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Archive for August, 2011

Religion, Arguments and Editing

Posted by Philosophy Foundation on August 16, 2011

Oliver Leech MPhil writes a philosophical argument about God, but also invites you in to a meta-level discussion about the problems of working with the press:


The New Statesman (July 25th, 2011) published an article called ‘Faith No More’ by Andrew Zak Williams. In its heading readers were reminded that earlier in the year the magazine had asked public figures why they believed in God. In ‘Faith No More’ another set of public figures, this time atheists, were invited to explain why they did not believe in God.

The atheist public figures included writers, scientists, philosophers and humanists; among them Philip Pulman, Richard Dawkins, Polly Toynbee and Stephen Hawking.

I read the article keen to learn the key reasons for contemporary atheism and noted that one recurring very frequently was ‘lack of evidence’. For example, Richard Dawkins wrote: ‘I don’t believe in leprechauns, pixies, werewolves, jujus, Thor, Poseidon, Yahweh, Allah or the Trinity. For the same reason in every case: there is not the tiniest shred of evidence for any of them and the burden of proof rests with those who wish to believe.’

From my very basic understanding of the philosophy of religion I realised that this approach to the question of the existence of God was wrongly directed. Why? It assumes that asking whether or not God exists is the same sort of enquiry as trying to find out whether a particular object (from a black hole to a red herring) exists among other objects. A comparable misunderstanding might be looking for a washing machine by opening a door and searching among socks, shirts and underwear. The error is to confuse an item with that which contains the item. What believers take God to be – and whether they are right or not is a completely different question – is that on which the whole universe depends not an item capable of being discovered within the universe.

In an attempt to contribute this point to the discussion I emailed the following letter to the New Statesman. Before reading it please note that it is not in any way meant to present a counter argument, to make a case for the existence of God. The aim was simply to point out that this particular ground for atheism, the lack of evidence argument, is based on a definition of God that serious students of religion do not actually hold.  Now, whether there exists or not such an entity, namely, that on which the universe depends is a very challenging question but not one about which my letter was concerned.

in response to Faith No More by Andrew Zak Williams (New Statesman 25th July, 2011)

‘I was fascinated to read the reasons given by ‘public figures’ for their atheism. Prominent among them was the lack of evidence argument. The practical difficulty of proving the non-existence of God was acknowledged but then came the telling point that in general we do not believe to exist whatever we cannot prove not to exist. Examples offered were leprechauns, werewolves, goblins, fairies, pixies and gnomes. There is no need to show that they do not exist to have no faith in them.

In relation to the question of the existence or non-existence of God, however, this approach can be challenged. Leprechauns etc. are possible items in the universe. Since there is no evidence that such items are to be found anywhere in the universe, we dismiss them. The Higgs-Boson is a possible item in the universe. Experiments in the Hadron Collider are intended to show whether or not there is evidence for its existence. So in the case of items in the universe evidence is rightly regarded as the basis for belief or disbelief.

The term God has many interpretations but it is not standard belief to the best of my knowledge to assert that God is a potential item in the universe whose existence might or not be brought to light by evidence. To think in such terms as many of the respondents in the article did is to make a category mistake. God as usually defined is not one thing among many things accessible to observation and experiment but rather that on which the universe depends for its existence.

The objection raised here is not in any way intended to serve as a contrasting proof of the existence of God but merely to point out what I take to be a mistaken approach to the question.’

The New Statesman (8th August, 2011) published my letter but in a much edited form, just one paragraph of it in fact, as you can see below:

‘The term God has many interpretations but it is not standard belief to the best of my knowledge to assert that God is a potential item in the universe whose existence might or not be brought to light by evidence. To think in such terms as many of the respondents in the article did is to make a category mistake. God is not one thing among many things accessible to observation and experiment but rather that on which the universe depends for its existence. ‘

Not only has all the philosophical argument been omitted but the crucial phrase in the penultimate paragraph after the word God ‘as usually defined’. I can quite understand that a reader would assume from the printed form of the letter that its author was responding to rational argument with a dollop of dogma. No wonder the following letter appeared in the New Statesman (15th August, 2011):

