Philosophy and Ethics

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

Wednesday, 29 April 2015

Can the lyrics to "Henery VIII' resolve arguments for the existence of God?

I reckon one of the most innocently funny music hall songs ever, written by Murray and Weston in 1910,  is ‘Henery the VIII’ – although, of course, it should always be pronounced ‘Enery’ and rendered in a cockney accent.

It is also useful in assessing arguments for the existence of God. Let me explain, with a critical analysis of the lyrics:

I’m Henery the eighth I am
Henery the eighth I am, I am

[At this point, it is clear that the speaker has made a claim that is totally unreasonable and not capable of being substantiated by facts. Henry VIII was a Tudor monarch of the 16th century; and thus any such identity claim, made by a living person in the 21st century, is clearly bogus. It may be explained psychologically as stemming from wish fulfillment, a desire to identify one’s own actions with that of a powerful figure, or a false memory of a former life, but it cannot be factually true.  Whatever argument follows, you are therefore predisposed to regard it as a fruitless attempt to give rational justification for an irrational belief.]

I got married to the widow next door
She’s been married seven times before

[Both reasonable claims, able to be substantiated by the facts.]

And every one was an Henery
She wouldn’t have a Willy or a Sam (no Sam)

[This starts with what appears to be a most unlikely coincidence – indeed, the chance that a person will marry seven men of the same name, given the incidence of that name within the male population as a whole, renders it unlikely to be point of being practically impossible.  However, the following line negates that conclusion, since it has been her personal wish to select only those instances of eligible males who have the name ‘Henery.’  That subjective preference eliminates the vast number of possible candidates and enables what was otherwise improbable to take place.]

I’m her eighth old man called Henery
Henery the eighth I am.

[The first of these lines simply sums up the factual situation, and provide the context within which we are to understand the meaning of ‘Henery VIII,’ while the final one re-presents the original claim, but now backed by a perfectly logical argument.]

Much the same happens, in my view, with arguments for the existence of God. Those who are predisposed to reject such arguments may well have a conventional (but perhaps rather literal) notion of that to which the term ‘God’ refers. And it is reasonable that they should do so, because it follows common usage and the liturgy and doctrinal claims of the monotheistic religions.

The traditional arguments for the existence of God – ontological, cosmological and design (moral arguments and those based on religious experience are rather different in this respect) – use logic to unpack and explain the believer’s understanding of that term and how he or she is using it.  The end product – whether it is ‘that than which no greater can be conceived’, a first cause, or a principle of design – places ‘God’ within the speaker’s frame of meaning – just as the lyrics place ‘Henery VIII’ in the context of the speaker’s marital situation.

The conventional arguments explain what ‘God’ means to the speaker – and that meaning is valid for him or her, once the facts and logic substantiating it are given. What is NOT achieved by such explanation, however, is any link back from that meaning to what those who heard the original claim may have assumed to be the case.

Arguments for the existence of God give the frameworks of meaning within which the term ‘God’ is being used – THAT AND NO MORE can be justified logically. Whether that framework of meaning is useful, productive, creative and of personal benefit is quite another matter. But once discussion has been established at that level, both sides can productively explore the needs and aspirations of human beings, not engage in impossible speculation about the existence or otherwise of some externally existing origin, cause or design of things. 

Henery VIII is not what you might have thought he was, but neither is God.

Wednesday, 1 April 2015

Why is a General Election like the overgrown shell of a car?

Vibrant and often destructive - is this an appropriate image for the 2015 General Election?

Abandoned to nature, this old car is becoming chaotic and vibrant. Neat lines and designed elements are colonised by weeds, all seeking an opportunity to grow and flourish in a competitive environment. To me, this is a suitable image for the political situation in the UK at the moment. With the calling of a General Election, there is a riot of political energy and activity, the savage competitiveness of the organic is revealed beneath the supposedly rational principles of good government. This is what happens when nature, fear, aspiration and competition take over.

The burst of enthusiasm and the presenting of political aspirations is tempered only by the desperate fear, on the part of those who organise the campaigns, of loss of control. Everything is scripted, themes set for each day, promises honed to appeal to the middle ground that is needed to secure victory, and yet there is an air of suppressed hysteria. The fear is that, cornered by a reporter or member of the public there will be that unscripted gaff that suddenly give the lie to the overall script; the off-air comment that reveals genuine feelings and intentions; the moment of embarrassment when the script cannot be made to fit the demands of the persistent questioner. The truth may suddenly out, or the purveyed dream shown to be a superficial tissue of promises that cannot, with the best will in the world, be kept.

In this jungle-like environment, the partisan pretend to be patriotic; the extreme appear to present moderate reasonableness; the bewildered or unsure hide behind the certainties of their script. The election is called and the power of the organic starts to colonise the designed and presented lines of political order.

For this rotting car, the organic colonisation is terminal. What was once sold as a new dream, an object of desire, the hope and symbol of better times ahead, will – with an inevitability that is universal in a world where everything changes – eventually give way to the forces of nature. Never to be return to its functional self, except for those rare occasions when an enthusiast is prepared to lovingly coax back a vintage wreck to its former glory, the parts of the car vanish beneath the surge of new organic life.  For the political process, however, this is a temporary invasion – an opportunity for Kuhn’s ‘paradigm shift’ to punctuate the business-as-usual routine.  In a couple of months, it will all be over, and those in charge will start the long process of slipping on the promises and muddling through – the business-as-usual of all politics.

