Daniel Hill on Abortion and Conscientious Objection

Posted 06 May 2013 — by Dan Whistler
Category Uncategorized

Within the past fortnight the Outer House (i.e. appeal branch) of the Scottish Court of Session (i.e. civil court) has delivered its judgment in the ‘midwives case’. This is the case of the petition from Mary Doogan and Concepta Wood, midwives at the Southern General Hospital, Glasgow, for judicial review of a decision of the Greater Glasgow and Clyde Health Board. Doogan and Wood are Roman Catholics and have a conscientious objection to the termination of pregnancy (at least if the mother’s life is not in danger). The Abortion Act 1967 s.4 provides an exemption for those with a conscientious objection to abortion: ‘no person shall be under any duty, whether by contract or by any statutory or other legal requirement, to participate in any treatment authorised by this Act to which he has a conscientious objection’. The tricky point was this: the hospital was asking Doogan and Wood to supervise other midwives’ performance of terminations. The hospital said that this did not count as treatment. It said that this was, rather, supervision of treatment, and so not protected under the Act. It was this decision that Doogan and Wood had asked to be judicially reviewed. They said, in objection to the hospital, that supervision of abortions counted as part of the treatment, and so was covered by the conscientious-exemption clause of the Act. In 2012 the Inner House (i.e. lower court) of the Scottish Court of Session handed down judgment in favour of the hospital, saying that the phrase ‘participate in any treatment’ was used ‘to denote those activities which directly bring about the termination of the pregnancy’ [78, emphasis added], i.e. that it did not cover supervision of the actual abortion. Last month’s appeal judgment reverses that, saying ‘In our view it is not only the actual termination which is authorised by the Act for the purposes of section 4(1), but any part of the treatment which was given for that end purpose’ [37], and adding ‘In our view the right of conscientious objection extends not only to the actual medical or surgical termination but to the whole process of treatment given for that purpose’. It seems to me that the appeal court’s judgment make more sense: if one has a conscientious objection to abortion one is almost certain to have a conscientious objection to supervising other people doing it, as I have argued elsewhere. For example, if one thinks (as many Roman Catholics do) that abortion is one type of murder, one is hardly likely to have one’s conscience cleared by its being suggested ‘don’t worry; you won’t be murdering anybody, just supervising other people doing the murder’. The legal exemption for conscientious objectors is designed to make sure that such people can serve as midwives by delivering live babies (and supervising their delivery) even if they do not participate in abortions. But this exemption would be almost pointless if, while relieving the conscientious objector of one duty, it enforced another that was also immoral in the eyes of the objector. So it makes sense to construe the exemption as being broad in scope. Should there be an exemption clause at all, though? Some have argued that there should be no such clause. I have maintained, by contrast, that there is no compelling reason why the NHS should restrict its pool of talent unnecessarily by refusing to employ at all midwives with a conscientious objection to abortion. (The argument applies to other cases as well: there is no reason why the NHS should refuse to employ a talented Jehovah’s Witness as a doctor if there were always somebody else around to replace him or her in the performance of emergency blood transfusions.) It will be interesting to see whether the Greater Glasgow and Clyde Health Board appeals this judgment to the UK Supreme Court; the Supreme Court’s predecessor, the House of Lords, ruled in 1988, in the case of Janaway, R (on the application of) v Salford Area Health Authority that a medical secretary was not protected by the Act’s conscientious-exemption clause if she refused to type a letter referring a woman on to the hospital for possible termination of pregnancy. No case related to abortion has been heard since then at the highest level in the UK, and it would be fascinating to learn on which side of the argument the Court would come down.

Gill Howie: An Obituary

Posted 01 May 2013 — by Dan Whistler
Category Uncategorized

Please find below a link to an obituary for our departed colleague, Prof. Gillian Howie, one of the major instigators of the Philosophy in the City programme:


Strasbourg’s Latest Judgment on Religious Discrimination

Posted 15 Jan 2013 — by Dan Whistler
Category Uncategorized

Nadia Eweida and her crossJudgment was delivered by the European Court of Human Rights today, Tuesday 15th January, in four landmark cases of religious freedom: Eweida v UK, Chaplin v UK, McFarlane v UK, and Ladele v UK. Two of these cases (Eweida and Chaplin) were about the freedom to manifest one’s religion in dress, by visibly wearing a cross or crucifix, while the other two (McFarlane and Ladele) concerned the applicants’ desire not to perform actions that, in their view, condoned homosexual practice (providing sexual therapy to same-sex couples in the case of Gary McFarlane, and acting as registrar for civil partnerships in the case of Lillian Ladele).

In a landmark decision, the judges found, by a majority, in favour of Nadia Eweida and against the UK, but in favour of the UK and against the applicants in the other three cases.

