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Philosophy

In recent years the push-back against those who argue against religious faith in public arenas (those people commonly classed as the ‘new atheists’) has become clouded by what I class as a pseudo-intellectual way of thinking, where all too often the person arguing on behalf of faith will turn the tables on the sceptic and equate their rational, scientific beliefs with their own faith in the Gods and the Heavens. It is not uncommon to hear these people say things like ‘trust in science involves just as much faith  and susceptibility to dogma as religion’; such statements are not only asked by undergraduates. In the last couple of months, two respectively written articles have appeared in the New Statesman based around the topic of religion, faith, evidence and reason, which I argue are essentially guilty of what I’ve just talked about: one is titled ‘Giant Leaps for Mankind’[1] by John Gray. The other is ‘The Goebbels of the English Language’[2] by Alan Moore.

In his review of Brian Leiter’s book ‘Why Tolerate Religion?’, John Gray discusses the difficulty in defining religious belief: ‘there is nothing particularly irrational or otherwise lacking in religious belief. After all, what counts as a religious belief?’. Defining a nuanced idea of religious belief may certainly be no easy task, but we can at least form an idea of some of its necessary conditions if we are to get anywhere in the English Language: religion must involve some belief in a supernatural creator of the World, and/or Universe. If this is not so, the belief does not accord with any recognizable or traditional interpretation of the original three monotheisms, the ones with which I’m sure Gray is primarily preoccupied. Gray then goes on to rather strangely and irrelevantly conflate the motivations behind certain acts and events in history to those acts committed by people because of religious motivation. For instance, he says that the horrors of Soviet Russia imply that ‘faith’ claims about the workings of communism are flawed, and that the 2003 American intervention in Iraq was a secular ‘faith’ driven adventure. Meanwhile he also invokes the ‘hunger for oil’ argument. But surely there either was an evidential reason to go into Iraq or there wasn’t, regardless of whether it was the right moral decision; Gray wants to affirm both at once, and in addition to this seems greatly confused about what we might term as the ‘a-religious’ faith that is supposedly the motivation behind this . The arguments have nothing to do with what secularism in the philosophical or intellectual sense means and Gray is determined not to acknowledge that some ‘faith’ is more justified than others. This may be because he doesn’t believe this to be true. But the point is elementary; the faith I have that I shall be nourished by my lunch today contains far more merit than the faith that an overseeing, all-powerful spaghetti monster awaits my death so that I can transgress into heaven (…just for example). So there are different kinds of faiths and they can be judged on their weighting and merits on a case-by-case basis.

Is Gray seriously claiming that belief in a God who created the world and everything in it, observes our earthly movements and who judges us upon our death (for sins which were brought upon us without our having any say in the matter), contains the same level of rationality or faith as the study of empirical, observable evidence to make judgements and decisions in the here and now?  Gray, to me, rather condescends the layman in bringing what are often absurd religious claims on a par with complex but reliable scientific ones (that is to say, these claims are brought about through a reliable method). Aside from annoying this ‘militant’, ‘new’ atheist, mainly by employing the facile oxymoron in the first place (how can one be ‘militant’ in their unbelief of something? What classes as religious militarism and atheistic militarism is considerably different in public terminology), Gray never actually explains how and why ‘most of  our beliefs are always going to be unwarranted’, one of his mains failures in the article.

This leads me onto the second article I mentioned by Alan Moore. The subtitle of Moore’s piece is ‘We cannot state conclusively that anything is true’; this is a fairly accurate summary of the theme of the piece and intentions behind it. His main beef with the concept of evidence seems to be that its validity relies on, well, evidence. This appears at first to be true – such a proclamation is indeed, self-evident and in a sense grants itself – but in terms of pragmatics, real life day-to-day stuff, the concept is not so circular. We could not live without evidence. We need it for helping to solve crimes, create life-saving medicines and conduct scientific experiments. And yet Moore seems to define the concept of evidence in strange, anthropomorphic terms, as though it were an individual event or quantifiable foe: ‘A glance at evidence’s back-story reveals a seemingly impeccable and spotless record sheet…’. What? All things in the world can be evidence; literally anything. Precisely what is he pointing to when he says ‘evidence’s back-story’? Is it evidence for things he doesn’t like?