‘Oliver Leech (Letters, 8 August) grandly asserts that “God is … that on which the universe depends for its existence”. He also states that it is a “category mistake” to think that any evidence is require to demonstrate  God’s existence. So that’s all right, then. Would it be judged ironic to ask Mr Leech politely on what he therefore bases his remarkable assertion?’ Max Fishel, Bromley, Greater London

What does this all amount to? It has certainly been a learning experience for me. I now know if I did not before that almost any statement about religion is open to misunderstanding and especially if there is a Chinese whispers effect as clearly happened here when the New Statesman, carelessly or mischievously to provoke, put a spin on an attempt to join in a reasoned debate.




New Statesman Letters, 8th August, 2011 printed one paragraph of my letter in response to ‘Faith No More’ by Andrew Zak Williams (25th July, 2011).

I understand that letters need to be edited and reduced in length but why did you omit from that paragraph the crucial phrase (after the word ‘God’) ‘as usually defined’, a phrase that makes all the difference to the point I was trying to make, except deliberately to change a rational argument into what reads like a piece of religious dogmatism. It can only be a mischievous attempt to provoke a response based on a misunderstanding of what I wrote which is exactly what you got in the letter you published from Max Fishel (15th August, 2011). I thought that the New Statesman was a magazine devoted to serious subjects discussed in a grown-up way.

Oliver Leech

PS Please send a copy of my letter as you received it to Max Fishel. It is not his fault that he got the wrong end of the stick.



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Can philosophy help with the rioting?

Posted by Philosophy Foundation on August 9, 2011

The first response to this is that ‘critical thinking’ or ‘reasoning’ is merely the difference between irrational criminals and rational ones. Or, those that get caught and those that don’t!

Here’s an argument for a positive role for philosophy in the context of the motivations behind the riots:

Having conducted many philosophical enquiries with the very children in Lewisham who are – or may one day be – involved in the kind of behaviour we are seeing as part of the London riots, I have also witnessed the following. During (and as a result of) the discussions children very often begin with intuitions and beliefs that they feel strongly about and would clearly be prepared to act upon. However, following a philosophical enquiry that is structured and disciplined, I have also often seen these very children change their mind or realise that their starting assumptions are wrong. I cannot say to what extent this rational reflection impacts on their actual behaviour, but I can comment on what I see taking place with, I believe, sincerely spoken thoughts and reflections from the children.

Now, if it is the case that a child (or anyone for that matter) can change their mind about a belief that they are prepared to act upon through rational reflection then it follows that they may – or may be more likely to – recognise that beliefs they find themselves holding in the future, beliefs they are about to act upon, are also open to challenge and revaluation. They may (or be more likely to) therefore refrain from acting on that belief. They may (or be more likely to) even refine their belief to include other points of view for instance, or logical analysis, or moral considerations etc.

Philosophical enquiry can (and does) provide the tools for the sort of reflection that is clearly not going on when the youths of the August 8th night act upon what they believe to be good justifications (when there are justifications at all) for looting or rioting.

Crazy as it may sound, I believe that philosophy, for the reasons given above, can help to tackle some of the underlying problems that lie behind the looting and rioting that we are seeing happening at the time this author is writing (from Lewisham!)

By Peter Worley 9/8/11

See also Anarchy in the UK: philosophy a luxury or a necessity by Emma Worley

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Anarchy in the UK: Philosophy, a luxury or a necessity?

Posted by Philosophy Foundation on August 9, 2011

It was during the student riots in the late 1960’s in America that the first ‘Philosophy for Children’ novel, Harry Stottlemeier’s Discovery, was written (1969). Matthew Lipman, a professor of philosophy at Columbia University was troubled by the lack of dialogue and dialogical abilities among students (and between students and faculty members!). The book was intended to help further education students learn to reason and dialogue.

