Philosophy and Ethics

This blog follows up issues and ideas from my website: Philosophy and Ethics.

Thursday, 29 December 2016

Happy New Year - as time flows!

But what's the New Year got to do with this candle?

We slip imperceptibly from 2016 to 2017 - the clock keeps ticking, the next second will seem just like the last, and yet time flows in a single direction; we shall never go back, have no choice in the matter. Tomorrow, a new year, a new century or millenium, all slip past us in a smoothe movement, shaping us, moulding us.

Although, conventionally, New Year is a time for new starts, resolutions, reviewing and anticipating, in reality nothing changes any more at this particular midnight hour than at any other. The 13th century Zen philosopher Dogen argued that time is a passageless passage as one state of being flows into the next. Time is not something that happens - for, if it were, we would only perceive it in the gaps between events. Nor can it be a fixed, structural feature of the objective world (thank you, Einstein) but only a way in which our senses order experience (thank you, Kant). Dogen sees 'time' as the name we give to that continuous flow of being.

Hence the candle. Like wax, we soften, shift, mould round events and people, move on. We are essentially plastic. If we follow Aristotle and see the human person as the shape stamped onto the wax, we also need to remember that the shape is never immune from a little warmth. There is no permanent self, no fixed entity above the changes of life to which we can cling, no self-image that is not due for revision. Hence the Buddhist argument that the attempt to grasp and hold life, hopelessly wanting things to remain fixed, as though we might possess each moment and everything it offers, can only lead to dissatisfaction and frustration.

Let it be! Go with the flow! Celebrate the passing moment and release it from your hand.

At certain times, as now, we - unpausing in our flow - try to take stock, re-evaluate, re-formulate our dreams, learn to live with, or rectify, the things we most regret. Yet, like it or not, we take it all with us as we move on. Enjoy your plasticity; only the very cold think of themselves as fixed.

Happy New Year!

This blog post has also appeared as a Visual Philosophy page on my website:

Tuesday, 16 August 2016

Drunks crossing!

I came upon this sign outside a bar in the delightful university city of Heidelberg - no doubt a valuable one to warn passers-by of undergraduates enjoying liquid inspiration to aid their intellectual endeavours. But it set me thinking....

There's a similar warning triangle outside our local church, but that one (reflecting the demographic of the congregation) shows two old people walking with sticks. They have a right to cross the road at that point, whether fast or slow; I have a right to be driving down the road, fast (within limits) or slow. But the exercise of those two freedoms creates a potential for harm, which is why I need to be warned. But what of the drunk? To what extent should I be expected to modify my driving just in case a drunk crosses the road in front of me? Or should others be warned if I am about to stagger into the street? And should that warning have legal force? It strikes me that everything we do depends upon the behaviour - good or bad - of others, and they likewise depend upon us. As soon as I drive on the public road, I am putting my trust in the road-sense of other drivers. We have to take human folly into account in almost all social arrangements, and no laws or warning signs can deal with all eventualities. Even the best organised of societies - and Heidelberg is, after all, in Germany - cannot fully legislate for all the potential interactions between fallible human beings.

Wednesday, 27 July 2016

What the hell? I'll do it anyway!

I sense rebellion in the air, and it even extends to the normally law-abiding Dutch. This sign clearly forbids the parking of bikes against the railings, but - hey - this is Amsterdam chock-a-block with bikes on a warm summer's afternoon, so I'll just go ahead and chain it up there anyway!

There is great power in the word 'no'. I shall not obey your petty rule, especially if it is imposed arbitrarily. If you insist in telling me what is in my own best interest, I shall challenge you. Line up all the political and economic authorities to tell me to vote for 'A' and I shall opt for 'B'.

The appeal of existentialism when it burst upon the world (well, upon Paris actually) in the years following the Second World War, was its appeal in enpowering individuals to say no to dull conformity and assert their right to be different, to shape their own lives. The 'yes' of self-affirmation can onlyfollow the courageous 'no' to conformity. Rebels tend to have a cause, and it is their strength - even if it all ends in tears.

But this year I sense that a rebellion is taking place on a scale that transcends the problem of finding a place to park your bike in the centre of Amsterdam: a general sense of 'What the hell? I'll do it anyway!'

