Author Archives: Jim P Houston

The Atheist’s Guide to Reality: An Interview with Alex Rosenberg

Reality, notes philosopher Alex Rosenberg, is “completely different from what most people think… stranger than even many atheists recognize.”   And having spent some 40 years trying to work out “exactly how advances in biology, neuroscience and evolutionary anthropology, fit together with what physical science has long told us” Professor Rosenberg seems well placed to judge. Thinking seriously and unsentimentally about the nature of reality and life’s ‘persistent questions’ has led the R. Taylor Cole Professor of Philosophy at Duke University to some striking, disconcerting and far-reaching conclusions.  In The Atheist’s Guide to Reality: Enjoying Life Without Illusions, Rosenberg aims to stretch out just what the atheist’s attachment to science really commits him to.

The author of some 14 books and an eminent philosopher of science, Professor Rosenberg has been kind enough to answer some questions from Talking Philosophy about his controversial and challenging work.  The questions posed, and Professor’s Rosenberg’s replies to them have been posted in full ‘as is’. Readers will, I hope, find something in the following to stimulate both thought and discussion

Your book is aimed squarely at atheists, but it’s not a book about atheism as such, rather it’s a book about what atheists should believe.  What are the most important things that the atheist needs to know about reality? And can he really enjoy life without illusions?

The most important thing to know about reality is that science understands it well enough to rule out god, and almost everything else that provides wiggle room for theism and mystery mongering. That includes all kinds of purposes, including even ones that conscious introspection suggests we ourselves have. Conscious introspection was shaped by natural selection into tricking us about the nature of reality. We need always to be on our scientific guard against its meretricious temptations. Treating the illusions that rise to consciousness as symptoms, instead of guides to meaning and value, is crucial to enjoying life. It’s not easy, but taking science seriously is the first step, despite the difficulty consciousness puts in the way of understanding it.


You note early on that “the effort to argue most people out of religious belief was doomed by the very Darwinian forces that the most fervent of Christians deny.”  Does evolution select for superstition and conspiracy theories? And how can they be dispelled?

Getting us from the bottom of the food chain on the African savannah to the top required mother nature (a.k.a. natural selection) to solve several design problems. Its quick and dirty solutions included ones that exaggerated our tendency to see conspiracies—plots in which there is a motive behind every event in nature. That’s what made religious belief unavoidable. It’s why religion is almost universal. Can these false beliefs be dispelled? Probably not completely, and probably not at all for people who have trouble understanding science.

Are introspection and common sense the greatest obstacles to understanding and accepting reality?

Introspection? Yes. Common sense, no.  For reasons just mentioned, we were shaped to be suckers for a good story, a narrative with a plot driven by motives—peoples’, god’s, nature’s. By making us think that our own behaviour is directly understandable to us as the product of our (usually conscious) will, introspection effectively prevents us from discovering its true sources in non-conscious brain processes. Add to that the fact that scientific theories of human behaviour (and everything else) are much harder to understand just because they don’t involve narratives and plots, and the obstacles to understanding erected by conscious thought become obvious.

Common sense is another matter, however. Science is just the result of 400 years of common sense recursively reconstructing itself, weeding out false hypotheses and introducing better ones. The result of course is quantum mechanics, Darwinian theory, neuroscience—common sense reshaped into something that most people can’t understand because they don’t have the patience and mathematical ability to work their way through the details.

What is your conception of ‘scientism’ and why have you ‘reclaimed’ the term?

My conception of scientism is almost the same as that of those who use it as a term of abuse. They use the term to name the exaggerated and unwarranted confidence that science and its methods can answer all meaningful questions. I agree with that definition except for the ‘exaggerated’ and ‘unwarranted’ part.


You seem strongly committed to a form of physicalist reductionism – not eliminativism – perhaps you could say a little more about that and some of the misconceptions surrounding it?

