PHILOSOPHY PATHWAYS ISSN 2043-0728
Issue number 142 30 March 2009
I. 'Philosophy's Present Perspective' by Jasper Doomen
II. 'A Critique of Peter Raabe on Placebo Philosophy and Religion' by
Ruel F. Pepa
III. 'Response to Max Malikow on Altruistic Suicide' by Geoffrey Frost
This issue of Philosophy Pathways is dedicated to the memory of my wife, June Wynter-Klempner, who died last Wednesday, March 25 at St Luke's Hospice, Sheffield. A devout Catholic and also a talented painter, June special love was religious art, and our home was full of her canvases, sculptures and watercolours.
We met at an art class in 1986. It was on my wife's insistence that I returned to philosophy after a period of doubt and self-questioning.
The theme of our marriage was 'difference'. My grandparents were Jews from Eastern Europe; June's parents emigrated to the UK from Jamaica in the 60's. The conclusion of my 1998 paper, 'The ethics of dialogue' shows the strong influence of our marriage on the development of my philosophical views:
Commitment to moral dialogue binds us together as social,
moral beings. Nothing, finally, exhibits that fact more
starkly than the custom of two individuals solemnly
agreeing to share the rest of their lives together, 'for
better or for worse'. Between the partners of a marriage
there is no accepted buffer zone of 'tolerant' indifference;
arguably, an essential ingredient in the cement of human
society at large. I have to be prepared to justify each and
any of my actions to you -- at least, those which impinge on
you or the children, which is near about all -- as you have
to be prepared to justify each and any of your actions to
me. More than that, each of us must answer to what has
become of our life -- the life we planned, or dreamed,
dreams brought to fruition or which we sorrowfully failed
to bring to fruition, a life racked and riven by painful
adjustments and renunciations on both sides, coloured by
the resentment over lost hopes and opportunities,
periodically and continually thrown into question as if we
were free to start with a blank sheet when in truth there
seems precious little room for anything but the occasional
marginal scribble. Yet for all that, you are my truest
'thou' (in the popular phrase, my 'significant other') and
to break off our dialogue now, after all that has gone
before, would be to choose a spiritual death. -- Is a form
of human society conceivable that did not have choice of
relationship at its core? Would it be possible for all
moral dialogue to be conducted 'safely', at arms length? --
Such a society would surely be a society without a centre
Geoffrey Klempner 'The Ethics of Dialogue'
The funeral will take place at Our Lady and St Thomas of Beauchief Catholic Church, Meadowhead, Sheffield S7 at 10 am, Wednesday, April 1, followed by interment at Hutcliffe Wood Cemetery, Abbey Lane. Reception at the church is on Tuesday, March 31 at 6.30-7.30 pm.
In this issue, Jasper Doomen gives his take on the current state of academic philosophy, criticizing the trend to over-specialization which he argues is contrary to the true spirit of philosophy.
Ruel Pepa raises some pertinent questions about Peter Raabe's provocative article, 'Placebo Religion and Philosophy' which appeared in issue 135 of Philosophy Pathways.
Geoffrey Frost responds to Max Malikow's article, 'Altruistic Suicide' which appeared in the most recent issue, 141, of Philosophy Pathways.
I. 'PHILOSOPHY'S PRESENT PERSPECTIVE' BY JASPER DOOMEN
Philosophy's position vis-a-vis the sciences has evolved from an encompassing one, in ancient times, when mathematics and natural sciences had not yet produced results to such an extent to qualify them as separate disciplines, through an auxiliary one in the medieval academic curriculum, embracing what is now known as the humanities and some basic education in mathematics and astronomy -- characterized together as the artes liberales -- to a present, relatively clearly demarcated one. As the various sciences have progressed, several new fields have come to the fore, having been divided as specializations, e.g. biochemistry, geology and linguistics. Philosophy itself has only recently presented itself as a distinct discipline.
This development is usually beneficiary or even necessary: there is often a high degree to which one needs to command a specific knowledge or to be able to perform very particular tasks. In the case of the sciences, a number of external factors call for the specialization. In the field of medicine, for instance, new inventions make it possible to cure diseases, or facilitate treatments; new applications of techniques in the field of architectural engineering, to mention another relevant domain, have a great impact on our infrastructure.
