Search Results for: interpretation

What’s wrong with gay marriage?

John Corvino dismantles the objections to gay marriage. This article appears in Issue 62 of The Philosophers’ Magazine. Please support TPM by subscribing.

The gay-marriage movement has lately made dizzying progress. In the UK, which currently allows ‘civil partnerships’, the British and Scottish parliaments are close to recognising same-sex marriage. Last November, voters in three US states (Maine, Maryland, and Washington) extended marriage rights to same-sex couples; this year, legislators in Rhode Island, Delaware, and Minnesota have done the same, while those in Illinois, Nevada, and New Mexico have taken steps in that direction. Uruguay, New Zealand and France now allow same-sex couples to marry. Even staunch opponents of homosexuality concede that the tide is mounting against them – and yet they continue to put up a vigorous fight.

Where are the philosophers amidst this clash? Perhaps surprisingly, they have remained largely silent. Many believe that the right of same-sex couples to marry is so obvious as to be unworthy of serious debate. On the opposing side, a small but prominent group of socially conservative academics contend that the first group is simply blind to objective moral reality. According to their view, same-sex ‘marriage’ isn’t just bad policy: it’s a conceptual confusion, fashionable only because the sexual revolution has so badly distorted the proper understanding of sex and marriage.

This objection is best expressed by self-styled ‘new natural lawyers’ such as John Finnis at Oxford and Notre Dame, Robert P George at Princeton, and others, although one can find shades of their position in common-variety conservative arguments as well. Indeed, their view can be understood as a sophisticated defence of the familiar slogan ‘Marriage = One Man + One Woman’, sometimes rendered in religious garb as ‘It’s Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve’.

The argument finds its fullest elaboration in a recent book by Sherif Girgis, Robert P George, and Ryan Anderson – What is Marriage? Man and Woman: A Defense – and the basic idea is as follows. In order to decide whether same-sex couples should be allowed to marry, one must first ask What is marriage? But (the argument continues) the correct answer to that question shows that marriage is, by its very nature, a male-female union. So whatever it is that same-sex couples are asking for, it isn’t marriage. ‘Same-sex marriage’ is thus an oxymoron, like ‘married bachelor’ or ‘four-sided triangle’ or ‘deconstructionist theory’. Call this the Definitional Objection to same-sex marriage.

Examples of the Definitional Objection abound. Former US Senator Rick Santorum used it on the campaign trail in his 2012 Republican presidential primary bid. Waving a napkin in the air, he announced, ‘Marriage existed before governments existed. This is a napkin. I can call this napkin a paper towel. But it is a napkin. Why? Because it is what it is. Right? You can call it whatever you want, but it doesn’t change the character of what it is.’

In a similar vein, Dr John Sentamu, Archbishop of York and the second most senior cleric in the Church of England, argues that ‘Marriage is a relationship between a man and a woman. I don’t think it is the role of the state to define what marriage is. It is set in tradition and history and you can’t just [change it] overnight, no matter how powerful you are.’ He went on to compare the push for same-sex ‘marriage’ with the behaviour of dictators.

In a law review article, Alliance Defense Fund attorney Jeffery Ventrella contends that ‘to advocate same-sex “marriage” is logically equivalent to seeking to draw a “square circle”: One may passionately and sincerely persist in pining about square circles, but the fact of the matter is, one will never be able to actually draw one.’

There is something profoundly unsatisfying about the Definitional Objection, although it’s initially hard to put one’s finger on what. One might worry that it involves a kind of verbal trick. After all, same-sex relationships – unlike square circles – surely do exist, and some jurisdictions legally recognise them as marriages. So the dispute seems to be less about whether something exists and more about what to call it.

But this way of putting it actually misses the Definitional Objection’s underlying concern: What we call things – and in particular, how the law treats them – can have a profound effect. If we group items together under the same legal name, people may conclude that there are no important differences between them. Conversely, if we maintain a verbal and legal distinction, people may better notice any underlying ‘natural’ distinctions.

An example will help to illustrate this point. Suppose Kate and William are arguing about whether to serve champagne at their anniversary party: Kate says yes; William says no. Kate relents: ‘Fine, you handle the beverages!’

On the day of the party, Kate is delighted to see waiters passing out crystal flutes filled with bubbly liquid. ‘I thought we weren’t serving champagne,’ she says to William.

‘We’re not,’ he responds: ‘That’s prosecco.’

But Kate doesn’t normally distinguish between champagne – which technically must originate in the Champagne region of France – and other kinds of sparkling wine; to her it’s all just ‘champagne’.

So far, it appears that Kate and William had a mere verbal dispute: they meant different things by the word ‘champagne’, and their initial argument consisted in miscommunication.

But now (at the risk of spoiling their party) let us imagine the argument going further: ‘Silly William,’ Kate says, ‘”champagne”’ is a perfectly fine term for any sparkling wine.’

‘No, no, no!’ William retorts. ‘They’re very different! And if you start calling them all by the same name, people won’t appreciate that difference.’

Proponents of the Definitional Objection have a worry similar to William’s. (You could say that they’re the wine snobs of the marriage debate.) Heterosexual marriage and committed same-sex relationships are fundamentally different, they argue, and using the term ‘marriage’ for both confuses people not only about marriage’s distinctive nature, but also about its value – a moral good which (all sides agree) is far more important than the pleasures of wine.

But what is marriage’s distinctive nature, and why does it exclude same-sex couples? The new natural lawyers answer that marriage is a comprehensive union: a union of both mind and body, exclusive and lifelong. As a comprehensive union, marriage must include bodily union. But the only way human beings achieve bodily union is in procreative-type acts – that is, in coitus: penis-in-vagina sex. Obviously, same-sex couples cannot perform coitus. Therefore, they cannot marry.

The usual response here invokes permanently infertile heterosexual couples: Why are they permitted to marry whereas same-sex couples are not? The new natural lawyers answer that the sterile heterosexual couple’s sex can still be ‘of the procreative type’. But this answer just stretches the meaning of words (ironic, for those offering a Definitional Objection): Sex in which procreation is known to be impossible seems to be precisely not of the ‘procreative type’.

Perhaps there is some looser sense in which coitus – even for permanently infertile couples – is ‘of the procreative type’ in a way that, say, oral or anal sex is not: It shares certain formal features with typical procreative sex. The real question is, what’s so special about that? More specifically, why is a necessary condition for marriage?

Girgis, George, and Anderson’s answer hearkens back to the notion of comprehensive union, which requires bodily union, which requires coitus: ‘In coitus, and there alone, a man and woman’s bodies participate by virtue of their sexual complementarity in a coordination that has the biological purpose of reproduction – a function that neither can perform alone.’ In effect, the two become one – indeed, elsewhere George has claimed that the act makes them ‘literally, not metaphorically, one organism.’

Put aside the biological strangeness of the ‘one organism’ claim. Suppose we accept, purely for the sake of argument, that marriage requires bodily union and that only coitus can achieve such union. Then the proper counterexample for the view is not infertile heterosexuals, but rather those who cannot achieve coitus.

Consider a hypothetical couple I’ll call Bob and Jane. Bob and Jane were high school sweethearts. Eventually, Bob proposed marriage, and Jane accepted. But prior to their wedding, tragedy struck: Bob was in a terrible car accident which paralyzed him from the waist down. As a result, he would never be capable of coitus. Bob offered to cancel the engagement, but Jane would have none of it: ‘You are the same person I have always loved,’ she declared. ‘We will make this work.’ So Bob and Jane legally wed, spent many years together, and eventually raised several adopted children. Although coitus was impossible, they engaged in other acts of sexual affection, which enhanced the special intimacy between them. For decades, until parted by death, they enjoyed each other and the happily family they jointly created.

Question: Were Bob and Jane married? They were certainly legally married, and also according to virtually everyone’s common-sense understanding of marriage. But not according to the new natural law view. On that view, Bob and Jane’s inability to engage in coitus prevented the bodily union necessary for the comprehensive union of marriage.

I’ve raised this objection to Girgis, George, and Anderson before, and they have responded – in an endnote buried in the next-to-last page of their book. (See what you miss by not reading endnotes?) There they bite the bullet and concede that the ‘strong’ version of their view entails that Bob and Jane were not really married. They quickly add that good marriage policy would continue recognising such marriages legally, however, since inquiring into their true status would be invasive. (Why it would be more invasive than, say, a blood test – required for marriage in many jurisdictions – they never explain.)

They also gesture at a ‘softer’ version of the view in which Bob and Jane’s relationship could be marital as long as coitus were possible ‘in principle’. It is not clear how this softer version gets off the ground, however. Any random male-female pair could engage in coitus in principle, But marriage does not consist in what people might do if the world were different; it consists in what they actually do. Suppose Bob were kidnapped before the wedding and never returned to Jane. In that case, they would (sadly) never marry, even though they could marry ‘in principle’ and even though their failure to do is fully involuntary.

The upshot is that the new natural law view avoids the infertile-couples objection only to get stuck with something worse: the paraplegic counterexample. By making coitus a necessary condition for marriage, the new natural lawyers must conclude that Bob and Jane’s ‘marriage’ is a counterfeit.

How did we end up in such a spot? Part of the problem is that ‘comprehensive union’ is a rather vague and slippery notion: suitable for greeting-card poetry, perhaps, but not the sort of thing on which to build a marriage theory. It is clear that comprehensive union doesn’t mean that spouses must do everything together: they may have independent friendships, professional collaborations, tennis partners and so on. It is also clear that sex is part of our usual understanding of marriage. But is it strictly necessary? And must it be coital?

Girgis, George and Anderson answer yes to both questions, because ‘your body is an essential part of you, not a vehicle driven by the real “you”, your mind; nor a mere costume you must don … Because of that embodiedness, an union of two people must include bodily union to be comprehensive. If it did not, it would leave out – it would fail to be extended along – a basic part of each person’s being.’

This is the sort of explanation that not only fails to make the case; it actually contradicts the point it’s intending to serve. Insofar as our bodies are an integral part of us, it follows that any union between two people must include bodily union. Disembodied minds do not form friendships, collaborate on professional projects, play tennis, and so forth. It thus remains unclear why ‘comprehensive union’ requires coitus any more than it requires professional collaboration. (This is not to deny that sex is an important feature of marriage – only to say that it doesn’t fall out of ‘comprehensive union’ in any clear and unproblematic way.)

So what’s the alternative? Proponents of the Definitional Objection, including Girgis, George, and Anderson, often complain that ‘revisionists’ like me offer no clear definition of marriage. They’re right if they mean that I don’t have a simple phrase like ‘comprehensive union’ which purportedly captures the necessary and sufficient conditions for marriage – conditions that all and only marriages will satisfy. But that’s because marriage, as a complex social institution, doesn’t lend itself to that sort of pithy definition. It’s not definable in the same way that, say, ‘bachelor’ or ‘triangle’ is. As Martha Nussbaum puts it, marriage ‘is plural in both content and meaning’ – involving a diverse cluster of goods and defining elements.

The best anyone can offer is a rough and qualified definition. Here’s mine: ‘Marriage is the social institution recognising committed adult unions which are presumptively sexual, exclusive, and lifelong; and which typically involve shared domestic life, mutual care and concern, and the begetting and rearing of children.’ The ‘presumptively’ and ‘typically’ are crucial: there will be exceptions, as well as ‘grey areas’. (Are ‘temporary marriages’ marriages? What about ‘marriages of convenience’?) Notice however, that loose edges are typical in definitions of social institutions. (Does secular humanism count as a religion? Do tribal councils count as governments?)

Bob and Jane exhibit enough of marriage’s defining features to count as married, even without coitus. But once we abandon the idea that coitus is strictly necessary for marriage, we eliminate the new natural lawyers’ bar to recognising same-sex unions as marriages – and thus the most powerful available version of the Definitional Objection.

Having argued that the new natural lawyers give the wrong answer to ‘What is marriage?’ I’d now like to argue that they’re asking the wrong question.

To see why, consider what I like to call the Marriage/Schmarriage Maneuver. Suppose I were wrong about what marriage is. And suppose that, realising my error, I approached the new natural lawyers and said:

‘You know what? You’re right! This thing I’ve been advocating isn’t marriage at all. It’s something else – let’s call it schmarriage. But schmarriage is better than marriage: it’s more inclusive, it helps gay people without harming straight people, etcetera. We’d all be better off if we replaced marriage with schmarriage. Now, it’s unlikely that the word “schmarriage” will catch on – and besides, it’s harder to say than “marriage”. So from now on, let’s have schmarriage – which includes both heterosexual and homosexual unions – but let’s just call it by the homonym “marriage”, as people currently do in Canada, Spain, Uruguay, South Africa and elsewhere. Okay?’

Their answer would surely be ‘Not okay!’ – but why? The reason is that they reject the idea that schmarriage is better than marriage. They maintain that marriage, traditionally understood, has a distinctive value, and they don’t want that value to get lost in a new, more inclusive terminology.

But if that’s the crux of the issue – marriage’s distinctive value – why not focus on that? After all, the marriage debate is primarily a moral debate, not a conceptual or metaphysical one. So instead of asking ‘What is marriage?’, shouldn’t we be asking why it’smorally important to maintain an exclusively heterosexual institution for recognising committed relationships?

Of course, many have asked the latter question, and the answers have been unsatisfying. For example, some argue that an exclusively heterosexual marital institution is important because children do best when raised by their own (biological) mothers and fathers. The problem with this argument – aside from its resting on dubious interpretations of existing data – is that it requires a blatant non-sequitur. Even if one grants that children do best with their own (biological) mother and father, it does not follow that same-sex marriage (or ‘schmarriage’) should be prohibited, because there is no reason to think that prohibiting it will result in more children getting their own (biological) mothers and fathers.

In fact, paradoxically, same-sex marriage may have the result that fewer same-sex couples raise children. Currently, the majority of same-sex couples with children have them not via adoption or artificial insemination, but rather through prior heterosexual relationships. In a world where same-sex relationships were more accepted – where gays and lesbians could aspire to ‘happily ever after’ in marriage just like their heterosexual counterparts – fewer would feel pressure to enter heterosexual relationships for which they are not suited, and thus fewer children would experience the breakup of such marriages. From the standpoint of child welfare, fewer divorces is surely a good thing.

Let me be clear: I fully grant that marriage, institutionally and individually, is important for child welfare. But it is also important for adults, including those who don’t want or can’t have children. Relationships are good for people in myriad ways. They are good not only for those in them, but also for those around them, because happy, stable partners make happy, stable neighbours, co-workers, family members and so on. At the same time, long-term romantic relationships are challenging, and they benefit from public commitment, legal protection, and social support – the very things that marriage provides. All of these reasons apply to gay people as well as heterosexual ones.

If the Definitional Objection appears unsatisfying, that is partly because it seeks to impose a tidy definition where such definitions are inapt. But it is mainly because appealing to definitions is generally unhelpful in this context. The marriage debate occurs precisely because of conflicting intuitions about what marriage is, or can become. Clever rhetoric about square circles gets us no further toward reconciling those intuitions; worse yet, it distracts us from the urgent moral question of how to treat gay and lesbian individuals, couples, and their families.

