Tag Archives: Patrick Stokes

Where to start reading philosophy?

The Conversation

Patrick Stokes, Deakin University; Duncan Ivison, University of Sydney; Laura D’Olimpio, University of Notre Dame Australia, and Matthew Sharpe, Deakin University

Philosophy can seem a daunting subject in which to dabble. But there are many wonderful books on philosophy that tackle big ideas without requiring a PhD to digest.

Here are some top picks for summer reading material from philosophers across Australia.


Shame and Necessity

by Bernard Williams

After a year of Brexit, the return of Pauline Hanson and Donald Trump, many of us are wondering about the state of our public culture. Are we undergoing some kind of seismic cultural and moral shift in the way we live?

However, the ancient Greeks would have been familiar with these phenomena for all kinds of reasons. They understood how anger, resentment and revenge shape politics. And they had some pretty interesting ways of dealing with outbreaks of populist rage and constitutional crises. Our language is still littered with them: think “ostracism”, “dictatorship” and “oligarchy” (let alone “democracy”).

So, this year, amongst all the noise, I found myself driven back to the Greeks, and especially to some of the ideas that pre-date the great philosophical titans of Plato and Aristotle.

Bernard Williams was one of our most brilliant philosophers, and Shame and Necessity is one of his best books. Stunningly – just given how good this book is, and how deep it goes into the classical mind – he didn’t consider himself a classicist, but rather a philosopher who happened to have benefited from a very good classical education. As a result, he is a delightful guide across the often rugged philosophical, historical and interpretive terrain of pre-Socratic thought.

It might seem daunting at first, but the book is an elegant, searching essay on the ways in which we are now, in so many ways, in a situation more like the ancient Greeks then we realise. But it’s not a plea for a return to some golden age. Far from it. Instead, it challenges some of our most fundamental conceptions of self, responsibility, freedom and community, inviting us to think them afresh.

The heroes of his tale are, interestingly enough, not the philosophers, but the tragedians and poets, who remind us of the complexity, contingency and fragility of our ideas of the good. Although almost 10 years old, it’s a book that gets more interesting the more often you return to it. It’s never been more relevant, or more enjoyable, than now.

Duncan Ivison, University of Sydney


The Philosophy Book

by Will Buckingham

Remember when the Guinness Book of World Records was the best gift ever for the little (or grown-up) thinker in your family? Well, if you’ve been there, done that for a few Christmases in a row and are in need of an exciting, innovative gift idea, try DK’s big yellow book of intellectual fun: The Philosophy Book.

With contributions from a bunch of UK academics, this A4 sized tome is decorated with fun illustrations and great quotes from the world’s best philosophical thinkers.

The structure of the book is historical, with between one to four pages allocated to the “big ideas” from ancient times all the way up to contemporary thought. It is accompanied by a neat glossary and directory: a who’s who of thought-makers.

The focus is on the traditional Western approach to philosophy, although some Eastern thinkers are included. Each historical section – Ancient (700-250 BCE); Medieval (250-1500); The Renaissance (1500-1750); Revolution (1750-1900); Modern (1900-1950); and Contemporary (1950-present) – is divided into classical philosophical ideas from that time period.

There are 107(!) in total, including Socrates’ “The life which is unexamined is not worth living”, Rene Descartes’ “I think therefore I am”, Thomas Hobbes’ “Man is a Machine”, Ludwig Wittgenstein’s “The limits of my language are the limits of my world”, and even Slavoj Žižek’s analysis of Marx, just to name a few.

The reader can trace the history and development of philosophical thought throughout the ages, in the context of what else was occurring at that time in the world.

This gift would be suitable for ages 12+ as it is written in ordinary, accessible language. But, be warned… after reading this, your Boxing Day is likely to be filled with questions such as, “what is truth?”, “how can we think like a mountain?”, “can knowledge be bought and sold?”, and “how did the universe begin?”

Laura D’Olimpio, The University of Notre Dame Australia


50 Philosophy ideas you really need to know

by Ben Dupré

Obviously there are a lot more than 50 Philosophical Ideas we really need to know, as this book is a part of a great series of small hardback books that cover most of the great thoughts ever thunk.

Dupré has a lot of fun in these 200 pages, with 50 short essays written on a variety of classical philosophical ideas, including the important thought experiments such as brain in a vat, Plato’s cave, the ship of Theseus, the prisoner’s dilemma and many more.

The book’s blurb asks:

Have you ever lain awake at night fretting over how we can be sure of the reality of the external world? Perhaps we are in fact disembodied brains, floating in vats at the whim of some deranged puppet-master?

It is to philosophy that we turn, if not for definite answers to such mysteries, but certainly for multiple responses to these puzzles. The 50 essays in this volume cover things like the problems of knowledge, the philosophy of mind, ethics and animal rights, logic and meaning, science, aesthetics, religion, politics and justice.

There is a nifty timeline running along the footer and inspired quotes by which the reader can link the main ideas, their original thinkers, and the time at which they were writing.

This book would make a great gift for teachers, students and anyone interested in some of the big eternal questions. I would recommend it for ages 12+ given its clear writing style that illuminates and contextualises some of the most important ideas in philosophy.

Laura D’Olimpio, The University of Notre Dame Australia


On Bullshit

by Harry G Frankfurt

When someone asks you “where do I start with philosophy?”, it’s tempting to point them to a book that gives an overview of the history, key figures and problems of the discipline.

But what about someone who doesn’t even want to go that far? Not everyone’s prepared to slog their way through Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy like my optometrist once did; every time I’d go in for new glasses he’d give me an update on where he was up to. And even if they’re prepared to put in the effort, some readers might come away from such a book not really seeing the value in philosophy beyond its historical interest. It’s easy to get lost in a fog of Greek names and -isms until you can’t see the forest for the trees.

So there’s one book I recommend to everyone even if they have no interest in philosophy whatsoever: Harry Frankfurt’s classic 1986 essay “On Bullshit”, published as a book in 2005. It’s only a few pages long so you can knock it over in a couple of train trips, and it’s a great example of philosophy in action.

Frankfurt starts with the arresting claim that:

One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit. Everyone knows this. Each of us contributes his share. But we tend to take the situation for granted.

