Philosophy: the latest answers to the oldest questions by Nicholas Fearn

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The Independent Culture

I must admit, I wondered if contemporary philosophers had anything new to add. The author comments in the preface that most of his illustrious interviewees said the same thing at the start of their interviews: "At first they would inform me, sadly, there had been little progress in philosophical understanding in their lifetime." However, he continues, "They would then begin a long exposition to the contrary."

Each of the three key questions has been broken down into sub-headings such as "Minds and Machines" (Who am I), "The Limits of Understanding" (What do I know) "Moral Luck" (What Should I Do). These three short, "simple" questions involve every major area of philosophy, but especially epistemology, metaphysics, ethics and the philosophy of mind. A daunting task; however, Fearn goes about it in a playful manner, without ever taking his eye off the ball. The book relies heavily on the favoured technique of many philosophers: it makes its points by way of extreme, and often quite dark and funny hypothetical scenarios. For instance, in the chapter "The problem of self", Sir Bernard Williams offers a riposte to those who argue that people's self-identity is based more on their minds (and their memories) than on their bodies: "To test our intuitions about the self, Williams concocts an imaginary scenario in which we are at the mercy of a mad scientist who has a programme of physical torture scheduled for the following day. He asks whether we would feel any less frightened if the scientist promised to wipe our memory clean before setting to work with the hot pliers. In a moment of generosity, he offers to replace our old memories with those of a completely different person - say, Napoleon. If memory is where selfhood lies, then we would have nothing to fear from the new day, as it would be 'Napoleon' who was going to suffer and not us. However most of us would find little comfort in the scientist's sweetener. Indeed, it may seem worse to suffer the double indignity of torture and amnesia, although the great commander's iron resolve and forbearance would doubtless come in handy during the ordeal."

This ongoing discussion on personal identity is the most compelling feature of the book. Derek Parfit's theories are absolutely captivating: he argues against the case for an individual soul, concluding that when he dispensed with it, "the walls of my glass tunnel disappeared. I now live in the open air... I am less concerned about the rest of my own life, and more concerned about the lives of others." At times however, I found the book a tad ham-fisted, for instance when Fearn discusses the case of Major General Kulwant Singh, a former Indian army officer, who supposedly proposed to President Bush, that 10,000-25,000 "yogic flyers" could generate enough meditational energy to ward off any attack on the US or her allies. OK, that bought a smile to my lips, but then Fearn then goes on to state that this is merely an extreme case of somebody mistakenly thinking that if they believe something strongly enough it will help to make it true; and that type of thinking, he says, leads to the periodic resurgence in relativism.

I think I see a flaw in this argument. What if that resurgence of relativism leads to the world changing? And to a new situation "truly" existing? That would, I think, be a case of "thinking" changing the world (albeit indirectly), and becoming "true". However, I'm sure that the author would stick by his guns, inform me that I miss the point, and challenge me to make a teapot fly with the power of thought.