Philosophy and Ethics

For books and free notes for students, visit: Philosophy and Ethics.

Monday, 29 June 2020

Error message! Sorry!

To err is human, but to make an absolute cock-up in the publishing of a manuscript requires the joint action of human, computer, dyslexic fingers and haste! I plead guilty!

Please accept my apologies if you have recently bought a copy of my cheap re-issue of the Religion and Science book, originally published as an A-level textbook by Hodder Education. It was only when a proof-reader revealed a good number of typographical errors and other mistakes, that I sensed something was wrong with the book. To start with I was simply frustrated, feeling sure that I must have corrected the errors a long time ago, then it gradually dawned; I had uploaded an uncorrected version of the text by mistake. 

I have no hair to tear from my head, so that failed to be my first reaction, but a swift application of 'Finder' on my Mac revealed the terrible truth: files with almost identical names, sitting one under the other in a list, are all too easily confused. Or, to put it more accurately, I am all too easily confused by them!

All has been rectified now, I'm pleased to say. At the touch of a button, the corrected file is now being used by KDP.

I hope, if you did invest the £1.99 or $2.99 in a digital copy, that you were able to ignore my typographical imprecision, and enjoy the exploration of topics from 'Evolution and Design', through 'Miracles' and 'Scientific explanations of religion', to questions about the way in which modern science may require believers to re-think, or re-express, what they mean by 'creation', or those fashionably in the thrall of neuroscience to re-consider what it means to be human.

As with all my books, it is written from a humanist perspective that neither promotes nor denigrates religious belief. In the back of my mind lurks the question 'Does science render religion obsolete?' Not a bad question for a secular philosopher to be asking these days, since there are those who would claim that science also renders philosophy obsolete.  As you may guess, I don't go along with that suggestion!

What I will continue to argue, however, is that the big questions about what it means to be human, what values and qualities are worth promoting, and how we should relate to the world around us, are too important to be left to the conventionally religious. They are universal and desperately urgent. But at the same time, I would suggest that it would be a gross mistake (even worse than my uploading the wrong file!) to ignore the perspective that the world's religions have offered over the centuries. You don't need to buy into a raft of supernatural beliefs to appreciate that the world religions, both East and West, may contribute significantly to the debate about our future. 

So if you already have a print copy on your bookshelf, or a download in your computer, please accept my apologies for the typos, and if you don't have one, you might find it a modestly priced way of spending a lockdown day pondering life's big issues.

To see more about this book, visit my website page by clicking here.

Wednesday, 17 June 2020

The most dramatic hike in the world?

During lockdown, we walk the local woods, following paths that have been more used during the last three months than in the preceding decade. But while appreciating the familiar scene, my mind wanders and I find myself remembering some of the best hikes we’ve taken in days gone by, when one could travel the world and hike with, or even sit down next to, complete strangers.

Of the many I recall, the most spectacular by far is the Tongariro Crossing in North Island, New Zealand.  It is an unforgettable 8-hour hike over the volcanic heart of the island.

Deposited by minibus early in the morning, you ascend up the steep western flank of the National Park to the plateau below Mount Ngauruhoe - everyone's image of what a volcano should be. Some of the keenest - or most foolhardy - give in to the temptation to divert from the Crossing to scramble up to the top of its cone. I was no so tempted, but preferred to stay below with my camera.


 Then you then you turn towards Mount Tongariro and ascend to follow round the narrow edge of the Red Crater - seen here, top right - before descending a narrow ridge towards the Emerald Lakes.  The ground beneath your feet is hot. Steam hisses from the rocks. You do not even think of trying to leave the path. You sense you are on holy ground, or utterly threatening and unstable ground, whichever way you choose to see it.

People descending the ridge on the right become no more than a column of ants.

It feels almost indecent to step aside onto the pristine volcanic surface. And there is no need to ask why these are called the Emerald Lakes...

On the way down, you just have to keep turning to look back.


Anyone keen on hiking – and reasonably fit – should try this walk at least once in their life; I am unlikely ever to do it again, but it is a hike I shall never forget.


