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Archive for the ‘Comment’ Category

Comment contains my thoughts on various topics as they come to me.

Is philosophy relevant to the 21st Century? Why?

Posted by Philosophy Foundation on November 16, 2011

Obviously The Philosophy Foundation and its supporters think that the answer to this is a resounding YES!

But on World Philosophy Day (this year held on November 17th) we want to hear as many different reasons from our readers and friends as possible. So we are handing over to you. Tell us why you this philosophy is relevant to the 21st Century. And as this is philosophy we’d also welcome thoughts on why philosophy is not relevant today.


Posted in Comment | Tagged: , , , , | 1 Comment »

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.


Posted in Arguments, Comment | Tagged: , , | 12 Comments »

Response to The Observer: What dilemma would you give a five-year-old?

Posted by Philosophy Foundation on April 14, 2009

I was very interested to read the questions – and the reasons for the questions – that four personalities put forward as philosophical questions for five-year-olds inspired by our work in The Observer this weekend.

Diane Abbot’s question reflected a current fear of youth in our society. I watched a very disturbing film recently called Eden Lake, which reflects the same fear. Her answer to the Observer’s question raises further pressing questions about moral education and some may wonder about the value of asking children to consider the nature of good and evil and whether a philosophical discussion of the topic would have any power to shape their moral behaviour especially as philosophy often remains morally neutral.

I think, however, that philosophy does engender moral mindfulness and philosophers are among the most moral people you will meet. Outside of religion, philosophy is the only context in which moral considerations are taken seriously and I think that it benefits from not having a particular agenda – children naturally kick against that which they feel is too prescriptive. The writer and philosophy-with-children practitioner, Robert Fisher, has distinguished between operational and received beliefs. Received beliefs are the beliefs that the children hear from parents and teachers and operational beliefs are those that the children hold implicitly – often formed from their own experiences and peers – that function to produce their actual behaviour. Received and operational beliefs are often at odds but philosophical discourse provides an opportunity to explore these discrepancies in greater detail and results in a higher degree of concordance between the two. On many occasions I have seen children reconsider their moral behaviour as a result of discussions they have had in the philosophy groups. Unsophisticated moral discussions, on the other hand, tend to follow this pattern: ask the children straight-forward moral questions and they will answer according to what they perceive the teacher to be expecting. All this does is provide an invisible barrier between what they will tell you and what they will do. It is much more difficult for the children to make this distinction in a natural discussion that includes motivations, contexts and real behaviour patterns and they will be less likely to want to manufacture perceived desired-answers if they do not detect judgement in the questioning.

Donald Macleod’s response I found puzzling, but, as I understood it, he seemed to be expressing exasperation at the sort of questions he gets from children. It reveals more about him than it does children. Perhaps because he is a representative of a religious perspective, he feels that he must have answers, but the key to the insistent use of “but why?” (Proof, by the way, that we are hardwired with a Leibnizian pre-disposition from the earliest of ages: the principle of sufficient reason, it’s just that children are able to spot that adults reasons are, on the whole, insufficient) from children is to properly engage them with their questioning. So, rather than answering with a definitive answer-structure, try answering the child’s question with a dialogue, an investigation or a conceptual exploration, at each point, allowing the child to answer their own question as far as they are able. It sounds like Donald Macleod is used to providing definitive answers to questions, it’s just that children uncomfortably bring to his (and our) attention the extent of his (and our) ignorance about things. The lesson? We need to learn to become more comfortable with our ignorance and lack of knowledge, especially when we find ourselves in the position of a teacher. As Socrates said: “wisest is she who knows that she know nothing.”

Mary Warnock sounds to me as though she has experience of speaking with young children on philosophical matters, as what she says sounds very familiar to me: colour and robots are perennial favourites with children. “How do I know that what I see when I see red is the same thing as what you see when you see red?” Asked one of my year 5 (age 10) students. “CB [a robot friend built for a boy by his father] only has emotions because of the emotion chip inside him. So it seems like he’s got emotions but inside he hasn’t really,” said a Year 4 (age 9) girl. This point is a very sophisticated observation that the outward display of behaviour is not conclusive evidence that there is accompanying experience matching that behaviour (sometimes known, in philosophy, as ‘the problem of other minds’ and is a big question in artificial-intelligence debates.) A question that emerged from a discussion with some Year 3 children that I think Mary would be very interested in was: can you blame a chair if it breaks when you sit on it? A fittingly existential question I think.

Barbara Gunnell’s question raises some very interesting questions itself about the relationship between philosophy and the disposition of children towards asking questions. Plato said that “philosophy begins in wonder,” and, although I agree with this wholeheartedly I think something needs to be clarified about this idea. Philosophy begins from a state of wonder that children naturally inhabit but it is important to recognise that ‘philosophy’ is not the same thing as ‘wonder’. In other words, there is a difference between asking questions and doing philosophy. Just like a seed in the soil, children need the right conditions for their question-asking to germinate into genuine philosophical enquiries and this depends very much on how we respond to those questions. In a way, philosophy is about asking ‘why?’ but it is also about how to turn the why-asking into something interesting, constructive and of value. Arguably, science, learning – and education generally – has come from doing just this, so, if we can learn, both as parents and teachers to respond in the philosophical spirit we can provide those conditions at an early age, and by doing so, prepare the children to continue in the spirit of philosophy their entire lives. All the other curriculum subjects depend on it.


