Tuesday, September 30, 2008


S and I escaped today down to London to go and see the Mark Rothko exhibition at the Tate. I really enjoyed it, although I have always had a soft spot for these paintings. There were two highlights to my mind. The centre-piece of the exhibition is a collection of over a dozen of the canvasses he painted for the Seagram murals. What's surprising is just how very different they are: some with vibrant bright orange, others deep purple and silver. But as a group they work together and the overall effect in the room is quite uplifting. The room was very busy and quiet, perhaps like in a cathedral, but I got the impression that people were all feeling rather happy. Anyway, I was finding the whole thing gave a positive feeling despite the hush and the low lighting.

Very different was the last room of black on grey paintings. These seemed much less considered, less loved. The black is heavy and oppressive and gradually weighs more and more heavily. The lighting here was much brighter and the room much less hushed but the atmosphere was much less pleasant. It's hard to dissociate these from the fact of his imminent suicide, but I think even without knowing that much these paintings would be unsettling rather than calming. They don't welcome you at all; they're angry and violently made while the Seagram ones give the impression of being laboured over with care and consideration and are somehow content.

My favourites, though, were the black form paintings just because these seemed rather happy too and managed to give something to the viewer even using the most restricted set of variables. They are quite complex despite the limited range of hue: texture, gloss, reflective and non-reflective bits and so on. So they take time to look at and seem again quite welcoming.

Of course, a lot of the work is pretty repetitive, and this might seem to be either a crass kind of cashing-in or else a strange tic of someone trying over and over to get something out of his system. But I quite like the fact that, when put together, the differences of balance and execution become the focus of attention. It's like looking at the collected output of a workshop. And I see nothing wrong in that at all.

Friday, September 26, 2008

The time of our lives

Some more thoughts provoked by some reactions to the Chronophage and its apparent claim that life is far too fleeting... (Incidentally, it has stopped working twice since its installation last week so we get temporary reprieves now and then.)

When I wondered whether it is in fact true that our lives are too short I was indeed thinking in perhaps overly simple global terms. There are of course various ways in which it is possible to think that parts of a life are too short (and parts of a life are perhaps too long) but all this points, I think, to a more general concern not so much with the overall length of a life as with its shape. Were we offered a longer life I think we would be very disappointed if it should turn out to grant us a life something like that of the mythical Tithonus. Dawn (sounds more classy left in the Greek, I think: Eos) got her lover immortality but not agelessness. So he hit his old age and just kept on getting more decrepit, without ever being able to die.

Clearly, a long life like that -- perhaps more so an everlasting life like that -- would be pretty crappy. What people want, I think, when they want a longer life, is just to be able to do more, to pack in more in the limited time they have. Or else they want the good bits to last longer and to edit out the worse bits. But, this is not really a question about how long a life is but a different question about how a life is to be valued and the contribution that the different values of different parts of a life make to the value of a life overall. To the extent that someone thinks that a life is better if it contains more goods then that might recommend a longer life (How long would be enough? How many goods are enough?) To the extent that someone thinks it important to do x number of things by a certain time, I suppose it might also seem a good idea to have more time (perhaps: it would seem better to have started earlier). But in both these cases the driving consideration is not really the amount of time but rather a thought about what would give value to the time we do have. In other words: one way of addressing the problem of thinking life is too short to do what you want is to want to do less.

Another thought pointed out by a Chronophage-watcher: the inscription at the bottom of the clock is this: 'mundus transit et concupiscentia eius', but it omits what comes next in I John 2:17 'qui autem facit voluntatem Dei manet in aeternum'. Add in that bit and it's not so distressing, admittedly granted some rather heavyweight additional premises...

(Thanks to RJR for scriptural assistance...)

Monday, September 22, 2008

How long do you want?

My college has unveiled a new clock/metaphor where once there was the door to the NatWest bank. It now is one of the corners of the college's excellent new library. You can read all about it if you just google 'Corpus clock'. It even has its own facebook fan page (and various other sites for those less keen on it) and a wikipedia entry.