In the best tradition of the discipline, Frankfurt takes something we don’t even typically notice and brings it into the light so we can see just how pervasive, strange and important it is.

Bullshit, Frankfurt argues, is not simply lying. It’s worse than that. In order to lie, you first have to know the truth (or think you do), and you have to care about the truth enough to cover it up. To that extent at least the liar still maintains a relationship to the truth.

The bullshitter, by contrast, doesn’t care about the truth at all. They just want you to believe what they say. What they tell you could even be true, for all they care, it doesn’t matter, so long as you buy it.

The lying/bullshit distinction is a remarkably useful analytic tool. Be warned, though: once you have it, you’ll be seeing it everywhere.

Patrick Stokes, Deakin University


The Guardians in Action: Plato the Teacher

by William H F Altman

Plato’s dialogues were conceived by their author as a consummate, step-by-step training in philosophy, starting with the most basic beginners. Such is the orienting claim of The Guardians in Action, the second of a projected three volumes in American scholar William Altman’s continuing contemporary exploration of Plato as a teacher.

Altman, for many years a high school teacher trained in the classical languages and philosophy, has devoted his retirement from the classroom to an extraordinary attempt to reread or reteach the Platonic dialogues as a sequential pedagogical program.

The program begins with Socrates walking into the Hades-like den of sophists in the Protagoras. In the middle, the heart and high point of the 36 texts, stands the Republic, the subject of Plato the Teacher: The Crisis of the Republic of 2012 (Volume 1).

Here, the education of the philosopher-“guardians” who will rule in the best city, having seen the true Idea of the Good, is timelessly laid out. The true philosopher, as Altman’s Plato conceived him, must “go back down” into the city to educate his fellows, even though he has seen the Transcendent End of his inquiries.

The Republic itself begins emblematically, with Socrates “going back down” to the Piraeus to talk with his friends. As Altman sees things, the entire Platonic oeuvre ends with Socrates going back down into Athens, staying there to die in a cavelike prison for the sake of philosophy in the Phaedo.

Who then did Plato want for his guardians, on Altman’s reading? We his readers –like the first generation of students in the Academy whom Altman pictures being taught by Plato through the syllabus of the dialogues.

This is an extraordinarily learned book, maybe not for the complete beginner. You need to have spent a lifetime with a thinker to write books like this (with the finale, The Guardians on Trial set to come).

But it is everywhere lightened by Altman’s style, and the warm affection for Plato and for the business of teaching that radiates from every page. So it is most certainly a book for anyone who loves or has ever wondered about Plato, still the original and arguably the best introduction to philosophy.

Matt Sharpe, Deakin


Philosophy as a Way of Life

by Pierre Hadot

This book is a collection of essays by the late French philosopher and philologist Pierre Hadot. After 1970, via his studies of classical literature, Hadot became convinced that the ancients conceived of philosophy very differently than we do today.

It was, for them, primarily about educating and forming students, as well as framing arguments and writing books. Its goal was not knowledge alone but wisdom, a knowledge about how to live that translated into transformed ways of thinking, feeling, and acting, mediated by what Hadot calls “spiritual exercises” like the premeditation of evils and death, and the contemplation of natural beauty.

The ideal was the sage, someone whose way of living was characterised by inner freedom, tranquillity, moral conscience and a constant sense of his own small place in the larger, ordered world.

Hadot spent much of the last decades of his life exploring this idea in studies of ancient philosophy, particularly that of the Hellenistic and Roman periods. He wrote long books in this light on Marcus Aurelius (The Inner Citadel) and the German poet Goethe, both of whom feature prominently in the essays in Philosophy as a Way of Life, Hadot’s most popular introductory book. Hadot’s writing is simple and graceful, and has been beautifully preserved in Michael Chase’s translations for English readers.

I’ll let Hadot himself describe his intentions, in a passage which gives a sense of the spirit that breathes through the larger original:

Vauvenargues said, “A truly new and truly original book would be one which made people love old truths.” It is my hope that I have been “truly new and truly original” in this sense, since my goal has indeed been to make people love a few old truths […] there are some truths whose meaning will never be exhausted by the generations of man. It is not that they are difficult; on the contrary, they are often extremely simple. Often, they even appear to be banal. Yet for their meaning to be understood, these truths must be lived, and constantly re-experienced. Each generation must take up, from scratch, the task of learning to read and to re-read these “old truths”.

Matt Sharpe, Deakin

The ConversationPatrick Stokes, Senior Lecturer in Philosophy, Deakin University; Duncan Ivison, Professor of Political Philosophy, Deputy Vice Chancellor (Research), University of Sydney; Laura D’Olimpio, Senior Lecturer in Philosophy, University of Notre Dame Australia, and Matthew Sharpe, Associate Professor in Philosophy, Deakin University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.

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Senator, You’re No Socrates

The Conversation

Patrick Stokes, Deakin University

In ‘The Clouds,’ Aristophanes depicts Socrates as a sophist, suspended in a basket to enable him to study the skies.
Joannes Sambucus, 1564

So, we all knew Malcolm Roberts, former project leader of the climate denialist Galileo Movement turned One Nation politician, would make an ‘interesting’ first speech to the Senate. If you’ve been following Senator Roberts’ career, most of what he said was more or less predictable. The UN (“unelected swill” – take a bow, PJK), the IMF and the EU are monstrous socialist behemoths with a “frightening agenda,” climate change is a “scam,” the “tight-knit international banking sector” (a dangerous phrase given Roberts’ history of discussing international “banking families”) are “One of the greatest threats to our liberty and life as we know it.”

It may be startling to hear this in one concentrated burst, from a senator, last thing on a Tuesday afternoon, but if you’re familiar with the more conspiratorial corners of the internet this was all fairly pedestrian stuff.

What was more surprising, at least in passing, was Roberts comparing himself to Socrates:

Like Socrates, I love asking questions to get to the truth.

A Socratic questioner in the Senate! The gadfly of Athens, who cheerfully punctured the delusions of the comfortable and reduced them to frozen bewilderment with just a few cheerfully framed questions like some Attic Columbo, has apparently taken up residence in the red chamber. This should be a golden age for rational inquiry, right?

Right?

