Monthly Archives: December 2007

We like sheep?

welikesheep.jpgAs I mentioned in another post, I’ve been playing Handel’s Messiah a lot lately. My two 10-year-olds have been suffering terribly over this. It’s not just bad music, in their ears, it’s hideous.

Which brings to mind an interesting question. What is an “acquired taste”? It seems odd that something as seemingly thought-free as what something tastes like or sounds like can evolve over time.

The Messiah really sounds awful to my kids, but someday I bet they’ll like it. Wine is an unfathomable thing to them. Is it actually going to taste different to them in 10 years? Coffee is another example. What—does it actually taste different in older mouths?

Then again, some people never come to like wine or coffee or vocal music. Are they immature?

Oh, about the sheep. Another acquired taste? Happy Holidays!

Quiz answers and more questions

I’ve put up the answers to the Quiz of the Year here. The winner was Christian Jago and the runner up Paul Hutton. I’m sending both some books.
Not impressed so far by reply to the picture quiz. You can do better, surely!
Just for fun this time, (with comments open), here are ten questions about film and philosophy

1. Three films have been made about Slavoj Zizek. Name any of them.
2. In 2002, a film was released about Jacques Derrida. What was it called?
3. A film about Martin Heidegger was released in 2004, which took its title from the Greco-roman name for a stretch of the Danube. What was it?
4. Which Hitchcock film involved a couple of student devotees of Nietzsche who murder someone just for the hell of it?
5. Which film saw Socrates transported through time and pronounced so-crates?
6. In which Woody Allen film does the director’s character make a film about a fictional philosopher who eventually kills himself?
7. In which film does Ben Kinsley play a fictional philosopher called Hermocrates?
8. Which living French philosopher made a film called Le Jour et La Nuit in 1997, which stared Alain Delon, Lauren Bacall and the philosopher’s wife, Arielle Dombasle?
9. Who is the author of a book called Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Lacan: (But Were Afraid to Ask Hitchcock)?
10. Who has just directed a film adaptation of Romanian writer and philosopher Mircea Eliade’s novella, Youth Without Youth?

Of course, if you read The Philosophers’ Magazine (and had a good memory), you’d know all the answers…

Picture quiz

I’ll wading through all the entries to the quiz and I’ll be deciding which of the two entrants has won soon, and posting the answers. In the meantime, just for fun, can you identity these festive philosophers?

After Atheism

after-atheism.jpgIt somehow seems appropriate, a week before Christmas, that I’ve been reading Mark Vernon’s book After Atheism. Mark and I (first name basis because we are “e-friends”) shouldn’t be worlds apart. He’s a Christian agnostic—not a full believer, but not hostile to religion. I think of myself as a Jewish atheist (when I need a label)—not a believer at all, but again, not hostile to religion. His outlook is only a few steps away from mine, but these are steps I can’t take.

Mark actually gives me some attractive incentives. They are stated in the course of his own personal tale of transformation. Once he was an Anglican priest, but doubts crept in and he turned atheist briefly, until settling into an attitude of “passionate agnosticism” (passionate since he’s not just a “dunno” agnostic, but committed to the position).

Here’s what I take to be the crux of the matter:

I came to believe that the certainty of my atheism thwarted my imagination; in practice, for fear of compromising its integrity, it led to a poverty of spirit. When the certainty of my atheism slipped, all sorts of thoughts became possible again.

What were these thoughts? He talks about a visit to a temple in Egypt where, as a fleeting atheist, there were limits on his empathy with ancient worshipers. Thinking of the world as a gift is another desirable thought. And then he has a very nice discussion of religious music, which hits home because I’ve been endlessly replaying Handel’s Messiah in the last couple of weeks.

Of course folks like me can love Handel’s Messiah, as I do. But he says “the atheist mindset…appears forced to put a cap on the appreciation of such things.” As an agnostic, his imagination has freer reign. I see his point. As much as I adore this music, I’ve always thought there must be more to the experience for the believer. It must be marvelous to hear all this beauty as a celebration of the Messiah’s arrival—for real, and not just the idea of it. Agnostics at least have access to all of that as a possibility.

