On Reading Weird Books in Public

by Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse

Republic Cover OutRobert Nozick closes The Examined Life with a story of how he, when eighteen or so, “carried around in the streets of Brooklyn a paperback copy of Plato’s Republic, front cover facing outward.” He’d hoped someone might notice and “be impressed, (and) pat me on the shoulder and say… I don’t know what exactly.”

We are philosophy professors. A large part of our job is reading. Often it’s classics like Plato’s Republic, Augustine’s Confessions, and Descartes’ Meditations. And it’s even more so books by our contemporaries and colleagues. We read in our offices and at home, but we’ll take a book to a coffee shop or on a plane every so often. We’ve found that funny things happen when we do that, and it’s regularly not what Nozick at eighteen had hoped for.

We’ve been asked to review Brian Leiter’s Why Tolerate Religion? for The Philosopher’s Magazine (the review will be out in the Spring). Talisse has found that being seen reading the book in public creates unusual interest. Folks at the Starbucks across from Vanderbilt seemed positively befuddled by the book, as if to ask who would ask such a question? One person very audibly muttered, “Yeah, and why tolerate books like that?” Aikin accidentally left his copy on an airplane, tucked into the seatback pocket. When he’d returned for the book, it had been found by a flight attendant. She (only half-jokingly) reprimanded him for reading the book while flying. (The reasoning seems to be analogous to the no-atheists-in-foxholes argument.) Aikin’s story has occasioned some chuckles among our friends and even proposals that we bring along extra copies of similar books. We might, so the thought goes, leave at least one copy of Bertrand Russell’s Why I am not a Christian or Christopher Hitchens’ god is not Great on every plane we ride.

Different books yield different puzzlement. Talisse was reading Gerald Gaus’s hefty The Order of Public Reason in a coffee shop and someone asked if it was the new Harry Potter Book. Aikin has had multiple conversations with those curious about the symbolic logic book in his hand – what is symbolic logic? What use could it have? Can you really teach logic? Our reading groups are all too regularly confused with the Bible study group. Well, at least until they hear the discussion.

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What is philosophy, again?

by Dave Maier

There has been some interesting recent discussion, both here and elsewhere, about what philosophy is and should be. Here are two shiny pennies from my own purse.

LeiterIn the introduction to his recent anthology The Future for Philosophy, Brian Leiter laments that “[p]hilosophy, perhaps more than any other discipline, has been plagued by debates about what the discipline is or ought to be.” This is strong language. To call such debate a “plague” is not simply to regret its occurrence as a necessary evil, but to see it as an alien force, infecting the host body from outside. On this picture, to debate the nature and ends of philosophy is akin to putting the car up on the rack; when this is happening, no progress is being made. If we have to spend all our time figuring out what philosophy is, we'll never get around to actually doing any of it.

Maybe we should simply shrug the question off. After all, no matter what you said philosophy was, one could always respond “okay, so what these other people do isn't 'philosophy' by your definition; but it's still worthwhile – maybe even more so than what you do under that name.” Coming up with a new name for what we have been calling “philosophy” seems even less pressing. Who cares what something is called, when what is important is whether and how to do it?

However (you knew this was coming), I think these debates can be quite enlightening – if you know what to look for. In any case that is our subject today.

1: Ontic science vs. the linguistic turn

So what is philosophy then? One common answer, usually just assumed but occasionally spelled out, is that philosophers try to discover the basic features of reality, just like science does. However, while physical science determines the nature of observable objects and processes, and thus contingent matters of fact, philosophy concerns itself instead with matters of metaphysical necessity, inquiring into the ultimate entities and structures underlying the world as we encounter it. This conception of philosophy is what Colin McGinn endorses in renaming it “ontic science”: non-empirical inquiry into the real.

