Category Archives: Interviews

Nigel Warburton, virtual philosopher

Nigel Warburton, co-presenter of Philosophy Bites, is interviewed by TPM’s editor, James Garvey. This article appears in Issue 61 of The Philosophers’ Magazine. Please support TPM by subscribing.

Philosophy has always been ridiculed for having its head in the clouds, but in a virtual corner of the philosophical world, Nigel Warburton has been proving philosophy’s detractors wrong for years. The success of Philosophy Bites, the podcast series he presents with David Edmonds, is genuinely astonishing. It’s been downloaded millions and millions of times by people all over the globe. He’s probably brought philosophy to more people in the wider world than any other professional philosopher. An enormous asset to any department, you might think, but when we meet in a loud London pub, he tells me he’s just resigned from his post at the Open University. This is a shock. Philosophers don’t resign. There’s frustration in his voice, but also a certain edgy excitement. What’s going on?

“It’s complicated,” he says. “On the positive side, this is a wonderful time to explore new ways of communicating with a global audience free from the constraints and obligations of academic life. I’ve seen plenty of philosophy lecturers get increasingly bitter about higher education, and I don’t want to end up like them.

“Far better to have a go at following my own direction than stagnate. It might not work out, but at least I’ll be able to say I had a go. It feels exciting at the moment, and I wanted to see if it is possible to live as a writer and podcaster. I’ve always found lot of academic philosophy rather dry, but I love philosophy at its best. Through Philosophy Bites I’ve met some of the top living philosophers, and I’ve been inspired by them.

“But I feel weighed down by the short sightedness, the petty bureaucracy, and the often pointless activities that are creeping into higher education. These things eat time and, more importantly, sap energy. Meanwhile the sand sifts through the hourglass. At the Open University I’d always hoped that we’d be able to offer a named undergraduate degree in philosophy, but actually the subject has, if anything, become marginalised, with fewer courses available than when I joined nineteen years ago, and with much higher fees. This at a time when philosophy is becoming increasingly popular. There had also been suggestions that I might be able to take on an official role promoting the public understanding of philosophy, but that didn’t materialise either.

“The easy option would have been to sit it out and keep taking the salary, but I respond better to interesting challenges than pay cheques. I knew I’d made the right decision when I felt exhilarated rather than scared after handing in my notice, and already I’ve had numerous offers of paid work of one kind or another, including some interesting journalism and plenty of invitations to speak in schools. Interview me again in ten years to see if I was crazy.”

Crazy or not, it’s a worrying sign for philosophy in the academy. Someone who’s very good at conveying complex philosophical ideas in plain English– a good teacher, in other words – has come to the conclusion that a university is not the best place for him to be.

The podcasts started five years ago, when Warburton and Edmonds began to interview philosophers and post the recordings for free online. They’ve since discussed everything from Parmenides to Rawls, the nature of love to gun control – often with philosophers preeminent in their fields. There’s a soothing but steadying guitar riff, a short introduction to the subject, and fifteen minutes or so of philosophical conversation focused on a specific topic.

The initial thought was that mainly philosophy students and lecturers might take an interest, but he’s heard from American listeners with time to kill on long drives, people waiting out wildfires in Australia, and soldiers in Afghanistan concerned about ethics. When I ask for details over email, Warburton sends me a list of 40 countries, all with more than 10,000 downloads each, some with vastly many more, millions more in some cases. Just after the usual English-speaking suspects, China checks in at number five. The United Arab Emirates, Argentina, Taiwan, Iran and Indonesia make the list. Several spin off series, two books (and a third in the pipeline), more than 250 interviews and an alarming 16.7 million downloads later, and Philosophy Bites is an international philosophy phenomenon.

“It regularly appears in the UK top ten Arts podcasts on iTunes,” Warburton says. “It is often ranked above TED talks there, and above many BBC radio programmes – though it’s unlikely we’ll ever overtake The Archers. Not bad for two guys with laptops and a hard disc recorder doing this in their spare time.”

Certainly, but what interests me is the fact that Edmonds and Warburton are, perhaps uniquely in human history, the beneficiaries of seminars with most of the sharpest philosophical minds of the times. So once the air clears after talk of quitting his job, I’m dying to get to a question. Having spoken with almost all of the brilliant philosophical minds alive and at large right now, what’s he discovered? Has a pattern emerged? Can he decipher the wisdom peculiar to our age? He furrows his brow and after some reflection, looks up from his beer and says, “No.”

Damn it. But then again, what was I expecting? Warburton says philosophy is too big a subject to admit of the kind of distillation I’m after. Anyway, the podcasts are not attempts to discern the grand sweep of philosophy or even get a feel for philosophy’s zeitgeist, but to take up this or that bite-sized part of the whole.

There’s a lot to be said for conveying complex philosophical ideas through conversation – Plato certainly knew what he was doing. You can get an unusual bead on what a philosopher really thinks from a podcast, in a way you might not if you just read their carefully crafted, written words. When you hear philosophers speak, follow the argument as they think on their feet, ideas can open up in interesting and unexpected ways.

But a project like Philosophy Bites takes a huge effort and commitment. He says each episode can take hours of preparation, and as much as a day to edit. So why do it? Maybe there’s a biographical clue, and I ask how he got started in philosophy. Usually when you ask this you’re in for a well-practiced story about a childhood epiphany or inspirational teacher. For Warburton it sounds like a series of accidents.

“My grandfather gave me some really strange books to read, including Colin Wilson’s The Outsider and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. He was an autodidact, left school at about twelve, a completely self-taught man, so he had a very eclectic taste. He would pass on books that interested him, some were philosophical books, and they interested me too.

“But as a kid I wanted to be a biologist. I was intrigued by philosophy, but I thought I would never have been able to do it at university because of parental pressure to do something more useful, and also a complete ignorance in my schools about what philosophy was. I say ‘schools’ because I went to a public school for three years, and then my dad, who was an alcoholic, gambled away the money for my education that my mother had inherited, so then I went to a state school.

“I spent most of my time at school playing rugby. I ended up going to Bristol University to do psychology, and I took philosophy and sociology as subsidiary subjects in the first year. I got disillusioned with psychology, dropped out, was a car park attendant for six months, tried to start a new course in English, but I wouldn’t have got a grant, so I carried on into my second year with philosophy, thinking I would become a journalist. Probably because I did so much student journalism I could write well enough that I conned them into a first class degree in philosophy, which meant I could go to Cambridge to do a PhD – there were proper grants in those days. I tried to get a job in publishing in my first year there but didn’t get that, so it’s only philosophy by default really.”

So, does his interest in introducing ideas to people who might not know much about philosophy have something to do with this convoluted journey? It wasn’t easy for him to make his way into philosophy, so is he trying to make it easier for others?

“No, that’s just the nature of philosophy. It’s always difficult – though nothing like as difficult as theoretical physics. If you’re not having trouble then you probably don’t really understand what’s going on. Many people seem not to have trouble, but I know from doing these interviews that if you ask them direct questions in ordinary language some can’t answer without jargon and mystification.

“A lot of professional philosophers lack the imagination required to think about what it’s like not to understand something. Some have got into a complacent habit of speaking to each other in a kind of technical language, which is almost at times the avoidance of doing philosophy. They’re part of a culture of people who always say the same things and make the same moves: just making finer and finer discriminations between whether they’re a particular kind of materialist or a particular kind of functionalist. People stake out little claims. When faced with the need to explain what they’re doing and why it should be of interest to anyone at all outside of that culture, many flounder.

“Not the best ones, interestingly. The really significant philosophers are able to explain with superb clarity precisely what it is that matters about a topic. Not just for others with similar interests but for anybody who might be concerned with philosophy at all. Weaker philosophers hide behind a series of coded nods and winks to each other. This often betrays a lack of clarity of thought.”

As he’s leaving his job I ask if he might now like to name a few of the weak ones he’s thinking about, but he rightly laughs and shakes his head. However, he’s willing to identify some of the philosophers who’ve most impressed him. Quentin Skinner, Philip Pettit, and Peter Singer are all praised for their minds and their humanity, as well as the ability to think on the fly and express themselves lucidly. He’s also discovered a new interest in classical philosophy as a result of talking to Angie Hobbs, M M McCabe, Melissa Lane, Martha Nussbaum and Myles Burnyeat. Being in the company of so many good philosophers has had a number of effects on him. Singer seems to have nudged him towards vegetarianism, but other changes run deeper.

“The best philosophers convey such an enthusiasm for thinking,” he says. “This has been wonderful for me on a personal level. My wife once described me as a vicar who’d lost his faith. I was in an awkward position as a lecturer because I didn’t feel completely committed to the academic world of philosophy. Meeting people who are both brilliant and enthusiastic about the subject has renewed my interest in it. It’s difficult to emerge unchanged from a conversation with someone who cares so much about the subject. It’s genuinely important to them. You catch philosophy from these people.”

Philosophers have a duty to pursue ideas which really matter to people, he argues. By his lights, there’s a revolution in higher education on the horizon, driven partly by the internet and the rise of massively open online courses, but also owed to a shift to open access journals, which might be scrutinised by philosophically-minded members of the general public, who, it turns out, are footing the bill. As research is publically funded, he says, philosophers had better learn to communicate in plain English and choose less obscure research topics.

But the argument for coming down from the clouds doesn’t just depend on funding, does it? “I’m sympathetic with Thomas Paine’s idea that each generation needs to renew and review the political system they find that they’ve inherited,” he says. “Philosophers are very well-placed to be critical participants about the nature of the democracy they’re living in, but very few respond to contemporary events. For instance today the big discussion is about gay marriage. It’s being discussed in Parliament. To my knowledge the only philosopher who’s made a significant contribution to the debate is Roger Scruton, publishing a bizarre document against gay marriage. I admire Scruton as a philosopher, I don’t agree with most of his conclusions, but there should be more voices than just his speaking about a debate as important as this.”

It’s certainly true that engaging in debates in the wider world will not do much for a professional philosopher’s career, certainly not compared to scoring a publication in a major journal. It’s just not considered doing real philosophy. “I’d be happy to have a debate with someone who thinks that, who does what I call ‘crossword puzzle philosophy’,” Warburton says, “just footnotes to footnotes. Is that real philosophy? Is that what Socrates did? Is that what Hume did? I don’t think so.

“Philosophers today have mostly got their heads down. They’re concerned with writing for a journal which will publish work that takes them two or three years, and only five people will read it. These are people who could be contributing to something that’s incredibly important. Gay marriage is just one example of many. I don’t think philosophers responded particularly well to 9/11. Issues about free expression, all over the world, are not just academic. They’re matters of life and death. There are exceptions, but philosophers are by and large more interested in getting a paper in Mind or Analysis than they are in commenting on the major political events of our time.”

Free speech is a topic that Warburton has explored as a philosopher, both in a podcast series and in print. So what does he think about free speech, particularly its limits? Does he agree with Voltaire’s slogan: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”?

“Actually nobody agrees with that,” he says. “To the death? I’m not going to defend to the death, literally to the death, David Irving’s right to deny the Holocaust. But I would fight quite hard for his freedom to express yourself, even if you are a bigot.”

Warburton argues that everyone thinks a line has to be drawn somewhere. No one is really in favour of entirely unconstrained speech. But where should we draw the line?

“I’m much more sympathetic to the American system where the presumption is for extensive freedom of expression, and there’s a reluctance to engage in prior restraint or shutting down artistic productions on the grounds that there is likely to be some sort of public disorder. In Britain there’s the exclusion zone around Parliament, the shutting down in Birmingham of Behtzi, the play that was thought to be offensive to Sikhs, and other such examples. We’ve had lots of cases where the establishment has been reluctant to defend freedom of expression.

“My view is that speech should be met with counter speech, not with suppression. Where suppression occurs the hydraulic model has something to be said for it as an explanation of what happens. It’s far better to have people expressing their thoughts, no matter how horrible they are, than their being gagged, and the energy coming out in some different form. That’s where violence comes from.

“Of course I’d draw the line at incitement to violence, certain sorts of pornography, plagiarism, false advertising, the disclosure of official secrets – there are all kinds of areas where I wouldn’t advocate complete freedom of expression.”

Is there some principle which puts all these things over the line?

“No. I think anyone who works in the area of freedom of expression realises the complexity and the changing nature of the debate. Prior to the internet certain sorts of assumptions about the means of access to public expression were part of that debate. But now anyone with an internet connection can create their own broadcasting platform online. The speed and reach of any pronouncement is now very different. It changes almost daily. So I don’t think simple principles will work. You have to take matters up on a case by case basis.

“If you’re going to curtail someone’s expression, as Mill recognised, it’s not just the words that they utter that matter. It’s the context and the meaning that gives to the words. Mill had this example of saying that corn dealers are starving the poor by charging a high price for corn. That’s fine in an editorial in a newspaper, but you can’t wave a placard with those words in front of an angry mob, because there that’s incitement to violence. Context determines the meaning. Yet the police in the UK prosecuted a man for a tweet about blowing up Robin Hood Airport, even though the context was his frustration at his girlfriend not being able to visit him because the airport was closed by snow. Context matters.”

We talk a little about harm, which, again thanks to Mill, is a large part of arguments for placing limits on free speech. In On Liberty, Mill writes: “the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others”. Many agree that incitement to violence ought to be curtailed when it is likely to result in physical harm, precisely because of the harm it could cause. But harder cases concern psychological harm. Should we ban language just because someone finds it offensive or psychologically harmful? It’s a question which comes up a lot, particularly when people take offense at claims made about their religion. If someone’s religious beliefs are held very dear, taken as a core part of their personality, then doesn’t it make sense to say that language they find offensive really does harm them, and that it should therefore be curtailed? What’s the best way for believers and non-believers to engage with one another given the possibility of this kind of harm? Does religion deserve special protection?

“The same might be true about someone who’s a racist too. If their fundamental core belief is that racism is true, I might attack the thing that’s most dear to them. It’s true of an atheist as well. It’s true of atheists I know. Religious bigots attacking atheism attack something that they hold dear and cherish as the most important aspect of their being. So this isn’t restricted to religious believers in any way.

“But it is true that you need to recognise that religious people are likely to react strongly if you challenge those beliefs. Pragmatically, negotiating boundaries, it may not be most effective to come out with all guns blazing as an atheist attacking Islam or Christianity. If you want to achieve some middle position you’re not going to achieve it by denigrating the other side. Some strident atheists have damaged the cause of atheism.

“What’s needed is the opportunity for discussion which respects the thinkers even if it doesn’t respect the beliefs. Often there’s a conflation between the thoughts and the thinkers. To some degree you can always recognise the humanity of another person – we’re all flawed and we all have some false beliefs – without making every discussion about religion a personal attack. I think it’s important that people like Richard Dawkins did adopt the kind of tone they did, because there was a lot of pussyfooting around, but now we can move into another phase where we can acknowledge the variety of religions and religious thinkers without caricaturing their positions.”

Warburton says he’s happy to see philosophy now being taught in schools, and he hopes it will one day encourage reasonable and serious discussion of not just religion but also a wide range of other issues. That’s largely where the value of philosophy lies for him. Not necessarily in getting at truths, but asking good questions, teasing out what we really think or ought to think, about subjects which make a difference to people.