This situation does not apply to philosophy, or at least not necessarily. Philosophy is a reflective discipline. It, too, has flourished and seen the rise of new branches, such as philosophy of mind, and its body of thought has vastly expanded. Moreover, within the already existing branches, it has seen a degree of specialization not unlike that in many of the sciences. It may now prove to be as difficult for someone who has focused on one of its fields to comprehend -- let alone gain a sufficient overview -- the results obtained in another. The developments in the field of logic, in particular since the rise of predicate logic, for example, have been impressive, both quantitatively and qualitatively; it can be very hard -- and not just as a result of a lack of time -- to command them for a supposedly relatively informed scholar, such as someone who has acquired a general knowledge of philosophy and has concentrated on an unrelated field as aesthetics. Some of the specializations in philosophy may nowadays indeed be regarded as fully developed fields of study, with enough literature and relevant topics at one's disposal to fill a Bachelor's program if one would so desire.
This state of affairs is easily contrasted with those in earlier times. As simplistic and outdated as some theories propagated by ancient and medieval philosophers may seem to be at present -- though I would by no means want this to imply that they in fact are -- at least those thinkers could discuss their topics in common. Of course, one may object that the reason this was possible lies precisely in the fact that these were still, in a number of respects, somewhat crude and lacking: a limited amount of information is easily shared. Though this is not without merit, it rather points to something else. None of the issues previous philosophers have dealt with have been resolved at present in a philosophical way; if any answers have been found (albeit provisional ones),
they can be qualified as scientific, having been emancipated once rubricating the results obtained necessitated this process. Actual responses were found, so that any philosophical interest waned. The real philosophical discussions have merely become more sophisticated. Further, some discussions in philosophy are closely connected with scientific issues, such as artificial intelligence, psychology, Darwinism, physics, mathematics economy, and law.
The thorough specialization which has slowly become characteristic for philosophy in the same way as it has for the sciences has led to results not unlike those which can be ascertained in the realm of the sciences. It is not surprising that scientists of widely different disciplines can hardly understand each other's research -- a geneticist and an art historian, for example, have relatively little in common -- a situation which will only increase as time goes by and there will be a growth in results, which will moreover become more intricate than before. As I said, external factors are largely responsible for this outcome. As long as one wants to maintain the standard of living one has come to know and to strive for progress (in whatever way one wants to comprehend the word), benefiting from new cures to diseases, relatively safe ways of transportation, and such, this situation, at least to some degree, must be accepted.
Philosophy's position differs from this in that the presence of the external factors mentioned is less compelling. There is no need for philosophy to produce material results craved for by society. Its presence is justified by its task to reflect on issues such as those discussed here. In order to maintain this position, however, it seems necessary that it is not scattered like the sciences. In the case of the sciences, this is to some extent a result of their own success; in the case of philosophy, no similar success has been reached. By developing as it has, it will in the end render itself useless as the justification mentioned will have ceased to exist. To be sure, the highly specialized debates it produces are not devoid of value, but this consists primarily in the exercise of (academic) abilities; because of the ever higher degree of differentiation, it will prove to be difficult to share thoughts except between a small group of specialists, which is exactly the case for the sciences, with the crucial difference, again, that in their case there is a need to resort to this state of affairs, a need which does not rise for philosophy.
How, then, could some sort of unity be maintained in philosophy? It seems necessary to ascertain a canon of literature, comprising the most important works which have appeared. Of course, it may be a matter of debate which would be included. Still, the problem is not yet as great as it might seem. At the moment, there is still enough coherence and some consensus about the literature appears to exist, considering contents of the courses taught at universities. As to the writings, it is necessary that one focus on the content rather than on the quantity of secondary literature mentioned. If it serves a supporting role, the use of literature is desirable, but it should not replace the primary goal, to convey one's message, a danger which lurks with the ever growing amount of (secondary) literature one is expected to keep up with.
1. There was, of course, no specific moment when this situation presented itself; rather, a gradual development occurred, and it may be argued that as late as the 18th century, philosophy was not yet regarded as a separate discipline in some respects (R. Posner, The Problematics of Moral and Legal Theory, pp. 111, 112. Cambridge, Mass/ London: The Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1999).
2. Cf. R. Rorty, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, p. 131. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1980.