On this view, the end result of our inquiry – as it must be if it is to be inquiry at all – is truth (specifically, true doctrines or theories); and the proper method in reaching it is precise, rigorous argument from universally accepted premises to an unambiguous, substantive conclusion. This is naturally easier said than done; and it is no secret that the list of universally accepted philosophical doctrines is – well, let's just say it's not long enough really to count as a “list”. However, I don't think that the lack of universally accepted doctrine shows all by itself that “ontic science”, which we might also call metaphilosophical “dogmatism”, is all wrong; a perfectly good response by my lights would be “well, after all, we Westerners have only been at this for 2500 years – what did you expect?”

If we can't agree, though, then maybe we're doing it wrong; and a natural place to look for the problem is in our instruments: our minds, and in particular, our language. Might these things be systematically distorting our view of reality? This question, along with important formal developments in logic and semantics (I condense and oversimplify here), led at last, in the mid-twentieth century, to what has become known as the “linguistic turn” in analytic philosophy (continental philosophy having broken off some time before).

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The Emptiness of Pluralism

by Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse

1274595994XBH6HaxIn last month’s post, we argued that value pluralism is the view that there are objective and heterogeneous goods, goods that are distinct and irreducible. To hold that there are distinct and irreducible goods is to hold that there is no summum bonum, no ultimate good that explains the goodness of all other goods. It also is to hold that there is no master good against which to measure the value of the other goods. According to the value pluralist, then, there is at least one pair of objective goods, A and B, such that A is neither better than B, worse than B, nor equal in value to B. This is to say that, according to value pluralism, some goods are incommensurable with other goods. Value pluralism thus is the three-pronged thesis that (1) there is a plurality of objective goods, (2) of these goods, some are irreducible to any other good, and (3) these irreducible goods are incommensurable with other irreducible goods. That’s pluralism in a nutshell. Pluralism about anything comes to this tripartite thesis, mutatis mutandis.

When presented in this way, value pluralism may seem an esoteric view. The meager degree of precision introduced above suffices to dampen the halo effect of the term. Now the term no longer seems like a catch-all for a collection of virtues or term of approval for a moral disposition. Rather, what we have with value pluralism is a philosophical thesis about the nature of value.

We will not attempt here to determine whether value pluralism is true. Instead we seek to defeat a consideration commonly offered in support of value pluralism. Consistent with its status as a paradigmatic halo term, advocates of value pluralism often claim that their view is uniquely positioned to supply philosophical backup for a politics of inclusion, toleration, open-mindedness, diversity, and difference. In fact, the father of value pluralism, Isaiah Berlin, went further than this in his famous essay on “Two Concepts of Liberty.” Berlin held not only that value pluralism entails a politics of toleration and individual liberty, he also claimed that value monism – the view that all good things are good in virtue of sharing some single property – fosters intolerance, tyranny, and despotism.

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The Pluralism Test

by Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse6a00d8341c562c53ef015436d5a90a970c-250wi

The commentary stimulated by our November post helps to confirm our view that pluralism is a paradigmatic halo term. Many of the respondents clearly want to claim the term for their favored purposes; but the details concerning the term’s meaning are as yet uncertain. Of course, most philosophical terms admit of multiple interpretations; looseness is inevitable, as often the issues are the meanings of the terms in use. Yet we should aspire to as much precision as is possible. Resting with multiple well-defined yet conflicting conceptions of pluralism is preferable to the current state of affairs, which is less loose than mushy. Our aim is to suggest at a very general level what pluralism is by articulating some simple prerequisites for clarifying the term.

There are two criteria that can be employed in our task. The first would be applicable to any proposed philosophical term. It has two components. First, if pluralism is the name of any view at all, it had better be possible to identify some definite philosophical claims that are distinctive of the view. This is not to say that pluralism must be understood to name some single, monolithic position. Pluralism can be a philosophically distinctive position, and yet be a view which admits of different varieties.

Sometimes it is helpful when characterizing a philosophical position to identify what those who adopt it are united in rejecting. So we may state the first component of the first criterion in the following way. Whatever pluralism is, it had better be a view that is opposed to some other identifiable philosophical position. To put the point slightly more strongly, whatever pluralism is, it had better be a position that thoughtful people could reject. A view that only the insane, thoughtless, deluded, and incompetent could reject is of little philosophical significance. If pluralism is a view worth talking about, it is a view that both says something distinctive and is philosophically debatable.

