Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Why do religious believers and non-believers see one another as irrational?

Why do religious believers and non-believers see one another as irrational?
Stephen Law

How reasonable is it for the religious to believe the central tenets of their respective religions? According to many atheists: not very. Atheists usually suppose it is in each case unreasonable for Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Bahá'ís, Quakers, Mormons, Scientologists, and so on to believe what they do.

The religious person usually takes a different view of at least their own religious belief. They suppose science and reason do not significantly undermine, and may indeed support, the core tenets of their own faith. The same is true of non-religious theists. They consider their brand of theism is reasonably, or at least not unreasonably, held even if no particular religion is. Indeed, many consider atheism unreasonable.

Even when participants in discussions between atheists on the one hand and defenders of some variety of religious or theistic belief on the other include intelligent, philosophically sophisticated and well-informed people striving to think carefully and objectively, they still often arrive at strikingly different conclusions regarding the reasonableness of their respective beliefs. Consider this hypothetical discussion between Peter and Ada, which I take to represent fairly standard views on either side.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

I present BELIEVING BULLSHIT at Oxford Literary festival Fri 31st march at 12.00 Tickets available here.
Image result for believing bullshit

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

So you think I'm like Alain de Botton?

Alain de Botton.jpg 

It was just suggested to me that I am 'similar to Alain de Botton' on philosophy. I do hope not. Not that ADB's not a lovely chap - he is (we've met: he's likeable and charming) - but I disagree with him pretty fundamentally about the value of philosophy.

I was reminded of this review I wrote of Alain De Botton's book The Consolations of Philosophy.

 Review: Consolations of Philosophy by Alain De Botton

This review was published in The Mail on Sunday, back in 2000. (Was I too harsh?)

Broken heart? Take some Schopenhauer. Frustrated? Try a little Seneca. Money-worries? Epicurus can help. In The Consolation of Philosophy, Alain De Botton takes a novel approach to popularizing philosophy, explaining how six different philosophers can help us in six of life’s darker moments. Consolations is tied to a new six-part Channel 4 TV series Philosophy: A Guide to Happiness, also written by De Botton. Given the hype and the link to a TV series, the book is likely to be a best seller. But how good an introduction to philosophy is it?

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Pressing Your Buttons - chpt from my book Believing Bullshit



One way in which we can shape the beliefs of others is by rational persuasion. Suppose, for example, that I want someone to believe that Buckingham Palace is in London (which it is). I could provide them with a great deal of evidence to support that belief. I could also just take them to London so they can see with their own eyes that that’s where Buckingham Palace is located.

But what if these kinds of method aren’t available? Suppose I have little or no evidence to support the belief I nevertheless want people to accept. Suppose I can’t just show them that it’s true. How else might I get them to believe?

I might try to dupe them, of course. I could produce fraudulent evidence and bogus arguments. But what if I suspect this won’t be enough? What if I think my deceit is likely to be detected? Another option is to drop even the pretence of rational persuasion and to adopt what I call Pressing your Buttons.

Belief-shaping mechanisms

All sorts of causal mechanisms can be used to shape belief. For example, our beliefs are shaped by social and psychological mechanisms such as peer pressure and a desire to conform. Finding ourselves believing something of which our community disapproves is a deeply uncomfortable experience, an experience that may lead us unconsciously to tailor what we believe so that we remain in step with them. We’re far more susceptible to such social pressures than we like to believe (as several famous psychological studies have shown[i]).

Sunday, January 15, 2017



(This is a prepublication draft - it's forthcoming in Univ. Chicago Press volume Science Unlimited (eds. Pigliucci and Boudry).

The term 'scientism' is applied to a variety of positions about science. One is the view that the only legitimate questions about reality are those answerable by science. Another is that, to the extent that anything can be known about reality, science alone is capable of providing that knowledge. Critics of religious, New Age, spiritualist, and other, popular forms of divine or supernatural belief are often accused of scientism by their proponents. The accusation typically involves the thought that critics have crossed a line or boundary demarcating those topics or subjects that are the proper province of science, and those that are beyond its capacity to adjudicate. The accused are often found guilty of hubris, of an arrogant failure to recognize that there are 'more things in heaven and Earth' than are dreamt of in their science, of supposing science is best placed to answer questions that, in reality, can only be answered by employing other disciplines, forms of inquiry, or 'ways of knowing'. Within discussion of religious, spiritual, New Age, and popular divine or supernatural beliefs, this boundary marking the 'limits of science' almost always plays an immunizing role: to explain why science constitutes no threat to such beliefs. 'You scientists', say the believers, 'may come this far, but no further.'

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Reason vs other methods of influencing belief

There are (at least) two ways in which we can attempt to influence the beliefs of others: 

(i) we can use reason. We can provide scientific and other evidence to support beliefs, subject them to critical scrutiny, reveal contradictions and inconsistencies, and so on.
 (ii) we can appeal to such mechanisms as peer-pressure, emotional manipulation, reward and punishment, humour, sarcasm, repetition, fear (especially of uncertainty), tribalism, censorship, vanity, and so on.
Now, we philosophers put a lot of emphasis on (i) rather than (ii), don't we? Why is that?
I suggest the answer is: because reason is truth-sensitive. Try to make a well-reasoned case for believing the Earth's core is made of cheese, or that the Antarctic is populated by ant-people, or that Prince Philip is an alien lizard in disguise. You're not going to find it easy. Apply the filter of reason - under which I include the scientific method - to incoming beliefs and only those with a fairly good chance of being true are likely to get through. That's why we favour the filter of reason. We want to believe, and want others to believe, what's true.