To use some philosophical jargon, I am an eliminativist about the propositional attitudes. That is, I believe that the brain acquires, stores, and uses information, but that it does not do so in the form of sentences, statements or propositions. The illusion that it does so is another one of those mistakes foisted on us by conscious awareness. The eliminativist thesis I just expressed will sound abstract and inconsequential to many people, and completely incoherent to many philosophers. In The Atheist’s Guide to Reality I explain why it’s true and what its huge upshot for theism and mystery mongering is. But I don’t deal with the philosophers charge that the denial we think in statements about the world is incoherent. That’s a task for an academic paper. Suffice it to say that neuroscience forces us to be eliminativist about some things consciousness foists on us, but it does not deny the reality of sensations, emotions or for that matter cognition—properly understood. It’s scientism that mandates the reductive explanation of all three, and that neuroscience is well on its way to providing.


You are strongly committed to the view that “the methods of science are the only reliable way to secure knowledge of anything”? What would you say to those who would suggest that the methods of science can give us no knowledge about mathematics and what it is like to see red?

What I say in response to such sophisticated philosophical challenges is first, like all the other metaphysical and epistemological alternatives, scientism does not yet have a satisfactory account of mathematics or our understanding of it; second, the so-called “hard problem” of consciousness—what its like to have a qualitative experience—is a sign post along the research program of neuroscience. It will eventually have to dissolve this problem, just as physics eventually had to dissolve Zeno’s paradox of motion. Meanwhile, if I have to weigh the achievements of science in the balance against the problems of the philosophy of mathematics and the first person point of view, I’ll choose science. 400 years of ever-increasing depth and breadth in explanation and prediction carries a lot more weight with me than a handful of philosophical conundrums and Platonism about mathematics.


You assert that “science’s description of the world is correct in its fundamentals; and that when ‘complete’ what science tells us will not be surprisingly different from what it tells us today.” Perhaps you could say something about those fundamentals, why you think they are unassailable and how much can be derived from them?

I argue in The Atheist’s Guide that all the science we need to answer the “persistent questions” that keep most thoughtful people up at night, are physics’ rejection of final causes, entelechies, prior designs in nature, along with the 2d law of thermodynamics. Those two are enough to give us natural selection, and together with them it is enough to solve all the other problems most people have about reality, the meaning of life, the nature of the mind, free will, ethics and the trajectory of human history.

But these established parts of science are of course not enough to answer all the scientific questions about these matters. To answer the questions of science (quite different from the limited questions of philosophy that people commonly ask themselves and their religious “advisers”) requires all the rest of science, including the parts that are still subject to development, change, revision, and even in a few cases, revolution. But nothing at the frontiers of any science is going to overturn the 2d law of thermodynamics, natural selection or the basic molecular biology of the neuron.

Is the fallibility of science a weakness in your argument or one of its strengths?

Science is common sense recursively reconstructing itself.  The reconstruction reflects the fallibility of common sense. Insistence by science on the tentativeness of its results at its ever-shifting research frontier, is what gives us confidence that after repeated test the parts most distant from that frontier are unlikely to be called into question.

The recurring dictum of your book is that ‘the physical facts fix all the facts’, what do you mean by that and how hard is it to persuade people of it?

Nothing more than this: take a time slice of any chunk of the universe—say, our planet, or solar system, or galaxy. Now produce a perfect—fermion for fermion, boson for boson—physical duplicate of that chunk at that moment. Then, everything that is true about what is going on in that first chunk, including all of the biological, psychological, sociological, political, economic, and cultural facts about it, will be true at the second, duplicate chunk.

I don’t know how hard it is to persuade people of this. It’s probably impossible to persuade many people once they realize it deprives their worlds of physically irreducible features.

Many of your readers may be amenable, in principle, to your contention that there is “no chance” of freewill. But few it seems can fully come to terms with the fact. Is freewill an illusion that is here to stay? Do you think that accepting that it is an illusion could change our behaviour and would you want it to?

Realizing there is no free will is unlikely to change our day-to-day behaviour, especially not our penchant for blaming people, and praising dogs for that matter. But it could change our politics a bit. In The Atheist’s Guide I argued that the core morality mother nature imposed on us together with the denial of free will is bound to make the consistent thinker sympathetic to a left-wing, egalitarian agenda about the treatment of criminals and of billionaires.


