Friday, September 28, 2007

Are upper middle class kids innately smarter and more talented than other children?

Earlier, I made a case for banning private schools (see "ban private schools" link to the left), and also responded to various objections that you raised.

My case for banning was really on two fronts:

A practical case - we're wasting enormous amounts of native talent - and perhaps even missing out on that cure for cancer - because second-raters are, in effect, being bought a place at the front of the high-status jobs queue.

A moral case - it is unjust that the children of a small minority should so dramatically dominate the high status professions because their parents bought them a "superior" private education. For by buying their own children a leg up in this way, they dramatically restrict the life chances and opportunities available to other, innately more gifted and talented individuals.

However, my objection did, in both cases, rest on an assumption - that the children of those 7 percent who dominate the high status professions do not, in fact, have greater native wit and talent. I've been assuming that native wit and talent is distributed fairly evenly across the social classes. But perhaps it isn't. It's this suggestion that I now want to explore.

Could the children of that top 7%, who so effectively hand on power and privilege from generation to generation, actually be innately smarter and more gifted than the rest? Could this be the real reason why they dominate those high status professions?

Monday, September 24, 2007

Ban private schools

Perhaps its time to revisit the debate on banning private schools. To get things started, here's an article by Will Hutton in yesterdays Observer.

Hutton cites new research by the Sutton Trust revealing a third of all admission to Oxbridge came from 100 schools, all but two of which are private.

In particular, the top private schools did massively better than their exam results should predict.

This social stratification is now hardening.

Of course, Hutton is not recommending banning private schools. But I am... if you want to know why scroll down banning private schools.

Saturday, September 22, 2007


Here’s a short introduction to some of the philosophical issues about happiness. We are going to look at three key questions:

Is happiness just about feeling good, or is there more to it than that?
Is feeling good always what motivates us? And:
Is increasing happiness always morally the right thing to do?


Happiness is elusive – something we work hard to achieve, yet rarely seem to find. Indeed, as T.S. Elliot reminds us, the harder we strive to attain happiness, the more quickly it seems to recede over the horizon.

We see them everywhere, those trying desperately for happiness: pitifully chasing clouds of butterflies, laughing too loud, drinking too much, buying too much, working too hard; hating themselves.

Perhaps one of the reasons happiness is hard to achieve is that it’s not entirely clear what we are after. So let’s begin by asking: what is happiness?

Nowadays we tend to think of happiness as a more-or-less transitory feeling. Take the social scientist Richard Layard - he defines happiness as “feeling good”. But this is not the only possible conception of happiness. In fact happiness as Layard defines it is a comparatively modern notion. The ancients viewed happiness very differently.
According to Aristotle [384-322 BC], for example, happiness, or eudaimonia, is not a feeling. Rather it’s a feature of a complete life. It’s also a moral feature. A happy individual is one that has lived a life of virtue.

The Good of man is the active exercise of his soul’s faculties in conformity with excellence or virtue… Moreover this activity must occupy a complete lifetime; for one swallow does not make spring, nor does one fine day; and similarly one day or a brief period of happiness does not make a man supremely blessed and happy.

Those who are happy are those that have lived lives of good character.

To our modern ears, this sounds odd. Clearly, we no longer associate happiness with morality in quite the way the ancients did. Aristotle believed that a virtuous individual would thereby be a happy individual. This necessary connection between virtue and happiness is no longer assumed to exist.

The link between a virtue and happiness was partially severed by the Christian church, particularly during its more ascetic periods. A virtuous life may eventually bring the reward of happiness, it was thought. But in the next life, not this.

Indeed, some Christians have supposed that the more one suffers now, the better. Not only have they shunned worldly pleasures and preached abstinence, they have even, like St. Jerome, embraced self-flagellation or, like Origen, engaged in self-mutilation (Origen, an early Christian father, actually castrated himself).

Nowadays, we Westerners are more relaxed about seeking happiness in this life. But the link with morality that you find in Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics has almost entirely been lost. The suggestion that the best way to achieve happiness is to live a virtuous life is rarely, if ever, made.


Let’s now turn to a rather different question: is happiness our ultimate aim in life? Many assume it is. The only reason we do anything, they say, is to make ourselves feel better, to maximize our own happiness. Richard Layard, for example, says that “From the various possibilities open to us, we choose whichever combination of activities will make us feel best.”

This psychological theory of why we do what we do is easily refuted.

Achieving a feeling of happiness and contentment is not always what motivates us.

Suppose, for example, that, after seeing the suffering of starving children on TV, you decide to give generously to a charity dedicated to helping them. Surely you’ve acted to increase the happiness of others, not yourself? “Not so” comes the reply. “The real reason you gave to charity was to make yourself feel better, to salve your own conscience and make yourself feel noble. So you see? Your motive for acting was to make yourself feel good.”

