Category Archives: Reviews

Atheism Rises

Russell Blackford reviews Mitchell Stephens’ compelling and pleasing account of the origin and rise of atheism. 

Imagine There’s No Heaven: How Atheism Helped Create the Modern World, by Mitchell Stephens (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014, ISBN 978-1-137-00260-0). 328 pp. Hardcover, US$30.00.

American journalist and academic Mitchell Stephens has provided us with a fine historical study of the rise of atheism and the widespread decline, over the past two centuries, of sincere, naïve religious belief. Church attendances and professions of faith have somewhat held up in the relatively pious United States of America – as compared to other industrialized countries, especially those of Europe – but even in the US there has been a discernible withdrawal of the sea of faith. Throughout the Western world and in many non-Western countries, fewer of us show a wholehearted trust in supernatural dogmas. Indeed, outright atheism is now attractive, prevalent, and even fashionable.

How could this have happened, given the Christian hegemony throughout Europe at the beginning of Western modernity in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries? Even within living memory, there has been a large-scale loss of faith. How did that happen?

Imagine There’s No Heaven should sit next to Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age (2007) and Gavin Hyman’s A Short History of Atheism (2010). These examine much the same course of events and tendencies, but from viewpoints more sympathetic than that of Stephens to the claims of religion. Taylor, in particular, is a practising Catholic, though his book offers a magisterial and largely objective account of the rise of non-belief over the past five hundred years. Hyman digs further back into history, again offers a largely objective account, but views modern atheist thought as largely unnecessary: as a rejection of theological positions that never should have thrived in the first place. (Hyman seems to like the idea of an indescribable, undefinable, generally ineffable God.)

My own book, 50 Great Myths About Atheism (2013), co-authored with Udo Schuklenk, includes a final chapter of nearly 50 pages covering the origins and rise of atheism. This is written from a viewpoint based more than any of the above in atheistic philosophy of religion. I clearly have a dog in this fight, but I also think it’s useful to consider the historical trajectory of atheism and other forms of non-belief from a range of viewpoints. We all have biases, and it’s notoriously easy to “read” the historical record in ways that confirm them.

Stephens’ book begins with a detailed and useful look at non-belief in classical Western antiquity and ancient India. From there it works forward through medieval Europe, the emergence of modern science, and the Age of Enlightenment, to more recent historical events and their participants, and finally to present-day sociological trends. In explaining the rejection of religion by isolated individuals living within religious milieux – and more recently by entire secularizing societies – Stephens identifies five varieties of irreligious thought, or perhaps these are better regarded as psychological factors undermining religion’s credibility. They are worth a brief summary (in fact, one minor fault of the book is that it never lists them together in a clear way):

1. Robust, commonsense skepticism expressed by the thought how can that be? when the claims of religion just don’t seem logical or fail to connect with our understanding of how things happen in the everyday, practical world.

2. The anacreontic philosophy (after the pleasure-loving Greek poet Anacreon), a simple, joyous, often anti-religious approach to life with a commitment to living with intensity and exuberance. Variants of this philosophy identify human flourishing with quieter, more tranquil, but nonetheless real pleasures – as in the philosophical system of Epicurus and his followers.

3. An inclination to seeking natural explanations of human actions and the phenomena of the observable world. As more events can be explained in this way, rational understandings tend to replace and render redundant the old supernatural ones. Soon, the human tendency to believe in gods can itself become a topic for rational inquiry. According to Stephens, this process sometimes develops as a virtuous cycle: a tendency to disbelieve in supernatural beings encourages the search for natural explanations, while successes in finding such explanations further undermine belief in supernatural beings. Thus, science and reason disenchant nature, diminishing the role assigned to God or the gods and tending to erode religion’s perceived authority.

4. A response to the real hell of political and economic repression often associated with religion. As Stephens tells the story, Enlightenment thinkers were correct to view the Christian churches as complicit in social evils. They were guilty of repressing individual freedoms and far too closely involved in the terrible conditions endured by the poor and otherwise marginalized. While most people in Europe lived in a real hell, eschatological fantasies of Heaven, Hell, and divine judgment distracted them from doing much about it.

5. Yearnings for an open sea (to adopt some words from Nietzsche). These have inspired more recent artists, philosophers, scientists, political thinkers, and other creative individuals. Many have yearned to be free from old dogmas and traditions – free to create the culture, knowledge base, and politics of the modern world.

These varieties of irreligion are, I think, somewhat impressionistic, and Stephens himself would not claim that they exhaust the reasons for atheism’s successes over recent centuries and decades. There is doubtless much to say about the effects of urbanization, economic growth, increasing personal security, and many other complex causal factors. Nonetheless, all five – how-can-that-be? skepticism; the anacreontic philosophy; increasingly successful quests for natural explanations; religion’s complicity in the real hell of social and political repression; and our modern yearnings for an open sea – appear to be genuine phenomena, apparent in the cultural and political record.

Thus, the account rings true and aids our understanding.

Importantly, Stephens does an impressive job of demonstrating that there was a certain amount of commonsense incredulity about religion, along with some anacreontic resistance to its pretensions, even in medieval Europe, where the teachings and rituals of the Catholic Church pervaded, and asserted authority in, all areas of social life. This is one point on which Imagine There’s No Heaven has persuaded me to change my mind slightly: perhaps I’ve been too hasty, in previous writings and presentations, to assume that atheism was more-or-less unthinkable in, say, 1500. Stephens reminds us not to underestimate the capacity of ordinary men and women, going about their workaday business, to scoff at otherworldly claims, and he puts evidence for a certain level of folk disbelief throughout European history from antiquity to modern times.

As he acknowledges, however, this could not get very far against the frequent suspicion of scientific and philosophical thought in medieval Europe and the absence of a detailed non-religious alternative to Christianity as a worldview. The number of genuine atheists in Europe was probably very small even in the seventeenth century – the time of the scientific revolution. Even if some of us have sometimes exaggerated the unthinkability of atheism in medieval times, there remains a story to tell about how atheism went from a marginalized position with little intellectual support and institutional legitimacy, to being not only thinkable but attractive to large numbers of ordinary people.

Imagine There’s No Heaven tells the story with detail, clarity, and compassion. Stephens does not forget to include the horrors perpetrated in the name of twentieth-century atheistic belief systems, such as the totalitarian forms of communism imposed by Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot. He does, however, emphasize (I think rightly) the quasi-religious features of those political ideologies, suggesting that the worst excesses of religion might likewise relate to their comprehensiveness and authoritarianism – features, perhaps, of many systematic and closed worldviews. He writes confidently about a wide range of historical figures over some 2,500 years. Just to take the past century-and-a-half, he vividly depicts thinkers as diverse as Thomas Huxley, Friedrich Nietzsche, T.S. Eliot, Sigmund Freud, Bertrand Russell, and the stylish French trio of Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, and Albert Camus.

None of this entails that the book is flawless or that it offers the last word on its topic. As I read and re-read it, there were important stages of the narrative where I felt the treatment was relatively thin or weak, among them the following. First, the analysis of some philosophical arguments is unconvincing. Stephens does not claim to be a philosopher of religion, but he does discuss some of the traditional arguments, so it would be better if he conveyed a more solid and precise idea of what they are about. In particular, his treatment of the Problem of Evil and the theological responses to it will not give uninformed readers an especially useful idea of the state of the debate or the main theological lines of defense. That’s not fatal to the value of the book, or even the value of the relevant passages, but readers would need to look elsewhere to gain a sophisticated understanding.

Second, Imagine There’s No Heaven is unsatisfying in its account of declining religiosity throughout the nineteenth century, especially but not solely among the more educated classes of society. This commenced well before the publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species in 1859, then continued into the following century. Stephens is well aware of all this, but he tends to concentrate on particular historical figures, such as Charles Bradlaugh and Annie Besant, rather than analyzing what social and intellectual trends might have weakened religious faith.