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More about pluralism and perspectivism

by Dave Maier

PluA couple of weeks back here at 3QD, Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse told us about a certain contentious use of the term “pluralism” in philosophy, which tries to identify a particular conception of philosophical method with the institutional virtues of toleration, openmindedness, and cute little bunnies. In their opinion, however, that doesn't fly: “every conception of the scope of toleration identifies limits to the tolerable. And for every conception of toleration, there is some other conception that charges the first with undue narrowness[…. There] is in the end no way of eschewing the substantive evaluative issues,” i.e., in order to identify the virtue of toleration with a supposedly “pluralistic” method.

Well, yes – no slam dunk for the “pluralistic” side. But just for that very reason, it's worth a look at those substantive issues which we cannot eschew. This will involve making a few distinctions (mmm … distinctions …), so let's get started.

What kinds of “pluralism” are there in philosophy? First, as Aiken and Talisse indicate in referring to “the idea of pluralism as a political movement within Philosophy [my emphasis]”, one could be a “pluralist” by believing that the range of philosophers hired by university philosophy departments should be wide rather than narrow. Is the point of a philosophy department to be a center of research into a particular subdiscipline or issue or method, or rather to provide as broad a selection of courses for students as is practical given the department's resources? Notably, such a “pluralist” might come from anywhere on the philosophical spectrum. One could think of the university's educational mission in this latter way no matter how one pursued one's own philosopical agenda.

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How Does My Garden Grow?

by Gautam Pemmaraju

DSC00104 A distinct advantage to my small rental in the once ‘leafy suburb’ of Bandra in western Bombay is its garden. Actually, not quite a ‘garden’ in the sense that it is arranged with great care or acuity, tended to diligently, or bedecked with decorative flowers and plants, it is rather, for the most part, an unkempt, somewhat derelict yard with several planted trees and a wide range of wild ferns, creepers, fruit, herb, and vegetable plants. The diversity of botanical life is pretty fascinating, not to mention the many song birds, from the White-Throated Fan Tail, the Oriental Magpie Robin to the Asian Koel, and lest I forget, the many worms, slugs, bees, butterflies, garden lizards, frogs, squirrels, snails that are to be found in residence – occasionally at my doorstep. Itinerant cats, the odd fatigued kite, noisy crows, sparrows and pigeons, barn owls, and bandicoots pass through, and I have often imagined an irascible rodent knocking at my door demanding a change of music.

The space around me is a wild urban garden.

DSC00142 Encircled by tall apartment blocks, the low-rise character of the structure allows for immediate contact with what is outside. Boundary walls enclose this very modest plot of land that supports an impressive range of plant life. When in season, there are guavas that may be picked from outside my window; some ripe ones, half eaten by parakeets, fall to ground and release a squishy, heady aroma. Two types of bananas – a large beveled plantain (possibly from Kerala) which can be used raw (in cooking) or eaten when ripe, and the small, squat and delicious local elchi (butter plantain). Cultivated coconut, including one variety brought from Singapore, and seasonal mangoes are in abundance. The lone lime tree, verdant and generously fertile at one time, which used to catch the fancy of telephone linesmen, postmen and other civic workers entering the premises, is in need of some help. Recently, the jackfruit tree bore fruit for the first time. Several others though – custard apple, tamarind, Java Plum or Jambul, fig, locally known as umber – are yet to be as productive as the others.

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Philosophy and Failure

by Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse

Plato Some philosophers are nearly unanimously considered great. Plato, Aristotle, and Kant make the short list. But that happy unanimity does not persist when the question is which is right. Of these three, at most one is. Likely none is. And so it is appropriate to ask: How can we consider someone to be a great philosopher yet mostly wrong? By many lights, Plato was wrong about ethics, politics, knowledge, and the basic structure of reality. That is, Plato was wrong on most of the big questions that philosophers try to answer. Yet Plato was a great philosopher. Why?