Talking to some peole who voted for Brexit, it is clear that the attraction of voting to leave the EU was not generally the result of a careful cost-benefit analysis of membership. Even if the country is the poorer for it, many wanted to say No to the EU, especially when the Prime Minister and every authority, political and economic, that he could muster lined up to plead for 'Remain'. Sick of the political elite in Westminster, a referendum is the one occasion in British politics when everyone's vote actually counts, and it gives an ideal opportunity to offer those in authority the two-finger salute. You've told me I shouldn't, but I can so I will! This is not to suggest that all who voted for Brexit did so as a gesture of defiance - there were many good reasons why one might have despaired of the EU or the possibility of its reform - but an element of defiance, against the establishment, gave emotional weight to the arguments.

And do I sense the same thing happening with Corbyn and the Labour Party? An idealist and a rebel, he is most unlikely ever to compromise sufficiently to enable the Labour Party in Westminster under his leadership to present itself as a realistic alternative to the Conservatives in government. He's not an insider as far as the parliamentary machine is concerned - but that is exactly his appeal. And in the USA, the unthinkable is happening on the political front - Donald Trump receives the Republican nomination, against the wishes and expectations of the establishment. And that is his appeal. Free from political experience gained by being an insider, he can say whatever he likes. He can sell himself, rather than explain the nuanced business of government, a rebel of the political right.

A rebel wants - needs - something different from the present establishment, even if the result is chaos. But when Nietzsche saw that God was dead, he recognised the seriousness of the plight in which humankind found itself, with the consequent loss of goal, directin and horizon. He recognised that God needed to be replaced by a human construction - in his case the Ubermensch - to take up the role of direction-giver, motivator and inspirer. What troubles me, as I feel the attraction of the political and moral rebellions today, is that I do not see what is being offered to replace the present order of things. Protesters seldom do contingency planning for what happens if their demands are suddenly met.

We live in a dangerous, violent and unpredictable world, faced with the most daunting challenges in terms of security, terrorism, displaced populations seeking asylum and the growing economic gulf between rich and poor. There are no easy answers. But in such a world, a cry of frustration is both understandable and, hopefully, therapeutic - just as long as the two-finger salute is not mistaken for policy.

Friday, 29 April 2016

Confessions of a nerd in recovery mode

It’s been a while, but at last I’m coming out of my latest attack of nerdiness. This time it was to do with photographic equipment. Obsessing over megapixels and focal lengths, optimum apertures and performance charts, I have spent far more time on the technical side of photography than actually taking pictures. I was dreaming 2.8 lenses with nano coating, of Vibration Reduction that might hold a lens rock steady even in my large and shaky hands.  The benefits of a full-frame camera, with all the lenses I might possibly need, seemed to outweigh any discomfort, stooping under the weight of a bulging camera bag.  But now I’m in recovery and reflecting on why it is that we are tempted to obsess in this way.

When life seems complicated, it’s always easier to deal with one small question at a time, rather than keep focus on the broad issues.  It gives the illusion of progress; it pretends that a problem is more manageable if broken down into its constituent parts; it adopts an inappropriately scientific approach to existential issues. If I can just decide, definitively, which of these two lenses is better, then I don’t have to ask why I am taking photographs. So I dig down, study, compare and come up with answers that will soon be discarded as new factors are taken into account.  Although I know I am sinking into complexity, I don’t mind as long as I feel I am making some progress; I pretend that every flaying of arms must help, even as I go lower into the quicksand.

Recovery only starts when I find myself asking ‘Why?’  This runs the risk of a bout of angst, if I conclude that all life is utterly futile, but at least it provides an opportunity to get my head above the water of obsession.

