Thursday, February 26, 2015

Baudrillard - J'accuse! (again)

The Radio 3 The Verb programme, in which I discuss pseudo-profundity (with some analytic vs continental philosophy discussion), is repeated tomorrow night at 10pm GMT on Radio 3. It will be availabe for a week on bbc radio iplayer. Below is my old post concerning that programme. Link to programme website here.

Here is a quote from Baudrillard that Prof Paul Taylor chose for the Radio 3 programme we recorded to be broadcast tonite at 10pm (I am talking about pseudo-profundity and bullshit and pointing a finger at some post-modern thinkers - listen here for a week [I am on from about 14mins30]):

For ethnology to live, its object must die. But the latter revenges itself by dying for having been "discovered", and defies by its death the science that wants to take hold of it. Doesn't every science live on this paradoxical slope to which it is doomed by the evanescence of its object in the very process of its apprehension, and by the pitiless reversal this dead object exerts on it? Like Orpheus it always turns around too soon, and its object, like Eurydice, falls back into Hades ... the logical evolution of a science is to distance itself ever further from its object until it dispenses with it entirely: its autonomy evermore fantastical in reaching its pure form.

Paul thought this quote encapsulated some deep insight about science (which he illustrated with an example of an actual remote tribe, the Tasaday indians, who had to retreat further into the forest in order to remain an uncontacted tribe [PS correction, I am muddling two tribes here - Tasaday are Phillipino; the tribe that had to retreat were Brazillian], whom people nevertheless then tried to photograph from a plane [Paul has a paper on this here]).

My view is: this quotation appears as it stands to be a combination of a banal observation and a ludicrous falsehood, puffed up into an impressive linguistic souffle and pretentiously topped off with a reference to Greek mythology.

Why?

Well, it is true that ethnology, the study of cultures, can sometimes end up destroying (or at the very least changing) the cultures it studies, if e.g. the culture of a remote rainforest tribe.

But this simple point that science sometimes destroys what it studies, by studying it, is not new. William Wordsworth, back in 1798, said:

Sweet is the lore which Nature brings
Our meddling intellect
Mis-shapes the beauteous forms of things
We murder to dissect
 
Yes, we do sometimes murder to dissect. I might kill an individual insect in order to study its anatomy.

That we sometimes destroy what we study (in the process of studying it) is true, but it's a rather banal, humdrum point that, as I say, Wordsworth made well over a hundred years before Baudrillard. It's an uncontroversial observation with which we can and no doubt will all agree.

But of course this is not to say that to investigate something scientifically always involves destroying what's being investigated. That's obviously false. Indeed it's a ludicrous suggestion. Someone who studies galaxies does not thereby destroy them. Nor, by dissecting an insect, do I destroy the species knowledge of which I acquire by my dissection.

Yet Baudrillard goes on to suggests every science does ultimately do precisely that - it cuts itself off from and destroys its own subject matter.

However, such is the high falutin, flowery way in which Baudrillard makes the slide from banal observation to ludicrous falsehood that many of us will fail to spot his sleight of hand - that a banality has indeed been replaced by a falsehood. We'll be too distracted by the seductive analogy drawn with Orpheus and Eurypides to spot the conjurer's switcheroo.

By the time we reach the end of the Baudrillard quotation, he's combining words so cryptically it's hard to know what he is talking about. Science's "autonomy evermore fantastical in reaching its pure form" Eh? Try translating that back into plain English.

But by this stage it doesn't matter that Baudrillard is drifting into gibberish. In fact it's very much to his advantage. For, once Baudrillard has got you to come as far as accepting the obviously false but nevertheless terrifically exciting skeptical conclusion: "Oh Wow! Yes science does always destroy, cuts itself off from, what it seeks to know, doesn't it?" you are likely to think there must be some still deeper insight contained within his parting gibberish (only it's really, really deep and that's why Baudrillard needs to resort to such convoluted and baffling prose to try to articulate it).

At this point, it's job done for Baudrillard. He can sit back, adopt a sage like expression, and let you start doing the intellectual labour for him.

Of course there may be great insight contained elsewhere in the work of Baudrillard. But I cannot detect anything terribly impressive in the brief quote presented above.