Some demur. They contend that the only great philosophers are those who get things right; consequently, they hold that being wrong on the big questions disqualifies a philosopher for greatness. Those who take this position tend see another philosopher as getting things right only when that philosopher agrees with their own views. They thus recognize no opponent to their views as being philosophically great. How convenient.

It is, of course, an error not to recognize that there are varieties of intelligent challenges and alternatives to even the best philosophical views. For every great philosophical idea, there is usually a great philosophical opponent. An education in philosophy is comprised not only of knowing those alternatives, but of acquiring the skill of navigating the tensions between views, and of seeing that there can be philosophical value in error. To see philosophical greatness as consistent with demonstrable error is the mark of philosophical maturity.

Richard Gale’s recent book, John Dewey’s Quest for Unity (Prometheus, 2010), is a model of this kind of maturity. We’ve separately reviewed the book elsewhere (Aikin HERE, Talisse forthcoming HERE), and though we’ve disagreed with some of Gale’s substantive contentions, we hold his book to embody the ethic of critical respect essential to philosophy done well.

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Okay, so truth matters (but what is it?)

by Dave Maier

In the wake of the 9/11 attacks we heard a great deal about the end of moral relativism, the point being that from now on we would all agree that some things are Just Wrong (and since to say so is Just True to boot, this means the end of irony, skepticism, and so forth as well). At the time conservatives were the ones to expound this point most enthusiastically, claiming that the events themselves refuted trendy liberal doctrines of multiculturalism and pluralistic tolerance of difference. Instead, they said, we must simply acknowledge what we all know to be true, such as [… well, actually, for some reason it remains unclear what should go in here, and this is our subject today].

Of course it was not only the political right who was pouring scorn on facile cultural relativism back then. Alan Sokal, of Sokal Hoax fame, had made much the same argument several years earlier. His target too was the political left, but as he reminded us repeatedly, he was himself a proud leftist, having taught mathematics for the Sandinistas in Nicaragua. What provoked his stunt, he told us, was that he was upset that what he had taken to be the left's characteristic commitment to, as they like to say, speaking truth to power, was dissolving into a puddle of wishy-washy jargon-ridden postmodern relatvism which scorned the very ideas of truth and rationality as imperialist dogma.

Benson This was all confusing enough as it was. A new wrinkle was added a few years later, when the events leading up to and during the 2003 Iraq war suggested to some that the right wing had its own problem with postmodernism in the ranks, or something at least very similar in its cavalier attitude toward truth and reality. Progressives pounced; and much real and virtual ink was spilled anointing the left as “the reality-based community,” as opposed to the “right-wing postmodernism” in the White House, as well as to creationism, climate change denial, religion itself, and whatever else seemed to fit the bill. Philosophers have not missed this opportunity to prove their relevance to contemporary debate by writing books with the word “truth” (or “true” or “knowledge”) in their titles, and in today's column I will discuss a few of the problems we run into when trying to make sense of these things, especially (paradoxically) when the target is such seemingly low-hanging fruit as postmodern gibberish.

In general I find myself ambivalent about these efforts. I do agree that (for example) most versions of creationism, such as “flood geology,” are so very insane as to justify our rejection of it as due to our own relatively firm basis in reality, and it is difficult to make sense of the idea that we need not be concerned about whether what we believe is in fact the case. However, that very difficulty infects as well our efforts to make sense of the apparently opposite view. The philosophical controversy about the nature of truth may lurk behind these political and cultural controversies, but they are not the same. While some misguided souls seem to be denying plain facts, it is not at all clear that they are denying the status, as “plain facts,” of those things they consider to be plain facts.

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The Dignity of Skepticism

by Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse Empiricus

Being a responsible believer requires one to have reasons for one’s beliefs. In fact, it seems that having reasons for one’s beliefs is a requirement for seeing them as beliefs at all. Consider the conflict in thought that arises with assertions like the following:

I believe I live in Nebraska, but I have no idea why I believe that.

I hold firmly that there are jellybeans in that dish, but I have no reason for doing so.

I’m confident that it will not rain on the picnic, but I have no evidence for that.