Are there compensating joys for atheists? For me trampling on hallowed ground with the likes of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens is great fun…but never mind. If my experience is a bit narrowed as a result of my ungodly cast of mind, what then?

To see the advantages of agnosticism is one thing. To really be agnostic is another. An agnostic has to palpably sense the existence of God as a possibility. But I don’t. And Mark’s given me no reason to.

Analogy: a Buddhist writer could intone the pleasure of believing in rebirth and Nirvana. I could be entirely persuaded that these pleasures are available to Buddhists and not to me. But there’s no pull there. I don’t believe in these things and don’t even find them tempting.

If Mark and I are so few steps apart, why is the possibility of God palpable for him, but excluded for me? It’s got to be relevant that I grew up with no God talk whatever. Just none. For me, the whole idea of a supreme being is as exotic as the idea of rebirth and Nirvana. But Mark’s father is an Anglican priest (as he said at TP not long ago). God is a familiar idea with “pull” for him.

Now, I realize that people do go from being atheists to being agnostics or believers. Somehow it does happen. But I think Mark’s got a particular problem turning atheists into agnostics. He’s adamant that God is not definable or rationally provable. If he were, he wouldn’t be God, he claims. But then if arguments are beside the point, how do you convert atheists?

But maybe that’s not his goal. His book’s really a clarion call to fallen Christians—not to fall too far. I wouldn’t be surprised if for a good number of them, he’s quite persuasive.


In case it’s useful, here’s a glossary of terms: An atheist is a person who has a belief on the question of the existence of a supreme being–that there isn’t one. It varies with how much certainty the belief is held. Some atheists are completely certain, others less so. Agnostics have no belief. They’ve given some thought to the matter, but reached no conclusion. This could be for lack of trying hard or despite deep thought. In either case, they don’t believe God exists and don’t believe God doesn’t exist. Theists believe there’s a supreme being. Again, it varies with how much confidence. NB: People who merit the same label can be quite different. Also, not everyone comes under one of these labels–e.g. dogs and babies don’t. I think these definitions fit usage pretty well.

Quiz of the Year

Last night I was quiz master at the University of the West of England’s philosophy party. I thought perhaps I could make more use of the questions by running some of the quiz here.

Email your answers to me at editor squiggle philosophers dot co dot uk. Comments are closed for this post. Depending on the response, I’ll either award a prize to the winner or give you a second round.

UWE staff and students are barred from entry!

1. In November, a Finnish student Pekka-Eric Auvinen opened fire on his classmates, killing eight people. He cited two philosophers as influences. Who were they?
2. How many books has king of the popular philosophers AC Grayling published in the UK this year?
3. A film based on the autobiography of a living philosopher opened in Australia earlier this year. Name the film or the philosopher.
4. Which philosopher, who died earlier this year, said “Truth is simply a compliment paid to sentences seen to be paying their way.”
5. Dutch philosopher Erik Hoestra paid homage to Diogenes the cynic by doing something the ancient Greek was very famous for: what was it?
6. An expert in Vampire literature got embroiled in a legal case concerning the papers of which recently deceased philosopher?
7. Which philosopher, who died earlier this year, said “The real is not only what can be reproduced, but that which is always already reproduced. The hyper real.”
8. Which philosopher won the $1.5 million Templeton prize?
9. This year was the bicentenary of which British philosopher’s birth?
10. Which British philosopher has co-written a play which ran in London earlier this year and will have its New York premiere early in the next?


daemon.jpgDon’t you love the daemons in The Golden Compass? I sure do, and they’re interesting too. Daemons are souls that live outside of people’s bodies in the form of animals. Daemons are necessary for life–if your daemon is killed, you die.  To do any good, they have to stay close. If you’re separated from your daemon, you become a shadow of your former self.