You assert that “scientism dictates a thoroughly Darwinian understanding of humans and of our evolution—biological and cultural” and that this means that “when it comes to ethics, morality, and value, we have to embrace an unpopular position that will strike many people as immoral as well as impious.” Just how bad is the news about morality? And why do you think “new atheists” like Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett can’t accept it?  

Second question first. Nihilism—even my “nice nihilism” is a public relations nightmare. Most of my fellow travellers think that if the scientific worldview saps morality of its truth, correctness, justification, then there is no chance it will be widely adopted and every chance the scientific worldview will be marginalized, to the obvious detriment of human welfare. They might be right. It’s an empirical matter. Answer to first question immediately below.

What‘s the ‘good news’ about nihilism? Does evolution select for niceness?

The good news is that natural selection has shaped almost all of us to be nice enough to make human social life possible. It had to. Without such shaping of social life, human life on the African savannah, and since then for that matter, would have been impossible. We are too puny to survive otherwise (even given our monstrously big brains).

Do you think accepting ‘nilhism’ will change how we act?  Can ‘nilhism’ be ‘reclaimed’ or do you think we will need a new way of talking about ‘morality’?

No. The correct philosophical theory has almost no capacity to overwhelm two million years or more of natural selection. Insofar as we pursue human sciences, nihilism is inevitable, but the label has too many disturbing connotations to stick.

Understandably you take there to be no purpose to the universe. But it seems you want to make a much stronger and more radical claim – that there are no purposes in the universe. Could you say something about just how wrong we are about cognition and consciousness?

The four most difficult chapters of The Atheist’s Guide are devoted to this task, and most reviewers have avoided even discussing them. They are too hard for people who have never heard of the problem of intentionality or content or ‘aboutness.’ Once we take on board eliminativism about content, and Darwinism about every other instance of apparent purposiveness in the universe and in our brains, it’s easy to see that what consciousness tells us about ourselves, our motives, our plans, our purposes, is a tissue of illusions. This, not morality, is the part of our understanding of ourselves that requires radical reconstruction, at least for scientific purposes, if not for everyday life.

In your book you make the striking claim that “Ultimately, science and scientism are going to make us give up as illusory the very thing conscious experience screams out at us loudest and longest: the notion that when we think, our thoughts are about anything at all, inside or outside of our minds.” As you admit this seems an absurd claim. Whilst, your detailed arguments for this position form a difficult and lengthy part of your book, could you give some small sketch of your grounds for making such a claim?

I started on that task in my answer to the last question. The best I can do in a few lines to answer the question further is to note that if intentionality, content, ‘aboutness,’ is impossible, given the way the brain works, it’s also impossible in consciousness—since that’s just more brain process. So, we need an explanation of the illusion that our conscious thoughts have sentential meaning and propositional content. Neuroscience explains why there is no original intentionality, along with no derived intentionality, in the brain. I show that adding consciousness doesn’t help in any way to create original intentionality. The argument is pretty simple once you grant that non-conscious brain states lack original intentionality because they can’t carry around information in the form of sentences.


Ultimately what would the success of your arguments mean for the importance of history, the social sciences, literature and the humanities?   And what would it mean for philosophy? 

My arguments turn the humanities and the interpretative social sciences, especially history, into entertainments. They can’t be knowledge, but they don’t have to be in order to have the greatest importance—emotional, artistic, but not epistemic—in our lives. As for philosophy, done right it’s just very abstract and very general science.

Those interested in finding out more about Professor Rosenberg’s position are pointed towards this piece as written for the New York Times in response to an article by Oxford’s Timothy Williamson who in turn replies critically to Rosenberg here. A further final exchange between the two can be found here. Professor Rosenberg also published a detailed précis of his book that can be found here at the ‘On The Human’ project – it is followed by critical responses from a number of noted philosophers (including Brian Leiter) to whom Rosenberg in turn replies. More recently, Rosenberg published a further piece at the same site titled ‘Final Thoughts of a Disenchanted Naturalist‘.