Epistemic revolt

The choice of Socrates, like that of Galileo, is no accident. Both fit neatly into a heroic “one brave man against the Establishment” narrative of scientific progress that climate denialists like to identify with. Both eventually changed the trajectory of human knowledge. But along the way, both suffered persecution. Galileo was made to recant his “heretical” heliocentrism under threat of torture and spent his last years under house arrest. Socrates, charged with impiety and corrupting the youth and denounced in court by one Meletus, was put to death. Of course that’s not nearly as rough as the brutal suppression of Malcolm Roberts, who has been cruelly oppressed with a three year Senate seat and a guest slot on Q&A. But you get the idea.

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Most importantly, both Socrates and Galileo function here as emblems of a kind of epistemic individualism. They’re ciphers for a view of knowledge generation as a contest between self-sufficient individual thinkers and a faceless, mediocre ‘they,’ instead of a collective and social process governed by internal disciplinary norms and standards.

Roberts doesn’t simply like asking questions – anyone can do that. No, he wants to be like Socrates: someone who refuses to accept the answers he’s given, and dismantles them with clinical, exhaustive precision. Malcolm Roberts wants to work it all out for himself, scientific community be damned. If Socrates could, why can’t he? Why can’t each of us?

Distributed knowledge

But Socrates, living at the dawn of scholarly inquiry, had the luxury of being a polymath. “Philosopher” simply means “lover of wisdom,” and early philosophers were forced to be rather promiscuous with that love. Physicist, logician, meteorologist, astronomer, chemist, ethicist, political scientist, drama critic: the Greek philosopher was all of these and more by default. The intellectual division of labour had not yet taken place, because all fields of inquiry were in their infancy.

Also well known for their skill at Invisible Basketball. Raphael

Fast forward two and a half thousand years and the situation is radically different. The sciences have long since specialised past the point where non-specialists can credibly critique scientific claims. There is now simply too much knowledge, at too great a pitch of complexity, for anyone to encompass and evaluate it all. The price we pay for our expanding depth of knowledge is that what we know is increasingly distrubuted between the increasingly specialised nodes of increasingly complex informational networks.

That fact, in turn, emphasises our mutual epistemic dependence. I rely daily on the expert competence and good will of thousands of people I never see and will never meet, from doctors to builders to engineers and lawyers – and climate scientists, who wrangle with the unimaginably complex fluid dynamics of our planet.

So what do you if you find yourself up against a network of specialist knowledge that disagrees with your core beliefs? Do you simply accept that you’re not in a position to assess their claims and rely, as we all must, on others? Do you, acknowledging your limitations, defer to the experts?

If you’re Socrates today, then yes, you probably do. The true genius of Socrates as Plato presents him that he understands his limitations better than anyone around him:

And is not this the most reprehensible form of ignorance, that of thinking one knows what one does not know? Perhaps, gentlemen, in this matter also I differ from other men in this way, and if I were to say that I am wiser in anything, it would be in this, that not knowing very much about the other world, I do not think I know. (Apology 29b)

Dismissing expertise

But deferring to those who know better is not the sort of Socrates Malcolm Roberts wants to be. If you want to be a Roberts-style Socrates, instead of conceding your ignorance, you cling to some foundational bit of putative knowledge that allows you to dismiss anything else that’s said, like so:

It is basic. The sun warms the earth’s surface. The surface, by contact, warms the moving, circulating atmosphere. That means the atmosphere cools the surface. How then can the atmosphere warm it? It cannot. That is why their computer models are wrong.

This is a familiar move to anyone who’s ever watched a 9/11 truther at work. While “jet fuel can’t melt steel beams!” has become a punchline, in some ways it’s the perfect battle-cry for epistemic rebellion. It asserts that if you just cling to some basic fact or model, you can use it to reject more complicated scenarios or models that seem to contradict that fact.

Jim Benton/Knowyourmeme.com

That move levels the playing field and hands power back to the disputant. Your advanced study of engineering or climatology, be it ever so impressive, can’t override my high school physics or chemistry. My understanding of how physical reality works is simple, graspable, and therefore true; yours is complex, counterintuitive, esoteric, and thus utterly suspect. I’m Plato’s Socrates: earthy, self-sufficient and impervious to sophistry; you, by contrast, are Aristophanes’ Socrates, vain and unworldly, suspended in your balloon far above the healthy common sense of the demos, investing the clouds with your obsessions.

Auxiliary Accusations

This leaves our would-be Socrates with the awkward fact that all those experts still disagree with him. How do you respond in the face of such disconfirmatory data? You could abandon your hypothesis, or you could deploy what Imre Lakatos called an ‘auxiliary hypothesis’ to defend it.

In Roberts’ case, as with many conspiracy theorists, this auxiliary hypothesis takes the form of a scattergun accusation. Climate science isn’t just mistaken, or even just inept, but “fraudulent.” Roberts is quite prepared to accuse thousands of people whose lives he knows nothing about of conscious and systemic corruption rather than admit he might be wrong.

From within Roberts’ rather Manichean worldview, that might seem to make a certain kind of sense: the forces of freedom are fighting an apocalyptic battle against the forces of repression. The enemy is positively evil, with its cooked climate data and insidious agendas and overtaxed bread. There is no need to spare the feelings of a foe so wicked. Those greedy bastards knew exactly what they were doing when they signed up for Socialist Climate Data Manipulation Studies in O-Week.

For anyone who claims to care about the quest for knowledge like Socrates did, the moral recklessness of such an accusation, from someone in such a position of power, should be cause for alarm. And when you’re trying to destroy the reputation of researchers because their message doesn’t suit your free-market pieties, you might just be more Meletus than Socrates.

The ConversationPatrick Stokes, Senior Lecturer in Philosophy, Deakin University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.

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Please don’t explain: Hanson 2.0 and the war on experts

The Conversation

Patrick Stokes, Deakin University

Along with Aqua’s “Barbie Girl,” Pauline Hanson has long stood as a grim reminder that the second half of the 1990s was much worse than the first half. And now, 18 years later, Hanson finds herself back in Canberra.

Hanson’s racist agenda will be a stain on the Senate just as surely as the views she represents are a stain on Australia itself. For that reason alone, her return is a cause for dismay. But it is not the only cause.

Both Hanson herself and her wider party have a vocal sideline in science denialism: the view that expert consensus on various topics is corrupted and unreliable.