The cases were all brought under Article 9 of the European Convention of Human Rights. In each case the judges found that there had been interference with the human rights of the applicants, but that only in the case of Eweida was that interference unjustified, and so only Eweida’s human rights were violated. This is the first occasion on which the UK has lost a case under Article 9.

Article 9 reads:

Article 9 – Freedom of thought, conscience and religion

1. Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, and to manifest his religion or belief, in worship, teaching, practice and observance.

2. Freedom to manifest one’s religion or beliefs shall be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of public safety, for the protection of public order, health or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.

Nadia Eweida was prevented by her employer, BA, from visibly wearing a cross with her uniform. BA’s reason was that they wanted to promote a certain corporate image in appearance, and only mandatory religious items (which the cross was not considered to be) were permitted to be visibly worn. The Court comments that ‘a fair balance had not been struck between, on the one side of the scales, her desire to manifest her religious belief and to be able to communicate that belief to others, and on the other side of the scales, her employer’s wish to project a certain corporate image, (no matter how legitimate that aim might be)’. In other words, BA’s prevention of Eweida from visibly wearing the cross was not judged to be ‘necessary in a democratic society in the interests of public safety, for the protection of public order, health or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others’. This is why the Court judges that her human rights, in particular her right to manifest her religious beliefs, have been violated. Since BA changed its policy fairly soon after the dispute with Eweida began, the Court has restricted itself to asking the UK Government to pay Eweida 32,000 euros in costs and compensation.

In the other cases, however, the situation is quite different: in the case of nurse Shirley Chaplin the Court holds that the hospital at which she worked was entitled to prevent her from visibly wearing her crucifix on the grounds of protection of public health, and in the cases of Gary McFarlane and Lillian Ladele that their employers (Relate Avon and Islington Borough Council, respectively) were entitled to terminate their employment on the grounds of protecting the rights and freedoms of others, notably the same-sex couples to whom they were refusing to provide services (sexual therapy and registration of civil partnerships, respectively).

The most interesting aspect of the judgment from a legal perspective is that the Court does not pursue the UK Government’s approach to these cases of the right to manifest one’s belief, an approach characterized in the media as ‘you are free to get another job’. At the oral hearing in Strasbourg on 4th September (attended by Dr Daniel Whistler and Dr Daniel Hill of the University of Liverpool) the UK Government argued that all the applications should be dismissed, on the ground that each applicant had the opportunity to manifest his or her religious views in other ways, both outside the workplace and, if necessary, by resigning employment. The Court does not avail itself of this easy way out, and, indeed, in upholding Nadia Eweida’s complaint, implicitly disagrees with this submission of the Government’s. The Government also argued that the wearing of the cross did not fall under Article 9 of the European Convention since it was not a manifestation of the Christian faith ‘in a generally recognised form’. Again, the Court has not seen fit to follow this line of argument, and, indeed, has implicitly rejected it.

For further discussion of these issues see the report compiled by Dr Daniel Whistler and Dr Daniel Hill of the University of Liverpool on the concept of the manifestation of religion and philosophical issues arising from it.

What happens now? Gary McFarlane and Shirley Chaplin have announced their intention to apply for their cases to be considered by the European Court’s Grand Chamber, which is the final court of appeal. Lillian Ladele may also go down this route. Most applications to the Grand Chamber are rejected without any further hearing, however. It is unlikely, though technically possible, that the UK Government could appeal against the judgment in Eweida to the Grand Chamber. Even if these four cases do not get any further, however, there will undoubtedly be others: it is likely that France’s ban on the wearing in public of the full-face veil (and other facial coverings) will be challenged in Strasbourg, and the bed-and-breakfast case Bull and Bull v Hall and Preddy is currently pending before the UK Supreme Court.

Questions and discussion may be addressed to Daniel Hill, djhill@liverpool.ac.uk.

Liverpool’s Philip Goff in Conversation on Physicalism

Posted 04 Oct 2012 — by Admin
Category Uncategorized

Watch Liverpool’s own Philip Goff and David Papineau (from Kings College, London) debate the merits of physicalism on Philosophy TV:


Philosophers on Religious Discrimination?!

Posted 15 Sep 2012 — by Dan Whistler
Category Uncategorized

Hans Holbein, Portrait of Sir Thomas Elyot

On 4th September, the cases of Eweida, Chaplin, Ladele and McFarlane were heard by the European Court of Human Rights inStrasbourg. Two members of the Department of Philosophy (Dr Daniel Whistler and Dr Daniel J. Hill) were there as part of their funded research project into religious discrimination.