The thing on top is a 'chronophage' which eats time. It's supposed to remind us as we pass of the imminence of death and the fleetingness of our mortality. Well, it is of course true that we are all going to die and it is true that our lives, looked at from the right kind of perspective, are short. The question is, however, whether they are too short. I'm not so sure about that. Sure, some lives are too short -- we can think of examples of people who have 'died before their time'. But are all lives like that? Aren't some lives even too long? -- we can think of someone who has been harmed by living as long as they did, perhaps because they were living in great pain or lived long enough to see some cherished project collapse or be ridiculed. The chronophage is only part of a story about our lives and time, an arresting one, I suppose. No doubt there will a lot of people who find the image provocative, perhaps even upsetting. That's OK -- I don't expect all public art or even public clocks to make everyone feel better. But I wonder if there ought to be somewhere a disclaimer that says that the passing of time can be something positive too...

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Ancient philosophy and ID III

Two more comments on the ancient philosophy and ID debate. -- although things have no moved on, I think, to the question of whether ancient philosophers were 'humanists'. Thanks to everyone who has contributed so far.

First, A. C. Grayling responds to Catherine Osborne's comment:
There are two different things in play: teleology and intelligibility. I think the latter is an assumption of all the Greeks from Thales on, and the former is made especially salient in Aristotle, though discernible elsewhere as you say. In importing as much as possible of use from Greek thought into Christianity from Augustine onwards, the doctors of the church - Augustine among them - were pretty careful to distance themselves from materialism (including the form it took in early Stoicism) or better: naturalism, so that references to 'gods' as in Thales and Stoics who spoke of fire or nature as the 'divine' did not at all suggest to Augustine and his ilk that they were dealing with anything like their conception of deity. Hence my point: that what Augustine and the Christian tradition means by 'god' and what occurrences of the terms thus translated from Greek denoted are quite different things. Apologists who try to co-opt the Greek philosophers to the religious tradition of which Christianity is an exemplar accordingly equivocate.
Second, Rupert Read has the following perspective on the debate:
Listen again here to my debate with Anthony Grayling last night on Radio 3, on 'humanism'. (It's about 34 minutes into the programme - you can just move the bar at the bottom straight along to it.)

It is relevant to this discussion on kenodoxia, in that Grayling and I seem to disagree pretty strongly about whether religion need be problematically superstitiously theistic or not.

I think the conversation was useful, and certainly fun. In retrospect, however, it seems to me that we were speaking somewhat at cross-purposes in our debate, and don't actually disagree quite as much as we thought we did about other matters, including the ostensible topic of conversation, 'humanism', which we probably should have defined more tightly before starting. For, for Grayling, apparently, humanism is only the sum of all non-supernaturalistic religion. Take for instance the list of philosophers with which Grayling begins: this has little or no unity! This is hardly a tradition. As an alleged ideology, as an 'ism', it cannot possibly be compared with (say) Hinduism or Buddhism; for it is thin gruel indeed. As I said, on the programme: if all that humanism is is the absence of superstition, then I have no beef with it. But that hardly seems to me to match closely with the actual use of the term 'humanism', to connote some coherent, substantial and positive belief-system that is in debate with and sometimes disagreement with ecologism, with the animal rights movement, and with the great mystical religions.
It does seem to me that it would be hard to find much that would seem like 'humanism' in a strong sense in classical antiquity, besides perhaps Epicurus and Democritus and maybe a sophist or two. Plato would be a bit grumpy, I think, to be labeled a humanist in any strong sense. Sure, he's all for being self-critical and thinking in a clear-minded way about how best to live, but a Platonic world is, it seems to me, one in which god plays a crucial ethical and metaphysical role. True, we shouldn't wait just to get a bit of divine revelation to acquire wisdom, but what wisdom we do achieve is likely to be based on a proper and true acceptance of the divine. Two of the things which Grayling says are deeply 'un-humanist' do turn up in Plato: that our present life is important because it is a preparation for something to come and that humans are somehow superior to the rest of the animal and plant world as the result of some kind divine decision.

Things are a bit tricky, though, and I confess I'm beginning to lose my bearing about what the precise comparanda are suppose to be. For what it's worth, the British Humanist association website says that the following are characteristic of its world-view:

  • that human ethics, morality or principles should be based on human social nature and shared reality
  • that we can take responsibility for our actions rather than deferring responsibility to supernatural realms
  • that the world is amenable to our rational curiosity

  • These all sound like good ideas to me. The first is probably the most controversial, partly because a lot will depend upon what 'based on' means here. and there are all sorts of possible views about what 'human social nature' amounts to. But anyway, there isn't much in this list that Plato or Aristotle would disagree with. Is that enough to make them 'humanists'?, I doubt it mostly because their view of the 'human social nature' on which ethics is based is one that has a sense of divine nature or natural teleology built in to a degree that I think would make a modern humanist decidedly uneasy.