John Corvino is chair of the philosophy department at Wayne State University, the author of What’s Wrong with Homosexuality?, and the co-author (with Maggie Gallagher) of Debating Same-Sex Marriage. Read more at

Deep thinking in graphic novels

Jeff McLaughlin on philosophy and the graphic novel. This article appears in Issue 60 of The Philosophers’ Magazine. Please support TPM by subscribing.

Graphic novels have provided their creators with a golden opportunity to express themselves in very adult ways – even if they are doing so by telling stories with talking animals (for example Art Spiegelman’s Maus which deals with the Holocaust). Some of these works can provide philosophy instructors with the opportunity to enhance the learning experience of their students. But what is a graphic novel and how can it provide pedagogical support for philosophy classes?

The term “graphic novel” is not the best term for capturing what they actually are, but like pornography, most people know it when they see it. Graphic novels aren’t typically graphic in the sense of being explicit (one notable exception being Melinda Gebbie and Alan Moore’s Lost Girls) nor are they all novels. You will find many graphic novels that are non-fiction (Joe Sacco’s Palestine), autobiographical (Alison Bechdel’s Funhome), and even governmental reports (Sid Jacobson and Ernie Colon’s The 9/11 Report). Indeed, Will Eisner’s The Contract with God, which popularised the term “graphic novel”, is a collection of three short-stories. (There are earlier works that we would now describe as graphic novels, and strictly speaking the term was already in limited use before Eisner’s work appeared.) Graphic novels are really just comic books without the negative connotations.

Comic books themselves look more like magazines than books, and to think of them as being comical is to dismiss the vast majority of them. Some people like to say graphic novels are thought of quite differently, because unlike comics they are complete stories with a beginning, middle and end. This however does not take into account so-called “one-shots” or “mini-series” and even self-contained story arcs within comic book series. Sometimes these self-contained stories or limited series are published as a collection – but these are rightly called trade paperbacks and not graphic novels. Hence, an acclaimed work such as Watchmen by Dave Gibbons and Alan Moore is rightly called a trade paperback and not a graphic novel, because it was originally printed as ten separate comic book issues. Anyway, other popular art forms including movies, plays and dances, all have beginnings, middles and ends.

Although many graphic novels have been turned into movies they should not be perceived as “frozen films”. The action takes place in illustrated panels (i.e., the “movie frames”) as well as in-between the panels. With a film every person in the audience witnesses only what the director (and other members of the film team) wants to show. With a graphic novel the audience actively personalises the experience by, for example, imagining the voice of each character. They can linger over images and revisit any image or text. They can go to the end before they start at the beginning or they can jump from page to page. A movie forces the viewer to sit passively and watch that world unfold, but the graphic novel actively engages the reader/viewer. Such active participation parallels when a student reads a philosophy essay – superficially perhaps – but at least he or she retains control.

It is apparent that the almost universal acceptance of the term “graphic novel” goes hand in hand with the general acceptance of their being worthy of a person’s time and money. Graphic novels are not just illustrated stories or picture books but a series of sequentially organised panels that blend text and image in a way that makes the whole more than the sum of the parts. But if you just want to refer to them as fat comic books that is fine too.

Some individuals just don’t like graphic novels or understand their appeal, while others just have difficulty following them. These are valid perspectives, but if a person is able to spend some time with instructional books such as Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics or Will Eisner’s Comics and Sequential Art, he or she won’t be wasting his or her time. Together these two works help explain what makes comic books and graphic novels distinctive and fascinating.

When it comes to appreciating and accepting graphic novels, we are at the early stage that once was occupied by film theory and criticism in the 1960’s. That is, movies were once rejected as being unworthy of study on the grounds that they were merely entertainment and could not provide sufficient content in two hours of viewing time when compared to a book. Now film studies is a standard program area at many universities. And just as with movies, books and plays, not all graphic novels are going to be good, let alone considered enduring classics in the history of popular culture.

The good ones or, more correctly, the useful ones, can help students learn about a variety of topics in an unintimidating way. By bringing the relevant content to the forefront, the instructor can for instance literally and figuratively show how philosophical ideas that were discussed and debated for centuries are still prevalent and relevant today. Most students are familiar with graphic novels (or perhaps a movie or two based upon them) and making students aware of another level of understand in something that they already are comfortable with is a wonderful way to get them to visit (or re-visit) the material with a new appreciation. Doing so creates a bridge between what is new (and sometimes overwhelming) with something that they already know.

One has to admit that philosophical texts are not the easiest things for students to read. Students have to learn how to approach them differently than reading history or science. However, many students read novels, they play video games, and they watch movies and surf the Internet. As such, they often possess a high level of visual literacy. They (perhaps more so than instructors) are acutely aware of how graphic novels work, so the new challenge is to get students to see beyond what they might have perceived as simple entertainment. If the student is able to “see” beyond the words and pictures then they are open to grasping the philosophy.

The graphic novel can act as a thought experiment on paper. For example, in one of the stories in Concrete: Complete Short Stories by Paul Chadwick, a character imagines what it is like to “think like a mountain”. This famous expression taken from the environmental philosophy of Aldo Leopold is a difficult concept to grasp. Ask students to “think like a mountain”, and they will find the task quite daunting, because obviously it is impossible. However, by showing them imagery where a woman’s body blends into nature; her fingers stretching out and transforming into living roots, students can literally see the sense of biotic connectivity and community that Leopold (and Chadwick) is trying to achieve.

Graphic novels are intended to provide enjoyment, and if they manage to do that then it follows that their creators have achieved their goal. However, some creators also intentionally or unintentionally provide something more, and thus readers/viewers can benefit by returning to look at these works again. Any of the works cited in this short essay fit this description. Nevertheless, although you may find various philosophical messages or themes in graphic novels, they are not university lectures. Accordingly, it is unreasonable to expect any graphic novel to map perfectly onto every topic of philosophical enquiry.

Graphic novels as philosophical texts are first and foremost literary/visual works of art, they are not ‘how to’s, they are not manuals on how to live the good life. They are not tomes regarding existence, or argumentative dissertations. Graphic novels are not going to replace the words of the philosopher or the guiding wisdom of an instructor. For some instructors this may make them too vague and open to broad interpretation. Yet, even a weak graphic novel provides the instructor with another teaching and scholarly opportunity: correcting the mistakes and showing the right way.

Socio-political philosophy seems to be the most common subject that can be found in graphic novels. There are a lot works to work with, ranging from an imaginary fascist London England in Alan Moore and David Lloyd’s V for Vendetta to the very real Iran during the Islamic revolution in Marjane Satrapi’s memoir Persepolis. Trade paperbacks such as The Walking Dead by Robert Kirkman, Charlie Adlard, and Cliff Rathburn can be seen as treatises about humans in the state of nature, while Brian K Vaughan and Pia Guerra’s Y: The Last Man deals with gender warfare.

Pick up any superhero graphic novel or trade paperback and you are bound to discover matters of justice, power, and moral responsibility. Religion and matters of faith are dealt with in such works as Blankets or Habibi, both by Craig Thompson, and even The Book of Genesis gets the graphic novel treatment by renowned underground comix artist Robert Crumb. Whether it is about epistemology or metaphysics, reading and seeing (and hearing) situations, or characters in graphic novels provide lessons that are outside the confines of a text only book.

There is no philosophical area that cannot potentially be given a graphic novel treatment. For example, you wouldn’t think that logic and the philosophy of mathematics would easily transfer to graphic novels, but they are exceptionally well-treated in Logicomix by Apostolos Doxiadis, Christos H Papadimitriou, Alecos Papadatos, and Annie Di Donna.

Doxiadis was intrigued by the quest for secure foundations of mathematics in logic. The fact that many of those involved had spent time in asylums provided the added drama. Since Bertrand Russell not only played a large role in this pursuit but was also an interesting individual in his own right, he became the focal point upon which to pin the Logicomix story. With a strong background in the field (he studied mathematics at New York’s Columbia University at the age of fifteen and then did graduate work at the École Pratique des Hautes Études in Paris) Doxiadis spent hours dissecting the claims and comments that were found in the papers and writings of the very real people that populate the work. His teaching of the subject to other members of the creative team provided the backbone for the self-referential elements that the work is also lauded for. In doing all this, Doxiadis overcomes the potential alienation of the dry university lecture. As he explains the basic concepts to his team, he is therefore also doing the same for the reader/viewer.

Logicomix is neither a history textbook nor a biography, and so some historical alterations were accepted for dramatic purpose. In cinematic terms, Logicomix is “based on” a factual story – the essential truths are maintained. For Doxiadis, who is eager to hear from those who have already used the graphic novel in their courses, the benefit of using Logicomix alongside primary philosophical materials is that students can learn about complex abstract concepts within a dramatic narrative. Indeed, when one uses a graphic novel in a course, students learn that the pursuit for answers does not materialise magically and without any context; rather it is grounded in who we are and what we do. We cannot separate ourselves from our philosophy nor should we.

As I stated earlier, just as with movies and plays and books there are good and bad graphic novels. Logicomix is one of the most successful ones for philosophy classrooms. You can read it and appreciate it as an excellent example of a graphic novel, and you can study it for the philosophy that’s in it. Imagine a class where math and logic students learn about art and art students learn math and logic; and neither group is alienated. That such an initially strange blending of interests can be brought together reveals the breadth, depth, importance and inescapability of philosophy – and this is achieved through the graphic novel.

Most of the artists and writers of graphic novels are not going to possess degrees in philosophy – but they are experts in conveying interesting ideas and concepts through words and images. Any superficial treatment of philosophical materials will be disappointing, but they can be partially forgiven given the nature of the beast. The fact that the Auschwitz Museum and the Anne Frank Foundation publish graphic novels that depict real tragedies during the Holocaust suggests that this form of delivery is becoming accepted as a viable and valuable way to reach people without sacrificing content. Clearly, these institutions would not pursue anything that would be considered inappropriate or wanting in this area. They would also not want not to have the readers/viewers think that The Search or Episodes from Auschwitz: Love in the Shadow of Death is all there is to say. Instead these graphic novels are used in part to reach a broader audience and to elicit in them an interest to learn more. If one of the reasons for teaching philosophy is to get students to become knowledgeable and to seek and to question, then the right graphic novels, when taught and interpreted the right way, can help nudge students in the right direction.

Jeff McLaughlin is professor of philosophy at Thompson Rivers University and editor of Comics as Philosophy (University Press of Mississippi, 2007).

The loss of God

Claire Creffield moves in the direction of a constructive conversation between atheists and believers. This article appears in Issue 60 of The Philosophers’ Magazine. Please support TPM by subscribing.

I didn’t warm to Alain de Botton’s suggestion, in his book Religion for Atheists, that we should start building “atheist temples”, because not far from my house there is already a splendid one. Among its many beautiful features are several columns made of Frosterley marble, crammed with highly polished fossilised corals. The presence of these fossils invites the viewer to see the building (which itself took forty years to complete) in the context of 325 million years of our planet’s history, during most of which we were absent. But if that timescale makes us feel insignificant, the fossils also call to mind a huge cultural achievement – the theory of evolution that enables us to understand our own origins. Being made to reflect on that scientific achievement while admiring the architecture of a building that is rich in art and craftsmanship and history encourages a seamless appreciation of all of our scientific and creative attainments. The building is also a testimony to the labourers who built it. And it houses a memorial to other local labourers, miners who died in accidents. For all these reasons and more it is a celebration of humanity, even though a significant minority of the people who use it are seeking to celebrate God.

The building is Durham Cathedral, a place of Christian worship. And although de Botton is very sensitive to the resources that religious buildings offer to the non-believer, he thinks that for an atheist such a building is a flawed resource. He thinks that atheism requires brand new buildings, which evoke some of the sentiments that a cathedral might evoke, but which explicitly exclude God from their design. The reason for this is that he wants to separate what he regards as religion’s good bits from the taint of belief in supernatural entities. The good bits of religion are the resources it gives us for learning lessons in living: how to be kind, how to honour community ties, how to see ourselves in a light that gives us understanding of and consolation for our suffering, weakness, and failures. These resources, he says, are not essentially religious. They have been “colonised” by religion and we need to take them back. What is essentially religious, according to de Botton, is a belief in the supernatural. Religion cannot abandon that, he implies, and so atheists cannot benefit from the resources religion offers in support of living a good life unless these are explicitly separated from their religious context, by means of a slightly bizarre process of innovating atheist doppelgangers of religious infrastructure.

I want to suggest that this process of separation and innovation is misconceived. Durham Cathedral, and all of the trappings of religion, are fully available to me as an atheist, and I would lose something rather than gain something if I visited one of de Botton’s new atheist temples instead. This is because religion itself, and not only the trappings of religion, can be a resource for atheists.

To see this, we need to start by noticing that the term “atheist” is not as simple as it might appear. Though it appears to consist in a single negative statement (“There is no God”), it actually involves a range of possible claims – about what religious people mean when they say there is a God, about the relevance and nature of supporting evidence or argument for God’s existence, and about how we can assess the meaningfulness (or lack of meaning) of religious language. This means that there is not, in fact, a single atheism, but a range of atheisms, some of which are more hostile to religion than others.

Think first of all about what religious people are trying to say when they claim that there is a God. There is no monolithic consensus here, and since atheism is a negation of whatever that claim about God’s existence might be, we shouldn’t expect atheism to be monolithic either. Many of the most vocal atheists like to focus on a particular sort of claim of God’s existence – the claim that there is a god who created the universe and whose nature and intentions are part of the explanation of the universe. At its most extreme, this sort of belief in God contradicts established scientific theories, notably the theory of evolution. And it is contradicted in turn by an atheism that says that such an assertion of God’s existence can only be established on the basis of experimental evidence that is in fact lacking: all of the available evidence suggests explanations for the world that do not involve God, so the hypothesis of God’s existence is unwarranted and almost certainly false.

But there are also plenty of religious people who are content to look to science alone to explain the way the world is. They accept evolutionary theory without reserve and rely on physicists, not theologians, to unlock the secrets of the universe. For these people, God’s creative contribution is just an initial self-effacing impulse, simultaneously willing the world and delegating it in its entirety to science. Since their assertion of God’s existence does not contradict any scientific accounts, it cannot be judged false on the basis of the truth of those accounts.

A philosophically minded atheist might respond to this version of the assertion that God exists by calling it, not false, but meaningless. A statement is only meaningful if there is some way to determine whether it is true or false, they might say, and there is no set of circumstances that would count towards the truth or the falsity of the claim that such a scientifically redundant sort of god exists.

This sort of atheist is invoking the “verification principle”, which has an origin in Wittgenstein’s early thought. His theory of meaning in the Tractatus makes religious propositions meaningless: the world is the totality of scientific facts, and no proposition is meaningful that does not correspond with a scientific fact. But Wittgenstein was far from sharing the scathing hostility to religion that today’s atheism exhibits, and we can look to his thought to supply a different sort of atheism altogether, one that can foster an allegiance – perhaps even an identity – with some kinds of religious faith. It is worth making a sketch of his thoughts about religion, not so much with the idea that they are a correct or coherent philosophy of religion, but to show the availability, to an atheist philosopher, of a project of seeking value in religion, and even truth, albeit not truth of a profoundly satisfying kind.