He says that this kind of work just isn’t done in academic philosophy as it’s practiced today. Part of the problem has to do with “the cuckoo in the nest, the burgeoning managerial class” which he sees as getting in the way of philosophical thinking and teaching. Other trouble lies with departmental committees hiring people who are just like them, creating clusters of similar people with similar views. Just as with society at large, he says, diversity helps departments flourish, but often departmental members are all nearly carbon copies of one another. So in their work they end up trying to discriminate themselves from each other with more and more hair-splitting but ultimately uninteresting distinctions. He reserves particular venom for the REF, the Research Excellence Framework, a system of expert review which assesses research undertaken in UK higher education, which is then used to allocate future rounds of funding. A lot of it turns on the importance of research having a social, economic or cultural impact. It’s not exactly the sort of thing that philosophical reflection on, say, the nature of being qua being is likely to have. He leans into my recorder to make sure I get every word:

“One of the most disturbing things about academic philosophy today is the way that so many supposed gadflies and rebels in philosophy have just rolled over in the face of the REF – particularly by going along with the idea of measuring and quantifying impact,” he says, making inverted commas with his fingers, “a technical notion which was constructed for completely different disciplines. I’m not even sure what research means in philosophy. Philosophers are struggling to find ways of describing what they do as having impact as defined by people who don’t seem to appreciate what sort of things they do. This is absurd. Why are you wasting your time? Why aren’t you standing up and saying philosophy’s not like that? To think that funding in higher education in philosophy is going to be determined partly by people’s creative writing about how they have impact with their work. Just by entering into this you’ve compromised yourself as a philosopher. It’s not the kind of thing that Socrates did or that Hume did or that John Locke did. Locke may have had patrons, but he seemed to write what he thought rather than kowtowing to forces which are pushing on to us a certain vision, a certain view of what philosophical activities should be. Why are you doing this? I’m getting out. For those of you left in, how can you call yourselves philosophers? This isn’t what philosophy’s about.”

Yikes. If he’s right about our present, does he think philosophy is in for a grim future? How does he suggest we fix the current state of things? Can we fix it?

“It’s going to fix itself because universities are going to become less important. People who are sophisticated users of the Internet will find ways to communicate which may not require them to be part of universities anymore. Established universities may be overtaken by publishers and other providers of resources and connections entering the world of distance education. What’s stopping people now is that they want a bit of paper at the end of it that says they’ve got a degree. Socrates didn’t issue degrees, but it would have been wonderful to have been taught by him. I think we’re entering a time of contact with interesting people. It’s difficult to imagine what’s going to happen, because things happen so quickly.

“There are a lot of brilliant people in universities, but they have no idea what’s going to happen, what’s just around the corner. Disruptive technologies have a history of producing dramatic change very suddenly. So a lot of those people who think they’re surfing the new technology, keeping abreast of developments and thinking that nothing’s going to change – I believe they’re fundamentally wrong. People thought massively open online courses were just another kind of distance learning, but already they’re changing, evolving very quickly, people are finding new ways of interacting.

“Because of changes in online teaching, in the next ten years, the university system will be turned on its head. If Philosophy Bites can make such an impact with two guys with a hard disk recorder and a couple of laptops, think what people who fully understand the new technology, who can write code, who can employ the best philosophical communicators around, think what they could produce. It’s only just starting. We’re going to see dramatic changes to how we learn, teach, do research and share ideas. I think philosophy’s future’s very bright.”

James Garvey is editor of tpm and author, with Jeremy Stangroom, of The Story of Philosophy (Quercus, 2012).

Frank Jackson, latter day physicalist

Interview by James Garvey. This article appears in Issue 59 of The Philosophers’ Magazine. Please support TPM by subscribing.

Here is one of the best thought experiments in the whole of the philosophy of mind:

“Mary is a brilliant scientist who is, for whatever reason, forced to investigate the world from a black and white room via a black and white television monitor. She specialises in the neurophysiology of vision and acquires, let us suppose, all the physical information there is to obtain about what goes on when we see ripe tomatoes…. What will happen when Mary is released from her black and white room or is given a colour television monitor? Will she learn anything or not?”

Well, what do you think? Take your time, because there’s a lot at stake: nothing less than the fundamental metaphysical nature of the universe itself. And don’t worry if you’re not sure what to say, because apparently there’s a lot to be said. There are more than a thousand published papers, innumerable conferences, and even several books addressing the question of what Mary did or didn’t know.

It’s Frank Jackson’s knowledge argument, and it appeared in 1982 in a paper with the agreeably strange title, “Epiphenomenal Qualia”. Qualia are the potentially spooky features of some conscious states, the so-called raw feels of our experiences – the pangs of jealousy, the hurtfulness of pain, the redness of red, the tang of the taste of a lemon, and so on. Epiphenomalism is the view that at least some mental properties have no physical effects. As Thomas Huxley vividly put it, such properties don’t do anything in the physical world, just as “the steam whistle which accompanies the work of a locomotive engine is without influence upon its machinery”. So just knowing the paper’s title, you know Jackson is talking about a serious sort of dualism, the view that there’s more stuff in the world than just physical objects. And some of that stuff has no effects in the physical world. As Jackson put it in the article, it’s hard to buy into the view “without sounding like someone who believes in fairies”.

Nevertheless, it’s had an enormous impact. A bit of unscientific Googling turns up 2.5 million pages for “Frank Jackson’s Knowledge Argument”. Compare that, entirely unfairly, to “Immanuel Kant’s Transcendental Deduction”, which barely limps past half a million. Perhaps his argument’s power lies in the fact that it just grabs you by the collar and forces a choice on you. Did Mary learn something or not? That translates roughly to, well, pick one – dualism or physicalism?

If you think that Mary knew all the physical facts but learns something when she first sees red, then there’s more to know than just physical facts – by hypothesis, she had all those already. So if she learns something, physicalism is false, because it leaves out part of the world she discovers on experiencing red. Maybe it leaves out epiphenomenal qualia.

You can try to deny the existence of nonphysical properties, keep your physicalist credentials, and say she would have somehow already known all about red in her black and white room, despite having never seen it. If you’re a physicalist, knowing all the physical facts just is knowing everything there is to know, so she would learn nothing the first time she sees red. But that’s a stretch, isn’t it? As Jackson concludes in the original article, it “seems just obvious that she will learn something about the world and our visual experience of it. But then it is inescapable that her previous knowledge was incomplete. But she had all the physical information. Ergo there is more to have than that, and Physicalism is false.”

Remarkably, Jackson has since somehow talked himself out of it all. He now resolutely rejects dualism. I wonder how hard that must have been – getting international attention with a pretty impressive argument in favour of a minority view, fighting your corner with gusto, only to swap sides comprehensively some years later. But we start at the beginning, and I ask him to tell me the history of the argument. How did it come to him? Was it a Eureka moment in a bathtub or did it take ages to puzzle out? His reply starts with a generous proviso.

“Almost everything I’m going to say about that argument is based on hundreds, perhaps thousands of discussions with friends and colleagues. If this were an academic article it would be bristling with footnotes and acknowledgements. This is an interview, so I’m not going to give you lots of names.

“The knowledge argument or the Mary argument or the black and white room argument actually has a long history. In the original paper I wrote on it, I footnoted a bit of the history, and of course since then I’ve discovered its history was richer and longer. In fact there’s a little version of it in C D Broad and lots of other places.”

Broad certainly was thinking nearby, but instead of a brilliant neuroscientist, he goes on about mucous membranes and offers us the slightly uninspiring image of an archangel with a grip on chemistry and “the further power of perceiving the microscopic structure of atoms”. The creature would “know exactly what the microscopic structure of ammonia must be; but he would be totally unable to predict that a substance with this structure must smell as ammonia does when it gets into the human nose.” Not bad, but not Mary either.

“I would take credit for putting it forcefully and clearly,” Jackson says, “but I would like to say that of course the argument’s got a long history.” Fair enough, but, personally, what happened?

“I had been a dualist for years. I was taught by Michael Bradley, and he had some good arguments for dualism. I always thought it was a plausible view. As I say in the beginning of ‘Epiphenomenal Qualia’, we dualists don’t really need an argument to say that consciousness doesn’t fit into the physicalist world view. It’s just intuitively obvious. When you hunt for arguments you hunt for arguments that physicalists are going to have trouble resisting. I got a telephone call – this was before the days of email – from the psychology department at Monash University, asking me to give a lunchtime talk. They didn’t quite say it this way, but they sort of said we understand that you’re one of the few dualists left on the planet. Would you like to give a talk saying why? So I had to write something, something informal. And that was the first draft of ‘Epiphenomenal Qualia’. It seemed a bit of a waste not to do something with it, so I added in some stuff and made it longer. I wrote it reasonably quickly.” There’s a pause. He puts on a wistful face and stares off into the middle distance. “I was younger then.” He half-inhales an infectious, staccato laugh.

“The follow up article (‘What Mary Didn’t Know’) came about after Paul Churchland wrote a not terribly friendly piece about the knowledge argument. I thought it was a bit offhand. I didn’t worry about him saying he didn’t believe it, that’s fine, but he sort of suggested it was making some kind of elementary error which anyone could pick up. Not quite as bad as affirming the consequent but pretty bad all the same. That riled me slightly, and I regret to say the slight tone of irritation shows in the piece.” He actually says that with a slight tone of irritation. He looks a little riled now.

When I have another look at the papers I see what he means. It was never going to be particularly convivial. Who could possibly have less sympathy for dualism than Churchland? His view, eliminative materialism, has it that that our psychological categories might be eliminated by a mature neuroscience – beliefs, hopes, desires and so on might not map on to an empirically informed theory of the brain’s functions, so we might end up having to revise, even eliminate our everyday view about the mind. Like witchcraft and phlogiston, beliefs and desires might end up consigned to the conceptual scrapheap, once we get a grip on how the central nervous system really works. It’s about as materialist as materialism gets.

Churchland presents “a conveniently tightened version” of the knowledge argument, which in itself must have been a little exasperating for Jackson. (What? It wasn’t tight enough the first time around?) In one of Churchland’s reconstructed premises Mary knows about brains states, but in another she doesn’t know about sensations. Churchland argues that “the defect … is simplicity itself”. Jackson is equivocating, using “knows about” in two different ways, talking about two different kinds of knowledge, and this renders the argument invalid. Once you spot this, Churchland beams, the argument is “a clear non sequitur …. Such arguments show nothing”. God, he even has a bit of fun with a parallel argument about ectoplasm. It doesn’t quite call for pistols at dawn, but I can see how Churchland might be read as being dismissive of the misguided little dualist. Maybe Jackson did well to be merely riled.

In Jackson’s reply, he says with an audible huff that Churchland’s reformulation of the argument “may be convenient, but it is not accurate”. It’s not the kind of knowledge Mary has but what she knows that matters. He produces “a convenient and accurate” version of the argument which appears to sidestep Churchland’s objection.

“That’s the biographical background to it,” he continues. “Now, exactly why that particular version of the knowledge argument popped into my head – I do not know,” he says, genuinely mystified. Maybe he read Broad’s short argument many years earlier, and although he forgot about it, it might have exerted some unconscious influence. But he certainly had seen Thomas Nagel’s 1974 essay, “What is it like to be a bat?”, and maybe that did figure in somehow. There, Nagel writes about batty subjectivity – what it’s like to be a bat and experience a sonar image of the world – which he argues is only accessible to bats. He concludes that “it is a mystery how the true character of experiences could be revealed in the physical operation of that organism.” The conclusion is importantly different to Jackson’s: it’s not that physicalism is false, but that we can’t understand what it might mean to say that it’s true. Jackson says something of Nagel might have been on his mind, maybe he was trying to make a similar point without all of the complexity of Nagel’s piece.

Whatever the argument’s origins, it’s had an extraordinary history over the past 30 years – objections, replies, countless reformulations on behalf of well-wishers and hostile interpreters alike. As Jackson has authorial privilege, I ask him how he understands the argument. What’s his interpretation of it? What’s its real point?

“Although I now think it’s mistaken,” he begins, “the essential thought behind the argument is simply that when Mary has colour experiences, her conception of the kinds of properties that are instantiated in our world gets dramatically expanded. In theory it’s no different than coming across a new sort of animal. How many different sorts of dogs are there? People think they’ve gotten on top of it, but they turn the corner, and the see a completely different dog from any dog they’ve got on their inventory. So they enlarge their conception of how many kinds of dogs there are. What happens to Mary is that she has a certain view of what the world’s like, a black and white view, and all the stuff that comes to her from the physical sciences. And when she sees colour for the first time I think the plausible thing to say is that she gets an enlarged idea of what kinds of properties there are to be encountered in the world. She comes across new properties.”

When Jackson lays it out like that, crystal clear, it’s hard not to feel a certain insecurity about physicalism. What else can you say, except that Mary learns about a new part of the world when she sees colour for the first time? But Jackson is a latter day physicalist. How did he talk himself out of dualism?

“I’ve always thought that if you’re a dualist you should be up front about the metaphysics. And you should say, of course these properties are epiphenomenal. We know enough about the world to know that these extra properties which I believe in aren’t guiding my pen as I write the article saying qualia are left out of our physical picture of the world. In ‘Epiphenomenal Qualia’ I explain why it’s not such a disaster being an epiphenomenalist, but I came to think of this as a triumph of philosophical ingenuity over common sense. This is what someone who’s done a good philosophy degree can somehow make seem all right, but if you look at it in a more commonsensical way it’s actually pretty implausible. So the epiphenomenal stuff was just very hard to believe.

“For a while I was at the stage of people who say, there must be something wrong with the knowledge argument. It’s not obvious, despite the fact that some people jump up and down and say it’s obvious, because look at all these smart people giving quite different diagnoses of what’s wrong. That tells you it’s not obvious what’s wrong with it. I was in that situation, thinking there’s got to be something wrong with it but not sure what it was. And then I decided that the best way out is to think in representationalist terms about phenomenal experience. When you think in those terms, what you’re thinking is that when something looks red to you, don’t think of that as a relationship between you and an instance of some special property. Think of it as representing things as being a certain way. You don’t think of it in relational terms, you think in propositional terms, as a kind of intentional state.

“When you think in those terms, it’s a mistake to wonder where the special redness is. What you have to ask yourself is, when something looks red, how am I representing the world to be? And if you’re convinced that you’re representing the world such that it has some special property outside the physical picture of the world, and you think physicalism is plausible, then of course you think it’s a case of false representation. Then you better have some story about how looking red represents things to be, and what that to be is, and how it can be found in a physical picture of what the world’s like.”

That actually helps break the spell a little. Maybe it’s a mistake to think of Mary as bumping into a new thing, like turning the corner and seeing a new kind of dog. Instead, she’s got a representation of how things are. But how do representations work, on this view? What is it to see red if it’s not to be in a relation with something red?

“When I’m talking about representation I’m talking about a state where you’re invited to have a certain view about how things are. Of course you may reject it. When you have those famous perceptual illusions, and you know they’re illusions, you’re in a state which invites you to think that some line is curved. You know perfectly well it’s not curved. Nevertheless you’re in a state which sort of says to you, ‘This is the way things are! This is the way things are!’ That’s what I mean by a representation. So when something looks red, I think you’re in a state which almost shouts at you, ‘This object has a really striking surface property!’ The experience of something’s looking red doesn’t say something about you. It says something about the object. Dispositional theories are theories that say in one way or another that we should think of colour as a relation between you and the object. But I think that when something looks red, you’re representing the way it is, not the way you are.”