Update: Massimo Pigliucci, philosopher at the City University of New York, has reviewed ‘The Atheist’s Guide’  for TPM , Philip Kitcher, John Dewey professor of philosophy at Columbia University, has reviewed it for the New York Times and Michael Ruse, Lucyle T. Werkmeister Professor at Florida State University, has written a critical commentary on the book published over at Rationally Speaking.


Religion for Atheists: An Interview With Alain de Botton

Alain de Botton, co-founder of London’s School of Life and author of The Consolations of Philosophy, has been kind enough to provide an interview for Talking Philosophy about his new book Religion for Atheists: A Non-Believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion. Readers are invited to share their thoughts on Atheism 2.0. and what we might usefully take from religion.

You were brought up as an atheist – could you describe your earlier views on religion and how you came to have a more positive view of religion and religious practices?

In my book, I argue that believing in God is, for me as for many others, simply not possible. At the same time, I want to suggest that if you remove this belief, there are particular dangers that open up – we don’t need to fall into these dangers, but they are there and we should be aware of them. For a start, there is the danger of individualism: of placing the human being at the center stage of everything. Secondly, there is the danger of technological perfectionism; of believing that science and technology can overcome all human problems, that it is just a matter of time before scientists have cured us of the human condition. Thirdly, without God, it is easier to loose perspective: to see our own times as everything, to forget the brevity of the present moment and to cease to appreciate (in a good way) the miniscule nature of our own achievements. And lastly, without God, there can be a danger (note the tentative can) that the need for empathy and ethical behaviour is more easily overlooked – in other words, that evil becomes less incongruous.

Now, it is important to stress that it is quite possible to believe in nothing and remember all these vital lessons (just as one can be a deep believer and a monster). I simply want to draw attention to some of the gaps, some of what may be missing, when we dismiss God too brusquely.

In your book you write: ‘God may be dead, but the urgent issues which impelled us to make him up still stir and demand resolutions which do not go away when we have been nudged to perceive some scientific inacurracies in the tale of the seven loaves and fishes. ‘ What are those urgent issues?

I am not very interested in the doctrines of religions. What interests me is their organisational forms, and in particular, their capacity to make ideas powerful.

The secular world tends to trust that if we have good ideas, we will be reminded of them when it matters. Religions don’t agree. They are all about structure; they want to build calendars for us that will make sure that we regularly encounter reminders of significant concepts. That is what rituals are: they are attempts to make vivid to us things we already know, but are likely to have forgotten. Religions are also keen to see us as more than just rational minds, we are emotional and physical creatures, and therefore, we need to be seduced via our bodies and our senses too: this was always the great genius of Catholicism. If you want to change someone’s ideas, don’t only concentrate on their ideas, concentrate on their whole selves.

The starting point of religion is that we are children, and we need guidance. The secular world often gets offended by this. It assumes that all adults are mature – and therefore, it hates didacticism, it hates the idea of guidance and moral instruction. But of course we are children, big children who need guidance and reminders of how to live. And yet modern education denies this. It treats us all as far too rational, reasonable, in control though to my mind, we are far more desperate than the modern education system recognises.

In a recent review of your book Terry Eagleton wrote that:  “What the book does, in short, is hijack other people’s beliefs, empty them of content and redeploy them in the name of moral order, social consensus and aesthetic pleasure. It is an astonishingly impudent enterprise. It is also strikingly unoriginal. Liberal-capitalist societies, being by their nature divided, contentious places, are forever in search of a judicious dose of communitarianism to pin themselves together, and a secularised religion has long been one bogus solution on offer.”

What do you make of this criticism?

My book occupies a curious middle-ground which is easy to shoot at from two sides. The very religious like Eagleton may take offence at the brusque, selective and unsystematic consideration of their creeds. Religions are not buffets, they will protest, from which choice elements can be selected at whim. But I disagree. Why should it not be possible to appreciate the depiction of modesty in Giotto’s frescoes and yet bypass the doctrine of the annunciation, or admire the Buddhist emphasis on compassion and yet shun its theories of the after-life? For someone devoid of religious belief, it is no more of a crime to dip into a number of faiths than it is for a lover of literature to single out a handful of favourite writers from across the canon.

