Monthly Archives: April 2007

What’s the Greatest Innovation?

Spiked-online will soon be publishing the results of its survey of “key thinkers in science, technology and medicine”, asking them what they consider to be the greatest innvovation in their own field. I seem to remember being asked for my answer, even though I don’t appear to fit the profile. I think I can remember my answer too, and I’ll dig it out and post it here later, once I get home and find it. But before I do, what does everyone else think? The question may sound a little vague, but I’d like it to be interpreted thus: what innovation in philosophical thinking has been most important for how the subject has developed? Note that this is not the same question as what you think the best idea or argument in philosophical history has been, because it may be your personal favourite hasn’t had the impact you think it deserves. In that way, the question is a “for better or for worse” one.
(Note that we might republish a selection of replies in The Philosophers’ Magazine. Please state if you DON’T want us to do so by signing off “Not For Mag”.)

So much to learn from each other…

Here’s my final radio Thought for the Day for a while at least. The band really are excellent, by the way.

On Sunday, I went to a brilliant concert at St George’s Bristol by a band called Moishe’s Bagel. Their music was a mix of Jewish, Scottish, east European and even Argentinian influences, to name but four. It was no surprise that in a city that prides itself on its diversity, they went down a storm.
I could easily use the band as a wonderful example of how great it is when we all embrace aspects of other cultures and religions. That’s why in this slot you can hear Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindhus, Sikhs and even heathen atheists like myself.
Well, that’s all true. But this comfortable vision of the joys of multiculturalism glosses over some more troubling questions.
First of all, mutual respect can mask profound disagreements. “We have much to learn from each other,” we might say in our most preacherly voices; “You have much to learn from us,” we often think. Otherwise, why don’t we just adopt the beliefs of those we claim to admire so much?
But more profoundly, in order to enjoy difference and learn from it, there have to be meaningful difference in the first place. Moishe’s Bagel drew on traditions that have their own distinctive sounds and forms. Musicians can only blend and mix from such ingredients if others keep them unadulterated.
That’s the challenge of a genuinely diverse society. It’s easy to applaud those who embrace diversity. But what of those who want to maintain their own traditions in their purer forms? The test of a tolerant, pluralist society is how it deals with its deepest disagreements, not in how loudly it proclaims its love of our shared values.

Cui bono?

Here’s the Thought for the Day that didn’t get broadcast because of late change to cover the Virginia massacre, appended with some additional thoughts about how it’s more complicated than this….

“All you need is love,” said John Lennon, but, added Peanuts cartoonist Charles Schultz, “a little chocolate now and then doesn’t hurt.” That, apparently, is an understatement. This week, scientists have shown that eating chocolate causes a more intense and longer lasting “buzz” than kissing your partner. Who needs love when you’ve got cocoa?
As you may suspect, however, this “new research” should be approached with caution. The scientists behind it work for an organisation which offers, I quote, “an extensive range of projects designed to obtain the widest and most positive media coverage for their clients.”
One such client is the Food Industry, and sure enough, its kissing and chocolate study has indeed obtained wide and positive media coverage. Even you and Lucy were talking about this yesterday, John, and the BBC’s website quoted a spokesperson from a leading manufacturer. The scientists must be shouting not “eureka” but “result!”
This is a relatively harmless example of a more worrying trend for the news agenda to be shaped, not by what is most important, but by what people able to manipulate the news want us to think. People are already very aware of government spin, but commercial spin is, if anything, even more prevalent, and less accountable.
Fortunately, there is a simple question you can ask to help immunise yourself against this kind of manipulation: cui bono – whose interest does it serve? The answer to this question will very often point you towards the source of a story and make you better able to judge its truth. If the beneficiary of a news story is chocolate makers, see if they are behind it. If it turns out they are, you know you have one sweet story that is best taken with a hefty pinch of salt.

