Showing posts with label reviews. Show all posts
Showing posts with label reviews. Show all posts

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Review: The Screwtape Letters

Did this review for Norm at normblog. Go here.

C.S. Lewis, author of the Narnia books, also wrote a book called The Screwtape Letters, which was and remains very popular with the Christian fraternity.

The book is a series of letters from a senior demon, Screwtape, to his nephew and protégé, Wormwood, who has just graduated from demon Training College. What the letters reveal are all the tricks of the trade so far as devilry is concerned - the ways in which Satan's demons tempt, trick, and otherwise manipulate us so that we are lost to 'the Enemy' (God) and become delicious morsels for 'our Father below', as Screwtape refers to the Devil.

Screwtape's advice to his blundering nephew reveals his own experience at drawing humans to their doom. He explains how we can be tempted to sin, even while we think we are being virtuous. When Wormwood's first 'patient' finds Christianity, Screwtape advises Wormwood thus:

The most alarming thing in your last account of the patient is that he is making none of those confident resolutions which marked his original conversion... I see only one thing to do at the moment. Your patient has become humble. Have you drawn his attention to this fact? All virtues are less formidable to us once the man is aware that he has them, but this is especially true of humility. Catch him at a moment when he is really poor in spirit and smuggle into his mind the gratifying reflection "By jove! I'm being humble," and almost immediately pride - pride at his own humility - will appear. If he awakes to the danger and tries to smother his new form of pride, make him proud of his attempt - and so on, through as many stages as you please. But don't try this for too long, for fear you awake his sense of humour and proportion, in which case he will merely laugh at you and go to bed.

Lewis excels at capturing the labyrinthine and often masochistic patterns of thought into which the religious can get themselves. The cycle described above - of humility, followed by pride in humility, which is smothered by second-order humility, which awakens further pride, and so on - is a nice example.

Lewis's book is filled with pithy reminders of how we can slide into doing wrong - worthwhile reminders whether or not we're religious. The surest way of tempting humans to oblivion, Screwtape tells us, is not to get them to commit spectacular sins, but gently to lull them into the habit of little sins, preferably without them even noticing they are sinning.

It does not matter how small the sins are, provided that their cumulative effect is to edge the man away from the Light and out into the Nothing. Murder is not better than cards if cards do the trick. Indeed, the safest road to Hell is the gradual one - the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.

Even if you're not religious, you'll recognize that there is much truth in that.

Screwtape urges Wormwood to encourage the bond between his patient and two breezy, charming and fashionable new friends who are 'rich, smart, superficially intellectual, and brightly sceptical about everything in the world'. To Screwtape's delight, these trendy individuals introduce him to their whole set - 'thoroughly reliable people; steady, consistent scoffers and worldlings who without any spectacular crimes are progressing quietly and comfortably towards our Father's house'. The patient, he hopes, will be seduced away from the Enemy (God) by this sceptical and seemingly-sophisticated bunch. Lewis's real point here, of course, is to warn Christians against hanging out with... er, people like me.

One irony about Lewis's book is that, in producing this exposé of how demons psychologically manipulate people, he engages in a certain amount of psychological manipulation himself. A Christian may find that the siren voices of the demons (whom Lewis seems to think really exist) whispering in their ear are now accompanied by Lewis's own muscular intonations: 'Psst. Don't become friendly with those people - they'll seduce you into sinning!'

Lewis believes that reason favours religious belief. Like many philosophically minded-Christians (such as Keith Ward and Richard Swinburne), he encourages us to think and question. That's the sort of Christian I can respect, the sort that stands in stark contrast to Luther, who insists, 'Faith must trample all reason underfoot', and those evangelicals for whom 'Reason is the greatest enemy that faith has' and 'A free thinker is Satan's slave'.

I'm working on a parody of The Screwtape Letters. My Tapescrew Letters are written by a senior guru/priest to his junior in a fictional religion that nevertheless bears a close similarity to many actual religions. Just as Lewis aimed to take the lid off the activities of the demons, so my book aims to lay bare the psychological manipulation applied by gurus and priests. I'm in fact borrowing Lewis's clever little idea and turning it against him.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Review - The Philosopher's Dog, by Rai Gaita

Saturday March 1, 2003
The Guardian

The Philosopher's Dog
by Raimond Gaita
224pp, Routledge, £14.99

What are minds, exactly? Most of us, when first confronted with this question, find ourselves quickly drawn to a traditional philosophical picture. The picture represents the mind as a sort of private room: a hidden inner sanctum within which our mental lives are played out and to which others are necessarily denied access.