For example, how much were European intellectuals influenced by the fruits of biblical Higher Criticism, which destroyed traditional claims about the authority and provenance of the scriptures? Stephens scarcely touches on this. Similarly, he conveys little sense of a changing moral sensibility through the nineteenth century that may have sat uneasily with literal notions of God, Heaven, and Hell.

In fairness, the causal paths are difficult to establish, but I’d have been interested in Stephens’ perspective based on the evidence available.

Third, there is a similar problem when we get to the decline of religiosity in the twentieth century. Stephens focuses on particular artists and intellectuals, although he does include a brief summary of factors that might have interacted to produce the collapse of organized religion in Europe in the 1960s. More analysis is needed, however, and nothing very new is offered at this point.

Still, Imagine There’s No Heaven is an impressive and enjoyable book. It brings together much information in a compelling narrative full of pleasing insights. No single account of atheism’s origin, rise, and cultural impact is definitive, but this one earns its place on the bookshelf.

Russell Blackford is a conjoint lecturer in the school of humanities and social science, University of Newcastle, NSW. He is the author of 50 Great Myths About Atheism (with Udo Schuklenk; Wiley-Blackwell) and Humanity Enhanced (MIT Press).

The need for moral enhancement

Erik Parens reviews “Unfit for the Future: The Need for Moral Enhancement” by Ingmar Persson and Julian Savulescu. This article appears in Issue 62 of The Philosophers’ Magazine. Please support TPM by subscribing.

In the early 1990s, the Georgetown bioethicist LeRoy Walters began to ask, What if we could use biomedical means to ‘enhance’ people morally? What if, for example, we could use such means to reduce our ferocious tendencies and increase our generous ones? For those predisposed to be critical of ‘enhancement’ and also prepared to be honest, that was a hard question. Criticising the prospect of better athletes is one thing, criticising the prospect of morally better people another. That hardness may help explain why at least the critics of enhancement tried, for the next several years, to focus the enhancement debate on relatively easier questions concerning traits like strength, mood, or intelligence.

In 2008, however, Thomas Douglas, then still a student at Oxford’s Centre for Practical Ethics, published in the Journal of Applied Philosophy a much-discussed paper that was explicitly about moral enhancement and was explicitly enthusiastic about it. In the paper he sought to expose the wrongness of the thesis he attributed to the critics: that it is ‘always morally impermissible’ or ‘absolutely objectionable’ to use biomedical means to enhance people morally. Even if no critic ever said that such means are always morally impermissible or absolutely objectionable, Douglas deserves credit for opening up an important conversation, which, indeed, cannot proceed reasonably from any such absolute claim.

Picking up from where Douglas left off, Julian Savulescu (who directs the Oxford center where Douglas was a student) and Ingmar Persson (who is a research fellow in the same center) have now published the first book-length assessment of ‘moral enhancement’. Proceeding from the assumption that using biomedical means is not absolutely objectionable, most of the book describes the moral dispositions and commonsense morality we have evolved to have, and describes the disastrous mismatch between those moral resources and our acquired capacity to wreak destruction with technology.

Readers familiar with Persson and Savulescu’s enthusiasm for using technology to enhance human capacities in pursuit of a ‘transhuman’ future may be surprised here by their despair before the technological power that brings us to the brink of catastrophe. Alluding to Hiroshima and Nagasaki, they write: ‘We are inclined to believe that … a half century ago or so, when scientific technology provided us with means of causing Ultimate Harm, technological development reached a stage at which it became worse all things considered for us to have the current means of scientific technology, given that we are not capable of handling them in a morally responsible way.’ They identify two paths to Ultimate Harm. One is being trod on by all-too-careful terrorists, who are hell bent on using ever more sophisticated technologies to destroy liberal democracies. The other is being trod on by careless members of those liberal democracies, hell bent on using ever more sophisticated technologies to promote their profligate ‘overconsumption’. Indeed, Persson and Savulescu sometimes sound more like the prophet Jeremiah than, say, the prophet Ray (Kurzweil).

They do spend some time analysing that first, terrorist path. Their primary conclusion is that, to block it, liberal democracies will have to increase surveillance of citizens. This conclusion rests on their argument that privacy is a legal – not a moral – right, and that such a right can be restricted for the sake of the state’s survival. Moreover, they suggest, members of a liberal democracy well might vote for increased surveillance out of self-interest. They spend most of their time, however, analysing that second path to Ultimate Harm: the selfish overconsumption that is leading to environmental destruction. Here is where ‘biomoral enhancement’ comes in.

Appealing to evolutionary psychology, Persson and Savulescu remind us that our contemporary moral psychologies – and ‘commonsense morality’ – are adaptations to ways of life that are now 150,000 years old. Living in small groups, we evolved to care for those who are genetically and geographically close, but to fear those genetically and geographically far. We also evolved an overriding preoccupation with our own survival, at the cost of caring about the survival of future generations of our species, much less other species or the planet. As they assert over and over, because it has always been easier for human beings to harm a complex system (like a human organism) than it has been to benefit such a system, our morality has always emphasised the imperative not to harm others over the imperative to benefit them. Our ‘commonsense’ belief that acts of commission are morally weightier than acts of omission is a by-product of that same fundamental feature of our reality.

While those moral dispositions and that commonsense morality were once adaptive for people living in small groups and in possession of relatively crude technologies, they are no longer. If we accept that traditional moral means are inadequate to our current predicament – as evidenced by our failure to use them to achieve the moral improvement we desperately need – and if we accept that there is no plausible absolute objection to using biomedical means, then, Savulescu and Persson conclude, it is time to try a new approach: enhancing ourselves morally by means of biomedicine.

They say rather little, however, about how we might actually get from our current biomedical knowledge to practicable moral enhancements. They make the fair, if banal, point that moral behaviours like altruism and a sense of justice ‘have biological bases’, and they allude to a couple of specific biological targets – the neurotransmitters serotonin and oxytocin – that, in principle, might be manipulated to achieve the sorts of moral enhancements they envision. They fully acknowledge, however, that it is hard to imagine how those particular targets could, in practice, be manipulated to reliably produce enhanced moral behaviour. As they allow, even if we could, say, reliably reduce the concentration of neurotransmitter X in the brain to reduce an individual’s proneness to some action Y, whether such an action led to a good or bad moral outcome Z would depend on the context.

Think, for example, of the ferocity of the passenger who led the assault on the terrorists in the cockpit of the ill-fated flight over Pennsylvania on 9/11. Indeed, at the end of the book, when Persson and Savulescu finally do try to envision what biomedical moral enhancements might actually look like, they have to acknowledge the point from which they began: it is easier to harm a complex system, whether a human organism or an ecosystem, than to benefit it. (In the journal Neuroethics, Chris Zarpentine has recently elaborated just how gigantic are the practical obstacles.)

Savulescu and Persson are also keenly aware of – and ultimately sympathetic to – a closely related but deeper worry, which has preoccupied those prone to criticism from the beginning of the enhancement debates: the worry that in our effort to enhance ourselves, we will inadvertently diminish ourselves. Here the worry is specifically that, in our efforts to make ourselves more moral, we will make ourselves unfree, and thus incapable of being moral. Savulescu and Persson go out of their way to emphasise that they do not endorse any sort of biomedical intervention that would make moral behaviour ‘irresistible’. They want to liberate humans who have moral deficits to act morally, not deprive them of the freedom to choose. They want to ‘amplify’ the capacities of empathy and sympathetic concern in those who lack them. We might say that all they want is to ‘treat’ those who are morally ill, those who can’t experience the sense of altruism or justice experienced by those who are healthy.