Atheists of the militant kind could also feel outraged, in their case by a book that treats religion as though it deserved to be a continuing touchstone for our yearnings. They will point to the furious institutional intolerance of many religions, and to the equally rich, though less illogical and illiberal, stores of consolation and insight available through art and science. They may additionally ask why anyone who professes himself unwilling to accept so many facets of religion – who feels unable to speak up in the name of virgin births, say, or to nod at the claims reverently made in the Jataka tales about the Buddha’s identity as a reincarnated rabbit – should still wish to associate himself with a subject as compromised as faith.

To this the answer is that religions merit our attention for their sheer conceptual ambition; for changing the world in a way that few secular institutions ever have. They have managed to combine theories about ethics and metaphysics with practical involvement in education, fashion, politics, travel, hostelry, initiation ceremonies, publishing, art and architecture – a range of interests which puts to shame the scope of the achievements of even the greatest and most influential secular movements and individuals in history. For those interested in the spread and impact of ideas, it is hard not to be mesmerised by examples of the most successful educational and intellectual movements the planet has ever witnessed.

What is your view of the so-called New Atheist critique advanced by Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens and others?

Attempting to prove the non-existence of god can be entertaining. Tough-minded critics of religion have found much pleasure in laying bare the idiocy of believers in remorseless detail, finishing only when they felt they had shown up their enemies as thorough-going simpletons or maniacs.

Though this exercise has its satisfactions, the real issue is not whether god exists or not, but where one takes the argument to once one decides that he evidently doesn’t. The premise of my book is that it must be possible to remain a committed atheist and nevertheless to find religions sporadically useful, interesting and consoling – and be curious as to the possibilities of importing certain of their ideas and practices into the secular realm.

One can be left cold by the doctrines of the Christian Trinity and the Buddhist Fivefold Path and yet at the same time be interested in the ways in which religions deliver sermons, promote morality, engender a spirit of community, make use of art and architecture, inspire travels, train minds and encourage gratitude at the beauty of spring. In a world beset by fundamentalists of believing and secular varieties, it must be possible to balance a rejection of religious faith with a selective reverence for religious rituals and concepts.

It is when we stop believing that religions have been handed down from above or else that they are entirely daft that matters become more interesting. We can then recognise that we invented religions to serve two central needs which continue to this day and which secular society has not been able to solve with any particular skill: firstly, the need to live together in communities in harmony, despite our deeply-rooted selfish and violent impulses. And secondly, the need to cope with terrifying degrees of pain which arise from our vulnerability to professional failure, to troubled relationships, to the death of loved ones and to our decay and demise.

Update: You can read Alain de Botton’s “Secular Society’s Sacraments” and a response to critics in TPM’s online essays. Responses to those pieces are most welcome here.

Quackery & Straws

As Edgar Allen Poe, wrote in The Literati of 1850:

“There are very few points of classical scholarship which are not the common property of “the learned” … and in composing any book of reference recourse is unscrupulously and even necessarily had in all cases to similar books which have preceded… it is the practice of quacks to paraphrase page after page … preserving the spirit of the whole, its information…, while everything is so completely re-written as to leave no room for a direct charge of plagiarism…. he who, in availing himself of the labors of his predecessors (and it is clear that all scholars must …) who shall copy verbatim the passages to be desired… even if he fail to make direct acknowledgment of indebtedness — is unquestionably less of the plagiarist than the disingenuous and contemptible quack who wriggles himself, as above…”

As Poe noted “the design in any such compilation is … to make a useful school-book or book of reference” and, of the author, “the public, of course, [are] never caring a straw whether he be original.” The Internet Encyclopaedia of Philosophy [IEP] is an incredibly useful ‘book of reference’ for the modern age and most of its articles are original contributions by specialized philosophers. It is however acknowledged on the site’s ‘About’ page, “that there are temporary or ‘proto articles’” that “have largely been adapted from older sources.” I was unaware the site had recycled public domain material in this way when I chanced upon an entry on ‘The Academy’ by an ‘anonymous author.’ Something just struck me as odd, there was a reference to “the distinction laid down by Diogenes, and alluded to above” but no such allusion and then there were certain rather dated turns of phrase. And I got to wondering whether the material had been elsewhere before it went online as a ‘temporary’ IEP article in 2001.