I’m still not sure I see exactly how a shift to representationalism gets us clear of trouble with Mary. I ask Jackson for his new, physicalist answer to the question posed by his former dualist self: does Mary learn something or not? He takes a deep breath – I get the feeling he’s spent more time thinking about this question than just about anyone else. It turns out that the physicalist has not one, but two ways out.

“Looking red I think is clearly a representational state. I think the idea that perceptual states in general are representational states is extremely plausible. If you think that and you’re a physicalist what you have to say is, right, Mary clearly enters a new representational state when she leaves the room. That should be common ground. If you’re a physicalist, then you’ve got two things to say. You’re either going to say, why doesn’t she get new knowledge? Well, she already had it. If she already had it then you have to answer the question, what property do her newer experiences represent things as having which she knew about in the room? Maybe she didn’t know about it under the name ‘red’, but if she’s in a new representational state, and things are as they’re being represented to be, and she doesn’t learn anything new about the world, you need to give an answer to what looking red represents things as being, where the content of the representation can be expressed in physical terms. Alternatively, you can say it’s a false representation. Colour is an illusion. You have to say one or the other.”

This seems to be about as far as Jackson cares to go outside the black and white room. Once there’s an escape route, he seems satisfied to leave it at that. I ask him which course he takes. If it’s a new representation, how does he understand it? If seeing the red of the rose is an illusion, what’s illusory about it?

“On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays I go for the illusion view,” he laughs, “the other days I say, what she’s representing is certain complex similarity and difference relationships between the light accessible properties of objects. Now she doesn’t know what properties stand in those similarity relations, it’s up to optical science to tell us what they are, but when something looks red, it’s represented as being strikingly similar to blood and strikingly different from the sky, as being more similar to pink things than to black things, as having a property of grabbing your attention in a distinctive way, a way in which dark blue does not, etc, etc, etc.

“But if we do the physics we may not find that the properties of the surfaces stand in these similarity relations. Well, in that case I’d be an eliminativist. I think we’d have to say, right, colour is an illusion, a very useful illusion, but an illusion all the same.” So for Jackson it really could still go either way – “but that’s mostly a matter for physics, not philosophy.”

That thought about science brings us neatly to another point against physicalism made by Jackson in his dualist days. Physicalism is an extraordinarily optimistic view of our mental capacities – in principle, we’ve pretty much got a grip on all that there is, the physical stuff that makes up our world, and we’re on our way to understanding it. But if our understanding is shaped by the need to survive – our brain is an evolved thing, after all – isn’t it likely that there are vast parts of the universe that we’ll never get a grip on, just because it never mattered in our evolutionary history? Doesn’t this suggest that physicalism almost certainly leaves some of the universe out? Maybe the mental side of us or some part of it?

Dualist Jackson once made the point by imagining sea slugs burbling around in our deepest oceans – perhaps they evolved rationality and developed sciences, suitably restricted compared to ours, given their limited environment, but sciences that work pretty well for them where they are. They have philosophers too: tough-minded slugists who say that the restricted terms of their science can explain everything there is, and soft-minded slugists who suspect there may be some mysterious residue left out by slug science. With a richer grasp of the world and a larger science, we can see where the tough-minded slugists go wrong. But of course a being with a more comprehensive grip on things might make human physicalists look just like slugists. We could be making the tough-minded slugists’ mistake. Maybe some part of the mind lies beyond the reach of physicalism, just as parts of the world are beyond the slug’s view. Does he still have some sympathy with the humility of his earlier reflections, despite his conversion to physicalism?

“Yes I do. There’s a position I call Kantian physicalism. What it says is this. Isn’t it common sense that there are things that we don’t know about the world? Even the most enthusiastic physicalist has to say there are gaps in our knowledge. It’s at least plausible that it goes much beyond that – it’s not just that there are problems in quantum mechanics. It might be that there’s a whole range of properties that we don’t and can’t know about because they don’t impinge on us. Or if they do they impinge on us in a way that has no relevance to survival, so we didn’t evolve in such a way that we can pick them up. Isn’t that right?

“What the Kantian physicalist says is, yes, that is right. But those properties don’t matter for mentality. In other words, if you took a world just like this, duplicated it in all the physical respects, but changed its fundamental nature in all sorts of dramatic ways, the pains would hurt just as much. You’d be screaming just as loud, you’d be pleading for the surgeon to stop operating without anaesthetic. So the mental side of things, the phenomenal side of things would be unaltered.

“There’s an interesting paper by David Lewis called ‘Ramseyan Humility’. You would think of Lewis as being the paradigmatic physicalist, and certainly in his earlier writings that’s what you get. But in this paper he suggests there might be a whole range of properties we can’t know about, because permuting them doesn’t make any difference at the level in which we interact with the world. It’s a bit like that thought experiment: maybe there’s a matter version of our world, and an antimatter version, and there are duplicates of you and me, but one’s made of matter and the other’s made of antimatter. You can’t know whether we’re in the matter world or the antimatter one. There’s a whole range of things you can’t know. Imagine these duplication cases, where you duplicate the world physically, but change all the rest of the stuff – our conversation would go exactly the same way. Quine still writes ‘Two Dogmas of Empiricism’, or maybe it’s Quine2 in the duplicate world, but the words on the page are exactly the same. The same number of people agrees with it, the same number of people disagrees with it.

“The slugists were wrong. They thought that they knew more than they do in fact know. But as far as mentality goes, the physicalist can say that the physical story is enough for mentality.”

I take the point that a physicalist can be humble, but I’m still left with doubts about Mary. In the end, somehow, I don’t entirely buy Jackson’s new reply to that old question: does she learn anything or not? I’m still back where he was some years ago – I’ve got the feeling something’s wrong with the argument, but I don’t know what it is.

Maybe the long representationalist story is right, but somehow it just doesn’t quite fit the simple, elegant question raised by Mary seeing red for the first time. The part of me in favour of parsimony would very much like a simple answer to a simple question. It’s ingenious, all that talk about representing complex similarity and difference relationships between the light accessible properties of objects. I wouldn’t go so far to say it seems ad hoc, but it does feel a little contorted, an unnatural stance taken up to squeeze out of the tangle of the knowledge argument. And maybe that long story works with seeing red – I think Jackson is right to say that perceptual states are essentially representational – but I’m left wondering about other states with qualitative feels that don’t obviously represent anything. What is this pang of regret supposed to represent? My stupid decision to study philosophy when I could have been a well-heeled lawyer instead?

Jackson might have talked himself out of the knowledge argument’s conclusion, but I still don’t know. I’m no dualist, but there’s something about Mary.

James Garvey is editor of The Philosophers’ Magazine and author, with Jeremy Stangroom, of The Story of Philosophy (Quercus, 2012).

Thank goodness for Dan

Julian Baggini meets the least apocalyptic of the four horsemen, Daniel Dennett

Conquest, war, famine and death. It’s an interesting parlour game to decide which of the new atheism’s “four horsemen” – Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens – best corresponds to their apocalyptic namesakes. More than one is combative, and more than one seeks to conquer religion once and for all, if not to kill it. Less charitably, you might also say that at times, some have a rather malnourished understanding of what religion actually is.

The game lacks a credible conclusion though, because at least one horseman just won’t fit the eschatological mould. Dan Dennett is certainly capable of pugnacious argument, but he’s more of a wrestler than a boxer, a person who truly grapples with his opponent, even as he tries to get them in a headlock and slam them to the floor.

That’s why his major contribution to the recent new atheism debate, his book Breaking the Spell, is often hailed as the most thoughtful and intelligent. Dennett acknowledges the differences, but is at pains to defend those who take a different approach.

“I don’t object to being lumped in with the others. I don’t think, well, I was doing it the moral way and they were doing it the immoral way, or I was doing it the politic way, they were doing it the impolitic way. I don’t think that’s right. I think we all adopted slightly different but defensible strategies. All four approaches are necessary because there are different people out there, different audiences that have to be reached.”

Breaking the Spell‘s central argument is not that religion is wrong or wicked, but that we should study it just as we do any other aspect of the natural world. It should not be in a kind of protected zone, ring-fenced by excessive respect. Having thus opened up religion, Dennett neither tries to be offensive nor shy away from saying things he know will offend some. His strategy is simply to avoid giving anyone an excuse to use that offence as a reason not to engage with his arguments.

“I thought people were still going to throw the book across the room, but I didn’t want to give them an excuse to throw the book across the room. I wanted them to feel a little bit bad about their throwing it across the room, maybe go and retrieve it and think well, hang on, yes, this irritated me but maybe I don’t have the right to be irritated. I doubt that sentiment would occur to somebody who threw Christopher’s or Richard’s book across the room. That’s alright, because there are different spectra of responsiveness out there and you want to cover the bases. For some people I think the shot across the bows from Christopher Hitchens is exactly what they need, what they deserve.

“Let’s take the group that you might think were my natural audience. These are thoughtful, well-meaning, say, Christians, who are believers, are church-goers, who think everything they’re doing is just wonderful. They think religion is good, they know there are some problems, but not for their church, not for their way of being religious. So you might think my book is ideal for them in that I am respectful and get them gently to think about some of the things. But I think it’s very important for them also to read Christopher Hitchens’s book and realise just how bad things are out there in some areas, and see that this man, somebody who knows so much about it, is this angry, and that’s an important fact.”

Dennett goes further, defending his fellow horsemen against the charge that they are rude or intemperate.

“I listen to all these complaints about rudeness and intemperateness, and the opinion that I come to is that there is no polite way of asking somebody: have you considered the possibility that your entire life has been devoted to a delusion? But that’s a good question to ask. Of course we should ask that question and of course it’s going to offend people. Tough.”

Still, isn’t it the case that you can choose your words carefully? Telling someone their faith is mistaken is one thing, saying it’s a delusion quite another.

”Well let’s compare it to some other cases. Think of how horrible it would be to have to go around and tell people they had been taken in by Bernie Madoff. Think of the pain of learning that you’ve been made a complete fool of by Bernie Madoff. Do we have to tell those people? Yes. Do we really? Well, yeah, they’ve lost everything and we have to tell them and no matter how we tell them they’re going to feel rotten. Now why isn’t it like that?”

Because in the Bernie Madoff case, they can’t hide from the facts, they’re going to find out eventually that they haven’t got their money any more. In the case of a religion you have a job of persuasion to do, presumably so believers can moderate their views or give them up. If you say to somebody, you basically believe things which no sensible, objective rational person could possibly believe, I don’t think you’re going to get as far as if you say, look, I can see you’re committed to truth, take a look at your view as truthfully as you can. Now, can’t you see this, this and this? That seems to be the approach Dennett takes.

“Well, yeah, fair enough. I think a better parallel would be what if we could have gone round to Bernie Madoff’s clients beforehand, before the dénouement. There was that accountant who was desperately trying to get the Security and Exchange Commission to blow the whistle. He wasn’t going round talking to individual clients and if he had it would have been extremely painful and they would have probably kicked him out of the house. How should he have approached them? With a sort of brusque wake-up wake-up you’re being made a fool of, or gentle-gentle-gentle? It’s not clear. Some people need a pail of cold water in the face and some people need very gentle treatment.”

But the balance at the moment seems to me to be too far tilted on the side of the bucket of water, and people saying “you’re a deluded fool who’s been taken in by something no sensible person should be taken in by if they looked at the evidence for five minutes,” is not going to be as conducive as saying, “it’s perfectly understandable to be taken in by this but actually, it is a mistake and let me show you why.” I think that the second approach is surely, most of the time, a more constructive one than the other.

“Well, I think that’s right and I think maybe in a way that’s what I was trying to do. But what’s the downside of doing it my way? The downside of doing it my way is failing to galvanise people at all – then it’s a failure.”

The fear I have, as a fellow traveller, is the perception people now have of atheists is the one I thought we were trying to shake off, which is that atheists are very, very self-confident, virulently anti-religious people, who don’t have anything to do in the mornings unless they can wake up and bash a bishop or two, metaphorically. This is not just a tactical matter: there’s also a kind of lack of integrity about it. There’s something inappropriate about an atheist having too much self-confidence in their own ability to see the truth through reason. If you have a commitment to reason, and Hume is one of your great heroes – as he is for many atheists ­– the first thing you know about reason is that it’s fragile thing. Also, you learn just a tiny bit of psychology and you recognise how easy it is for us to co-opt reason to justify what we already think. Given that, isn’t there too much of a desire on the side of atheists to claim reason for themselves and trust they are fully fit to use it?

“Well, since I’ve just debated Alvin Plantinga [the leading Christian philosopher] at the APA meeting in Chicago, you’re not going to find me very sympathetic to this line, because I find the presumption of reasonableness in his work and the other philosophers of religion to be unimpressive, I’ve got to say.”

Or, in a formulation Dennett endorses, you can take the principle of charity too far.

Another criticism of the new atheism is that it places too much stress on the metaphysics. In other words, many find it quite straightforward to show that the traditional religious metaphysics is nonsense, there are no souls, no heaven and so forth. But isn’t it mistaken to think that, once you’ve established that, religion is blown out of the water? Isn’t it the case that actually, in a way, such beliefs may not even be the most important thing about religion?

“I think that’s exactly right. That’s why I spend so little time on the metaphysics. I deliberately spent hardly any time at all on whether there were any good arguments for the existence of God. Fortunately, Richard spent a lot of time on that and I endorsed what he had to say pretty much down the line and it saved me the trouble.

“I talk to religious people and almost everyone I talked to said it wasn’t about proof or disproof in the belief in God. It wasn’t about dogma at all. I took them at their word, I thought that was right. What it was about was, as I call it, belief-in-belief. And that is what it is about: the behaviours, the professing, the going through the motions – that’s what’s interesting, that people still want to do that. Why they do want to do that is not clear, that’s what we have to find out, but we’re certainly looking in the wrong place if we look at arguments for or against of one kind of god or another. I think that’s missing the point entirely.”

But is it belief-in-belief as much as belief in praxis: the life of religion, rather than the thought? That’s what a lot of intellectuals who want to defend religion have argued recently, most publicly and repeatedly, Karen Armstrong.

“That’s a very sophisticated view and it may be too sophisticated by half. It only works so long as there are some people who still really believe in it. If it’s all just praxis, if we’re all just going through the motions, then something’s been lost.

“Last night we were talking about saying Latin grace at high table at an Oxford College. It’s a charming old ritual – that’s all it is. I think we could welcome the evaporation of all the dogmatic steam out of religion, so we were just left with the ritualistic shells. That would be a good thing. But if that happened, then of course the question is, would the ritualistic shells still do the work of binding together communities, and I think it would, actually. I think people may take an oath before they testify and it works, I think it’s important. I don’t think it has anything to do with believing in God, or believing that the book you’re putting your hand on is anything but just a prop. When people say their wedding vows, when they go through graduation ceremonies and commencement exercises, I think all of these ceremonies work without there having to be any real dogma behind them. They are auspicious occasions, they’re formal, they’re official, and I think that the behaviour enjoined at them, the fact that you are not supposed to be flippant, that you’re supposed to be respectful, take it seriously, this is all important.”