You may have heard of these cases from the intermittent news stories they have provoked over the last five years or for David Cameron’s recent half-hearted support of Eweida and Chaplin or for the fury among the Anglican and Roman-Catholic hierarchy at their treatment at the hands of the domestic courts. Nadia Eweida was stopped from visibly wearing a cross around her neck while working at a check-in desk for British Airways; Shirley Chaplin, an NHS nurse, was likewise prevented from wearing a crucifix visibly at work in the wards; Gary McFarlane was ultimately dismissed from his counselling job after he raised tentative concerns about offering sex therapy to homosexual couples; similarly, Lilian Ladele was dismissed by Islington Council for resisting their insistence that she register same-sex unions.

Now, you may well be asking: these cases might be of interest to a law theorist, to a sociologist, or even to a Christian theologian – but what have philosophers got to say about them?

Well, actually quite a lot! Political philosophers, for example, might well explore the tricky balancing of competing rights needed to decide such cases justly: whose right should win out – the applicants’ right to practise their religion or the employers’ right to promote other equalities (such as equal treatment of all sexual orientations)? As philosophers of religion, however, our project has taken a different path: we are particularly interested in the legal status of religious symbols or clothing (such as the crucifix or the veil). Thus, the Courts have traditionally been eager to discern whether the wearing of a symbol constitutes a “manifestation” of religion and, in the cases listed above, the Government has argued that Eweida’s cross and Chaplin’s crucifix do not count as manifestations of religious belief, since they are merely personal choices by the applicants and are not (they claim) in any way mandated or obligated by being a Christian. In other words: because the Christian religion does not lay down a rule that all adherents should wear a cross, there is no legal right to wear a cross at work.

Is the Government right? What does it mean to use a symbol to manifest a religious belief? What even is a symbol? These are some of the questions we are tackling.

More information about the project is available here. Our final report is due out in early October and we shall write on this blog again then to let you know our conclusions. In the meantime, you may be interested in our draft report available here – last-minute comments, criticisms, and suggestions are very welcome (contact details are to be found in the draft document).

Barry Dainton on the Higgs Boson Particle

Posted 09 Jul 2012 — by Dan Whistler
Category Uncategorized

Higgs-eventAs one might have expected there has been a good deal of hoopla over the recent discovery of the Higgs boson—or something much like it—but I was pleasantly surprised by the modest tone of the press coverage that I’ve come across.  Famously dubbed the “the God Particle” some years ago, in previous coverage some journalists came close to suggesting that if it were discovered not only would the job of physicists be over, we’d have the answer to the ultimate questions of all: Why is the universe the way it is?  Why does it exist at all?  In fact, as many of the more recent press articles clearly explain, far from answering the ultimate questions, the discovery of the Higgs still leaves a great deal of work for physicists to do.  An important prediction of the standard model of particle physics has now been confirmed, but we still don’t have a quantum theory of gravity, and in the last couple of decades we have discovered that ordinary matter—the properties of which are explained by the standard model—only make up a few per cent of the universe: the “dark” matter and energy which make up more than 90% of the cosmos remain mysterious.  As it happens, the scientists at CERN are now looking for a few more billion Euros to upgrade their accelerator to take on these new challenges, so it isn’t perhaps surprising that we’ve been hearing more about all the work which remains to be done.

But then I came across Lawrence Krauss saying this in Newsweek magazine:

“Assuming the particle in question is indeed the Higgs, it validates an unprecedented revolution in our understanding of fundamental physics and brings science closer to dispensing with the need for any supernatural shenanigans all the way back to the beginning of the universe … a Higgs field validates the notion that seemingly empty space may contain the seeds of our existence. This idea is at the heart of one of the boldest predictions of cosmology, called inflation. This posits that a similar type of background field was established in the earliest moments of the big bang, causing a microscopic region to expand by more than 85 orders of magnitude in a fraction of a second, after which the energy contained in otherwise empty space was converted into all the matter and radiation we see today! Alan Guth, the originator of the theory, called it “the ultimate free lunch.”  If these bold, some would say arrogant, notions derive support from the remarkable results at the Large Hadron Collider, they may reinforce two potentially uncomfortable possibilities: first, that many features of our universe, including our existence, may be accidental consequences of conditions associated with the universe’s birth; and second, that creating “stuff” from “no stuff” seems to be no problem at all—everything we see could have emerged as a purposeless quantum burp in space or perhaps a quantum burp of space itself. Humans, with their remarkable tools and their remarkable brains, may have just taken a giant step toward replacing metaphysical speculation with empirically verifiable knowledge. The Higgs particle is now arguably more relevant than God.”   http://www.thedailybeast.com/newsweek/2012/07/08/how-the-higgs-boson-posits-a-new-story-of-our-creation.html

The inflationary cosmological theory that Krauss is talking about here is certainly a bold and important contribution to our understanding of our origins.  It is amazing to learn that all the matter and energy in our vast universe could have sprung from a tiny random fluctuation in what looks like empty space.  But when Krauss describes it is an “unprecedented revolution in our understanding of fundamental physics”, one which brings us  “closer to dispensing with the need for any supernatural shenanigans all the way back to the beginning of the universe” he is seems to be suggesting that we now have a scientific explanation of everything, of why the universe takes the form that it does, why there is something rather than nothing.  But this is simply (and seriously) wrong.  What the inflationary theory allows us to do is understand how something with the size and complexity of our universe could come into existence given the laws of physics and physical fields which exist in our universe.  Far from explaining why these laws exist, the inflationary theory—like any theory in physics—necessarily presupposes the existence of the laws.  The ultimate questions are therefore left unanswered.