The IEP entry is composed of two parts: the main section and a short piece titled ‘views of the New Academy’. Upon a little investigation it appeared that this second section is pretty much identical with an article on the ‘New Academy’ found in Harper’s dictionary of classical literature and antiquities’ of 1896 as edited by one Harry Thurston Peck,. And I found a suitably placed reference to Diogenes Laertius and his threefold division of the Academy, and a very close match to the rest of IEP entry in Charles Anthon’s 1842 ‘Classical Dictionary.’ and his 1833 edition of John Lemprière’s ‘Bibliothecca Classica’ (from whose revision his own Dictionary evolved). Now, I know the IEP is a not-for-profit organisation run by volunteers whose very admirable goal is the sharing of knowledge. And I know that, legally, you can do what you please with public domain works. But, I must admit the question did occur: why would you copy, pretty much verbatim, from other people’s work and not say where you copied it from? If the IEP entry is accurate then the student will, quite reasonably, not care a straw that it is stitched together from two articles published in the 19th century. And it would have been quite absurd for some ‘quack’ to have completely re-written the material just so its origins couldn’t be traced. But it seems quite simple to state in online article X that the same incorporates text from public domain sources Y and Z. And what occurred to me was just that is was, well, ‘bad form’ to help your self to the work of others and give them no credit for their labours even if they are dead.

But then, as some research revealed, ‘recycling’ material, as the quotation from Poe suggests, is nothing new. Peck’s Dictionary lifts its article on ‘Academia’ straight from Anthon too (it is also missing an allusion to Diogenes, but as the IEP includes a line straight from Anthon not found in Harpers one presumes the IEP researcher was working from both). O.M. Fernald, reviewing Peck’s Dictionary for The American Journal of Philology back in 1897, said “it is not possible within these limits to review half a dozen important works of reference [and] that is what an adequate review of this volume would mean” and he has some harsh criticisms to make about Peck’s willingness to help himself to the work of living authors simply because copyright laws fail to prohibit it. Still, Peck at least acknowledges that “when material was, in its original form, precisely suited to his purpose, he incorporated it without a change … [that] the greater part of his work was compilation rather than original exposition, [and]… if the completed work be found of service to the student of the classics, this result must be very largely due to the original sources whence so great a portion of the Dictionary is derived.” This is rather more than can be said for Charles Anthon. As is noted by The North American Review in 1842: “One would infer, from the way in which [Anthon] speaks of his labours in the preface, that the articles had all been written by himself. This is very far from the case. Many, if not all the most important, are taken, – not merely compiled, but taken, in their very words, from other writers. Here and there a sentence is omitted, the arrangement slightly altered, or a phrase changed, for the purpose of interweaving a paragraph drawn from some other source. The references to the original authorities are also copied, apparently without verification … the book is any thing but a homogenous whole., it is diversified by styles as numerous as the authors in Dr Anthon’s Library…” And indeed it was this very controversy about plagiarism that prompted Poe to write in Anthon’s defence as above.

Anthon’s entry on ‘Academia’ at least is not, it seems, taken whole and direct from anything else. Still it appears The history of philosophy: from the earliest times to the beginning of the present century; drawn up from Brucker’s Historia critica philosophiaeby William Enfield (1791) was one of the books on Anthon’s bookshelves. There remain a few turns of phrase – about “those followers of Plato, who taught the doctrine of their master without mixture or corruption” and those “which in some measure receded from the Platonic system without entirely deserting it” – that have dropped through time from a book published in 1791, via a number of learned hands, into a ‘temporary’ article published online in 2001.

Personally, I rather hope they don’t get round to replacing it.

Utilitarians are not nice people

Such, at least, is the conclusion drawn by writers at the ‘Economist’ who have just reported on the publication, in ‘Cognition’, of a paper that claims (in its title) that ‘Antisocial Personality Traits Predict Utilitarian Responses to Moral Dilemmas’.