Because these inner rooms are hermetically sealed off from each other, the only clue as to what's going on inside the mind of another must be provided by their outward behaviour.

Of course, this picture of the mind, once it gets a grip on our thinking, leads to all sorts of puzzles. If all I can have access to is the outward behaviour of other people, then how do I know that they have minds? How can I be sure that they aren't mindless zombies? And do animals have minds? If they do, then what are animal minds like? How does the world seem from inside the mind of a dog or a sparrow? What is it like to be a spider? Indeed, is there anything like being a spider [n.b. my original text said "it is like to be a spider". S.L.]? In his later philosophy, Wittgenstein rejects this picture of minds as essentially hidden, inner worlds. Minds, in Wittgenstein's view, are essentially public, not private. They are right there on the surface rather than buried away beneath. Nothing is hidden.

That might sound like a crude form of behaviourism: "So Wittgenstein is saying, then, that the mind just is behaviour, or, at least, that it consists in nothing more than certain behavioural dispositions?"

Well, no, he is not saying that either. It's possible, on occasion, to view human beings as mere physical objects, and their words as just sounds in the air (it's a pretty disturbing experience, of course, and one that, if we are not insane, is impossible for us to maintain for very long). When we switch back to seeing others not as physical objects but as beings with minds who make meaningful utterances, we are viewing them, as it were, in a different conceptual dimension, a dimension that, according to Wittgenstein, cannot be reduced to or understood in terms of the merely physical.

In his enjoyable and rather beautiful book, The Philosopher's Dog, Raimond Gaita takes these two Wittgensteinian ideas - that the mind is essentially public, not essentially private, and that mind and meaning are irreducible -and develops them with great sensitivity.

Gaita's focus is on our relationship with animals and the rest of the natural world. His project is not to reveal new, previously hidden facts about humans and animals, but rather to get us to see more clearly what was always right under our noses.

"Nothing is hidden," writes Gaita. "The capacity to see depends on having a rich conception of the surface, a rich conception of what it is to be a living thing and therefore how to describe what it does and what it suffers." His book aims to leave us with a deeper understanding both of what it is to be an animal and of what it is to be human.

Gaita constructs the book in large part around a number of animal stories taken from the author's own life. He is quite right to insist on "the distinctive role storytelling can play in showing us how we can apply to animals concepts that we had previously thought had no application to them." The stories are often deeply touching, without being sentimental, and their atmospheres left me haunted for days afterwards. And Gaita is quite correct: his stories really are philosophically illuminating.

Naturally, not everyone is going to agree with the book's two key Wittgensteinian ideas. In particular, many will find the view that mind and meaning reside wholly on the "surface" somewhat dubious. In his seminal paper, "What is it like to be a bat?", the philosopher Thomas Nagel famously suggested that the intrinsic character of a bat's subjective experience as it "sees" using sound is something that is in principle impossible for us to know. No amount of investigation into a bat's behaviour or nervous system can tell us what it is like for the bat, as it were. There does seem to be something essentially private and hidden about a bat's mind.

Personally, I have a great deal of sympathy with Gaita's "surface" approach, but I'm left with the nagging worry that he does after all miss something out - the essentially private character of conscious experience. While reading about Gaita's dog, I couldn't help thinking of Nagel's bat. I kept finding myself drawn back to the picture of the private room. But then perhaps I'm just confused. Either way, Gaita's charming book remains genuinely illuminating.

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.

Friday, July 6, 2007

Review of Bede Rundle's "Why there is Something rather than Nothing"

Here's a review I was invited to do for the journal Philosophical Review.

Bede Rundle, Why there is Something rather than Nothing.

Why the universe exists - why, indeed, there is anything at all - is the kind of question that often first piques our philosophical interest. It is a question almost all of us have been struck by at some point or other. Even children ask it. And the answers we supply can have profound, life-changing consequences.