Moore is within his rights to make the distinction between ‘evidence’ and ‘proof’ (though the former often constitutes the latter), because proof can be had without evidence. But when Moore invokes philosopher Karl Popper’s theory of falsifiability, he commits an error of categories. It is certainly true that nothing can conclusively be proven to be true, for we would have to have infinite time and ability to assess it all, and that the principle of falsifiability – that we can only demonstrate at most that a hypothesis has not yet been falsified – is the best way to go about conducting scientific enquiry. However, religion is primarily a scientific question, for it makes bold empirical and perhaps eventually, testable claims; one should not take the jump of making a truth claim about god’s existence simply because it hasn’t been proved he does not exist. This is the principle of falsifiability in action; the burden of proof is not to show that things do not exist but that they do. Doubly so with grandiose claims about the nature of the Universe and the things that happen to us when we die. Again, there is nothing new about what is being said here. Evidence is crucial and it is absolutely right to ask for its consideration, especially when so much is at stake as it surely is with religion.

The verification principle is useful for questions of scientific enquiry, but it cannot really be put into practice with regard to supernatural claims. Such questions certainly are not meaningless (there has to be a truth-function to these claims, unless you are a relativist), but by ignoring the distinction between ‘faith’ and beliefs based on reason, Moore falls into the same trap as Gray. Do these two Gents not trust science, or the concept of evidence? If not, they are kindly invited to climb to the top of a ladder and jump off to test their ‘unreasonable’ faith in gravity – ah, but of course neither would want to do any such thing. The basis for their attempts to create a level-playing field for reason and faith, for skepticism and credulity are flawed, and they really ought to not be so disingenuous. If they want to be relativists about truth, they should be consistent and come out with what they really mean.

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As I have learned over the course of studying philosophy to some degree in the past two years, each generation of thinkers (philosophers, scientists, artists) has owned a community inclined to reject the supernatural. Socrates, whose trial included indictments for blasphemy, Spinoza, who had to go on the run owing to a similar charge, Nietzsche’s maxim that ‘God Is Dead’ and Russell’s ‘Why I Am Not A Christian’ are all textbook examples.  In 1920’s Europe, a new fashion in philosophy emerged, the composers of which became known collectively as the ‘Vienna Circle’. Influenced by writers in the analytic tradition like Frege, Schlick and the earlier Kant (that is, philosophical enquiry concerned with logical and mathematical substance rather than metaphysics) , a group consisting of notables like Moore, Carnap, Schlick, Russell, Wittgenstein and A.J. Ayer would hold regular meetings to discuss the metaphysical and logical issues of the time.

Following the publication of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s ‘Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus’ in 1921, in which he claimed to have solved the fundamental problems of philosophy by showing the relationship between language and the world and the limits of it, a newly assembled band of thinkers known as the ‘Logical Positivists’ began to assert their dominance in the philosophical dialectic. The intentions of the logical positivists and the Vienna Circle are perhaps more obvious now than they were at the time. Beginning with the study of language, Wittgenstein established that only statements (propositions) which could be broken down into elementary propositions reflecting the reality of the world contained any meaning. The logical structure of language reflected the logical structure of the ‘state of affairs’ present in the world. Any discussion of ethics, metaphysics, aesthetics and religion were therefore rendered meaningless. Those of us who study philosophy might have felt this all along, but this was a significant shift in thought amongst the hangover of ‘transcendental’ idealism (the theological noise of the likes of Bishop Berkeley), which was so dominant in the late 18th Century.

The logical positivists took Wittgenstein’s thesis (and perhaps slightly misinterpreted it), turning it into a condensed version known as the verification principle, which states that ‘a sentence has literal meaning if and only if the proposition it expressed was either analytic or empirically verifiable’[1] (i.e., it is a mathematical or logical truth, or a tautology, or a statement which could be proved by analysing the external world). The logical positivists were well aware of the weight of public consideration that was placed in religion/the supernatural in post-Victorian Britain, and it seems as though they were determined put an intellectual, scientific muzzle on such talk. (Although the position of logical positivists could only be described at most as ‘agnostic’. Just as one cannot utter a meaningful statement about the existence of a creator, the assertion that there is not is equally nonsensical, ‘since it is only a significant proposition that can be significantly contradicted’). A.J. Ayer, whom I have just quoted, and Bertrand Russell, who took the religious question further than Ayer in claiming that the logical step was to positively affirm god’s non-existence, were both atheists and their work radiates a clear notion of common sense. This is partly why they are so well known outside of philosophical circles. Religious claims are not A Priori or analytic, nor can the god hypothesis be empirically verifiable (though one must be careful in declaring this to be impossible in the future, owing to the problem of induction), ergo, the topic is meaningless to even discuss. This was an interesting attempt to approach the religious question in the context of language, regardless of whether its merits remain substantial today.