Posted in Comment, Education | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Mind-play: philosophy with children and its critics

Posted by Philosophy Foundation on April 10, 2009

In an article in the Daily Mail on the 9th April in which our (The Philosophy Shop) work was featured, Nick Seaton, chairman of the Campaign for Real Education was quoted as saying: “considering how many youngsters leave education without a fundamental grasp of the basics, schools should concentrate on building a foundation of knowledge for youngsters in the limited time they have.”

I would like to respond to this and, at the same time, respond to the more general objection to philosophy with young children: ‘what’s the point?’

Philosophy is not a well-meaning add-on to normal lessons that interferes more than helps with the national curriculum element of children’s learning. Philosophy deals with the very fundamental building blocks of all knowledge, namely concepts, and it seems to me that the problems children have with education are mainly conceptual problems. They learn a great deal of facts and procedures but whether they properly understand these facts and procedures is contentious (see my blog Good Thinking vs. The Right Answer for a discussion of this). Children need opportunities to apply these new concepts so that they begin to understand how they are used. Testing is one very artificial way of doing this but philosophy is a natural context for trying out new ideas and lines of reasoning and argument playfully but also very seriously. And philosophy has the unique ability to be applied to almost any subject from maths to R.E. and enables the children to gain the understanding of these subjects that simply learning the procedures involved in them fails to do.

Teachers that I work with have recognised a real value in using the philosophy sessions to aid their national curriculum work and assessment. For example, after spending a few weeks putting the children through a science module on ‘sound’ in Year 5, then following this with a philosophy session on ‘sound’ asking children questions like ‘can you see with sound?’ (like bats or dolphins) and ‘if a tree falls in a forest with nobody around to hear it, would it make a sound?’ visibly allows the children to apply the knowledge they have gained in science to imagined situations. The teacher is able to see exactly who has understood the concepts they have been introduced to and also what has not been understood. It also enables the children to work through their understanding together so that by the end of the session the understanding level within the class will have been raised.

When lions are growing in the wild they play almost continuously and it is this play that develops the skills that will be so necessary to them as adults and in the same manner the best playground for the children to develop their essential thinking skills is the philosophy session. Maybe there is something here for future testing reform. If testing should continue – which I think it probably will need to – then a more natural context that tests children while they play might be the future of assessment and using the philosophy model could be the way to approach this.

Karin Muriss has argued that there should be a fourth R: reasoning. It boils down to this: what use is reading, writing and arithmetic if one does not know how to apply it properly? Socrates said that true opinions are a fine thing but they do no good if they are not accompanied with understanding and good reasoning. If the three Rs are the water then the fourth R provides the channels through which the water is given direction and purpose.

Posted in Comment, Education | Tagged: , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Generation Why

Posted by Philosophy Foundation on February 7, 2009

(This is a longer version of a letter that was published in the TES, Friday 13th February 2009 as a response to Tim Birkhead’s article the previous week – see below.)

I agree with Tim Birkhead (We’ve bred a generation unable to think TES Comment Feb 6th) that the education system has not been producing independent thinkers by being far too proscriptive with the learning agenda. A colleague of mine who has worked in the philosophy department of a prestigious university commented to me that the expectations of the students have become more and more consumerist with each passing year. So not content to be set an essay question and some reading they have been demanding to know what the six main points are that they need to include in the essay in order to pass. Their position being: ‘I paid for this course so I demand to know what I need to do to pass it.’ What ever happened to philosophy as a subject of inquiry and exploration? Perhaps a little like Willy Wonker in Roald Dahl’s story Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The department’s answer to this should be: ‘You have failed already by making that demand.’

There is also a climate of anti intellectualism in this country and by the sound of Professor Birkhead’s article it is worsening. Bertrand Russell celebrated the British intellectual attitude when he said, “The British are distinguished among the modern nations of Europe, on the one hand by the excellence of their philosophers, and on the other hand for their contempt for philosophy. In both respects they show their wisdom.” Unfortunately, perhaps the virtues to which Russell was referring have dissolved into vices.

I work with teachers and children in primary schools and I am tackling this problem head on by doing philosophy with children and by bringing thinking skills (including questioning and discourse skills) into the classroom. I have found that, certainly at the primary level, children are naturally very good thinkers and all they need is a nudge in the right direction. The sad fact is that all too often they don’t even receive a nudge. Terms like ‘independent learners’ and ‘learner-centred’ are common  features of teacher-speak, but there is not enough evidence that it is being implemented in the classroom.

With regard to the critical thinking ‘A’ level, it is of little use if good thinking is not being taught at an earlier level. Good thinking is a disposition, it can’t be crammed in a short time (and as far as I am concerned one or two years is a short time to develop one’s thinking), it has to be naturalised earlier so that an ‘A’ level in critical thinking is honing those skills and not trying to introduce them. It would be like expecting a student to be able to do an ‘A’ level in a foreign language without having done any previous studies in the subject. Another colleague of mine who runs the ‘A’ level in critical thinking tells me how difficult it is to run with the current thinking abilities of today’s students. Surely thinking should be thought of in the same way as we think of nutrition, it must be addressed at the early stages of a student’s formation and cannot be introduced arbitrarily at the later stages and be expected to have a significant effect. One is left wondering if good thinking/independent learning really is recognised as the value education purports it to be. 


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