As I said in my first Golden Compass post, I haven’t read Phillip Pullman’s books, but the movie’s daemonology is psychologically acute. Children are different from adults in that their daemons can change forms. Lyra’s daemon is most often an ermine, but sometimes a mouse or moth. Adults have stable daemons. (The movie website will tell you what yours is, based on how you answer 20 questions. I took it, and I’m a shy but assertive…tiger!)

Here’s what I find interesting. In Pullman’s world, humans have daemons but animals don’t. You’d have to say that to avoid an infinite regress–My tiger daemon had better not have a sheep daemon which in turn has a snake daemon…ad infinitum! (Or could you just say that daemon-animals don’t have daemons, to avoid the regress?) But I think Pullman has a more interesting reason for saying animals have no daemons.

Having a daemon is outwardly having an animal walking beside you all the time. Transposing into a less fantastic key, what Pullman is suggesting is a certain phenomenology of human consciousness. Like Lyra is constantly in dialogue with the ermine or mouse or moth by her side, we’re always talking to ourselves. My self, ironically, is in a way someone else, someone who even sometimes addresses me in the second person. “You have to do it. Go on, it will be over soon.” (As in, 5 minutes before public speaking–you see, I actually am shy.) You’d think your self (soul, daemon, whatever) would be a unifying force, but the feel of it involves a certain amount of diversity.

Animals don’t have daemons in Pullman’s world. There’s something astute about that, to my mind, because I can’t imagine animals having this sort of polyphonic mental life. I can’t imagine my cat having an inner voice urging him on to…stop scratching the couch, run faster than his brother, or whatever.

In Christian thinking, having a soul is all-important–it’s what makes you “created in God’s image” and puts you in a position to enjoy eternal ife or suffer eternal damnation. So the soulessness of animals divides them from humans in a dramatic and morally signicant way. The phenomenological difference Pullman alludes to by saying only humans have daemons doesn’t relegate animals to a position of unimportance. Still, it’s interesting, and may have some upshot for the relative value of human and animal life–something morality requires us to have a position on, once in a while.

Screwing up badly

‘Aristippus said that those that studied particular sciences and neglected philosophy were like Penelope’s wooers that made love to the waiting women.’

— Francis Bacon, Apophthegmes New and Old (London 1625)

I don’t normally go in for trying to work out the point of philosophy, but I tripped over Bacon this morning, and he has me thinking.  Is there any truth in that quotation, that thought about the importance of philosophy?  Nowadays, we flinch at Bacon’s kind of view.  Living as we do in a time after the Enlightenment, after the reports of cultural anthropologists, after the discovery of our selfish genes, after faith has been shaken, after relativisms have taken hold, after the conception of a clockwork universe, after all sorts of assaults on a certian conception of humanity, it’s not easy for us to take seriously the thought that philosophy has a special claim to truth.  It certainly has a bad track record when it comes to getting at the truth, particularly if you compare it to the many successes of the sciences.  The Ancients and even Moderns had other ideas.  Probably they thought that philosophy mattered.  Maybe it mattered a lot to them.

Peering past Bacon’s dubious imagery, he seems to say that looking for truth in this or that discipline without the benefit of philosophy is a mistake. If not a mistake, then something lesser, something wanting, something second best.  Is there anything true in there?

Philosophers do blanch, sometimes, when they hear a neuroscientist go on about ‘finding’ memory or being able to ‘see’ thoughts right there in the brain.  Philosophers worry, too, when a researcher seems to have missed the thought that observations are theory-laden.  Philosophers object to economic models which fail to understand the nature of value.  Often rightly, our chums in the sciences take exception to philosphers blundering onto their turf with a clutch of anti-dualist arguments or a line or two of Popper or Wittgenstein.  You can take their points and still wonder what philosophy has going for it, if it has anything going for it at all.  What mistake does Bacon think we are making, when we study the world without philosophy?