I support a flat-tax system, but all of my information concerning economic matters is highly unreliable.

Statements like these are conflicted because in each the but-clause seems to retract the grounds for asserting what came before. To affirm, for example, that one lives in Nebraska is often to affirm also that that one has reasons that are sufficient to support that claim. Statements of the kind above, then, don’t look like they could be beliefs at all; they rather something else – perhaps a cognitive symptom, an obsession, a queer dogmatism.

We may say that beliefs are supposed to be not only reason-responsive, but reason-reflective. Our beliefs should be based on our evidence and proportioned to the force of our evidence. And so, when we hold beliefs, we take ourselves to be entitled to reason to and from them. So beliefs must be backed by reasons.

Reason-backing has a curious pattern, however. Each belief must be backed by reasons. But those backing reasons must themselves be backed by still further reasons. And so on. It seems, then, that every belief must be supported by a long chain of supporting reasons.

This is a point familiar to anyone who has spent time with children. Why? is a question that can be (and often is) asked indefinitely. The child’s game of incessantly asking why? may not be particularly serious, but it calls attention to the fact that, for every belief you hold, you ought to be able to say why you hold it.

These rough observations give rise to a deep problem, one that has been at the core of the philosophical sub-discipline of epistemology since its inception.

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‘Philosophy Killed My Children’: A Response

Baby-chocolate My previous article, ‘How Philosophy Killed My Children and Why it Should Kill Yours’, seemed to have generated some debate. Unfortunately, there was much heat but little light shed on taking the subject further from most commentators/critics. Yet, what little light was shed by critics is a welcome furthering of this important discussion. Considering I was made into the title of a Nicholas Smyth post on this website, and considering the excess to which the debate collapsed into denigration, dogma and shouting matches, I wish to respond to some of the claims. In fact, this might take longer than the original piece itself considering the widespread misreading of my argument.

My argument is quite simple: there is no reason to create more people and every reason not to. I also attempted to severe the link between parenthood – an ethical attitude of helping younger people, wanting to lessen their suffering, and using our own experience to better theirs – and procreation. The latter is my target. Indeed, parenthood need not be tied to procreation. The parenting-attitude can be applied to those who already exist, not requiring us to create human life to care for. No critic highlighted a good argument to create more people, other than emotional reasons which I highlighted is, firstly, unpersuasive and, secondly, is an insult to adoptive parents who can testify to the reciprocated feelings of their adopted children. That is, we may fulfil the desire for parenthood through non-procreative means, adoption being one way.

But adoption, as they say, is one option. As I highlighted, not all of us – including me, given my age, income, etc. – would pass adoption procedures. The information I have obtained from adoption agencies highlights this much. Being unable to adopt should also tell us something important: if adoption agencies won’t let us be parents to these children, what does that tell us about the automatic pass we get to simply use our reproductive organs to make children? If agencies judge us unfit to be parents for those children who do exist, it should smack hard of blatant arrogance to bypass such a well-founded judgement to produce children of our own (I hope adoptive parents will provide some more personal details on this. I prefer hearing from them, rather from adoption agencies). This is why people who argue unless I adopt I should not judge simply fail to make a point: if I cannot adopt because I would not pass first-level acceptance as an adoptive parent, what gives me the right to just breed away? This should immediately tell me I am unfit as a parent, be it for my own or those who exist.

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And Another ‘Thing’ : Sci-Fi Truths and Nature’s Errors

by Daniel Rourke

In my last 3quarksdaily article I considered the ability of science-fiction – and the impossible objects it contains – to highlight the gap between us and ‘The Thing Itself’ (the fundamental reality underlying all phenomena). In this follow-up I ask whether the way these fictional ‘Things’ determine their continued existence – by copying, cloning or imitation – can teach us about our conception of nature.

Seth Brundle: What’s there to take? The disease has just revealed its purpose. We don’t have to worry about contagion anymore… I know what the disease wants.

Ronnie: What does the disease want?

Seth Brundle: It wants to… turn me into something else. That’s not too terrible is it? Most people would give anything to be turned into something else.