As it happens, last week I was reading Jim Holt’s excellent Why Does the World Exist? (Profile 2012), and this simple (but important) point is made, in a preliminary way, as early as p.6:

“What options do you have for resolving the mystery of existence if you let go of the God hypothesis?  Well, you might expect that science will someday explain not only how the world is, but why is it.  …. Hawking came up with a theoretical model in which the universe, though finite in time, is completely self-contained, without beginning or end.  In this “no-boundary” model, he argued, there is no need for a creator, divine or otherwise.  Yet even Hawking doubts that his set of equations can yield a complete resolution to the mystery of existence.  “What is it that breathes fire into the equations?” he plaintively asks.  “Why does the universe go through all the bother of existing?”

The problem with the science option would seem to be this.  The universe comprises everything that physically exists.  A scientific explanation must involve some sort of physical cause.  But any physical cause is by definition part of the universe to be explained.  Thus any purely scientific explanation of the existence of the universe is doomed to be circular.  Even if it starts from something very minimal—a cosmic egg, a tiny bit of quantum vacuum, a singularity—it still starts with something, not nothing.  Since may be able to trace how the current universe evolved from an earlier state of physical reality, even following the process back as far as the Big Bang.  But ultimately science hits a wall.  It can’t account for the origin of the primal physical state out of nothing.”

And since even the tiniest bit of quantum vacuum is—we now know—pervaded by a Higgs field, it is certainly not nothing in the strict sense of the term.  For anyone looking for a readable and up to date introduction  to the attempts of scientists and philosophers to answer the ultimate questions, I recommend Holt’s book.

Krauss himself has new book out On the Origin of Everything: A Universe from Nothing (Free Press, 2012).  I haven’t yet read it, but if it is as good as some of his other popular science writing—which I have read—then it’s probably well worth reading.  However, it’s also clear from David Albert’s review of it (March, New York Times) that Krauss is well aware of the line of criticism outlined above, but is curiously unmoved by them:

Relativistic-quantum-field-theoretical vacuum states—no less than giraffes or refrigerators or solar systems—are particular arrangements of elementary physical stuff …. the fact that particles can pop in and out of existence, over time, as those fields rearrange themselves, is not a whit more mysterious than the fact that fists can pop in and out of existence, over time, as my fingers rearrange themselves. And none of these poppings—if you look at them aright—amount to anything even remotely in the neighborhood of a creation from nothing.

Krauss, mind you, has heard this kind of talk before, and it makes him crazy. A century ago, it seems to him, nobody would have made so much as a peep about referring to a stretch of space without any material particles in it as “nothing.” And now that he and his colleagues think they have a way of showing how everything there is could imaginably have emerged from a stretch of space like that, the nut cases are moving the goal posts. He complains that “some philosophers and many theologians define and redefine ‘nothing’ as not being any of the versions of nothing that scientists currently describe,” and that “now, I am told by religious critics that I cannot refer to empty space as ‘nothing,’ but rather as a ‘quantum vacuum,’ to distinguish it from the philosopher’s or theologian’s idealized ‘nothing,’ ” and he does a good deal of railing about “the intellectual bankruptcy of much of theology and some of modern philosophy.” But all there is to say about this, as far as I can see, is that Krauss is dead wrong and his religious and philosophical critics are absolutely right. Who cares what we would or would not have made a peep about a hundred years ago? We were wrong a hundred years ago. We know more now. And if what we formerly took for nothing turns out, on closer examination, to have the makings of protons and neutrons and tables and chairs and planets and solar systems and galaxies and universes in it, then it wasn’t nothing, and it couldn’t have been nothing, in the first place. And the history of science—if we understand it correctly —gives us no hint of how it might be possible to imagine otherwise.

