Letter of The Week
According to the bunch of neurons operating the organism known as your correspondent Sam Harris ("The free will delusion", 19 December 2011),
a collective failure of intellectual nerve stops us from accepting that "apparent acts of volition" are no such thing. Naturally, Harris is uneasy about awkward knock-ons such as the evident irrationality, not to mention the injustice, in punishing criminals. But he has a get-out clause: “If I had not decided to write this article, it wouldn't have written itself. My choice to write it was unquestionably the primary cause of its coming into being . . . Human choice, therefore, is as important as fanciers of free will believe."
Here is a man eating the cake he insists he doesn't have, in a corner he's painted himself into. But there is a way out, which is that perhaps consciousness isn't what Harris thinks it is. I don't know what it is either and - pace Daniel Dennett, Nicholas Humphrey and others - nor does anyone else.
If there is collective failure of intellectual nerve, it possibly applies to those who write as if the biological description of consciousness were complete and are thus led into a convoluted oxymoron. Nowadays, it takes more nerve to ask whether there is more to us than meets the scanner.
Decent wages for all workers are vital. However, the living wage, which you and Maurice Glasman advocate (Leader and Guest Column, 9 January), is no panacea. According to Glasman, its logic is that "workers should earn enough to feed their families". But by that logic, a worker with two children to feed would need a higher living wage than a childless worker. Wages cannot take account of family size. This is one reason why, a century ago, Eleanor Rathbone campaigned for family allowances and why universal child benefit, which neither you nor Glasman mention, remains so important.
House of Lords
Francis Beckett's perceptive article on teaching history (Observations, 9 January) was spoiled for me when he quoted with approval from the study by Derek Matthews of Cardiff University: "When the National Curriculum was introduced in Britain in 1989 . . ." It wasn't. Beckett should have corrected this howler. There has never been a British school system - Scotland's has always been separate and so the National Curriculum applies to England and Wales only.
Rafael Behr finishes his article (Politics Column, 9 January) by writing: "Before Ed Miliband can win an argument about welfare and work, he needs to persuade people that his party's priority sincerely is helping people find jobs." I agree, but with three very important caveats: that the jobs created pay enough to ensure that the person doing the job has a decent life, that the job have some security and that it give the person some sense of self-respect.
Old Coulsdon, Surrey
I disagree with Jonathan Derbyshire's apparent suggestion that Noam Chomsky is not interested in intentions and motives behind mass deaths ("Who's left?", 9 January). Whatever the stated intentions that led to the US bombing of the al-Shifa pharmaceutical plant in Sudan in 1998, surely it was carried out in the knowledge that many people would die as a result. Indeed, in a different context, Chomsky has said: "We treat them [victims of US state violence] kind of like the ants we step on when we walk down the street. They're not American citizens, so they're 'unpeople'."
European expectations of the US are coloured by the social-democratic principles that have taken root in our history. Both phenomena were responses to the oppression common to the Continent at the time, but the founding of the US pre-dates the evolution of social democracy in Europe. The US was founded as a state (or collection of states) that was socially just in and of itself - a city on the hill, if you will, which explains why leftist politics has never really had fertile ground to grow on there - until now, arguably.
Sadiq Khan cannot really believe that "integration" between Palestinians and Israelis will create peace (Observations, 9 January) - or that the conflict is about "identity". Perhaps, on his visit, he didn't see the rubble of homes from which Palestinians were evicted in 1948, or 1967,
or a few weeks ago. There will be peace and integration in Palestine only when the Israeli occupation has ended.
North Berwick, East Lothian
Mehdi Hasan brings some welcome light to the "clash" of science and religion (Lines of Dissent, 9 January). The medieval Jesuits were renowned for their research of experimental physics, seismology and astronomy. The 13th-century bishop of Lincoln Robert Grosseteste is recognised as the first person to lay down a framework for scientific methodology. It is probable that if several Christian scholars had not existed, the scientific knowledge available to us now would be severely impaired.
Given the general view of the "unknowability of God", let alone provability, there is scope for the question: "If God exists, what appear to be His characteristics?" In the light of the cruelties of the natural world, many sensitive people recoil in horror at the notion of a loving God, but it may be asked, for instance: what could be the purpose of organising matters in this way, in which the most obvious "intention" appears to be the perpetuation of life at any cost? This seems to me a more interesting question than the endless tussle between those who do and don't believe.
Douglas Hurd writes of "the almost total gloom that descended on the country in the mid-1970s" (Critic at Large, 9 January). This must have affected his eyesight. What about the total despair in the 1980s, when Thatcherism destroyed the UK's manufacturing industry and made three million unemployed?
Mind the gap
Thanks for a first-rate piece on Lebanon ("State within a state", 9 January), but why nothing on economics? There was, and is, plenty of money in Lebanon and much of the Arab world, but it is controlled by dynastic elites that refuse any distribution. Until there is a social revolution or reform based on economic justice and some narrowing of the wealth gap, it is hard to see stability or justice emerging in the region.
Denis MacShane MP
House of Commons