The mechanisms listed under (ii), on the other hand, can just as easily be used to instil true beliefs as false beliefs. They are truth-insensitive. 

Thursday, December 22, 2016

THE MEANING MYSTERY (Wittgenstein on meaning, from my book The Philosophy Gym)

16. The Meaning Mystery

Language is an extraordinarily powerful tool – the most important tool we possess. How do our sounds, squiggles and other signs come by their astonishing power to mean something? Indeed, what is meaning, exactly? This chapter introduces some of the key ideas of two philosophers: John Locke (1632-1704) and Ludwig Wittgenstein (1989-1951).

Where does meaning originate?

Take a look at the following sequence of straight and curved lines.

            ILLUSTRATION: I am happy

In English these lines mean I am happy. But there could be other languages in which this same combination of lines conveys quite a different thought. There might be an alien civilization for which they mean my trousers are in tatters (I don’t say this is likely, of course. But it’s possible.) The lines are, in themselves, devoid of any particular meaning.
The same is true of other forms of representation, including diagrams, illustrations and samples. They don’t have any intrinsic representational power or meaning.
You might wonder about this. Here’s a well-known example from the philosopher Wittgenstein.


You might think that this simple combination of lines just has to represent a person climbing a hill. But as Wittgenstein points out, this same image could also be used to represent a man sliding down a hill backwards.
Indeed, we can imagine one-eyed aliens for whom the above combination of lines is used to represent a face


Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Oxford Literary Festival event with Prof Peter Atkins

This will be publicised shortly - March 2017, Oxford Lit Festival.

Can science answer every question? Is 'scientism' true? Is there not a place for philosophy, or theology, or some other ‘armchair’ discipline? Are science and religion ‘non-overlapping magisteria’ - with science focused on the age of rocks and religion the rock of ages, each unqualified to pronounce on the territory of the other? A philosopher and a scientist explore these questions.

Peter Atkins is Professor Emeritus of Chemistry at The University of Oxford, and has been called the Fifth Horseman of Atheism. Peter argues vigorously that science, and science alone, is capable of answering every legitimate question, and that disciplines such as philosophy and theology are a waste of time. Peter has said: that religious belief is 'outmoded and ridiculous’ and ‘I regard the teaching of religion as the purveying of lies’.

Stephen Law is Reader in Philosophy at Heythrop College, University of London, and the author of many popular introductions to philosophy including the Philosophy Gym and The Complete Philosophy Files (for children). He is also the author of OUP’s Very Short Introduction to Humanism. Stephen has debated a number of Christian thinkers including Profs William Lane Craig and John Lennox. He defends the role of armchair inquiry.

Saturday, November 5, 2016

Sea of Lies: CFI on Lying Press and Politicians, with Martin Robbins, Marcus Chown, Natalie Fenton

December 8th, 2016   6:30 PM  -  9:30 PM

Whether the issue is immigration, Brexit, welfare, press-regulation, the NHS, or Trump vs. Clinton, concern is being expressed about the way in which both politicians and the media shape the political agenda by means of spin, deceit, and, in some cases, bare-faced lies. To what extent have we lost sight of the truth? How can we ensure the facts are centre-stage when it comes to policy- and democratic decision-making? The evening is hosted by CFI's Stephen Law.

Please note that doors open at 18:30 for a 19:00 start. Ticket sales will end at 12:00 on 8 December.

MARTIN ROBBINS: Post-Truth Political Discourse (looking at examples across the political spectrum)

Martin Robbins is a Berkshire-based researcher and science writer. Martin writes about science, pseudoscience and evidence-based politics.

MARCUS CHOWN: Democracy Cannot Function In a Sea of Lies

How can we stop our politicians and media lying on matters of fact/evidence? And why is this not at the top of the political agenda?

Marcus Chown is formerly a radio astronomer at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. Marcus is an award-winning writer and broadcaster who makes regular appearances on Channel 4’s Sunday Brunch. Books include What A Wonderful World, Quantum Theory Cannot Hurt You, We Need to Talk About Kelvin, and Solar System for iPad.

NATALIE FENTON: Unequal, Undemocratic, Unfair: Media, Power and Politics in the Digital Age

Natalie Fenton is Professor in Media and Communications at Goldsmiths, University of London. Her most recent books include Digital, Political, Radical (2016). Natalie is on the Board of Directors of the campaign group Hacked Off and a founding member of the Media Reform Coalition.
Tickets: https://humanism.org.uk/events/seaoflies/

Event Fee(s)

£ 10.00
£ 5.00
Members and Students (members of British Humanist Association, members of Conway Hall Ethical Society)