Wednesday, 22 December 2010

On going public

Oh yes. I've written a review of The Monstrosity of Christ, which is a theological rap battle between Slavoj Žižek, the twitchy Slovenian philosopher, and John Milbank, theologian of the 'Big Society'. It's my first ever piece of academic work to be published. Check it out here in the latest (theological) issue of the International Journal of Žižek studies, and let me know what you think. It's hopefully not totally obtuse, and, I flatter myself, a lot easier to read than Monstrosity itself.

Next on the to do list: grow a beard for extra gravitas, and acquire a tweed jacket with leather elbow patches.

Thursday, 16 December 2010

Hume on Miracles

David Hume was one of the big names in early modern philosophy (that's the 17th - 18th centuries). He's basically an empiricist, which means he thinks we should only believe stuff we can prove. In his An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, he discusses what would happen if you tried to apply empiricist ideas to accounts of miracles.

He starts out slightly smugly,saying that he flatters himself that he's found a foolproof argument against the possibility of miracles. It goes like this: everything we know is based on our experience. Sometimes experience leads us to expect better weather in June than in December, but this is not always the case (you can tell he's Scottish). So we see things are more or less likely depending on how good the evidence is: it's pretty much certain that the sun will rise tomorrow, that the BBC weather forecast will be wrong, and that any film starring Jennifer Aniston will have a happy ending; it's possible but unlikely that a Hollywood marriage really will last till death do them part, that the winner of The X Factor will go on to have a long and successful career, or that Fox News will come out in favour of anything the Democrats say or do.

One of the main sources of the evidence we use for making these sorts of decisions is human testimony. We've found, over time, that people tell the truth more often than not, and that what we're told happened is usually more or less what really did happen (you can tell this was written in the days before Wikileaks and the Iraq war). Most people tell the truth, most of the time, because most people would be ashamed if they were caught in a lie. So when someone tells us that something happened, we weigh their account up against all of our previous experience, as well as any other eye-witness accounts, the reliability of the person who's telling the story, whether they look like they're mendacious or mental, etc. Some one you trust tells you your partner is cheating on you, you get suspicious; someone you trust tells you your partner is cheating on you with a time-travelling mermaid, you maybe want to ask a few more questions before you believe their story.

So what happens when someone tells you that they witnessed a miracle? For an event to be miraculous, it must (and watch out, because this is probably the bit where Hume's argument gets questionable) violate a law of nature. A law of nature is a rule we deduce where our experience tells us that something always happens, every single time, without exception. Stones always fall to the ground. The sun always rises. Dead people always stay dead. People can't walk through walls. People don't get instantly healed of leprosy. And Hume says that when someone tells us that a miracle happened, the only way we can believe that a law of nature was broken is if it would be more miraculous that the testimony we heard was false than if the miracle they report had actually happened.

Hume concludes that on this basis, we can never believe any eyewitness account of a miracle. There are loads of reasons why eyewitness accounts might be false: most of the stories we have of miracles are reported by people who were too uneducated, too barbarous, too sneaky and, let's face it, insufficiently white, male, British and rich to be trusted. Besides, it's a near-universal characteristic of human beings that we love a tall tale even if it's totally made up. We're so keen to believe ridiculous stories that we're quite prepared to overlook glaring inconsistencies and improbabilities in tales of giant squid, aliens, government conspiracies. Sometimes religious people don't really believe a story, but talk themselves into believing it, or just tell it even though they know it's a lie because they think it's the story of story people should believe. And everybody loves a good bit of gossip: there is no story that spreads more quickly than the idea that two people fancy each other: all they need to do is be seen together once, and within the hour the whole neighbourhood has already married them off in their heads. Besides, the more civilised we get, the less prone we are to believing fantastical tales: no educated person would believe these days that climate change isn't real, or that we didn't really land on the moon, or that homeopathy actually works. Oh. Wait.

So, in conclusion, the proof for a miracle could never be so sound, reliable and indisputable that it would be good enough to stake your life on. Miracles can never be the foundation for religious belief. We must conclude, Hume concludes, that not only was Christianity not founded in the midst of miracles, but that today it cannot be believed in without one.

Photo credit: Rankeelaw

Thursday, 2 December 2010

Descartes' Meditations: Sixth Meditations

This is the last of the six Meditations: phew! Hopefully you'll be feeling philosophically exercised, epistemologically enlightened, and ready to solve all the big questions of the universe. Or not. Now would be the time to think about whether or not you find Descartes satisfying, and if not, why not? Answers below...

Sixth Meditation Of the existence of material things, and of the real distinction between the soul and body of man

So we've established that I exist, that God exists, and that triangles and other basic concepts of pure mathematics exist. But what about material things like trees and benches and great tits (stop sniggering
at the back)? I can think about things without being able to imagine them: I can imagine that there is a shape with a thousand sides (that's a chiliagon, kids) just as easily as I can imagine that there is a triangle with three sides. I can imagine that I have a body which I can control and which can shape the outside world, but that doesn't mean that it necessarily exists except in my mind. I get the ideas I have of external things through my senses, through my experience of colours, sounds, smells, pain. So if we're going to figure out whether the external world really exists, it makes sense (geddit?) to start with my senses. My senses tell me that I have a head, hands, feet etc.: a body, which seems to be part of myself. And my body seems to be in the middle of lots of other bodies which affect it in different ways, and it seems to experience hunger, thirst, sadness, happiness, anger etc., and to come into contact with things which are hard, soft, hot, cold, stinky, noisy, ugly or pretty, amongst other things. Because so many of my ideas come to me through the things I experience through my senses, it's easy to persuade myself that all of my ideas come through my senses. It also seems like this body is my body and that I can't be separated from it. But my experience also suggests that these ideas which I get from my senses might be wrong: we've all done that thing where you see towers in the distance and they look round but then when you get up close you realise that they're actually square. And we know that even internal senses can screw up: amputees get itchy toes even when they don't have toes any more. And there's no way of being sure whether at any particular point I'm asleep or awake.

Having spent a lot of time thinking about this I reckon that I shouldn't believe everything my senses tell me; but then on the other hand, I shouldn't always assume that they're wrong, either. The only thing I'm certain of is that I'm a thing that thinks, so I must be a soul that is distinct from my body and can exist without it. But then if God made me with senses, they must be right at least some of the time, even if I can never trust them completely. I must really have a body, though one that's distinct from my soul, and that needs to eat and drink and sleep and there must really be things in the world that are separate to me like food and drink and beds and things that I bump into when I get up to go to the loo in the middle of the night. But plenty of things which seem obvious are really just the result of lazy thinking: the air I breathe isn't just the empty space in between things; things that are far away aren't just really small. But it's ok: having a body means that I'll get mixed up sometimes, but I can think hard and learn stuff and eventually arrive at ideas that are closer to the way the world really is.

Well, isn't that a relief? When I started out, I wasn't sure of anything: now I'm sure of plenty. I know that I exist, and that I'm a thinking thing, and I know that God exists and is good and isn't just messing with me, and I know that my body is separate from my soul, and can't always be trusted but usually gets things more or less right, and I even feel pretty confident that I'm not dreaming, because I know that when I'm awake I can remember stuff that happened last week or five years ago but when I'm asleep I can't even remember what happened in my last dream and, get this, I am absolutely convinced that I am entirely made out of glass.

Photo credit: markvall