The so-called ‘new atheists’ are making similar claims through their work, with the inclusion of modern discussions regarding the actual consequences of religion in the world at present. Whilst metaphysical and scientific questions on the topic are not disregarded – Richard Dawkins extrapolates nicely the scientific claims of religion in The God Delusion (2006), partly by invoking Russell’s ‘teapot’ analogy – the issues of globalization, modern warfare and the gradual evolution of technology are brought helpfully into the debate, to create an up-to-date, substantial account of the way in which religions operate today.  I have claimed before this is a false tag because there is nothing remotely ‘new’ about repudiating the supernatural; this claim is supported by the existence of the thinkers I named at the beginning of this essay, and by the claims of the logical positivists.

Were they the ‘new atheists’ of their era? Perhaps so, but they approached the issue from a radically different perspective to the current era of sceptics and free-thinkers.  The zeitgeist of the logical positivists was possibly a reaction to the culturally conservative values of Christianity in Northern Europe at the time (Nietzsche was certainly fully aware of this, especially regarding his own doctrines); indeed, I am reminded of the story told by Richard Dawkins about ‘Freddie’ Ayer’s admission to saying ‘Grace’ at the dinner table whilst he was non-religious, who responded by saying ‘I won’t utter falsehoods, but I have no objection to uttering meaningless statements’. This in a nutshell sums up the attitude of the logical positivists.

The existence of such periods of unbelief in the intellectual discourse of each generation shows how false, shady and lazy the tag really is; those who invoke it usually have a particular, peculiar way of thinking, which I am inclined to address in the next section.

As a side note, below is a fascinating interview with A.J. Ayer conducted by Bryan Magee. They don’t make them like this anymore.


[1] Ayer, A.J., Language, Truth and Logic, First Published in 1936.

The basis of early European art and therefore culture is surely the dramatization of the Jesus story. Walking around the ancient St. John’s Hospital in Bruges, Belgium and viewing the array of paintings in this half-church brightened by the stained-glass floodlights, which penetrate the hollow space in the way only these large Catholic spaces seem to, my thoughts turned to Nietzsche. His extensive work covering the topic of Christianity is perhaps most gracefully illustrated (for him) in Beyond Good and Evil (1886) when accounting for the life-depraving and ‘sickly’ image of Jesus bleeding on the cross.

Such a story, for Nietzsche, could only be created by a herd morality in wonderment and shame at its own existence. The shepherd and flock aspect of this religion, which is invoked from any usage of ‘herd’, was perceived and reinforced by Christians and artistic interpreter’s long before it could be seen as a criticism. This symbolic weakness typified by the cross, from which we are obliged as humans to inherit sin and redemption and in a sense, the life’s grovelling to entities which would have nothing to do with us, is obviously identifiable with its millions of followers. This is something I don’t and could not share (consciously echoing Pascal’s ‘I am so made that I cannot believe’, the fact that there are many of us who share this mind-set); the fundamental desire and acceptance for weakness to prevail over strength. In the hospital paintings, nuns and assorted others flock and droop to the body of Jesus, one sucking the blood off of his feet. Sickly, indeed.

In terms of humility as being a great Christian virtue, we would again do well to consult the symbolism. The transitory shift in Jesus’ short life as depicted in art, from the recurring virgin and child, through Da Vinci’s Last Supper to the crucifixion, is a not so humble jump of about 30 years. Conceiving without sex, although actually overtly cynical when examined, may seem innocent enough, and is certainly a feat no other can match (but does it permit divine authority?), though I have always seen humility as coming hand in hand with dignity. Jesus almost definitely would not have gone quietly and the sobered remorse of the man condemned to death might be expected of any person. But the crowd are part of the story too and the masochistic edge remains clear through Jesus’ wretched body writhing in agony. Rather like the light through church windows.

However this sad and pathetic story would be just that without the extraordinary claims of its followers, which deplete any ‘humility’ the story might have contained in the first place. To me, the story of the resurrection, a supposed material being (which he would have to be to maintain any kind of likeness or allegory to the human being, and thus giving the story its driving emotional power) being returned from the dead, renders any kind of meaning in his sacrifice obsolete. If Christ was not really lost to the darkness of forever, then what had he sacrificed? I believe this is a point which is too often overlooked in favour of the miraculous and the wrath of God featured in the Bible, but put simply, I do not believe this story is coherent or legitimate in terms of containing ‘meaning’ for Humans.  Of course one cannot say with full conviction and intent that ‘I’d have whipped Jesus’ but let us remember if the story were true, Christ was trying to establish an authoritarian leadership on Earth. As C.S. Lewis points out, if the story were not true (and he didn’t really exist), then Jesus was a crackpot imposter whose intentions were to deceive the most needy. Assuming god’s power of omnipotence, the pain was certainly pointless and so surely, this is another manifestation of the sickliness revolving what would have been at the time of the paintings, a near death cult?