Thursday, 4 June 2020

Vision, window-cleaning and philosophy

Sadly, this is not the view from my window! But of a walking route down the volcanic spine of  La Palma in the Canary Islands.

Here is Essex, human ingenuity is channelled even into the naming of modest companies.  A local window-cleaning firm boast ‘Vision Technologies’ on the side of its van! But that has prompted me to reflect on an all-too-common philosophical and political malaise.  
Our attempts to shape the future tend to focus on getting rid of the grease and spots on the glass in front of our noses, rather than a vision of where we want to be.  It’s a necessary first step, or course, but never more than that. 'How do we get out of this particular hole?' appears to determine policy, rather than a fully thought-out vision.
We all have plenty of muck on the glass – determined by our social and political upbringing, our present needs and aspirations, and the prejudices that we have accumulated through life. So it's reasonable that the initial task of philosophy, like window-cleaning, shouldl be to clear the glass. That was the theme of the Logical Positivists early in the 20th century – clearing out nonsense in order that language might develop scientific precision.  
However, as we now recognise, that aim was in itself just another prejudice, another smear on the glass.  The task of philosophy – a hopeless one in absolute terms, but none the worse for that – is to clear away all such prejudices. And, even if we can never achieve a ‘view from nowhere’, we can at least be aware of the somewhere that presently shapes our view.
As I contemplate the political world today - and particularly the response to Covid-19 - I just long for one thing above all else: decision making and policy implementation that is measured, carefully thought out, transparently explained, and genuinely unbiassed.
I shall scream if I hear yet again that politicians are simply 'following the science.'  Science is a methodology for gaining facts, not a compass for guiding political choices. It should always be factual and value-free. It is down to the politicians to use the facts it provides to inform their judgements.  Never blame the car for driving the wrong way up a one-way street!
Two images struck me recently, both related to this issue of glass and vision.   For some time I have been developing cararacts. I think that I can see clearly and that the colours I enjoy are real. In that sense my vision is adequate, and I am thankful for it.  But I am also reminded that the ‘early opacities’, from which the optician tells me I am suffering, imply that, if the experience of those who have cataracts removed is anything to go by, once those opacities are removed I shall suddenly realise an enhanced intensity of colour and detail.  My existing philosophical prejudices are but opacities, perhaps never capable of being completely removed, but worth being aware of when I describe what I see. 
The other image concerns photography.  I confess to being a pixel-peeper – the sad term for someone who routinely examines his or her photographs at pixel level on the screen in order to inspect them for sharpness, and aberrations. Pixel peeping shows up faults in photographic equipment and technique that a full-screen view masks.  Of late, I’ve noticed that, when I use one of my better lenses, I find myself no longer looking at pixels themselves but enjoying the recorded reality rather than the image. I’m not aware of the image, only of the view photographed.  
Now that may be a sign of recovery from a rather sad obsession, but I think we can learn from it.  Those who engage in philosophy tend to examine in some detail the logical and conceptual apparatus by which we understand the world. It may appear useful, but it can lead to a obsession with the details of argument that is the equivalent of the obsessive pixel-peeping of the photographer.  However, at its best, philosophy can transcend itself and give way to a direct and seemingly intuitive understanding of reality.  
In other words, we may recover from philosophy in order to see more clearly, just as we may recover from the obsession with photographic technique in order to appreciate what it is we are viewing.
In the Zen tradition, the intention is not to pretend to a clever insight, or to develop a unique awareness, but simply to see things exactly as they are.  I think some of our political leaders could benefit from that approach.  Giving attention to 'What needs to be done?' rather than 'How are we doing?' would be a good start. As would taking responsibility for decisions, rather than claiming to be just 'following the science', thereby lining up a potential scapegoat for when things go wrong.
Get your windows cleaned, not in order to admire their cleanliness, but in order to look through them. 

Thursday, 28 May 2020

The horror or recalling long-lost thoughts

Three years ago, I had a weird experience while working on my Through Mud and Barbed Wire book, and wrote it down to share with others. It happened again a couple of days ago, as I started to dig out material for my present project. I wonder if others – particularly other non-fiction writers – can identify with this. So here is the original piece...