Hanson has pushed the myth that vaccination causes autism, and wants a royal commission into the “corruption” of climate science, declaring that “Climate change should not be about making money for a lot of people and giving scientists money”.

At the time of writing, it’s quite possible Malcolm Roberts, who has the number two slot on the One Nation Senate ticket in Queensland, will be joining Hanson in Canberra. Roberts is a project leader of the Galileo Movement, a lobby group who deny anthropogenic climate change and insist the global scientific community and governments are corruptly hiding the truth from their publics.

Conspiracism in public life

This might seem small beer next to the potentially disastrous effects a Hansonite revival might have on Australia’s pluralist and multicultural society.

But remember: Hanson had an outsized impact on Australian politics in the 90s precisely because she gave voice to views that resonated with much of the electorate and, unlike other politicians, wasn’t quite canny enough to reach for the dog whistle. In openly using phrases like “swamped with Asians,” Hanson shifted the Overton Window until the political establishment found the only way her views could be contained was by absorbing them.

Enter Roberts, a man who honestly believes a “tight-knit cabal” made up of “some of the major banking families in the world” are advancing corrupted climate science with the aim of global domination. Such language has some very dark associations in the history of conspiracy theory. Hence Andrew Bolt disassociated himself from the Galileo Movement for peddling a view that “smacks too much of the Jewish world conspiracy theorising I’ve always loathed.”

One might think that if even an arch-denialist like Bolt can’t abide views like Roberts’, One Nation’s climate conspiracism will end up either repudiated or ignored. But then, nobody in 1996 thought “swamped with Asians” rhetoric would have such an impact on the Australian polity either.

‘Post-truth politics’?

Besides, this has been a good season globally for political expertise bashing. Perhaps the new One Nation senators will find that, in another echo of the Howard years, the times will suit them.

In the lead-up to the UK’s referendum on leaving the European Union, Tory MP and leading Leave campaigner Michael Gove declared “people in this country have had enough of experts”. Gove is now in the running to become the Prime Minister who will preside over the UK’s divorce from the EU – and quite possibly, the breakup of the United Kingdom itself.

Michael Gove says people have had enough of experts. Paul Clarke/Wikimedia Commons

Should Gove get the gig, his counterpart across the pond come January 2017 may well be one Donald Trump, a man who believes climate change is a hoax and that vaccines cause autism (and has given voice to suspicions that Obama wasn’t born in the US and that Ted Cruz’ father was involved the Kennedy assassination).

And of course, denialism won’t be a novelty in Canberra either. Denis Jensen won’t be there when Senator Hanson arrives, but his colleague George Christiansen will be. David Leyonhjelm may no longer grace the Senate crossbenches, but thanks to him we’ll still be paying for a Commissioner to investigate Wind Turbine Syndrome complaints despite the lack of evidence for any such condition. And lest this be dismissed as a mere lefty rant, we should also note the Greens’ stance on genetically modified organisms.

All of this might be ascribed to “post-truth politics,” the condition in which political discourse is no longer constrained by norms of truth-telling. But simply insisting people tell the truth – hardly an outrageous demand – won’t help with this specific problem. To invoke the philosopher Harry Frankfurt’s ingenious distinction, post-truth politics is not fundamentally about lies, but bullshit. The liar knows the truth, and cares about it enough to conceal it. The bullshitter, by contrast, doesn’t care (and may not know) if what they say is true; they just care that you believe it. Trump, it seems fair to say, is a bullshitter. Much of the Gove-Johnson-Farage Brexit campaign was certainly built on bullshit.

But science denialists are not, or at least not necessarily, liars or bullshitters. Their beliefs are sincere. And they are shared by a great many people, who by definition won’t be persuaded by simple appeals to expert opinion because the authority of expert opinion is precisely what they deny. How should we respond to this?

Naïve Reason won’t save us

One disastrous answer would be to retreat into a naïve conception of capital-r Reason as some sort of panacea. Surprisingly smart people end up plumping for such a view. Consider this bit of utopianism from Neil deGrasse Tyson:

Even if Tyson’s being tongue-in-cheek here, this is emblematic of a fairly widespread view that if we just consult The Facts, and then simply apply the infallible techniques of Reason to these Facts, it becomes blindingly obvious precisely What Is To Be Done. This view is only slightly less naïve, and barely less self-congratulatory, than those it opposes.

You sometimes come across people who want to insist that battles over science denialism represent a conflict between “reality” and “ideology.” But there’s no direct access to “reality” – all knowledge is mediated through our existing concepts, language, and so on – and so, arguably, no non-ideological access to it either. Human knowledge doesn’t drop from the sky fully-formed and transparently validated by some infallible faculty of Reason. It’s always filtered through language, culture, politics, history, and the foibles of psychology. Producing knowledge is something humans do – and that means power relations are involved.

Distributed knowledge and trust

While anti-intellectualism and suspicion of expertise is nothing new, the problem is amplified by the very advances that make modern life what it is. Put crudely, we now know so much that nobody can know it all for themselves, and so we have to rely more and more on other people to know things for us.

Under such conditions of distributed knowledge, trust becomes ever more important. You can’t be an expert in everything, and so you have to take more and more on trust. Is human activity warming the climate? Does the MMR vaccine cause autism? Would Brexit tank the UK’s economy? These are not questions you or I can answer, assuming you or I aren’t researchers working in the relevant fields. So we have to defer to the relevant communities of experts – and that’s a problem if you’re not good with trust or deference.

The physicist Brian Cox recently said of Gove’s expertise remark that it represents the way “back to the cave.” If that’s a fate we want to avoid, we’re stuck with distributed knowledge, and the reliance on others it involves.

That being so, we need to enhance trust in the knowledge-generating social structures we depend upon. Of course, a certain proportion of people are always going to insist that scientists are secretly lying to us for profit or that doctors are incompetent or evil. The paranoid style, as Richard Hofstadter called it, will always be with us. And there will always be demagogues willing to exploit that paranoia, to turn expertise into an us-and-them conflict, or to feed resentment and flatter egos by telling people they know better than their GP or climatologists.

But such views can only gain broader traction if people are alienated from those sources of knowledge, if they see them as disconnected from and perhaps even hostile to their own lives and interests.