P.S. Notice that the above quotation, unpacked, turns out to be very close to what Daniel Dennett calls a deepity: a deepity has (at least) two meanings; one that is true but trivial, and another that sounds profound, but is essentially false or meaningless and would be "earth-shattering" if true.

Thanks to John Tillson for the following....


Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Enlightened citizens vs moral sheep

My latest CFI blog post...

Here's the text from my talk at the British Academy in London tonight (I am one of six panellists that also include Rebecca Goldstein. I wonder what she'll say? The event is called 'What's the point of philosophy?' )
 
As I’m both the author of several popular philosophy books - including three philosophy books for children - and also editor of the Royal Institute of Philosophy journal THINK which is aimed at the general public, I thought I would talk a little about why I think engaging young people with philosophy, especially in the classroom, might be a good idea.
 
Two of Britain’s best-known philosophy for children organisations are called Sapere and Aude. It’s no coincidence that ‘Sapere Aude’ - dare to know - is also the motto of the Enlightenment. But how might the Enlightenment and philosophy for children be related?

continues http://www.centerforinquiry.net/blogs/entry/enlightened_citizens_vs._moral_sheep/

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Sunday, January 18, 2015

William Lane Craig and ruling out an evil creator on the basis of observation


Here is a post for the philosophers of religion amongst you. Can we rule out an evil god on the grounds that the world is not nearly evil enough? Of course we can. But then why can’t we similarly rule out a good god on the grounds that the world isn’t nearly good enough?
 
Back in 2011 I debated philosopher and Christian apologist William Lane Craig on the existence of God (link). I presented the evidential problem of evil as my main argument against the existence of God. In particular, I pointed out that, for almost the entire two hundred thousand year sweep of human history, one third to a half of each generation died, usually horribly, before reaching their fifth birthday. This caused immense suffering to both all those kids and also their parents who had to watch helpless as their children were killed on an industrial scale.
 
That evil is certainly ‘inscrutable’ in the sense that we can see no good reason why God would allow it. This and much of the other evil we see around us strikes many of us as ‘gratuitous’: we suppose there is no good God-justifying reason for it. And God, if he exists, won’t allow gratuitous evils. So it seems to me we can reasonably rule out an all-powerful all-good God on the grounds that the world just ain’t good enough. 

Saturday, January 17, 2015

CFI UK events at Oxford Literary Festival 2015

CFI UK events at Oxford Literary Festival 2015 (March)

Saturday 21 March
Christopher French
Anomalistic Psychology: Exploring Paranormal Belief and Experience
2pm / Oxford Martin School: Lecture Theatre / £12
Psychology professor Christopher French explains why some people think they have been abducted by aliens or that they have seen a ghost. He looks at the reasons why belief in the paranormal has been reported in every known society since the dawn of time, and wonders whether there is any room for superstition in modern science. Reports of ghosts and alien encounters grab the headlines, but French says the science behind those claims can be even more fascinating.
French is professor of psychology at Goldsmiths, University of London, and co-author of Anomalistic Psychology: Exploring Paranormal Belief and Experience with Anna Stone, a senior psychology lecturer at the University of East London.

'Does Humanism Need God?' - on Unbelievable? podcast now up.

My discussion with Angus Ritchie about 'Does Humanism Need God?' is now up on the Unbelievable? podcast on itunes (Premier Christian Radio, Justin Brierley presents). Also broadcast 2pm.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

What's the point of lampooning religion? To upset the religious?

Here is my latest blog post over at CFI: link.
 
In the wake of the horrific massacre at Charlie Hebdo, debate has focused on the issue of causing of offence to religious people. Is that the point of lampooning religion? Is causing offence to Muslims the aim of someone who draws a cartoon of Mohammad? No, usually it's not (though this point is usually lost on the offended).

Monday, December 8, 2014

My response to THEOS essay claiming humanism needs Christianity

Here is my response to the new THEOS essay on why Humanists should be Christians. Posted at CFI blogs.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

"But it Fits!' Douglas Adams' puddle and Ken Ham's creationism. How it all 'fits'! My latest blog post at CFI here.

"But it Fits!' Douglas Adams' puddle and Ken Ham's creationism. How it all 'fits'! My latest blog post at CFI here.