It came over me again yesterday as I sat in my office, the horror at all those lost thoughts and arguments. I felt it in the pit of my stomach, inducing a kind of vertigo.  I’m starting to recover, but the experience still lurks in the back of my mind, mocking the attempt to set down anything like a coherent argument.

It started innocently enough. I wanted to check something for a book I am writing about the theologian Paul Tillich, and went to my bookshelves. Pulling down a well-worn compilation of essays on his thought, produced back in the 1960s, I came across some really good and relevant material. But, in scanning it, I could not ignore my earlier underlinings, exclamation marks and comments in the margin. Fifty years ago I had been enthused by this stuff, inspired even. But then it was lost to me, overlaid by other arguments, ideas, articles, books. Suddenly it seemed to me as though the ideas were receding away into a void.

Then the horror really struck. For these were (by my standards) wonderful arguments, unpacking important issues. They showed a richness of ideas I was exploring then, and yet – like leafmould – they had been lost beneath the surface of my consciousness. Here was an appreciation of religious ideas that was subtle, nuanced, not taking sides as in combat, but exploring them to get a rounded view.  And what had I done with it? Simplification, summary, the making accessible, the delivery of exactly the right number of words in the all-too-short timeframe of a publishing schedule; the frustration of trying to explain, whilst subtleties slip by unexplored.  

And then I thought of the cascades of tweets I attempt to scan briefly each day, tweets which often link to articles of real value or significant book reviews.  I dip for a moment into that stream and am often lucky. But in the brief moments while I explore one link, a host of other tweets passes me by, each one of which might (if I were to be naively optimistic) hold things of equal value.

And all this material, all these ideas, flee across our screens into the void. And our own brief words, however deeply felt, might hope to get no more than a quick ‘like’ in passing before they expire. Oh the horror of all that lost thought.  And there's always pressure to produce more, academics are under pressure to publish, educational writers try to keep pace with changing exam specifications, authors are expected to be active on social media, to hone their profiles, to keep up an interesting stream of material to build a readership. And it flows and flows... but mostly into a void. Time seals it off from its readers. Books go out of print and those on library shelves eventually become tattered and are sold off. And yet... all those wonderful ideas going to waste, lost to new readers.

I’d love to start again, to return to my bookshelves and appreciate again the arguments and insights massed in those long-since-closed books; but there is no time in this short life to return over the decades to re-read or use all that stuff.

And this has come fresh to my mind now as I sit before the heaped piles of notes and early draft material for my new book about two theologians who faced one another across the mud and barbed wire of Verdun in 1916.  A couple of years ago, sorting out copies of the ‘Teilhard Journal’, I came across an article of mine from the early 1970s entitled ‘Through Mud and Barbed Wire: notes for an unwritten book.’  And it had remained unwritten and forgotten for 40 years.  A simple coincidence, two great thinkers describing life on either side of the same battlefield – and yet here I sit surrounded by endless notes on the huge impact of the Great War on the 20th century and the development – for good or ill – of religious ideas over the century.

The horror of battle – particularly at Verdun – is the way in which rank upon rank of men hurl themselves forward into destruction, into a hell of mud and exploding shells, deprived even of a semblance of glory at engaging the enemy as they encounter only the incoming scream of shells and the showers of mud.  Hundreds of thousands of men were killed on those slopes, French and German together in the mud, inseparable in death, their bones now lying together in the great ossuary at Douaumont. The horror of lost lives.

And why write of it? Perhaps to do homage to two great thinkers who inspired me and whose lives and thoughts were shaped a century ago on that battlefield. Perhaps because, by chance, I have a new angle on things already written about so many times. 

To see more on the book I was working on then:
Or to see more of the thoughts that did make it only the page:

Monday, 25 May 2020

Home - a philosophy of personal space

An ideal rural 'home'? Not everyone's experience.