Unfortunately, they spend little time explaining how, if the technology were practicable, the liberal democracies might implement a program of moral enhancement. They say that hundreds of millions of young people would need to be morally enhanced, but say virtually nothing about who would identify those children. As they acknowledge several times, there is a huge bootstrapping problem: Who exactly is sufficiently moral to identify those children and to implement the appropriate program?

It is hard to disagree with what they call their main point: ‘liberal democracies are in need of moral enhancement in order to deal safely with the overwhelming power of modern technology.’ It is striking, however, that by the end of the book, after they have acknowledged the magnitude of the problems associated with biomoral enhancement, they back way off from the claim that they sometimes seemed to be making earlier: that only biomedicine can treat the disease created by the mismatch between our paltry moral resources and our burgeoning technological capacities.

Indeed, the subtitle of the book, ‘The Need for Moral Enhancement’, avoids indicating that we need biomedical means to achieve such enhancement – while allowing the potential reader to imagine that only those means will do. After all, it’s not terribly controversial to assert that we need to use traditional, social means to become morally better. A more accurate, if less sexy, subtitle would have been: ‘The need for human beings to improve their moral behaviour is so great that using biomedical means should not be off the table, even though such improvement won’t be feasible in the foreseeable future, given the complexity of our moral natures, the crudeness of the available biomedical means, and the ethical and political obstacles to creating such a program.’

Although the remedy they sometimes appear to be prescribing doesn’t seem feasible even to them, the disease they diagnose couldn’t be more serious. When those prone to enthusiasm can acknowledge that an intervention that made us unable to choose freely wouldn’t be worthy of the name ‘enhancement’ (as John Harris recently put it in Bioethics), and when those prone to criticism can acknowledge that biomedical means aimed at enhancement aren’t absolutely or always objectionable (as I did above), we have entered into what we might view as a ‘second wave’ of the enhancement debates. Perhaps we’re closer than we were in the 1990s to having a conversation about what true enhancement is, and about how we can deploy all of the resources at our disposal to fight the disease that Perrson and Savulescu persuasively describe.

Unfit for the Future: The Need for Moral Enhancement by Ingmar Persson and Julian Savulescu (Oxford University Press), £21.00/$35.00.

Erik Parens is a senior research scholar at The Hastings Center, a bioethics research institute in Garrison, New York.

A Theory of Justice: The Musical – a romp through 2,500 years of philosophy

Rebecca Reilly-Cooper is astonished by “A Theory of Justice: The Musical”, a hilarious combination of musical theatre and political philosophy. This article appears in Issue 61 of The Philosophers’ Magazine. Please support TPM by subscribing.

The priority of equal basic liberties over fair equality of opportunity and the difference principle might be an important element of a theory of justice, but on the face of it, the subject doesn’t have much comedic promise. I’m pretty certain that the lexical priority of liberty has never caused me to laugh out loud before. Neither has Rousseau’s republicanism, nor Lockean theories of initial acquisition. But that was before I saw A Theory of Justice: The Musical, written, produced and performed by undergraduates at the University of Oxford. On opening night, these ideas and more had me laughing until the tears streamed down my face and my cheeks were aching.

Political philosophy and musical theatre are two of my life’s highest pleasures, but even so, prior to seeing the show, a combination of the two did not strike me as a guaranteed success. A musical romp through 2,500 years of philosophy would probably be highly entertaining; but possibly in a so bad, it’s good sort of way. Well, I was halfway right. The show was highly entertaining, but in a genuinely excellent, astonishingly brilliant sort of way.

The story follows a diffident, tweedy Professor John Rawls who – alongside the object of his desires, the beautiful but elusive Fairness – travels back in time and meets political philosophers of the past. He is pursued by his nemesis and archrival Robert Nozick, who aims to foil Rawls’s plan to write a new and groundbreaking theory of justice. Along the way, the great thinkers share their theories with Rawls in surprising and hugely comical ways: a ventriloquist Plato preaches to the masses at the agora through his dummy, Socrates; ruffian Thomas Hobbes and gentleman John Locke engage in a furious rap battle over the details of life in the state of nature; and a charmingly naïve and tender barbershop quartet of utilitarians espouse their morality of maximising happiness.

All of these scenes are so cleverly and originally interpreted that, as well as being utterly hilarious, they have real pedagogical value. As the oversensitive, childlike utilitarians sang to make themselves feel happy, and cried when hearing of someone else’s unhappiness, through my giggles I wondered why I had never thought of utilitarianism in that way before.

Given the paucity of women in the canon and the neglect of gender politics by most philosophers, I had wondered how the show would deal with this. So I was delighted to see Mary Wollstonecraft and her backing singers of Emmeline Pankhurst and Catharine Macaulay arrive to lambast the men for their disregard for women’s equality (and amused when Rawls dismissively promises to deal with the family in a later chapter).

While there were many excellent performances, for me the show was stolen by the evil libertarian duo of smooth and dastardly Nozick, played by Luke Rollason, and the terrifying dominatrix Ayn Rand, played by Clare Joyce. Their seductive and slightly deranged tango, in which Rand extols to Nozick the virtues of selfishness, was my highlight of the show. But special mention must also go to David Wigley as Rawls’s drag queen fairy mother, Immanuel Kant, who in a climactic scene worthy of a reality television montage, shows Rawls that the theory of justice he has been searching for won’t be found in the outside world; he must search within (but using his reason, and not his emotions, of course).

To create something that has both philosophical accuracy and genuine comedy is no mean feat, and yet Eylon Aslan-Levy, Ramin Sabi and Tommy Peto have somehow managed to write a script that has both, by the bucket load. Admittedly, much of the comedy is of a distinctly geeky nature – in-jokes predicated on our shared recognition and comprehension. I doubt an audience comprised of non-philosophers would have laughed so heartily at Kant responding to Rawls’s “that’s phenomenal!” with the exclamation “No, it’s noumenal!” So this might not be a show to take the whole family to. But philosophy students at university campuses around the world would, I’m sure, pack out theatres and howl with laughter. I hope a longer run, and perhaps even a tour, beckons; I will be taking my undergraduates.

At the end of the show, as he slunk off the stage, vanquished, Nozick promised to return in three years’ time with Anarchy, State and Utopia: The Opera. I think that may have been another joke. But I’m keeping my fingers crossed.

A Theory of Justice: The Musical was written by Eylon Aslan-Levy, Ramin Sabi and Tommy Peto, and directed by Esmé Hicks and Robert Natzler.

Rebecca Reilly-Cooper is lecturer in political philosophy at the University of Oxford.

God’s artillery opens fire

Julian Baggini reviews Alvin Plantinga’s “Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion and Naturalism”. This article appears in Issue 60 of The Philosophers’ Magazine. Please support TPM by subscribing.

It’s hard to resist the pull of military metaphors when talking about the recent battles between religion and the so called new-atheists: Richard Dawkins, the late Christopher Hitchins, Sam Harris et al. Fighting talk is only natural when combatants on both sides have often been vicious in their attacks. And like the western front in World War I, for all the blasts and flashes, neither side ever manages to advance its trenches. Yet in the very definition of madness, both forces persist in trying the same tactics that have never worked before as though they might suddenly prove efficacious.

So it is with some anticipation that God’s army has finally moved one of its heavier pieces of artillery to the front line. Alvin Plantinga is no household name, but in philosophy and theology he is widely recognised as one of the world’s smartest Christian thinkers. His new book, Where the Conflict Really Lies, is not just a robust defence of religion against the claim that it is defeated by science, but also a bold counter-attack.