And that’s where philosophy comes in.  There are two polar directions of thought – the analytic and the synthetic. To generalize, the analytic seeks precision and digs down into each problem, it is keen on definition, logic and precision in language, it weighs empirical evidence, it appears scientific.  It avoids the vague, the touchy-feely or the intuitive. At its most extreme, it breeds the professional philosophical nerd, whose latest paper will be read and understood by no more than a handful of people, and who has successfully defined his or her position on the question in hand with reference to its subtle differences from those of all other thinkers. But, more generally, it is the process whereby big issues (should Britain remain within the EU?) tend to reduce to detailed economic projections (is there a definitive answer to the question as to whether we will be statistically better or worse off, as individuals or a nation, if we Brexit?) and the resulting profusion of detail tends to cloud rather than clarify the essential questions. Chancellors know that it is difficult to predict economic performance one year, or even six months, ahead; and yet there is endless wrangling about whether the average family will by better or worse off by a small amount ten years hence on the basis of this year’s decision.  We know, as we study the figures, that they will not persuade. It is not just the margins of error involved, or the questionable assumptions upon which they are based, but the fact that they only satisfy those who have already been obsessing about figures.  In the end, the big issue is about Britain’s place in the world, and whether Europe can act coherently, whether economically or politically. But those questions seem too big, so we analyze particular factors and economic implications, balance one thing against another and soon start to sink into an analytic quicksand within which we are never going to discover a simply holistic answer.  When we finally vote, it is mostly based on intuition, not the balancing of charts and figures.

The tendency to analytic rather than synthetic thought has cursed almost all areas.  Neo-liberalism – the unspoken political and economic assumption of our day – allows us to reduce many political decisions to a weighing of economic benefits and the unchallenged assumption that everyone wants minimum regulation and maximum economic freedom, a view that mostly benefits the wealthy, but which may be packaged as the economic theory of choice (however unrealistic in practice) to those further down the economic pecking order who nevertheless aspire to better things.  That GDP may be a fraction of one percent greater or smaller is not really an answer to what I want out of life, but it may be packaged as such.

Stopping and asking ‘Why?’ whether in politics, economics, or photography, is healthy because it forces us to adopt a synthetic approach – linking the particular to the overall, checking meaning in its widest context.  And that is why I, personally, regard existential questions as the most important.  If we know why we are doing something (or indeed why we are doing anything) then we can set about finding the ‘how’ – thought then becomes a functional and pragmatic challenge with a purpose already in mind.

So, as I go into recovery from this latest attack, I salute synthetic thinking – looking up and making connections, asking the most general of all questions.  And that is why I have never given up on the Philosophy of Religion, despite the fact that many of its questions and arguments are still mired in literalism and supernaturalism.  It is a branch of philosophy that encourages us to explore the ultimate context – to ask the ‘why’, to seek a sense of meaning that we intuit but cannot define.

On the other hand, if you want advice on the best focal length and aperture combination…   Aaaaaagh!

Tuesday, 19 January 2016

The horror of recalling long-lost thoughts

It came over me again yesterday as I sat in my office, the horror at all those lost thoughts and arguments. I felt it in the pit of my stomach, inducing a kind of vertigo.  I’m starting to recover, but the experience still lurks in the back of my mind, mocking the attempt to set down anything like a coherent argument.

It started innocently enough. I wanted to check something for a book I am writing about the theologian Paul Tillich, and went to my bookshelves. Pulling down a well-worn compilation of essays on his thought, produced back in the 1960s, I came across some really good and relevant material. But, in scanning it, I could not ignore my earlier underlinings, exclamation marks and comments in the margin. Fifty years ago I had been enthused by this stuff, inspired even. But then it was lost to me, overlaid by other arguments, ideas, articles, books. Suddenly it seemed to me as though the ideas were receding away into a void.

Then the horror really struck. For these were wonderful arguments, unpacking important issues. They showed a richness of thought, and yet – like leafmould – they had been lost beneath the surface of my consciousness. Here was an appreciation of religious ideas that was subtle, nuanced, not taking sides as in combat, but exploring them to get a rounded view.  And what had I done with it? Simplification, summary, the making accessible, the delivery of exactly the right number of words in the all-too-short timeframe of a publishing schedule; the frustration of trying to explain, whilst subtleties slip by unexplored. 

And then I thought of the cascades of tweets I attempt to scan briefly each day, tweets which often link to articles of real value or significant book reviews.  I dip for a moment into that stream and am often lucky. But in the brief moments while I explore one link, a host of other tweets passes me by, each one of which might (if I were to be naively optimistic) hold things of equal value.