If this Christian presentation of the world was correct, that we inherit sin in search of a cure, Marx’s quote that ‘religion is the opium of the people’ (which is always presented as an amputee; its full version is rather more majestic) surely applies. According to him, Nietzsche should have been a victim of his own philosophy (and in a way he was). Ill for a decade and dying at the age of 55, he was a total personification of weakness, this perhaps being a significant motive in his thinking – as B. Russell adequately explains in his book on Western Philosophy: ‘he soothed his wounded vanity with unkind remarks’.  I rarely rejoice in his work, but ‘Christianity was from the beginning, essentially and fundamentally, life’s nausea and disgust with life, merely concealed behind, masked by, dressed up as, faith in “another” or “better” life’[1] contains at least some verity. After all, we cannot help what such paintings remind us of.


[1] Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy, p.23

Underpinning Thomas Nagel’s philosophy on death is the belief that it is the loss of life which is evil about the state of being dead because being alive and having conscious experience simply is a positive state to be in, regardless of life’s fortunes and misfortunes (and even if the negatives outweigh the positives – e.g., enduring a life of extreme, painful torture). He maintains this position without really justifying it and if one disagrees, this ought to be the first point of contention.

In Nagel’s paper on death[1]  he starts out by trying to establish whether death is ‘an evil’, and how great this evil may be, and of what kind. In turn then, we are obliged to ask for a clear definition of what we mean by evil – contained therein is the implicit assumption that evil is an existing concept and this is something which might need to be challenged on a separate basis.  The fact that Nagel believes death is a ‘thing’ ( an entity perhaps), rather than the lack of a thing or the cessation of existence (which is a crucial aspect to my argument surrounding the concept of death), is evidenced by the fact that he thinks we can attribute this said characteristic to it (evil). According to this then, in a similar manner we could for the sake of argument say that evil is ‘good’, ‘indifferent’, or even ‘extremely good’. This postulates a certain (corrupted) type of thinking about what ‘death’ actually is – an assertion that it is in fact a state of being, but when we say it is ‘good’ or ‘evil’, we are making a moral claim about a material matter which is of course, soon to be non-material (once the body disappears, etc.) – which is then non-existence. For this argument, both Nagel and I are not engaging in a discussion of the afterlife.

Expanding and continuing on this theme, Sam Harris makes the plausible claim (which Nagel doesn’t primarily disagree with) that for changes in the Universe to matter, they have to matter at least potentially to some conscious system/being. Concepts of good and evil and indeed experience itself depend on minds. Agreeing with this motion, it seems we can say that independent bodies (friends, family, etc.) can experience evil, by virtue of their being conscious, when people die (through the form of say, grief, anguish, pain), and so death will be a bad thing for them in this regard, but Nagel makes his position easier to refute by claiming he ‘will not discuss the value that one person’s life or death may have for others, only the value it has for the person who is its subject’. This has to contradict the idea that for changes in the Universe to matter they have to be a conscious being, for the value of death to the individual subject themselves is firstly, knowledge which is unattainable by us (and therefore it seems hard to make a claim about it for each person as Nagel does) and secondly non-existent – by virtue of the very nature of being dead, the lack of being as I have so emphasised – so how could it ever be of ‘value’ to them? To me, it makes sense to say that in the indifference of the natural universe, we cannot put any moral value or claim to the state of being dead. I acknowledge that this is a fundamental difference of understanding of what death is between my school of thought and Nagel’s.

Nagel makes an analogy between the popular saying ‘what you don’t know can’t hurt you’ and thought that whether anything can be bad simply as a depravation of goods (i.e., dying). It makes sense to think of death this way – of course it is truly a shame if a man’s reputation is slandered once he is 6ft under, but this has no bearing on the goodness or badness of events on behalf of the individual who is dead. The person who fails to execute a person’s will once they have died is doing a moral disservice to the deceased (and arguably, themselves) but we wouldn’t say the dead cares or is somehow morally affected. To me it is true that the person’s doesn’t seem to be harmed (in a recognisable way that we would define harmed – e.g., feeling a pain or anguish or is personally damaged) when he is unaware of being betrayed behind his back – unless it affects him later, i.e., he finds out (but this is not the question). It therefore seems to me that Nagel’s attempt to argue against the notion that ignorance is bliss rather fails – I think most people, intuitively, would believe it to be true, as long as that ignorance prevails (for their lifetime). It is hard to say that one has been truly harmed, damaged or hurt, if they are not aware of the fact.