    To be clear: I'm all for teaching plenty of philosophy in schools and I happen to think that a lot of what I understand to be humanism is an excellent place to start about thinking about how we ought to live. But I'm just a little uneasy about co-opting the ancient Greek and Roman philosophical tradition in this cause. The method of inquiry they tend to emphasise is a good thing, of course. I'm all for people doing some thinking and some self-criticism and not just taking as as a starting point some kind of divine authoritative revelation. All the same, we would be wrong to obscure the sense in which many of these old guys thought that the eventual view we should adopt is one which holds that a good human life requires and ought to be based upon a correct and positive acceptance of the crucial role of the divine in the world. Indeed, there is a strong current of thought in these ancient thinkers that says that we are able to engage in the right kind of rational inquiry only insofar as there is a part of us -- our reason -- that is indeed divine, if not part even god itself.

    Sunday, September 14, 2008

    Ancient philosophy and ID II

    I've had two interesting responses to my last post so I thought I'd promote them here just in case they would otherwise be missed.

    First, A C Grayling responded to my initial post:
    Thanks for your interesting comments. Two points in brief: Thales and the majority of his successors did not claim that their views were divinely inspired, nor did they rely on sacred texts as the source of their insights, nor did they claim that those insights required to be believed for 
soteriological purposes of some kind. This connects to the
second point: which is that when the ancients spoke of ‘god’ or ‘gods’ (as in
Thales’ case referring to the powers of life, movement, reproduction, magnetism etc to be observed in different natural phenomena) - or, as often, ‘logos’ (the principle of order, reason, underlying structure, etc as for the Stoics) - they emphatically did not mean anything like the conception of a personal deity which makes exigent moral demands and communicates them in detail to the world, requiring submission and worship, and punishing the hubris of questioning creation - which of course is precisely what the classical tradition is all about. As this suggests, ‘god’ is practically a homonym across these two very different contexts, and the philosophical idea of ‘logos’ and the rest is not a religious one. This is the key point. - Good wishes - Anthony Grayling
    And then Catherine Osborne responded to Grayling:
    Responding now to Anthony's comment, it doesn't seem to me that the personal God that you've just invoked -- the one that is involved in moral commands and salvation--has got anything whatever to do with the points in Augustine and so on about optimism about human science latching onto the truth. That tradition, which believes in the possibility of intelligent design and hence intelligent understanding of the intelligent design because we are equipped to understand, comes from the teleology (teleological accounts of the universe and of the relation of human reason to the goodness built into the world) that is endemic in ancient thinking, especially in Aristotle and Plato. That comes through to Augustine by way of his reading of the classics: I doubt any of it comes from anything in Christianity as a religion of personal salvation. So if you want to say that "god" is a term with two meanings, surely it's you who's equivocating?
    Thanks to both.

    Friday, September 12, 2008

    Ancient philosophy and intelligent design

    In the New Humanist 123 (5), Sep-Oct 08 (online here) A. C. Grayling offers a curt review of

    Dissent Over Descent: Intelligent Design's Challenge to Darwinism by Steve Fuller (Icon Books, UK £ 12.99), ISBN 978-184046804-5

    I’m not so interested about the virtues or otherwise of Fuller’s book. But I am interested in particular in this bit of Grayling’s review:

    “Fuller claims that ID is “behind the scientific revolution that has been under way in the West since the 17th century” because the motivating belief behind scientific enquiry is that “nature is so constructed” that it can be understood because – as St Augustine taught us – man is made in the image of God and is therefore capable of understanding the universe. Call this Point 2”

    and the follow-up:

