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Philosophy BitesPhilosophy Bites

A new book of “talks” by contemporary philosophers examines not only the question of God, but also multiculturalism, the nature of reality and knowledge – and what is philosophy itself and why it matters.

This collection of transcribed podcasts is from an archive of around 100 interviews made over three years which have been downloaded by about seven million people worldwide.

Looking at the wide range of contributions, Phil Sharpe argues that a Marxist approach to atheism is more constructive than that of many contemporary secularists, who see religion as simply absurd.

Many of philosophers make the usual references to the importance of reason and wisdom, but the most illuminating offering is from Barry Smith who says: “I think it’s thinking fundamentally clearly and well about the nature of reality and our place in it, so as to understand better what goes on around us, and what our contribution is to that reality, and its effect on us.”

This definition indicates that all thought is about reality and that what is important is to try and provide the most intelligible definition of reality that is possible. But it is important to try and deepen Smith’s definition by recognising the importance of epistemology, or the theory of knowledge. Our understanding of the world will be influenced by how we understand the development of thought.

For example, if we believe that the world is material then we are likely to argue that the role of matter is primary in defining our conception of the relation of reality to ideas. But, if we consider that ideas are primary for defining the world, then the role of thought is understood to be primary in relation to the character of reality. Unfortunately the book halts short of any profound analysis of this broad subject of what philosophy is, and this is its most obvious omission.

One of the most useful topics examined is the politics of multiculturalism. Kwame Anthony Appiah argues that the belief that we are all part of a common world with “global citizenship”, does not preclude the possibility of diversity and difference.

The conflicting claims of different groups within society cannot be reconciled, he says, by appeals to a single morality but rather different practices and ideas have to be allowed for. Conversation allows people with different views about what is acceptable to negotiate their differences and come to compromise. What is common within the different groups is that we are all entitled to have a decent life. But to work, this acceptance of diversity within universality must be able to define what is common to all different cultural and social groups. Who should provide the decent life for all is left unsaid.

Appiah is under the illusion that change can be made acceptable by an appeal to a common standard that still allows for the importance of difference. But all forms of society are based on the domination of certain ideas, identified with the ruling group, who promote their acceptance by all groups within society in various ways – including philosophically.

The capacity of society to function is not based on the negotiation of differences within different cultural groups, but rather is based on acceptance by the majority of the ideas of the dominant group. Negotiation, disagreement and toleration take place within the terms they impose. Appiah is trying to realise mutual consent in a society that lacks the conditions for this possibility – the very dilemma of the left liberal.

In reality it is possible to develop mutual respect and yet political differences can remain because of social and economic relations. In other words, ideological contradictions have deeper reasons that cannot be resolved by resort to philosophical reason primarily; instead we have to create the conditions in which philosophical reason will become effective. This can only be realised by progress towards attaining a type of society that is able to resolve its contradictions.

Anne Philips argues in favour of a multicultural society and against any attempt to impose the uniformity of monocultural ideas and practices. She argues that this approach does not endorse relativism or different standards for different groups, and contends that: “I am against things which cause physical and mental harm and I’m against things which treat people unequally – which includes practices that treat women as inferiors to men.” Inequality cannot be justified in the name of traditional cultural practices, she argues.

However, an important problem with this perspective is that it suggests an uncritical view of society which is defined as being an expression of the dynamic of multiculturalism. In one sense this is an accurate understanding because developed capitalism (globalisation) is based on the ideology of multiculturalism, and is able in that manner to try and avoid the issues of discrimination and the continued prospect of favoured groups.

Multiculturalism accepts the present character of society as an implicit given which is unquestioned.

Wendy Brown argues that the problem with the concept of toleration as defined by multiculturalism is that it can justify relations of domination and subordination: “What I am concerned about is when tolerance is raised to a political principle and used as a substitute for discourses of justice, equality, or even freedom.... when it is raised to the level of a political principle of that sort, it usually cloaks the powers that are at issue. It cloaks inequalities; it even substitutes for egalitarian projects.”