And yet, despite being paradigmatically philosophical, the question attracts comparatively little attention from academic philosophers, certainly not from the less theistically-inclined. Rundle brings the question back centre-stage.

As Rundle points out, the lay person seeking an answer will typically look either to physics or theology. Yet both disciplines quickly run into trouble. Scientific theories “have something to say only once their subject matter, the physical universe, is supposed in being”(p. 95) while theological answers introduce a being, God, “who is even more problematic than the universe which he is called upon to explain”(p. 95).

Can philosophy fare any better? Quite how purely philosophical reflection might succeed in accounting for a substantive matter of existence is not immediately obvious. Yet Rundle believes that by engaging in a conceptual investigation – an investigation focussing on and unpacking such concepts as nothing, causation, and coming into existence - the question is indeed answerable.

The book has three distinct parts. In the first, Rundle explains why theistic answers won’t do. The discussion is detailed, and includes a demolition of cosmological arguments to a first cause - faulted, among other things, for supposing we can make sense of a cause outside time. Rundle argues that our concept of causation is rooted in the temporal and physical, and that its extension to a transcendent reality stands in need of justification, a justification Rundle does not find forthcoming: “I can get no grip on the idea of an agent doing something where the doing, the bringing about, is not an episode in time, something involving a changing agent” (p. 77).

Nor does the universe require God as a sustaining cause. Such a cause is needed when there is a disintegrating factor to be countered or inhibited. In the absence of such factors, a persisting state requires no explanation. “If something is still around after many years, this may well be remarkable, but that will be because it has somehow, against the odds, survived threats to its integrity. If there are no such threats, there is nothing to explain.“(p. 91)

Rundle then moves on to the theistic suggestion that the existence of the universe points to the existence of a being that is, of itself, necessary. His treatment of this sort of argument (a version of which constitutes Aquinas’ Third Way) culminates in the observation that while the existence of a being that is, of itself, necessary would indeed suffice to answer the question of why there is something rather than nothing, the question can be answered by a much weaker thesis – that there had to be something or other. To suppose that there had to be something is not yet to suppose that there is a particular being that had to be.

In the second part of the book, Rundle develops and supports his own answer. Some philosophers – Van Inwagen (1996) for example (who, oddly, does not get a mention) – have attempted to explain why there is something rather than nothing by showing that the existence of something is far more probable. After all, there are many ways there could have been something, but only one in which there is nothing, so (even if we acknowledge that nothing is more probable than any particular something) something is more probable. Indeed, given there is an infinite number of ways there could have been something but only one in which there is nothing, nothing, while not strictly impossible, is maximally improbable.

Rundle’s approach differs in that he tries to show, not that the existence of something is more probable than nothing, but that it is inevitable. There simply is no alternative to something.

The argument begins with an attack on the suggestion that we can imagine or conceive of absolute nothing (which is not, of course, the same thing as not conceiving of anything). Thinking away literally everything is not like imagining an empty box or a vacant tract of space. The nothing we are to envisage involves the absence of both time and space. Rundle suspects that in attempting to conceive of total non-existence we are always left “with something, if only a setting from which we envisage everything having departed, a void which we confront and find empty…” (p. 110). The suggestion that there might be “literally nothing, rather than a domain we might speak of as becoming progressively re- or de-populated, seems not to make sense” (p. 112).

Some have defended the conceivability of absolute nothing using the “subtraction argument”. Is it not possible to imagine the step-by-step removal everything that there is, until we are left with literally nothing at all? Rundle responds by arguing that the ceasing to be of the universe is not to be compared to the ceasing to be of any of the things in it. While we can countenance the gradual depopulation of the universe, we cannot envisage the removal of the universe itself.

But don’t scientists now tell us the universe came into being about thirteen and a half billion years ago? In which case, did the universe not come into being from nothing at all? Rundle rejects such talk of the universe “coming into being”, accepting only that we can say it is so many years old. He also criticises those who speak of “the mystery on the far side of the big bang”. On Rundle’s view, there is no far side. We are therefore spared from having to fathom any such mystery.

In the third and final part of the book, Rundle embarks on a more ambitious project. He believes he can show, not just that there has to be something, but that there has to be a certain sort of something – a material universe. It is within the dense discussion supporting this claim that one possible weakness of Rundle’s approach becomes more apparent.

