblings. Their cold environment is undeniably harsh, and they have to make a choice. But it is still a gift from God, with many blessings. A better example is from my country, Algeria, a land renowned for the millions who sacrificed their lives in a war with France for a better future with freedom for the generations to come. That’s a clear virtue – a sacrifice for the greater good.

Stearns mentioned slavery as part of the moral debate. In a hadith the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) said: “There is no difference between an Arab and non-Arab and between Black and White, except in piety.” This was 1400 years ago; but it was only in the last two centuries that slavery was definitively abolished by the colonizing powers. Therefore, as different nations, our ethical standpoints do differ when it comes to secondary moral values, and even with primary moral values in certain other issues, too.

Mohamed Ali Sebaoune, Algiers

Dear Editor: In Issue 156 Paul Stearns argued that various times and cultures share the same foundational moral values. However, the reasons he provided for his claim seem a bit dubious to me.

First, while it is intuitive that some moral standards are universal, such as reducing human suffering and treating others with respect, the author doesn’t explain what makes these standards universal. Simply asserting it as a fact overlooks another origin story of those standards that Andrew Kemle explores in the same issue: namely that these moral standards are necessary to ensure cooperation and so survival in a society. If so, which moral standards become universal depends on the contingent nature of human psychology and the specific evolutionary challenges humans encounter. Thus ‘universal’ standards apparently can fundamentally change to ensure continued cooperation in society.

Secondly, the universal moral standards the author ascribes to a culture appear to belong only to the individual. Claiming that a culture is founded on the standard of reducing human suffering, invites one to think that the culture is disposed to institutionalise activities and reward behaviour consistent with this value, and that even if a culture goes against its foundational values, over time the pressure from the majority of the population would force a change back. But the author himself points out that historical societies haven’t had a problem with ignoring their supposed moral foundations, institutionalising slavery and human sacrifice. He admits even today’s Western culture can and actively go against these foundational values. So either most cultures are hypocrites, or moral values have fundamentally varied between cultures and times. Indeed, the examples Stearns uses, Buddha and Jesus, show how individuals try to change cultural behaviour based on their personal moral convictions; but in doing so they can’t exemplify already-held moral standards in their culture – rather, they are protesting against prevailing values.

Oliver Daniel, Estonia

Dear Editor: I very much enjoyed Prof Massimo Pigliucci’s discussion in Issue 156 of the six core virtues that are largely shared by all (or at least, a great many) cultures. One virtue in particular, gratitude, he briefly includes under the rubric of ‘transcendence’ and imputes to Greco-Roman philosophies. I would like to make the case for gratitude as a central value in classical Stoicism. (I also believe that gratitude is a cardinal value in most of the other spiritual traditions mentioned, such as Judaism, Buddhism, Islam, etc.)

We find numerous statements regarding gratitude or thankfulness in the writings of the Stoics, not as a mere feeling, but as a virtue to be cultivated. For example, in a letter to his younger friend, Lucilius, Seneca writes, “It is in no man’s power to have whatever he wants; but he has it in his power not to wish for what he hasn’t got, and cheerfully make the most of the things that do come his way.” And in another letter Seneca quotes the moralist Publilius Syrus: “The poor lack much, the greedy everything.” This maxim may serve as a synopsis of the Stoic view of gratitude – or rather, of ingratitude. We also find gratitude in abundance when Stoic Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius begins his Meditations with a litany of ‘thank you’ notes to everybody from his paternal grandfather to the gods. For example: “Courtesy and serenity of temper I first learnt to know from my grandfather Verus… Manliness without ostentation I learnt from what I have heard and remember of my father… My mother set me an example of piety and generosity.”

Stoicism is popularly associated with a kind of ‘stiff upper lip’ emotional reserve. But in my view, Stoicism’s emphasis on gratitude is emblematic of the Stoic’s deep-seated joy in life.

Ronald W. Pies, MD, Lexington, Massachusetts

Dear Editor: Thank you for Philosophy Now 156. Reading metaethics really is hearty porridge for the brain! But if I may, I will take issue with one small but significant part of Justin Bartlett’s article ‘The Cognitive Gap’, exploring basic distinctions between understandings of ethics. When explaining cognitivism, Dr Bartlett uses the example ‘Grass is green’ as a statement of objective reality, which according to the cognitivists is a quality moral judgements also display. However, ‘green’ is a naming convention employed in the English language. If Dr Bartlett was writing in Italian he would have used ‘ verde’. Something closer to a limited objectivity might be achieved in the statement, “The combination of pigments in grass, and the effects of light on that combination, give grass a colour which, using the naming conventions of the English language, we call ‘green’.”

There is also the deeper matter of the nature of the perception of grass as green. If I understand the idea of ‘objectivity’ correctly, it implies ‘universal’. So if ‘grass is green’ were objectively factual, any and all perceptions in the universe must conclude that ‘grass is green’. But a human perception is not automatically universal: it’s first anthropic, and may be universal. A little caution, and a dollop of humility, is required to remind us that these truths are being perceived by a speck in the vast span of space and time. This matters, especially when discussing important stuff like metaethics, for without recognition of the anthropic (and presentist, by the way) lens through which we look, we might fail to note that the effects of our declarations of truth and fact are felt beyond our human selves.

Peter Pearce, Brisbane

A Multiplicity of Meanings

Dear Editor: In Issue 156, ‘Should We Take Vagueness Seriously?’, I was surprised that the author didn’t mention Ludwig Wittgenstein. The so-called ‘second’ (later) Wittgenstein was very interested in vagueness. By introducing the idea of family resemblances, did he not give new meaning to this particular characteristic? Indeed, many of the words we use in daily life – at least those we use to talk about things, processes, and activities – lack precision. There will be multiple criteria for meaning. So there is no definite set of characteristics in linguistic meaning, and not one of the elements has to be present as long as enough of the others are present. This is called the quorum feature of language.

Lucien Karhausen, Brussels

A Quantum of Freedom

Dear Editor: In his discussion of ‘quantum ethics’ (PN 156), Myles King falls into the common trap of forgetting that ‘we’ are part of ‘the world’. Consciousness gives us, among other things, the capability for integration of inputs. We happen to be just that bit of the world which, at the time of choice, integrates a web of causation that leads up to the decision: so it really is we who decide. Neither is Myles justified in claiming that the ‘spontaneous appearance’ of choices could be a source of free will. A spontaneous event is by definition uncaused, and what is uncaused cannot be caused by our will. Free it may be, but willed it cannot be.

The quantum metaphor can provide a much better explanation for free will. An objective account of how a decision is made, and a subjective account of it, are, like waves and particles, just two different ways of describing exactly the same thing. The fact that free will does not feature in the objective account does not preclude it being a feature of the subjective.

Roger S. Haines, Ealing, London

Letters from Women Readers

Dear Women Readers: We are worried by how few letters we receive for this page from women readers. What are we doing wrong, and how can we improve? Would you care to write us a letter about it?

Philosophy Now Editors

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