Three features of Wittgenstein’s thought come together to suggest that atheism can be deeply at home in religion: he thought that the religious outlook manifested something very important; he thought (eventually) that religious discourse, including discourse about God, was meaningful; and he thought that religious discourse was founded in universal human characteristics, shared by both people of faith and those without faith.

The importance of religion struck Wittgenstein strongly even when he thought of religious utterances as meaningless: “There are, indeed, things that cannot be put into words. They make themselves manifest. They are what is mystical.” When we try to talk of God, we knock up against the limits of language, and our efforts are cognitively fruitless. But that is not to dismiss religion. Philosophy, too, knocks up against the limits of language, and is not thereby destroyed (though it has to be reconceptualised, with a much more modest agenda). In the case of both philosophy and religion our inclination to run up against the limits of language shows us something important.

What does it show us in the case of religion? It shows us something about our status as beings in the world, capable of seeing things only from the midst and not from the outside, much as we cannot see our eye in our visual field. The inarticulable and impossible view from the outside is not available to us, but it is something that we seek: “It is not how things are in the world that is mystical, but that it exists …. To view the world sub specie aeterni is to view it as a whole – a limited whole. Feeling the world as a limited whole – it is this that is mystical.”

Science alone tells us “how things are in the world”. In this sense, Wittgenstein is an atheist. But there is a certain – mystical – orientation which seeks to reflect with wonder on the world viewed as a whole, sub specie aeterni, which Wittgenstein does not reject (he merely calls it unsayable).

To try and make sense of this, think for a moment about those religious believers mentioned above for whom God’s role is limited to an initial act of creative delegation, which sets the scientific ball rolling. And remember also that the religious doctrine of free will also sees God as delegating to individuals the whole of their inner lives. A god who so copiously sloughs off all of his agency over matter and persons is infinitely small, in the sense of being nowhere present in an account of how the world is. The difference between such an infinitely small god and no god at all is not in the world. It does not tread on the territory of science by concerning itself with “how things are in the world”. Seeing such a god as present or absent is not a disagreement about facts: it is something more like seeing the world under a different aspect: faith and atheism are like different ways of seeing the same picture, and the disagreement between them is something like an aesthetic difference of opinion – concerning matters to which religious people and some atheists are compellingly drawn.

According to Wittgenstein’s earlier thought, religious discourse, despite its importance, is meaningless. Those for whom the mystical/religious orientation to the world is important could make it manifest in their way of life, but they could not speak of it without uttering nonsense. However, as his thought developed, he gave a new account of language. Instead of having the uniform scientific function of naming objects in the world and asserting facts about the world, he argued, language has meaning by being embedded in diverse human practices – including scientific discourse, but also including the practices of those who share a sense of the importance of a religious/mystical orientation. Language is pluralist, and among several very different possible uses of it are those that meaningfully express, in their “deep grammar”, the unsayable. His atheism remained, in that he denied that propositions involving the word “God” can be interpreted as meaningfully asserting the existence of some entity. But he presents such propositions as meaningful nonetheless, entirely capable of being uttered without error, as the linguistic components of a certain way of life, one which he seems to have admired.

So, religion is both important and meaningful for Wittgenstein. But what did it have to do with him, as an atheist? Wittgenstein was both engaged with and cut off from religion. He did not join in religious practice, and the religious practitioners of his day would not by and large have felt it possible to accept his account of their enterprise. He was an outsider to the religious practices of mid-twentieth century Europe. But does that mean he did not partake at all in the religious “form of life”? It cannot mean that, not only because he was so clearly drawn to religion, but also because on his new account of meaning, meaning is generated within our shared practices: it is our participation in a shared form of life that makes it possible for us to share a language. If a religious practitioner and a non-practitioner did not have a relevant form of life in common then they quite simply wouldn’t be able to talk to one another about religion at all.

In tracing the origins of religious language and ritual, Wittgenstein speaks in terms of fundamental, universal human characteristics. Humankind is, for Wittgenstein, by its very nature ceremonious, given to ritual, so a religious form of life has been persistent throughout human history. And human thought and language, by its nature, is mystical: it draws us to its limits, to the kind of attempted utterances of religion and philosophy that Wittgenstein spent his life seeking to clarify and dissipate. There is, then (underlying the historically specific and transient forms of religiousness that individuals may and may not endorse), a universal religious consciousness, shared by believers and non-believers alike (though more highly motivating for some than for others) – in virtue of which there can be meaningful conversations between believers and non-believers. That religious consciousness, or form of life, does not entail a belief in God: it is the framework within which God’s existence can be meaningfully asserted or denied. When God’s existence is finally denied altogether, as it is in vast swathes of modern society, our religious consciousness becomes a “post-religious consciousness” – godless, but still part of a trajectory determined by the conditions which gave rise to religion in the first place. We don’t entirely escape religion just by negating it: atheism is a stance adopted towards religious questions, rather than a disappearance of the religious form of life.

This is our plight, this loss of God coupled with a continuing participation in the form of life which gives religious discourse its meaning. The mystical, as defined by Wittgenstein, persists, but those who are drawn to it find that there is nothing that can be satisfactorily said of it: religious language, though meaningful, is grounded in nothing other than our human mores. Where do we go from there?

Some of us are quite content to turn attention away from the limits of language back to the scientific. But others will continue to be driven towards those limits, and, perhaps surprisingly, they will find that religion itself gives expression to the loss, the absence of God, and is possibly at its most beautiful when it does precisely that.

Perhaps the most poignant religious expression of the loss of God is that moment within the Christian story when the sense of loss is projected onto God himself, in the person of Jesus Christ crying out “My God, why have you forsaken me?” The same loss is replayed in numberless Christian artworks. The aria “Erbarme dich” in Bach’s St Matthew Passion, for example, speaks of a yearning for God that is so intense that the spirituality is located more squarely in the yearning than in the (nonsensical, non-existent) entity which is superficially its object. One might object that in Christianity as traditionally conceived that loss of God is transient, it is the prelude to a reunification with him. Well, yes. But our religious consciousness evolves with our scientific and philosophical discoveries, and our interpretation of Christian mythology evolves accordingly. A story that was once about our separation from and reunification with God can equally well serve as the expression of a sense of separation that reaches its culmination not only in the death of Christ, but also in the death of the idea of a transcendent God, by means of which death we are acquainted with a painfully less satisfying, but immediately present, divinity, located nowhere other than in our shared religious observances. This would be a form of atheism that is either deeply friendly to religion, or actually religious itself. I’m not sure that it matters much which we call it. This form of atheism would be enriched by a stroll around a cathedral which is empty of God but saturated with the practices by which religious meaning is generated.

Claire Creffield works in academic publishing and is a former fellow of All Souls College, Oxford.

The really, really big question

Review by Massimo Pigliucci. This article appears in Issue 59 of The Philosophers’ Magazine. Please support TPM by subscribing.

Why Does the World Exist? An Existential Detective Story by Jim Holt (Liveright), £12.95/$27.95.

“Why is the sky blue?” This perennial question posed by children to their parents can be easily answered by modern moms and dads (after looking it up on Wikipedia): “Because the air scatters short-wavelength radiation better than long-wavelength radiation.” Yes, of course, you then have to explain what “wavelength” and “radiation” are, but it’s a start. No such easy answer is available for the question “Why is there something rather than nothing?” (for which Wikipedia returns a whopping 4,266 entries!). And that is the topic picked by Jim Holt for this lively philosophical-scientific quest concerning the ultimate metaphysical conundrum.

Holt sets up his pursuit as an “existential detective story”, in which his own musings are mixed with the thoughts of a wide range of thinkers, from scientists to philosophers to theologians, several of whom he has interviewed. I was happy to see Holt talk to philosophers who are knowledgeable about the relevant science, as well as to scientists who have at least heard of the word “philosophy”. I happen to think that the confluence of those two disciplines into what used to be called “scientia” (knowledge in the broader sense) is where a lot of the action is these days when it comes to a number of “deep questions”, including consciousness, free will, morality, and the very structure of reality.

I was significantly less happy to have to endure a whole chapter devoted to the musings of Oxford theologian Richard Swinburne, since I think theology fails the test imposed by Hume’s fork (that philosophical assertions need to have either empirical or mathematical content to be taken seriously), and that the best thing to do with it is to “Commit it then to the flames: for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.” I mean, here we are, at the onset of the twenty-first century, and we are still taking seriously people who tell us that God is the simplest “explanation” imaginable for the universe? Could it be that you think so because your imagination is limited, or because you are confused about what counts as an explanation?

But Holt – to his credit – goes to the other extreme as well, also paying a visit to Adolf Grünbaum in Pittsburgh. Grünbaum tells Holt that he is going after a pseudo-question, because nothingness is impossible, which in turn implies that “Why is there something rather than nothing?” is an example of “cadit quaestio”, a fallen question, in response to which it is far better to go out and grab a beer (generally speaking, not a bad suggestion anyway).

Like Holt, however, I don’t share Grünbaum’s slightly too cavalier dismissal of the whole shebang, and think that science and philosophy actually do have a lot to say about it. Which brings the reader to an intellectual tour de force that includes multiverses and the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics (which should really be kept more conceptually distinct than is done in some places in the book), mathematical Platonism, the idea that the universe may be a simulation in someone’s computer (to which Holt gives remarkably little space, particularly compared to Swinburne’s deeply unenlightening musings), and even more bizarre ideas – such as the possibility advanced by Plato that the universe may be the result of an ethical compulsion, or Robert Nozick’s strange “principle of fecundity”.

One idea that I was hoping to see explored was James Ladyman and Don Ross’s suggestion that there is no “ultimate” stuff of which the universe is made, that “at bottom” it’s all about relations (don’t ask “Relations between what?” because you’d be missing the point). While those authors do not explicitly endorse it, a universe in which “every thing must go” (as the title of their book puts it) is also one that is particularly friendly to certain forms of mathematical Platonism, which would have connected quite nicely with Holt’s chapter on Pythagoras, Kurt Gödel, and Roger Penrose.

Regardless, throughout the book the reader will encounter – directly (based on interviews) or indirectly – the thoughts of some of the brightest and most provocative thinkers who have something to say about the deep questions, and two things clearly emerge from the volume. First, the question of why there is something rather than nothing is neither silly nor just of interest to philosophers and “armchair speculators”. Second, like all good philosophy, by the end of the journey the prize is not necessarily getting an answer, but rather consists in gaining a much richer and more nuanced understanding of the question.

Of course, regardless of which take you end up favouring about the origin of all things, you might still come to agree with Douglas Adams: “In the beginning the Universe was created. This has made a lot of people very angry and has been widely regarded as a bad move.” Or maybe not.

Massimo Pigliucci is professor of philosophy at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. He is the author of the forthcoming Answers for Aristotle: How Science and Philosophy Can Lead Us to A More Meaningful Life (BasicBooks). His philosophical musings can be found

Begging to differ

Article by Catherine Z Elgin This article appears in Issue 59 of The Philosophers’ Magazine. Please support TPM by subscribing.

Disagreement abounds. People disagree about everything from sports and politics to science and child rearing. When disagreements stem from the manifest ignorance, bias, or stupidity of one of the disputants, they are epistemologically benign. That someone who clearly does not know what he is talking about disagrees with you gives you no reason to rethink your position. But some disagreements are more worrisome. Equally intelligent, knowledgeable, thoughtful and open-minded people often disagree. Let us call such parties intellectual equals. Should disagreements among intellectual equals give us pause?

Epistemologists disagree. Conciliatory thinkers such as Hilary Kornblith hold that it should. If Fred recognises George as his intellectual equal, he has no basis for thinking that his opinion is better than George’s (or that George’s is better than his). So when they disagree, conciliationists maintain, both should suspend judgement. Advocates of resoluteness such as Thomas Kelly recommend holding fast. If intellectual equals who disagree are always required to suspend judgement, scepticism looms. Given the range of topics on which we disagree with our intellectual equals, we know very little. Resoluteness is permissible, they maintain, because everyone makes mistakes. It is open to Fred to think that where they disagree, George must be mistaken. He is then within his rights to dismiss George’s opinion. Unfortunately, George can think the same about Fred. Resoluteness fosters dogmatism; we are always entitled to dismiss the opinions of intellectual equals who disagree with us by assuming they have made a mistake. Neither scepticism nor dogmatism is an attractive option. A third alternative is that disagreement among intellectual equals provides some reason to rethink one’s position but does not require revising or repudiating it. In that case, parties could reasonably agree to disagree. The challenge is to make room for this position.

Posing the problem so schematically may be misleading. Different disagreements call for different responses. If George knows that he has scrupulously weighed the evidence and has independent reason to suspect that Fred has not done so, it may be reasonable for him to be resolute in his belief that diets rich in kale cause kidney stones even though Fred disagrees. George’s resoluteness here need not be grounded in a general assumption that people who disagree with him are wrong. Rather, he may think that in this particular case Fred has jumped to a conclusion. Dogmatism emerges if he adopts this stance generally.

As the following cases illustrate, conciliation is sometimes appropriate:

Mathematics: Seven friends go out to dinner and agree to evenly split the check. The total comes to $193.91. Pat and Mike are equally good at mental mathematics. Pat announces that each party should pay $27.53; Mike says each should pay $26.93.

Perception: Pat and Mike have equally good eyesight. Pat says that she sees a rabbit in the field; Mike says that he does not see it.

Isolated, ascertainable fact: Pat says that the Battle of Waterloo took place in 1814; Mike says that it took place in 1815.

Isolated, unascertainable (or not readily ascertainable) fact: Pat says that the blue team won the sack race in 1993; Mike says that the white team won. There are no records, and they have lost contact with the other participants.

These disagreements are readily adjudicable; they rest on a bedrock of agreement about what settles such matters. Pat and Mike agree that the correct answer in the restaurant case is whatever one seventh of $193.91 is; and they agree on how to do the calculation. They agree about how to check whether a particular visual perspective is unreliable. They agree about how to ascertain a matter of historical fact, and about what one should think when the requisite information is not available. Plainly both should suspend judgement until they have done the calculation, moved to a better vantage point, checked the disputed fact by appealing to a reliable source. They should suspend judgement permanently if no such source is available.

Sometimes, however, there is no bedrock of agreement. When paleozoologists disagree about the fate of the woolly mammoth, or baseball fans disagree about the strength of the infield, they are apt also to disagree about exactly how to assess such matters. Typically, these disagreements emerge from systematically interconnected clusters of commitments, not only about the topic but also about how to think about it. Cognitive scientists Ken and Alice disagree about whether flavonoids enhance memory because Ken credits the robust results of longitudinal studies which support the hypothesis, while Alice insists on controlled experiments which have not yet been done. In disagreements among intellectual equals, commitments are likely to overlap. But disputants may assign different weights to factors all consider relevant, diverge over whether particular factors are relevant, consider different methods reliable, or differ over thresholds for acceptability.

Even if contending parties agree about what factors are relevant to settling their dispute, and about the general region within which an acceptable answer must lie, they may condone different trade-offs. Both may agree that science seeks generality and precision, but disagree about how to balance one against the other. Both may agree that empirical results must be statistically significant, but disagree about where the line for statistical significance should be drawn. Both may agree that a political arrangement must counterpoise liberty and equality, but disagree about where the balance lies. Let us call such disagreements (currently) inadjudicable. There is no consensus as to the criterion for an adequate resolution.