Ok, so again, the need is to make a point quickly and simply. I do believe we are not aware enough of how much of what is presented as news is actually corporate PR.
But this cui bono business, when applied to government, can quickly become paranoid conspiracy theorising. Many people tend to think that it’s not a prompt to further thought, but a kind of a priori principle: if you find out who benefits from an action that will tell you who is definitely behind it. That’s stronger than what I was suggesting and also clearly false.
But what’s even worse is that people add to this another bizarre assumption: that anything big that happens must be in the interests of the power-brokers, and so what you need to do to understand it is to work out how it benefits them, even if it doesn’t appear to.
You see a lot of this in commentary on the Iraq war. Although it seems pretty clear that there has just been error after error, for many that doesn’t fit their idea of a sinister all-powerful US. Before there had been elections in Iraq, for example, Naomi Klein was always talking about how it was because the US didn’t want a democratic government there. In January 2004 she was sceptical of claims that elections would be held by the end of the year. When they were held more or less on time, she of course saw them as slap in the fact for the US.
So how had the elections, which previously didn’t suit the US, been allowed to go ahead? It’s not clear, but it seems to have been a PR exercise. The symbol of the purple finger – the mark on the ballot paper – enabled the US to present itself as the defender of freedom. Even though, at the same time, the Iraqi people had spoken and slapped the US in the face.
I haven’t said eough to show Klein is incoherent here: maybe she just thinks the US government always tries to do what’s in its best interests and is also laughably incompetent at doing so. But many people clearly do think that what actually happens is usually under the control of the US and does suit it, no matter what the evidence suggests. But whose interests does that kind of analysis serve? Why, writers of instant comment, I guess.

More about brainwashing

Okay, so what motivated the brainwashing post below?

As I’m sure people are aware, there is occasionally this accusation that teaching religion to children is a kind of ‘brainwashing’. This was something I was pondering whilst waiting to get served at Burger King.

First, I had a thought about The Children of God. An exemplary instance of a brainwashing cult, one would think. I suspect also that most people would consider their practices – flirty fishing, love bombing, etc – to be a kind of brainwashing even if it turned out that their teachings were true. If so, this means – with caveats – the concept of brainwashing is independent of the truth or falsity of whatever it is being brainwashed (excuse grammatical nonsense there).

Perhaps then what defines brainwashing is that it involves employing a variety of psychological techniques that most people would consider rather extreme to the end of ensuring that people come to embrace a particular doctrine, or whatever, as being true beyond all doubt. I think this is an absolutely defensible position. However, there is a problem. For some people, such a definition seems to leave out too much. I’m thinking again here of the idea that a religious education – perhaps attendance at a Catholic school, or being brought up by religious parents, or attending Sunday school – is at least a kind of brainwashing (Yes, I know – this is about definitions, subtle distinctions, etc., but this is precisely what I’m musing on.)

Perhaps then what defines something as brainwashing is that it deals in the passing on of beliefs that are designated as being unquestionably true. Let’s call such beliefs ‘dogma’. There would have to be some systematicity about the process, but this is not an implausible idea. So the proposition would be that there is a kind of brainwashing going on when dogma is passed on a systematic kind of way. This allows in the teaching of religion as a kind of brainwashing.

The trouble is this particular formulation also allows in the way that I was taught history. I spent five years studying history at a grammar school. My teacher was an old style facts and dates kind of guy. He taught by writing notes onto a blackboard. We copied them down. There was no questioning, no dissent. Nothing to suggest that the details of history were contested, etc. But presumably people would not want to claim that I was being anything like brainwashed by my history teacher…

So maybe the thought is that a kind of brainwashing occurs when beliefs that have never been anything other than simply designated as being unquestionably true are systematically passed on. It might be true that my history teacher was hugely didactic in his approach, but in other arenas, of course, the kinds of things he was teaching us had been subject to rational scrutiny, etc., and had, at least in a limited way, passed the test. Perhaps that is it then. Except…

Well, first – I was taught history as if these facts were unquestionably true, and certainly that had never been shown in the court of rational scrutiny…

But also suppose, for example, that a supercharged Alvin Plantinga type person, had shown, in an academic context, that some particular religious belief is true. This would mean that the teaching of this particular belief would not be a kind of brainwashing, even if the people teaching it knew nothing of Plantinga’s arguments. To put this more starkly, people might teach what they take to be an article of faith as the unquestioned truth, but we have to conclude that this is not an instance of brainwashing, if it turns out to be the case that the particular belief had been shown to be true in the court of rational scrutiny. But that doesn’t seem to be right.