If you want to make sense of this quagmire, where do you begin? With the question of where we all begin, because that is the key issue that Plantinga’s book illuminates. Those on the naturalist side of the debate – people who believe that the natural world is all there is – start with evidence, the hard, objective kind that anyone can examine and assess for themselves. For the religious, however, it’s quite different. “Maybe a few people accept religious beliefs strictly on the basis of what they take the evidence to be,” writes Plantinga. “But for most of us, our religious beliefs are not like scientific hypotheses” and “we are none the worse [for that].”

Plantinga is here referring to his enduring contribution to the theory of knowledge, his idea that some beliefs we have are “properly basic”. The belief that other people have minds and are not just zombies or automata, for example, is not one we can ultimately justify. Nonetheless, not only is holding such a belief justified, I’d be considered psychotic if I didn’t hold it. Belief in God, argues Plantinga, stands alongside other beliefs we can be “fully and entirely rational” in holding, even if we have no evidence or argument at all.

To his opponents, there is a clear difference between the basic beliefs that fit together and that everyone does and must share, and the enormous variety of religious beliefs that are clearly optional and which contradict each other. However, if you do grant that religious beliefs are properly basic, you effectively provide a Get out of Jail Free Card for almost (but not all) apparent cases of conflict between science and religion. The argument here is simple. For the naturalist, certain religious claims become untenable on the scientific evidence base. Perhaps surprisingly, the religious would agree. But, they would add, their evidence base includes facts other than scientific ones, such as the existence of a loving creator. If you add that to the scientific evidence for evolution, you will think that the most likely explanation for the emergence of life is that God works through random mutation to ensure creatures like us have evolved. And, he claims, nothing in evolutionary theory denies that possibility. The idea that the process is entirely unguided is a “metaphysical or theological add-on”. For all the theory says, “God could have achieved the results he wanted by causing the right mutations to arise at the right times, letting natural selection do the rest.”

There is much more in this book, including the latest iteration of Plantinga’s argument that naturalism undermines itself. Briefly, if you are a naturalist and so believe that human minds are simply the product of unguided evolution, you have a reason to think minds will enhance our survival prospects, but no reason to think they will generate true beliefs. So you no longer have any good reason to trust that your belief in naturalism is true. Hence the title of Plantinga’s book: the real conflict in which science is embroiled is with naturalism, not religion.

As usual, this is clever, but there are plenty of replies. And counter-replies. And counter-counter-replies. What Plantinga really shows in this mainly readable but often academically opaque book is why the war will end only in exhaustion. Where the conflict really lies is right down at the very basis of why people believe what they do, yet the war is fought over the beliefs themselves. It’s like trying to get rid of Japanese knot weed by hacking at the stems when the root system is too deep, too capable of regenerating itself even when viciously cut. Plantinga has a pretty sharp scythe and generally speaking he wields it well, despite some viciously personal attacks on the new atheists. But all he’s done is provide space for his own weeds to thrive for a while before they too are cut down to size and the whole cycle starts again.

Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion and Naturalism by Alvin Plantinga (Oxford University Press), £17.99/$27.95.

Julian Baggini) is co-founder of TPM and the author of The Ego Trick (Granta).

Thomas Nagel’s untutored reaction of incredulity

 Mohan Matthen reviews Thomas Nagel’s new book on Darwinism, and finds that his attack falls flat. This review appears in Issue 60 of The Philosophers’ Magazine. Please support TPM by subscribing.

For some time now, Thomas Nagel has been troubled by the place of Darwinism in public intellectual life. In 2008, he argued in Philosophy and Public Affairs that Intelligent Design Theory has a place in high-school science curricula. More recently, he reviewed Alvin Plantinga’s latest anti-Darwinian book favourably in the New York Review of Books, writing, “When our faculties lead us to beliefs vastly removed from those our ancestors needed to survive ­­– as in the recent production and assessment of evidence for the existence of the Higgs boson – Plantinga’s sceptical argument remains powerful.” Now, in Mind and Cosmos,we have a more systematic treatment, which affords us a better understanding of his view.

Let us begin with the inflammatory sub-title. You might think that Nagel is offering a refutation of a scientific theory, but as far as I can tell, this is not exactly his intention (apart from a strange pronouncement I’ll discuss shortly). And it is certainly not the result of his main argument. Nagel claims that materialist neo-Darwinism (“Darwinism” for short) doesn’t offer us a certain sort of understanding: it doesn’t render the emergence of mind, consciousness, and value intelligible. For reasons I’ll outline, scientific Darwinism doesn’t claim to, and perhaps couldn’t, offer this kind of understanding.

Nagel’s reasons for thinking that Darwinism is incomplete with respect to consciousness are summarised in an argument he gives in chapter three. Suppose we knew (a) why all organisms of material constitution M are conscious and (b) how M-constituted organisms emerged by “purely physical evolution”. (a) and (b) might seem together to imply that we know how and why consciousness evolved, but Nagel thinks they do not.

For though (b) explains event types involving material constitution M, we still lack an explanation of event types involving consciousness. To understand the latter, Nagel claims, we need to know why evolution produced consciousness. Such an explanation must make it “likely” that evolution produced conscious organisms under the description “conscious”, and not merely under the description “M-constituted”. There must be such an explanation, he says, since “organisms such as ourselves do not just happen to be conscious”.

Nagel does not contest the possibility of knowing (a) and (b). (a) is a non-historical reduction of consciousness to material constitution; (b) is an evolutionary account of the emergence of the material properties underlying consciousness. Nagel’s central contention is rather that (a) and (b) together do not suffice to make the emergence of consciousness non-accidental.

Here is one reason, unconnected with materialism or Darwinism, why science would find it very difficult to offer such an explanation. Psychology is an autonomous discipline. The laws of consciousness are investigated independently of those of physics, and as a consequence, psychological concepts are independent of physical concepts. The proposition that M-constituted creatures are conscious thus conjoins independent concepts and appears to be contingent. Along similar lines: we grasp consciousness from the first-person perspective. From this perspective, consciousness is not a brain process. Thus, the proposition that mental acts are physically constituted seems contingent to us.

This conceptual gap between psychology and material science is not why Nagel dismisses Darwinism. He writes, “I suspect that the appearance of contingency in the relation between mind and brain is probably an illusion, and that it is in fact a necessary and nonconceptual connection, concealed from us by the inadequacy of our present concepts … The mind-body problem is difficult enough that we should be suspicious of attempts to solve it with the concepts and methods developed to account for very different kinds of things.” Nagel allows that we might ultimately possess a non-historical understanding of why M-constitutedcreatures are conscious. His point is rather that this still does not afford us a historical understanding of the emergence of consciousness, because the evolution of M doesn’t make consciousness likely.

This is perhaps the moment to come back to the strange pronouncement to which I earlier alluded. Nagel writes, “With regard to evolution, the process of natural selection cannot account for the actual history without an adequate supply of viable mutations, and I believe it remains an open question whether this could have been provided in geological time merely as a result of chemical accident, without the operation of some other factors determining and restricting the forms of genetic variation. It is no longer legitimate simply to imagine a sequence of gradually evolving phenotypes, as if their appearance through mutations in the DNA were unproblematic – as Richard Dawkins does for the evolution of the eye.” (Versions of this claim are repeated at many points in the book.)

Now, this isa scientific challenge to the viability of Darwinian explanation, not just a reflection on its explanatory completeness. The sufficiency of genetic variation to drive natural selection has been a central theme since R A Fisher’s great book, The Genetical Theory of Natural Selection. Nagel, a philosopher, tells us there’s not enough. Big result!But it’s completely unsupported by argument. Nagel says that he would “like to defend the untutored reaction of incredulity to neo-Darwinism … It is prima facie highly implausible that life as we know it is the result of a sequence of physical accidents together with the mechanism of natural selection”. This is just irresponsible. It is simply wrong to adjudicate the probability of mutations by an “untutored reaction of incredulity”. Probability assessments notoriously run counter to common sense. If you think you have a scientifically viable argument, give it, or leave it to scientists to deal with this kind of problem!