Perhaps the remedy is to create common ground. Resolve the underlying disagreements, then move on to the topic at hand. How should this be done? Is there an objective fact as to how good evidence must be before it establishes a conclusion? Is there a fact about how many false positives or false negatives investigators should be willing to tolerate? Suppose a test for anaemia is accurate 93% of the time. Dr Henry considers a positive result to afford sufficient reason to believe that his patient is anaemic. Because Dr Murphy insists on 95% accuracy, she suspends judgement on cases where Dr Henry believes. Both agree about what the test result is and about how accurate the test is. They disagree about whether a 93% success rate is good enough – that is, about where the threshold of acceptability lies. Their disagreement about whether the evidence suffices stems from differences in risk aversiveness. If there is a determinate fact about how risk averse one should be in diagnosing anaemia, at least one of the physicians is wrong. But what might such a fact be? Is there a sharp line between being too cautious and being too cavalier in believing test results? If, within certain limits, any of a range of answers is reasonable, then a factual disagreement can be based on differences over something other than a matter of fact.

Suppose Bill believes that generality is more important than precision, while Ellen believes that precision outweighs generality. Their disagreement about the effects of climate change on a butterfly population might stem from a disagreement about precision and generality. Ellen draws precise conclusions that apply only to Monarch butterflies; Bill draws general conclusions that apply more broadly, but that are accurate to fewer significant figures. So Ellen rejects some of the conclusions Bill draws, considering them unacceptably imprecise. Is there a fact as to the proper balance of precision and scope in scientific theories in general? If not, is there a fact in this particular case? If there is, then either Bill’s enthusiasm for generality is overreaching or Ellen’s fondness for precision is nit-picking. But often things are, as far as we can tell, equally balanced. Different trade-offs between precision and generality yield theories that are on balance equally satisfactory.

Maybe the solution here is the same as the solution to adjudicable disagreements: suspend judgement until the more demanding standard is met or suitably fine-grained criteria are framed. If so, suspension of judgement may be permanent. As we saw in the disagreement about the sack race, sometimes a permanent suspension of judgement is reasonable. But such a strategy can be costly. By suspending judgement parties may deprive themselves of resources that could enable them to eventually resolve their disagreement.

To believe an hypothesis is not only to feel that itis true; it is also to be willing to use the hypothesis as a premise in reasoning and as a basis for action in cognitively serious contexts. To suspend judgement involves being unwilling to reason with it or act on it in such contexts. Each judgement we suspend deprives us of a premise. If the premise is false or its justification is shaky, such deprivation can work to our advantage, preventing us from incorporating unwarranted claims into our corpus of beliefs. But we lose inferential power. In suspending judgement about her share of the restaurant bill, Pat lost information she needed to calculate her contribution to the tip. Because that disagreement was adjudicable, that loss was short-lived. But sometimes the loss is more consequential.

A perforated bone fragment was found in a Neanderthal grave. Palaeontologists disagree about whether it is part of a primitive flute. Given its configuration, if it had been found in the grave of a Palaeolithic Homo Sapiens, it would be considered part of a flute. The disagreement is due to underlying disagreements about the level of Neanderthal neurological development. Some hold that Neanderthals lacked the manual dexterity needed to make and manipulate a flute and the intelligence and imagination to invent one. Others think Neanderthals were more gifted. They challenge their opponents to explain what the bone fragment is, if it is not a flute. Little is known about Neanderthals. The available evidence is sparse and equivocal. Each party to the dispute adduces considerations that are consonant with, but relatively weakly supported by the available, uncontroversial evidence. This is not sloppy reasoning. It is the best that can be done with the resources at hand. If the only issue that divided them was the interpretation of the bone fragment, suspending judgement would be reasonable. But palaeontology is riddled with controversies about the Neanderthals. The extent of their tool-making, the structure of their communities, the level of their cognitive and artistic development are all matters of dispute. If disputants had to restrict themselves to considerations that all knowledgeable parties consider firmly established, they would be left with a few isolated facts, but no way to connect them. The fabric of understanding would be riddled with holes and be too flimsy to hang together. If, on the other hand, each group can provisionally accept a hypothesis that is less than secure, their prospects are brighter. Gradually, by playing off their alternatives against each other, they may weave together a tight body of plausible claims that collectively vindicate or rebut the hypothesis that the bone fragment is a flute. By accepting – even tentatively, and with trepidation – a less than firmly established hypothesis, investigators can pursue their inquiries and, with luck, eventually settle the controversy.

Even if this strategy is reasonable, some might argue that it can be pursued without belief. It is perfectly feasible to treat something as a serious working hypothesis without believing it. So perhaps the best strategy is to be conciliatory about belief, and resolute about working hypotheses. Then both groups of palaeontologists can wholeheartedly and single mindedly pursue their investigations, garnering what evidence they can, systematising it as they think appropriate, and making the strongest case possible for their position. They simply should not believe what they say. If we take this position, however, belief attenuates. It ceases to be tied to cognitively responsible inference and action. Scientists would be entitled to use disputed hypotheses as a basis for reasoning and action in their investigations, to argue from those hypotheses, to act on the basis of them. They would be entitled to treat them in their scientific practice just as they would treat hypotheses they believed. If such entitlements are retained in circumstances where epistemologists say that belief is unwarranted, we should probably say, “So much the worse for belief”. This sort of suspension of judgement would have no effect on cognitively responsible practice.

It differs from the suspension of judgement that occurs in adjudicatable cases. There, when parties suspend judgement, they do not and ought not take themselves to be entitled to use the disputed claims as a basis for cognitively serious reasoning or cognitively responsible action. In the restaurant case, Mike does not think he is entitled to put $26.93 (plus a tip) on the table and walk out. Until they do the calculation and resolve the disagreement, he is in no position to say what he owes, hence in no position to pay what he owes.

In inadjudicable cases, intellectual equals disagree, not only about a question of fact, but also about how their disagreement ought to be resolved. Although they largely agree about what sorts of factors are relevant, opinions may diverge at the periphery – one party holding a factor to have a bearing on the issue, the other thinking not. They may disagree about how relevant factors ought to be weighed and/or what the threshold for acceptability is. Still, within roughly specified limits, a variety of positions seem equally acceptable. In such circumstances, rather than insisting that those who disagree with you must be mistaken or consigning yourself and your colleagues to what may be ineradicable ignorance, the best strategy might be to respectfully agree to disagree. Agreeing to disagree entitles each party to draw cognitively serious inferences and engage in cognitively serious actions on the basis of the hypothesis that she favours. Respectfulness lies in acknowledging that on the available evidence the positions taken by one’s intellectual equals are not unreasonable. This is not a position of mindless tolerance of any opinion whatsoever. On the available evidence, palaeontologists can see the merits of both sides of the debate about whether the bone fragment is part of a primitive flute. But they join forces in resolutely rejecting the suggestion that it is a fully functional slide trombone. To be responsible in such a situation, each party must remain attuned to the state of play in the field, recognising that insights that emerge may tilt the balance toward or against her opinion.

I have focused on scientific disagreements, but my points extend to disagreements in all fields. Knowledgeable sports fans may disagree about whether the Steelers are a better football team than the Patriots, because they disagree about the relative importance of a strong running game and a strong passing game. Both are desirable, and a single team is unlikely to be optimal at both. But, arguably, the verdict as to which team is better hangs on where one stands on the question. Here too, respectfully agreeing to disagree seems reasonable.

Earlier I mentioned that epistemologists disagree about whether we should be resolute or conciliatory. What should we make of this disagreement? (I assume that the parties to this dispute are intellectual equals.) Advocates of resoluteness hold that conciliationists ought to be resolutely conciliationist: that is, conciliationists should insist on suspending judgement about which position is correct. But according to conciliationism, given that the resolute disagree with them, conciliationists should suspend judgement about whether we should suspend judgement on the matter. They are, they believe, in no position to insist. The mere existence of conciliationism creates a predicament: only those who do not hold it can, by their own lights, advocate that anyone hold it. If it is reasonable for epistemologists to agree to disagree, they can evade this dilemma. Those who favour resoluteness are within their rights to stand fast in the face of disagreement, while the conciliatory take disagreement as a reason to suspend judgement. Eventually perhaps a resolution will be reached. Perhaps not. But arguably the best way to understand the nature and epistemological significance of disagreement is to endorse a division of cognitive labour, where the members of the epistemological community take the positions they consider most plausible with the utmost seriousness and pursue them to see whether in the end they prove tenable. Consensus may be overrated.

Catherine Z Elgin is professor of the philosophy of education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. She is the author of Considered Judgement (Princeton University Press, 1996) and Between the Absolute and the Arbitrary (Cornell University Press, 1997).

Frank Jackson, latter day physicalist

Interview by James Garvey. This article appears in Issue 59 of The Philosophers’ Magazine. Please support TPM by subscribing.

Here is one of the best thought experiments in the whole of the philosophy of mind:

“Mary is a brilliant scientist who is, for whatever reason, forced to investigate the world from a black and white room via a black and white television monitor. She specialises in the neurophysiology of vision and acquires, let us suppose, all the physical information there is to obtain about what goes on when we see ripe tomatoes…. What will happen when Mary is released from her black and white room or is given a colour television monitor? Will she learn anything or not?”

Well, what do you think? Take your time, because there’s a lot at stake: nothing less than the fundamental metaphysical nature of the universe itself. And don’t worry if you’re not sure what to say, because apparently there’s a lot to be said. There are more than a thousand published papers, innumerable conferences, and even several books addressing the question of what Mary did or didn’t know.

It’s Frank Jackson’s knowledge argument, and it appeared in 1982 in a paper with the agreeably strange title, “Epiphenomenal Qualia”. Qualia are the potentially spooky features of some conscious states, the so-called raw feels of our experiences – the pangs of jealousy, the hurtfulness of pain, the redness of red, the tang of the taste of a lemon, and so on. Epiphenomalism is the view that at least some mental properties have no physical effects. As Thomas Huxley vividly put it, such properties don’t do anything in the physical world, just as “the steam whistle which accompanies the work of a locomotive engine is without influence upon its machinery”. So just knowing the paper’s title, you know Jackson is talking about a serious sort of dualism, the view that there’s more stuff in the world than just physical objects. And some of that stuff has no effects in the physical world. As Jackson put it in the article, it’s hard to buy into the view “without sounding like someone who believes in fairies”.

Nevertheless, it’s had an enormous impact. A bit of unscientific Googling turns up 2.5 million pages for “Frank Jackson’s Knowledge Argument”. Compare that, entirely unfairly, to “Immanuel Kant’s Transcendental Deduction”, which barely limps past half a million. Perhaps his argument’s power lies in the fact that it just grabs you by the collar and forces a choice on you. Did Mary learn something or not? That translates roughly to, well, pick one – dualism or physicalism?

If you think that Mary knew all the physical facts but learns something when she first sees red, then there’s more to know than just physical facts – by hypothesis, she had all those already. So if she learns something, physicalism is false, because it leaves out part of the world she discovers on experiencing red. Maybe it leaves out epiphenomenal qualia.

You can try to deny the existence of nonphysical properties, keep your physicalist credentials, and say she would have somehow already known all about red in her black and white room, despite having never seen it. If you’re a physicalist, knowing all the physical facts just is knowing everything there is to know, so she would learn nothing the first time she sees red. But that’s a stretch, isn’t it? As Jackson concludes in the original article, it “seems just obvious that she will learn something about the world and our visual experience of it. But then it is inescapable that her previous knowledge was incomplete. But she had all the physical information. Ergo there is more to have than that, and Physicalism is false.”

Remarkably, Jackson has since somehow talked himself out of it all. He now resolutely rejects dualism. I wonder how hard that must have been – getting international attention with a pretty impressive argument in favour of a minority view, fighting your corner with gusto, only to swap sides comprehensively some years later. But we start at the beginning, and I ask him to tell me the history of the argument. How did it come to him? Was it a Eureka moment in a bathtub or did it take ages to puzzle out? His reply starts with a generous proviso.

“Almost everything I’m going to say about that argument is based on hundreds, perhaps thousands of discussions with friends and colleagues. If this were an academic article it would be bristling with footnotes and acknowledgements. This is an interview, so I’m not going to give you lots of names.

“The knowledge argument or the Mary argument or the black and white room argument actually has a long history. In the original paper I wrote on it, I footnoted a bit of the history, and of course since then I’ve discovered its history was richer and longer. In fact there’s a little version of it in C D Broad and lots of other places.”

Broad certainly was thinking nearby, but instead of a brilliant neuroscientist, he goes on about mucous membranes and offers us the slightly uninspiring image of an archangel with a grip on chemistry and “the further power of perceiving the microscopic structure of atoms”. The creature would “know exactly what the microscopic structure of ammonia must be; but he would be totally unable to predict that a substance with this structure must smell as ammonia does when it gets into the human nose.” Not bad, but not Mary either.

“I would take credit for putting it forcefully and clearly,” Jackson says, “but I would like to say that of course the argument’s got a long history.” Fair enough, but, personally, what happened?

“I had been a dualist for years. I was taught by Michael Bradley, and he had some good arguments for dualism. I always thought it was a plausible view. As I say in the beginning of ‘Epiphenomenal Qualia’, we dualists don’t really need an argument to say that consciousness doesn’t fit into the physicalist world view. It’s just intuitively obvious. When you hunt for arguments you hunt for arguments that physicalists are going to have trouble resisting. I got a telephone call – this was before the days of email – from the psychology department at Monash University, asking me to give a lunchtime talk. They didn’t quite say it this way, but they sort of said we understand that you’re one of the few dualists left on the planet. Would you like to give a talk saying why? So I had to write something, something informal. And that was the first draft of ‘Epiphenomenal Qualia’. It seemed a bit of a waste not to do something with it, so I added in some stuff and made it longer. I wrote it reasonably quickly.” There’s a pause. He puts on a wistful face and stares off into the middle distance. “I was younger then.” He half-inhales an infectious, staccato laugh.

“The follow up article (‘What Mary Didn’t Know’) came about after Paul Churchland wrote a not terribly friendly piece about the knowledge argument. I thought it was a bit offhand. I didn’t worry about him saying he didn’t believe it, that’s fine, but he sort of suggested it was making some kind of elementary error which anyone could pick up. Not quite as bad as affirming the consequent but pretty bad all the same. That riled me slightly, and I regret to say the slight tone of irritation shows in the piece.” He actually says that with a slight tone of irritation. He looks a little riled now.

When I have another look at the papers I see what he means. It was never going to be particularly convivial. Who could possibly have less sympathy for dualism than Churchland? His view, eliminative materialism, has it that that our psychological categories might be eliminated by a mature neuroscience – beliefs, hopes, desires and so on might not map on to an empirically informed theory of the brain’s functions, so we might end up having to revise, even eliminate our everyday view about the mind. Like witchcraft and phlogiston, beliefs and desires might end up consigned to the conceptual scrapheap, once we get a grip on how the central nervous system really works. It’s about as materialist as materialism gets.