Reading the article in the Economist made me recall a report that apparently appeared in the Los Angeles Times a few years ago. In the same it was that reported that when “asked to resolve hypothetical dilemmas — such as tossing a person from a bridge into the path of a trolley to save five others — people with damage to their ventromedial prefrontal cortex tended to sacrifice one life to save many”. Indeed, according to the report, “people with damage to their ventromedial prefrontal cortex” are “about three times as likely to sacrifice one person for the greater good compared with people without brain damage or those with damage in a different part of their brains” (or, rather, this is how they respond to rather unlikely thought experiments). This was based on findings published in Nature by Koeings et al in a paper titled “Damage to the prefrontal cortex increases utilitarian moral judgements” (available as as pdf here)..

The new paper referred to in The Economist (‘The Mismeasure of Morals’) is by Daniel M. Bartels of Columbia University and David A. Pizarro at Cornell University. The two note in their abstract that “Researchers have recently argued that utilitarianism is the appropriate framework by which to evaluate moral judgment, and that individuals who endorse non-utilitarian solutions to moral dilemmas (involving active vs. passive harm) are committing an error.” But they then report on “a study in which participants responded to a battery of personality assessments and a set of [trolley] dilemmas that pit utilitarian and non-utilitarian options against each other. Participants who indicated greater endorsement of utilitarian solutions had higher scores on measures of Psychopathy, machiavellianism, and life meaninglessness.” The authors claim “these results question the widely-used methods by which lay moral judgments are evaluated, as these approaches lead to the counterintuitive conclusion that those individuals who are least prone to moral errors also possess a set of psychological characteristics that many would consider prototypically immoral.”

Bartels and Pizzaro (and indeed the Economist) are keen to stress that the “results do not speak to whether utilitarianism …  is the correct normative ethical theory, as the characteristics of a theory’s proponents cannot determine its normative status”. It is also pointed out by Bartels & Pizzaro that “a variety of researchers have shown that individuals with higher working memory capacity and those who are more deliberative thinkers are, indeed, more likely to approve of utilitarian solutions”.

Still, does it make anybody wonder? Is it wrong if it does?


The Blind Scholar

The Internet Encyclopaedia of Philosophy (IEP), an invaluable peer-reviewed resource established by Jim Fieser, has this to say of the work of one particular thinker from the 3rd Century A.D:

The work of Diogenes [Laertius] is a crude contribution towards the history of philosophy…the author is limited in his philosophical abilities and assessment of the various schools…  and is entertaining as a sort of pot-pourri on the subject. Diogenes also includes samples of his own wretched poetry about the philosophers he discusses.. [and] is generally as reliable as whatever source he happens to be copying from at that moment.

The IEP “is actively seeking an author who will write a replacement article”, but this anonymous piece presently stands as the IEP ‘obituary’ to a thinker who produced ten volumes on the history of ideas.  Our writer (A) concedes Diogenes’ ‘Lives of the Philosophers’ is “an important source of information on the development of Greek philosophy”.  And whilst urging that the “reader should be wary” of his “amusing or scandalous stories about the lives and deaths of various philosophers”, A also acknowledges that Diogenes’ “article on Epicurus .. is quite valuable, since it contains some original letters of that philosopher, which comprise a summary of the Epicurean doctrines.”

A more flattering obituary of a scholar whose own work related to those very same letters appeared in the London Times in 1929:

Mr. R. D. Hicks, the Aristotelian scholar and Fellow of the Trinity College, Cambridge, died yesterday at his residence at Cambridge at the age of 78… Robert Drew Hicks … was elected a scholar [of Trinity] in 1872 and Fellow in 1876.. [and] was college lecturer in Classics from 1884 to 1900. At the close of this period.. he.. suffered the greatest calamity that can befall a student—loss of eyesight. This, to a helluo librorum like Hicks, was an unparalleled disaster. But his courage never faltered…With the help pf his wife and some devoted friends, Hicks kept abreast of classical learning and produced a monumental edition of Aristotle’s “De Anima” in 1907…, and a brilliant summary of Greek philosophy for the ‘Cambridge Companion to Greek Studies’… The patience and cheerfulness of the blind scholar were amazing. For the use of fellow-sufferers he produced in 1921, a concise Latin dictionary in Braille type. He was often to be met walking in the country on the arm of a companion, and he dined regularly in Hall. Manchester University conferred on him the hon. degree of D.Litt.