It is a plausible thought of Nagel’s that it is the discovery of betrayal makes us unhappy because we feel it is bad to be betrayed (and not the other way around), but the moral burden is therefore on the person who did the betraying (regardless of whether the individual discovered it or nor). If the person discovered they had been betrayed, they would express displease at the ethics of the person who did it – there was a wicked, moral intention behind it. This feeling would not exist without the other person doing the betraying and it is a reflection of that person. The victim wouldn’t care as much if the consequences of the betrayal were non-existent or tiny. This is in a nutshell the justification of a victimless crime. But when talking about death, the indifference of the natural universe cannot be used as a convincing analogy with the betrayer in the same way, simply because of the neutrality of the physical order of the World. In summary, this is the main empirical fact which leads me to believe it is wrong to ascribe moral notions or claims onto non-existence (what used to be the subject, the person), i.e. aiming to justify that death is always a bad thing, as Nagel does. Epicurus sums up my position and what I believe to be the most rational way of thinking about it; ‘Death is nothing to us, since when we are, death has not come, and when death has come, we are not’.


[1] * From Nagel, T (1979), Mortal Questions, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp.1-10

It comes as no surprise that it is the unchanged and unchangeable aspect of something which brings on feelings of nostalgia.  In a world that moves quickly, inevitably so for someone who is able to read this, an encounter with something (the trigger of nostalgia) which has stayed the same from long ago, re-affirms our sense of continuity with ourselves.  Through what is probably an evolutionary trait of being engaged with the present, fully conscious and ready for the World, our access to memories hosting our nostalgia is somewhat limited to the more inactive corner of our brains, triggered only by a specific instance.  The fact that feelings of nostalgia consist of retained memories or feelings often of no specific time and place, with nostalgia itself being the only function it actually serves, I think, shows why, historically, nostalgia is sometimes viewed with a slight distaste on the grounds of self-indulgence, time wasting or even depression. This has been evident in reactionary responses to the melancholy of soldiers and sailors of the past – ‘a strange sickness’ was often the explanation, so vague was (and is) the idea.  When it is sometimes noted that people are ‘living in the past’, nostalgia permits exactly this, albeit for a short period of time (which is why ‘pang’ is a useful descriptive word when the onset of nostalgia presents itself).  As one would not be able to experience the initial sensation again (which they were having nostalgia about) in the first place unless they were somewhere or someone far removed from the individual who had this initial sensation (and we must know this at the time, even if we are not directly aware of it, or else there is no continuity with the self and nostalgia would be a different feeling entirely), nostalgia is the ultimate bittersweet sensation as we reconcile our past with the present.

It is curious that the feeling of nostalgia is so closely entwined with a time when we were much younger.  We are almost certainly basking in the sweetness of pure innocence when we feel nostalgia for our youth – certain songs, in particular remind me of a place where my word-view was so completely overwhelmingly simple and different to one I possess now and remembering this is somehow, pleasing and somber. This is the realisation of change; which on reflection might seem to explain why we view our past through nostalgia with a shade of melancholic warmth; it is unique to us and for whatever reason that feeling or memory stayed with us, (something we are normally unaware of – it is only on reflection we realise that long-forgotten things have actually been retained), and we recognise what we used to be, or have, creating a paradoxical sadness. The emotional equivalent perhaps of being tickled, one is not sure whether we are experiencing pain, or pleasure or something in between. When they say you have your ‘life review’ before death, one is tempted to think it is feelings of this nature which will be recalled.  Intoxicating might be the descriptive word for a ‘pang of the past’ and it is easy to see how someone might get lost in nostalgia, perhaps for reasons of regret;they intoxicate themselves (e.g. perhaps a widow hearing her deceased partners favourite song), yet somehow it still seems a pitiful way to stay content.  The nature of nostalgia allows for it to work best when it is only an occasional occurrence, so overwhelming can be the feeling, allowing for the pungency to wear off after a period.

The gentle surprise of nostalgia to me seems to reaffirm ourselves with who we once were, along with a deep seated longing; this, a mystery which hangs on the periphery of the phenomenon of consciousness.