Technical knowledge is predominantly produced by universities, and utilised by a political class. These are institutions that are much harder to trust if university is a place that nobody like you goes to, or if nobody in the political class sounds like you. It’s much easier to see “government” as some sort of malign, alien force if you have no investment in its processes or hope of benefiting from them. Equally, when “government” means your friends and family who work in public service rather than a distant and abstract locus of force and authority, pervasive suspicion becomes harder to maintain.

Expertise denial has become a deeply corrosive feature of modern political society. It needs to be called out wherever it appears. But we also need to think about how we reduce people’s disconnection from the sources of epistemic authority. That is a far more wickedly difficult problem. It’s one we’ll still be dealing with long after Hanson’s second fifteen minutes are over. But we can’t wait until then to start.

The ConversationPatrick Stokes, Senior Lecturer in Philosophy, Deakin University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.

 

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Science deniers reject authority and facts

Here is an excellent article by philosopher  Dr. Patrick Stokes in The Age, 18 December 2015. It begins:

“Many people who choose to ignore accepted scientific conclusions are making emotional rather than rational decisions.”

Read more: http://www.theage.com.au/comment/people-pick-and-choose-over-scientific-discoveries-at-their-peril-20151216-glpj3z.html#ixzz3uctzHc6a

I have written an essay on a related topic.

 

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We don’t need no (moral) education? Five things you should learn about ethics

The Conversation

Patrick Stokes, Deakin University

The human animal takes a remarkably long time to reach maturity. And we cram a lot of learning into that time, as well we should: the list of things we need to know by the time we hit adulthood in order to thrive – personally, economically, socially, politically – is enormous.

But what about ethical thriving? Do we need to be taught moral philosophy alongside the three Rs?

Ethics has now been introduced into New South Wales primary schools as an alternative to religious instruction, but the idea of moral philosophy as a core part of compulsory education seems unlikely to get much traction any time soon. To many ears, the phrase “moral education” has a whiff of something distastefully Victorian (the era, not the state). It suggests indoctrination into an unquestioned set of norms and principles – and in the world we find ourselves in now, there is no such set we can all agree on.

Besides, in an already crowded curriculum, do we really have time for moral philosophy? After all, most people manage to lead pretty decent lives without knowing their Sidgewick from their Scanlon or being able to spot a rule utilitarian from 50 yards.

But intractable moral problems don’t go away just because we no longer agree how to deal with them. And as recent discussions on this site help to illustrate, new problems are always arising that, one way or another, we have to deal with. As individuals and as participants in the public space, we simply can’t get out of having to think about issues of right and wrong.

Yet spend time hanging around the comments section of any news story with an ethical dimension to it (and that’s most of them), and it quickly becomes apparent that most people just aren’t familiar with the methods and frameworks of ethical reasoning that have been developed over the last two and a half thousand years. We have the tools, but we’re not equipping people with them.

So, what sort of things should we be teaching if we wanted to foster “ethical literacy”? What would count as a decent grounding in moral philosophy for the average citizen of contemporary, pluralistic societies?

What follows is in no way meant to be definitive. It’s not based on any sort of serious empirical data around people’s familiarity with ethical issues. It’s a just tentative stab (wait, can you stab tentatively?) at a list of things people should ideally know about ethics, and based, on what I see in the classroom and, online, often don’t.

1. Ethics and morality are (basically) the same thing

Many people bristle at the word “morality” but are quite comfortable using the term “ethical”, and insist there’s some crucial difference between the two. For instance, some people say ethics are about external, socially imposed norms, while morality is about individual conscience. Others say ethics is concrete and practical while morality is more abstract, or is somehow linked to religion.

Out on the value theory front lines, however, there’s no clear agreed distinction, and most philosophers use the two terms more or less interchangeably. And let’s face it: if even professional philosophers refuse to make a distinction, there probably isn’t one there to be made.

2. Morality isn’t (necessarily) subjective

Every philosophy teacher probably knows the dismay of reading a decent ethics essay, only to then be told in the final paragraph that, “Of course, morality is subjective so there is no real answer”. So what have the last three pages been about then?

There seems to be a widespread assumption that the very fact that people disagree about right and wrong means there is no real fact of the matter, just individual preferences. We use the expression “value judgment” in a way that implies such judgments are fundamentally subjective.

Sure, ethical subjectivism is a perfectly respectable position with a long pedigree. But it’s not the only game in town, and it doesn’t win by default simply because we haven’t settled all moral problems. Nor does ethics lose its grip on us even if we take ourselves to be living in a universe devoid of intrinsic moral value. We can’t simply stop caring about how we should act; even subjectivists don’t suddenly turn into monsters.

3. “You shouldn’t impose your morality on others” is itself a moral position.

You hear this all the time, but you can probably spot the fallacy here pretty quickly: that “shouldn’t” there is itself a moral “shouldn’t” (rather than a prudential or social “shouldn’t,” like “you shouldn’t tease bears” or “you shouldn’t swear at the Queen”). Telling other people it’s morally wrong to tell other people what’s morally wrong looks obviously flawed – so why do otherwise bright, thoughtful people still do it?

Possibly because what the speaker is assuming here is that “morality” is a domain of personal beliefs (“morals”) which we can set aside while continuing to discuss issues of how we should treat each other. In effect, the speaker is imposing one particular moral framework – liberalism – without realising it.

4. “Natural” doesn’t necessarily mean “right”

This is an easy trap to fall into. Something’s being “natural” (if it even is) doesn’t tell us that it’s actually good. Selfishness might turn out to be natural, for instance, but that doesn’t mean it’s right to be selfish.

This gets a bit more complicated when you factor in ethical naturalism or Natural Law theory, because philosophers are awful people and really don’t want to make things easy for you.

5. The big three: Consequentialism, Deontology, Virtue Ethics

There’s several different ethical frameworks that moral philosophers use, but some familiarity with the three main ones – consequentialism (what’s right and wrong depends upon consequences); deontology (actions are right or wrong in themselves); and virtue ethics (act in accordance with the virtues characteristic of a good person) – is incredibly useful.

Why? Because they each manage to focus our attention on different, morally relevant features of a situation, features that we might otherwise miss.

So, that’s my tentative stab (still sounds wrong!). Do let me know in the comments what you’d add or take out.