But with religion, isn’t it inevitably going to be the case that if you have these rituals, people are going to end up believing them? Pascal famously advocated just getting on with being religious as the best way to end up sincerely believing it. Only the most self-conscious and cerebral are going to be able to have this “it’s just a ritual” thing in their heads.

“Yeah, I’ve just written about this in a review of Owen Flanagan’s new book, which I admire a great deal. He’s a former choir boy, he had a Catholic upbringing and he loves all the Catholic rituals, and he doesn’t believe a word of it, of course. He draws a distinction – which I don’t buy or I’m very worried about – between two kinds of saying: saying it and meaning it, and just saying it in a ceremonial context. He says it’s ok if you say these things in the ceremonial context: that’s defensible in a way in that asserting these things is not. That’s all very well, but, as I point out in the review, what about the naive people, what about the children? They don’t grasp that distinction and you’re not going to tell them the distinction. The minister isn’t going to say ‘Oh by the way, everything I say this morning from this pulpit has got to be understood as in a ceremonial context.’ No, you don’t say that, and I think since you’re not prepared to say that, it isn’t, in fact, entirely defensible.”

There’s a baby and bathwater question too. Surely there are going to be real losses as well as gains in giving up religion. There are certain things which are good and for which there is a very natural mode of expression in religion, and rather less natural modes of expression of them in atheism. Ron Aronson, for instance, has written very eloquently about gratitude. If you look at the secularised culture we have, it seems that with the loss of religious rituals, rituals of grace and prayer, there is more of a sense of entitlement, less of a sense of gratitude. Don’t we have to be very careful when we reject religion that we don’t chuck out the things that are good about it?

“I think that’s true, I think that’s right. Did you see my piece after my heart operation, a piece called ‘Thank Goodness!’? This was after I had a heart operation where I nearly died, and people were wondering whether I’d had any epiphanies, and I said that I did: that when I say ‘thank goodness’ that’s not just a euphemism for ‘thank God’: I really mean it, I mean thank goodness. I’m very grateful. There’s a lot of goodness around me that my continued existence depended on very definitely and God didn’t have anything to do with it. It’s people and institutions, there’s medicine and science, and particular doctors and nurses and hospitals and friends and family and I’m very grateful for them.

“I suppose my favourite line in it was when I said I excused those who said they prayed for me and I resisted the temptation to say, ‘well thank you very much but did you also sacrifice a goat?’ Because did you think that the praying was any more efficacious than sacrificing a goat or any less preposterous? I don’t. You’re saying you prayed for me and I understand you said that with good intention, but if you really wanted to help, there were other things you could have done and the delusion that this somehow helped, I reject that.’”

He may be miscast as an apocalyptic horseman, but Dennett is clearly no avuncular tame atheist either. In a debate hampered by lack of respect or far too much of the unearned variety, Dennett gives as much as is due, and no more.

Julian Baggini is editor of tpm and author of Atheism (Oxford University Press/Sterling Press)

The thick of it

Michael Sandel tells Julian Baggini why he wants a more faith-friendly politics

2009 was a breakthrough year for Michael Sandel. The Harvard political philosopher has been at the top of his profession ever since the publication of his ground-breaking Liberalism and the Limits of Justice in 1982. 27 years later, the public spotlight finally fell where the academic one had long been shining. First, he delivered the BBC’s Reith lectures on “A new citizenship” to a global audience of millions. Then videos of his legendary Harvard lectures on justice were put on line, free for anyone to watch. Then the book based on the lectures, Justice, was published for a general readership.

“I have not found it to be a difficult transition,” he says of the move from seminar room to BBC studio, “because I basically approach teaching in the classroom pretty much in the same way that I approach the Reith lectures or other attempts to present philosophical ideas to the general public, which is to use concrete examples to illustrate abstract philosophical themes. That can be a very useful way of drawing people into what would otherwise be abstract and sometime daunting philosophical questions.

“The book goes further in using anecdotes and stories to illustrate the philosophical points. The class includes more references to the texts of the philosophers.”

Sandel’s philosophy is usually filed under “communitarianism”, but like many –isms, the label can mislead more than it informs. In this case, the problem is that that the root word – community – says something important about the consequences of his thinking, but it’s not what is really fundamental to it. It is true that Sandel ends up questioning classical liberalism’s emphasis on the free individual, stressing instead the claims of society, family and culture. But this all springs from a very specific theoretical critique of the basis of liberalism.

“The view that I have criticised,” he says, “is the idea of the priority of the right over the good, by which I mean the idea that it is possible to define and to defend principles of justice without reference to substantive conceptions of the good life, or what Rawls calls comprehensive moral conceptions. Liberal public reason as articulated by Rawls – which I think is the most powerful version of liberal public reason – maintains that our comprehensive moral convictions, religious or not, should not be the basis of law, should not be the basis of principles of justice.”

According to Sandel, it is neither possible nor desirable to formulate principles of justice in this putatively neutral way. It’s not just the familiar objection that liberalism is not truly neutral: “Kant and Rawls are by no means moral relativists. Rawls does not maintain that law can or should be neutral with respect to justice.” Sandel’s point is that competing conceptions of the good cannot be removed from almost all significant political issues.

“Take the debate over same-sex marriage. Is it a legitimate part of that debate to ask about what sorts of unions and relationships and family units are worthy of being honoured and recognised by the political community? That question about what ways of life are worthy of being affirmed by the political community as a whole requires competing accounts of what the good life consists in and what family units and forms of relationship are morally admirable such that the state should recognise them. That’s one way of approaching that question, and I think that’s a necessary and desirable way of approaching the same-sex marriage debate.

“Another view would say, no, how best to live, what sorts of family units or relations are worthy of being affirmed and honoured by the state – that takes us into contested conceptions of the good life. Therefore we should simply try to decide that question based on the morally neutral categories – at least neutral with respect to the good life – of non-discrimination and respecting autonomy.

“I don’t really think we can resolve the same-sex marriage question without coming to grips with questions about what is the moral purpose of marriage, what forms of union are worthy of affirmation and recognition and honour by society, and that takes us into questions of the good life, into what Rawls calls comprehensive moral views.

“Some say those should be bracketed, but I think we can’t resolve the same-sex marriage question based on autonomy, rights and equal respect for persons alone. That would be the issue, so it doesn’t depend on religion necessarily. The broader question on the debate over liberal public reason and what should be its constraints is a debate about whether conceptions of the good life – comprehensive moral conceptions – should figure.”

Although that may sound very reasonable, secularists get nervous when they start to consider how that might entail a greater role for religion in public life. A cornerstone of secular thinking has been the idea that people are supposed to leave their religious commitments at the door when they engage in public deliberation.

I put it to Sandel that it may be true that the secular ideal has been pursued too zealously in recent years, with it becoming a taboo for people even to acknowledge their religious beliefs. Nevertheless, isn’t it still very important, even if we do need to talk about values in the political sphere, that we do so in ways which are still as neutral possible? The public debate about values must not be couched in terms which are specific to any particular commitments we have with regards to a religious or even a humanist ethic. There are different conceptions of the good life, so isn’t it important that we don’t bring our thicker conceptions of the good life to the public square?

“No, that’s exactly what I disagree with. I think that it’s often not possible to leave our substantive moral and religious conceptions out of public deliberation, and even where it’s possible it may not be desirable, because it can make for an impoverished form of democratic deliberation. I am in favour of a more morally substantive and robust public deliberation and also for a more faith-friendly public sphere. I would not require anyone to leave his or her moral religious convictions at the door before entering public deliberation.”

But how do we go about this deliberation? Let’s say we’re discussing a very controversial issue, abortion, for example. It seems to me that if someone brings, say, a Roman Catholic conviction to that, and their starting point is that the teachings of the church are such that this is a human life and it’s sinful to end it, there’s no longer any possibility of discussion.

“Well take the example of the abortion debate. Can we really decide whether or not abortion should be permitted without taking a view about the moral status of the developing foetus? It seems to be inconceivable. Now I am not in favour of banning abortion and yet I don’t think I can hold the permissive view that I do unless I come to the conclusion, on moral reflection, that taking the life of a developing foetus at a particular stage is not morally the same as killing a person. If I did believe that then I think in good conscience I would have to favour banning abortion, for the same reason that we ban murder.

“Likewise the debate of embryonic stem cell research. I’m in favour of permitting and funding embryonic stem cell research and I came to this conclusion engaging in fairly extensive discussions and deliberations when I served on the President’s Council on Bioethics in the United States. I hadn’t really thought about this question before I became involved in those deliberations. There were participants in those deliberations who came from a strong natural law position that viewed even the earliest embryo as morally equivalent to a person and we had extensive arguments and debates about that view, notwithstanding the fact that for a number of people in the discussion their view was shaped by a moral tradition rooted in Catholic moral teaching, and yet we were perfectly capable of having sustained argument and deliberation about that question.”

That was true presumably because the commission’s members were able to offer reasons which weren’t simply “this is what my religion says” or “this is what the Bible says”. It’s one thing to acknowledge that people’s values are shaped very much by their personal convictions and they shouldn’t have to hide them, but isn’t it still necessary for what Amartya Sen calls “public reason” that when we come together to debate, everyone has a duty whenever possible to offer reasons that have purchase for all, not just some?

“Of course people should offer reasons when engaged in public deliberation. What else would public deliberation consist of, if not offering reasons? The question is, what sorts of reasons are relevant? And I think it’s a caricature of arguments that may derive from faith traditions to assume that they always and only take the form of dogmatic assertion or invocation of scripture or revelation. There are rich traditions of reason-giving moral discourse internal to the various faith traditions: Christian, Jewish – The Talmudic tradition – Confucian, Islamic. So of course it’s true that some adherents of religious faiths offer dogmatic assertion rather than reasoned argument, but that’s not unique to those who come from faith traditions. They have no monopoly on dogma. Public discourse is rife with dogmatic assertions, unreasoned assertions, that come from purely secular sources. So I think the distinction we should make is that public deliberation and arguments about justice should be reasoned and should not involve dogmatic assertion. But the distinction between reasoned and dogmatic public deliberation does not correspond to the distinction between public deliberation that draws on religious sources and public deliberation which is purely secular. I think that’s an entirely false analogy.”

Another liberal shibboleth that Sandel attacks is the idea of the “unencumbered self”. What he means by this is that liberalism tends to assume that individuals can and should make free choices in some way that transcends their contingent and historical roots in societies, religions, families and cultures. In some weak sense, most people, liberals included, accept that we are all “situated selves”, products of time and place. The difficult question is the extent to which that brings with it certain responsibilities or duties. Liberals fear that communitarians suggest that mere membership gives you obligations to a group, whether you want to accept them or not. Sandel, however, rejects this characterisation of his position.

“Blind faith and obedience to a family or to a community or a country is not a proper basis for moral and political obligation. So if by mere membership you mean blind faith – my country right or wrong – of course that sort of blind faith cannot be the source of any moral or political obligation. The question is whether all moral and political obligations are the product of our will, or whether there is a category of moral and political obligation – call it obligations of solidarity or membership – that derive in part from the common histories and traditions that constitute our identities.

“I argue in the book for there being obligations of solidarity and membership that are not strictly the products of will. That’s the real issue: are all obligations the products of will? And then the question would be, the will of what sort of willing subject? I think in so far as we’re partly constituted by the narratives of our life histories, moral obligations are not only willed but they are partly discovered, or interpreted. So figuring out the meaning of the narrative that constitutes our lives is an interpretative matter, which is why blind faith or blind allegiance would not capture the idea. But a reflective solidarity that flows from a critical interpretation of my history, my past, my family, my people, my country, I think is indispensable to making sense of any solidarities that we recognise, including patriotism, including the obligations of citizenship, to say nothing of the obligations to one’s family.”

But doesn’t this way of thinking commit a version of the genetic fallacy: a confusion of origins with justification? The fact that the origins of a lot of our obligations are in unwilled facts of community, family and so forth, is surely not what actually justifies them as commitments and obligations. One could accept that a lot of these things have their origins in unchosen, unwilled facts, but still insist that nevertheless there always has to be an act of will or assent.

“Well I wouldn’t equate reflection with will. They’re two different faculties. Reflection involves an interpretative dimension. It’s not strictly a legislative, voluntarist capacity. When I’m interpreting the meaning of a text, or a story, or a legal document, I’m not exercising my will, and yet I’m not being a slavish conformist either. I’m exercising a critical faculty. In that sense I’m bringing reason to bear. But when I arrive at what I take to be the best interpretation of a story, or a legal text, or of one’s life, the interpretation is reasoned, I think it make best overall sense of the text, but that’s different from saying I’m willing that this be the next chapter in the story, that this is the best way of reading. It’s not a faculty of will.”

So it’s not will, but judgement. But with that judgement comes the possibility to opt out, to not accept. We could think of examples where to do that would just be objectively wrong. If you’re brought up well by a loving family, and you reflect on that, and you think that doesn’t give you any obligations to them at all, there’s something wrong with your judgement. But in a lot of other cases, the extent to which you’re obligated to continue to act in certain way, to choose a certain life, to have a certain loyalty – there’s certainly a lot of scope, isn’t there?

“Well there is scope for judgement, but I think it’s a mistake to translate all judgement into the exercise of will.”

But one needn’t translate all exercise of judgement into the exercise of will simply to say that choice has a proper place. Isn’t it important that people should be able – not egregiously, not for no reason – to opt out of things they have been born into?

“Yes, right, of course. I’m not saying that to recognise obligations of solidarity, to recognise the interpretive dimension of moral reflection, to be a reflectively situated self – none of that in my view involves blind obedience. It may be that sometimes the obligations of solidarity require dissent. Take the Americans who protested against the Vietnam war. Some people said they are in virtue of their protest unpatriotic. Others would say, and I would agree, when one’s people or country are engaged in an injustice, dissent can be required not only out of an abstract commitment to justice, but also an added responsibility to protest, let’s say, an unjust war being fought in my name. A conscientious Swede could oppose the Vietnam war on the grounds of its injustice but only an American could protest the Vietnam War out of a special obligation to take responsibility for injustices carried out in one’s name. The Swede could disapprove of the war but only an American could feel ashamed of it, and that presupposes that there are obligations of solidarity, that we are situated selves.”

Although in close-up, Sandel’s dispute with liberals is based on clear and real differences, pan back a little and it can look like a very local dispute within the broad church of western liberalism. There seems to be a lot of continuity, for instance, between the kind of society Sandel would like and the kind of society advocated by John Rawls.

“Oh yes, there is a great deal,” agrees Sandel. “And I admire and agree with John Rawls’s arguments for equality or for a greater measure of equality than prevails in most of our societies; and I agree very much with the egalitarian spirit of the difference principle.”

Nevertheless, Sandel does think that the differences between his position and the Rawlsian alternatives do make an important difference politically as well as philosophically.