So maybe it has something to do with the fact that truth-claims are never true beyond all doubt, therefore to avoid the “kind of brainwashing” charge this has to be clear. Education should be about cultivating a restless and questioning spirit. But this makes my history lessons a kind of brainwashing. And actually my biology lessons too. (I can remember my biology teacher bringing scorn down upon my head because I suggested – as an eleven year old – that blood might be red when we cut ourselves because it is oxygenated; I said that it didn’t follow that it was red in our veins. I was making a logical point, rather than a factual point, but I was certainly given hell by my classmates for the next couple of months for being the boy who didn’t know blood was red.)

Anyway, at this point my Beanburger was ready, and I started to think about whether I wanted a large or extra-large fries. But it was these thoughts that motivated the previous posting.

Note: I’m sure this is full of holes. It was literally something I was thinking about whilst waiting in a queue at Burger King. (And obviously during the ten minutes it’s taken to write it down.)

Hot young things

When you read about the effect Wittgenstein had on his students, it’s easy to feel nostalgic for the days when philosophers could really excite people. In the age of academics with narrow specialisms, that just doesn’t happen any more.
Or at least I thought. Uncool though it may be, there is a young philosopher who has actually made me a little excited lately. Hasok Chang is also getting other people talking. He was nominated for the Times Higher Education Supplement’s Young Academic of the Year award a few years back, and now he has won the prestigious Lakatos award for his Inventing Temperature: Measurement and Scientific Progress (jointly awarded with Harvey Brown for his Physical Relativity: Space-time Structure from a Dynamical Perspective).
Chang shows how the narrow rigours of modern academic life need not lead to narrow, uninteresting thoughts. His lecture at the LSE on Wednesday night, when he accepted his award, was full of enthusiasm and the sense that what he did actually mattered in some way, without any trace of hubris or arrogance. And although his subject was in many ways a small one – the development of the measurement of temperature in science – it was connected to bigger themes in many interesting ways.
I can only give you a few examples of why Chang’s talk was so energising. First, he dares to have ambition. His project comes under the rubric of History and Philosophy of Science. Chang believes, as Lakatos did, that the two parts of this subject cannot be divided. But Chang also advocates a bigger role for the subject, as something he wants to call complementary science. He thinks that, done well, complementary science can challenge unfounded assumptions and open avenues of enquiry that have been prematurely or wrongly closed off.
The rest of his talk made this claim sound very credible. One of the most interesting parts was the revelation that, despite what you’ve been told, water does not always boil at 100 degrees celcius, given constraints of air pressure and purity. In fact, it boils at different temperatures depending on what vessel you use to heat it, and some simple experiments can show this is true. Some people know this already, but interestingly most of them are engineers, not scientists, because engineers, of course, have to know this in order to make things that work.
Another insightful little gem came in a response to a question about the title of his book. Given he talks of “inventing temperature”, does that make him some kind of non-realist? Not at all, he replied. In the scientific sense of the word, you can only invent things that work: in other words, things that fit in with reality as it really is. In a couple of clear sentences, Chang overthrew a common misunderstanding which demands that for science to be true and about the real world, there is no place in it for conceptual constructions.
Chang is not unique in being both deeply academic and deeply interesting. (Joshua Knobe, who has been advancing experimental philosophy, is another innovative rising star.) But he is unusual. On top of that, by all accounts he is a really nice human being.
I’m pleased to say Chang is due to write something for The Philosophers’ Magazine in the near future. Watch out for it, and for him.

Scientific brainwashing?

Here’s another thought experiment. Imagine that something like this is true of the United Kingdom: It is a thoroughly and harmoniously religious country (though in fact belief in God is no more rationally justified in this world than it is in our world). People live happily. They sing hymns together. Burn incense. They share the fruits of their labours. That kind of thing. In this society, there is little in the way of what we would recognise as education. Children are taught about God, about the importance of family and community, about the traditions of the society, but that’s pretty much it.

