Monday, September 29, 2014

Open Letter to Karen Armstrong on 'The Myth of Religious Violence'

An open letter to Karen Armstrong on her Guardian article ‘The Myth of Religious Violence’. I invite Karen to either come out as a Secularist with a capital 'S', or come up with a better argument.

Go here to CFI logs for my post.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

'But is it art?' Wittgenstein on family resemblance concepts - explained!

But is it Art?

From my The Philosophy Gym: 25 Short Adventures in Thinking. This introduces Wittgenstein on 'family resemblance' and the idea of 'necessary and sufficient conditions'.

Philosophy Gym category:

Warm up

More challenging

I mean they’d gone and fucking installed the work without me even being here. That’s just not on. This is my bed. If someone else installs it, it’s just dirty linen. If I do it, it’s art. Tracey Emin (artist), Evening Standard, 12/9/00.

Today it seems almost anything can be classified as a work of art: Damien Hirst’s pickled shark or Tracey Emin’s unmade bed, for example. But what is art, exactly? What is it that Macbeth, a piece of tribal sculpture, The Nutcracker Suite, the roof of the Sistene Chapel and Emin’s bed all have in common? What is the common denominator that makes each one of these things art? This is an extremely difficult question to answer. This chapter explains one of the leading theories, taking in one of Wittgenstein’s (1889-1951) most important insights along the way.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Follow my CFI blog: The Outer Limits

Just posted my first blog post for CFI here as part of their Free Thinking site. I will be posting exclusive Humanist/Skepticism related article there regularly - at least once a month. Do please follow!

My CFI blog is called The Outer Limits. They made me a nice banner - have a look.

This blog will of course continue. In particular I'll put more academic posts here (e.g. drafts of papers for discussion, etc.), plus news of events (CFI UK especially, which I organize) and other interests. Skeptical/humanism related posts here will usually also appear over at The Secular Outpost.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Werewolves, Vampires and Witches sceptically investigated by CFI UK, 18 October

Centre for Inquiry UK and Conway Hall Ethical Society present: Deborah Hyde, Jessica Monteith, and Owen Davies speaking on vampires, werewolves, and witches.
Register here.
Deborah Hyde, Jessica Monteith, and Owen Davies introduce us to the myth and the reality regarding some of the most horrific creatures imaginable. A skeptical inquiry into some of the most terrifying creatures imaginable. Come and be terrified and informed.

Note that even if you have heard e.g. Hyde on vampires before, she is talking about werewolves at this event.

Organised and chaired by Stephen Law

Date: Saturday 18 October 2014
Venue: Conway Hall (Main Hall), 25 Red Lion Square, Holborn, London, WC1R 4RL (Nr Holborn Tube)

Secular Humanism: DON'T define it as requiring naturalism

What does secular humanism (or, as we say in the UK, humanism) involve? In Humanism: A Very Short Introduction (OUP 2011) I suggest that most of those who sign up to secular humanism sign up to following:

1. Secular humanists place particular emphasis on the role of science and reason.

2. Humanists are atheists. They do not sign up to belief in a god or gods.

3. Humanists suppose that this is very probably the only life we have.

4. Humanists usually believe in the existence and importance of moral value.

5. Humanists emphasize our individual moral autonomy and responsibility.

6. Humanists are secularists in the sense that they favour an open, democratic society and believe the State should take neutral stance on religion.

7. Humanists believe that we can enjoy significant, meaningful lives even if there is no is a God, and whether or not we happen to be religious.

Now some readers may be thinking, ‘But hang on, you haven’t mentioned naturalism. Surely secular humanists also sign up to naturalism, right? They reject belief in the supernatural. So why no mention of naturalism here?

Monday, August 11, 2014

The Mirror Puzzle

4. The Mirror Puzzle

 (This is a chapter I wrote for a children's philosophy book called The Outer Limits (now part of The Complete Philosophy Files). This chapter was thought too abstract by the editors, and was not included).

Sometimes it is the things that are most familiar to us that turn out to be the most deeply puzzling. Take mirrors, for example. How many times do you see yourself reflected in a mirror each day?


At least ten or twenty times, I should think. Most of us never stop to think about what we see. But, as you are about to discover, mirrors are very strange and puzzling things.