This is a powerful criticism but Brown does not then go forward to propose an alternative to the limitations of multiculturalism. There is a vague proposal that equality can be the basis of an alternative, but what is equality and how would it differ from multiculturalism?

In other words, is multiculturalism actually inherently flawed, or is it limited by the prevailing ideological interpretation of concepts like toleration? Is it possible to develop a type of multiculturalism that is able to overcome ideological bias?

Brown offers a vague suggestion that the problem arises from Western enlightenment ideas, with their sense of superiority. But does this mean that the actual problem is enlightenment? The irrationalist character of this critique supports an anti-intellectual argument that suggests that the limitations of civilisation are the ultimate problem.

One of the other most important sections concerns the significance of religion. Leading theologian Dan Cupitt argues that God does not exist independent of human belief, faith and descriptions. This is not intended as an argument against the existence of God, but to oppose simplistic notions of God based on literal readings of the Bible.

Cupitt seems to agree with Feuerbach’s idea that God is a projection of human aspirations but disagree with Feuerbach’s view that this is a form of alienation and projection of false consciousness.

Cupitt can sustain the importance of God in terms of human imagination, but cannot sustain the intelligibility of God in terms of a relationships to the real world.

If God is merely a human construct what is the relation of God to a world that can exist independently of human beings? The failure to address this question means that Cupitt’s approach cannot satisfy either religious believers or atheists, and nor can he provide support for immortality which is the major belief of religion.

John Cottingham argues that life may be based on contingency, fragility and tragedy but that this should not undermine belief in God. Belief is a recognition of our dependency on a being more powerful than humans: “We’re born into circumstances that we didn’t create. We have to find value within a given cosmos, a world that is not of our making. So the first step towards meaningfulness is humility – acknowledging the fact of our dependency.”
Cottingham gives humans a passive relation to God, denying their dynamic role in historical development, social and economic change and the possibility of progress. His approach is non-historical and within it human creativity cannot be explained.

So if Cupitt cannot establish a relation to God differentiated from the role of humans, Cottingham can only conceive of God in terms that establish absolute difference between God and humans.

A.C Grayling argues that the world is not based on the role of God but defined by natural laws. Grayling argues that religion is absurd and irrational, and in contrast science is testable and open to challenge and questioning. Society does not require religion for an ethical code, and the ability of religion to survive requires the tolerance of secularism.

This establishes a framework for a world without God but it does not tackle the human impulse towards religion. Is science alone sufficient to sustain an alternative world view to that of religion?

Marxism has a different approach that does not rely on the apparent superiority of modernity and science versus the traditional doctrines of religion. It recognises that the material world represents an inherent purpose in its movement and constant transformation, and that this ontological content influences and provides character to human history.

In this sense the content of matter is crucial for understanding the potential of human practice and science. It is possible for people to interpret this ontological condition in terms of the role of God but Marxism argues that the universe is self-sustaining because of the importance of matter in motion. It is this that provides the purpose for the existence of the universe and why it was possible for humans to evolve.

In other words, Marxism is not identical to most forms of atheism because it recognises why religion has developed in order to provide an explanation of reality in a world that is based on alienation and the apparent inability to realise human aspirations.

Hence Marxism does not argue that religion is simply absurd, as do atheists like Richard Dawkins but instead sets out to provide an explanation of the relation of matter to historical reality that is more coherent and plausible than religion.

The utopian impulses of religion are recognised as the hope for a better world, and this type of hope is translated into the potential of revolutionary practice to realise a better world. Without hope in the future, religion would be inexplicable and Marxism shares this hope.

What differentiates Marxism from religion is that it does not rely on supernatural intervention in order to realise this better world. Humans have the capacity to bring about a better future because of the potential of matter in motion and its historical character.

In contrast traditional atheism is often content with what is presently possible and worships modernity. Marxism is critical of the present whilst recognising the progress within modernity towards realising equality and human emancipation.