As an explanation for why anyone ever acts selflessly, this won’t do. Suppose I could offer you a magic pill that made you believe you had given generously to charity when in fact you hadn’t. Then you could both enjoy feeling happy about giving to charity, and also feel good about spending the cash. Would you take the pill? Of course not. Most of us would reject the pill and still to give to charity. Yet if feeling good were all we were after, taking the pill would be the obvious choice.

True, acting to help others does often make us feel happier. It doesn’t follow that making ourselves feeling happier is our motive for doing it. It’s reassuring to discover Layard is mistaken – that we aren’t quite as self-obsessed as he would have us believe.


Now to another question concerning happiness: Is maximizing happiness always morally the right thing to do? Jeremy Bentham 1748-1832], the father of utilitarianism, famously declared that ‘The greatest happiness of the greatest number is the foundation of morals and legislation’. Utilitarianism, in its simplest form, says that the right thing to do in any given situation is to act to produce the happiest outcome - that which produces the most pleasure and the least pain.

Bentham himself developed a “felicific calculus” into which factors such as intensity and duration of pains and pleasures could be fed to calculate the right course of action.

Here’s a simple example of such a utilitarian calculation – should I steal that child’s sweets? Doing so might give me the pleasure of eating them. But it would deprive the child of the same pleasure and cause her considerable unhappiness to boot. So the right thing to do, on this simple utilitarian calculation, is not to steal the sweets.

The “happy-drug”

One glaring problem with the simpler forms of utilitarianism is that they seem prone to an obvious sort of counterexample. What if we could make everyone feel wonderfully happy by constantly injecting them with a happy-drug? Would that be the right thing to do, morally speaking?

No. Turning everyone into blissed-out drug zombies would be wrong. Making people “feel good” may be of some moral importance. But it’s not of overriding importance.

Higher and lower pleasures

One way in which a utilitarian might respond to this sort of counterexample is to distinguish between higher and lower pleasures. J.S. Mill (1806-1873) does precisely this. An intense, drug-induced reverie may be agreeable. But it produces a pleasure of a very shallow sort compared to, say, the pleasures of the intellect - which, according to Mill, include the appreciation of poetry and philosophical debate. Doping people up to the eyeballs may induce an intense sort of pleasure, but it deprives them of the opportunity to enjoy higher, more important pleasures. Which is why it would be the wrong thing to do.

This distinction between higher and lower pleasures may get the utilitarian off the hook so far as the “happy-drug” objection goes, but it strikes many (including Layard) as objectionably elitist and paternalistic. Is the pleasure of engaging in philosophical debate or listening to Mozart really superior to that of filling ones belly with chocolate ice-cream? Aren’t such distinctions mere snobbery?

Mill thought not. He argues that only those who have experienced both the higher and lower pleasures are in any position to judge which are best, and those who have had the luxury of experiencing both tend to prefer the higher.

But is this true? Actually, many of those in a position to enjoy both kinds of pleasure like to be seen to enjoy the higher while secretly over-indulging their taste for the lower.

Transplant case

Another classic counterexample to utilitarianism is the transplant case. Suppose you’re the doctor in charge of six patients. The first has a minor medical condition easily cured. The others have failing organs and will soon die without transplants. No replacement organs are available. But then you discover that the first patient can provide perfect donor organs. So you can murder the first patient to save the rest. Or you can cure the first and watch five die. What is the right thing to do?

A simple utilitarian calculation suggests you should kill one patient to save the rest. After all, that will result in five happy patients and only one set of grieving relatives rather than one happy patient and five sets of grieving relatives. Yet the killing of one patient to save the rest strikes most of us very wrong indeed.

What this case of brings out, it’s suggested, is that the right course of action is not always to maximize happiness. Indeed, it’s said that such cases demonstrate that human beings have certain fundamental rights, including a right to life, and that these rights ought not to be trampled, whatever the consequences for happiness.

Nozick’s Experience Machine

Here’s one last apparent counter-example to utilitarianism from the contemporary philosopher Robert Nozick. Suppose a machine is built that can replicate any experience. Plug yourself in and it will stimulate your brain in just the way it would be stimulated if you were, say, climbing mount Everest or walking on the Moon.The experiences this machine generates are indistinguishable from those you would get if you were experiencing the real thing.

For those of us that want to experience exotic and intense pleasures. this machine offers a fantastic opportunity. Notice it can even induce higher pleasures - the pleasure gained from engaging in a philosophical debate or listening to a Beethoven symphony need be no less intense for being experienced within a virtual world.

Many of us would be keen to try out this machine. But what of the offer permanently to immerse yourself in such pleasure-inducing world?