Returning to the philosophical content: whatever you may think of Nagel’s incompleteness of explanation argument, you still have to take a leap to conclude that this argues for a non-naturalist ontology. Grant him, for the sake of argument that evolutionary theory does not make it probable that conscious creatures will emerge. Call this the Hard Problem of Evolutionary Emergence. However that might be, neuroscientists are certainly hard at work trying to figure out how particular conscious processes are physically realised in humans and other species – call this the Easy Problem of Neurophysiological Correspondence. Solving the Easy Problem will at least enable us to figure out post hocwhat evolutionary path leads to the material substrate of consciousness.

Naturalism posits that the Easy Problem kind of explanation will always be available. This isn’t the mad hope that there is a single materialist explanation for consciousness as such, but the optimistic hope (perhaps a bit wide-eyed, but not mad) that a material account can be given for each realisation of consciousness. So even if there are grounds for pessimism about understanding the emergence of consciousness-as-such in Darwinian terms, this pessimism arises from the fragmentary nature of science and the unavailability of boundary-crossing definitions of consciousness, and not from the exclusion of any material factor.

Nagel thinks that in order to make the emergence of consciousness likely, we have to introduce a new kind of process – one that is teleologically directed toward the emergence of the right kind of genes. He wants, in other words, to supplement naturalistic science with teleological drive. But there is a serious problem with trying to expand our ontology in order to get the kind of intelligibility that Nagel wants. There is no room, given his argument, for additional causes. Recall that under (a) and (b) above, he allowed that evolution might be sufficient to cause consciousness, though not to make it intelligible. (“Explanation, unlike causation, is not just of an event, but of an event under a description.”)The way that evolution produces consciousness is by producing M-constituted creatures, according to (b). Because of (a), this suffices for it to produce conscious creatures.

If evolution by natural selection can produce conscious creatures this way, what work is left for a teleological process or other non-natural cause? It is one thing to argue that the theory of evolution can’t make the emergence of evolution intelligible. It is quite another thing to argue that evolution can’t produce conscious creatures. In fact, Nagel’s argument seems to lead in the opposite direction.

Evolutionary theory treats its outcomes as highly contingent. In Wonderful Life, Stephen Jay Gould famously wrote that “any replay of the tape would take evolution down a pathway radically different from the road actually taken”. (He shouldn’t have said “replay”: what he means is that the situation at any moment of history is compatible with radically different subsequent developments.) Nagel wants to say that this would make the emergence of consciousness, mind, and value unintelligible. The question is this: given that evolution gives causes that are sufficient to the outcome, are we justified in adding causes in order to secure non-contingency and intelligibility? Nagel thinks so.

On the face of it, this is a super-strong version of the Anthropic Principle. The Anthropic Principle states that the world is such as to make it possible for humans to exist. Proponents of the Anthropic Principle suggest that this explains why certain fundamental constants of physics take the values they do. Nagel proposes, in effect, that the universe must be such as to make the emergence of consciousness not just actual but intelligible. Since evolution is sufficient only to explain consciousness retrospectively, and not to predict it, it doesn’t make it “likely” before the fact. So he inserts causes – specifically, teleological causes – to secure predictability (hence intelligibility).

To summarise, Nagel attacks contemporary theory of evolution from two sides. He argues, first, that in order to make the emergence of consciousness intelligible, the theory needs to be supplemented by teleology. One might doubt that this is reasonable because there is no reason why the emergence of consciousness should be intelligible in his sense.

Nagel also argues that the biological/genetic variation that is required to generate the emergence of consciousness is unavailable. If correct, this would undermine evolutionary theory from within by showing that it is actually unable to provide even a causal narrative of how consciousness emerged. He does not support this charge by evidence or analysis. Even if it is on the mark, it is unclear why it is within the purview of philosophy to fix the problem or to suggest teleology as an alternative. If a scientific theory fails to do its job, scientists have to come up with a replacement.

Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False, by Thomas Nagel (Oxford University Press), £15.99/$24.95.

Mohan Matthen is professor of philosophy at the university of Toronto. His areas of research are philosophy of biology, philosophy of mind, and ancient philosophy.

The really, really big question

Review by Massimo Pigliucci. This article appears in Issue 59 of The Philosophers’ Magazine. Please support TPM by subscribing.

Why Does the World Exist? An Existential Detective Story by Jim Holt (Liveright), £12.95/$27.95.

“Why is the sky blue?” This perennial question posed by children to their parents can be easily answered by modern moms and dads (after looking it up on Wikipedia): “Because the air scatters short-wavelength radiation better than long-wavelength radiation.” Yes, of course, you then have to explain what “wavelength” and “radiation” are, but it’s a start. No such easy answer is available for the question “Why is there something rather than nothing?” (for which Wikipedia returns a whopping 4,266 entries!). And that is the topic picked by Jim Holt for this lively philosophical-scientific quest concerning the ultimate metaphysical conundrum.

Holt sets up his pursuit as an “existential detective story”, in which his own musings are mixed with the thoughts of a wide range of thinkers, from scientists to philosophers to theologians, several of whom he has interviewed. I was happy to see Holt talk to philosophers who are knowledgeable about the relevant science, as well as to scientists who have at least heard of the word “philosophy”. I happen to think that the confluence of those two disciplines into what used to be called “scientia” (knowledge in the broader sense) is where a lot of the action is these days when it comes to a number of “deep questions”, including consciousness, free will, morality, and the very structure of reality.

I was significantly less happy to have to endure a whole chapter devoted to the musings of Oxford theologian Richard Swinburne, since I think theology fails the test imposed by Hume’s fork (that philosophical assertions need to have either empirical or mathematical content to be taken seriously), and that the best thing to do with it is to “Commit it then to the flames: for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.” I mean, here we are, at the onset of the twenty-first century, and we are still taking seriously people who tell us that God is the simplest “explanation” imaginable for the universe? Could it be that you think so because your imagination is limited, or because you are confused about what counts as an explanation?

But Holt – to his credit – goes to the other extreme as well, also paying a visit to Adolf Grünbaum in Pittsburgh. Grünbaum tells Holt that he is going after a pseudo-question, because nothingness is impossible, which in turn implies that “Why is there something rather than nothing?” is an example of “cadit quaestio”, a fallen question, in response to which it is far better to go out and grab a beer (generally speaking, not a bad suggestion anyway).

Like Holt, however, I don’t share Grünbaum’s slightly too cavalier dismissal of the whole shebang, and think that science and philosophy actually do have a lot to say about it. Which brings the reader to an intellectual tour de force that includes multiverses and the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics (which should really be kept more conceptually distinct than is done in some places in the book), mathematical Platonism, the idea that the universe may be a simulation in someone’s computer (to which Holt gives remarkably little space, particularly compared to Swinburne’s deeply unenlightening musings), and even more bizarre ideas – such as the possibility advanced by Plato that the universe may be the result of an ethical compulsion, or Robert Nozick’s strange “principle of fecundity”.

One idea that I was hoping to see explored was James Ladyman and Don Ross’s suggestion that there is no “ultimate” stuff of which the universe is made, that “at bottom” it’s all about relations (don’t ask “Relations between what?” because you’d be missing the point). While those authors do not explicitly endorse it, a universe in which “every thing must go” (as the title of their book puts it) is also one that is particularly friendly to certain forms of mathematical Platonism, which would have connected quite nicely with Holt’s chapter on Pythagoras, Kurt Gödel, and Roger Penrose.