Albert’s review is (obviously) well worth a read, and is available here:


Carnivals and Revolutions – Daniel Whistler on the Juxtaposition of Carnival and Politics

Posted 07 Dec 2011 — by Admin
Category Uncategorized

The Guardian art critic, Jonathan Jones,  recently turned his attention to the Occupy movement and specifically its public fact – the emblematic, Guy Fawkes mask. This mask of one of the one of the archetypal English protestors, mediated through popculture, has come to symbolise recent protest movements. Jones writes,

Occupy Wall Street Protester

‘The mask is surreal, self-mocking, funny. In fact it is truly carnivalesque… Carnivals can turn into revolutions… but they usually don’t. In fact, the real meaning of the mask is that modern protest is sophisticated, self-knowing, cunning. It does not necessarily show its true face – and it does not necessarily know or want too much. The world is being shaken by protests against the excesses of finance, but this is not a revolution – it is a carnival. This does not make it false, but wise. Real revolution is bloody and cruel and mad. A carnival is entertaining and opens up questions that cannot usually be asked. Guy Fawkes has become the kind of a carnival of questions. Far from being sinister, his mask is a jokey icon of festive citizenship.’

This juxtaposition of carnival and politics has recently become a staple of left-wing and communist political theory. However, where Jones maintains a neat divide between bloody and pernicious revolution on the one hand and the harmless ‘festive citizenship’ of carnival on the other, theorists have tended to blur the distinction between the two. An extreme example is provided in the manifesto volume, We are Everywhere, edited by the collective, Notes from Nowhere. They write,

‘A deeper imprint was left by the experience of carnival – halfway between party and protest, resisting at the same time as proposing, destroying at the same time as creating… The foundations of authority are shaken up and flipped around. The unpredictability of carnival with its total subservience to spontaneity… ruptures what we perceive to be reality. It creates a new world by subverting all stereotypes… It opens up an alternative social space of freedom where people can begin to really live again.’

Carnivals are here celebrated as one of the most effective means of bringing about contemporary revolution. The implicit claim seems to be: cavorting in a pink tutu is sufficient to effectuate the downfall of the capitalist system.

In recent weeks, a number of student and academics at the University of Liverpool have been attending a seminar hosted by the Department of Philosophy to discuss whether such a claim is quite as ridiculous as it sounds. The seminar was part of the School of the Arts’ own festival celebrating the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, which also included an evening of readings from the poet laureate, Carol Ann Duffy, and a three-day international conference.

At issue in the seminars was the question: is the recent penchant for the idea of the carnival a radical and innovative response to contemporary forms of oppression (whether bankers’ bonuses or police brutality) or merely a nostalgic glance back to a form of life that has not really existed since the Medieval period. For example, Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age looks back to the pre-modern carnival as a form of life now lost to us, where the secular time of the working week was suspended in the name of a spiritual fullness. On the other hand, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri see the carnival as only now coming into its own as a result of changes in how we work: the shift from industrial to communications-based labour has meant that trade union-led protest is made redundant. Instead, protestors (or, what Hardt and Negri call, ‘the multitude’) now organise themselves on the lines of a carnival – a spontaneous and open network of relationships.

Behind this recent interest in the carnival stands the great Russian scholar, Mikhail Bakhtin. Bakhtin’s work on Dostoevsky and Rabelais in the 20s and 30s established the idea of a carnivalesque form of life. However, his legacy has been ambivalent. On the one hand, Bakhtin celebrates the carnival as the authentic mode of existence of the multitude when they break free of ecclesiastical and political power structures. The fun and laughter of carnival life liberates. On the other hand, Bakhtin (at least explicitly) laments, like Taylor, the passing of this existence. Critics have speculated, however, that Bakhtin may nonetheless be referring to the Russian Revolution with his idea of carnival: when the people protest, life becomes a carnival. Slavoj Žižek has recently suggested, though, that Stalin’s puges might be a more appropriate context: ‘Today you are on the Central Committeee, tomorrow…’. Once again, we come across the political ambivalence of the festival: it is almost impossible to decide whether it is either liberatory or reactionary.

Perhaps the last word should be given to Shakespeare who in Act 4, Scene 4 of The Winter’s Tale lingers over the carnival atmosphere of a sheep-shearing festival. Yet, rather than emerging out of free and spontaneous liberation, this festive spirit is orchestrated by Autolycus – taking advantage of the shepherd’s abandon to steal their purses. Carnival is here put to the end of making money; it is very much part of the capitalist system, not an alternative to it.

