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Showing posts from April, 2007

The Jesus light

Last night I spoke at the Durham University Debating Society. The motion before the house was “This house believes Jesus Christ is the way the truth and the life.” Proposing were philosopher Prof. Richard Swinburne, the Bishop of Edinburgh Brian Smith, and a Seventh Day Adventist Minister called Don. What I found especially interesting about the debate was the Bishop’s approach. He deliberately eschewed argument and appealed instead to personal experience – an experience relating to what he called “the meaning of life”. I’ve seen this done before, but the Bishop was particularly good at it. He started with jokes, but then gradually began to speak more softly and with feeling. In our quietest moments, he said, each one of us – yes, even a cynical atheist – is aware, deep down, of a light. It’s an awareness of something fundamentally good, of a yearning to be something better than we are. This something is... Jesus. Sombre nodding from the Christian Union contingent. When the Bishop sa

Clarity, continental philosophy, and bullshit

I posted this under the Nigel Warburton interview below, but thought it also worth posting properly... There's a sort of Hegelian story about reason, the Enlightenment, the French revolution and the Terror, and later, with Lyotard etc., the Holocaust, to which many in the continental tradition sign up. On this story, reason, as understood by Enlightenment thinkers - and also by today's analytic tradition - is in reality something rather crude and, to some extent, oppressive (even just another form of power). Indeed, it is reason (thus understood) and the Enlightenment that are ultimately responsible for the horrors of both the guillotine and Auschwitz. I guess that's what anonymous is alluding to when he connects philosophical clarity to "the Terror"? There's a certain sort of "continental" bullshit artist that, having become familiar with this narrative, then plays the following game: 1. Alludes knowingly to the narrative, so that those also fa

Bill O'Reilly interviews Richard Dawkins

Here's Dawkins talking to Fox News' right-wing Catholic Bill O'Reilly. Interestingly, O'Reilly plays the relativist card, "Well, it's true for me that Jesus is God", as well as aiming a blunderbus-full of crap [typical Fox style] in Dawkins' direction, including atheism is just as much a faith position , and (paraphrasing) "Well, how do you explain why the universe exists, then? Until you come up with an answer, I'm sticking with Jesus!" Not surprisingly, Dawkins struggles a bit to cope with it all. My question is, what would have been the best responses to O'Reilly?

INTERVIEW: Nigel Warburton

Nigel Warburton is senior lecturer in philosophy at The Open University . He is one of the world's foremost popularizers of philosophy, and has a particular gift for explaing things clearly. His books include Thinking from A to Z (about to come out in its 3rd edition this summer), Philosophy: The Essential Study Guide and The Basics of Essay Writing . As the issue of clarity came up in the comments on a recent blog of mine. I asked Nigel five questions about clarity (questions in bold). At the top of your website the Virtual Philosopher you quote John Searle: "If you can't say it clearly, you don't understand it yourself". What is clarity, and why is it important in philosophy? Clarity is expressing yourself in a way that allows readers to follow what you are saying. It minimizes the risk of misinterpretation. Clarity contrasts with obscurity. Obscurity leaves at least some readers in the dark about your meaning. I like the quotation from Searle. I like

Review: The Pig That Wants to Be Eaten

Here's a review of Baggini's The Pig That Wants to be Eaten that I did for The Guardian. The original review contained a silly slip which I have fixed here (serves me right for hacking the text about last thing at night before submitting it. If you want to spot the error - go to the original here ). Do you remember having a rather disturbed night's sleep about a month ago? That was the night I stole your brain. After landing my flying saucer in your garden, I crept into your bedroom and surgically removed your sleeping brain. I whisked it to my laboratory back on Pluto and connected it up to a supercomputer running a virtual-Earth program. This computer is currently feeding into your brain the same patterns of electrical stimulation that used to be produced by your sense organs, when you still had some. So it seems to you as though you're still on Earth. But everything you seem to observe around you, including this newspaper, is actually virtual. You've been brai

Another myth about atheism

Here is a Guardian Face to Faith Piece by Nicholas Buxton. It perpetuates a whole series of myths about atheism and the Enlightenment. Buxton is in fact more or less quoting from Rowan Williams' Dimbleby Lecture in which Williams claims that only a religious tradition makes "possible a real questioning of the immediate agenda of a society, the choices that are defined and managed for you by the market." Buxton would have us believe only the religious ever really question our shallow commercial culture. They alone are the "free thinkers". As an atheist philosopher who has spent half a lifetime asking such questions as whether there’s a God, whether life has meaning, what makes things right and wrong, whether there may be life after death, and whether there is anything beyond the material, I find it surprising that Buxton and the Archbishop would pretend that it’s only from the perspective of a religious tradition that such questions ever get asked. The great

Bruce Anderson on "moral necessity of Christianity"

Here , by the way, is Independent columnist Bruce Anderson recently repeating the same tired old neo-con guff that I tackle in the post below, but with the added point that only a robust Christian culture can withstand the onslaught of Islam. That Anderson has been reading the U.S. neo-cons is perhaps suggested by the following passage (read it, then compare it to the quotes from Bork, Himmelfarb and Kristol about our "moral capital" being "depleted" in my post below). "...one point should have occurred to the adherents of [atheism], at least in a Christian country. Even if they reject faith, it might be better if not too many others followed their example. In the West, we have a vast cultural and intellectual heritage. But our ethical heritage is sadly depleted." Here too is Melanie Phillips promoting the same "to hell in a hand-basket" neo-con line. Her main point seems to be that only the religious are prepared to really fight (Islam)