Most of us would refuse. Someone who has climbed Everest in virtual reality has not really climbed Everest. And someone who has enjoyed a month-long affair with the computer-generated Lara Croft has not really made any sort of meaningful connection with another human being.

The truth is we don’t just want to “feel happy”. Most of us also want to lead lives that are authentic. Someone who (like Truman in The Truman Show) had unwittingly lived out their whole life within a carefully controlled environment might subjectively feel content and fulfilled. But were they to be told on their deathbed that it had all been a carefully staged illusion - that there had been no real relationships, that their “achievements” had all been carefully managed - then they might well feel that theirs was, after all, a life sadly wasted.

Again, it seems that what Layard calls “feeling good” is not, ultimately, what’s most important to most of us. Nor, it seems, is arranging things to maximize the feeling of happiness always morally the right thing to do. Secretly plugging everyone into a deceptive, Matrix-like pleasure-inducing virtual world would surely be very wrong indeed.


To finish, let’s take a brief look at the link between happiness and consumerism. In section one we saw how our modern conception of happiness taken a subjective turn – focussing increasingly on “feeling good”, In fact it has also become increasingly consumerist. Often as not, the way in which we seek to feel good is by acquiring more stuff.

We Westerners have become significantly wealthier over the last fifty years or so. We own more colour TVs, microwaves, cars etc. then ever before. And yet we do not appear to be appreciably happier. The proportion of Americans describing themselves as “very happy” has remained about one third since the 1950s, despite their increasing affluence. Why is this?

The psychologist Paul Wachtel believes the explanation lies in a feature of human psychology known as adaptation. We have simply become accustomed to rising levels of affluence. In fact when affluence continues to increase, but not quite so sharply, people end up less happy and perceive themselves to be poorer than they were before.

In judging how well off we are economically… we assimilate new input to our ‘adaptation level’. For many Americans, having one or several color television sets, two or more cars… these and others features of their lives are experienced as the ‘neutral point’. They do not excite us or arouse much feeling. Only a departure from that level is really noticed.

The endless spiral of material acquisition cannot make us more content. Like a drug addict, we simply become accustomed to whatever we’re getting, cease to derive much pleasure from it, and start demanding even more. As a result, explains the philosopher Peter Singer,

once we have satisfied our basic needs, there is no level of material comfort at which we are likely to find significantly greater long-term fulfilment than any other level.

And of course, if the resources on which we’re drawing are finite, ever-rising levels of consumption are impossible to maintain.

Singer argues that we need fundamentally to rethink our attitudes to contentment and reject this consumerist model of happiness that is dragging us all to our doom. He may be right.

Main Conclusions

We’ve drawn three main conclusions:

1. Our modern conception of happiness as “feeling good” is not the only possible conception of happiness. Nor is it obviously the best conception. In losing sight of the ancient notion of happiness, might we have lost sight of something valuable?

2. Those like Layard, who believe we always act to make ourselves “feel good” are simply mistaken. Making ourselves “feel good” is not usually what’s most important to us.

3. Nor, it seems, is maximizing happiness always morally the right thing to do.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Oxford University: online Philosophy Gym course

Oxford University Dept. of Continuing Education asked me to write an online course based on my book The Philosophy Gym.

It's for anyone new to philosophy wanting an introduction to the subject, and includes tutoring.

You can find out more about the course here.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Podcast interview SBS Sydney

There's a podcast of my interview on Australia's SBS, about The War For Children's Minds, here.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Review: Consolations of Philosophy by Alain De Botton

This review was published in The Mail on Sunday, back in 2000.

Was I too harsh?

Broken heart? Take some Schopenhauer. Frustrated? Try a little Seneca. Money-worries? Epicurus can help. In The Consolation of Philosophy, Alain De Botton takes a novel approach to popularizing philosophy, explaining how six different philosophers can help us in six of life’s darker moments. Consolations is tied to a new six-part Channel 4 TV series Philosophy: A Guide to Happiness, also written by De Botton. Given the hype and the link to a TV series, the book is likely to be a best seller. But how good an introduction to philosophy is it?

It does sound like a great idea. The market for self-help books is booming. And popularizing philosophy has become sexy, especially since the success of Sophie’s World. So why not mix the two together in one winning formula?

But can Seneca and Epicurus really help us with our woes? The trouble is, dispensing practical advice on life’s problems is not what philosophers do best, even when they do it at all - which is rarely.

Take Epicurus on money-matters. Epicurus points out that money can’t buy you happiness. Having great wealth won’t make you happy if you have no friends. And with good friends by your side you can still be happy even if you have few material possessions. All true, no doubt. But it’s hardly very deep, is it?

Or consider Seneca’s advice on dealing with feelings of frustration - one is less likely to feel frustrated if one lowers ones expectations to something more realistic. You don’t say.