Politics has been described as the art of the possible – but it is an art whose life-blood is oxygenated by the exaggerated hopes and fears that will be presented in these next few weeks.

But this one really is going to be an election like no other. It is clear (whatever the final result) that the political life of Britain can no longer be represented fairly by the two major parties. In the immediate post-war period they received all but a tiny minority of votes. Now no party can hope to claim an overall majority of the vote, even if it aspires on our first-part-the-post system to get an overall majority of members of parliament. No matter what the result, the next parliament will be ‘hung’ in terms of a true representation of the people. If, as a result of the present electoral system, the victors try to claim that they (whether as a single party or a coalition) represent what the people have chosen, they will be deceiving themselves as much as they seek to deceive the rest of us.  I would suggest that, somewhere in every MP’s office should be hung a simple reminder ‘You won, but most people did not choose you. How will you represent the them fairly?’

I have two major complaints about the way the present party and electoral system works. The present fight for the middle ground of politics, although necessary to secure a majority, dilutes radical thinking, and thus inhibits exactly those imaginative approaches that alone are likely to provide answers to our present problems.  My other complaint is that all the tightly scripted comments, honed to counter or improve on those of opponents, will mean that the election campaign will inevitably be dominated by short-term tactics rather than the longer-term strategies and visions that alone can benefit the body politic.

Campaigning has become the art of creating a credible illusion. Notice the number of times the words ‘we’ and ‘our country’ are used to distinguish the speaker’s policy from those of his or her opponents. Stirring up tribalism is not the exclusive province of UKIP, but is worked effectively also in the Tory and Labour heartlands; it seeks to present the illusion that the patriotic duty is monopolised by the speaker. It spins an illusion that discounts all others as misguided or malicious.

And underlying so much of this is a crude simplicity that wants to sell a political and economic model that cannot start to do justice to the reality of the modern world.  Presented in terms of personal prudence or running a small business, the idea of austerity in order to balance-the-books might sound plausible, and it is true that the amount paid by governments to service debt is eye-watering (for those whose eyes are unaccustomed to dealing with government expenditure).  But have I missed something here?  I thought the success of a business is generally based on sensible borrowing and investment, of knowing what customers want and need and providing it efficiently and effectively, or pushing the boundaries of the present system in order to provide something better in the future. Any small business that decides that its future will be best served by selectively shutting down its operations, cutting research and development and trying to deliver the very minimum its customers need, would be accused of being defeatist and negative. In the long run, it might look secure on paper, but would hardly take the world by storm. Yet this sadly narrow approach is presented as though it were the only the way forward. Before the days of modern medicine, the letting of blood was seen as the answer to much disease – kill or cure; it does not seem wise to adopt it as the only, or primary, means of achieving a thriving and justly ordered society.

In most spheres of life, success depends on openness to new ideas and a willingness to re-think and respond to changing circumstances.  One of the key features of society that needs to be addressed at the moment is the increasing inequality of income and of opportunity.  Seen most clearly in the obscene bonus culture – not just in the banking sector, but throughout the boardrooms of major companies – it is clear that those at the top of the tree are doing very well; indeed they are considered to be too important to fail, and are often rewarded for what others would consider failure. But at the other extreme, faced with the impossibility of making a decent living there is an increasing underclass of workers who either accept very poor contractual terms of their labour or who seek to become self-employed.  Does anyone really have an idea of the scale of the grey economy? Or the amount of work that is done on a cash basis and no questions asked? Or the number of people who manage to make a living by avoiding the excess paperwork that the taxation system requires?  Further austerity will only encourage the practical ingenuity of those who, in difficult circumstances, get by as best they may.

But I am not totally cynical about the vibrant riot of political life that is taking place at the moment. In spite of the very negative tone adopted by some leading politicians, I believe that most people go into politics because they genuinely want to make a difference and their views, passions and intuitions deserve to be heard.  Sadly in this period of organic colonisation of the body shell of politics, the process of natural selection is likely to ensure that each will seek growth only at the expense of all others.

I will, as usual, unwillingly waste my vote. It will sink unseen into the sediment of those graphs showing the percentage of the popular vote given to each of the parties. I do not live in a marginal constituency, and therefore have little hope that my vote will do other than highlight once again the iniquities of our electoral system.  The only serious justification for the first-past-the-post system was that it provided clear and stable government, with one party dominating the House of Commons, and that it provided Members of Parliament who were genuinely able to represent their local constituents. The first of these no longer holds, and the second is becoming less relevant in a situation where communication and support are sought more often via the web or in the workplace than around the village pump – although it is still important that there should be genuinely local representation. How that is organised on a fairer electoral system may not be straightforward, but should not be impossible to achieve.

So best of luck to one and all on the doorsteps and platforms! Let’s hope that the next few weeks produce a few moments of light relief to give us all a break from the serious business of mortal political combat.