What would Jesus do? What would Kant say? Michael McGhee and Stephen Clark on the St Paul’s Occupation

Posted 03 Nov 2011 — by Admin
Category In the news, Uncategorized

Michael McGhee writes…

The media have looked on in delight at the discomfort of the Chapter of St Paul’s as it wavered in the face of the OccupyLSX Camp on its doorstep. As I write they have called off the legal action whose enforcement could well have brought about violent confrontation between protesters and police.  Conspicuous among the banners was the What Would Jesus Do? slogan. A banner reading "What would Jesus do?" flies outside St. Paul's Cathedral in London October 31, 2011. REUTERS/Suzanne Plunkett)It mocked the actions of those in the Chapter who wanted legal action and implied that Jesus would have been with the protesters. It was a shame the Cathedral Chapter wrung their hands about the loss of income from the tourist trade, but it was mean-spirited to compare them to the money-lenders in the Temple. What would Jesus do? Well from Isaiah in the Hebrew Bible to the Jesus of the New Testament we see passionate denunciations of the abuse of wealth and power, so we can guess where he would have stood on the issues. But what is that to us? In his Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals Kant famously said that ‘we cannot do morality a worse service than by seeking to derive it from examples. Every example of it presented to me must first be judged by moral principles in order to decide whether it is fit to serve as an original example—that is, as a model’. The real question is, what would we do? Jesus is a model only if he exemplifies actions we have independent moral reasons for doing …

Dr Michael McGhee (Honorary Senior Fellow of the Department of Philosophy, University of Liverpool)


Stephen Clark Responds…

Well, where to begin then? Maybe at the end: wasn’t Kant just wrong? Wrong about the way we learn what it’s good to do; wrong about the reason it’s good to do it; wrong even about what philosophers said before? Plato knew very well that we may be excited and moved by particular acts and persons before we have any idea what general principle or property they all exemplify, and even if we never can deliver an adequate definition: that is how Socrates operates, after all, in rebutting the definitions he extorts from his friends or victims – everyone can see at once that the definitions don’t fit the real examples. And even if I have an articulate principle of action (as it might be: help your friends and hurt your enemies) that may not survive a sudden revelation of what helping and hurting are. So exemplars do inspire real changes of behaviour, and especially when they excite our admiring love. So the rule for many post-Platonic philosophers was that – not being Socrates – they still wished to be like Socrates, and in ways that they couldn’t and needn’t articulate beforehand. Saints and heroes and even sages change the way we act, and even the way we hope to act, by showing us a better way, a life we hadn’t thought of. And just possibly their spirit may move in us in ways we don’t just imagine for ourselves: maybe they really change us, if we let them.

So imagining to ourselves what Jesus would require and do is not of itself an error. But of course, Blake may have been right to remark that ‘the vision of Christ that thou dost see is my vision’s greatest enemy’! The Christ of ‘the social gospel’, speaking for the poor and dispossessed, was not necessarily in favour of higher wages for an organized labour force! His line, more often, seems to have been that we shouldn’t be worried about tomorrow. Those who hoard their money won’t profit from their wealth, but it’s also, equally, wrong to demand equal pay for equal work! What mattered for him, as for most philosophers as the term was once understood, was to live in beauty, in obedience. Certainly he chased the money changers, and the animal traders, from the temple forecourt, but that was because they were out of place in what was built to be a house of prayer for all people.

And why shouldn’t the Dean and Chapter mind about the loss of income? St Paul’s is a thing of beauty, a source of inspiration for Londoners and others in far worse times than these, whether or not they are Christians – and someone has to pay for its upkeep. It’s not unreasonable to hope that those who love it will contribute what they can, and not unreasonable to worry about the motives and manners of a horde of campers!

Professor Stephen Clark (Emeritus Professor of Philosophy, University of Liverpool)


Michael McGhee Replies…

Hmm …‘the motives and manners of a horde of campers’ … they are certainly a nuisance, even Giles Fraser wanted them to go, but there are symbolic values in place here and it is one thing to wish them to go and another to invoke the law, as the Chapter later realised. I wonder whether one can ‘live in beauty’ and not act if surrounded by injustice … action against the oppression of the poor would be a form of ‘living in beauty’ … the least of these my little ones … especially if one perceives a causal and systemic relationship between one’s own standard of living and the conditions of the genuinely dispossessed in Africa and Asia and so on. It would be banal and sad if the ‘campers’ were simply exercised by envy and a demand for higher wages for the labour force, though the latter phrase conceals a muted multitude of sins and private tragedies. I recall Simone Weil’s observation that denying a young person an apprenticeship can amount to sacrilege. But what about Kant? I must say that I much prefer his aesthetics to his moral philosophy and Stephen writes eloquently here about how one can be changed by the great exemplars. On the other hand, it isn’t a matter of articulating moral principles and sensibility already consciously in place, but a matter of being awakened to them.  The admiration must depend upon recognition … otherwise one follows  the charismatic leader blindly and without thought … we need to  find some principle of distinction between those followers of Jesus who thought he was about to inaugurate the kingdom  and were ready for the blood bath, and those who looked inwards  because they realised what he was saying…

Stephen Clark responds…

Well, yes. There’s a remark of George Orwell too, that ‘we all live by robbing Asiatic coolies, and those of us who are “enlightened” all maintain that those coolies ought to be set free; but our standard of living, and hence our “enlightenment”, demands that the robbery shall continue’. So our great predecessors would have suggested that we could give up some at least of our luxuries if it would help the poor, and at least attempt to liberate our victims! It’s not even all that hard. As Paul of Tarsus wrote to the Corinthians to encourage their support of the relief fund for the famine in Palestine: ‘There is no question of relieving others at the cost of hardship to yourselves; it is a question of equality. At the moment your surplus meets their need, but one day your need may be met from their surplus’. But I haven’t heard that the Dean and Chapter ever disagreed with that – and clerics generally earn a lot less than the professional norm (let alone the norm for the financial classes). So they probably aren’t ‘the enemy’ (whom Jesus told us, by the way, to love).