“One reason I think it’s important to be willing to engage in public deliberation about justice with conceptions of the good life is that I think otherwise we – in particular those who think of themselves as progressives – are ill-equipped to mount an effective critique of the increasing role of markets in spheres of life traditionally governed by non-market norms. When John Rawls wrote A Theory of Justice, 1971, the main questions of justice facing the US and also many of the western democracies, really had to do with the debate over the welfare state, and the tension as it was perceived between liberty and equality. And he was also reacting, and I think he reacted very powerfully and successfully, against the dominant utilitarian tradition in moral philosophy.

“But today, markets have begun to reach into spheres of life traditionally governed by non-market norms: health, education, security and a great many others. In so far as there is something morally troubling about that development, one could say, well, if markets govern all sorts of spheres, including reproduction, family life, health, education and so on, people who lack money will be at a disadvantage and may be coerced by economic necessity and that is a reason to worry about markets run amuck, about rampant commodification. But one could satisfy that worry by fixing the background conditions within which markets operate, by creating more egalitarian basic structures, so that the exchanges people make within those structures are not coerced by economic necessity. That would address the liberal objection to some exploitative aspects of the market.

“But there is another objection to markets reaching in to certain spheres of life, which is the crowding out of non-market norms that may be valuable. For example, if we pay children, as some school districts now do, a certain amount of money for each book they read, the goal is worthy – to get them to read more – but the effect is to crowd out non-market values like cultivating the love of learning, the love of reading. Likewise in debates about organ sales or paid pregnancy and commercial surrogacy, which is now a global business.

“So the question, it seems to me, we have to ask about commodification, so far as we worry about it, is: does marketising a good or a social practice crowd out non-market norms, and if so, does that represent a loss? And we can only address that kind of question if we ask, are those norms part of an important human good or social good? We can only ask that question about commodification if we are prepared to bring in admittedly contested conceptions of the good, and not simply concern ourselves with whether the background conditions of society are fair.”

Although many fear that bringing competing conceptions of the good into the political sphere will increase tensions by emphasising differences, Sandel believe that it is a liberal illusion to think that by keeping politics as neutral as possible, we can smooth over the deep differences in the fundamental values of citizens.

“I think the idea in the back of our heads that there could be a frictionless public sphere actually is destructive of democratic deliberation, because when we force underground or sweep under the rug some of the deepest substantive moral views that people have and claim that we’ve been neutral, that over time generates resentment, cynicism and a sense that people have been dealt with in bad faith, that their views have not been taken seriously. So I think a better way to a tolerant society is not to avoid but rather to engage with competing and conflicting conceptions of the good life that citizens bring to public life.”

In that sense, Sandel explictly comes not to unite, but to divide.

“I’m not suggesting that we need to agree or that we should aim at consensus. I agree with Stuart Hampshire that politics is a messy business involving competing conceptions of the good. My point is precisely that: in reasoning about justice we can’t expect to reach consensus or agreement. What the goal should be is to come as close as we can to achieving a just society. In democratic societies that means deliberating about justice and rights and the common good. If there were a way of carrying on those debates that was neutral with respect to competing conceptions of the good life, one might argue that it would be safer. But I don’t think that for most of the questions of justice that we confront it is possible to be neutral with respect to competing conceptions of the good life. The fact that this conclusion consigns us to messy politics, contentious politics and disagreement is not, in my view, a count against it. I think it suggests instead that a morally robust public discourse that engages rather than avoids the moral and even spiritual conceptions that citizens care about and bring to public life, fits with the demands of a pluralist politics rather than stands in tension with it.”

At the very least, Sandel presents a much-needed challenge to some of liberalism’s flabbier assumptions, even if the perfect corrective is not necessarily itself perfectly correct. If there’s one message that comes over loud and clear in his writing, it’s that we need always to engage openly, to learn from as well as to criticise each other. This also came out in a small seminar he gave while in London on the question of what politicians can learn from philosophy.

“I think the learning can go in both directions. I think philosophers have a lot to learn by attending to actual political arguments and disputes. From the days of Socrates philosophers have mixed it up with the life of the city and have taken as their starting point conflicting public opinion and worked from those sometimes messy disagreements to broader principles. I think that’s a sound impulse, so I don’t think philosophy can proceed without actually engaging with and attending to the arguments that take place among politicians, between political parties and among citizens, in the public square.

“At the same time I think not only politicians, but also I would say democratic citizens generally, if they care at all about justice and the common good need at some point to reflect critically on their own principles and I suppose that’s another way of saying that to be a democratic citizen, to do that job well, requires that one be something of a philosopher.”

Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do? by Michael Sandel is published by Allen Lane in the UK and Farrar, Straus and Giroux in the USA. His Harvard Justice lectures can be viewed her.

Julian Baggini’s latest book is Should You Judge This Book by Its Cover? (Granta)

Q&A: Gary Cox

Gary Cox gets a grip
Is this the book that puts “self” back into “self help”?

Absolutely. Self-help needs reviving. We all need helping sometimes but too many people today think society has more responsibility to help them than they have responsibility to help themselves. In our blame everyone but myself culture it is taboo to suggest people are often responsible for their own failings. Existentialism encourages self-help by emphasising self-responsibility. Existentialism is as much about self-responsibility as personal freedom. The truth is we constantly have to make free choices for which we are responsible. Some people won’t face this truth. They resort to bad faith: pretending to be unfree. Others, however, find it empowering to discover they are so free and responsible. My book helps people help themselves by persuading them they are inalienably free.

Sartre is famous for explaining existentialism in terms of three key concepts: anguish, abandonment and despair. So how is it your book argues that it is a “positive and uplifting philosophy”?

Existentialism uncompromisingly details the hard truths of the human condition – anguish, abandonment and so on – but it does not promote despair. Rather, it says, this is how life is, now what are you going to do about it? Are you going to fool yourself that life is a fairytale where it is possible to live happily ever after, or are you going to get real, adopt a positive attitude and play life’s game to the max? Despair does not characterise existentialism, it characterises the person who builds his life on the shifting sands of cosy delusions because he lacks the courage to face reality. Existentialism is a positive and uplifting philosophy because it outlines how a person can live an honest and worthwhile life despite human existence being ultimately pointless and absurd. It counsels people to affirm what they are – free, responsible, abandoned, mortal – rather than deny it.

Do you think that Sartre overestimated the extent to which we are free? Aren’t many things – including our fundamental personality types – out of our control?

Sartre is a hard-liner who holds that we are radically free. Maybe he is not offering us a philosophy worked out in every tiny detail so much as an ideal to aspire to through sheer, unrelenting will power – a life of maximum responsibility and minimum excuses. Or would you rather aspire to be a whinging, irresponsible slob? Less hard-line existentialists argue pretty convincingly that there are some limits to our capacity to choose. They argue we have a “natural self” that disposes us to respond to certain situations in preset ways. Examining things like sexual preference, panic reactions and insanity reveals that not every conscious response is chosen. However, hard-line existentialists are surely right that responsibility can not be avoided or freedom limited by choosing not to choose (bad faith). Certainly helplessness in many situations in life is a sham.

Does telling people how to be an existentialist undermine the main point of existentialism – that we have to choose how to live for ourselves?

The title of the book is slightly ironic in that it is not actually possible to be an existentialist in a fixed way. We are in constant process of becoming and change and it is not possible for us to arrive at a fixed state. We can only ever aim at being what we are. Part of what it is to “be” an existentialist, to “be” authentic, is to realise this. A person is only authentic when he behaves authentically – asserts his freedom, takes responsibility, resists regret. Even to think he is authentic is to think he is an authentic-thing, which is bad faith. My book tells people how to be an existentialist only in so far as it explains that following the principles of existentialism requires a person to constantly take responsibility for his or her actions. It helps people to distinguish authentic from inauthentic responses, but it does not tell people what choices to make in their own personal circumstances. That is their problem. Above all, it emphasises that we have to choose how to live for ourselves and can’t avoid doing so.

You’re a serious Sartrean scholar, but this book clearly has a light touch. Do you think existentialism has historically lacked a sense of humour?

The existentialists are sombre because they are dealing with weighty matters. But then, if life is ultimately absurd why do they take it all so seriously? There is more black humour in existentialism than people think but it is hardly a laugh a minute. It is because existentialism takes itself so seriously that it is ripe for humour.

Should aspiring existentialists still wear black polo necks and smoke Gualoises?

It’s a matter of personal choice. If becoming an existentialist were as easy as following petty rules about clothing and consumption there would be millions of them rather than a handful hanging out in dingy cafés and garrets.

How to Be an Existentialist: Or How to Get Real, Get a Grip and Stop Making Excuses by Gary Cox is published by Continuum at £12.99/$19.55

My philosophy: Alan Sokal

Julian Baggini meets the man who dropped a bomb on postmodernism

Alan Sokal

Alan Sokal

“I hope your interest is not primarily in the whole stuff of about 10 years ago, because that’s so old hat.”

So speaks the physicist Alan Sokal, right at the start of our interview. The “stuff of 10 years ago” is the eponymous Sokal Affair, when he “dropped a bomb” on postmodern literary theory and social science by publishing a parody paper, “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity” in the journal Social Text. The paper was, as Sokal sees it, little more than “an annotated bibliography of very sloppy science and philosophy of science”, but it opened up a massive debate about the misuses of science and the alleged absurdity of what Sokal calls the “sloppy relativism” infecting academia.

“It’s inevitable that my obituary will lead with that, no matter what I do, even in the unlikely event that I get a Nobel prize,” says Sokal. However, his dismissal of the affair as “old hat” is somewhat undermined by the publication of his new book, Beyond the Hoax, which includes an annotated version of the hoax paper, as well as updated versions of two chapters previously published in Intellectual Impostures, the book he wrote with Jean Bricmont in the aftermath of the affair (which also republished the parody). Although it does indeed go beyond the hoax, it hardly leaves it behind.

Sokal is right, however, that we’re not talking simply to go over old ground. We covered the hoax in some detail in a 1998 interview for this magazine. Our main interest, as we sipped tea in a café near his temporary office at University College London, was in the wider impact of philosophy on his life.

Sokal’s first real brush with the subject came at university, when, as a physics major, he took a few philosophy courses he can barely remember. “There was one with Bernard Williams – I don’t remember what the course was called, but I think it was in that course that I wrote a paper on the ontological proof of the existence of God, which of course is fallacious and people have written thousands of articles trying to explain exactly why it’s fallacious. I did something with quantified modal logic – I can’t even remember what I did.”

Although that was it with formal philosophy until the Social Text affair, Sokal did have a “philosophically-oriented approach to physics,” which contrasted with the “very pragmatic anti-philosophical point of view” of many of his colleagues, of which “the extreme version is ‘shut up and calculate’: physics is about predicting, experiment and that’s all. I was always opposed to that point of view. It seems to me that physics is about trying to understand the world, and experiments are tools for checking whether your theories about the world are possibly right but they’re not an end in themselves. So I always took an attitude towards physics where I was interested in the fundamental conceptual questions, closer to Einstein’s approach than Feynman’s.

“You can even see this shift in the history of physics a little bit, from the generation of Einstein and Bohr and Heisenberg, who spent a lot of time arguing about fundamental conceptual questions, primarily about quantum mechanics; to the generation after, of Feynman and his contemporaries, who said we can argue about conceptual things until hell freezes over, but there are so many new things to explore in elementary particles, in quantum chemistry, let’s do that. That also coincided with a geographical shift from European dominance to American dominance.

“I don’t criticise the newer generation. They were right that there were so many interesting things to learn and maybe the philosophical discussion had stalled. Nevertheless, it seems to me that the conceptual questions are also fundamental. For example, what does quantum mechanics actually mean? I’ve been using quantum mechanics for about 35 years, almost three-quarters of my life, and the more I study it the less I understand it. So I can understand why a whole generation of physicists threw their hands up in despair and said ‘let’s just calculate’, but that’s not to me a satisfactory final answer.”

Many people certainly do have a sense that, if you do physics, you can’t avoid philosophy. But different conclusions are drawn from this. Some dismiss the philosophers, saying it’s the physicists who are the ones really doing the philosophy; while others complain that the problem with physicists is that they’re doing philosophy, but they’re not equipped to do it. How does Sokal see the distinction between his discipline and philosophy?

“I don’t know how you draw the line between clarifying the conceptual foundations of a particular branch of physics and doing philosophy of that particular branch of physics. I’m not sure that there’s really much difference. It can be done by physicists with or without formal training in philosophy, and it can be done by philosophers usually with formal training in physics. The philosophers of physics who I think are the best, the ones I respect the most, very frequently were at the very least physics undergraduates and in some cases got PhDs in physics before switching to philosophy, people like David Albert.

“So going back to your question, I think there’s some truth to the stereotypes on both sides. Physicists, when they do philosophy, often do it badly. They’re often confused about the conceptual foundations of their own physics, because sometimes you can compute and get the right results even if you don’t understand conceptually very well what you’re doing. That’s a criticism that not only philosophers but also mathematicians make of physics. Because I’m half a mathematician I respect that criticism too. So it’s absolutely true that physicists often make a botch of the conceptual foundations of physics, especially when it comes to quantum mechanics, because quantum mechanics is simply much harder than any other physics we know. Everybody makes a botch of it because we don’t really know what’s going on.

“I think there is also something in physicists’ complaints about philosophers that often what they do is so sterile that it’s of virtually no relevance to any working scientist, even at the level of conceptually clarifying important things in their fields.”

Critics of philosophy of science, however, often base their hostility on an assumption of what it should be doing. To simplify somewhat, there are two different ways of seeing it. One is that it has nothing to do with the practice of science whatsoever, it’s just we ask ourselves what this thing called science is, simply because we want to understand it. The other is that it’s there at least partly to help clarify the scientific method in order to get better science. Which view does Sokal take?

“I think both are true in different instances. There are some cases where the second is definitely true, that is to say when scientists are generally confused about something, conceptual clarification can be useful. Whether it comes from someone with a degree in philosophy, physics or biology doesn’t matter.

“Conceptual clarification can be useful for pushing science ahead, even in the narrow instrumental sense: we may urgently need conceptual clarification if we are to make progress in quantum gravity. I don’t know, first of all because I’m not a specialist in that field, and secondly because no-one can predict the future.

“Certainly Einstein spent a lot of time doing conceptual clarification in his own mind, leading him to general relativity and special relativity, and that played a crucial role. You can call that philosophy or you can call it deep thinking about physics. Quantum mechanics was born mostly without that kind of conceptual clarification, so it shows that you can get instrumental physics without clarifying the concepts – it can go both ways.

“But going back to the other side, that philosophy is just good for itself and is not necessarily intended to help working scientists, you know the famous quote from Feynman which says ‘philosophy of science is about as useful for scientists as ornithology is for birds.’ Most people would see that as denigration of philosophy of science, but I don’t see it that way at all. Ornithology is not intended to be useful for birds. In principle ornithologists might, by studying the physics of how birds fly, come up with some suggestions to birds about how they could fly more efficiently, except that natural selection has probably beaten them to it anyway. In the same way, philosophy of science could come up with suggestions for working scientists, but that’s not necessarily its major goal. I like that Feynman quote precisely because it’s not, in my view, pejorative towards philosophers of science. It’s saying that the philosophy of science is different. It clarifies what scientists do whether or not it helps scientists.”

Sokal is very positive about philosophy’s potential to help physics with its conceptual clarification in principle, but in practice, there is a long pause when I ask him if he can give any examples of when this has actually happened.