At times like these I’m sure many people are not thinking about philosophy and how it can help, or how it could have helped. Philosophy is generally seen as a luxury, some say the Ancient Greeks had time for philosophy because they had slaves. Most philosophers have come from the middle and upper-classes, and today in the UK it is seen as something done in Universities by academics, not something that is practical or even accessible to many people.

However, every description of the rioters includes ‘unthinking’ and ‘mindless’ within them (and if it’s Theresa May then ‘criminal’ and ‘criminality’ are also a running theme). Disaffected youths are rioting and looting the streets at night in numbers that are overpowering the police. A perfect storm perhaps caused by a lack of trust in those running the country, anger at bankers, police, the media, the economic meltdown, austerity, the example of scenes from the ‘Arab Spring’, and the young being taught about rights, but not about responsibilities? And perhaps a great deal more.

Can philosophy possibly help? More rational rioters? “Do you bite your thumb at me sir? No, sir. But I bite my thumb sir.” Perhaps not philosophy in the ‘history of ideas’ sense (although this can come in to it), but philosophical dialogue and communities of enquiry based on reasoning, reflection and critical thinking really can help. A community of enquiry or philosophical dialogue can help build community cohesion: people talking together to consider the best course of action for their own communities. Rethinking ideas as a group, re-evaluating their own and others ideas, learning to listen and to understand each other, to build on other people’s thinking and to internalize this dialogue so they can critically evaluate their own thinking. Philosophical enquiry not only helps a community as a whole, but also individuals within the enquiry.

In Dr Catherine McCall’s book ‘Transforming Thinking’ she talks about her method of Community of Philosophical Inquiry (CoPI) for children and communities. “Engaging in a CoPI over an extended period of time transforms individual participants and improves their life chances. It is not that the participants learn skills that they can use in other settings; rather, they themselves are changed, and everything they then do is different from what it would have been had they not been part of a CoPI. This is why children behave differently in the playground, at home and in the community – not just in the classroom.”

McCall then goes on to describe a community project she ran from 1994-1995 in a deprived area of Glasgow. The aim of the project was to reduce aggression and violence in Castlemilk. Other initiatives had failed and philosophy was a last resort: the funders decided to take a risk and try to develop a Community of Philosophical Inquiry across the Protestant-Catholic divide. Four groups of children and three groups of adults were created with people from across the sectors to engage in philosophical inquiry. Not only was this the first time these people were engaging in philosophy, it was the first time they were engaging in dialogue with those from the opposite sectarian group.

The results? As the groups of children and adults developed their philosophical reasoning skills and became a member of a community with their traditional ‘enemies’ their behavior changed. Violence decreased and the hold the respective gang leaders had over the communities was diminished.

“The results of the project demonstrated the benefits both for individual children and for the community or society. Individual children improved their performance in school, their behaviour changed, and they gained the opportunity to get to know a whole segment of their community they would not otherwise have known. Society benefited directly from the reduction in violence and the lessening of the gang leaders’ power, as well as from the presence in the community of people who now had the skills and disposition to become active citizens and make further changes in their community.”

The importance of individuals questioning society should not be underestimated. Hannah Arendt called Adolf Eichmann’s unquestioning administrative work during the Nazi regime ‘the banality of evil’. His ‘unthinking’ passive life led to atrocities being committed.  But you need to learn how to question, and how to evaluate the answers you are given. Questioning society does not mean throwing bricks and burning down shops and homes. Questioning involves dialogue. It involves listening and it involves thinking.

When we talk of a ‘Big Society’ and communities we also need to consider the individuals within the community and how to help them. It is through individuals learning to think autonomously, learning to question and not follow the crowd, thinking about how their actions will have consequences in their own community and for themselves that we can help develop a more collaborative, cohesive and caring community.

Philosophy has been seen to be a luxury, but it is not. It surrounds us and we cannot escape it, nor should we want to. We should use it to help us. Life: the economy, politics, media, society cannot function without thinking. It is all about philosophy.

By Emma Worley, Lewisham 9th August 2011

See also Peter Worley’s reflection on the riots: “Can philosophy help with rioting?”

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