Yet for those beset by money-problems or frustration, this platitudinous stuff is pretty much all Seneca and Epicurus have to offer. If you genuinely seek consolation and practical advice you would do better to ask Miriam Stoppard and Claire Rayner.

Readers new to philosophy might be forgiven for concluding that if this is what philosophers actually spend their time doing - writing comforting “guides to life” - and if, indeed, De Botton has provided us with six examples of the best they have to offer, then philosophy’s reputation has been vastly over-inflated.

That would be a shame. Actually, philosophy really can enhance your day-to-day life, but not in the way De Botton suggests. Here’s how.

First, those who have never really grappled with the big questions lead impoverished lives. Like goldfish that lack any sense of what lies beyond the glass wall of their bowl, they have no real sense of the great mysteries that lie beyond the boundary of their everyday lives.

Secondly, and more importantly, those who have never taken a step back - who have lived wholly unexamined lives - are not just depressingly shallow, they are also potentially dangerous. To slip into the mental habits and unexamined assumptions of those around one is the mark of the moral sheep. And moral sheep are easily led astray.

Thirdly, the intellectual skills that exposure to a little rigorous thinking about the big questions can foster are valuable. Being able to formulate a concise argument, follow a complex line of reasoning or spot a logical howler is always useful.

De Botton is to be applauded for trying to make philosophy accessible and relevant to the lay public. Certainly, Consolations makes for a largely effortless read. De Botton himself comes across as witty, affable, scholarly and disarmingly frank. The book is full of biographical details, historical asides and personal reminiscences, all of which help bring the sketches to life. As an easy introduction to what six philosophers have to say on six perennial personal problems, Consolations is undoubtedly a success.

But before you rush to buy it, be clear what this book is not. It is not much of an introduction to doing philosophy. Those who wish to exercise their thinking skills won’t get much of a workout. The six chapters are almost wholly descriptive. There is no critical engagement with any of the ideas presented. Indeed, we don’t even get much indication of whether De Botton himself agrees or disagrees with any of the six philosophers concerned. We are simply told what Socrates said about this and what Epicurus said about that.

My main concern about The Consolations of Philosophy is the false impression it gives - that Western philosophy actually aims, among other things, to console us and dispense practical advice.

Here’s a quote from a review on Amazon that demonstrates just how seriously De Botton misleads his readers: “Philosophy is simply an old-fashioned term for what is now called self-help or counselling.” See what I mean?

Be warned - very, very few philosophers recognise this as the proper business of philosophy. Philosophy - like science - aims at truth. Sometimes the truth turns out to be consoling. But, often as not, the truth disturbs.

De Botton is at least partially guilty of dressing philosophy up as something it is not. He does so because he thinks this will make philosophy more palatable to the general public. Harmless enough, perhaps, so long as it is remembered that De Botton places centre-stage what philosophers actually do rather badly and pushes into the wings what they do well.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Five Private Language Arguments (International Journal of Philosophical Studies 12, no. 2 (2004))

My paper Five Private Language Arguments is available here.

Comments welcome.

It provides a fairly clear explanation of five different private language arguments that philosophers have supposed Wittgenstein offers in PI 258. I intended it to function as a good introduction to the whole private language argument topic.

If I ever get round to writing a book on the Philosophical Investigations, it will form part of that book.

Incidentally, the clearest intro to the Investigations is still Marie's McGinn's (though I don't agree with McGinn on e.g. the private language argument - see my paper). I have just ordered Block's How to Read Wittgenstein - will let you know what I think.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Galileo and the Inquisition

Here's a little essay I am working on for this blog. It's in progress, not finished... you may have suggestions as to how it might be improved. See previous post for context.

Some Catholics insist that Galileo was condemned, not for his scientific views, but his theological views. Here for example, is Patrick Madrid:

Galileo confused revealed truths with scientific discoveries by saying that in the Bible "are found propositions which, when taken literally, are false; that Holy Writ out of regard for the incapacity of the people, expresses itself inexactly, even when treating of solemn dogmas; that in questions concerning natural things, philosophical [i.e., scientific] should avail more than sacred." Hence, we see that it was Galileo's perceived attack on theology (which is the unique domain of the Magisterium and not of scientists) that elicited the alarmed response from the Church.

Thomas Lessl takes a similar view: that Galileo’s scientific views were not the “real source of his ecclesiastical difficulties”

What, then, caused the row with the Church? The first thing to remember is that Galileo's heliocentric theory, although sternly opposed by theologians… wasn't the real source of his ecclesiastical difficulties. Rather, the cause of his persecution stemmed from a presumption to teach the sense in which certain Bible passages should be interpreted….