“Lucien Hardy? I think he’s in a philosophy department.” Actually, I later find out he isn’t. He’s at the Perimeter Institute of Theoretical Physics at Waterloo, Ontario. Sokal eventually concedes that “The major contributions have been made by physicists: Einstein, Podolsky, Rosen, Bohr, Boehm, Bell…”

I find this issue particularly interesting because, after the Social Text affair, most analytically-minded philosophers embraced Sokal as an ally. “The reaction from philosophers, at least in the English-speaking world, was generally supportive,” he says. “Most philosophers in the English-speaking world don’t go for relativism in general and certainly don’t go for the extreme, sloppy versions of it that you get from post-modernist oriented literary critics. Philosophers have been critical of that sort of sloppy philosophy for a long time. There was the famous debate in the New York Review of Books between John Searle and Jacques Derrida. So most philosophers were genuinely supportive.”

But I wonder if they should be. Just as his kind words about what philosophers of science could contribute to physics masks the fact that, actually, it’s hard to pinpoint what exactly they have contributed, so the hoax and its aftermath in a sense diminishes philosophy by showing that you don’t need to be an experienced professor with a detailed knowledge of the subject to wade in and settle some pretty big philosophical scores.

“I should make clear that I don’t think my parody article settles anything,” says Sokal. “It doesn’t by itself prove much – that one journal was sloppy. So it wasn’t the parody itself that proved it, it was the things that I and other people wrote afterward which I believe showed the sloppiness of the philosophy that a lot of postmodernist literary theory types were writing. But again, I wasn’t the first person to make those criticisms. It was only after the fact that I went back into the literature and found philosophers had made many of these criticisms long before me. All I did in a certain sense was to find a better public relations method than they did.

“So in a certain sense any relatively smart person, whether they’re a philosopher, a physicist or a literary critic themselves could have figured that out.”

Isn’t it also the case that when Sokal talks about general philosophy of science (as opposed to the specific philosophy of physics) he’s also pretty deflationary about what he thinks it can achieve? For instance, doesn’t he think both that philosophers have failed to codify the scientific method and that they will probably continue to fail to do so; and that, in fact, what one can sensibly say about it is pretty general?

“There have been various different attempts [to codify the scientific method], none of which have been terribly successful. They’ve all pointed to some correct understanding of what science does, but no one has succeeded in coming up with a even plausible codification of what it is that scientists do, and philosophers of science are the first to admit it. So I guess you’re right that I’m sceptical that there can ever be a complete over-arching theory simply because science is about rationality; rationality is always adaptation to unforeseen circumstances – how can you possibly codify that?

“But that doesn’t mean philosophy of science is useless, because all of these attempts that have failed as final codifications of scientific method nevertheless contributed something. For example I hope to write an article about Nick Maxwell’s approach. I think he’s put his finger on something very important too, which, again, is not the end of the story but adds something. So I don’t think philosophy of science is a failure.

“Maybe philosophers of science, especially in the early twentieth century, were too optimistic about what they could do. They saw what Russell and Whitehead had done for axiomatising mathematics – which wasn’t completely successful either, but that’s a different story. In some sense there was progress in understanding the foundations of mathematics, and I think they aspired to do the same thing for science in general. Maybe they underestimated how much more complicated empirical science is compared to pure mathematics.”

In his new book, Sokal continues to transgress the boundaries of academic disciplines by wading into the public God debate with a long chapter which is effectively a review of two very different books that have fuelled it, Sam Harris’s The End of Faith, and Michael Lerner’s Spirit Matters. In it, Sokal pitches his tent very firmly in the Hitchens, Harris and Dawkins camp. What does he make of the criticism that such strident atheism alienates more than it persuades?

“I’m not trying to be strategic. I’m not a politician. I’m a physicist, an academic, and, if you want, an amateur philosopher. I’m trying to say what I think is true as clearly and unemotionally as I can, and leave it to people to judge if my arguments are right or wrong. I don’t think my tone is strident.

“People sometimes unjustly accuse Harris and Dawkins at least of being strident when in fact all they’re doing is refusing our culture’s double standard for religion. The double standard is you can say more or less anything you want about Tories or Labour, about Republicans or Democrats; about capitalists or socialists; but you can’t say anything even remotely critical about a religion. Now why not? If you read Harris’s book or Dawkins’s book – certainly if you read what I’ve written – you don’t find anything half-way as harsh about religion as you read everyday in the paper about politics.”

When thinking about why Sokal gets involved with these debates, it’s important to remember his political motivations. Sokal is a man of the left who once spent a few summers teaching maths at the National University of Nicaragua during the Sandinistas’ rule. Underlying his work outside of physics is a strong conviction that it is a disaster for the left to abandon a commitment to reason. In his book, he cites one such example of someone who wanted to claim that science is not universal, but varies according to how the individual is situated in the world: “A German can look at and understand Nature only according to his racial character.”

“This of course is a quotation from Ernst Krieck, a notorious Nazi ideologue, who was rector of the University of Heidelberg in 1937-38. I was flabbergasted – well maybe not flabbergasted – when I came across it. This doesn’t show that postmodernists are Nazis or anything. What it shows is a kind of uncanny overlap of ideas between, on the one hand, left-wing postmodernists, and the other hand, extreme right wing nationalists, whether they’re German or Hindu nationalists.”

Whether he’s right or wrong, this is why the debate that Sokal started matters, and is why, intellectual impostor or not, philosophers too should pay attention to him.

Julian Baggini is editor of tpm

My philosophy: Lewis Wolpert

Lewis Wolpert tells Julian Baggini why philosophy is waste of time

Lewis Wolpert

Lewis Wolpert

“I was thinking before you came, if philosophy hadn’t existed – apart from Aristotle – what would we not know? The answer is that it wouldn’t have made the slightest difference.”

I had gone to see the biologist Lewis Wolpert in his North London home expecting to be told the subject at the heart of my work was total rubbish, and he did not disappoint. I first came across his uncompromising views back in 1992 when I saw him give a lecture at University College London. He had nearly finished a captivating talk about his book, The Unnatural Nature of Science, when, almost as an afterword, he briskly dismissed all philosophy of science as having nothing useful to say.

What he said must have stuck because when, a few years later, I was putting together a dummy of what tpm would look like, I included in the contents an interview with Wolpert. It took over a decade, however, before I actually got around to conducting it.

Over that time, Wolpert’s star as a public figure has risen tremendously. His book on depression, Malignant Sadness (1999), was a breakthrough success, combining a thorough overview of all we know about what depression is with some very personal sections dealing with his own battles with it. The book spawned a television series, and in 2006 his book on the evolutionary origins of belief, Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast, was a popular science bestseller.

Now 78, Wolpert has not exactly mellowed when it comes to his hostility to philosophers. He is personally charming, but when we got to philosophy, the phrases “totally unintelligible”, “no use whatsoever” and “gobbledegook” were bandied around with a vigour that was somewhere between irritation and zest.

We got off to a good start when I asked him when he first came into contact with philosophy.

“It was probably in relation to the philosophy of science, and I can’t even remember where it was, but it was quite late in life. I did read Popper’s book, and I hated it. I once wrote that it was the most over-rated book in the last 500 years.”

Wolpert had first-hand experience of how scientists worked, and simply found Popper’s ideas about the scientific method had nothing to do with that, and no one else he has come across since has been any better.

“Nothing in Popper or in any other philosophy of science has anything relevant to say about science. I don’t know of any scientist who takes the slightest interest in the philosophy of science, although I do think Peter Medawar was quite keen on Popper, to my surprise.”

A lot of people who claim philosophy is a waste of time can be tricked into conceding at least something by being drawn into an obviously philosophical discussion about the value of philosophy. With commendable consistency, Wolpert repeatedly rebuffed attempts to open up that kind of dialogue. So, for instance, when I challenged his view that philosophy of science is irrelevant by saying that it surely depended on what it was supposed to be relevant to, he retorted, “It’s not relevant to anything.”

But then came a small concession: “I’m not talking about political philosophy, I’m talking about the nature of the world.” But as if he had already granted too much, he added, “It’s clever, but totally irrelevant. Most of it seems to me just nonsense, it’s very hard to know what they’re talking about.

How then does Wolpert explain the fact that so many great minds over history have been seduced by a subject which he claims is totally irrelevant?

“That’s a very good question, and I think it’s a bit like religion. I’ve just been to a meeting on science and religion and I can’t understand what most people are talking about. They’re not unclever, they’re clever people but it just seems gobbledogook, babble.”

Wolpert is clearly not lacking in self-belief, but what makes him so confident it’s a failing of philosophy rather than himself that he finds it gobbledegook?

“Because it wouldn’t matter one hoot – science has done very well without any philosophy whatsoever. Take biology over the last 100 years – philosophy has had zero impact.”

Aren’t there people who think it might help at least with theoretical physics?

“I don’t think that it’s philosophy that will solve it in any way whatsoever, because it’s all about language and words, not science, and physics is about science.”

I couldn’t resist pointing out the contrast with the person interviewed in this slot last issue, the physicist Alan Sokal, who was rather more generous about the contribution philosophers make.

“I’m not at all generous about philosophy,” says Wolpert. “I think they’re very clever but have nothing useful to say whatsoever.”

Nothing useful for the practice of science by scientists, perhaps.

“No, nothing useful for the practice of anything,” he insists. “Perhaps morals politics and things like that, that may well be. John Stuart Mill and justice and so on, that’s important stuff, but about the nature of the world, absolutely nothing to say whatsoever.”

What about the nature of knowledge itself?

“Absolutely nothing useful to say at all.”

So the questions that are asked don’t need to be asked? They’re just interesting puzzles for clever people?

“That’s exactly what they are. They’re something for philosophers to dabble in.”

Wolpert is an immoveable object who clearly believes philosophy is an eminently resistible force. His most fiery response came when I suggested to him that his dislike of philosophy may be just a temperamental matter: philosophical problems just don’t turn him on.

“No it’s an intellectual rejection!” he says, sounding quite offended. “It’s certainly not temperament.”

No bait that I offer him is taken. For instance, I told him how I had been caught up in an ongoing exchange with a Christian about belief, one which has forced us to consider what knowledge is.

“Well I will not get into such a discussion,” he says. “I think there’s no meeting between religion and science whatsoever.”

But in order to make the claim that there is no meeting between religion and science, isn’t he forced to do some philosophy to justify that?

“Absolutely not. There’s no evidence for the existence of God, and that’s all there is to it. You just provide me with some evidence. As for the evidence from the Bible, all the studies that have been done show that no one who wrote bits of the Bible was there at the time. I’m not against religion and I have a moderately religious son, as long as religious people don’t interfere.”

I try one of my more involved attempts to draw Wolpert into philosophy’s net. He says that you don’t need philosophy to discuss religion because you simply ask where the evidence for the existence of God is, you find there is none, and it’s the end of the story. But what if a clever theologian or philosopher of religion comes around and says that Wolpert is demanding a scientific form of evidence for something that is not scientific? So he’s not really saying there is no reason to believe in God, he’s saying there is no scientific reason to believe in God. To answer that objection, doesn’t he have to go into philosophical questions as to whether or not scientific reasons are the same as reasons in general and so forth?

“No, I think I’m already asleep, because it’s really about evidence. I usually say to people that if I tell people I have found a fish that speaks Afrikaans – I’m South African – they would want to get some evidence that this fish actually exists. It’s the same with God, I’d have to bring some evidence.”

But isn’t the question of what makes something reasonable evidence a philosophical one?

“I don’t think so, no. Funnily enough I’ve just looked it up in Ted Honderich’s Encyclopedia of Philosophy, the word ‘evidence’, which gets about six lines.” Touché.

However, somewhat surprisingly for a man who thinks everything hinges on evidence, Wolpert himself is a theoretician. “I’m hopeless in the lab. I’m good at getting other people to work – that’s my skill. I like using the results of experiments but I don’t like doing them myself.”

Despite the bluster, there are corners of the philosophical world which Wolpert does have time for. He thinks that Aristotle’s logic “was very important for science”, although “his science was terrible.” However, even when we do find some common ground, Wolpert seems determined to stamp all over it: “What I’m curious about is that, unlike science, I’m not sure how much progress there’s been in philosophy. I wonder whether if Aristotle came back, not much would have changed.”

Wolpert also “fell in love with David Hume at one stage, although I disagree with him about causality, but on religion he is just wonderful, describing how no miracle should be believed in unless it is so miraculous you couldn’t avoid belief.”

He also has some nice things to say about John Rawls in The Unnatural Nature of Science. “Ethical issues, and issues related to the law and justice, I think that’s where philosophers really can make a contribution. I’m a bit hostile to bioethicists, but that’s another matter altogether. Some of them are very good and ask perfectly sensible questions. But a lot of them really are looking for problems rather than trying to solve them. We’ve got this bill going through parliament now, and I think there are really very few ethical problems there. You’ve got to have ethical committees for experiments relating to human beings and if there are philosophical issues involved there I have no problem whatsoever.”

More surprisingly, he says he likes Thomas Kuhn. “When I met him briefly I felt he was a relativist and I was rather disappointed. But I think his original thing about different paradigms and their influence on how one did scientific research was important to the historian of science. Maybe he made people slightly aware that you’ve got be careful that you are really in the right paradigm for thinking about how things work.”

But such concessions are the exception, not the rule. Of Feyerabend he says “He’s terrible,” Against Method being “absolute junk”. Worst of all, “I hate relativists of course. Those people are just terrifying, people who say science is just a social construct. I think it’s striking that’s there’s only one science, there aren’t different sciences around the world. Those relativists are just stupid.”

If Wolpert seems rather broad-brushed in his dismissal of philosophy, it is not because he hasn’t thought about some of the more specific ideas in the philosophy of science. For example, there is the famous underdetermination thesis, which states that the evidence always leaves room for multiple theories which explain it.

“I don’t think there is much in it,” says Wolpert. “I don’t know of any other theories in biology that will explain the available data. There may be occasionally a couple of theories which do and there is nothing to choose between them, but they’d be so similar that I don’t think they would be different theories. Underdetermination is a very rare phenomenon, in the sense that there are many theories that can explain the same thing; no, I don’t believe that.

“I think philosophers are probably quite jealous of science and this is why they come up with all this nonsense to try to show it’s not as reliable as people like to think it is. Look at how successful science is – philosophy is not successful – it’s achieved nothing.”

Wolpert also has specific criticisms of Popper’s idea that science works by coming up with theories that it then tries to falsify.

“That’s where Popper is wrong. When we scientists are working with something we’re not trying to falsify. We might on occasion. We’re really trying to see whether we can show that the theory is right or wrong.”

Wolpert believes the whole enterprise of trying to codify the scientific method is misguided.

“The essence of the scientific method is really quite simple: you have your observables, you mustn’t have any logical contradictions, and the theory must fit with the facts, and you don’t worry particularly in biology about what the facts are. Now your facts can be wrong – there is no question that you can make errors and they get discovered. So I don’t think knowing philosophy of science helps you in any way whatsoever.”

He thinks scientists learn this method mainly by working with other scientists. There are some other lessons worth learning to do science well, but you won’t be surprised to hear that Wolpert doesn’t think they come from philosophers.