This is part of a series on public morality in 21st century Australia. We’ll be publishing regular articles on morality on The Conversation in the coming weeks.

The ConversationThis article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.


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The ethics of bravery: why a Black Saturday ‘hero’ lost his award

The Conversation

By Patrick Stokes, Deakin University

Last week, I received an email with the subject line: “Bravery award for baby killer.”

It urged readers to sign a Change.org petition calling on the Royal Humane Society of Australia to rescind a bravery award. Paul McCuskey, a volunteer firefighter, had been given a “Certificate of Merit” for helping to save the life of an elderly woman during the Black Saturday bushfires.

Yet McCuskey is now in prison for a series of vicious assaults on his partner Jeannie Blackburn – attacks that caused a miscarriage and left her blind in one eye. In the face of 18,000 petition signatures and calls from Humane Society patron Governor-General Quentin Bryce and the remarkably courageous Ms. Blackburn herself, the Society finally withdrew the award.

It’s a tragic case, and one that, as Suzy Freeman-Greene points out, raises complex issues. But whether you think websites like Change.org, GetUp! and All Out are genuine forces for progress or mere conduits for feel-good “slacktivism”, complexity is not something they are set up to handle well. Like their ideological opposite numbers in talkback radio, they need to present clear-cut narratives of right and wrong, with an unambiguous call-to-action at the end.

Yet these issues are unavoidably complex. In fact, the language we saw last week involved a clash between two ancient, competing understandings of morality.

The Humane Society’s objective is “to give public recognition to acts of bravery by bestowing awards on those who risk their own lives in saving or attempting to save the lives of others”. The emphasis here is focused on the moral quality of particular actions. It could be maintained – as the society reportedly initially did – that McCuskey’s actions on Black Saturday were morally praiseworthy, whatever else he’s done. But this way of thinking can easily lead to a sort of ethically crude arithmetic, as if we’re supposed to weigh rights against wrongs and come out with an overall score.

Much of the anger directed at the Humane Society’s decision to award the certificate in the first place, on the other hand, used a very different type of moral language: not evaluation of the action, but evaluation of the agent. Awards, we’re told, are for heroes – and a man who beats his partner cannot be a hero.

This focus on character belongs to the “virtue ethics” tradition that goes back to Aristotle. Virtues, according to Aristotle, are a job lot: you can’t be a generous thief or an honest glutton, because your vices will eventually disrupt and defeat your virtues.

But moral heroes often turn out to be flawed. Oskar Schindler, for instance, saved thousands of lives yet was unfaithful to his wife.

Even more troubling are the monsters who seem distressingly normal in other contexts. We find Stalin warmly addressing his daughter as “my little sparrow, my great joy” or tucking Beria’s children into bed disturbingly humanising, as if these scenes somehow mitigate his crimes. Or perhaps it actually makes him more monstrous somehow.

So, what should the Humane Society have done?

Let’s go back a step. Why do we have bravery awards? Not because we want to reward the virtue of courage per se, nor because we want to reward people for saving lives; otherwise every skydiver and surgeon would get one.

Rather, we give such awards in the aftermath of crises where the value and meaning of human life has nearly been obliterated by the absurdity of senseless, arbitrary destruction.

We reward those who hold that threat back, who in risking their own lives testify to the depth of the ways in which we value each other and thereby keep the moral sphere from coming apart. In chaotic moments that threaten to engulf us in meaninglessness, those who perform such acts keep the fabric of our moral universe temporarily intact.

You might say that a violent person can still perform such an act. But the “domestic” in “domestic violence” doesn’t just refer to a location, and the evil of domestic violence is not simply in the horrific physical and psychological harm it causes.

To understand the scale of its moral obscenity we must appreciate the depth of what it violates: the web of vulnerability, love, trust and security that unites us to those we live in the greatest intimacy with. An assault on the people given to us to love unconditionally shatters the moral sense and meaning of our most vital relationships. It is not simply violence in the home, but violence against the home, with everything that “home” implies.

Domestic violence is therefore more than violence: it’s a treason against the moral sphere itself.

To award someone for preserving the moral sphere who had also betrayed it in such a repugnant way would have been perverse.

Grappling with questions like this is hard work. It takes patience, an openness to dialogue and a certain degree of humility. But when our main avenues for talking about these issues are through soundbites and tweets, those virtues can be in short supply.

Online petitions are great – I’ve signed quite a few myself. But let’s not pretend we can just click our way out of moral perplexity.

The ConversationPatrick Stokes does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Republished with permission). Read the original article.

Read more from Patrick Stokes: No, you’re not entitled to your opinion.

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Free your mind – but are there ideas we shouldn’t contemplate?

The Conversation
By Matthew Beard, University of Notre Dame Australia

You’re a free thinker – congratulations – but does that mean you can, and should, approach everything with an open mind? Let me try to convince you you shouldn’t.

I do not want to argue with him: he shows a corrupt mind.

So remarked Elizabeth Anscombe (1919-2001), a giant of 20th century moral philosophy. She was referring to the kind of person who is open to being convinced of something that is intrinsically unjust, such as a court judicially punishing an innocent man.

This seems to be the antithesis of what a moral philosopher ought to do. Her judgement seems to display a dogmatic close-mindedness to the free thinking that philosophy typifies, and an intolerant disposition toward different ideas. To dismiss the reflective, well-considered thinking of another person – even if it leads to uncomfortable conclusions – is the stuff of ideology, not philosophy.

Or so it seems.

Philosophy is, as any undergraduate student has been told, a love of wisdom and a quest for truth. Philosophers are good at recognising the complexity of truth, and accepting that there is merit in a wide range of different positions. They are also good at explaining why common assumptions are oftentimes problematic, and are therefore masters of qualifying terms:

I agree, but; Yes, insofar as; I think that’s true, on the condition that …

Philosophy begins, as Aristotle remarked, with curiosity and wonder.

Socrates, the pedagogical role model of Western philosophy, saw himself as a gadfly whose constant questioning of unreflective beliefs stung the vacuous horse of the Athenian political system.

Immanuel Kant similarly described the work of David Hume as having awakened him from his “dogmatic slumber”. Once awakened, a mind is hungry for and open to a close and authentic engagement with the truth – this hunger, like the taste for Pringles, is hard to stop once it has begun.