The dependence of morality on religion

Is religious belief indispensable to a healthy and prosperous society? That morality cannot survive without religion is a perennial worry. Even the Enlightenment thinker Voltaire (1694-1778) would not allow his friends to discuss atheism in front of his servants, saying, I want my lawyer, tailor, valets, even my wife to believe in God. I think that if they do I shall be robbed less and cheated less. Here, too, is Democrat senator Joseph Lieberman echoing George Washington: As a people we need to reaffirm our faith and renew the dedication of our nation and ourselves to God and God's purpose… George Washington warned us never to 'indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Even Adolf Hitler insisted that "[s]ecular schools can never be tolerated” because a morality that is not founded on religion is built “on thin air”. But of course the claim that morality is causally dependent on religious belief - that it will not (or at least is unlik

The God of Eth (part 3)

In The God of Eth , I point out that many of the popular arguments for belief in God (e.g. intelligent design, fine-tuning, first-cause, etc) are actually just as much arguments for an all-evil creator as an all-good one, for they give us no clue at all as to God's moral character. In response to The God of Eth , some (e.g. Richard Swinburne, in conversation) have suggested that there is an important asymmetry between the evil God and good God hypotheses. There is, they suggest, powerful evidence for a specifically good God that is not mirrored by evidence for an evil God. Here are two examples: The argument from miracles. There is evidence that miracles occur. People receive miraculous cures of afflictions and diseases, for example. The Catholic Church has investigated and confirmed many examples. Why would an evil God perform them? Argument from religious experience. People have religious experiences. And what they report of the experience is invariably positive. They repor

James and "The Will to Believe"

Another section - feedback please... Many people believe in God believe while acknowledging that their belief lacks strong grounds. They believe anyway, despite the insufficient evidence. They have faith. Not everyone is impressed by this sort of faith. The 19th Century mathematician and philosopher W.K. Clifford argues that it is actually morally wrong to believe on the basis of insufficient evidence. Clifford says, “it is wrong, always, everywhere and for anyone to believe anything upon insufficient evidence”. As Clifford supposes that those who believe in God believe on the basis of insufficient evidence, he considers their belief immoral. William James attacks Clifford’s view, insisting that we are sometimes right to believe, even when the evidence is inconclusive. In The Will to Believe, he argues that this is precisely the situation regarding belief in God. Though James is a scientist, he thinks that science has its limitations. There are circumstances, he thinks, when a scie

Mirror puzzle - solution?

What follows is my own suggested solution to this puzzle - scroll down for the puzzle (I note several of you offer much the same solution) We noted before that, in a sense, mirrors don’t reverse anything. So why do we say they reverse left-to-right, but not top-to-bottom? Well, if the mirror before you was replaced by a sheet of glass, and you were to stand behind the glass in just the position your mirror-self seems to stand, then while your head would still be at the top and your feet at the bottom, your left hand would be over to the right, where your right hand appears in the mirror, and your left hand would be to the left, where your left hand appears. That is why we say the mirror reverses left-to-right, but not top-to-bottom. But notice that we have just taken something for granted: the axis about which we rotate you when we imagine you over there behind the mirror. When we turn something round, we rotate it about an axis. A spinning top, for example, rotates around a vertical

God of Eth (part 2)

Before we return to mirrors, Alex has posted a very good comment on the God of Eth (scroll down). Alex says: I’m surprised that some one as distinguished as your self sees this as a tidy reversal on the theists arguments . Well I admit the God of Eth is as it stands a thought experiment designed simply to provide a challenge - to give believers a jolt, if you like. There are innumerable moves that might be made to defend God, and it is hard to anticipate them all in one short article (well, it's impossible). Theists may conclude the argument must therefore be weak and inconclusive. But that would a mistake I think. After all, there are innumerable moves that might be made to defend belief in an Evil God, too, far more than I mentioned (try coming up with your own - it's fun). Yet it remains blindingly obvious to anyone with eyes to see that there is no such being. The question is: why isn't the same true of the good God hypothesis? Alex then says. The all evil God expe

Mirror puzzle

Take a look at yourself in a mirror. Now imagine yourself actually standing where the mirror-version of you appears to be standing. Of course, your mirror-self’s head is still at the top and their feet are at the bottom. But notice that their left and right sides are switched round. Raise your left hand and wiggle your fingers. It is the right hand of your mirror-self that wiggles their fingers. Mirrors reverse left-to-right. But not top-to-bottom. But why do mirrors reverse the left-to-right, but not top-to-bottom? What accounts for this peculiar asymmetry? Some of the world’s greatest minds – including that of the Ancient Greek philosopher Plato – have struggled with and been defeated by this infernal mystery. Notice that this left-right switch still happens no matter which way up you happen to be. Lie on your side in front of a mirror and see the result. It Is still your left and right sides that are switched round, not your head and feet. Nor does it matter which way round the mi

Augustine on evil

Here is a draft chapter I am working on. All feedback gratefully received. AUGUSTINE QUOTE: … were it not good that evil things should also exist, the omnipotent God would almost certainly not allow evil to be… Although Augustine was born and died in Hippo, North Africa, he spent much of his life travelling around the Mediterranean world. Augustine wrote, in effect, the first autobiography – his Confessions – detailing the development of his thinking. Augustine’s confessions are entertaining and frank, and include details of his sexual adventures. Augustine apparently used to pray “Lord make me chaste, but not yet.” Augustine’s main philosophical achievement was to take the philosophy of Plato (chpt XX) and Plotinus (chpt XX) on the one hand, and the Christian belief system on the other, and marry the two together. The marriage is not quite one of equals – while Augustine thinks philosophy important, its role is secondary to religious revelation. Where philosophy fails to fit with