“Peter Medawar said that science is the art of the soluble – you must choose a problem that can be solved. There’s no point in choosing too difficult a problem. You’ve got to define the problem in such a way that you think it can be soluble.

“Sydney Brenner – one of my heroes, a fellow South African, Nobel prize winner – said the way to make progress in science is not to know too much about the subject you’re working on, because you’re already constrained. So you need to come into a field where you don’t know too much, but you must know a lot about fields outside that, and then you should question the fundamental idea of the field that you’re moving into.”

Given Wolpert’s acceptance of moral and political philosophy, I make one last attempt to get him to concede there might be some value in other areas of philosophy. Let us allow that science deals with all those matters concerning the nature of the physical world. Let us also allow that since one cannot determine what the right or wrong thing to do is in a scientific manner, but that one has to make rational decisions about these things, we also have ethics. Between the two aren’t there questions about what is knowledge and so forth which are not scientific, but as curious rational beings we find ourselves asking questions about them?

“No we don’t have questions about what is knowledge!” insists Wolpert. “This is a cup, I have no doubt that this is a cup, and I think some of my theories in science are right, and others are hypotheses, and there may be beliefs that are much less reliable, but nobody struggles with those.”

But what about when it comes to other types of knowledge? Does Jack know Jill loves him?

“They’re not scientific issues.”

They are issues though.

“Yes, but neither philosophy nor science helps you very much.”

This piques my interest because of Wolpert’s interest in and experience of depression. Although some of that is down to chemical imbalances in the brain, pure and simple, couldn’t philosophy perhaps be useful in coming to terms with the issues and questions which lead to depression?

“Well it’s the way one thinks, it’s one’s negativity. My argument is that depression is malignant sadness, it’s sadness, which is a normal human condition, becoming extreme. Now how that becomes extreme is complex and to pretend that we understand depression is simply wrong.”

Whether philosophy can help is something he remains agnostic about. “I don’t know, it’s tricky. If it helps. I’m for it.”

Perhaps surprisingly, Wolpert is actually good friends with some philosophers, such as Ted Honderich and AC Grayling. “They’re very nice people and I like them.” But how does he maintain good relations with people whose subject he views as a waste of time? “I don’t think we ever discuss philosophy.”

Perhaps his irritation at philosophy’s lack of contribution to the sum of human knowledge misses the point. After all, one could say the same of poetry, which he would say has some value.

“Well it’s a good point, I’ve never thought of philosophy as poetry, philosophy as impenetrable poetry. If people enjoy it, and there’s no question that philosophers enjoy it and a lot of people like philosophy enormously. I’ve got a grandson who’s very keen on philosophy at the moment, he’s fifteen, loves it.”

Maybe Wolpert could agree with Wittgenstein, who thought that philosophy had no instrumental use but should only ever be pursued for its own sake, because one is gripped by a philosophical problem. The thing is simply to not pretend it has any instrumental value and just get on with it, as you might paint a picture or write a poem.

“Yes,” he agrees, “but then it shouldn’t be in universities.”

I wonder what else might be removed from universities if we head down this road. Literature departments?

“No, I think literature is important. Maybe philosophy doesn’t do any harm – we could keep a very small philosophy department. But if it’s just like poetry I don’t want them in university, no.”

But the political and moral philosophers would be allowed to stay?

“Oh, absolutely, and then you’d probably need the others there anyhow, because they have the same techniques, so I’d leave the philosophy there because you probably need the moral, political and legal philosophy.”

Perhaps that’s a good point to end on: when it comes to talking philosophy with Lewis Wolpert, that counts as quitting while you’re still ahead.

Julian Baggini‘s latest book is Should You Judge This Book by Its Cover?

Let’s talk about love

Julian Baggini meets a man on a mission to get the world talking

Christopher Phillips

Christopher Phillips

I’ve got to admit I was a somewhat reluctant interviewer of the man who spends his life running Socrates Cafés: philosophical dialogues in public spaces with whoever wants to come and join in. The last time I went along to a similar event it was excruciatingly awful. (See tpm 2) People just took it in turns to spout off self-importantly, as though vindicated by the mere fact they were part of a so-called philosophical debate. It went round and round in circles, never getting any deeper.

Then there is the fact that his publishers call Christopher Phillips “the inimitable Johnny Appleseed of philosophy”. Mr Appleseed being virtually unknown in Europe, all I was left with was the impression of folksy wisdom rather than intellectual depth.

Reading Phillips’s latest book, Socrates in Love: Philosophy for a Passionate Heart, didn’t do much to reassure me. Phillips mixes discussion of the five forms of love in ancient Greek (eros, storge, xenia, philia and agape) with highlights from previous Socrates Café’s on the subject. Rather than helping me to pin down what these forms of love are, I was left with the impression that they can mean more or less what I want them to. Phillips is a non-judgemental host, and he usually lets his characters speak for themselves without correction. It’s as though he opens up philosophy’s toy box so everyone can play, and doesn’t mind that we’re left with a mess strewn all over the nursery.

However, after talking to him and seeing his methods in action while on a visit to Bath in the west of England, I am, if not quite a convert, then certainly much more sympathetic to his work than I was beforehand.

It helped that Phillips was not the kind of arrogant attention-seeker you would expect someone whose vocation it is to stand up among strangers and get them talking. Quietly spoken and with a gentle manner, the Phillips ego seems remarkably under control.

So how did Phillips end up as an itinerant philosophical facilitator?

“You know it is funny because it’s not like it was always in the back of my mind that this was something I wanted to do. It would just completely leave my thoughts, and then in times of crisis that it would come back to me. I mean, when I started a group in 1996, I didn’t like what I was doing, even though I was making good money as a freelance writer. I just felt like I was repeating myself. I had a niche writing about unsung heroes, people in their little patch of earth make a lot of difference in the world. But I kept saying to myself, ‘I like writing about them, but I’d rather be one of them.’ I had this idea of just leaving my wood on the woodpile.

“Then a really good friend of mine committed suicide. I think there were a number of different reasons, but I think by and large she just felt she was never going to reach her higher aspirations. And you know, after that happened, I had just left a marriage of eight years, so that collapsed, I was just miserable in my job. And I remember I just sat down one day and I said, ‘What in the world do I have to do to make sure I never reach that same point of despair of my friend?’

“It wasn’t like something just immediately clicked, but it happened over weeks of questioning, things like, ‘What would you do if you didn’t have to work or make any money?’ And I harked back to this great professor I had at college. He used to take us to the local watering hole afterwards, if anybody wanted to continue what we were talking about in class. Sometimes he would give us a night time class, and we were sometimes still at it until two or three in the morning. And strangers would sometimes sidle over and join in. And I just remember thinking, ‘Wouldn’t it be great to wile away the hours having these kinds of confabs?’”

Nice idea. But how did he trnalstae that into a real life?

“It was just a serendipitous stumble. I had absolutely no clue what I was doing. I wish I could tell you I had some grandiose moves to plan, have the cafe and write a book.

“I was living in New Jersey, at a time when Americans were just screaming at one another: this was in 1996. There was really a lot of one-up-manship, a lot of browbeating, interrupting, nobody looking at each other. And I thought that we call ourselves a democracy, but how can you have a vibrant democracy when people generally don’t care to open themselves up to engage in dialogue; where they really try to sympathetically immerse themselves in other viewpoints; where there is actually a method to the discourse; where you don’t simply say what you say, but why you think what you think using cogent, compelling reasoning, which is what all of my political philosophy lecturers taught me.”

“I didn’t want to be a Socrates impersonator,” he insists, but there was something in the old sage which he wanted to emulate. “I think it’s not just having the courage of your convictions, but having them challenged from time to time. It’s healthy to have them scrutinized and then to allow other people to present alternative and compelling perspectives and have those scrutinized in turn, but without trying to reach any sort of consensus. It’s a healthy exercise.

“So I just went to a little slip of a coffee house in Monte Clare, New Jersey. And I approached these people. I just took a deep breath and walked in and I just said, ‘I have had this idea of having philosophy discourse. I’d like to have it in a place where there’s a lot of ambient traffic, where people who are going to walk by will look in and could just see something going on, maybe a bunch of oddballs, and want to come over and join in. I just was hoping that maybe you would be interested in having me do something like this.’ And they were quite enthused.

“It was a community cafe. There were just three owners. And they said, ‘Let’s do it on a night where we have no customers.’ It was a Tuesday night, work night. So we started at 8:30pm one night, and decided to call it Socrates Cafe. It didn’t matter to me. The name came after the fact. So we had this dialogue on ‘What is the examined life?’ And it was great, about 25 people came. There was some very well-to-do executives, there was a homeless man, just a very diverse group of people. It exceeded my expectations.”

The rest, as they say, is history. Soctrates Café is now at the heart of the non-profit Society for Philosophical Inquiry Phillips started with his wife Cecilia. His latest book is the third in a “Socratic trilogy” and he has also written two books for children.

Getting people together to talk about big issues is a pretty good thing, I’d say. But what makes it philosophical? The key is the question the group decies to dicuss.

“We try to expand the range of questions from traditional questions, which are great, to maybe questions that aren’t so traditional, but that enable people to look at foundational matters in both an abstract way and in a pragmatic way too. So just recent dialogues I’ve had in the US, some people want to talk about, ‘Should we go to war in Iraq?’ You ask that question and people will start screaming ‘Yes’ or ‘No’. So you ask, ‘Well, how can we tinker with this and tweak it, to look at the issue in a way that lets us go far afield and look at maybe other conflicts. And the person thought for a long time and said, ‘Well, what is a just war?’

“A big issue in the US not too long ago, was gay marriage. And again, there was somebody who said, ‘Well, I’m going to talk about that.’ And so we thought about the way to handle that, and eventually we came up with, ‘What is an excellent marriage?’

“It’s very participant driven. They propose the question, they choose the question. And on any given night, they choose, we don’t pick a question in advance. It’s just whatever question that night leaves them feeling the least expert and most perplexed.”

Reading his book and then seeing him in action, I’m struck by how a Socrates Café seems to differ quite profoundly from Socrates. Whereas Platos’ protagonist is constantly drawing that contradictions and tensions and then leaving people feeling they know nothing. With Phillips, it seems to be more about making everyone feel they have something to contribute, even though it is true that he does challenge people from time to time.

“Last night, there was a guy and we were talking about the fact that for the Buddha, the whole focus of life is to do away with desire. And I said, ‘What does that amount to?’ And he said, ‘Well, it’s having no end point, having no goals, doing away with all of that.’ And I said, ‘But isn’t doing away with desire, isn’t that a goal?’ And so he just was tongue tied. He had never thought about it that way. I wasn’t trying to be cute. But in and out of the dialogue, we do point out things. Some people don’t enjoy it. I have to say, earlier on, I was probably more faithful to what you’re describing than I am now, because I just felt like it didn’t necessarily help the evolving discourse. Pointing out loopholes in thinking is not just for me to do to them, but for them to do to me.

“It’s certainly not, ‘Whatever you think is fine, or what I think is fine. Let’s all hug.’ But I try not to push people any farther on that given night than they can go, because otherwise they may not want to continue. The idea of having it on an ongoing basis is to let it become habit forming, because these days people – and I can only speak about Americans, I’ve found the dialogues over here really great – but Americans are so thin skinned. Quite often they are so intolerant about other views. It’s like they have these strong convictions and yet they don’t want to talk about them.”

However, I was still concerned that at times he’s just too willing to let things go. The point in his book I must struggled with was when people were talking about Billy Graham/ Phillips wrote, “Graham’s message of unconditional love and universal fellowship touched a chord far and wide,” and he repeats various eulogistic tributes to the evangelist without any critical comment. “Everyone has a home under Billy Graham’s tent,” says one. “He knows that you combat extreme hate with extreme love, extreme ignorance with extreme illumination.”

This is the same man who said (a later retracted) “Is AIDS a judgment of God? I could not say for sure, but I think so.” It’s also the man who said to Richard Nixon of the alleged Jewish control of the American media, “This stranglehold has got to be broken or the country’s going down the drain,” and outspoken enemy of communism and supporter of US foreign policy during the cold war, including the Vietnam war. Isn’t it the case that Phillips.perhaps for good reasons, is only interested in seeing the positive side of people, not the negative?

The question, and in particular the Graham example, seems to trouble him. “When I’m making my points I tend to take the most positive elements,” he says, but is clearly unsatisfied with his own lack of an answer. It clarly concerned him because a few days later, he sent me an email, unbidden, to clarify his position on this.

“I’m sure you could tell, after six nonstop days on tour, I was unusually harried and tired (and hungry!), and I’m sure I didn’t acquit myself very well in our conversation. What I wanted to make sure I clarified regarding the Billy Graham material is that it of course would be the easiest thing in the world for me to poke huge holes in most of his thinking regarding Christianity, and if I were writing a Christopher Hitchens-type book on religion, I might well have done just that. But there’s not a single thinker I know of whose existential-ontological views I agree with wholeheartedly, yet I do find nuggets in their works that help me further develop and evolve my own views. I also mention thinkers in that section such as Adorno and Simone Weil, and I don’t agree with their ultimate outlooks either, yet nonetheless they have had a considerable influence on certain notions of mine and my approach to living.

“On the other hand, I could also take on a guy like Hitchens, if I ever wrote a book on religion, and at the very least point out that many who consider themselves non-religious and irreligious are just as capable of inhumanity and downright barbarity as many so-called religious people. It all boils down to what type of book I’m working on and what type of philosophical approach and method I’m taking, and what my ends are and what the context is in any particular undertaking.”

I’m glad he bothered to send that, because for me it does help me understand and respect what Phillips is doing. Most of philosophy is more critical and negative than a Socrates Café. But Phillips is trying to open things up for people, get them thinking about bigger issues. I’ve realised that my instinctive desire to judge anything that goes under the label of philosophy by the standards of “proper philosophy”, whatever that means, can lead me to underestimate the value of many thngs that fall outside of that domain.

“One hour, two hour contact, you’re just scratching the surface,” says Phillips “And the whole idea is to just present lots of compelling perspectives, compelling alternatives to those perspectives, so that people will leave it and continue to enquire into whatever we have been talking about for those one or two hours. I consider it a success if there’s more questions at the end than at the outset. I don’t mean that glibly. I just mean that it’s not about closure.”

So what is the end the discussion is aiming at?

“Of a Socrates Cafe dialogue? It’s just becoming a more expert questioner. I think that is the healthiest habit a human being can have in a democracy. Otherwise, what do you become? You become passive, you become lethargic, you become apathetic and you can allow a President or a small cabal or a sociopath to launch a war in Iraq.”

Is there perhaps also a more personal goal? After all Phillips was moved to start this after a period of crisis. So is there perhaps a therapeutic function too?

“That’s tricky. I know there’s all this group called philosophical counsellors who clearly think that a philosopher would be a better therapist than a psychologist. I don’t subscribe to that. I think it probably does have its therapeutic component, but if therapy means that you can emerge from a dialogue being more perplexed than ever, more confused in some ways, maybe having certain things resolved and clarified, only to muddy the waters in other areas, then I guess it is therapeutic. But I don’t try to help people come up with answers, I try to help them get better ways of asking things.I think that certainly I’ve noticed a lot of people who come and find it makes life more worthwhile.