Is everything open to questioning? Are certain things so patently unethical that even being open to believing in them if one hears a persuasive enough argument is demonstrative of a deficient character?

Riccardo Romano

Everyone believes, to borrow an example from Quentin Tarantino’s revenge film, Kill Bill, that sexually abusing a person who had fallen into a coma from which she is not expected to wake is wrong.

What, however, are we to think of the person who argues that “at the moment I think that those practices are immoral, but I’m open to being convinced otherwise”? Is this a virtuous commitment to truth – or a cold and de-personalised detachment from morality?

Reasonable disagreement on complex issues such as commercial surrogacy, the extent of the right to privacy, or same-sex marriage isn’t demonstrative of anything other than the importance of the goods at stake and the wonderful capacity of human beings to form their own opinion.

In such cases tolerance, open-mindedness and respectful debate are virtues of utmost importance. But as Patrick Stokes has argued already in this series, just because we haven’t settled every moral question doesn’t mean that truth is completely subjective. Just because people disagree on some matters doesn’t mean that they do, or even should, disagree on all of them.

One of the mistakes people often make about moral philosophy is that once one becomes a philosopher, one must discover the truth by themselves. Melbourne philosopher Raimond Gaita describes the consensus view of the true philosopher as being so strongly committed to truth that he or she should “follow the argument wherever it leads”.

Gaita is rightly critical of this position but nevertheless the belief prevails: to shirk hard truths is not becoming of a philosopher. It betrays truth, cowing to popular opinion and a deference to assumption that undermines the very practice of philosophy.

Except that philosophy is itself a moral activity.

Philosophy isn’t (primarily) a profession, nor is it a tool of argument. Philosophy is a way of living and being in the world, and the philosopher is, like every other person, shaping him or herself through reflection, questioning, and analysis.

Should I ever allow myself to become a person who believes that the rape of a comatose person, or any other person, is justified, or – to cite a recent controversy – that “after-birth abortion” (also known as infanticide) might be a justifiable practice?

Of this thinking, Gaita remarks that, “were my commitment to philosophy to tempt to me such nihilism, I would give up philosophy, fearful of what I was becoming.”

I think Gaita is right, but it is important here to distinguish between discussion of a belief and the belief itself. In a Western society, no discussion should be taboo.

The Festival of Dangerous Ideas (FODI) faced a host of criticism for arranging a talk entitled “Honour Killings are Morally Justified”. I think it would be wrong to host such a talk with the hope or belief that people might be persuaded of its truth – but I don’t think hosting a talk on honour killings, with the intention of understanding how the practice is justified by some, of hearing why it takes place, could ever be condemned as immoral.

As I argued at the time, FODI organisers were wrong to title the talk as they did, but they weren’t wrong to want such a talk to occur.

We can discuss which beliefs are ones which it is simply wrong to be open to persuasion regarding; in some ways, that might be a matter of private determination, but we ought to agree that such things exist.

Indeed, any truth, once we recognise it to be true, ought to be clung to. “Test everything. Hold fast to that which is good.” wrote St Paul to the Thessalonians. Be willing to listen, but recognise that what one is willing to be convinced of, or what one is willing to be persuaded from, is itself a moral choice.

“No man wishes to possess the whole world,” Aristotle wrote, “if he must first become somebody else.”

Part of what defines a person, a society, and humanity, must be what we refuse, absolutely, to allow ourselves to become – not only as actors, but as thinkers too.

This is part of a series on public morality in 21st century Australia. We’ll be publishing regular articles on morality on The Conversation in the coming weeks.

The ConversationMatthew Beard does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Republished with permission). Read the original article.

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No, you’re not entitled to your opinion

The Conversation

By Patrick Stokes, Deakin University

Every year, I try to do at least two things with my students at least once. First, I make a point of addressing them as “philosophers” – a bit cheesy, but hopefully it encourages active learning.

Secondly, I say something like this: “I’m sure you’ve heard the expression ‘everyone is entitled to their opinion.’ Perhaps you’ve even said it yourself, maybe to head off an argument or bring one to a close. Well, as soon as you walk into this room, it’s no longer true. You are not entitled to your opinion. You are only entitled to what you can argue for.”

A bit harsh? Perhaps, but philosophy teachers owe it to our students to teach them how to construct and defend an argument – and to recognize when a belief has become indefensible.

The problem with “I’m entitled to my opinion” is that, all too often, it’s used to shelter beliefs that should have been abandoned. It becomes shorthand for “I can say or think whatever I like” – and by extension, continuing to argue is somehow disrespectful. And this attitude feeds, I suggest, into the false equivalence between experts and non-experts that is an increasingly pernicious feature of our public discourse.

Firstly, what’s an opinion?

Plato distinguished between opinion or common belief (doxa) and certain knowledge, and that’s still a workable distinction today: unlike “1+1=2” or “there are no square circles,” an opinion has a degree of subjectivity and uncertainty to it. But “opinion” ranges from tastes or preferences, through views about questions that concern most people such as prudence or politics, to views grounded in technical expertise, such as legal or scientific opinions.

You can’t really argue about the first kind of opinion. I’d be silly to insist that you’re wrong to think strawberry ice cream is better than chocolate. The problem is that sometimes we implicitly seem to take opinions of the second and even the third sort to be unarguable in the way questions of taste are. Perhaps that’s one reason (no doubt there are others) why enthusiastic amateurs think they’re entitled to disagree with climate scientists and immunologists and have their views “respected.”

Meryl Dorey is the leader of the Australian Vaccination Network, which despite the name is vehemently anti-vaccine. Ms. Dorey has no medical qualifications, but argues that if Bob Brown is allowed to comment on nuclear power despite not being a scientist, she should be allowed to comment on vaccines. But no-one assumes Dr. Brown is an authority on the physics of nuclear fission; his job is to comment on the policy responses to the science, not the science itself.

So what does it mean to be “entitled” to an opinion?

If “Everyone’s entitled to their opinion” just means no-one has the right to stop people thinking and saying whatever they want, then the statement is true, but fairly trivial. No one can stop you saying that vaccines cause autism, no matter how many times that claim has been disproven.