On the motivation of the campers, I have of course nothing reliable to say – but that’s the point: neither had the Dean and Chapter, the Council, or any journalists. We know what some of them said, but experience and our own self-knowledge alike suggest that there are always other possibilities around. It’s not unreasonable to be nervous, even if we’re also told that true love casts out fear, nor necessarily wrong to begin to invoke the law: wouldn’t the Occupiers themselves wish to invoke the law – against financial and political corruption – if they could?  It’s also not unreasonable to wonder how exactly the Occupation will encourage repentance in the financial classes (supposing them to be guilty of the wrongs of which they are accused).

Of course you’re right that we can’t always be sure we’re imitating the right thing, even if we’ve picked the right exemplar. As Plato might have said, we imitate the shadow rather than the substance, as though what mattered (for example) was looking like a philosopher (which used to entail having a beard, and going barefoot). And plenty of people get the wrong message even when they are listening carefully to the words. Blake’s comment, by the way, continued: ‘Yours is the friend of all mankind; mine speaks in parables to the blind’! But is the right way forward to find a ‘principle’, a form of words, to guide us? I’m not sure even Aristotle, who played with the notion of the ‘practical syllogism’, really thought that: what mattered was awakening a proper insight into particular cases, and bending the rules (like a literal bendy ruler!) to fit around the edges. As he said (it’s in the Nicomachean Ethics), we can’t make detailed rules for every circumstance of human life, even though we do find general rules quite useful at the start.

It occurs to me as I write that the Kantian principle (but perhaps I’m being unfair to Kant) that we should do all and only what we can imagine everyone doing without some obvious disaster is entirely adverse to sanctity or heroism alike. ‘What if we all did that?’ is not always the most helpful question. But that is probably another story.

Does God Exist? Lane Craig vs (some of) the new atheists

Posted 17 Oct 2011 — by Admin
Category Events, In the news

Today (Monday 17th October 2011) Prof. William Lane Craig begins a widely publicized debating tour of the UK, arguing for the existence of God. Craig will visit LondonCambridgeBirminghamSouthamptonOxford, and Manchester, debating with atheists Stephen Law (after Polly Toynbee withdrew), Arif AhmedAndrew CopsonPeter MillicanPeter Atkins, and, if he changes his mind, Richard Dawkins.   The open invitation to Richard Dawkins to a debate in Oxford has probably been the main talking point: Dawkins was accused of cowardice for refusing to debate with Craig. Dawkins, for his part, famously responded to the question by saying that he didn’t debate creationists or professional debaters; this was a rather odd response given that Craig is neither a creationist nor a professional debater (his day job is as a professor of philosophy, although he has debated with most of the leading new atheists in the past (Daniel DennettA C GraylingSam HarrisChristopher Hitchens), and was described by Harris as ‘the one Christian apologist who seems to have put the fear of God into my fellow atheists’).

What philosophical arguments for the existence of God will Craig be deploying? Let us spend a moment or two looking philosophically at Craig’s favourite argument, the kalam cosmological argument, as outlined in his signature work, Reasonable Faith (p. 92):

  1. Whatever begins to exist has a cause.
  2. The universe began to exist.
  3. Therefore, the universe has a cause.

Craig regards the first premiss as ‘so intuitively obvious that … scarcely anyone could sincerely believe it to be false’ (p. 92), adding ‘Does anyone in his right mind really believe that, say, a raging tiger could suddenly come into existence, uncaused, out of nothing, in this room right now?’ (p. 93). What if the atheist responds that the first particle of matter just popped into existence without there being any reason or cause at all? Craig remarks that ‘any proof of the principle is likely to be less obvious than the principle himself’ (p. 92). The reader might like to judge for him or herself how plausible an escape route the atheist has here.

Craig judges that the main action will be around the second premiss, for which he provides in his book two philosophical sub-arguments (and some scientific ones too).

First sub-argument (p. 94)

Argument based on the impossibility of an actual infinite:

  1. An actually infinite number of things cannot exist.
  2. A beginningless series of events in time entails an actually infinite number of things.
  3. Therefore, a beginningless series of events in time cannot exist.