However, in this world there exists a renegade group – let’s call it the British Humanist Alliance (BHA) – which spends its time railing against this orthodoxy (it’s a campaigning organisation: it insists there is no God, produces pamphlets on something called Darwinism, plays fast and loose with the truth when constructing opinion polls, that kind of thing). Anyway, the BHA hit upon a plan to improve their profile. They decide to kidnap a few children, and then to introduce them to a new-fangled way of finding out about things called ‘Science’. This they accomplish. The children are closeted away for a few years and they’re taught all about scientific procedure (you know, hypotheses, evidence, testing, black swans, that kind of thing). At first, the children resist these new ideas, but the pressure of their teachers is relentless, and in the end, they thoroughly embrace the new worldview and the tools that it provides.

Once they hit adulthood, the BHA release their converts back into the wild telling them to go forth and spread the message of scientific enlightenment. At first, the converts approach their task with relish. But they find the world is resistant to their message. Their parents, though overjoyed to see them alive, are unable to reconcile themselves to the new message that they are preaching, and eventually they disown the children. Their old friends are similarly distant, not understanding their new alien ways. The converts’ initial enthusiasm diminishes, and they find themselves longing for the old ways: for the happy singing, the joy of worshipping the God they no long believe to exist, the togetherness engendered by a shared belief. But try as they might, they simply cannot believe as before. It is literally impossible. They understand the difference between faith and justified belief, and they just cannot embrace a faith. They know that their way of finding out about the world is the right way, but they wish it were otherwise.

As it turns out, they live lonely, miserable, friendless lives. Lives that in utilitarian terms are considerably worse than they would have been had they not be subject to the scurrilous BHA kidnapping experiment.

So there are two questions:

a) Were these children brainwashed? And if not, why not? (Their education was little different from a scientific education we’d receive in our world: just more intense, and rather better!)

b) Were they victims of child abuse? (Leaving aside the kidnapping thing. Was the simple teaching of scientific method an instance of child abuse?)

c) If the answer to a) is Yes; and/or the answer to b) no – are there any implications for our world? (Possibly not).


I had this week’s radio Thought for the Day written when I turned in last night (see last week’s post for the background). But then I was called by the producer wondering if I’d be able to say something about the Virginia shootings. I was really tired and frankly couldn’t think of anything anyone could say. But then my sleep was interrupted by restless thoughts about what I might be able to put together. I woke up at 5.30 am and couldn’t get back to sleep, so I got up and tried to put together the night’s disjointed thoughts.
You might like to compare what I said with what the Bishop of Southwark said on national Radio Four (although he gets 3 minutes, against my 1′ 45″). That gives you some idea of what is expected from this slot, and why, despite my worries about the possibility of saying anything non-platitudinous, I think it shouldn’t be left solely to the religious.

Slaughters like those in Virginia yesterday, which left 33 people dead, put us into a very particular kind of shock. It is more than the horror of sudden, random and pointless death on a large scale. It is the chill of recognising that our day to day safety depends on little more than a trust that people don’t randomly kill each other, a trust that can be broken at any time.
Why is it that we can usually rely on this basic fact of human decency? Is it because most people have a strong value system, be it a religious ethic or a secular moral philosophy? I’m not so sure. Some of America’s worst killing sprees have been motivated by over-zealous, distorted commitments to moral systems, not their absence. The Oklahoma bomber, Timothy McVeigh, and the 9/11 attackers were all motivated at least in part by what they felt was a moral grievance against the US government.
A more credible explanation for what maintains our basic respect for others is emotional, not ideological. Empathy is what stops us gratuitously harming others, not adherence to an abstract rule. If you can feel someone’s pain, you don’t knowingly inflict it.
In contrast, mass murderers fail to connect with their victims and so dehumanise them. In Rwanda and in the Third Reich, the precondition for the terrible atrocities was the reduction of the group to be exterminated to the level of vermin.
Even though it can break down, we should see the centrality of empathy to human decency as a cause for hope. We are, and are likely to remain, divided by our religious and philosophical values. But we are united in our humanity, and when it comes to living peacefully together, that matters more.

Niceties of truth

I’ve had some interesting responses to an article I worte for the Guardian on who scepticism about truth is helping the cause of dogmatism.