Appropriately, during lockdown, I'm working on a book that has been planned for many years. Entitled Home: a philosophy of personal space, it explores the way in which a sense of home impacts on how we understand ourselves and how we change as we move through life.
My present draft has reached the opening of chapter 4 this morning. Having explored the threat posed by the dimensions of the universe revealed by modern cosmology, and the process of mapping, by which we locate ourselves in our world. It then looks at what homes do in terms of our vision of ourselves... 
"Where there is no vision, the people perish."
                                                              Proverbs 29:18
Homes move, change, decay, or may slowly recede from emotional view. New homes offer hope, a glimpse of a desired lifestyle, potential identity.
We take all our previous homes with us, in the traces they have left on our personality, the gifts we received from them, the hurts they inflicted.  We are our homes. Layer upon layer, map upon map, they shape our confused selves. They jostle for attention; strive for primacy. They guide our shifting eyes.
To be genuinely homeless is to drift free, with no sense of self, no place. It is a terrible curse.  
At the opening of this chapter there stands a quotation from the Book of Proverbs. What does it mean to perish for lack of vision? What is vision? Clearly, nobody is going to perish because they fail to understand the relationship between quantum mechanics and relativity; it has to be more personal than that. The sort of vision needed is one that can see the place of mankind within the universe, accept it with all its limitations and still find within the sphere of human activity the sense of something that is of value, noble, tragic or beautiful. Lack of vision leads to despair. The failure to find any purpose or goal that is not immediately destroyed by an overall futility, may lead to frustration, or an obsession with the petty, an escape into trivia.
People need some vision by which to live. But how do you decide between a vision (which sets you in context and therefore gives valid and realistic bases for action) and an illusion - a mental image that is imposed on life in order to avoid the unpleasant features of its reality - a comfort and a return to childhood in a world that has grown up?
The sense of home is universal, but what are its implications?

Thursday, 21 May 2020

Walking in the Swiss Alps

Two months into lockdown, and I'm starting to dream about travelling again.

On a warm, sunny afternoon like this, I'd love to be walking in the Lauterbrunnen Valley, deep in the Bernese Oberland. This part of the Swiss alps is just so photogenic. You hike up the valley with the bulk of the Eiger and Jungfrau on your left and the village of Murren, perched above sheer cliffs, on your right, the silence broken only by the background sound of waterfalls plunging down on either side.

My favourite view of the valley is from the pastures below the village of Wengen, a brisk walk up from the little town of Lauterbrunnen.

Here's Wengen, perched above the valley, with a dusting of snow...
And here's the view down into the valley...
But for now, travel remains a memory and a hope. 

If you'd like to see more of my photographs of this part of the Alps, click here. Stay safe!

Sunday, 17 May 2020

Is this art? Or simply a revaluation?

Some years ago, I came across this wreck on a Spanish beach.  It was an area where graffiti thrived and colonised almost every available chunk of concrete, but this, I thought, was something special – an exuberant celebration of the spraycan. But does it count as art?

I won’t get into the general question of what constitutes art. If you’re looking for that, try Nigel Warburton’s The Art Question. No; what interests me is the vision and value that the artist gives to something whose conventional value appears to have degraded to nothing. After all, there was a time when this was someone’s expensive dream in a boatyard; a status symbol, perhaps. But, like everything else, its day eventually passes and it get scrapped, or – in this case – washed up. And yet this load of scrap metal has been taken by the artist and turned into something else; an opportunity to say something, to celebrate something, to go creatively mad. It rusts and rots magnificently.

It sometimes takes art to perceive value in the neglected, potential in the discarded. And it’s not just the urinal or unmade bed, suddenly given art status, that interests me, but more generally the way that the artistic, poetic or novelistic intuition finds value in the commonplace. As we discover at car boot sales, there is almost nothing that someone wants to get rid of that someone else will not find of value, however minimal, or of interest. So too, the mundane is captured and enhanced through art.

I'm not sure this counts as art. If the boat had been more seaworthy, its treatment could as easily have been described as vandalism.  But either way, it is a seized opportunity for the graffiti artist to set his or her own stamp of what is found, neglected and public. Rust alone could not have attracted my attention, nor challenged my sense of what is of value.