Regardless, throughout the book the reader will encounter – directly (based on interviews) or indirectly – the thoughts of some of the brightest and most provocative thinkers who have something to say about the deep questions, and two things clearly emerge from the volume. First, the question of why there is something rather than nothing is neither silly nor just of interest to philosophers and “armchair speculators”. Second, like all good philosophy, by the end of the journey the prize is not necessarily getting an answer, but rather consists in gaining a much richer and more nuanced understanding of the question.

Of course, regardless of which take you end up favouring about the origin of all things, you might still come to agree with Douglas Adams: “In the beginning the Universe was created. This has made a lot of people very angry and has been widely regarded as a bad move.” Or maybe not.

Massimo Pigliucci is professor of philosophy at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. He is the author of the forthcoming Answers for Aristotle: How Science and Philosophy Can Lead Us to A More Meaningful Life (BasicBooks). His philosophical musings can be found www.rationallyspeaking.org.

The best books of 2012

With 2012 safely behind us, we ask TPM’s reviewers to select a favourite book published last year (give or take a few months), taking into account our commitment to the twin virtues of philosophical rigour and readability. As a slightly late stocking stuffer, we offer you this rich, juicy and still mildly festive list of philosophy books which are both illuminating and enjoyable.

Owen Flanagan, The Bodhisattva’s Brain: Buddhism Naturalized, MIT Press.
Most philosophers are bright and well read. A handful has genuine insight. Very few are able to look at an ancient religious tradition and be both scathing about its supernatural excesses and sympathetic to its real wisdom. Hardly any can write clearly, rigorously and with vim and humour. A minority say things of importance to people outside the profession. Take these groups and arrange them in a Venn diagram. Owen Flanagan sits in the very lonely space where they all overlap. – Julian Baggini, founding editor of tpm

Sally Haslanger, Resisting Reality: Social Construction and Social Critique, Oxford University Press.
Haslanger’s volume brings together her influential essays on social reality. Her extremely insightful analysis of social reality (in particular social construction and race and gender) draws on, and is situated within, work in metaphysics, epistemology, and philosophy of language as well as moral and political philosophy. This book shows how abstract philosophical theorising can help us understand better the world we live in. Resisting Reality is engaged philosophy at its best. – Ásta Kristjana Sveinsdóttir, associate professor of philosophy, San Francisco State University

Jim Holt, Why Does the World Exist?: An Existential Detective Story, Liveright.
This book is written mostly as a series of interviews with philosophers, physicists, and theologians, with lots of scene-setting information about Holt’s travels and thoughts between interviews. The story is personal as well as philosophical, especially at the end when he addresses questions of love and death as well as the big metaphysical question that drives the book. Constantly returning to the same issue could seem repetitive, but on the whole Holt avoids this trap, and I can’t imagine a more accessible and likeable introduction to the question of why there is something rather than nothing. – Duncan Richter, professor of philosophy at Virginia Military Institute

Shelley Kagan, Death, Yale University Press.
One of my recent favourites, this book is based on Kagan’s Open Yale Course on the same subject. The book covers a vast range of questions about death, both metaphysical and ethical. How should death best be understood? Should death be feared? Is immortality something to be valued? Would suicide ever be rational? In each case, Kagan’s discussion is both clear and careful, and the book’s conversational style makes it surprisingly easy for readers to plunge into such a heavy topic. – Amy Kind, professor of philosophy at Claremont McKenna College

Jesse Prinz, Beyond Human Nature: How Culture and Experience Shape the Human Mind. W W Norton.
It is over a decade since the Decade of the Brain. The explosion in research over the last twenty-two years may encourage the idea that our physical make-up provides our destiny, unless clever scientists can change it. Prinz’s elegant and far-reaching book brings society back into the picture Though many of its specific conclusions will be familiar to Prinz’s regular readers, the whole picture is an important and refreshing repositioning of community in our understanding of the mind. Prinz’s knowledge of related sciences should be a model for the field. – Anne Jacobson, professor of philosophy at the University of Houston

Alan Ryan, The Making of Modern Liberalism. Princeton University Press.
This collection gathers papers published over four decades, providing a wide-ranging and challenging exploration of the philosophical underpinnings of liberalism. The essays use historical thinkers to illuminate urgent contemporary problems and themes, and Ryan’s investigations of the concept of freedom and of the nature of property rights are fascinating and invigorating. The publication of this book, and of his massive two-volume On Politics (Penguin, 2012) make it evident, indeed undeniable, that Alan Ryan is not only among the most significant political philosophers working today, he is also one of the most exciting. – Troy Jollimore is professor of philosophy at California State University (Chico)

Michael Sandel, What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets. Penguin.
Sandel’s ability to write in a clear, colloquial, and unpretentious way is impressive. (I am envious.) His target is “market triumphalism”, or “the faith that markets are the primary means for achieving the public good”. He is profoundly sceptical of this particular fundamentalism, as we all have reason to be, thanks to the present economic crisis. Sandel’s piecemeal critique is elegant and incisive. It is timely, and I also like the way Sandel makes his case without lapsing into quasi-Marxian jargon. Expressions such as “surplus value” and “exploitation of the proletariat” never appear in the text. – Alan Haworth, Human Rights and Social Justice Research Institute, London Metropolitan University

Helen Steward, A Metaphysics for Freedom, Oxford University Press.
Steward introduces a novel position in the free-will debate – agency-incompatibilism. In the free will literature, compatibilists and incompatibilists (i.e., those who take free agency to be compatible with determinism and those who do not) have assumed that it would be possible for there to be agents in a deterministic world and focused their debate on whether agents in such a world would act freely. Steward thinks that this is a mistake. Agency itself, she argues, is incompatible with determinism. Not only has Steward introduced a novel view into a debate that stretches back thousands of years (no mean feat), she has made a compelling case for this view. Moreover, she argues persuasively that human and non-human animals are agents, creatures capable of settling for themselves what they shall do. Anyone interested in mind and agency must read this book. – Clayton Littlejohn, lecturer in philosophy at King’s College, London

Bruce N Waller, Against Moral Responsibility, MIT Press.
Waller challenges a dogma of contemporary philosophy – the near consensus that we possess free will just insofar as we possess the capacity to act with moral responsibility. Waller takes an unusual position in arguing that we possess a form of compatibilist free will, while at the same time denying that we are ever morally responsible for our actions. Whether or not the argument is ultimately persuasive, the author develops it with much detail, care, and attention to empirical data. – Russell Blackford, author of Freedom of Religion and the Secular State, Wiley-Blackwell

Jonathan Wolff, Ethics and Public Policy: A Philosophical Inquiry, Routledge.
This is a first-class examination of where philosophy meets public policy by one of the leading political philosophers today. Wolff illuminates the enormous potential for philosophical engagement with social and political issues in an accessible and even inspiring account. – Thom Brooks, reader in law & affiliate member of philosophy department, Durham University

Excessive tolerance?

Review by Russell Blackford, who finds Martha Nussbaum too reluctant to criticize in her new book, “The New Religious Intolerance”. This review appears in Issue 59 of The Philosophers’ Magazine. Please support TPM by subscribing.

Though Martha Nussbaum complains of a new religious intolerance, she actually identifies something much narrower: an intolerance of Islam. Her focus is on hostility toward Islam within Western societies, as evidenced by specific recent developments. These include the ongoing efforts in some European countries to ban public wearing of the burqa, the recent Swiss prohibition of building minarets, and the strident opposition to a proposal to construct what Nussbaum calls “an Islamic-initiated multifaith community center” in lower Manhattan.