Churchland presents “a conveniently tightened version” of the knowledge argument, which in itself must have been a little exasperating for Jackson. (What? It wasn’t tight enough the first time around?) In one of Churchland’s reconstructed premises Mary knows about brains states, but in another she doesn’t know about sensations. Churchland argues that “the defect … is simplicity itself”. Jackson is equivocating, using “knows about” in two different ways, talking about two different kinds of knowledge, and this renders the argument invalid. Once you spot this, Churchland beams, the argument is “a clear non sequitur …. Such arguments show nothing”. God, he even has a bit of fun with a parallel argument about ectoplasm. It doesn’t quite call for pistols at dawn, but I can see how Churchland might be read as being dismissive of the misguided little dualist. Maybe Jackson did well to be merely riled.

In Jackson’s reply, he says with an audible huff that Churchland’s reformulation of the argument “may be convenient, but it is not accurate”. It’s not the kind of knowledge Mary has but what she knows that matters. He produces “a convenient and accurate” version of the argument which appears to sidestep Churchland’s objection.

“That’s the biographical background to it,” he continues. “Now, exactly why that particular version of the knowledge argument popped into my head – I do not know,” he says, genuinely mystified. Maybe he read Broad’s short argument many years earlier, and although he forgot about it, it might have exerted some unconscious influence. But he certainly had seen Thomas Nagel’s 1974 essay, “What is it like to be a bat?”, and maybe that did figure in somehow. There, Nagel writes about batty subjectivity – what it’s like to be a bat and experience a sonar image of the world – which he argues is only accessible to bats. He concludes that “it is a mystery how the true character of experiences could be revealed in the physical operation of that organism.” The conclusion is importantly different to Jackson’s: it’s not that physicalism is false, but that we can’t understand what it might mean to say that it’s true. Jackson says something of Nagel might have been on his mind, maybe he was trying to make a similar point without all of the complexity of Nagel’s piece.

Whatever the argument’s origins, it’s had an extraordinary history over the past 30 years – objections, replies, countless reformulations on behalf of well-wishers and hostile interpreters alike. As Jackson has authorial privilege, I ask him how he understands the argument. What’s his interpretation of it? What’s its real point?

“Although I now think it’s mistaken,” he begins, “the essential thought behind the argument is simply that when Mary has colour experiences, her conception of the kinds of properties that are instantiated in our world gets dramatically expanded. In theory it’s no different than coming across a new sort of animal. How many different sorts of dogs are there? People think they’ve gotten on top of it, but they turn the corner, and the see a completely different dog from any dog they’ve got on their inventory. So they enlarge their conception of how many kinds of dogs there are. What happens to Mary is that she has a certain view of what the world’s like, a black and white view, and all the stuff that comes to her from the physical sciences. And when she sees colour for the first time I think the plausible thing to say is that she gets an enlarged idea of what kinds of properties there are to be encountered in the world. She comes across new properties.”

When Jackson lays it out like that, crystal clear, it’s hard not to feel a certain insecurity about physicalism. What else can you say, except that Mary learns about a new part of the world when she sees colour for the first time? But Jackson is a latter day physicalist. How did he talk himself out of dualism?

“I’ve always thought that if you’re a dualist you should be up front about the metaphysics. And you should say, of course these properties are epiphenomenal. We know enough about the world to know that these extra properties which I believe in aren’t guiding my pen as I write the article saying qualia are left out of our physical picture of the world. In ‘Epiphenomenal Qualia’ I explain why it’s not such a disaster being an epiphenomenalist, but I came to think of this as a triumph of philosophical ingenuity over common sense. This is what someone who’s done a good philosophy degree can somehow make seem all right, but if you look at it in a more commonsensical way it’s actually pretty implausible. So the epiphenomenal stuff was just very hard to believe.

“For a while I was at the stage of people who say, there must be something wrong with the knowledge argument. It’s not obvious, despite the fact that some people jump up and down and say it’s obvious, because look at all these smart people giving quite different diagnoses of what’s wrong. That tells you it’s not obvious what’s wrong with it. I was in that situation, thinking there’s got to be something wrong with it but not sure what it was. And then I decided that the best way out is to think in representationalist terms about phenomenal experience. When you think in those terms, what you’re thinking is that when something looks red to you, don’t think of that as a relationship between you and an instance of some special property. Think of it as representing things as being a certain way. You don’t think of it in relational terms, you think in propositional terms, as a kind of intentional state.

“When you think in those terms, it’s a mistake to wonder where the special redness is. What you have to ask yourself is, when something looks red, how am I representing the world to be? And if you’re convinced that you’re representing the world such that it has some special property outside the physical picture of the world, and you think physicalism is plausible, then of course you think it’s a case of false representation. Then you better have some story about how looking red represents things to be, and what that to be is, and how it can be found in a physical picture of what the world’s like.”

That actually helps break the spell a little. Maybe it’s a mistake to think of Mary as bumping into a new thing, like turning the corner and seeing a new kind of dog. Instead, she’s got a representation of how things are. But how do representations work, on this view? What is it to see red if it’s not to be in a relation with something red?

“When I’m talking about representation I’m talking about a state where you’re invited to have a certain view about how things are. Of course you may reject it. When you have those famous perceptual illusions, and you know they’re illusions, you’re in a state which invites you to think that some line is curved. You know perfectly well it’s not curved. Nevertheless you’re in a state which sort of says to you, ‘This is the way things are! This is the way things are!’ That’s what I mean by a representation. So when something looks red, I think you’re in a state which almost shouts at you, ‘This object has a really striking surface property!’ The experience of something’s looking red doesn’t say something about you. It says something about the object. Dispositional theories are theories that say in one way or another that we should think of colour as a relation between you and the object. But I think that when something looks red, you’re representing the way it is, not the way you are.”

I’m still not sure I see exactly how a shift to representationalism gets us clear of trouble with Mary. I ask Jackson for his new, physicalist answer to the question posed by his former dualist self: does Mary learn something or not? He takes a deep breath – I get the feeling he’s spent more time thinking about this question than just about anyone else. It turns out that the physicalist has not one, but two ways out.

“Looking red I think is clearly a representational state. I think the idea that perceptual states in general are representational states is extremely plausible. If you think that and you’re a physicalist what you have to say is, right, Mary clearly enters a new representational state when she leaves the room. That should be common ground. If you’re a physicalist, then you’ve got two things to say. You’re either going to say, why doesn’t she get new knowledge? Well, she already had it. If she already had it then you have to answer the question, what property do her newer experiences represent things as having which she knew about in the room? Maybe she didn’t know about it under the name ‘red’, but if she’s in a new representational state, and things are as they’re being represented to be, and she doesn’t learn anything new about the world, you need to give an answer to what looking red represents things as being, where the content of the representation can be expressed in physical terms. Alternatively, you can say it’s a false representation. Colour is an illusion. You have to say one or the other.”

This seems to be about as far as Jackson cares to go outside the black and white room. Once there’s an escape route, he seems satisfied to leave it at that. I ask him which course he takes. If it’s a new representation, how does he understand it? If seeing the red of the rose is an illusion, what’s illusory about it?

“On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays I go for the illusion view,” he laughs, “the other days I say, what she’s representing is certain complex similarity and difference relationships between the light accessible properties of objects. Now she doesn’t know what properties stand in those similarity relations, it’s up to optical science to tell us what they are, but when something looks red, it’s represented as being strikingly similar to blood and strikingly different from the sky, as being more similar to pink things than to black things, as having a property of grabbing your attention in a distinctive way, a way in which dark blue does not, etc, etc, etc.

“But if we do the physics we may not find that the properties of the surfaces stand in these similarity relations. Well, in that case I’d be an eliminativist. I think we’d have to say, right, colour is an illusion, a very useful illusion, but an illusion all the same.” So for Jackson it really could still go either way – “but that’s mostly a matter for physics, not philosophy.”

That thought about science brings us neatly to another point against physicalism made by Jackson in his dualist days. Physicalism is an extraordinarily optimistic view of our mental capacities – in principle, we’ve pretty much got a grip on all that there is, the physical stuff that makes up our world, and we’re on our way to understanding it. But if our understanding is shaped by the need to survive – our brain is an evolved thing, after all – isn’t it likely that there are vast parts of the universe that we’ll never get a grip on, just because it never mattered in our evolutionary history? Doesn’t this suggest that physicalism almost certainly leaves some of the universe out? Maybe the mental side of us or some part of it?

Dualist Jackson once made the point by imagining sea slugs burbling around in our deepest oceans – perhaps they evolved rationality and developed sciences, suitably restricted compared to ours, given their limited environment, but sciences that work pretty well for them where they are. They have philosophers too: tough-minded slugists who say that the restricted terms of their science can explain everything there is, and soft-minded slugists who suspect there may be some mysterious residue left out by slug science. With a richer grasp of the world and a larger science, we can see where the tough-minded slugists go wrong. But of course a being with a more comprehensive grip on things might make human physicalists look just like slugists. We could be making the tough-minded slugists’ mistake. Maybe some part of the mind lies beyond the reach of physicalism, just as parts of the world are beyond the slug’s view. Does he still have some sympathy with the humility of his earlier reflections, despite his conversion to physicalism?

“Yes I do. There’s a position I call Kantian physicalism. What it says is this. Isn’t it common sense that there are things that we don’t know about the world? Even the most enthusiastic physicalist has to say there are gaps in our knowledge. It’s at least plausible that it goes much beyond that – it’s not just that there are problems in quantum mechanics. It might be that there’s a whole range of properties that we don’t and can’t know about because they don’t impinge on us. Or if they do they impinge on us in a way that has no relevance to survival, so we didn’t evolve in such a way that we can pick them up. Isn’t that right?

“What the Kantian physicalist says is, yes, that is right. But those properties don’t matter for mentality. In other words, if you took a world just like this, duplicated it in all the physical respects, but changed its fundamental nature in all sorts of dramatic ways, the pains would hurt just as much. You’d be screaming just as loud, you’d be pleading for the surgeon to stop operating without anaesthetic. So the mental side of things, the phenomenal side of things would be unaltered.

“There’s an interesting paper by David Lewis called ‘Ramseyan Humility’. You would think of Lewis as being the paradigmatic physicalist, and certainly in his earlier writings that’s what you get. But in this paper he suggests there might be a whole range of properties we can’t know about, because permuting them doesn’t make any difference at the level in which we interact with the world. It’s a bit like that thought experiment: maybe there’s a matter version of our world, and an antimatter version, and there are duplicates of you and me, but one’s made of matter and the other’s made of antimatter. You can’t know whether we’re in the matter world or the antimatter one. There’s a whole range of things you can’t know. Imagine these duplication cases, where you duplicate the world physically, but change all the rest of the stuff – our conversation would go exactly the same way. Quine still writes ‘Two Dogmas of Empiricism’, or maybe it’s Quine2 in the duplicate world, but the words on the page are exactly the same. The same number of people agrees with it, the same number of people disagrees with it.

“The slugists were wrong. They thought that they knew more than they do in fact know. But as far as mentality goes, the physicalist can say that the physical story is enough for mentality.”

I take the point that a physicalist can be humble, but I’m still left with doubts about Mary. In the end, somehow, I don’t entirely buy Jackson’s new reply to that old question: does she learn anything or not? I’m still back where he was some years ago – I’ve got the feeling something’s wrong with the argument, but I don’t know what it is.

Maybe the long representationalist story is right, but somehow it just doesn’t quite fit the simple, elegant question raised by Mary seeing red for the first time. The part of me in favour of parsimony would very much like a simple answer to a simple question. It’s ingenious, all that talk about representing complex similarity and difference relationships between the light accessible properties of objects. I wouldn’t go so far to say it seems ad hoc, but it does feel a little contorted, an unnatural stance taken up to squeeze out of the tangle of the knowledge argument. And maybe that long story works with seeing red – I think Jackson is right to say that perceptual states are essentially representational – but I’m left wondering about other states with qualitative feels that don’t obviously represent anything. What is this pang of regret supposed to represent? My stupid decision to study philosophy when I could have been a well-heeled lawyer instead?

Jackson might have talked himself out of the knowledge argument’s conclusion, but I still don’t know. I’m no dualist, but there’s something about Mary.

James Garvey is editor of The Philosophers’ Magazine and author, with Jeremy Stangroom, of The Story of Philosophy (Quercus, 2012).

Lost baroque

Luc Foisneau on the French philosophers eclipsed by rationalism

With his famous Discourse on Method, Descartes imposed from 1637 onwards a certain idea of what philosophical thinking should be: well-measured, systematic and distinctly clear. Considered as the hero of a new age of reason, the cavalier with a moustache served as the emblem, not only of a certain type of metaphysics, but also of the whole of modern philosophy. As he quickly became the symbol of the French spirit that is called “Cartesian”, designating its concern for order and measure, the philosophers who did not follow his lead were soon to be left aside. And if their names have survived in Google-book footnotes, they are often viewed not so much as “philosophers” proper, but as “writers” at large, and if as philosophers, not as classical, but as “baroque”.

But what is a baroque philosopher? Many things, since “baroque” can be taken to mean the reverse of the Cartesian coin: the taste for subtle argumentation and wistful dialogue as opposed to straightforward geometrical demonstration, a pleasure taken in esoteric theses as opposed to clear and distinct ideas, a taste for huge panoramas as opposed to the Cartesian analytical method, or, to put it in an aesthetic perspective, a sense of the fold as opposed to straight lines, as Deleuze brilliantly demonstrated concerning Leibniz in The Fold. While Descartes was promoting clear and distinct ideas, there were other distinct ways of approaching philosophy, and many of them can be called baroque.

If we start with the question of definition, it must be said that our clear-cut Cartesian conception of what philosophy is – let’s say, in short, a way to advance our learning by going from one clear and distinct idea to another – does not fit in with all the uses of the word in seventeenth-century French and Latin. The usage made of the terms “philosopher” and “philosophy” varied, of course, as is still the case today, from one philosophical school to another: Cartesianism, humanism, late scholasticism, Epicureanism, Stoicism and Augustinianism, to cite the most important, did not have the same definition.

But there was also a new meaning emerging, as “philosopher” became synonymous with “scientist” in the wake of the Galilean revolution; in numerous “academies” or “cabinets”, that is, private, and then later on, public scientific gatherings, such as Mersenne’s circle, “natural philosophers” contributed to giving seventeenth-century philosophy the naturalistic twist that characterises it today. But the philosopher of that time, whatever his inclination for physics or astronomy, is not comparable to our modern-day scientific expert: he remains a hybrid individual, uniting in a single person elements that can today appear heterogeneous.

In order to give an account of the principal facets of this baroque individuality, it is indispensable to take a look at the limits of philosophy, limits that are disciplinary, but also religious and political. Among the primary disciplines with which the seventeenth-century philosopher was confronted, theology must be cited in the first place. And this familiarity of the philosopher with the concept of God is something we are no longer familiar with, not only because faith has been fading away in Europe, but also because, even if some of us are still believers, we no longer believe that philosophy is the servant of theology. But in the age of Descartes – who provided several demonstrations of the existence of God – and of Pascal – who refused indifference and made a famous wager on life after death – theology came first among all scholarly disciplines. Since salvation of the soul was thought to be of primary concern, theology oriented the choice of philosophical authorities according to the various traditions of religious orders.