But if ‘entitled to an opinion’ means ‘entitled to have your views treated as serious candidates for the truth’ then it’s pretty clearly false. And this too is a distinction that tends to get blurred.

On Monday, the ABC’s Mediawatch program took WIN-TV Wollongong to task for running a story on a measles outbreak which included comment from – you guessed it – Meryl Dorey. In a response to a viewer complaint, WIN said that the story was “accurate, fair and balanced and presented the views of the medical practitioners and of the choice groups.” But this implies an equal right to be heard on a matter in which only one of the two parties has the relevant expertise. Again, if this was about policy responses to science, this would be reasonable. But the so-called “debate” here is about the science itself, and the “choice groups” simply don’t have a claim on air time if that’s where the disagreement is supposed to lie.[1]

Mediawatch host Jonathan Holmes was considerably more blunt: “there’s evidence, and there’s bulldust,” and it’s no part of a reporter’s job to give bulldust equal time with serious expertise.

The response from anti-vaccination voices was predictable. On the Mediawatch site, Ms. Dorey accused the ABC of “openly calling for censorship of a scientific debate.” This response confuses not having your views taken seriously with not being allowed to hold or express those views at all – or to borrow a phrase from Andrew Brown, it “confuses losing an argument with losing the right to argue.” Again, two senses of “entitlement” to an opinion are being conflated here.

So next time you hear someone declare they’re entitled to their opinion, ask them why they think that. Chances are, if nothing else, you’ll end up having a more enjoyable conversation that way.

Read more from Patrick Stokes: The ethics of bravery

The ConversationPatrick Stokes does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.

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[1] This is a fallacy known as false balance.

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Philosophy under attack: Lawrence Krauss and the new denialism

The Conversation

By Patrick Stokes, Deakin University

I really shouldn’t let myself watch Q&A. Don’t get me wrong, the ABC’s flagship weekly panel show is usually compelling viewing. But after just a few minutes I end up with the systolic blood pressure of Yosemite Sam and so fired up I can’t get to sleep for ages afterwards. Good thing it’s on when the kids are in bed, or they’d pick up all sorts of funny new words from Daddy yelling at the screen.

I’m expecting more of the same this week when physicist and author Lawrence Krauss is on the panel. Krauss is an entertaining commentator and science populist – if often quite provocative, especially on matters of religion. He should be fun to watch.

But Krauss has also been at the forefront of what looks like a disturbing recent trend among media-savvy scientists. There has rightly been a lot of concern lately about “science denialism”. But many of those sounding the alarm themselves seem to be engaging in what we might call philosophy denialism.

The subtitle of Krauss’ 2012 book A universe from nothing: why there is something rather than nothing is tantalising, offering to answer one of philosophy’s fundamental questions. Not everyone liked Krauss’ answer, however.

In response to a critical review by philosopher of physics David Albert, Krauss called Albert a “moronic philosopher” and told the Atlantic’s Ross Andersen that philosophers are threatened by science because “science progresses and philosophy doesn’t”.

Krauss’ gripe with philosophy seems to be, as Massimo Pigliucci eloquently points out, that philosophy hasn’t solved scientific problems. The same charge is levelled even more bluntly by none other than Stephen Hawking, who in 2010 declared philosophy was dead.

According to these scientists, philosophy and physics were chasing the same prize – an understanding of the ultimate nature of reality – and physics simply got there first.

Yet this misses the point of what philosophy does, and how it relates to and differs from other disciplines. “Is 2 to the power of 57,885,161 minus 1 a prime number?” or “Did Richard III murder the princes in the tower?” are questions for mathematics and history.

“What is a number?” or “Does the past exist?”, however, are not. It’s when these fundamental conceptual questions arise that the philosophical rubber hits the road.

So when Krauss complains that philosophy of science is unjustified because it doesn’t influence the way physicists do physics, he’s assuming both that philosophy only matters if it helps to answer the same questions scientists ask, and that questions only matter if they can be answered in a certain type of way. Those assumptions need to be argued for – and that’s a philosophical task.

In fairness, Krauss has walked back a lot of his rhetoric in the months since, even expressing admiration for some forms of philosophy – but he still insists that when it comes to his question of why there is something rather than nothing, the claims made by philosophers are “essentially sterile, backward, useless and annoying”. The empirical exploration of reality, he tells us, changes “our understanding of which questions are important and fruitful and which are not”.

But what makes an explanation sterile or fruitful? Should an explanation’s being “annoying” (or elegant for that matter) matter, and in what way? Don’t look now, but in asking questions like that we’re doing philosophy, even if Krauss doesn’t seem to think we need to. And he’s not the only one.

It’s usually assumed that science is descriptive rather than normative; it tells you how the world is, not how it should be. But recently Sam Harris and Michael Shermer have each argued that science can indeed answer moral questions, with Shermer lamenting that science has “conceded the high ground of determining human values, morals, and ethics to philosophers”. Both start from the rather Aristotelian assumption that the object of morality is securing the flourishing of conscious beings, and that science can tell us how to do that. But this simply puts off the question of why we should value flourishing at all, rather than answering it.

But, you might ask, does any of this really matter? After all, if scientists are too busy trying to cure cancer to wade through Heidegger’s Being and Time, do we really care?

I don’t want to overplay the gulf between scientists and philosophers, or between disciplines like theoretical physics and metaphysics; equally, there’s no question many philosophers (including me) could do with greater scientific awareness. But when prominent scientists start dismissing the questions philosophy asks as irrelevant – not just scientifically irrelevant, but irrelevant as such – I think we do have a problem.

Harris and Shermer are right that moral decisions need to take empirical data into account. Our ability to be effective moral beings depends upon our capacity to understand and respond to the world around us. Moral philosophy, in that sense, cannot ignore science. But science, equally, needs to be aware when it is straying beyond its own borders in problematic ways. Those who are concerned to defuse the charge of “scientism” need to watch out for precisely this sort of overreach.

If it seems from the outside like philosophy doesn’t make progress, perhaps that’s because our questions haven’t changed that much since Socrates’ day: what is the nature of existence? What do we know, and how do we know that we know it? How are we to live?

These aren’t questions we can simply answer and move on. But equally, they don’t go away just because we ignore them.

The ConversationPatrick Stokes does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Republished by permission).  Read the original article.

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