Second sub-argument (p. 98)

Argument based on the impossibility of the formation of an actual infinite by successive addition:

  1. The series of events in time is a collection formed by adding one member after another.
  2. A collection formed by adding one member after another cannot be actually infinite.
  3. Therefore, the series of events in time cannot be actually infinite.

Let us consider the first sub-argument. Someone might ask whether it is really true, as premiss 1 states, that an actually infinite number of things cannot exist. A mathematician might suggest, for example, that there actually exist infinitely many numbers. One thing Craig could do to avoid this would be to substitute a version of premiss 1 restricted to space and time:

1’. An actually infinite number of things cannot exist in space and time.

Our mathematician might reply at this point that there is an actually infinite number of points, and also of intervals, existing in our space-time continuum. Craig would probably respond to this by saying that these points and intervals do not really exist (andcould not really exist); they are just mathematicians’ abstractions. But a physicist might at this point join the conversation, objecting that the universe (or multiverse), for all we know, might be actually infinite, and might contain an actually infinite number of things. At this point the debate gets rather complicated: Craig says that the idea of an actual infinite leads to various paradoxes, while some sceptics respond that the scenarios envisaged by Craig merely illustrate the surprising nature of infinity. The reader might like to follow this up for him or herself.

Let us turn, then, to the second sub-argument. Someone might wonder whether it is really true, as premiss 2 of this sub-argument states, that a collection formed by adding one member after another cannot be actually infinite. What if, it might be objected, one member of the collection were added in one minute, and another member in half a minute, and each time after a member had been added, another member were added in half the time it took for its predecessor to be added? In that case, after two minutes the collection would be actually infinite, even if it started off empty. But Craig can reply that this is physically impossible, that there is a minimum length of time required for the happening of a physical event (though perhaps we cannot be sure that the laws of physics have always been such as to prevent this?). So let us turn to another possible counter-example that might be raised: suppose that time had no beginning and that on every day in the infinite past a new event happened – in that case we’d now have an actually infinite collection of events. In fact, there would always have been an actually infinite collection of events. Is this really possible? Again, the reader might like to read more of Craig’s response and the counter-objections to judge for him or herself.

Let us return, in conclusion, to the main argument itself. Somebody might object that even if it proves the existence of a cause of the Universe, it does not prove the existence of God. In reply, Craig suggests that the argument shows that the cause must be personal and ‘uncaused and changeless … immaterial … spaceless as well as timeless … enormously powerful, if not omnipotent … both free and unimaginably intelligent, if not omniscient … may have some special concern for us’ (p. 119). At this point it may be that the objector will press the objection, insisting that this is not enough to say that the cause is God, since God is usually thought of as also perfectly good or omnibenevolent, and that this argument of Craig’s may not succeed in establishing that. Once more, I encourage the reader to delve deeper into this objection and Craig’s reply.

It should by now be evident that Craig has developed a fascinating argument that raises a large number of rich and deep philosophical questions (even leaving aside the question of whether God exists). Further, we have looked at only one of Craig’s arguments – and he usually puts forward five. I encourage readers to go to one of his debates, listen to what he and his opponents have to say, and hear for themselves first-hand Craig’s answers to the objections discussed above. (Readers unable to get to the debates might like to browse Prof. Craig’s Web site, which provides an opportunity for the electronic submission of questions for him.) I’m looking forward to the debate over the next couple of weeks!

Daniel Hill


Latest news from our friends at Philosophy in Pubs

Posted 06 Oct 2011 — by Admin
Category Events, PiPs

Liverpool’s Philosophy in Pubs group goes from strength to strength.  They held their first national conference in June this year, and are active in encouraging local philosophy discussion groups throughout the country (there are now 12 groups up and running in Merseyside and 26 around the country).

Aside from their regular weekly discussions, next week (October 10th-16th) is packed with events.  On Monday 10th October they will be facilitating a discussion for World Mental Health Day at The Haigh, JMU student union bar (1pm); on Tuesday 11th October, The Philosophy Cafe will be meeting in the upstairs bar/restaurant at The Bluecoat (1pm – 2.30); and the group is back at the Bluecoat on Thursday 13th (2.30pm) facilitating discussion for this year’s Chapter & Verse festival.  Finally, on Friday 14th, you can find them at the University of Liverpool’s Department of Philosophy presenting a special enquiry On Nothing (Seminar Room 1, 7 Abercromby Sq), with guest speaker, the philosopher/author Ronald Green talking about his book Nothing Matters, followed by an open discussion (1pm – 3pm).

Philosophy in Pubs meetings are open to all.  As they put it, “No academic or philosophical background is necessary, only a passion for enquiry. Just turn up and enjoy.”    For more details, see their website.