McAreavey, in a letter to The Guardian, also voices the view that Galileo’s

subsequent trial and house imprisonment was not for his scientific views but for his refusal to refrain from theological interpretations of scripture.,,2127291,00.html

Madrid also quotes Rumble and Carty:

Galileo made the mistake of going outside the realm of science to invade the field of theology. He set himself up as an exegete of Scripture and thus brought upon himself the censures of lawful religious authorities.

That belief that the Church's dispute with Galileo was essentially theological, not scientific, is held by a significant number of Catholics (though of course by no means all). Is the belief true?

The issue of "interpretation of scripture"

Galileo was brought before the Inquisition because he was alleged to have claimed that the Copernican system was not merely a useful hypothesis, but literally true - an opinion the Holy Office had already commanded him to relinquish back in 1616.

What happened is this. To claim that the Copernican system is not just a useful hypothesis, but literally true, is, on the face of it, to contradict what the Bible has to say. See for example:

…tremble before him, all earth; yea, the world stands firm, never to be moved. 1 Chronicles 16:30

The Lord reigns; he is robbed in majesty; the lord is robbed, he is girded with strength. Yea, the world is established; it shall never be moved.
Psalms 93:1

Say among the nations, "The Lord reigns! Yea, the world is established, it shall never be moved; he will judge the peoples with equity." Psalms 96:10

Also see Joshua 10:12-13, where Joshua commands the sun to “stand still” – which it does, which entails that it had been moving.

In claiming that his theory was literally true, then, Galileo would immediately be seen by many to be contradicting holy scripture.

Galileo was indeed accused of contradicting scripture by his enemies Colombe and Caccini.

Short of saying that, “Yes, The Bible is indeed in error”, Galileo was then left with no choice but to say that these and other Biblical passages would, then, have to be interpreted differently.

Which is what he did say.

This certainly did upset the Church – particularly as it was believed Galileo had failed to supply any demonstrative proof of his scientific theory at that time (he had no proof, in fact).

Some theologians (e.g. Cardinal Bellarmine) were prepared to accept that scripture must indeed be reinterpreted if it could be proved that the Earth moved and the sun didn’t.

But here was Galileo claiming scripture must be reinterpreted, yet he could supply no proof! So now he's in trouble!

Does all this, then, vindicate the claims of Madrid, MacAreavey and Lessl?

Madrid and MacAreavey

Now let’s return to MacAreavey, who says,

[Galileo’s] subsequent trial and house imprisonment was not for his scientific views but for his refusal to refrain from theological interpretations of scripture.

Madrid concurs. Now it is true that Galileo’s claim that scripture would have to be understood differently did indeed upset the Church, and certainly was an issue at his trial.

But of course, the only way Galileo could cease to make the claim that scripture would have to be interpreted differently would be to either (i) insist the Bible was just false, period, or (ii) cease asserting his scientific theory was literally true.

So the Church certainly was demanding that Galileo cease claiming his scientific theory was literally true.

It is clear, then, that Galileo’s scientific claims were not irrelevant to his trial. Far from it – they were pivotal.

On that issue, MacAreavey and Madrid are just wrong.

However – we might still debate to what extent it was Galileo's scientific views, or just his theological views, that were fundamentally at issue.Which brings us back to Lessl...


As we saw above, Lessl says:

Galileo's heliocentric theory, although sternly opposed by theologians… wasn't the real source of his ecclesiastical difficulties. Rather, the cause of his persecution stemmed from a presumption to teach the sense in which certain Bible passages should be interpreted….

Lessl makes the dispute primarily theological, not scientific. Is that fair?

I don't think so.

The Church’s position was this: that scientists could not - on pain of imprisonment, torture or even death - express a scientific belief contrary to what scripture appeared to say unless they could provide proof that the belief was true (in which case, scripture would have to be “reinterpreted”).

It is this position that lies at the root of Galileo’s difficulties with the Church.

It is a position on what scientific beliefs may be expressed.

Perhaps you're still tempted to think Galileo's trial primarily concerned Galileo's view that scripture must be reinterpreted?

Then consider this analogy. Suppose a mad dictator, Fred, decrees the Earth is flat, and then dies. Fred's totalitarian regime continues on without him, however, imposing his beliefs upon its citizens. But then a scientist under the regime dares to voice the view that the Earth is not flat, but round. The scientist is arrested, tried and imprisoned for life. Accused by other nations of suppressing scientific theories, the regime responds by saying that the prisoner was (primarily!) prosecuted not for his scientific views - oh no, no, no! - but for his Freddist views - in particular his suggestion that Fred must either be wrong, or else reinterpreted.

We would be astonished at their chutzpah, would we not?