An adventure in the mirror

Aisha and Kobir are visiting Kobir’s auntie. Auntie Anaximander lives in an enormous, fusty old house deep in the moors.


It’s a wild and stormy night and the phone and power lines are down. Auntie Anaximander has gone off in her car to report the powercut leaving Kobir and Aisha all alone in the dark house.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Religion and Philosophy in Schools

Religion and philosophy in schools

Stephen Law

Is philosophy in schools a good idea? The extent to which early exposure to a little philosophical thinking is of educational benefit is, of course, largely an empirical question. As a philosopher, that sort of empirical study is not really my area of expertise.
But of course there is also a philosophical dimension to this question. As a philosopher, conceptual clarification and the analysis of the logic of the arguments on either side certainly is my field. That is where I hope to make a contribution here.
This essay is in two parts. In the first, I look at two popular religious objections to the suggestion that all children ought to be encouraged to think independently and critically about moral and religious issues. In the second part, I explain a well-known philosophical distinction – that between reasons and causes – and give a couple of examples of how this conceptual distinction might help illuminate this debate.

PART ONE: Two popular religious objections

Friday, June 27, 2014

Appealing to mystery

It is sometimes tempting to appeal to mystery to get oneself out of intellectual hot water. Suppose a scientist offers a science-based criticism of Mary’s paranormal beliefs. In response Mary might say something like this: ‘Ah, but this is beyond the ability of science and reason to decide. You, Dr Scientist, are guilty of scientism, of assuming science can answer every question.’ Mary might follow this response up with a quote from Shakespeare's Hamlet: ‘There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy’. 
Of course, most scientists admit they can’t explain everything. There probably are questions science cannot answer. Mary attempts to protect her beliefs by placing them in this category of beliefs science can’t touch. She draws a veil across reality and says, ‘You scientists can apply your methods this far, but no further.’ Behind the veil Mary might place angels, psychic powers, fairies, dead relatives, and so on. She might also insist that, while such phenomena lie beyond the bounds of scientific investigation, there are special people – mediums, mystics, gurus, and so on – who can see, if only dimly, through the veil and so inform us about what lies beyond.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

My thoughts on Religious Discrimination in the UK (and the supposed gay rights vs religious rights clash)


(This is from a conference atttended by John Finnis and Chris McCrudden, and responds specifically to their comments on my peiece at the end (you might especially enjoy the endnote where I discuss Finnis's accusation that I am guilty of anti-Catholic sentiment.) The plan is for it to appear in an OUP collection. As there's no movement in that direction I am posting here in the meantime.
The UK has seen a revolution in its moral and legal attitudes over the last couple of centuries, particularly with regard to discrimination.
One of the earliest beneficiaries of changes to the law to protect minorities from unfair discrimination was the Roman Catholic community. The Catholic Relief act in 1829 aimed to protect Roman Catholics from such discrimination. Legislation to protect Jews was soon to follow. Today, our freedom to hold and espouse, or reject and criticise, different religious beliefs, is protected by law.
Our moral attitudes towards women, black people and gay people have also shifted dramatically, and this too has been reflected in the law. Gone are the days when women could be refused employment or the vote because they are women. Gone are the days when hotel owners could put up signs saying “No blacks”. Gone, too, are the days when men having sex with men in private risked imprisonment.
Today, most of us subscribe to the principle that the State and the law ought to treat all citizens equally. They should not discriminate between citizens or groups of citizens, granting privileges to, or penalizing, one group but not another, unless there is some difference that justifies that difference in treatment.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Draft paper on sceptical theism - part 1 for comments

Sceptical Theism and Divine Deception

1. Sceptical Theism

Evidential arguments from evil often take something like the following form:

If God exists, gratuitous evil does not exist.
Gratuitous evil exists.
Therefore, God does not exist

God is a being that is omnipotent, omniscient and supremely good. Gratuitous evil is evil there is no adequate reason for God, if he exists, to permit (the evil is not necessary to secure some compensating good or to prevent some equally bad or worse evil). Why suppose the second premise is true? A no so-called ‘noseeum’ inference has been offered in its support. It is suggested that if we cannot identify any God-justifying reason for much of the evil we observe, then it is reasonable to believe no such reason exists.