Key to my argument was the claim that “this is not really a highbrow academic debate about whether there is Truth with a capital T – it is about how abstract ideas relate to the business of everyday life.”
Here are the final paragraphs

… in the everyday world we can and must distinguish truth and falsity, right and wrong, even if on close examination these terms do not mean what we thought they did. Science may not be God-like in its objectivity, but it is not just another myth. Moral values must be questioned, but if discrimination against women, homosexuals or ethnic minorities is wrong here, then it is wrong anywhere else in the world. Truth may not be the simple phenomenon we assume it to be, but falsehoods must be challenged.
Unless we can make a convincing case that the choice is not between relativism or dogmatism, more and more people will reject the former and embrace the latter. When they do, those who helped create the impression that modern, secular rationality leaves everything up for grabs in the marketplace of belief will have to take their share of the blame.

I got an email about this from a philosopher who argued

I think what is wrong with your approach, and what is wrong about the approach to truth of those who’d agree with you, is the model of truth it implies. It seems to me that you presume truth must be reducible to some kind of statement that, in principle, is accessible to all, verifiable, and so necessarily demands assent. In short, for truth read scientific truth.

He went on to say “…truth emerges and is embodied; it is established more by praxis than doxy, by narrative than logic, by dynamic living rather than static argument…”
I want to publish here my reply to him in full, because although it’s a not verty finely finessed email, I think his reponsse actually helps clarify what my point is.

I see you are part of the problem!
As I said: “But this is not really a highbrow academic debate about whether there is Truth with a capital T – it is about how abstract ideas relate to the business of everyday life.”
So, having read my appeal that we have to make it clear there are plenty of things we can call right or true in everyday discourse with no fancy qualifications – even if once we get into a philosophical discourse those qualifications will appear – you say that I am wrong because I am advancing a model of truth as scientific truth and that really it’s about the praxis v doxy issue. In other words, you turn it back into a highbrow debate about whether there is Truth with a capital T and what it’s nature is
First, I really don’t know how you gleaned form this piece that I’m presuming all truth must be scientific. In fact, I’d say I am a kind of relativist, actually. Just not part of that dichotomy that the Pope and MoD and a lot of people think exists, where relativism is laissez-faire and the only alternative is dogmatism. I don’t say what my ultimate philosophical commitments are, partly because I’m not sure, but also because – here’s the key – it’s misleading to pretend they matter all that much in most cases.
So, take the holocaust. It happened, didn’t it? I’m really not sure how you’d even argue that to gloss that you need to talk about praxis rather than doxy. But even if you could, to all intents and purposes there is just nothing questionable in saying it happened, as historic fact. (And more than praxis, you’d base that claim on – boring! – facts and evidence.) If people then start to say dubious things on the basis of a crude understanding of what historic facts are, sure, intervene.
As for ethics, I can see here much more easily why you’d want to say “stoning adulterers to death” is wrong on the basis of praxis rather than doxa. But, really. why would you want to in most contexts? Why can’t we just say, yes, it’s wrong, wrong for us and wrong for anyone. If you want to know my reasons I’ll tell you (and you may then discover it is less about facts and more about practice) but there is really no need for me start out by qualifying my condemnation in ways which may make it sound as though the question is more up for grabs than it is.
We can gloss True” and “right” in myriad ways. Philosophers will disagree. You say I’m wrong (having only guessed what my gloss would be), but plenty of other philosophers would say you were wrong. The point is that for most purposes these disagreements count for nothing, because you, me, Rorty, Foucault etc actually think certain things happened and certain things are wrong and we think these things are not for practical purposes negotiable, though ultimately, as philosophers, everything is. But if, in public, any time someone says, “come on guys, this is true isn’t it? And that’s wrong?” all the intellectuals reply, “sort of, but I don’t think it’s quite as you say it is”, that creates the sense that it’s all relativistic and pragmatic, as the Pope says, and that if you want someone just to say things straight, you need a dogmatist.