Ronnie: Turned into what?

Seth Brundle: Whaddaya think? A fly. Am I becoming a hundred-and-eighty-five-pound fly? No, I’m becoming something that never existed before. I’m becoming… Brundlefly. Don’t you think that’s worth a Nobel Prize or two?

The Fly, 1986

In David Cronenberg’s movie The Fly (1986) we watch through slotted fingers as the body of Seth Brundle is horrifically transformed. Piece by piece Seth becomes Brundlefly: a genetic monster, fused together in a teleportation experiment gone awry. In one tele-pod steps Seth, accompanied by an unwelcome house-fly; from the other pod emerges a single Thing born of their two genetic identities. The computer algorithm designed to deconstruct and reconstruct biology as pure matter cannot distinguish between one entity and another. The parable, as Cronenberg draws it, is simple: if all the world is code then ‘all the world’ is all there is.

Vincent Price in 'The Fly', 1958Science fiction is full of liminal beings. Creatures caught in the phase between animal and human, between alien and Earthly, between the material and the spirit. Flowing directly from the patterns of myth Brundlefly is a modern day Minotaur: a manifestation of our deep yearning to coalesce with natural forces we can’t understand. The searing passions of the bull, its towering stature, are fused in the figure of the Minotaur with those of man. The resultant creature is too fearsome for this world, too Earthly to exist in the other, and so is forced to wander through a labyrinth hovering impossibly between the two. Perhaps Brundlefly’s labyrinth is the computer algorithm winding its path through his genetic code. As a liminal being, Brundlefly is capable of understanding both worlds from a sacred position, between realities. His goal is reached, but at a cost too great for an Earthly being to understand. Seth the scientist sacrifices himself and there is no Ariadne’s thread to lead him back.

In her book on monsters, aliens and Others Elaine L. Graham reminds us of the thresholds these ‘Things’ linger on:

“[H]uman imagination, by giving birth to fantastic, monstrous and alien figures, has… always eschewed the fiction of fixed species. Hybrids and monsters are the vehicles through which it is possible to understand the fabricated character of all things, by virtue of the boundaries they cross and the limits they unsettle.”

Elaine L. Graham, Representations of the Post/Human

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‘The Thing Itself’ : A Sci-Fi Archaeology

by Daniel Rourke

Mid-way through H.G.Wells’ The Time Machine, the protagonist stumbles into a sprawling abandoned museum. Sweeping the dust off ancient relics he ponders his machine’s ability to hasten their decay. It is at this point that The Time Traveller has an astounding revelation. The museum is filled with artefacts not from his past, but from his own future: The Time Traveller is surrounded by relics whose potential to speak slipped away with the civilisation that created them.

Having bypassed the normal laws of causality The Time Traveller is doomed to inhabit strands of history plucked from time’s grander web. Unable to grasp a people’s history – the conditions that determine them – one will always misunderstand them.

Archaeology derives from the Greek word arche, which literally means the moment of arising. Aristotle foregrounded the meaning of arche as the element or principle of a Thing, which although indemonstrable and intangible in Itself, provides the conditions of the possibility of that Thing. In a sense, archaeology is as much about the present instant, as it is about the fragmentary past. We work on what remains through the artefacts that make it into our museums, our senses and even our language. But to re-energise those artefacts, to bring them back to life, the tools we have access to do much of the speaking.

The Things ThemselvesLike the unseen civilisations of H.G.Wells’ museum, these Things in Themselves lurk beyond the veil of our perceptions. It is the world in and of Itself; the Thing as it exists distinct from perceptions, from emotions, sensations, from all phenomenon, that sets the conditions of the world available to those senses. Perceiving the world, sweeping dust away from the objects around us, is a constant act of archaeology.

Kant called this veiled reality the noumenon, a label he interchanged with The-Thing-Itself (Ding an Sich). That which truly underlies what one may only infer through the senses. For Kant, and many philosophers that followed, The Thing Itself is impossible to grasp directly. The senses we use to search the world also wrap that world in a cloudy haze of perceptions, misconceptions and untrustworthy phenomena.