The obituary also mentions that our blind scholar also produced “a small volume on the Stoics and Epicureans in 1910” and “a translation of Diogenes Luertius in the Loeb Classical Library” in 1925.  Both works included (slightly varying) translations of Epicurus’ ‘Letter to Menoeceus’, and those translations remain resources drawn upon today by users of the internet.  Online, you will still find translations of that letter attributed to Hicks, at amongst other, places: The Internet Classics Archive (here) hosted by MIT,  amongst the eBooks (here) hosted by The University of Adelaide, on the Encyclopaedia Britannica site, (here), in the Project Gutenberg Consortia Center Collection (here) and amongst the teaching materials hosted online by The University of Waterloo (here). So, who is responsible for making this important material for students of Epicurus so widely available?

Just as Diogenes must be thanked for (at least) bringing the letters of Epicurus down to us across the millennia, and Hicks must be thanked for the translations he made of those texts, we also must thank a later disseminator of wisdom, one working in the 1990s at the dawn of the Internet Age.  In the 1990s, as B put it “there were very few philosophical texts available on line”. And so like a number of other worthy souls B “transcribed a number that were in the public domain”, typing them out by hand from whatever source he happened to be copying from at that moment and later uploading them. This included ‘The Letter to Menoeceus’ as found in Hick’s 1925 translation of the works of Diogenes Laertius.  Transcriptions of this ilk went on to spread across the internet, giving access to the wisdom of earlier generations to a whole new generation of internet-enabled students.  The labours of all these souls must be applauded.  And it is unbelievable to think that the letters of Epicurus (who lived between 341 BC and 270 BC), were transmitted via Diogenes down to Hicks and then via the transcription of early computer user B in the 1990s right across the World Wide Web without being corrupted.

Or rather it is believable, but not, of course, true. Sadly the ‘Letter to Menoeceus’‏ you will find at all these reputable sources is not exactly the letter translated by R.D. Hicks (in either its 1910 or 1925 versions).  B made an error in transcription (or perhaps his computer did).  This does not diminish the valuable work he was involved in at the time, or the further work he has done in academia since.  But, being human, working late perhaps, a passage got corrupted and then went onto the net and spread and spread and spread.  The error is but a sub-clause.  One I was only able to verify as an error – after some confusion about its meaning – by studying scanned copies of both of Hick’s books. And a baffling sub-clause it is too, one that will presumably have caused innumerable students, and at least one philosopher you may have heard of, to wonder: “what the hell does this mean?”

and so of him anything that is at agrees not with about him whatever may uphold both his happyness and his immortality.

And the truth is that all this means – for surely it is quite incomprehensible – is that B, who has gone on to do some very important academic work, made an error in transcription some 25 years ago, one he now wishes “would just disappear”. I wondered whether to name B, but in the end, I decided I did not want to appear ungrateful or uncharitable (I’d rather just be that way without being open about it).  Like the author of the unflattering piece on Diogenes Laertius, on balance, I think our B is entitled to remain anonymous. But as far as B’s rendition of Hicks’ work is concerned, I do think the academic institutions that host the corrupted ‘Letter To Menoceous’ should themselves be ‘actively seeking a replacement article’: the genuine one. Hosting a corrected version of the Letter would not only make the thoughts of the great Epicurus intelligible,  it would stand as a better testament to the work of Diogenes, and as a much more fitting memorial to the immense achievements of our blind scholar R.D. Hicks.

This of course, won’t happen – not right across the web. You can find scanned copies of both of Hick’s books if you look hard enough, and correct transcriptions too but, when it comes to putting things online: once it’s ‘out there’ on the net it stays ‘out there’. And this is a moral we should all keep in mind whether we are commenting, blogging or publishing. Be careful what you write because all the wishing in the world will not make it “just disappear” after the fact.  And we should all heed this other moral too: don’t trust everything you read, especially online. And this advice applies, of course, to all of the above.