And all this material, all these ideas, flee across our screens into the void. And our own brief words, however deeply felt, might hope to get no more than a quick ‘like’ in passing before they expire. Oh the horror of all that lost thought.  And there's always pressure to produce more, academics are under pressure to publish, educational writers try to keep pace with changing exam specifications, authors are expected to be active on social media, to hone their profiles, to keep up an interesting stream of material to build a readership. And it flows and flows... but mostly into a void. Time seals it off from its readers. Books go out of print and those on library shelves eventually become tattered and are sold off. And yet... all those wonderful ideas going to waste, lost to new readers.

I’d love to start again, to return to my bookshelves and appreciate again the arguments and insights massed in those long-since-closed books; but there is no time in this short life to return over the decades to re-read or use all that stuff.

And this has come fresh to my mind now as I sit before the heaped piles of notes and early draft material for my new book about two theologians who faced one another across the mud and barbed wire of Verdun in 1916.  A couple of years ago, sorting out copies of the ‘Teilhard Journal’, I came across an article of mine from the early 1970s entitled ‘Through Mud and Barbed Wire: notes for an unwritten book.’  And it had remained unwritten and forgotten for 40 years.  A simple coincidence, two great thinkers describing life on either side of the same battlefield – and yet here I sit surrounded by endless notes on the huge impact of the Great War on the 20th century and the development – for good or ill – of religious ideas over the century.

The horror of battle – particularly at Verdun – is the way in which rank upon rank of men hurl themselves forward into destruction, into a hell of mud and exploding shells, deprived even of a semblance of glory at engaging the enemy as they encounter only the incoming scream of shells and the showers of mud.  Hundreds of thousands of men were killed on those slopes, French and German together in the mud, inseparable in death, their bones now lying together in the great ossuary at Douaumont. The horror of lost lives.

And why write of it? Perhaps to do homage to two great thinkers who inspired me and whose lives and thoughts were shaped a century ago on that battlefield. Perhaps because, by chance, I have a new angle on things already written about so many times.

And yet, ‘vanity of vanities,’ all this hurtles towards the void of lost thought, that body of past writing in which only the greatest works make their permanent mark, and even then are at the mercy of later commentators and the mangling of over-simplification.  And yet we still do it; still add to the layers of thought, still over-simplify in our attempts to sum up and explain; still launch words towards the void; still tweet feebly into the howling gale.  It's a compulsion to spin the logical yarn, to make sense of things, to share things seen, to get it off our chests.  Live for the moment, live for the words on the paper and the work of trying to hone sentences into shape, live for the moments - however few - when ideas and words flow.  

Monday, 23 November 2015

Violence in God’s Name

Violence in God’s Name by Oliver McTernan (Darton, Longman and Todd, 2003)

Never have I found a book, plucked by chance from a library shelf, more immediately relevant.  On Thursday November 12th, the day before the terrorist attacks in Paris, I came across Oliver McTernan’s Violence in God’s Name in the library of King’s College, London.  Although published 12 years ago, the issues it deals with are equally those that face us today, with the on-going violence of the so-called Islamic State and other terrorist groups. It should be required reading for all religious and political leaders, for it provides an honest and hard-hitting analysis of the phenomenon of violence carried out in the name of God, seeks to understand the phenomenon of religious violence, and how it may be countered. As we mourn the recent deaths in Paris, Egypt and Mali, feeling revulsion at the madness of the slaughter, we need to look honestly and carefully at such violence in order to understand it, and thus stand a more realistic chance of opposing it.

No brief summary here can do justice to McTernan’s research and arguments, but I would like to share just a few reflections of my own on themes that the book explores and which seem to me to be of the utmost importance:

Within all of the world’s major religious traditions there have been, at various times in their history, groups that have used violence in an attempt to impose their particular religious view.  Killing in the name of God is therefore a fact with which all religions need to come to terms.  Within a European and Christian context, for example, one has only to recall the terrible loss of life during the ‘wars of religion’ in the 16th century, or the merciless persecution of groups – such as the Cathars in southern France.   Therefore it makes no sense to blame Islam as a religion for what is now being done in its name by a fanatical minority, unless one is also prepared to say that such violence is a potential within all religion and thus that all religion is in some way implicated. Extreme religion thrives on confrontation and hopes to provoke it, because it takes a binary view of the world; we should therefore be very wary of falling into the trap of allowing extremism to drive a wedge between the broad religious and cultural traditions.  ‘Islam’ is no more to blame for the actions of these fanatics than ‘democracy’ is to blame for all that is done by political regimes that include ‘democratic’ within their title!