That also explains why the main intellectual divide of “Louis XIV’s century” – a divide that lasted over 150 years and deeply influenced French literary culture – the one between Jansenists and Jesuits – is hardly understandable by most people today: how could they understand that the heart of the turmoil that caused exiles, papal interdictions and, in the end, the destruction of a convent (Port-Royal des Champs, in 1713), was simply the question whether the Jansenists’ interpretation of the doctrine on divine grace was, or was not, faithful to Saint Augustine?

The two young men who started working hard together in the South of France from 1605 onwards to settle their positions on that serious matter would not have expected such a great honour, and probably did not seek the privilege, which led Jean Duvergier de Hauranne, abbot of St Cyran, to be imprisoned in Vincennes in 1638, and Jansenius to write the most discussed book of the century, his Augustinus (1640). The polemics developed after five propositions on grace, found in the Augustinus, were condemned by Pope Innocent X at the request of the Jesuits: on the one side, the Jesuits had it that those propositions – such as “In the state of fallen nature, one never resists internal grace” – were contrary to Augustine’s spirit; on the other side, the Jansenists proved that those propositions were literally in Augustine’s writings.

What is true is that the official doctrine of the Catholic Church had changed over time, and that Saint Augustine, although an official authority of the Church, did not say what the Church after the Council of Trent wanted him to have said. But it is also true that this baroque, not to say Byzantine, theological dispute was, first, the source of many philosophical discussions and, second, an act of intellectual resistance to the Sun King’s absolutism. The first point was well illustrated by the famous Lettres provinciales in which Pascal vigorously took the defence of Arnauld and his other Jansenist friends against the moral philosophy of the Jesuits, accused of being a “lax morality”. The second point was illustrated by the refusal of the Jansenists to sign the official certificate declaring that Jansenius had perverted Augustine’s doctrine of grace.

The voices echoing from the great quarrel on Jansenism are still intimate voices to us, since philosophy has to do with respect of conscience – why should I sign a certificate declaring wrong something I know to be right? But they are also distant voices to our ears, since few of us still believe in God’s efficient grace, or even know what grace is. But the fact is that Jansenism had a huge impact, not only on philosophy, but also on literature, anthropology, pedagogy, ethics and politics, and that we can’t understand that impact unless we understand something of the subtleties of God’s grace. Without this morsel of theology, we might even have difficulties understanding Racine’s Phèdre or Arnauld and Nicole’s famous Logic or art of thinking. Thus, what is baroque in Jansenism is the intricacy of nature and grace, well illustrated by Pascal and his hidden God projecting his shadow on one of the brightest philosophical and mathematical minds of all time.

Another famous, and yet surprising, example of the importance of the religious factor in seventeenth-century philosophy is that we cannot understand the thought of the Huguenot Pierre Bayle on tolerance – which he defended about the same time as Locke, but on a different philosophical basis – if we forget that all French Protestants who did not want to convert to Catholicism were forced to leave France after 1685. The Revocation of the Edict of Nantes is certainly no philosophical concept, but it is a politico-theological event that prompted the emergence of new concepts, notably that of the errant conscience that no political or ecclesiastical power can ever force into believing what it does not believe.

But even when French philosophy criticises theology and faith, it is not identical with what we designate today by the name of atheism. Scholarly free-thinking is also a baroque phenomenon, as is shown by La Mothe Le Vayer, once a preceptor to Louis XIV, whose anti-religious arguments are disguised and revealed by subtleties, denials and self-contradictions. One element explaining that feeling of distance we have in reading seventeenth-century atheists is due to the importance during that period of clandestine literature, notably with the famous Treatise of the Three Impostors. Since no authority then would have accepted the public expression of a straightforward critique of the three monotheisms, this kind of philosophy had to develop a secret art of writing.

Although some sort of “underground” philosophy existed, one must nevertheless beware the temptation to project the Enlightenment back into the seventeenth century. Jonathan Israël’s Radical Enlightement gives a vivid description of Spinoza’s impact on European philosophy from the mid-seventeenth-century onwards, but one must not forget, concerning France, that the impact of Spinoza was confined to very narrow circles – notably, to the one of the former musketeers, Henri de Boulainvilliers, who only met the Tractatus Theologico-Politicus in 1694, and started reading it with the intention to provide a refutation of it. More efficient, as far as atheism is concerned, were the ideas spreading from the medical faculties of the time, which produced some philosophically bizarre doctors, such as Abraham Gaultier, who developed a materialist philosophy opposed to all kinds of dualism, including Spinoza’s two attributes of God.

Another curious dimension of this early rationalism is its association with alchemy, the ancestor of our modern chemistry. It was likewise in the vicinity of the faculties of medicine that the alchemists’ Great Work developed; those secret scientists, who were often initiated into Paracelsism in Germany, distinctly claimed for themselves the title of philosophers; they also adhered to various heterodox forms of religious belief. With this hidden face of natural philosophy, we can better understand that so-called “classical science” does not put an end to baroque epistemology.

The baroque side of seventeenth-century French philosophy is also well attested by a quite illiberal intricacy between philosophy, politics and economy. Long before Oxford University invented PPE (Philosophy, Politics and Economics), Louis XIV had conceived a monarchical syllabus, in which philosophers and writers at large depended on political authority for financial support. The first economists, like Montchrestien, who invented the expression “political economics”, and later Boisguilbert and Vauban, did not have much success in advocating a new fiscal policy, for all political decisions remained in the hands of the absolute monarch, who needed money to wage wars.

But Louis’ aspiration to glory required not only victories, but also writers, painters, and even philosophers to say all the good they thought of his Majesty. In order to obtain that result, the absolute monarch granted allowances to put into operation what constituted probably the first example of a widespread cultural policy. Through the Royal Academies, the monarch intended to direct and control national intellectual production, including philosophy, and this control undeniably explains the extremely bridled character of the political thought of the time and the exiles of several philosophers. We know that Descartes preferred industrious Holland to the strictly policed France of Louis XIV. The lists of appointments to the Royal Academies and of allowances indicate without any doubt the chain that linked writers to their master. Jansenism again constitutes, from this point of view, a remarkable example of spiritual and intellectual resistance to absolute power.

Although some have spoken of a baroque state, the link between aesthetics, philosophy and politics is not easy to establish. Hobbes, whose work Louis XIV and Bossuet had read, undeniably left a trace in French political thought, but his contract-based reconstruction of politics is more classical than baroque; and the treatises on reason of state, such as Guez de Balzac’s Prince, are certainly baroque in their subtleties, but really contain nothing more than a eulogy of the powers in place. Thus, the cultural policy of the time throws a very useful light on the functioning of the kingdom’s Academies, but it also indicates the limits of the republican character of the Republic of Letters.

In addition, we should stress that the very few women philosophers were in the hardly enviable position of a despised minority, that of the “wise women” (femmes savantes) mocked by Molière, or of the “blue-stockings” (bas-bleus) later commented upon by Virginia Woolf. The unjustified reputation that was given to Marie de Gournay, despite the regard that Montaigne had for her intelligence, is an indication of the incongruity of the woman philosopher of the time. A baroque existence: such, indeed, was that of Gabrielle Suchon, an exact contemporary of Locke and Spinoza: a former nun, who wrote Du Célibat volontaire, ou la Vie sans engagement (On Voluntary Celibacy or A Life Without Commitment, 1700). She developed all her critical arguments on the basis of scriptural or classical texts. The first treatises on the equality of the sexes, by Scipion Dupleix notably, but not only by that author, should not disguise the fact that philosophy was, in the seventeenth century, an essentially masculine activity. Feminism has therefore much to learn from those early women philosophers, and their philosophical endeavours to justify a new status for women in an age of reason.

There is undeniably one last element that should be recalled, although it does not appear at first sight to be linked to baroque philosophy. It is the use that was made of the French language in the affirmation of a universal philosophy. Through a resolute linguistic policy that led to a considerable transformation of French between the beginning and end of the century, politics put its mark on the instrument of thought. The disappearance of provincial vocabulary, the spurning of professional language, and the birth of dictionaries concerned with good usage thus transformed the language of philosophy, and the increasingly frequent recourse to French in philosophical treatises – Descartes’ Discours de la méthode (Discourse on Method) is the classical example, but there are many others – bore the mark of this linguistic normalisation. Philosophers like Descartes and Malebranche therefore contributed to the invention or improvement of what is now known as classical French, and it is true to say that this invention entailed the disappearance of the more baroque French of Montaigne.

What is strange to modern minds is the fact that the main language of French seventeenth-century philosophy was Latin, not French; that use of Latin, inherited from the medieval Catholic Church, avoided much translation, since philosophy’s canon form was still, in colleges and convents, that of the great scholastic treatises, and, in particular, of the commentaries of Thomas Aquinas or Duns Scotus. French philosophers of the time were thinking within, and sometimes between, two languages, the vernacular and the scholastic, which situation naturally (so to speak) added to the complexity of their thought. Contemporary English-speaking philosophers might ponder this baroque, that is, uncomfortable but sometimes fruitful, situation: if going from one language to another sometimes blurred the meaning of concepts, it often added to them a depth and complexity that greatly benefited philosophers like Arnauld and Descartes.

The relation of French philosophy to Latin is also indicative of its relation to ancient literary culture in general, as is shown by a major dispute, with huge philosophical consequences, that pitted the “Ancients” – under Boileau’s lead – against the “Moderns” – led by Charles Perrault. This quarrel about the status of literary authority is extremely important, since it teaches us much about modernity in its early developments.

In our post-Humanist age, it is certainly hard for us to understand the vital role of Greek and Latin philosophers and poets: but going back to baroque French philosophy might well help us understand that what we now find baroque was classical at the time, and that what seem to us today to be normal ways of philosophising – deconstruction, post-structuralism, and even analytical philosophy – would have appeared very baroque to the contemporaries of Descartes and Pascal.

Luc Foisneau is Director of research in political philosophy at the French Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS, Paris) and is the general editor of the Dictionary of Seventeenth-Century French Philosophers (Thoemmes-Continuum)

Review: Sloterdijk, Sloterdijk & Sloterdijk

Derrida, An Egyptian: On the Problem of the Jewish Pyramid by Peter Sloterdijk (Polity) £14.99/$12.95 (pb)

God’s Zeal: The Battle of the Three Monotheisms by Peter Sloterdijk (Polity) £14.99/$19.95 (pb)

Terror from the Air by Peter Sloterdijk (Semiotext(e)) £9.95/$14.95 (pb)

Public philosophers come in many guises: moral voices, political agitators, gloomy intellectuals, rationalist educators, popularisers of ideas. Peter Sloterdijk has a strong claim to being Germany’s foremost public philosopher. In 1981 his first book, Critique of Cynical Reason – originally published in two volumes adding up to a sprawling thousand pages – became a publishing sensation in West Germany, quickly selling over 40,000 copies. He has since written on myriad topics, ranging from Nietzsche’s materialism to “Eurotaoism”. This year, he published a book with an unabashedly self-help title, You Must Change Your Life. Sloterdijk has never shied from the media, and since 2002 he has hosted a pop philosophy television talk show entitled In the Glass House: A Philosophical Quartet.

Sloterdijk has insistently challenged the forms of public philosophy that find their source in the critical theory of the Frankfurt School, whether Theodor Adorno’s vigilant negativity, Herbert Marcuse’s political utopianism, or Jürgen Habermas’s faith in Enlightenment universalism. Habermas, with his public role as Germany’s humanist social conscience, has served as Sloterdijk’s principal rival. The contrast between them reached a polemical pitch in 1999 when a paper by Sloterdijk on Heidegger’s “Lecture on Humanism” set off a heated debate, especially among Habermasians, because of its Nietzschean talk of “breeding” and “selection”, and its proposal of a post-human politics of the “human zoo”. Sloterdijk has continued to court controversy, heaping praise on the explanation of Islamic militancy as the result of population growth (a “youth bulge”) promoted by the right-wing demographer Gunnar Heinsohn, whose dubious theories Sloterdijk has improbably compared in significance to Marx’s Capital.

Though the Critique of Cynical Reason was published in English in 1988, only recently has Sloterdijk’s work garnered much attention in the Anglophone world, with a flurry of translations and a number of public appearances, mostly in an art-world context (Sloterdijk is the rector of the Karlsruhe School of Design). The three books under review are a characteristically disparate sample of Sloterdijk’s concerns: a valedictory essay on a major contemporary thinker (Derrida, An Egyptian), an inquiry into the sources of monotheistic violence (God’s Zeal), a study of gas warfare as a metaphor for the twentieth century (Terror from the Air).

From its cryptic title onwards, the punitively priced short book on Derrida demonstrates Sloterdijk’s propensity to latch onto a particular idea and not let it go until he’s extracted as much mileage from it as possible. The relationship between Egypt and Judaism is used to organise a “constellation” of brief vignettes in which Derrida is read in conjunction with a varied host of thinkers (the German systems-theorist Niklas Luhmann, Freud, Thomas Mann, the historian Franz Borkenau, ex-revolutionary and “mediologist” Régis Debray, Hegel and the Russian art theorist Boris Groys).

Though some of the pairings are intriguing, as when Borkenau’s theory of the “antinomy of death” is used to shed light on Derrida’s critique of philosophies reliant on notions of immortality, the result is inconclusive. Sloterdijk praises deconstruction for its struggles against fanatical one-sidedness, for making possible a kind of decentred postmodern stability and “returning the churches and castles of the immortalist Ancien Régime to the mortal citizens”. Yet one also senses that Derrida is simply not post-metaphysical enough for Sloterdijk’s liking, since the French philosopher is still too preoccupied with transcendent and universal ideals like justice. This is evident in the book’s last section, which promotes Groys’s deflationary notion of “curating”, of philosophy as “museology”, against Derrida’s continued fidelity to an idea of interpretation inherited from messianic hermeneutics and psychoanalysis.

God’s Zeal takes its cue from a particularly extreme statement by Derrida on the “world war” between the religions of the Book and proceeds, by way of potted history and philosophical reflection, to propose ways in which contemporary religious fanaticism could be quelled. Sloterdijk shares with the likes of John Gray a deep hostility to utopian or millenarian thought and echoes the “new atheism” in his disdain for the politics of piety. But his approach is modelled on the Nietzschean vision of the philosopher as cultural physician, diagnosing spiritual pathologies. “At the beginning of the twenty-first century, a time stirred up by new religious turbulence”, he writes, Nietzsche’s “warning to remain faithful to the earth and send the tellers of otherworldly fairy tales to a doctor is even more relevant than it was at the end of the nineteenth.”

To Nietzschean anti-universalism we can add the influence of Cold War polemic: Sloterdijk sees a red thread between Jacobinism and twentieth-century communism, which is reduced to a particularly vicious brand of zealotry, a “fourth monotheism”.

But Sloterdijk’s digressive romp through two and a half millennia of religious and political history wants to move beyond earlier critiques of zealous politics, whether secular or religious. What is needed, he declares, is a new cultural theory capable of explaining the emergence of violent desires for transcendence and of providing therapies against the “fascism of the good”.