“I know that when I’m left to my own devices and when I don’t connect a lot with people, I can get pretty bleak, pretty pessimistic. But whenever I have a real proper discourse with people, it makes me realise, as clichéd as this might sound, that I’m not alone. There are lots of people of goodwill out there, but that they also tend to feel rather helpless.”

Julian Baggini is editor of tpm

Q&A: Robert Rowland Smith

Robert Rowland Smith takes breakfast with Socrates

What’s the idea behind Breakfast With Socrates?

Robert Rowland Smith

Robert Rowland Smith

Breakfast With Socrates takes you through an ordinary day in the company of some extraordinary ideas. From waking up in the morning, through going to work, seeing the doctor, shopping, watching TV and eating dinner, it looks at everyday life through the eyes of Descartes, Weber, Nietzsche, and so on. You get advice from Machiavelli on how to behave at a party, and from the Buddha on not falling asleep in the bath. While you’re on the treadmill at the gym, Bakhtin shows you how to use your body as a political weapon.

It’s a way of taking Socrates’s dictum that “the unexamined life is not worth living” very literally!

Various people, such as Alain de Botton, Nigel Warburton, Roger-Pol Droit, have been writing about the philosophy of everyday life recently. Why the recent upsurge of interest?

I’m not sure it adds up yet to a “movement”, and between those writers are differences not to be glossed over. But insofar as it can be identified, “popular philosophy” hasn’t arrived out of the blue. It has emerged in reaction to the closure of philosophy departments in universities; to the sometimes off-putting nature of Anglo-Saxon philosophy where still practised; to the intellectual limits placed on even the most highbrow journalism. If those are some of the negative conditions, then you can’t ignore the democratisation of knowledges in general. But, like all historical phenomena, popular philosophy isn’t reducible to what has preceded it – it is also new and different.

As for the everyday, the authority on the subject – Michel de Certeau – came earlier; and there’s Roland Barthes’s Mythologies. Arguably existentialism is nothing but a philosophy of everyday life – think of Heidegger and Sartre. From there, you could keep stepping backwards through the canon.

Is there anything new that you bring to this particular breakfast table?

For a start, it’s a continental breakfast – as well as Plato, Aristotle, Hobbes, my references are to Derrida, Bataille, and Foucault. Secondly, I don’t consider myself a philosopher – at Oxford I taught English Literature, and have written as much on Shakespeare, J. H. Prynne, Samuel Beckett. Thirdly, I have for the past decade been a management consultant, working with executives on business strategy and organisational change. Taken together, those sources mean the breakfast table has a particularly broad spread.

Critics of this brand of popular philosophy say that it reduces the subject to self-help, that philosophy is about understanding the world, not making your life more bearable. How would you reply to them?

Set aside the fact that since at least Boethius’s Consolations of Philosophy, philosophy has frequently adopted a therapeutic tone, and take the critics you mention. The question suggests they’re working on a hierarchy that promotes patrician philosophy over plebeian self-help – i.e., their criticism amounts to class prejudice disguised as judgment. In response, I’d argue that understanding the world can make your life more bearable. And if, when it fails, it’s still preferable to not understanding, this isn’t because “understanding” is the be-all and end-all: understanding suggests a capability that’s mainly cognitive, whereas I’m interested also in ways of knowing that are unconscious, aesthetic, even telepathic.

Isn’t there a reason why we don’t remember Kant for his Critique of Pure Orange Juice: Shouldn’t philosophy be about the big issues?

Annie Dillard remarked that how we spend our days is how we live our lives, and Breakfast with Socrates tries to get at the mega issues through the micro ones, not to favour either. Waking up, for example, throws us into the arms of consciousness – and there’s no consciousness, I’d argue, without self-consciousness. It involves a reflective moment, a turn or fold that complicates our existence from the moment we open our eyes, meaning we live philosophically by default. Going to the gym makes us breathe harder, and respiration is never far away from questions of spirit. Being at work depends on a contract that extends from your wage packet to the socio-economic and political system. Having sex takes you to the heart of life and death.

You draw on a lot of psychoanalysis as well as philosophy. Why bring the likes of Freud and Jung into it?

I also bring in sociology, anthropology, and literature. I guess I want to say these distinctions between “psychoanalysis” and “philosophy” are not natural but institutional and historical: they are overdetermined, ideological, and, in the worst cases, anti-intellectual – the academic policing of departmental boundaries often serves to neutralise enquiry and challenge. By suppressing distinctions between disciplines, I hope to weaken them. In their place, I would like to develop an integrated and resourceful idiom more able to account for a world now outstripping every frame that either philosophy or psychoanalysis might place upon it.

Breakfast with Socrates: The Philosophy of Everyday Life is published in the UK on 22 October by Profile at £12.99. It wall be published in the US by The Free Press in March

My philosophy: Guillermo Martínez

Julian Baggini meets the Argentine novelist with maths on his mind

martinez200It doesn’t sound very promising: A professor of mathematics writes novels in which logic and numbers play a central part. Those who remember Satan in the Suburbs, Bertrand Russell’s foray into fiction, might well be tempted to turn away at this point. But that would be a mistake. For Guillermo Martínez turns out to be even better with words than he is with numbers.

In the Spanish speaking world, in particular his native Argentina, he is an established, multi-award winning author. However, when his debut, Regarding Roderer (Acerca de Roderere), was published in the USA in 1994, it made little impact. His follow-up La mujer del maestro (1998), was not even translated. But in 2005 his breakthrough in the English-speaking world came with his third novel, Crímenes imperceptibles, published as The Oxford Murders. It’s an ingenious and original detective novel which became a film directed by Alex de la Iglesia, and starring Elijah Wood.

Given his moody author photos and evidently formidable intellect, I was pleasantly surprised to find Martínez an affable and highly approachable interviewee when I caught up with him in Buenos Aires, where he now lives. It soon became evident talking to him that the marriage of fiction and mathematics is much more natural than you would have thought, because it allows him to explore themes common to both: the limits of logic and the role of imagination and aesthetics in reason.

Martínez’s appetite for abstract ideas was whetted in a home in which ideas and learning surrounded him. “My father was an amateur writer,” he told me. “He wrote over three hundred short stories, some plays, four or five novels. He was very interested in some fields of philosophy. He would try to explain all those topics to me and my brother.” In addition, “When I was a child, my mother was finishing her degree in literature. So my house was full of books of different sorts.”

When it came to going to the Universidad Nacional del Sur at Bahia Blanca, in his home town, however, Martínez opted for something more practical. His father had been an agricultural engineer, and in electrical engineering Martínez saw something that might similarly provide him with a sustainable livelihood. But “after two years I saw that I was not going to finish that course. During those first two years I discovered higher mathematics. I learned about different kinds of infinite sets and logical paradoxes. I was interested in mathematical logic, so I switched to that.” He then went to Buenos Aires to pursue a doctorate “I studied some of the many kinds of valid logics first developed by Lukasiewicz, the Polish mathematician. He developed those logics as counterparts corresponding to the concepts of necessity and contingency.”

Although he was also interested in the existential philosophy of Jean-Paul Sartre, clearly the world of Frege and Gödel was a different kind of philosophy altogether. “They were very different fields, of course. You look at Jean-Paul Sartre’s books, they are about literature and philosophy, existentialism, how to deal with ethics, the notion of freedom. When I had to study Gödel and Frege, that was a piece of maths. I was very grateful to mathematics because I think there is depth in mathematics in the possibility and the ability of building and defining very subtle differences. Mathematicians are very keen in establishing very thin and slight differences and having a concept for each one of them. It is not a surprise that many of the most important philosophers have been mathematicians. Spinoza, Kant in some sense, Leibniz, Descartes – all of them have this kind of mathematical mind.

“I think there is a deep connection between the mathematical thinking and philosophy. I have translated a book that was written by a colleague when I was in Oxford, Vladimir Tasic, called Mathematics and the Roots of Postmodern Thought. He tried to trace some of the simple discussions back to discussions in logic in the thirties. He tried to prove that the core concepts and discussions are very similar. I was very impressed by that book, it was very smart, and I translated it into Spanish.”

In Bertrand Russell’s autobiography and also in Regarding Roderer, you get a strong sense of people being attracted to mathematics because they see in it the possibility of discovering the true nature of reality. Mathematics promises a glimpse into the real underlying order of things. Martínez feels something of this urge, but is keenly aware that maths too has its limits.

“You get the notion of truth in mathematics but it is like a game in which you fix rules. In mathematics the rules are clearly fixed, so that anyone can agree what is true. Of course, then things blur a little because once you have the notion of truth you have also have the notion of what is provable, and that is a very different notion, Not everything that is true can be proved in a mechanical way. So there is this gap between the notion of truth and what can be really proved by the axiomatic machinery.

“There are some axioms that mathematicians use in their professional lives which cannot be proved, and a whole different mathematics arises if they are not allowed to use them. So in some sense you can see that a proportion of what mathematicians are constructing relies upon some faith.”

However, appreciating the limits of proof does not make Martínez sceptical about the power of reason and argument. “At each fork in the road, what happens is that you see why this limit is reached,” he says, alluding to Nietzsche. “For example, I think it is the same kind of problem the Greeks had about the square root of the number two. It is a problem because quotients and integers were the only tools they had and using those tools there weren’t able to find the square root of the number two. But with the notion of limit, which was, I don’t know, 300 years ago or something like that, there was now a way of understanding why there is a limit and which way that limit can be overcome. Now we have a way of thinking and understanding that number. I think this is the way that reasoning expands itself. It is a kind of act of act of imagination. That’s why I always say in my essays that human reason is not something that is given once and forever, it is a historical development, something that is elastic.”

What’s particularly interesting for Martínez about such acts of imagination is that, to work, they must be rationally explicable, but the means by which they arise is often mysterious.

“The way that you reach the truth in mathematics, for example, or the way a new novel comes to your thoughts – is it just coming out from a leap or is it something that comes step by step? Do you see a kind of inspiration which is the end of some hidden reasoning?” He makes great use of this idea in The Oxford Murders, where intuition and logic provide two routes to the same conclusion. “You can make a comparison with the way a chess player thinks. In some sense you know which paths cannot be taken and you are thinking of some different possibilities and all of sudden you see the best way. But you see it before you can actually say why that is the right line.”

But, of course, until you’ve shown why it is the right line, you don’t actually know if the flash of insight is genuinely insight at all. This is another theme which is dealt with imaginatively in Regarding Roderer, subtitled in the American edition “A novel about genius”, but actually much less clear-cut than this. “There is a theme of ambiguity running through the book. Maybe he was just some guy, he thought he had this kind of inspiration but it didn’t have a solid background, and so probably he was wrong.”

This way of thinking helps close the gap between art and mathematics. Martínez had reminded me of an interview I had recently read with the guitarist Robert Fripp, who reiterated an idea commonly voiced by musicians that technique is something you learn and then throw away. You practice your scales and so on until you reach a stage when you don’t have to think about it any more, it becomes intuitive. Is Martínez saying maths is like this?

“There are people like Oliver Sacks who think that mathematical thinking is connected with artistic ability. I’m not talking about the computer part, the analysis. That is clearly the left part of the brain. But the right part, which is connected with the more primitive part, he thinks that thinking about numbers and counting and all that – not the ability to perform operations, but the number patterns – is connected with musical ability. I think there is some kind of musical intuition connected with number. There is a gift, like you have the gift of perfect pitch, that allows you to think in a mathematical way. I have met many mathematicians and the way they think is very interesting. They don’t have the absolute proofs but they know if things can be proven. They think in a more Zen way, like the archer.”

Perhaps Martínez’s most intriguing notion, voiced by a character in The Oxford Murders, is that the judgement that something is right, in mathematics and philosophy, is at least in part an aesthetic one.

“There is something that happens to nature with chess players, mathematicians, writers. Nature doesn’t try every possibility. There are some patterns that are clear to you or nice to you in some way. Marx said that cats don’t study mice objectively, they study them to eat them. There is no such thing as an objective study, there is always an interest in the things you study. A machine will prove every theorem, but a mathematician doesn’t want to prove every theorem. He chooses which theorems which are interesting.”

Martínez then launches into a complicated example concerning whether or not there is chance in the universe. The way he sees it, since we’re always studying finite series of events and never the totality, we can never be sure whether the fully rational account reflects a genuine absence of chance, or whether it is a mere rationalisation. “To each finite piece of knowledge, you have the machinery of explanation, but you still don’t know what happens with the whole series. Both ways of seeing are right in some sense. So people who say everything is chance could be right, but who knows if the whole series is the flipping of a coin; and those who say, no, everything is rational, they have part of the truth because everything we know can be explained.”

But isn’t it true that, although any finite series can be given a rationale, it is still the case that sometimes there are good reasons for saying that one is the better one?

“Again, it is an aesthetic one. Many times people say the second one is not as elegant, not as accurate perhaps, but it suits better. But there’s no way of really explaining that aesthetic judgement.”

The concern is that we like elegance, but reality may not be elegant at all.

“I think it is an acute and difficult problem with the way that proofs appear in mathematics now. Before a proof was something that a normal person in a normal life could check from beginning to end. Now a proof can be something run by a program, so the complexity, the kind of calculation, is totally different. Now a person in his whole life is not able to reach the end of the proof. What is elegant for a computer is no longer elegant for a person.”

In his fiction, Martínez explores the way in which we are able to impose structure on reality, precisely because the true structure is never fully given to us. This can happen retrospectively as well: something happens that we can later describe in ways we couldn’t at the time. Though in some sense this is inevitable, it is clearly also open to abuse.

“I was in the States when the attacks on the twin towers happened. When I went back one year after that I was very interested in all the fuss about Saddam Hussein and the way the media were super-imposing that reality on the citizens – all that discussion of weapons of mass destruction. All those things which were false and I knew that. I had the intuition that everything was just an excuse to go into Iraq. I was impressed to see how from one year to another they managed to change reality, and to impose something which was a total lie on 250 million people.”

But isn’t it the case that Martínez shows the possibility of doing something much more subtle than merely spreading lies? In The Oxford Murders, there is a true sequence of events about what happens. But the significance of what happens changes according to the interpretation, and the significance is the important thing. So it’s not just the ability to rewrite history falsely, which governments do, but it’s more subtle – the ability to rewrite history accurately, if you like.

“It’s to lie with truth,” he agrees. “Not just to lie – everyone can do that – but to lie like a magician, with all the cards on the table. That is the trick in the book.”

Martínez is justly pleased with the way his books have made maths interesting. “I am very proud that many people who really hate maths, after reading my book for a couple of hours even had the feeling that they understood some of that. Many times in maths that is what happens – you don’t really understand line by line but you have the feeling that you see something, you almost understand, but you get the impression that you almost reach some truth. And I think many people for the first time in their lives gave maths this kind of second opportunity after high school.”

But his books are not mere mathematical versions of Sophie’s World. Fiction is not just a vehicle for maths, the two fit much more closely together, illuminating something of the nature of both, and more.

“In some sense I believe like Henry James that fiction competes with reality. For example, this novel changed my life, in a very material way. And many books I read changed my way of thinking.”

Julian Baggini‘s latest book is Should You Judge This Book by Its Cover?