I heard a good talk by PMS Hacker last Friday which has some bearing on these kinds of questions.  He argues that philosophy is not a cognitive discipline, not the attempt to pile up truths (which explains its failure as compared to the sciences).  Instead, it is an effort to undersand the truths we already have.  It’s got me wondering, now, about the difference between knowing and understanding, and the further question of philosophy’s role in our attempt to understand. 

An unkind thought which can occur to you is that understanding, maybe wisdom, requires a few mistakes of a certain sort.  I might know lots of truths about riding a bike, but it’s only after I crash once or twice that I have the wisdom to slow down.  Philosophers, in their efforts to understand, have screwed up badly.  We’re famous for it.  We’ve already had the dumb idea that memory is visible; we’ve already had stupid ideas about value; we’ve already had the bad idea that experience is pure and unaffected by theory.  Could this be why, when you have Bacon on your mind, that you can really see science which neglects philosophy as second best?  It’s second best because it lacks wisdom.  

Being culturally Christian

I couldn’t quite believe I was reading this thought for the day on BBC Radio Bristol (see below). Despite my aspirations to reasonableness, it felt uncomfortable that I was giving too much to “the other side”.
The issue concerns whether the UK is culturally Christian. Well, obviously it is. But many people who bang on about this have an agenda I don’t support, which includes things like putting Christian instruction into school.
At the same time, though, this argument seems more powerful because of a perception that the Christian heritage is actually being talked down, while minority cultures are “celebrated”. In this respect the UK is not at all like the US: it really is the case that people here wear their faith lightly, if they have one worth wearing at all.
So assuming what I said is true, is it prudent to say it? Even if it is, would it still be best not to say certain things if you know that they will be used by people with unsavoury agendas, even if they are true? Is it right for defenders of rationality to keep quiet about truths that their opponents might misuse?
Here’s the text of the broadcast:

The biologist and famously atheist Richard Dawkins surprised many people on Sunday when he described himself as a “cultural Christian”. Has the man who wrote about The God Delusion and made a programme about religion called The Root of All Evil gone soft on us?
Not really. Dawkins is a cultural Christian because, as he put it, “This is historically a Christian country.” Dawkins is simply acknowledging that the religious heritage of a culture shapes the lives of all its members, whether they belong to that religion or not.
This idea was reinforced by a recent study by Dr Horst Feldmann from the University of Bath which showed that employment levels were around 6% higher in protestant countries, where the famous work ethics has been prominent. Feldmann argued that Protestant values affected everyone in a predominantly protestant country, whether they belonged to the religion or not.
Yet people are increasingly complaining that multicultural Britain tends to marginalise the culture which has done most to shape it: the Christian one. At this time of year, that fear is usually manifest in scare stories of local councils banning Carols or nativity scenes – even though on closer inspection most of these tales turn out to be somewhat tall.
It seems to me that if even Richard Dawkins can be comfortable with the fact that this is a predominantly Christian country, then everyone else should be able to feel at ease too. Multiculturalism is too often thought of as being about minority rights, when it really should be about allowing people of all beliefs and cultures, minority or majority, to get along, side by side. But we cannot do this in a vacuum: like it or not, our Christian past frames and shapes our more diverse present.

The Golden Compass

goldencompass.jpgI keep reading that the movie The Golden Compass suppresses the anti-religious message in Phillip Pullman’s books, but the movie has plenty of punch, besides being full of stunning imagery and good acting. I thought it was great (and now I need to read the books).

Free-thinking Lord Asrial is trying to discover the truth about dust, a mysterious substance that travels to other universes. The church, or magisterium, tries to use its authority to suppress his research. It turns out they’re got a scheme to separate children from their daemons, the animals that accompany them everywhere as their souls. That way, the children won’t be affected by the dust, which can make them question authority. Lyra, Lord Asrial’s niece, joins the side of the truth seekers, with the help of an alethiometer, a device that measures the truth. There are children to be saved at the North Pole…

A moviegoer could come away thinking Pullman is for witches and demons and multiple universes, talking polar bears and mysterious dust. The movie’s real theme, though, is truth. Good in the movie is lined up with free inquiry and the unimpeded search for the truth. Evil is the monstrous institution of the magisterium, which battles against the truth- seekers.