To this end, he enlists the work of Heiner Mühlmann, which allegedly provides a psychobiological and evolutionary account of impassioned religious activism, in which fanaticism is explained as a result of individual and social “stress”. Sloterdijk’s paraphrase of Mühlmann is vague and jargonistic, and at worst is reminiscent of a medicalisation of conviction which is closer to Lombroso than to Darwin. His remedies against apocalypticism are hardly original, involving an outdated vision for the “development” of a Third World supposedly steeped in ressentiment as well as a pseudo-scientific invocation of demography. Nietzsche’s philosophy is married with State Department programmes of modernisation in a theory of an ecumenical civilisation that aims at the overcoming of zeal.

The question of culture is also at the core of Terror from the Air, whose focus is on technology rather than religion. In a narrative that bears comparison with the writings of Paul Virilio, Sloterdijk tries to extract a philosophical lesson from what he calls “atmoterrorism”, a phenomenon whose paradigm is World War I gas warfare. For Sloterdijk the twentieth century – whose three main innovations are terrorism, product design and environmental awareness – really begins on 22 April 1915, with the German gas-attack on French and Algerian troops at Ypres. Sloterdijk views this event as emblematic of a modernity in which what was previously in the background is made explicit. The very air we breathe is turned into a weapon. Political Terror, so crucial to Hegel’s philosophy, becomes environmental terrorism, especially at the hands of states.

Sloterdijk follows the “break-up of latency” through a number of examples: the Dresden bombings, US gas executions and atomic warfare, but also Dali’s almost fatal surrealist performance in a diver’s suit and our small talk about the weather. Cultures are accordingly rethought as “collective conditions of immersion in air and sign systems”. The writing in Terror from the Air showcases Sloterdijk at his more engaging, drawing ideas from history and anecdote. But the underlying project remains profoundly unpersuasive.

The idea of modernity as a “process of atmosphere-explication” is openly indebted to Heidegger’s writing on technology, albeit in the mode of pastiche (Sloterdijk writes of “turning breathing-unto-death into an ontically controllable procedure”). As in Heidegger, it neutralises the crucial contexts that make for the difference between air-conditioning systems and gas chambers. More importantly, Sloterdijk’s conclusions demonstrate the moral and political limitations of his postmodern, post-metaphysical thought. Against modernism, which is identified with a “campaign against the self-evident”, Sloterdijk advocates “an ethics of the antagonistic protection of the interests of finite unities”, a new thinking of cultures as immune systems or “spheres” (the title of his three-volume “magnum opus”). Sloterdijk’s post-metaphysical philosophy thus slides from the curating of archives to the patrolling of threatened borders. The price of leaving behind what he scornfully calls “the fantasy of universalism” turns out to be very high indeed.

Alberto Toscano teaches sociology at Goldsmiths, University of London. His Fanaticism: On the Uses of an Idea is forthcoming from Verso.

What is religious education for?

It’s not the state’s job to encourage critical scrutiny of religion, argues Melissa Lane

What should religious education (RE) aim to do? Consider the following proposition: that the RE syllabus should “focus … on learning how to make informed, rational judgements on the truth or falsity of religious propositions.” I will argue that such an approach to RE is anachronistic, parochial, and dangerous. It misconceives both religion and its place in the state.

The proposal – from a 2004 report by the ippr (Institute for Public Policy Research), What is Religious Education For? – is anachronistic in embodying Enlightenment polemic against early modern states in which religious tests were required and religious power of various kinds enforced. In that past world, in which public power and coercion were used to penalise nonconformity, philosophers and polemicists who challenged people to question the grounds for the orthodoxies which had been intrusively imposed upon them played an important role. They made the culture safe for religious criticism.

Today, however, despite the continued establishment of the Anglican Church, public power in the UK is not used coercively to enforce either orthodoxy or orthopraxy. No religion here enjoys anything like the sweeping civic influence and control of, say, the eighteenth century Scottish Presbyterians, which Hume sought to counter by his skeptical arguments, or of the eighteenth century French Catholic Church which Voltaire sought to undermine by his. Indeed, not even Voltaire and Hume proposed to use state power to impose that sort of challenge on the religious. Their contention was not that the state should teach the questioning of religious beliefs, but rather that state power should be used neither to promote them nor to suppress their being questioned. A proposal of the kind quoted above would distort the Enlightenment heritage in the very act of appropriating it: turning the demand for freedom of religious criticism into a demand for the imposition of religious criticism.

It might be objected that although there is no public religious coercion, private religious coercion remains: children are born into families in which they are indoctrinated into religious beliefs, and so someone has to free them from such indoctrination by teaching them critical assessment of religious claims. Perhaps one should go further, in viewing such freeing as essential if they are to become mature and responsible citizens.

This raises two questions. First, what the nature of religious identification among children (and indeed adults) actually is; second, whether it is the state’s role to challenge such identification. The answers to these two questions constitute also my next two overall points: to suggest that the understanding of religion as belief-indoctrination is parochial; and to argue that the claim that the state should challenge such religious identification among children (however understood) is, in a liberal society, dangerous.

The view of religion as resting on belief in “the truth or falsity of religious propositions”, and on rationally assessable evidence justifying such belief, is indeed parochial, deriving from a narrow self-misunderstanding of the very religion (paradigmatically Protestant Christianity) which it would criticise. It is a misunderstanding, because religion is not belief alone but the complex of belief, practice, and community. These together constitute religious identity in a way which is holistic and constitutive rather than dependent on single pieces of evidence assessable in isolation. To imagine that religious identity rests on isolable pieces of evidence that can be judged true or false is to be blind to the phenomenon of religious belonging.

Admittedly, the primacy of belief and evidence may be not only a misunderstanding of the nature of religion, but also one which is shared by certain forms of religions themselves. A rough generalisation would be that Christianity and Islam are more likely to treat belief as the fundamental basis of religious identity, whereas progressive and even orthodox forms of Judaism, alongside Hinduism, are more likely to treat belonging and observance as primary.

Yet in all these religions, religious identity and identification go in practice beyond and sometimes apart from belief. There are Catholics who reject the belief in the sacredness of all life so as to support abortion, and those who reject the belief in the supremacy and infallibility of the Pope. Conversely, those who abandon orthodoxy or religion altogether will as often do so for moral reasons – they simply cannot accept what they take to be the implications of the religion any longer – as for reasons of a change in their assessment of “evidence” for the truth of the religion itself. The lively debates in religious journals and synods (or their equivalent) demonstrate the recognition that evidence and belief do not exhaust – and may not underpin – the varying and specific forms of religious identity which people choose to espouse.

Even the most self-proclaimed orthodox of any faith divide among themselves as to what that faith requires them to believe and to do: they make some holidays more important than others; they worry about translating certain requirements of their text into practice but not others. And there are also many belongers who are not believers, or are not sure whether or not they are believers, or are selective believers, or selective practitioners, but whose affiliation nevertheless outstrips and outlasts these facts.

Crucially, the religions have always been broad churches in this respect, arenas in which some advocate the primacy of belief while others (perhaps the majority) get on with a wide range of believing, not-believing, practising and not-practising. Contra Karen Armstrong’s recent argument in The Case for God – that the elevation of belief in religion (paradigmatically in Christianity) was due not to the religions themselves but to the fatal effects of the scientific revolution in setting new standards for belief — I would suggest that the tension between elevating belief and elevating practice is intrinsic to the life of religions. This complex relationship is traduced by reducing it to a single univocal test of the rationality of belief.

Even if religions are considered in light of belief alone, the idea that there is a single rational test of that belief based on a simple scrutiny of evidence is mistaken. In light of what the American political philosopher John Rawls called the “burdens of judgment”, we should think it unreasonable to expect that any particular piece of evidence would tip believers or unbelievers out of their established religious (non-)identification and into another.

Rawls asked in Political Liberalism: “Why should free institutions lead to reasonable pluralism? Why does not our conscientious attempt to reason with one another lead to reasonable agreement? It seems to do so in natural science, at least in the long run.” His answer is that in the case of religion and philosophical debates about the ultimate good, our judgment is burdened by a number of factors, which he went on to describe as follows (this is a close paraphrase): The evidence is conflicting and complex, and we may disagree about how to weight it; We must rely on judgements and interpretations about all concepts; Experience matters for the assessment of such claims; It is hard to assess varying kinds of normative associations; Any system of social institutions is a limited social and value space – it is hard to set priorities and make decisions.

Because of these burdens, it is unreasonable to expect that pluralism will end – or that there could be any killer argument to end it. Instead the task of the liberal society is to respect pluralism in these matters consistent with reaching a common core of principles of justice.

This brings me to my third point: that the proposition with which we began would endanger the ideal of citizenship in conditions of pluralism. Consider a further recommendation in the ippr report: “Pupils would be actively encouraged to question the religious beliefs they bring with them into the classroom, not so that they are better able to defend or rationalise them, but so that they are genuinely free to adopt whatever position on religious matters they judge to be best supported by the evidence.”

This suggests that the state’s goal is freedom from religion. Yet is the goal of the state in a multifaith classroom and society, not rather freedom of religion? Freedom of religion certainly includes the freedom to have no religion. And the general critical thinking skills taught in schools may well be used by pupils to this effect as an inevitable outcome of their general education. Yet this is quite different from the state itself actively and directly seeking to train pupils to question their religious beliefs. This is at once misguided, since as argued above such beliefs may not be best conceived as grounded in rational evidence in any case, and an inappropriate role even for an impeccably liberal state.

Even if some children are born into religiously dogmatic families and communities, so that one might argue that they need to be released from the prison of such dogma in order to become intellectually mature citizens, this does not justify the state’s directly and deliberately undertaking such a role. RE is only one part of the curriculum: children will receive a full training in critical thinking skills elsewhere in the curriculum, and nothing will stop them from applying them on their own to religious matters. Likewise, school is part of a generally open public culture, in which children will also inevitably be exposed to challenges to their religious identities and other ways of life.

What is beyond the pale of a pluralist society, however, is a state-directed frontal attack on the evidence for religious beliefs considered as such (as grounds for religious identity, rather than considered as grounds for scientific argument, for example). Religious commitment is not something which pupils should be expected to defend in terms of generally acceptable reasons for belief. Indeed, the whole point of the burdens of judgment is that it is unreasonable to expect convergence or common assessment of such issues, in addition to the fact that much religious commitment is not based primarily on belief at all. To demand such reasons and such evidence is to embarrass religious pupils with a demand which they cannot reasonably be expected to meet. Insofar as the state respects the existence of diverse religious communities, therefore, it should also respect children’s identities as members of them.

What is the alternative? In the light of a pluralistic culture in which we celebrate freedom of religion as including the freedom to have no religion, an education in religion cannot be the education in a prescribed religion which it once was. But neither should it be an education out of religion, or in whether or not to be religious. Rather it must be reconceived as an education about religion. This would involve studying the varying histories of religious groups, paying attention not only to their beliefs, but to how their doctrines evolve and change in relation to practice and to the broader culture. The notion of variability and sensitivity of belief to a wide range of circumstances, including social, scientific, and intra- and inter-communal political relations, will inevitably emerge from such an historical approach. Such an approach will also explain the way in which debates about the interpretation of principles and practices are understood within various religions themselves.

This study of the history of religion will necessarily take a sociological or anthropological perspective, but this need not be an alienating one from the perspective of faith, and it should certainly not be deliberately alienating. It will enable pupils to put questions of belief into living contexts, that is, the contexts where they in fact live. Its effects on religious identification are unpredictable, as they should be: education should be an immersion leading to independent ideas, not a tract directing one to a set of binary choices.

There are two other aspects to the RE which I would advocate examining. The first is the question of its relation to moral education (and of course RE is now part of a broader course in RMPE – religious, moral and philosophical education). The second is the question of the relation between religion and the state.

On moral education, we can again begin by criticizing the ippr position. Objecting to the “moral justification” for teaching religion, its report observed, “One only has reason to submit to the moral teachings of a religion if one holds that religion to be true … in the absence of such a belief, there is no reason at all to regard religious texts or institutions as morally authoritative. On the contrary, one has good reason to regard their moral teachings with suspicion, since they are predicated on beliefs one does not share.”

Is this the appropriate attitude even of a humanist non-believer to the great repositories of moral experience and inquiry that are found in the world religious traditions? The evolution of morality even considered as a secular subject cannot be divorced from its roots in religion. But neither are those roots determinative of whether or not moral values arising in religion can be accepted more widely. If we have any confidence in canons of moral argument, those canons can be applied to moral claims rooted in the world’s religions, and that application will be the more sensitive the more it is informed by a full appreciation of the religion’s history. Moral education would appear to be a prime case of the potential value of religious education which is not seeking religious inculcation, yet one which an overly intellectualised idea of religion mistakenly disparages.

Finally, let us consider the question of the relation between religion and the state. To what sort of political theory does the view I have advanced of RE belong? Although I have drawn on the Rawlsian idea of the burdens of judgment, my overall view diverges from Rawls in considering religions not on the belief model but rather on the model of an identity resting on a complex of belief, practice and community. It seems to me that such a re-envisioning of the nature of religion can help with a problem in the Rawlsian theory of political liberalism, namely, its unwillingness to require religions to make any change in their own outlook in order to accommodate a shared political conception of justice.

Rawls’ political liberalism is held hostage to the circumstance of whether or not religions happen to have the ability to endorse political liberalism or not, taking them just as they are, and failing to justify any requirement on them to change. In my view, in contrast, religions can be expected to change to accommodate the publicly shared principles of justice. This will happen in diverse ways among the whole spectrum of believers and belongers, each finding a new way of understanding and living the religion’s demands and ideals in light of its place in a changing public sphere. Such religious adaptation would only be impeded by instructing teachers to challenge the religious beliefs of pupils. If the state were to get religion so wrong, the religions would be less, not more, likely to learn to accommodate themselves to the liberal principles of the state.

Melissa Lane is professor of politics at Princeton University

The thick of it

Michael Sandel tells Julian Baggini why he wants a more faith-friendly politics

2009 was a breakthrough year for Michael Sandel. The Harvard political philosopher has been at the top of his profession ever since the publication of his ground-breaking Liberalism and the Limits of Justice in 1982. 27 years later, the public spotlight finally fell where the academic one had long been shining. First, he delivered the BBC’s Reith lectures on “A new citizenship” to a global audience of millions. Then videos of his legendary Harvard lectures on justice were put on line, free for anyone to watch. Then the book based on the lectures, Justice, was published for a general readership.

“I have not found it to be a difficult transition,” he says of the move from seminar room to BBC studio, “because I basically approach teaching in the classroom pretty much in the same way that I approach the Reith lectures or other attempts to present philosophical ideas to the general public, which is to use concrete examples to illustrate abstract philosophical themes. That can be a very useful way of drawing people into what would otherwise be abstract and sometime daunting philosophical questions.

“The book goes further in using anecdotes and stories to illustrate the philosophical points. The class includes more references to the texts of the philosophers.”

Sandel’s philosophy is usually filed under “communitarianism”, but like many –isms, the label can mislead more than it informs. In this case, the problem is that that the root word – community – says something important about the consequences of his thinking, but it’s not what is really fundamental to it. It is true that Sandel ends up questioning classical liberalism’s emphasis on the free individual, stressing instead the claims of society, family and culture. But this all springs from a very specific theoretical critique of the basis of liberalism.