There’s much to agree with here. Indeed, in my recent book Freedom of Religion and the Secular State, I also oppose bans on the burqa. I see no good basis for a law aimed specifically at prohibiting minarets, and the opposition to the lower Manhattan community centre strikes me as massively overblown. So far, we are in agreement. Nussbaum’s analysis of the last of these issues is especially commendable. She devotes a full chapter of over 50 pages to the pros and cons of the community centre, carefully distinguishing between constitutional issues and broader social or moral ones. She does not hesitate to criticise the centre’s proponents for what appear to be errors of judgement, failures of communication, and mutually conflicting visions. This is by far the most impressive discussion of the subject that I’ve encountered.

Thus, The New Religious Intolerance advances the debate about Islam and how Western societies ought to respond to it. Much of it draws heavily from the author’s earlier Liberty of Conscience (2008), but there is plenty of new material. The problem is that it is rather one-sided. Although Nussbaum is able to see difficulties with a particular project such as the community centre, she appears reluctant to concede that Islam, or any other religion, might actually have a dark side. This especially comes out in her discussion of the burqa and similar garments, in which she seems unwilling to find anything problematic at all about clothing that shrouds a woman’s entire body, including almost all of her face.

Nussbaum spends nearly 30 pages discussing the burqa. I believe that she is successful in refuting any argument for a comprehensive ban on wearing the burqa in public, but much less so in arguing that mere criticism of the burqa is somehow nosy, rude, and hypocritical. She offers various analogies in an attempt to show that the burqa is no worse than other things that are widely accepted, such as cosmetic surgery and high-heeled shoes, but let’s be careful here. For example, I have no difficulty imagining situations where the compelled wearing of high heels actually would be an abuse of familial or community power.

What if someone forced little girls to wear stiletto heels whenever they went out in public, thus preventing them from engaging in many ordinary activities? Would it be more tolerable if, as often seems to be the case with the burqa, this was required by parents and the local community only when the girl reached sixteen or so? Surely these practices would be considered abusive, and I wonder why requiring girls to wear a garment such as the burqa in public shouldn’t be regarded in the same way – which is not to dispute that the law should permit adults and mature minors to wear pretty much whatever they genuinely wish.

Again, Nussbaum plays down the degree to which covering a person’s face interferes with everyday affective communication, offering analogies with medical practitioners, (American) football players, and the like. But does she really think it would be fine for doctors to wear surgical masks while explaining test results to patients, or for football players to keep their helmets on at all times? While it might not merit interference from the law, any religious requirement to veil the face does impede ordinary communication, and that is a reason for regret and criticism.

The state is not well placed to make judgements about otherworldly matters, such as the truth or falsity of any particular religion. That also limits its ability to discover the “right” canons of conduct for us all to follow – perhaps in the interest of our spiritual salvation – and gives it a good reason to permit much diversity in our behaviour. Thus, the state ought to adopt a degree of epistemic modesty about religious issues, and many moral ones. However, there is no reason for individual citizens to do likewise. We are well within our rights to conclude, from within our respective understandings of the world and conceptions of the good, that a particular religion has its dark side, or that a moral norm favoured by some religion is preposterous and harmful.

Getting in individuals’ faces about it in everyday encounters would be uncivil, but public critique of religions and their associated moralities is a legitimate and important use of our freedom of speech. Nussbaum seems temperamentally opposed to this, but when she tries to back up her intuitive reactions her arguments are weak. This doesn’t entirely spoil her book, but it’s a reason to handle it with care.

The New Religious Intolerance: Overcoming the Politics of Fear in an Anxious Age by Martha C Nussbaum (Harvard University Press), £19.95/$26.95.

Russell Blackford is a conjoint lecturer in philosophy and religious studies at the University of Newcastle, NSW. His new book is Freedom of Religion and the Secular State (Wiley-Blackwell, 2012).

Review: Sloterdijk, Sloterdijk & Sloterdijk

Derrida, An Egyptian: On the Problem of the Jewish Pyramid by Peter Sloterdijk (Polity) £14.99/$12.95 (pb)

God’s Zeal: The Battle of the Three Monotheisms by Peter Sloterdijk (Polity) £14.99/$19.95 (pb)

Terror from the Air by Peter Sloterdijk (Semiotext(e)) £9.95/$14.95 (pb)

Public philosophers come in many guises: moral voices, political agitators, gloomy intellectuals, rationalist educators, popularisers of ideas. Peter Sloterdijk has a strong claim to being Germany’s foremost public philosopher. In 1981 his first book, Critique of Cynical Reason – originally published in two volumes adding up to a sprawling thousand pages – became a publishing sensation in West Germany, quickly selling over 40,000 copies. He has since written on myriad topics, ranging from Nietzsche’s materialism to “Eurotaoism”. This year, he published a book with an unabashedly self-help title, You Must Change Your Life. Sloterdijk has never shied from the media, and since 2002 he has hosted a pop philosophy television talk show entitled In the Glass House: A Philosophical Quartet.

Sloterdijk has insistently challenged the forms of public philosophy that find their source in the critical theory of the Frankfurt School, whether Theodor Adorno’s vigilant negativity, Herbert Marcuse’s political utopianism, or Jürgen Habermas’s faith in Enlightenment universalism. Habermas, with his public role as Germany’s humanist social conscience, has served as Sloterdijk’s principal rival. The contrast between them reached a polemical pitch in 1999 when a paper by Sloterdijk on Heidegger’s “Lecture on Humanism” set off a heated debate, especially among Habermasians, because of its Nietzschean talk of “breeding” and “selection”, and its proposal of a post-human politics of the “human zoo”. Sloterdijk has continued to court controversy, heaping praise on the explanation of Islamic militancy as the result of population growth (a “youth bulge”) promoted by the right-wing demographer Gunnar Heinsohn, whose dubious theories Sloterdijk has improbably compared in significance to Marx’s Capital.

Though the Critique of Cynical Reason was published in English in 1988, only recently has Sloterdijk’s work garnered much attention in the Anglophone world, with a flurry of translations and a number of public appearances, mostly in an art-world context (Sloterdijk is the rector of the Karlsruhe School of Design). The three books under review are a characteristically disparate sample of Sloterdijk’s concerns: a valedictory essay on a major contemporary thinker (Derrida, An Egyptian), an inquiry into the sources of monotheistic violence (God’s Zeal), a study of gas warfare as a metaphor for the twentieth century (Terror from the Air).

From its cryptic title onwards, the punitively priced short book on Derrida demonstrates Sloterdijk’s propensity to latch onto a particular idea and not let it go until he’s extracted as much mileage from it as possible. The relationship between Egypt and Judaism is used to organise a “constellation” of brief vignettes in which Derrida is read in conjunction with a varied host of thinkers (the German systems-theorist Niklas Luhmann, Freud, Thomas Mann, the historian Franz Borkenau, ex-revolutionary and “mediologist” Régis Debray, Hegel and the Russian art theorist Boris Groys).

Though some of the pairings are intriguing, as when Borkenau’s theory of the “antinomy of death” is used to shed light on Derrida’s critique of philosophies reliant on notions of immortality, the result is inconclusive. Sloterdijk praises deconstruction for its struggles against fanatical one-sidedness, for making possible a kind of decentred postmodern stability and “returning the churches and castles of the immortalist Ancien Régime to the mortal citizens”. Yet one also senses that Derrida is simply not post-metaphysical enough for Sloterdijk’s liking, since the French philosopher is still too preoccupied with transcendent and universal ideals like justice. This is evident in the book’s last section, which promotes Groys’s deflationary notion of “curating”, of philosophy as “museology”, against Derrida’s continued fidelity to an idea of interpretation inherited from messianic hermeneutics and psychoanalysis.