In another science fiction classic, Polish writer Stanislaw Lem considered the problem of The Thing Itself as one of communication. His Master’s Voice (HMV), written at the height of The Cold War, tells the story of a team of scientists and their attempts to decipher an ancient, alien message transmitted on the neutrino static streaming from a distant star. The protagonist of this tale, one Peter Hogarth, recounts the failed attempts at translation with a knowing, deeply considered cynicism. To Peter, and to Stanislaw Lem himself, true contact with an alien intelligence is an absolute impossibility:

“In the course of my work… I began to suspect that the ‘letter from the stars’ was, for us who attempted to decipher it, a kind of psychological association test, a particularly complex Rorschach test. For as a subject, believing he sees in the coloured blotches angels or birds of ill omen, in reality fills in the vagueness of the thing shown with what is ‘on his mind’, so did we attempt, behind the veil of incomprehensible signs, to discern the presence of what lay, first and foremost, within ourselves.”

Stanislaw Lem, His Master’s Voice

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Let’s Keep God out of Ethics

ScreenHunter_03 May. 10 12.24 When a television network has a porn channel in the pipe-lines voices of outrage sound. When a television-series mocks a dead religious figure, knives are being sharpened and fingers are being shaken. Picketing outside abortion clinics, fighting against end-of-life alleviation, marching against free expression (do they never see the irony?) – we can usually count on the faithful to raise an outcry, on our behalf apparently, for things they consider to be sinful and, therefore, immoral. But what is sinful is not necessarily immoral. They appear to have some insight we do not about morality and ethical deliberation. But upon critical scrutiny, we soon discover that all the noise is a mask for shallow deliberation.

When did we hand over our moral autonomy – that is our ability to look critically for ourselves at moral dilemmas – to the lecherous hands and myopic vision of religious leaders? When did we say that we wanted guardians stationed in moral outposts, peering into the world with outrage-telescopes and hysterical megaphones? I certainly did not and I hope, regardless of your belief in god, you didn’t either. Ethical deliberation is something we all must face as part of our epistemic duty in this world, filled as it is with problems and a continuum of moral actions. To ask simply whether something is good or evil is often to trivialise ethical dilemmas: they are often not simply about choosing between right and wrong, but between two conflicting attitudes which are both apparently the right thing to do. Do we kill the fat man to save the lives of five others? Are we obligated to each sacrifice one kidney, which we don’t need, to save others who do? Do we give up eating meat, which we do not need for survival, to end the suffering of other animals?

These dilemmas are secular, in that anyone can come to them regardless of religious belief, and find in them a moral problem. However, with the blurring between morality and religion in today’s world, some “moral” problems become problems merely because of the arrogant bullying by religious groups who claim to “know”, better than the rest of us, what is moral. Homosexuality, women’s rights and abortion would most likely not be such hysterical moral dilemmas if not for tawdry metaphysical beliefs on the part of the believer. A good case can be made for any of these being moral dilemmas in purely secular terms, but it is unlikely that death or violence would ensue because of disagreement. The ferocity and vernacular of the dilemma would not be one spurred on by self-righteous believers who are defending god’s laws; or defending “babies” from evil, pincer-wielding doctors; or trying to maintain “family values” because of the “moral decline” in society. A lot of these dilemmas could be carefully deliberated upon in a safe, public platform, using the weapons of words and the shield of a podium, rather than bullets and knives to make one’s point felt. We have given into the worst reasoning to justify moral decisions, that is: raising your voice and making the loudest noise. And best of all if you can use god as a backing – since this still has moral force today, though it should not. Just because so many people are outraged by gay-marriage does not make it immoral anymore than everyone believing the earth flat would alter our planet’s shape. Turning something immoral merely because the majority view it as such is part of John Stuart Mill’s notion of 'tyranny of the majority'.
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What’s Negative about Being Positive (and Pursuing Happiness)