Saturday, September 8, 2007

Letter to Danielian

I just received a letter, forwarded by The Guardian, from a Dr Danielian, who takes me to task for maintaining in letter (go here and scroll down) to The Guardian that, contrary to what another letter had suggested, Galileo and Bruno were hauled before the Inquisition for their scientific views.

Here's my response. I'll add to it in the next post, as exactly how some Catholics try to justify the view that the Church was not concerned with Bruno's and Galileo's scientific views is worth unpacking...

Dear Dr Danielan

I just received your letter to The Guardian.

Thanks for taking the time to respond to my letter.

I can’t say I agree with you, though. The issue I addressed, remember, was whether Galileo and Bruno were hauled before the Inquisition for their scientific views, or merely their theological views. I rejected the claim that it was only their theological views that were of concern to the religious authorities.

I pointed out that, as even Koestler says, Galileo was indeed condemned for his scientific views, in particular, for repeating the claim that Copernicus’ system was not just a useful hypothesis but literally true (a claim he had already been warned by the Church not to repeat).

You agree, I see. But then you agree that his scientific views were indeed of concern to the Church, do you not? True, you add that Galileo had no proof. Perhaps. But that’s irrelevant to the point being discussed.

Second, you maintain Bruno’s scientific opinions were of no concern to the Church, and quote Koestler in your support.

Perhaps you are unaware, but Vatican documents now confirm the opposite. Go to:, where you will find this:

In one of the last interrogations before the execution of the sentence (maybe in April 1599), the Dominican friar was questioned by the judges of the Holy Office on his cosmogony conception, supported above all in the “La cena delle Ceneri”(Ash-Wednesday Dinner) and in the “De l’infinito universo et mundi”. Even then, he defended his theories as scientifically founded and by no means against the Holy Scriptures (left side, from the first line: Circa motum terrae, f. 287, sic dicit: Prima generalmente dico ch’il moo et la cosa del moto della terra e della immobilità del firmamento o cielo sono da me prodotte con le sue raggioni et autorità le quali sono certe, e non pregiudicano all’autorità della divina scrittura [...]. Quanto al sole dico che niente manco nasce e tramonta, né lo vedemo nascere e tramontare, perché la terra se gira circa il proprio centro, che s’intenda nascere e tramontare [... ]). (Circa motum terrae, f. 287, sic dicit: Firstly, I say that the theories on the movement of the earth and on the immobility of the firmament or sky are by me produced on a reasoned and sure basis, which doesn’t undermine the authority of the Holy Sciptures […]. With regard to the sun, I say that it doesn’t rise or set, nor do we see it rise or set, because, if the earth rotates on his axis, what do we mean by rising and setting[…]).

Note Bruno was questioned on his “cosmogony conception”. And he defended his theory as “scientifically founded”.

Koestler was no doubt unaware of these documents. I also ask, where is the evidence to support your claim that Bruno was not hauled before the Inquisition for, among other things, his scientific views?

So, I stand by my claim that Bruno and Galileo were hauled before the Inquisition for their scientific views (which is not say that their theological views were not of concern too).

All best wishes

Stephen Law

PS. I guess you may agree with Ratzinger, who thinks “The process against Galileo was reasonable and just”. Is it your view that the Church did little wrong in the Galileo affair?

Friday, September 7, 2007

Event: The Resurrection of Religion

I will be appearing at the Institute of Ideas' "Battle of Ideas" festival on Sat 27th Oct at 3.30 - 5.00pm, at Upper Gilbenkian Theatre, the RCA.

The theme is:


Speakers are:

Frank Furedi (professor of sociology, Univ. of Kent)
Ruth Gledhill (religion correspondent, The Times)
Stephen Law

Chair: Dolan Cummings

More info here.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

Systems of Measurement

Here is a copy of my 2005 paper Systems of Measurement. I remain quite pleased with this one, and especially with the smedlium case analogy.

It's a bit long, though. Any comments gratefully received.

By the way, if anyone wants a better-formatted version, get in touch (some formatting is lost in this version, which can make it tricky to follow in places)

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Pascal's Wager


[taken from my forthcoming book for Quercus, Greatest Philosophers, out next month (and which, in my opinion, is a bargain at under £6 for a 200+ page, larger format, illustrated book. In fact I'm not sure it isn't too cheap.)]

According to Pascal, there are no rational grounds available to settle whether the Christian faith is true or false. Reason cannot settle the matter one way or the other. So should we believe, or not?

Pascal suggests we approach this question as if it involved placing a bet. We have two options: we can believe, or we can fail to believe. What do we stand to win or lose in each case?

Well, if I believe, and there is a God, then I win big. My reward will be eternal happiness. But what if there is no God? Then obviously I won’t receive that fantastic reward. But still, my loss is not so very great. Little more than those Sunday mornings I had to spend in church.