Marxism and religion will always differ about the status of God but could realise some type of political unity in relation to the critique of capitalism and the hope for a better world. This type of unity was developing between liberation theology and Marxism in Latin America. It has been the political retreat of liberation theology that has undermined this unity rather than the incompatibility of religion and Marxism.

Marxism is not identical to modern secularism which is often merely the ideological justification of the limitations of existing forms of society. Nor is Marxism merely a type of religion because it has a world view that rejects the religious interpretation of the meaning of the universe. It is committed to secular values insofar as it supports the differentiation between religion and state within society and it also recognises the importance of scientific advance.

It could be argued that the split between religious believers, Marxists and atheists is an artificial one that has been caused by traditional misunderstanding and mistrust which can be overcome in a practical and theoretical struggle against the limitations of present day capitalist society and the creation of a better world.

The third section of the book tackles traditional philosophical themes, for example “infinity” and “philosophical realism”.

A.W. Moore says infinity represents a paradox in that everything has to have a relation to the finite, even infinity. And while humans are constrained and finite they nevertheless have a relation to the universe that seems to be infinite and boundless.

Moore explains the relation of the infinite to the finite often in terms of mathematical paradoxes. This would suggest the relation of finite and infinite has only a theoretical character – but what about the relationship to the real world? The Marxist approach would suggest that humans are one distinct expression of matter in motion and so infinity and the finite have an ontological connection that is important for explaining the universe.

It is also important to recognise that the finite is not simply the finite, but as Hegel explained, has infinite characteristics in that the possibilities of human consciousness and practice can never be limited by what presently exists.

The finite aspires to be infinite and so the relation of the finite to the infinite is not simply a paradox, but a living contradiction.

David Papineau argues that “Scientific Realism is the view that the world as described by scientific theories really exists and we know about the world.” He uses this approach to explain the importance of what is unobservable as well as observable showing how realism is different to various forms of empiricism that reduce knowledge to sense perception.

Papineau argues that this realist approach can develop a theory of knowledge that is not sceptical because it can explain the various theories about reality as being approximations of the truth that are increasingly accurate and able to explain what is becoming more complex and intricate within the world.

A materialist would not necessarily disagree with his approach, but Papineau argues for the differentiation of realism and materialism because the latter has an emphasis on what is observable within reality, and is based on the mechanical Newtonian paradigm that has been superseded. Consequently he would suggest that realism is the major alternative to the influence of empiricism and that materialism has become anachronistic and irrelevant.

This is a characterisation of materialism of the mechanical type expounded by the Stalinist philosophers of the Soviet Union, but has nothing to do with Marx’s materialist dialectics. An emphasis on the primacy of the material world does not deny the significance of what is unobservable.

Furthermore, both materialism and realism are also compatible in terms of privileging objective reality independent of consciousness as the basis of understanding the role of conscious practice.

This difference between realism and materialism seems to be an issue of emphasis rather than one of ontology or epistemology. Confusion about what materialists say, has been the reason for the tension between realism and materialism rather than being the actual expression of an explicit difference.

Overall, this book’s reduction of the discussion of various important themes within philosophy to a collection of what could be called sound-bites, is a success. The various contributors discuss their subjects in an erudite and informative manner which will encourage readers to develop their own thoughts..

As well as discussing some more traditional philosophical themes, the book also tackles themes such as sport and friendship. There is a very useful appendix of books and articles.

The major absence is a comprehensive article about what is actually meant by philosophy in terms of ontology, epistemology and method. The wide variety of definitions offered in the opening chapter could be considered to be confusing rather than illuminating. A discussion from an expert on this topic would have been more useful than the brief sound-bites.

Apart from this the book was generally rewarding and left the reader wanting to study the various books recommended for further reading. What could be a better recommendation?

3 December 2010

Philosophy Bites, David Edmonds and Nigel Warburton (Editors), Oxford University Press £9.95

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