“The view that I have criticised,” he says, “is the idea of the priority of the right over the good, by which I mean the idea that it is possible to define and to defend principles of justice without reference to substantive conceptions of the good life, or what Rawls calls comprehensive moral conceptions. Liberal public reason as articulated by Rawls – which I think is the most powerful version of liberal public reason – maintains that our comprehensive moral convictions, religious or not, should not be the basis of law, should not be the basis of principles of justice.”

According to Sandel, it is neither possible nor desirable to formulate principles of justice in this putatively neutral way. It’s not just the familiar objection that liberalism is not truly neutral: “Kant and Rawls are by no means moral relativists. Rawls does not maintain that law can or should be neutral with respect to justice.” Sandel’s point is that competing conceptions of the good cannot be removed from almost all significant political issues.

“Take the debate over same-sex marriage. Is it a legitimate part of that debate to ask about what sorts of unions and relationships and family units are worthy of being honoured and recognised by the political community? That question about what ways of life are worthy of being affirmed by the political community as a whole requires competing accounts of what the good life consists in and what family units and forms of relationship are morally admirable such that the state should recognise them. That’s one way of approaching that question, and I think that’s a necessary and desirable way of approaching the same-sex marriage debate.

“Another view would say, no, how best to live, what sorts of family units or relations are worthy of being affirmed and honoured by the state – that takes us into contested conceptions of the good life. Therefore we should simply try to decide that question based on the morally neutral categories – at least neutral with respect to the good life – of non-discrimination and respecting autonomy.

“I don’t really think we can resolve the same-sex marriage question without coming to grips with questions about what is the moral purpose of marriage, what forms of union are worthy of affirmation and recognition and honour by society, and that takes us into questions of the good life, into what Rawls calls comprehensive moral views.

“Some say those should be bracketed, but I think we can’t resolve the same-sex marriage question based on autonomy, rights and equal respect for persons alone. That would be the issue, so it doesn’t depend on religion necessarily. The broader question on the debate over liberal public reason and what should be its constraints is a debate about whether conceptions of the good life – comprehensive moral conceptions – should figure.”

Although that may sound very reasonable, secularists get nervous when they start to consider how that might entail a greater role for religion in public life. A cornerstone of secular thinking has been the idea that people are supposed to leave their religious commitments at the door when they engage in public deliberation.

I put it to Sandel that it may be true that the secular ideal has been pursued too zealously in recent years, with it becoming a taboo for people even to acknowledge their religious beliefs. Nevertheless, isn’t it still very important, even if we do need to talk about values in the political sphere, that we do so in ways which are still as neutral possible? The public debate about values must not be couched in terms which are specific to any particular commitments we have with regards to a religious or even a humanist ethic. There are different conceptions of the good life, so isn’t it important that we don’t bring our thicker conceptions of the good life to the public square?

“No, that’s exactly what I disagree with. I think that it’s often not possible to leave our substantive moral and religious conceptions out of public deliberation, and even where it’s possible it may not be desirable, because it can make for an impoverished form of democratic deliberation. I am in favour of a more morally substantive and robust public deliberation and also for a more faith-friendly public sphere. I would not require anyone to leave his or her moral religious convictions at the door before entering public deliberation.”

But how do we go about this deliberation? Let’s say we’re discussing a very controversial issue, abortion, for example. It seems to me that if someone brings, say, a Roman Catholic conviction to that, and their starting point is that the teachings of the church are such that this is a human life and it’s sinful to end it, there’s no longer any possibility of discussion.

“Well take the example of the abortion debate. Can we really decide whether or not abortion should be permitted without taking a view about the moral status of the developing foetus? It seems to be inconceivable. Now I am not in favour of banning abortion and yet I don’t think I can hold the permissive view that I do unless I come to the conclusion, on moral reflection, that taking the life of a developing foetus at a particular stage is not morally the same as killing a person. If I did believe that then I think in good conscience I would have to favour banning abortion, for the same reason that we ban murder.

“Likewise the debate of embryonic stem cell research. I’m in favour of permitting and funding embryonic stem cell research and I came to this conclusion engaging in fairly extensive discussions and deliberations when I served on the President’s Council on Bioethics in the United States. I hadn’t really thought about this question before I became involved in those deliberations. There were participants in those deliberations who came from a strong natural law position that viewed even the earliest embryo as morally equivalent to a person and we had extensive arguments and debates about that view, notwithstanding the fact that for a number of people in the discussion their view was shaped by a moral tradition rooted in Catholic moral teaching, and yet we were perfectly capable of having sustained argument and deliberation about that question.”

That was true presumably because the commission’s members were able to offer reasons which weren’t simply “this is what my religion says” or “this is what the Bible says”. It’s one thing to acknowledge that people’s values are shaped very much by their personal convictions and they shouldn’t have to hide them, but isn’t it still necessary for what Amartya Sen calls “public reason” that when we come together to debate, everyone has a duty whenever possible to offer reasons that have purchase for all, not just some?

“Of course people should offer reasons when engaged in public deliberation. What else would public deliberation consist of, if not offering reasons? The question is, what sorts of reasons are relevant? And I think it’s a caricature of arguments that may derive from faith traditions to assume that they always and only take the form of dogmatic assertion or invocation of scripture or revelation. There are rich traditions of reason-giving moral discourse internal to the various faith traditions: Christian, Jewish – The Talmudic tradition – Confucian, Islamic. So of course it’s true that some adherents of religious faiths offer dogmatic assertion rather than reasoned argument, but that’s not unique to those who come from faith traditions. They have no monopoly on dogma. Public discourse is rife with dogmatic assertions, unreasoned assertions, that come from purely secular sources. So I think the distinction we should make is that public deliberation and arguments about justice should be reasoned and should not involve dogmatic assertion. But the distinction between reasoned and dogmatic public deliberation does not correspond to the distinction between public deliberation that draws on religious sources and public deliberation which is purely secular. I think that’s an entirely false analogy.”

Another liberal shibboleth that Sandel attacks is the idea of the “unencumbered self”. What he means by this is that liberalism tends to assume that individuals can and should make free choices in some way that transcends their contingent and historical roots in societies, religions, families and cultures. In some weak sense, most people, liberals included, accept that we are all “situated selves”, products of time and place. The difficult question is the extent to which that brings with it certain responsibilities or duties. Liberals fear that communitarians suggest that mere membership gives you obligations to a group, whether you want to accept them or not. Sandel, however, rejects this characterisation of his position.

“Blind faith and obedience to a family or to a community or a country is not a proper basis for moral and political obligation. So if by mere membership you mean blind faith – my country right or wrong – of course that sort of blind faith cannot be the source of any moral or political obligation. The question is whether all moral and political obligations are the product of our will, or whether there is a category of moral and political obligation – call it obligations of solidarity or membership – that derive in part from the common histories and traditions that constitute our identities.

“I argue in the book for there being obligations of solidarity and membership that are not strictly the products of will. That’s the real issue: are all obligations the products of will? And then the question would be, the will of what sort of willing subject? I think in so far as we’re partly constituted by the narratives of our life histories, moral obligations are not only willed but they are partly discovered, or interpreted. So figuring out the meaning of the narrative that constitutes our lives is an interpretative matter, which is why blind faith or blind allegiance would not capture the idea. But a reflective solidarity that flows from a critical interpretation of my history, my past, my family, my people, my country, I think is indispensable to making sense of any solidarities that we recognise, including patriotism, including the obligations of citizenship, to say nothing of the obligations to one’s family.”

But doesn’t this way of thinking commit a version of the genetic fallacy: a confusion of origins with justification? The fact that the origins of a lot of our obligations are in unwilled facts of community, family and so forth, is surely not what actually justifies them as commitments and obligations. One could accept that a lot of these things have their origins in unchosen, unwilled facts, but still insist that nevertheless there always has to be an act of will or assent.

“Well I wouldn’t equate reflection with will. They’re two different faculties. Reflection involves an interpretative dimension. It’s not strictly a legislative, voluntarist capacity. When I’m interpreting the meaning of a text, or a story, or a legal document, I’m not exercising my will, and yet I’m not being a slavish conformist either. I’m exercising a critical faculty. In that sense I’m bringing reason to bear. But when I arrive at what I take to be the best interpretation of a story, or a legal text, or of one’s life, the interpretation is reasoned, I think it make best overall sense of the text, but that’s different from saying I’m willing that this be the next chapter in the story, that this is the best way of reading. It’s not a faculty of will.”

So it’s not will, but judgement. But with that judgement comes the possibility to opt out, to not accept. We could think of examples where to do that would just be objectively wrong. If you’re brought up well by a loving family, and you reflect on that, and you think that doesn’t give you any obligations to them at all, there’s something wrong with your judgement. But in a lot of other cases, the extent to which you’re obligated to continue to act in certain way, to choose a certain life, to have a certain loyalty – there’s certainly a lot of scope, isn’t there?

“Well there is scope for judgement, but I think it’s a mistake to translate all judgement into the exercise of will.”

But one needn’t translate all exercise of judgement into the exercise of will simply to say that choice has a proper place. Isn’t it important that people should be able – not egregiously, not for no reason – to opt out of things they have been born into?

“Yes, right, of course. I’m not saying that to recognise obligations of solidarity, to recognise the interpretive dimension of moral reflection, to be a reflectively situated self – none of that in my view involves blind obedience. It may be that sometimes the obligations of solidarity require dissent. Take the Americans who protested against the Vietnam war. Some people said they are in virtue of their protest unpatriotic. Others would say, and I would agree, when one’s people or country are engaged in an injustice, dissent can be required not only out of an abstract commitment to justice, but also an added responsibility to protest, let’s say, an unjust war being fought in my name. A conscientious Swede could oppose the Vietnam war on the grounds of its injustice but only an American could protest the Vietnam War out of a special obligation to take responsibility for injustices carried out in one’s name. The Swede could disapprove of the war but only an American could feel ashamed of it, and that presupposes that there are obligations of solidarity, that we are situated selves.”

Although in close-up, Sandel’s dispute with liberals is based on clear and real differences, pan back a little and it can look like a very local dispute within the broad church of western liberalism. There seems to be a lot of continuity, for instance, between the kind of society Sandel would like and the kind of society advocated by John Rawls.

“Oh yes, there is a great deal,” agrees Sandel. “And I admire and agree with John Rawls’s arguments for equality or for a greater measure of equality than prevails in most of our societies; and I agree very much with the egalitarian spirit of the difference principle.”

Nevertheless, Sandel does think that the differences between his position and the Rawlsian alternatives do make an important difference politically as well as philosophically.

“One reason I think it’s important to be willing to engage in public deliberation about justice with conceptions of the good life is that I think otherwise we – in particular those who think of themselves as progressives – are ill-equipped to mount an effective critique of the increasing role of markets in spheres of life traditionally governed by non-market norms. When John Rawls wrote A Theory of Justice, 1971, the main questions of justice facing the US and also many of the western democracies, really had to do with the debate over the welfare state, and the tension as it was perceived between liberty and equality. And he was also reacting, and I think he reacted very powerfully and successfully, against the dominant utilitarian tradition in moral philosophy.

“But today, markets have begun to reach into spheres of life traditionally governed by non-market norms: health, education, security and a great many others. In so far as there is something morally troubling about that development, one could say, well, if markets govern all sorts of spheres, including reproduction, family life, health, education and so on, people who lack money will be at a disadvantage and may be coerced by economic necessity and that is a reason to worry about markets run amuck, about rampant commodification. But one could satisfy that worry by fixing the background conditions within which markets operate, by creating more egalitarian basic structures, so that the exchanges people make within those structures are not coerced by economic necessity. That would address the liberal objection to some exploitative aspects of the market.

“But there is another objection to markets reaching in to certain spheres of life, which is the crowding out of non-market norms that may be valuable. For example, if we pay children, as some school districts now do, a certain amount of money for each book they read, the goal is worthy – to get them to read more – but the effect is to crowd out non-market values like cultivating the love of learning, the love of reading. Likewise in debates about organ sales or paid pregnancy and commercial surrogacy, which is now a global business.

“So the question, it seems to me, we have to ask about commodification, so far as we worry about it, is: does marketising a good or a social practice crowd out non-market norms, and if so, does that represent a loss? And we can only address that kind of question if we ask, are those norms part of an important human good or social good? We can only ask that question about commodification if we are prepared to bring in admittedly contested conceptions of the good, and not simply concern ourselves with whether the background conditions of society are fair.”

Although many fear that bringing competing conceptions of the good into the political sphere will increase tensions by emphasising differences, Sandel believe that it is a liberal illusion to think that by keeping politics as neutral as possible, we can smooth over the deep differences in the fundamental values of citizens.

“I think the idea in the back of our heads that there could be a frictionless public sphere actually is destructive of democratic deliberation, because when we force underground or sweep under the rug some of the deepest substantive moral views that people have and claim that we’ve been neutral, that over time generates resentment, cynicism and a sense that people have been dealt with in bad faith, that their views have not been taken seriously. So I think a better way to a tolerant society is not to avoid but rather to engage with competing and conflicting conceptions of the good life that citizens bring to public life.”

In that sense, Sandel explictly comes not to unite, but to divide.

“I’m not suggesting that we need to agree or that we should aim at consensus. I agree with Stuart Hampshire that politics is a messy business involving competing conceptions of the good. My point is precisely that: in reasoning about justice we can’t expect to reach consensus or agreement. What the goal should be is to come as close as we can to achieving a just society. In democratic societies that means deliberating about justice and rights and the common good. If there were a way of carrying on those debates that was neutral with respect to competing conceptions of the good life, one might argue that it would be safer. But I don’t think that for most of the questions of justice that we confront it is possible to be neutral with respect to competing conceptions of the good life. The fact that this conclusion consigns us to messy politics, contentious politics and disagreement is not, in my view, a count against it. I think it suggests instead that a morally robust public discourse that engages rather than avoids the moral and even spiritual conceptions that citizens care about and bring to public life, fits with the demands of a pluralist politics rather than stands in tension with it.”

At the very least, Sandel presents a much-needed challenge to some of liberalism’s flabbier assumptions, even if the perfect corrective is not necessarily itself perfectly correct. If there’s one message that comes over loud and clear in his writing, it’s that we need always to engage openly, to learn from as well as to criticise each other. This also came out in a small seminar he gave while in London on the question of what politicians can learn from philosophy.

“I think the learning can go in both directions. I think philosophers have a lot to learn by attending to actual political arguments and disputes. From the days of Socrates philosophers have mixed it up with the life of the city and have taken as their starting point conflicting public opinion and worked from those sometimes messy disagreements to broader principles. I think that’s a sound impulse, so I don’t think philosophy can proceed without actually engaging with and attending to the arguments that take place among politicians, between political parties and among citizens, in the public square.

“At the same time I think not only politicians, but also I would say democratic citizens generally, if they care at all about justice and the common good need at some point to reflect critically on their own principles and I suppose that’s another way of saying that to be a democratic citizen, to do that job well, requires that one be something of a philosopher.”

Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do? by Michael Sandel is published by Allen Lane in the UK and Farrar, Straus and Giroux in the USA. His Harvard Justice lectures can be viewed her.

Julian Baggini’s latest book is Should You Judge This Book by Its Cover? (Granta)