God’s Zeal takes its cue from a particularly extreme statement by Derrida on the “world war” between the religions of the Book and proceeds, by way of potted history and philosophical reflection, to propose ways in which contemporary religious fanaticism could be quelled. Sloterdijk shares with the likes of John Gray a deep hostility to utopian or millenarian thought and echoes the “new atheism” in his disdain for the politics of piety. But his approach is modelled on the Nietzschean vision of the philosopher as cultural physician, diagnosing spiritual pathologies. “At the beginning of the twenty-first century, a time stirred up by new religious turbulence”, he writes, Nietzsche’s “warning to remain faithful to the earth and send the tellers of otherworldly fairy tales to a doctor is even more relevant than it was at the end of the nineteenth.”

To Nietzschean anti-universalism we can add the influence of Cold War polemic: Sloterdijk sees a red thread between Jacobinism and twentieth-century communism, which is reduced to a particularly vicious brand of zealotry, a “fourth monotheism”.

But Sloterdijk’s digressive romp through two and a half millennia of religious and political history wants to move beyond earlier critiques of zealous politics, whether secular or religious. What is needed, he declares, is a new cultural theory capable of explaining the emergence of violent desires for transcendence and of providing therapies against the “fascism of the good”.

To this end, he enlists the work of Heiner Mühlmann, which allegedly provides a psychobiological and evolutionary account of impassioned religious activism, in which fanaticism is explained as a result of individual and social “stress”. Sloterdijk’s paraphrase of Mühlmann is vague and jargonistic, and at worst is reminiscent of a medicalisation of conviction which is closer to Lombroso than to Darwin. His remedies against apocalypticism are hardly original, involving an outdated vision for the “development” of a Third World supposedly steeped in ressentiment as well as a pseudo-scientific invocation of demography. Nietzsche’s philosophy is married with State Department programmes of modernisation in a theory of an ecumenical civilisation that aims at the overcoming of zeal.

The question of culture is also at the core of Terror from the Air, whose focus is on technology rather than religion. In a narrative that bears comparison with the writings of Paul Virilio, Sloterdijk tries to extract a philosophical lesson from what he calls “atmoterrorism”, a phenomenon whose paradigm is World War I gas warfare. For Sloterdijk the twentieth century – whose three main innovations are terrorism, product design and environmental awareness – really begins on 22 April 1915, with the German gas-attack on French and Algerian troops at Ypres. Sloterdijk views this event as emblematic of a modernity in which what was previously in the background is made explicit. The very air we breathe is turned into a weapon. Political Terror, so crucial to Hegel’s philosophy, becomes environmental terrorism, especially at the hands of states.

Sloterdijk follows the “break-up of latency” through a number of examples: the Dresden bombings, US gas executions and atomic warfare, but also Dali’s almost fatal surrealist performance in a diver’s suit and our small talk about the weather. Cultures are accordingly rethought as “collective conditions of immersion in air and sign systems”. The writing in Terror from the Air showcases Sloterdijk at his more engaging, drawing ideas from history and anecdote. But the underlying project remains profoundly unpersuasive.

The idea of modernity as a “process of atmosphere-explication” is openly indebted to Heidegger’s writing on technology, albeit in the mode of pastiche (Sloterdijk writes of “turning breathing-unto-death into an ontically controllable procedure”). As in Heidegger, it neutralises the crucial contexts that make for the difference between air-conditioning systems and gas chambers. More importantly, Sloterdijk’s conclusions demonstrate the moral and political limitations of his postmodern, post-metaphysical thought. Against modernism, which is identified with a “campaign against the self-evident”, Sloterdijk advocates “an ethics of the antagonistic protection of the interests of finite unities”, a new thinking of cultures as immune systems or “spheres” (the title of his three-volume “magnum opus”). Sloterdijk’s post-metaphysical philosophy thus slides from the curating of archives to the patrolling of threatened borders. The price of leaving behind what he scornfully calls “the fantasy of universalism” turns out to be very high indeed.

Alberto Toscano teaches sociology at Goldsmiths, University of London. His Fanaticism: On the Uses of an Idea is forthcoming from Verso.

Review: I Drink Therefore I Am

I Drink Therefore I Am: A Philosopher’s Guide to Wine by Roger Scruton (Continuum) £16.99/$22.95 (hb)

Philosophers of perception often begin their lectures by pointing at a convenient desk or at the white wall at the back of the room and asking their students what they think the precise object of their perception is. In epistemology classes, philosophers move on to the problem of scepticism by confronting their students with the worry that the desk, the wall, and even the whole room, may just be an illusion, the experience being crafted by a malicious demon. What this book argues is that there could be an even more intriguing way into philosophy – by looking at a glass of wine, and sipping it. The philosophical problems that pour out of philosopher Roger Scruton’s guide to wine go noticeably beyond perceptual and epistemological ones – but also, and this is certainly the challenge, succeed in going beyond the fact that wine could be an occasion for philosophy (something the Greeks knew long ago).

There has been a lot of recent philosophical interest in the topic of taste, and especially the taste of wine, first with Questions of Taste, edited by Barry C. Smith, then Blackwell’s collection, Wine and Philosophy. This book offers a very enjoyable extension, from a single – and singular – voice; it also serves a highly valuable function in exploring, in more detail, certain new and under-developed connections between philosophy and wine.

Wine, admits Scruton, is evocative in the sense of favouring associations, and this book has certainly been written to commemorate wonderful bottles. The enthusiast will recognise the great and the good, from Ausone to Romanée Conti, but the novice can just trust Scruton’s descriptions and selections to guide her through a far from dull landscape. Wine is also highly enjoyable, and makes you merry, and this book does its best to be true to its topic in being highly pleasurable.

The last pages, on pairing wine and philosophers, are hilarious – especially when you come to appreciate their good taste and judgement. You wouldn’t open a bottle of champagne when reading Wittgenstein.

Refusing the academic definition of philosophy as the disembodied exercise of an impersonal mind, Scruton shows why it can be defined as the ability to care for the general and the exemplary in one’s individual experience. An autobiographical journey takes us from intimate confessions; the first stolen mouthful, the initial transgression, not of jam, as in Rousseau, but of a Bordeaux; the first offered glass of a village Chassagne-Montrachet, and how the experience is enough to call for the scaling up to a tour of French vineyards; human encounters and tasting experiences; and then round the world, where the personal meets the political.

Scruton’s literary and philosophical references are no less fine than his wine references. While the initial journey reminds us that wine is a question of experience, memory, knowledge, and sharing, it is also connected with themes that would be familiar to Scruton’s readers – the role of knowledge in musical experiences, the sacred nature of sharing in both its erotic and religious forms.

The book is not short of theses, expressed in the form of firm and flamboyant claims, and it’s surprising to see how many connections the author makes with wine. These include: objections against globalisation, conformism, ignorance, the praise of nature, the wisdom of the land, the necessity of individual moderation in the use of pleasure. Thus, the book takes the reader beautifully from the anecdotal and descriptive, to the normative, in a way that requires the reader to give in to some rather big claims. But the novelty of the topic and Scruton’s colourful tone make it an enjoyable surrender.

Wine also brings a full crop of questions to the philosophy of perception (do we taste places, as we may hear sources?) and raises further conceptual issues (is intoxication a natural kind, and does it divide into distinct forms?). Still, one could regret that some of the argument goes missing – and that some of the solutions are offered as the only possible ones, and the only rescue in a world where binge drinking, narrow-mindedness, narcissism and stupidity have become so common. It is as if a position were justified alone by its occupying a certain place in history in the context of a certain culture. Still, in closing the book, you may wonder whether this isn’t another intimate connection between wine and philosophy.

Ophelia Deroy lectures in philosophy of mind at the University of Paris XII, and is an associate member of the Institut Jean Nicod in Paris