    “On Point 2: from a thousand years before St Augustine, Thales and the Pre-Socratics and Plato and Aristotle and the Stoics and Epicureans were thinking in recognisably scientific and proto-scientific ways about the nature and functioning of the universe, on the assumption that human intelligence is competent to understand the workings of nature, which observation abundantly suggests are regular and ordered – it needs no gods to point out how spring returns after every winter, and the crops grow again as they did before, and so manifestly on. Not only did people emphatically not have to wait for St Augustine to discover that they could enquire thus, without invoking supernaturalistic beliefs of any sort, but it is indeed a mark of the thought of Thales and his successors that they did not start from such beliefs, but began their thinking from observation and reason. It was the revival of their independence of thought in the Renaissance and afterwards – the rediscovery of a non-theistic tradition of thought about the world – that represented a resumption of the scientific enterprise that had been crushed by religious dogma for a millennium, and which in the 16th and 17th centuries had a struggle to free itself from religion’s iron opposition – witness the church’s denial of Copernican heliocentrism and the trial of Galileo for two related instances.”

    It is not clear to me that Grayling has a sure advantage over Fuller on his reading of the ancient sources. It depends what you mean by ‘supernaturalistic’ beliefs. To be sure, amongst these old guys there was plenty of observation and attempts at explanation by invoking what is ‘natural’. The crucial point is that most of them thought that invoking divine causes was a perfectly respectable part of natural philosophy. Furthermore, the extent to which human reason is able to observe, interpret, and explain the world about us is for many ancient philosophers due to the fact that our reasoning capacity itself is divine or god-like in some way. Understanding the world is a form of assimilation to god. We might leave Thales aside for now, just because the evidence is tricky, but even he famously thought that everything is ‘full of gods’. The Epicureans, theists too, did at least reckon that these gods had no interest in the world and so shouldn’t be invoked in our explanations of how the world is as it is. Still, it’s a bit of a surprise to see Grayling invoke Plato and the Stoics as allies. Now, they perhaps would agree that we didn’t need to think about god in order to realise that we could inquire into why, say, crops grow each year. But it doesn’t take much reading of Plato’s dedicated work of natural philosophy, Timaeus, to see divine causation and, let’s face it, intelligent design at work all over the place. The Stoics thought divinity was immanent and omnipresent, causing all things to work for the best. Not really, I think, the best ally for an anti-supernaturalist view. Aristotle, as often, is tricky. His god has a role to play in getting the world to go round though the world has just always been as it is, full of well-fitted natures aiming at their various natural ends. Not really a case of intelligent design and not really ‘supernatural’ either but still nowhere near scoring many points with Dawkins. This book might be a worthwhile read for anyone wanting to pursue this point further... The general point, I think, is that Plato and the boys are far from uncomplicated allies for an 'anti-supernaturalist' or anti-ID cause; I should hasten to add that they are also far from uncomplicated allies for a a pro-ID cause, though on balance I reckon that's where most of them (the atomists excepted, of course) would put themselves if made to choose.

    Fuller replies (online here). He doesn’t do much better either, it seems to me. It start off quite promisingly.

    Grayling’s observation that the pre-Socratics, Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics and the Epicureans thought “in recognisably scientific and proto-scientific ways about the nature and functioning of the universe” is true in the same sense as, yes, you can see the heads of animals in the shape of clouds. Of course, words and concepts and sometimes even whole arguments have been used from these thinkers in the pursuit of science – but I doubt that any of them, were they resurrected, would wish to associate themselves with our sense of science. And this is not because they would disagree with its guiding theoretical ideas or empirical findings. No, they would find the enterprise itself abhorrent – with its endless questing for an elusive yet uniquely comprehensive understanding of reality. They would see the way we treat science today as we might regard some future society, or parallel universe, that treated chess as the most cherished activity upon which all its resources were lavished. And that is probably the most positive light in which our Greek forebears would see us. The Epicureans in particular would simply think of our scientific obsession with “The Truth” as an anxiety-inducer, one of those Wittgensteinian flies that should be liberated from its bottle.