Guilty pleasures

There was a great piece you might have missed a few months ago in the Guardian magazine. The idea was to ask intellectuals what their guilty pleasures were.
The exercise itself is an example of how in our democratic times we like to be reassured that no one is really that different from anyone else. Harvard professor James Wood may be a high-brow literary critic, but, hey! He likes car magazines! Sociologist Anthony Gidden likes watching wrestling on cable, and not merely for professional reasons.
This kind of levelling down can go too far when it ends up denying that there any such things as experts at all, but I actually find these little reminders of the humanity of great brains quite positive.
However, many of the confessions weren’t really any such thing: you’re not going to think worse of John Carey, for example, because he admits to liking a nice cup of tea and a sit down. It’s a bit like that point in a job interview when you’re asked for your weaknesses and you reply, “I’m a perfectionist”.
The philosophers, however, acquitted themselves quite well, admitting to things that might well reflect poorly on them. AC Grayling said he loved boxing, even though he said it “should be banned, of course: it causes brain damage, and there is something questionable about the pleasure taken by spectators in watching men hitting one another.”
Slavoj Žižek’s confession was the most disturbing: “I play [military PC games] compulsively, enjoying the freedom to dwell in the virtual space where I can do with impunity all the horrible things I was always dreaming of – killing innocent civilians, burning churches and houses, betraying allies…”
Martha Nussbaum’s admission to being a fan of the Chicago White Sox seemed disappointing at first, but if you think about it, maybe she does have a reason to feel bad about it. “Marcus Aurelius said that the first lesson in ethical impartiality was to learn not to be a sports fan, and I have not learned that lesson, nor do I want to learn it.”
But the winner has to be Roger Scruton, because his confession alone throws into question a major plank of his intellectual arguments over the years. It’s worth quoting in full:

Although I argue vehemently against modern pop music, on grounds of its musical incompetence, verbal impoverishment and general morbidity, narcissism and salaciousness; although I fiercely object to disco dancing as a sacrilege against the human form and a collective rejection of civilised courtship; although I defend reels, minuets, galliards, sarabands and (as limiting cases) waltzes and polkas as the only ways in which ordinary humanity should dare to put its sexual nature on festive display, and although I regard the 12-bar blues and the flattened subdominant seventh as the lowest forms of vulgarity in music, I find rock’n’roll in general, and Elvis in particular, irresistible, and would happily dance away the night to it. I cannot explain the thrill of delight with which I hear the first bars of Jailhouse Rock or the eagerness with which I at once search the vicinity for a partner: but there it is, appalling proof that, despite all my efforts, I am human.

Roger, I salute your honesty.

Thought for the day

Here in the UK, most national and local BBC radio stations broadcast a Thought for the Day in their breakfast shows. The biggest national speech station, Radio Four, only allows religious contributors to this slot, but many local stations have secular items too. (The Humanist Society of Scotland recently recorded its own TftD podcasts to highlight Radio Four’s policy.)
This month I’m doing a few for BBC Radio Bristol. They are strange things to write. You have less than two minutes, your audience is normal people, probably not that awake yet, and so your goal is not to say something startlingly new but offer a reminder of truths known yet often forgotten. Oh, and preferably topical too. A local hook is even better.
Last week I talked about asylum seekers, repeating much of what I’ve previously said here. Today I tried something else. I’d be interested to know what you think about this, and the very concept of Thought for the Day.

The Curzon in Clevedon is our area’s very own cinema paradiso. The Victorian theatre dates back to 1912 and is the oldest continually running cinema in the world. You can still see the occasional silent movie there, accompanied by the mellow tones of an original Compton organ.
However, as this station has reported, from this Friday, the purrs and ticks of 35mm celluloid reels will be replaced by the hi-tec silence of a new digital projector.
The romantic in me will shed a little tear. But the Curzon’s decision is an example of the balancing of the desire to preserve the best of the past, and the need to secure a thriving future.
It’s a trade-off we often have to make.
In politics, for instance, if we are too conservative we risk maintaining present injustices and inequalities, while squandering opportunities for a brighter future. But if we are too blindly progressive, we risk throwing out all the good things which society has acquired gradually through the ages.
Belief systems also have to adapt while remaining true to their roots. Christianity kept the Hebrew bible as its old testament even though its founder aimed to add something radically new to the Jewish tradition. Contemporary secular thinkers also grapple with the desire to maintain the Enlightenment’s emphasis on logic and evidence, while at the same time trying to come to terms with all that the twentieth century has taught us about the limits of reason and rational planning.
There are lots of gifts we have inherited from the past which we rightly want to keep. But perfect preservation is only for museums and pickle jars. Change is not an unqualified good, but it is, at least, a sign of life.