But wait, if the movie is pro-truth, why shouldn’t it be construed as pro-God, or even pro-Jesus? (Wasn’t it Jesus who said “I am the way and the truth”?) It will take any moviegoer a moment of honest reflection to admit the power of the movie’s message. All religions claim contact with truth, but they don’t empower members of the religion to be truth-seekers themselves.

I’m not just talking about the obvious cases, like the Roman Catholic church. I think the same is true even in the most liberal religious communities. The movie brilliantly makes children the target of the magisterium–it’s brilliant because children really are the crux of the matter. They don’t yet believe, and will ask challenging questions, if permitted.

This whole business of teaching children “truths” before they’re mature enough to make up their own minds is tricky. We do it all the time. We teach them all sorts of facts before they can verify them as facts. We teach them moral values before they can discuss morality. We teach them political attitudes before they are in any position to understand the pro’s and con’s.

Religion is a special case. For one reason, that’s because children are allowed to ask questions about all the other topics, but discouraged from asking questions about religion. In the middle of a religion class, even at the most liberal church or synagogue, a child cannot raise his or her hand and say “is there really a god”?

Another problem is that many religious ideas, as they are presented to young children, are not even wholly believed by the teachers…at least in a liberal religious setting. The child is taught, as if it were a plain truth, that God created the world in six days, and Noah put the animals on the ark, and Abraham married Sarah, and Moses walked up the mountain, when the grownups are not so literal in their beliefs.

Well, but young children can’t understand the subtleties of a liberal theology. But then why not hold off on teaching them about religion until they’re older? The intention is obviously to “get em while they’re young.” But why is that important? The truth is, I think, that children are taught young in the hopes that the ideas will take firm root. But then doesn’t religious education simply exploit the credulousness of children?

I don’t think any religion can claim to encourage people in the open-minded pursuit of truth. This is an especially uncomfortable fact for those of us who like some things about religion, or even participate in one (as I do).

Award winning young philosopher

Congratulations to Jon Williamson, Reader in Philosophy at Kent University’s School of European Culture and Languages, who has just won the Times Higher Award for Young Researcher of the Year. His work looks very interesting and is a neat riposte to the claim that “Ivory Tower” academics never do anything useful. His work looks highly technical and specialised, but it’s also clearly very useful. This is the citation from the awards brochure:

Last year, Jon Williamson set up the UK’s first Centre for Reasoning with the aim of taking the growing interdisciplinary interest in reasoning to a new level.
More and more academics in a broad range of disciplines are studying and researching reasoning, but they are not sharing their findings. Williamson hopes to change this situation through the centre. “Unfortunately, it is not uncommon that researchers in any one of these areas are unaware of relevant research that is going on in the other areas,” the 35-year old told The Times Higher in a recent interview.
His research has practical and direct influences in the social and health sciences. He is currently working with oncologists at University College London and Cancer Research UK to improve cancer care by applying objective Bayesianism. The idea is that probabilities such as recurrence of a patient’s cancer and the probability that an individual will respond to treatment must be considered in treatment decisions.
Williamson attracts a level of funding — more than £184,000 in the past two years — that is almost unheard of in his discipline.
He was recently promoted from lecturer to reader in philosophy at Kent University. His four main areas of interest are the philosophy of causality, the foundations of probability, logics and reasoning and the use of causality, probability and logics in artificial intelligence, science and mathematics.
One of the award’s judges, Philip Esler, chief executive of the Arts and Humanities Research Council, said: “Jon Williamson’s cutting-edge philosophical research offers penetrating new understandings of causation in complex systems that have direct applications in areas ranging from healthcare to engineering.”
The other judge, Peter Atkins, fellow and professor of chemistry at Lincoln College, Oxford, added: “He shows a highly commendable vigour in propagating applications of philosophy and in establishing a journal and a research centre.”