    The Greeks regarded the pursuit of science largely as the intellectual correlate of physical exercise – part of a normative account of leisure. While the Greek sense of science purported to get at the nature of things, that nature was not necessarily unified, the activity itself was never conceptualised in historically progressive terms, and there was no pretence to its universal accessibility, let alone universal entitlement. Science was for them an elite game – full stop. The introduction of these additional conditions, which characterise science in the modern sense of “universal objective knowledge” begins with the Muslim and later Christian synthesis of pagan knowledge for the general ennoblement of humanity, as beings created in the image of God. Like it or not, Grayling’s own view of the Greeks as “proto-scientists” in our sense is indebted to these religiously inspired efforts, which turned Aristotle’s patchwork ontology into a concerted proposal to unify our understanding of reality. Averroes and Aquinas would more quickly recognise the high intellectual ambitions that Grayling imputes to Aristotle than Aristotle himself would”

    It would take a while to untangle this. Here’s a couple of first reactions. First, Epicureans did, it seems to me, care about truth to the extent that some true account of what, e.g. thunder is, is needed to dispel anxiety. It’s not enough for them just to have a soothing story. (And why the scare quotes and capitalisation for "The Truth"?) Second, it’s true I suppose that ‘science’, if practised at all in the ancient Greek and Roman world, was in the main not a job as such. There were no research institutes with salaried posts and integrated research programmes. But that doesn’t make it a ‘game’ nor suggest that it was not done seriously with the concerted aim of really finding out what things are and how things work. Sounds like a false dilemma to me. (I’ve no idea what is meant by Aristotle’s ‘patchwork ontology’, by the way.) Third, there's a slide somewhere in this paragraph from pointing out that ancient natural philosophy was an elite practice and therefore not universally accessible nor a 'universal entitlement' to the idea that it was not intended to be provide 'universal objective knowledge'. 'Universal' is doing two jobs here. Knowledge is not and never has been very democratic and the proportion of the population that know P has nothing whatsoever to do with whether P is piece of universal (in the sense of universally applicable) objective knowledge.

    And another thought: we seem to be thinking only about Western philosophy and its relation to science. As I read this exchange I couldn’t help hearing in my head the characteristic voice of Geoffrey Lloyd, demanding a wider perspective...

    Wednesday, September 10, 2008

    Signs of the season

    Some people will mark the end of summer and the arrival of autumn by noticing the leaves changing colour or a new slight chill in the morning air. I mark it by the arrival in the CUP bookshop of the Cambridge Pocket Diary for the new academic year. They're perfectly sized, now in a more forgiving hardback, and have all sort of useful information indispensable for the academic about town. Where else will you find a diary that tells you when the Faculty Board of History and Philosophy of Science will meet?

    Every year I spend an evening transferring useful phone numbers for the old diary to the new one, and -- though I might be alone in this -- writing the week number in the top right corner for all the weeks of term, just so when I arrange a supervision I can be more or less sure about when it's going to happen in relation to lectures and the like. It's a nice way to get thinking about the new year. The crisp pages soon crinkle but that's quite endearing too. I also promise myself each year that I'll write more neatly inside and try not to have it end up with scrawled notes to myself and endless crossings out. But that's just a piece of self-deception and I know it.

    The only problem is that nearly everyone has one. And they all look the same, at least from the outside. I might try a custom job on mine. We are a two-Cambridge-diary home, so there's always the risk I go to work with my wife's diary.

    Friday, September 05, 2008

    Two perspectives

    An interesting example of spin was pointed out by a sharp-eyed person at lunch today. Compare the Cambridge University website's presentation of the analysis of admissions statistics for the 2007/8 cycle here with the headline in the Daily Telegraph here. They are, of course, entirely compatible with one another and, given that the talk of 'numbers' of successful applicants from different types of school is being expressed as a percentage, a rise in intake from one type requires a drop in intake from another. Still, it tells us something about the variety of different perspectives that are possible on what I happen to think is a careful and sensitive, not to mention extremely labour intensive, admissions process which has as its goal the aim of admitting the best and most promising students for the particular course we offer. (While you look at the Telegraph report, by the way, please take some time to scroll down to read the comments left by various readers. You can't please all the people all the time...)

    Monday, September 01, 2008

    Montaigne and Lucretius

    The University Library is currently mounting an exhibition of some of the books from Montaigne's library, including his copy of Lambinus' 1563 edition of Lucretius' De rerum natura. There are some tantalising images here, including some annotations on the latter parts of DRN 3 (3.854ff. nam cum respicias...). The resolution of the web images is not good enough - understandably - for me to make out much but I shall certainly be going to have a proper look. The exhibition website includes a translation of some of his comments on the palingenesis argument here.

    (Thanks to Erik Anderson for pointing out some faulty links; I think they are right now.)