If, on the other hand, I fail to believe in God, and God exists, I lose big, for I face eternal damnation. Nothing could be worse. And if I fail to believe in God, and there is no God, then I win, but then I don’t win very much. Not much more, in fact, than those free Sunday mornings.

We can display these outcomes in a table, like so:

-------------------------------God exists-------------God does not exist

Believe in God-------------eternal bliss-----------small loss of worldly pleasures

Fail to believe in God-----eternal damnation---small gain in worldly pleasures

Now, assuming that we have no more grounds to suppose God does exist than to suppose he doesn’t, surely the rational bet to make is to believe in God. If I believe, then I will either win big or lose a little. If I fail to believe, then I either win small or lose big. Belief is therefore the more sensible wager, concludes Pascal.

Pascal claims belief in God is the rational choice even though there are no more grounds for supposing the belief is true than there are for supposing it is false. His claim sounds paradoxical, but, correctly understood, it is not. Consider an analogous case. You are diagnosed with a disease that will certainly soon kill you unless you receive treatment. There is only one treatment, and it has a 50% success rate. When the treatment doesn’t work, its side-effects are rather unpleasant. What should you do?

Clearly, the rational choice, assuming you want to live, is to undergo the treatment, despite the fact that you have no more grounds to suppose it will work than you have to suppose it won’t. Undergo the treatment and you will either win big or lose little. Fail to undergo the treatment, and you will either lose big or win small.

If Pascal is correct, the option of believing in God is similarly one it would be irrational not to embrace.

Objections to Pascal’s argument

Many have found Pascal’s argument persuasive, but it does run up against some well-known objections, including the following:

1. We cannot choose what we believe. First, some will respond, “But I can’t just choose to believe that God exists. It may be that, though I can see that belief in God is the rational bet, and so would very much like to believe it, I can’t manage it. Try as I might, belief eludes me.” Pascal acknowledges that we can’t usually choose what we believe. Certainly we can’t just make ourselves believe something directly, by a sheer act of will. However, he notes that even those who merely start off by going through the motions of religious belief often end up true believers. So if I also make myself go though the motions – if I regularly go to church and pray – I am likely to end up a true believer. This is exactly what Pascal recommends I should do.

2. Pascal’s wager is based on a dubious assumption. Pascal supposes that the arguments and evidence for and against God’s existence are evenly balanced. But are they? Most atheists would deny this. Many would say the arguments and the evidence overwhelming support the claim that there is no God. If they are right about that – if, say, the odds of God existing are not 50-50, but more than 99-1 against – then it is not quite so obvious that belief in God is the rational bet.

To illustrate, let’s return to the medical example outlined above. If you are told the probability that the treatment will succeed is not 50%, but much less than one percent, then it is not so clear that the rational choice is to opt for treatment. Especially as you know that you will almost certainly experience some nasty side-effects as a result. Under these circumstances, you might well calculate that you would be better off rejecting treatment.

3. Another dubious assumption. Third, we might question whether Pascal is right to assume all believers will be rewarded with eternal bliss and all disbelievers with eternal damnation. If I was God, I wouldn’t be particularly impressed by someone who believed in me purely on the basis of a self-interested calculation. Nor, if I had deliberately arranged the evidence for my existence to be equivocal, would I condemn to eternal agony someone who then failed to believe in me. Such punishment seems rather harsh, particularly from a God who is supposed to be supremely benevolent.

So Pascal’s estimation of how God, if he exists, will react to our belief or disbelief – that he will reward all believers with limitless bliss and punish all unbelievers with an eternity of hellfire – is certainly open to question.

Sunday, September 2, 2007

Two embarrassing moments

Back from Australia, with jet lag. So posts will now resume as normal...

I went to Australia 4 years ago on book tour and returned with bad jet lag, but had to speak at the Edinburgh book festival nevertheless. Being completely out of it I left my clothes behind in the hotel.

Embarrassingly, I also failed to show up for a poetry reading thing for Amnesty where I was supposed to read a poem for a particular prisoner of conscience (whose name I can't even remember - which makes it even worse).

Polly Toynbee, whom I admire, was also reading one, so I suppose she now has me down as the bloke who couldn't be bothered to show up for his Amnesty prisoner....

One of my less impressive performances.

Incidentally, at Cheltenham Festival about the same time I was collared to talk at short notice about The Philosophy Gym on camera for something called "Meet the author". Unfortunately, I kept referring to it as "The Philosophy Files" (my other book). So I am now preserved for eternity on the internet talking complete gibberish about The Philosophy Files. And it ranks v. high on Google under "Stephen Law". Embarrassing moment here.

Saturday, September 1, 2007

Transcript of interview for ABC -PM program

British philosopher questions religious schools teaching styles

PM - Wednesday, 22 August , 2007 18:34:00

Reporter: Barney Porter

MARK COLVIN: The visit of a British philosopher this week has given a fresh airing to the debate about how values are taught in our schools.