The author’s investigative style is, in places, reminiscent of the sort of “grammatical” investigation engaged in by Wittgenstein in his Philosophical Investigations (indeed, Rundle uses the term “grammar” in the same idiosyncratic way).

Take Rundle’s rejection of the kind of materialism that identifies thoughts, feelings and so on with states of the body. That brand of materialism is quickly dispensed with on the grounds that “vastly different things can be said of the mental and physical: one’s thoughts may be muddled, innovative, inspired… but none of this can be said of anything that is literally taking place in one’s head” (p. 129).

Rundle may be right about that. But not every reader will be so quickly persuaded. The fact is, what Rundle says cannot be said is said by at least one or two neuro-scientists. Perhaps confusedly so. But if there is a confusion here, it surely requires more work to nail. Certainly, pointing out that we don not actually apply certain terms in certain ways does not show that they cannot meaningfully or properly be so applied. To suppose otherwise is to tie meaning rather too closely to use (though I certainly don’t want to accuse Rundle of supposing otherwise).

The book’s Wittgensteinian approach also prompted me to ask whether, if Rundle has succeeded in showing that absolute nothing does not make sense, he has not so much answered the question “Why is there something rather than nothing?” as revealed that it too does not make sense.

Why There Is Something Rather Than Nothing is a detailed discussion that repays close reading.


Van Inwagen, Peter (1996) "Why Is There Anything at All?", Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, 70: 95-110

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

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 brain-snatched.

How can you tell this hasn't happened: that what you're experiencing now isn't virtual? It seems you can't. But if you can't tell whether this newspaper is real or virtual, then how can you be said to know it's real? This is a famous philosophical thought experiment. In just a few sentences, it seems to demolish something we would ordinarily take entirely for granted: our knowledge of the world around us. Thought experiments can induce an overwhelming sense of intellectual vertigo. What we thought was the firm ground beneath our feet suddenly crumbles and we're left dangling over a void.

Some of the most famous arguments and problems in philosophy are based around thought experiments. Bizarre stories about brain-transplants, runaway trams, concrete sheep and invisible gardeners abound. In The Pig That Wants to Be Eaten, Julian Baggini has collected together 100 entertaining examples. The format is essentially the same as that first successfully introduced by Martin Cohen's 101 Philosophy Problems. Each thought experiment is set up in one or two paragraphs, followed by a few hundred words of thought-provoking discussion. Baggini offers us a tempting smorgasbord of some of the most baffling, weird and occasionally downright creepy scenarios ever envisaged.

Not every example is taken from the world of philosophy. The story of the pig that wants to be eaten is based on Douglas Adams's talking cow in The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, a beast that presents itself to diners as the main course before parting with "A very wise choice, sir, if I may say so ... I'll just nip off and shoot myself." Would there be anything morally wrong with killing and eating an animal genetically engineered to want to be eaten? This is certainly an intriguing question. As Baggini points out, the mere fact that most of us find the idea of killing and eating such an animal revolting doesn't establish that we would be morally wrong to do so.

A word of caution. First-year philosophy undergraduates often fail to see the point of thought experiments. "How can such fanciful stories reveal anything of importance?" they ask. "After all, there are no talking pigs, are there?" Well, if one of the aims of philosophy is to establish what is true in principle, as opposed to what's merely true as a matter of fact (that's supposedly the job of empirical science), then even a merely possible counterexample will do. Suppose I claim that the only reason it's wrong to kill and eat pigs, and animals generally, is that they don't want to be killed and eaten. If you can come up with a hypothetical animal that wants to be killed and eaten, but that it would still clearly be wrong to eat, then you have refuted my claim. Whether or not any such animal actually exists is irrelevant to its effectiveness as a counterexample.

Still, there are reasons to be cautious about thought experiments. They often appeal to our philosophical "intuitions", to what it "feels right" to say about the situation described. But intuition can be a fickle thing. The philosopher Daniel Dennett suggests that some thought-experiments are little more than "intuition pumps". Indeed, by subtly changing the spin on the story, you can sometimes elicit quite different intuitions. But even while you ponder to what extent your own philosophical intuitions are to be trusted, you can still enjoy these mind-boggling tales from the outer limits of thought.