But that does not mean that the extremists are not religiously motivated. The post-Enlightenment tendency to see religion as a purely personal matter has never done justice to what religion is about, and has largely been used as a way of eliminating religion from the public sphere. All religions express their spiritual values in terms of morality and social justice. To suggest that one should never mix religion and politics is to fail to appreciate the scope of what religion is and has always been.  But it is equally important not to fall into the corresponding reductionist trap of suggesting that the religious element is simply a cover for political, social or economic aims.  Injustice, poverty and repression may serve to recruit disaffected young people to join such groups – but they are not in themselves enough in itself to explain the level of fanatical commitment and personal devotion extreme religious motivation.  If people say that they are acting in the name of God, we may argue that they are deluded, that their interpretation of religion is wrong-headed and narrow, that their idea of God is barbaric, and so on, but we cannot say with any certainty that they are being dishonest.  So religious fanaticism needs to be taken seriously as religion, if there is to be any chance of understanding and countering it. 

By taking a literal interpretation of narrowly selected religious texts, religious groups are able to justify violence.  They tend to refuse academic scholarship, or any attempt to contextualize or critically analyse scripture. They seek a clear mandate; one which will place them at the forefront of a new world order; one which will release them from the normal ambiguities of life and its limited aspirations; one that will purify and free them, even through death. An absolute conviction that one is right and the rest of the world – including the majority of those who share one’s own religious and cultural background – are wrong, and that God is on one’s side, is utterly empowering. 

My sad conclusion is that the very power of religion, which can be such a force for good, can also, if it takes this narrow and fanatical path, produce a hideous distortion of the very positive things - a sense of belonging, personal value and meaning, and the opportunity to devote oneself to a cause – that religion can offer.

One implication of taking the religious aspect of terrorism seriously, of course, is that military or political action against religious terrorists has its dangers. It is necessary to counter acts of violence and to prevent terrorism, but it is unlikely to be enough in itself to eradicate the problem. Worse, the use of military force inevitably runs the risk of civilian casualties, which is likely to feed the confrontation upon which terrorist groups thrive.

There are no easy answers here, and recent history has shown that the attempt to fix one problem may only serve to create another.  My few thoughts here are simply offered because – often for the best intentions – there is a desire to minimize the religious element in this terrorism. Since the Enlightenment, some have been too ready to assume that religion is in inevitable decline, to be replaced by science, reason and harmony among peoples.  I do not observe that to be the case. Religion is both powerful and dangerous. It can ignite deep feelings and provide motivation for great acts of heroism and self-sacrifice.  Sadly, however, it can also produce the very opposite. 

Political and military action will be needed to counter terrorism, but also education – for the best Religious Education offers the opportunity to examine the world’s religious traditions, the values they espouse and the way in which their scriptures may be interpreted.  Hopefully, it might also illustrate the shortcomings of the religious arguments of the extremists, but also of the larger fraternity of fundamentalists in every religion. Religious Education – if done well, and I have no illusions about the ability of RE to be done in a partisan and unhelpful way – gives young people the tools to understand and evaluate religious literature and traditions, and hopefully thereby to provide them with what they need to reject the claims of those who would ‘radicalise’ them.  To be a radical, in the true sense, is to get to the heart of the matter, the fundamental beliefs and values which a religion promotes. Sadly, the terms ‘fundamentalist’ and ‘radical’ have been appropriated by some who use them to indicate only a literal application of a very limited range of ideas, which fail to do justice to the broader traditions from which they are taken.

But, to return to where I started. McTernan’s book is a valuable contribution to the debate about how best to contain terrorism done in the name of religion. It’s examples may reflect the turn of the century and the aftermath of 9/11, but its arguments remain compelling.  It’s a reasonably expensive paperback, but I see that there are used copies available on Amazon, and some, like me, may be fortunate enough to find it in a library – and if it’s not there, order it!