3. E.g. J. Searle, 'Minds, Brains, and Programs'. In The Behavioral and Brain Sciences, vol. 3, issue 3: pp. 417-457. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 1980.
4. E.g. D. Dennett, Consciousness Explained. Boston/ Toronto/ London: Little, Brown and Company, 1991.
5. E.g. D. Dennett, Darwin's Dangerous Idea. London: Allen Lane, The Penguin Press, 1995.
6. E.g. W. Heisenberg, Physics and Philosophy. New York: Harper and Row, 1958.
7. E.g. H. Poincare, La Science et l'Hypothese, Ch. 1-5, 9. Paris: Ernest Flammarion, 1912; P. Benacerraf, 'Mathematical Truth'. In The Journal of Philosophy, vol. 70, issue 19, November 8, 1973.
8. E.g. J. Rawls, A Theory of Justice. Cambridge, Ma.: Harvard University Press, 1999.
9. E.g. R. Posner, op.cit.
10. One may, of course, relativize the value of these results from an academic perspective (cf. T. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, pp. 163, 164 . Chicago/ London: The University of Chicago Press, 1996).
11. It may be difficult to maintain that progress may be realized at all, but a discussion on that matter would lead to too great a digression here.
12. Ironically, this paper itself contributes to this problem.
(c) Jasper Doomen 2009
II. 'A CRITIQUE OF PETER RAABE ON PLACEBO PHILOSOPHY AND RELIGION' BY
RUEL. F. PEPA
At the beginning of his essay 'Placebo Philosophy and Religion', Peter Raabe acquaints us with an understanding of the concept of 'placebo':
[A] placebo is a faux-medication (such as a sugar pill)
with no active therapeutic ingredients. A placebo effect is
when the patient believes that the faux-medication he is
receiving has active ingredients in it because he's
convinced he can feel its non-existent effects.
Prof. Raabe's point in the above statements is specifically in the area of belief -- i.e., how the mind accepts (or rejects) something that the body receives. What he talks about in this sense is something that has been introduced to the body and the mind takes it as the real thing. This point should be kept in memory as the author later in the paper appropriates the same concept to describe a certain type of religion and a certain type of philosophy which to him are not acceptable. However, such application of the concept of ' placebo' is very much different from what he later says:
I define placebo religion as when a believer believes that
a piece of supposedly spiritual writing he is reading has
active spiritual 'ingredients' within it. The same piece of
writing will cause different believers to understand the
spiritual message in very different ways. But like the
placebo pill, placebo religion has no 'active ingredient'
in it; the message of placebo religion is always vague,
ambiguous, full of cliches and New Age platitudes, so that
multiple interpretations can all seem correct.
This concern is about an idea (which is supposed to be 'spiritual') introduced, of course, not to a person's body but to his/ her mind and therefore the mind has a direct or immediate even automatic access to it through cognition. In this case, nothing is 'placebo.'
Supportive of his own assertion, Prof. Raabe further comments:
In placebo religion all the benefit comes from the belief
of the believer. Not surprisingly there are psychological
benefits, just like there are with a placebo pill, but
there is no evidence that there's any spiritual benefit in
the writing itself. For example, there is no evidence that
there is an 'absolute Truth' or that finding it will lead
to some sort of miraculous change in one's life. Without
belief a placebo religion, just like a placebo pill, has
nothing substantial to offer. And to offer placebo religion
as though there's something substantial in it is clearly
deceptive and immoral.
The problem with this view is the author's failure to signify the fact that all religion is a matter of belief -- in fact, a matter of faith -- wherein no factual basis is deemed necessary. In religion, what is given due weight are the resultant notions of in-depth reflections driven by the human desire to get to a better and more coherent understanding of the human condition regardless of how a certain aspect of reality is perceived objectively.
Accepting Prof. Raabe's view on religion logically leads us to conclude that there is no religion that is not placebo. As far as 'spiritual benefit' is concerned, it is not Prof. Raabe nor anybody professing her/ his religion has the right/ duty/ capability to determine a person's 'spiritual benefit' from her/ his religion except the person who practices the religion herself/himself.
