Tuesday, January 24, 2017

So you think I'm like Alain de Botton?

Alain de Botton.jpg 

It was just suggested to me that I am 'similar to Alain de Botton' on philosophy. I do hope not. Not that ADB's not a lovely chap - he is (we've met: he's likeable and charming) - but I disagree with him pretty fundamentally about the value of philosophy.

I was reminded of this review I wrote of Alain De Botton's book The Consolations of Philosophy.

 Review: Consolations of Philosophy by Alain De Botton

This review was published in The Mail on Sunday, back in 2000. (Was I too harsh?)

Broken heart? Take some Schopenhauer. Frustrated? Try a little Seneca. Money-worries? Epicurus can help. In The Consolation of Philosophy, Alain De Botton takes a novel approach to popularizing philosophy, explaining how six different philosophers can help us in six of life’s darker moments. Consolations is tied to a new six-part Channel 4 TV series Philosophy: A Guide to Happiness, also written by De Botton. Given the hype and the link to a TV series, the book is likely to be a best seller. But how good an introduction to philosophy is it?

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Pressing Your Buttons - chpt from my book Believing Bullshit



One way in which we can shape the beliefs of others is by rational persuasion. Suppose, for example, that I want someone to believe that Buckingham Palace is in London (which it is). I could provide them with a great deal of evidence to support that belief. I could also just take them to London so they can see with their own eyes that that’s where Buckingham Palace is located.

But what if these kinds of method aren’t available? Suppose I have little or no evidence to support the belief I nevertheless want people to accept. Suppose I can’t just show them that it’s true. How else might I get them to believe?

I might try to dupe them, of course. I could produce fraudulent evidence and bogus arguments. But what if I suspect this won’t be enough? What if I think my deceit is likely to be detected? Another option is to drop even the pretence of rational persuasion and to adopt what I call Pressing your Buttons.

Belief-shaping mechanisms

All sorts of causal mechanisms can be used to shape belief. For example, our beliefs are shaped by social and psychological mechanisms such as peer pressure and a desire to conform. Finding ourselves believing something of which our community disapproves is a deeply uncomfortable experience, an experience that may lead us unconsciously to tailor what we believe so that we remain in step with them. We’re far more susceptible to such social pressures than we like to believe (as several famous psychological studies have shown[i]).

Sunday, January 15, 2017



(This is a prepublication draft - it's forthcoming in Univ. Chicago Press volume Science Unlimited (eds. Pigliucci and Boudry).

The term 'scientism' is applied to a variety of positions about science. One is the view that the only legitimate questions about reality are those answerable by science. Another is that, to the extent that anything can be known about reality, science alone is capable of providing that knowledge. Critics of religious, New Age, spiritualist, and other, popular forms of divine or supernatural belief are often accused of scientism by their proponents. The accusation typically involves the thought that critics have crossed a line or boundary demarcating those topics or subjects that are the proper province of science, and those that are beyond its capacity to adjudicate. The accused are often found guilty of hubris, of an arrogant failure to recognize that there are 'more things in heaven and Earth' than are dreamt of in their science, of supposing science is best placed to answer questions that, in reality, can only be answered by employing other disciplines, forms of inquiry, or 'ways of knowing'. Within discussion of religious, spiritual, New Age, and popular divine or supernatural beliefs, this boundary marking the 'limits of science' almost always plays an immunizing role: to explain why science constitutes no threat to such beliefs. 'You scientists', say the believers, 'may come this far, but no further.'

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Reason vs other methods of influencing belief

There are (at least) two ways in which we can attempt to influence the beliefs of others: 

(i) we can use reason. We can provide scientific and other evidence to support beliefs, subject them to critical scrutiny, reveal contradictions and inconsistencies, and so on.
 (ii) we can appeal to such mechanisms as peer-pressure, emotional manipulation, reward and punishment, humour, sarcasm, repetition, fear (especially of uncertainty), tribalism, censorship, vanity, and so on.
Now, we philosophers put a lot of emphasis on (i) rather than (ii), don't we? Why is that?
I suggest the answer is: because reason is truth-sensitive. Try to make a well-reasoned case for believing the Earth's core is made of cheese, or that the Antarctic is populated by ant-people, or that Prince Philip is an alien lizard in disguise. You're not going to find it easy. Apply the filter of reason - under which I include the scientific method - to incoming beliefs and only those with a fairly good chance of being true are likely to get through. That's why we favour the filter of reason. We want to believe, and want others to believe, what's true.

The mechanisms listed under (ii), on the other hand, can just as easily be used to instil true beliefs as false beliefs. They are truth-insensitive.