Radioactive-happiness-face Overhearing younger folk talking about “life”, I heard a statement that gave me pause: “All we want in life is to be happy.” As axiomatic as it seems, this short assertion does not make sense. The plague of much modern thought rests in attempting to cure itself with “happiness”: some ill-defined single mechanism or property of existence that we each strive for that completes, fulfils or renders whole our entire existence. Note: I did not say we do not wish to be happy; but this is different from saying all we want is to be happy. Indeed, as the great AC Grayling has highlighted: “The first lesson of happiness is that the surest way to be unhappy is to think that happiness can be directly sought.” Its epiphenomenal property is obvious: happiness arises as a by-product of other endeavours. From this we must take notice that to seek out happiness directly is juvenile, misguided and often retarding of the process of living a good life in the first place.

Studying psychology, one is forced to realise that no one book, one person or one attitude can spur you toward greater things; an obvious conclusion, you would think, when you read dust-covers that each states this author, this book, this practise will change your life. How many times can your life be changed before it is no longer yours? Rather your life is handed over to some quack who claims to be/is a motivational-speaker, a healer, a guru, an angel guide, a psychic, a priest, a philosopher. Often these people have had some powerful subjective experience that creates a sense of authority in attaining “enlightenment”, “wholeness”, “being”, or some other important-sounding word. Whether it’s because they rode around Africa on their bicycles, came from poverty to wealth, are able to read auras and sense angels, they all take their experiences as a reason to be considered an expert in guiding you toward happiness. (There are some excellent books about happiness – often debunking all the previous books' claims – but they share a coherence with reality; indeed, the best are classics written by Plato or Epicurus or Aurelius for example.)

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Evil and Meaning in Life

“The message is not one of simple pessimism. We need to look hard and clearly at some of the monsters inside us. But this is part of the project of caging and taming them.”


To many religious believers, one of the hardest aspects of maintaining their faith is steeped in mental gymnastics: using the pole of a loving god to leap over the reality of a horrible world. There are many clever and not-so-clever ways that religious people pacify themselves; often, in the most obscure, self-congratulatory way: the creation of Original Sin, free-will, gays, drugs, abortion. The “problem of evil”, as a whole, deserves a special consideration, however, in a way that may be secularised.

ScreenHunter_02 Jan. 17 10.49 The philosopher Susan Neiman has an entire reworking of the history of philosophy with this in mind. Her book, entitled Evil in Modern Thought: an Alternative History of Philosophy, ignores the usual Cartesian beginnings of modern philosophy. She begins rather with her “first Enlightenment hero”, Alfonso X, king of Castille.

Alfonso, who lived in the 13th century, commissioned several Jews to instruct him in astronomy. One, Rabbi Isaac Hazan, completed what became known as the Tablas Alfonsinas. Years after studying them, Alfonso remarked: “If I had been of God’s counsel at the Creation, many things would have been ordered better.”

Upon Alfonso’s death, his reign fell into ill repute. Commentators used this single sentence as a means to undermine his memory: one spoke about Alfonso’s entire family being struck by lightning and another detailing the “fires of heaven” burning in the king’s bedroom. There were no doubt many reasons for trashing Alfonso, but one reason we can be fairly certain of rests in his heroic blasphemy. Some even suggested that the reason the kingdom faired so poorly arose as a result of that single sentence (or some version of it).

This mattered for one very important reason: a human presumed himself smarter than god. A human saw the fallaciousness of many of god’s designs. Calling god out on an imperfection was the first step toward denying him all together. This Promethean attitude would lead us to take a firmer grasp of reality, an attempt that would begin and build science, and lead to undermining every aspect of religion. It also, however, leaves us searching for answers.

Along with Neiman, many philosophers – like Bryan Magee – have stated their annoyance with colleagues, who appear to take a lax interest in the relation between the world and philosophy. These philosophers’ main criticism is that their colleagues have either lapsed into jargon and technical obscurity about pointless subjects or are simply not interested in public matters. Nigel Warburton describes this stereotype as someone who is excellent at solving logical or abstract puzzles, but can’t boil an egg. Whether this is true or not is not my point here. Its importance rests in how Neiman takes her challenge further.

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