What makes the situation worse is, Prof. Raabe's attempts to further extend his claim into the realm of the philosophical as he scores that,
[u]nfortunately, not all philosophy is beneficial. There
exists quite a bit of what I call placebo philosophy. The
ancient philosopher Epicurus said that philosophy which
does not relieve any human suffering is just empty
philosophy. Just like a pill that is empty of any medicinal
ingredients is a placebo pill, philosophy that is empty of
any beneficial 'ingredients' is placebo philosophy.
Yet, it is important to note that this view could simply be understood as a matter of Epicurus' opinion. Philosophy may lead one to suffering but such a situation is all because of one's commitment to always search for truth. One thing that we should realize is that searching for truth -- which is a serious philosophical commitment -- does not always make us feel good. In other words, engaging in philosophical exploration/ adventure/ inquiry is oft-times (if not always) 'painful' and not 'relieving.'
The misleading notion advanced by Prof. Raabe here is that for philosophy to be genuine, it has to 'relieve suffering.' This notion is not only misleading but illusory because for philosophy to truly serve humanity, it should have its feet touching the ground of human reality which is generally characterized by sufferings. In view of this, philosophy's major role is to bring humanity face to face with reality whatever its condition may be.
Prof. Raabe disagrees:
Empty intellectual philosophy consists of published works
that are difficult if not impossible to understand because
they're full of technical jargon, neologisms (invented
words), ambiguity, vagueness, New Ageisms, and
post-modernisms that lend themselves to a multitude of
With this, Prof. Raabe unfortunately fails to realize that such is the very condition that makes philosophy exciting and challenging: A multitude of interpretations. Why flee from the challenges posed by whatever form of philosophical/ intellectual discourse?
1. Peter B. Raabe 'Placebo Religion and Philosophy'
Philosophy Pathways Issue 135, 2 May 2008
(c) Ruel F. Pepa 2009
Professor Ruel F. Pepa Trinity University of Asia
III. 'RESPONSE TO MAX MALIKOW ON ALTRUISTIC SUICIDE' BY GEOFFREY FROST
I have enjoyed reading Max Malikow's thought-provoking articles but I feel I must take issue with him about the most recent one on Altruistic Suicide. I applaud his defence of the concept of altruism against the arguments of Daniel Robinson and Ayn Rand. It is the matter of suicide that I dispute.
The principal examples used do not meet the definition of suicide viz.'the act or instance of intentionally killing one's self'. It is the intention of those in the examples that is at issue because their actions were each intended to further quite another objective than killing themselves. The pilot wanted to avoid harming the children in the playground, Clementine Geraci wanted her baby to be born unharmed, the naval chaplains wanted to save the lives of other sailors.
That all of them were prepared to accept an inevitable death demonstrates, not that they sought this, but the steadfastness of their other purposes. If they could have achieved their aims without dying they would surely have done so. Had they chosen to die unnecessarily, when their aims could have been achieved another way, the moral status of their actions would have been compromised.
The US Marines and the Japanese Samurai seek to act honourably in conflict, not to die, even if they are prepared to do so. Kamikaze pilots intended to destroy their targets. Soldiers who behave recklessly, seeming to seek their own deaths, are often considered to be in pursuit of their own glory and thus not altruistic. By virtue of their recklessness they are neither good people nor good soldiers.
Considering suttee, in the West, at least, we have moral objections to the practice which I think are these. First; the main objective is the death itself, an outcome which can't be regarded as good in itself. Second; any other objectives (perhaps the honour of the family and demonstration of devotion) are only to be achieved by virtue of the death itself. Third; because of family and cultural pressure, or the perception of that by the widow, the action may not be freely entered into. If it isn't free, action isn't altruistic.
As I understand the gospel accounts of the death of Jesus, he was crucified by people who were free agents like everybody else, as a result of their intentions, not His. That He was aware He would die and accepted death is not to say that He intended it. This may be a simplification of complex theology but I think it is a defensible analysis even if there is a lot more to be said on the matter.
In the light of the above I am very doubtful if there could be any instance of true altruistic suicide. The instances Max Malikow cites do not persuade me otherwise, not as Ayn Rand and Daniel Robinson might argue because altruism is disputed but because suicide has not been established.
1. Max Malikow 'Altruistic Suicide'
Philosophy Pathways Issue 141, 30 January 2009
(c) Geoffrey Frost 2009