This is the website/blog of Philosopher Stephen Law. Stephen is retired, formerly Reader in philosophy at Heythrop College, University of London. He is editor of the Royal Institute of Philosophy journal THINK, and has published books including The Philosophy Gym, The Complete Philosophy Files, and Believing Bullshit.
For school talks/ media: stephenlaw4schools.blogspot.co.uk
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Reason vs other methods of influencing belief
are (at least) two ways in which we can attempt to influence the beliefs of
(i) we can use reason. We can provide
scientific and other evidence to support beliefs, subject them to critical
scrutiny, reveal contradictions and inconsistencies, and so on.
(ii) we can
appeal to such mechanisms as peer-pressure, emotional manipulation, reward and
punishment, humour, sarcasm, repetition, fear (especially of uncertainty),
tribalism, censorship, vanity, and so on.
we philosophers put a lot of emphasis on (i) rather than (ii), don't we? Why
suggest the answer is: because reason is truth-sensitive. Try to make a
well-reasoned case for believing the Earth's core is made of
cheese, or that the Antarctic is populated by ant-people, or that Prince Philip is an alien lizard in disguise. You're not going to find it easy. Apply the filter of reason - under which I include the scientific
method - to incoming beliefs and only those with a fairly good chance of
being true are likely to get through. That's why we favour the
filter of reason. We want to believe, and want others to believe, what's true.
mechanisms listed under (ii), on the other hand, can just as easily be used
to instil true beliefs as false beliefs. They are truth-insensitive.
advertising salespeople, and so on tend to favour the latter mechanisms in
order to try to get people to believe. Applied consistently and systematically,
they can be very powerful mechanisms. Religious schools have
traditionally relied primarily upon such mechanisms for inculcating religious
belief in young people. Religious schools are traditionally tribal; they apply:
peer pressure, fear of hell, hope of heaven, rose-tinted versions of belief in
which the less attractive parts are airbrushed out or ignored, endless
repetition of key dogmas, positive images of saints, Popes, imams and rabbis,
and scary images of the world of the unbeliever and all its terrifying
uncertainties. Political parties also exploit these mechanisms very
If we want to believe what is true (and I do) applying reason is a very good
that's not to say that the other mechanisms are not important. Yes, no one
with an interest in promoting a concern with truth should rely wholly on
the latter, truth-insensitive mechanisms. However, the fact is, reason alone
will likely fail in many cases to persuade. A cogent argument is often far
less persuasive than a few emotive anecdotes, for example. Compare statistics
on alternative medicine with a few well-chosen tales of astonishing 'cures' -
the latter will emotionally trump the former, and sit more easily in the
memory, every time. Tabloid front pages almost always lead with anecdotes rather
than dry data, and for good reason - juicy, personalised tales sell newspapers; statistics
and charts do not.
it's not that philosophers and freethinkers should shy away from using
humour, emotive anecdotes, peer pressure, and so on. These mechanisms probably should form a part of our arsenal.
But the bottom line is, they should not be the foundation. Our
foundation should always involve applying reason as far as it will go. Once we
lose that foundation, we're no better than the cults or advertising agencies
of course, when people accuse the free thought movement, philosophers, etc. of
being a cult, of being just another 'religion', and so on, we can now explain why we are not.
free thinkers always reach for the sword of reason. It is a double-edged sword.
It cuts both ways. It favours not the 'teacher's' view over the 'pupil's' but
the truth. It's a weapon that the pupil can just as easily and effectively use
against their teacher. Which is why many so-called educators prefer to either
downplay the role of reason it or avoid it altogether. They rely instead on
those other mechanisms which do, always, favour the view of the teacher
over that of the pupil, irrespective of what's actually true. Trouble
is, the result is not education but indoctrination.
What is Humanism? “Humanism” is a word that has had and continues to have a number of meanings. The focus here is on kind of atheistic world-view espoused by those who organize and campaign under that banner in the UK and abroad. We should acknowledge that there remain other uses of term. In one of the loosest senses of the expression, a “Humanist” is someone whose world-view gives special importance to human concerns, values and dignity. If that is what a Humanist is, then of course most of us qualify as Humanists, including many religious theists. But the fact remains that, around the world, those who organize under the label “Humanism” tend to sign up to a narrower, atheistic view. What does Humanism, understood in this narrower way, involve? The boundaries of the concept remain somewhat vague and ambiguous. However, most of those who organize under the banner of Humanism would accept the following minimal seven-point characterization of their world-view.
(Published in Faith and Philosophy 2011. Volume 28, Issue 2, April 2011. Stephen Law. Pages 129-151) EVIDENCE, MIRACLES AND THE EXISTENCE OF JESUS Stephen Law Abstract The vast majority of Biblical historians believe there is evidence sufficient to place Jesus’ existence beyond reasonable doubt. Many believe the New Testament documents alone suffice firmly to establish Jesus as an actual, historical figure. I question these views. In particular, I argue (i) that the three most popular criteria by which various non-miraculous New Testament claims made about Jesus are supposedly corroborated are not sufficient, either singly or jointly, to place his existence beyond reasonable doubt, and (ii) that a prima facie plausible principle concerning how evidence should be assessed – a principle I call the contamination principle – entails that, given the large proportion of uncorroborated miracle claims made about Jesus in the New Testament documents, we should, in the absence of indepen
Here's my central criticism of Plantinga's Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism (EAAN). It's novel and was published in Analysis last year. Here's the gist. Plantinga argues that if naturalism and evolution are true, then semantic epiphenomenalism is very probably true - that's to say, the content of our beliefs does not causally impinge on our behaviour. And if semantic properties such as having such-and-such content or being true cannot causally impinge on behaviour, then they cannot be selected for by unguided evolution. Plantinga's argument requires, crucially, that there be no conceptual links between belief content and behaviour of a sort that it's actually very plausible to suppose exist (note that to suppose there are such conceptual links is not necessarily to suppose that content can be exhaustively captured in terms of behaviour or functional role, etc. in the way logical behaviourists or functionalists suppose). It turns o