Stephen Law is a senior lecturer in Philosophy at the University of London. He's given a lecture at the University of Sydney based on his book, The War for Children's Minds.

Dr Law makes a distinction between liberal schools, which encourage independent critical thought, and those described as authoritarian, which expect the children to accept without question whatever they're taught.

And Dr Law says he's particularly concerned about the style of education used by religious schools, and its impact on growing minds.

Dr Stephen Law spoke to Barney Porter.

STEPHEN LAW: Up until the 1960s, most religious schools were, of course, pretty authoritarian. I've got a colleague who went to a Catholic school in the UK in the 1960s, and she told me that she was once sent to the Headmaster simply for asking why the Catholic Church had the view that it did on contraception. Simply asking the question why was enough to get you into hot water.

Well of course things have since changed, we've become much more liberal now. Children are encouraged to think much more, but not everywhere, and there are still very many religious schools, both, certainly in the UK, and I believe in Australia too, in which children are really, they're indoctrinated rather than educated. And I think it's time we stopped that.

BARNEY PORTER: But can't they be indoctrinated with good values?

STEPHEN LAW: You may say, but as long as they're educated with the right values, who cares?

But I think it does matter. There's growing empirical evidence now that children that are educated in a liberal way who are encouraged to think and question and debate things philosophically in an open way - they don't just end up more intelligent, measurably more intelligent, they had better social skills … these schools have less incidence of bullying, and so on.

It's good for children. It helps them grow into mature, healthy individuals, the kind that we want in our democracy.

It strikes me as profoundly dangerous actually to encourage children to defer more or less uncritically to some external authority. They will do the right thing, if you tell them to do it, but tell them to do something else and they'll do that instead. They've got no moral compass of their own, they're entirely dependent on the direction they're given from some outside source, and I think that's dangerous.

BARNEY PORTER: So encouraging students to think and question produces better people?

STEPHEN LAW: There are a significant number of people who are profoundly uncomfortable with the thought that children should be encouraged to think and question about their own religious beliefs. Suddenly they get very antsy, when you suggest they should be answering questions about that.

Certainly they'd want to put those questions off for as long as possible. Let's leave it to a very late stage, more or less as we're shoving them out the classroom door, we might allow them to ask one or two rather searching questions about their religious faith.

And I think that's far too late.

BARNEY PORTER: This is a question of trust, isn't it?

STEPHEN LAW: It is, partly, yes, and respect, strangely.

A philosopher called Kant, very famous Enlightenment philosopher, talked about respect for persons, people are different to other objects, they are rational and free. When you treat somebody in a highly instrumental way, as is the thing you want to manipulate and fill their heads with ideas, you're no longer treating them as a free and rational agent. You're treating them in an entirely utilitarian way.

And that, Kant thought, was wrong, and it seems to me that there is some … I'm very uncomfortable, shall we say, about treating children in that highly instrumental way, let's just get the beliefs we want them to have into their heads one way or another … approaching education in that kind of way I've always been very uncomfortable with it.

BARNEY PORTER: Do you feel positive about the future of children's education, and confident that we will have generations of children who are able to develop the right sort of positive values?

STEPHEN LAW: Yes. I do. I think that there are different ways you can be liberal when it comes to moral education. You can simply throw your hands in the air and say, well, let's just leave them to it, let's just throw them out there, leave them in a moral vacuum, let them invent their own values. And I'm not recommending that for one instant.

I think we should present our values to children and say this is what we believe in and this is why we believe it.

I certainly don't think that we should raise them and just throw them out there and let them make up their own morality.

So I'm all in favour of providing moral guidance, I'm just against the authoritarian approach to doing it. And there are good reasons why it's good to be liberal. As I say, there's empirical evidence that a liberal approach produces not just much smarter children, but better emotionally and socially adjusted children who have fewer problems with bullying, behaviour problems and so on, it's good for them to think, and question and talk about these things rather than just passively accept.

Secondly, if you … I was impressed recently by a book I read by the Oliners called The Altruistic Personality, in which they studied the backgrounds of people who rescued Jews during the Holocaust. And what they found was that although some of those who rescued Jews were religious, religion wasn't really the factor that was most important. What marked out people who rescued Jews was the fact they'd been raised in a non-authoritarian way. They'd been raised to think, to question, to take responsibility for making moral decisions upon themselves rather than handing it over to some external authority.

It seems to me that that's very important. We need to make sure we raise citizens like that, and if you want citizens like that, raise them in a liberal way, not an authoritarian way.

MARK COLVIN: Philosopher Dr Stephen Law of the University of London, speaking there to Barney Porter.