Sunday, 19 December 2010


Related article by Céline: Dilemme... (in French)

Posted on behalf of Peter:


Dilemma as valid argument form
A dilemma can be an acceptable type of argument. We are offered alternative courses of action, each of which entails a certain set of consequences. We have to take one of the alternatives, so have to accept one set of consequences. If the consequences are true, and it is a matter of a straight choice between them, this is a valid dilemma.

Bogus dilemma
However, if there are other alternatives and / or the consequences are incorrect, then the dilemma is bogus. It can then be refuted as follows:
  1. Denying that the consequences of the choices as stated are correct. This is called ‘Grasping the dilemma by the horns’.
  2. Showing the choice is false – there are other options.  This is called ‘Going between the horns of the dilemma’.  
It often occurs with the fallacy of ‘bifurcation’ (‘either / or’, ‘black / white’). Example: ‘you are either with us or against us’…

How To Win Every Argument. The Use and Abuse of Logic (Madsen Pirie). Pub: Continuum.

Dilemmas can also be considered as complex decisions.

One of the best methods I’ve come across is the following:
1. Define the problem.
2. Specify your objectives.
3. Create alternatives.
4. Understand the consequences.
5. Grapple with tradeoffs between choices.
6. Clarify uncertainties.
7. Think about your risk tolerance.
8. Consider linked decisions.

Future prediction
It was pointed out in the meeting, quite rightly, that one cannot know the future. Some things are largely unpredictable e.g. the explosion of Facebook and other social networking sites, the Irish bank crisis etc.

However one can improve one’s odds in many decisions by using informed estimates on the probability of events happening: the whole purpose of the ‘risk industry’, in all its permutations, is to try and work out the best way to approach an uncertain future.. So in the sequence above, steps 4, 6 and 7 would entail some sort of (informed) probability estimation.

There’s a quote I like from the source book I have used here. “You can make a good decision and still get a bad outcome, due to something unpredictable / unpleasant happening. You can also make a bad decision and get a good outcome, due to pure luck” (e.g. you made a decision based on the flight pattern of starlings as they flew past your window, and it worked....)

Apples and oranges
Some dilemmas require choice between things that have no common base of comparison. If the question is ‘what holiday should I choose ?’, then comparison can be made on cost, weather etc. But what about ‘should I go on holiday, or get a new kitchen ?’ A good decision process will allow some weighting factors, to help prioritise (step 5 above).

Uncertainty (Donald Rumsfeld).
He was widely pilloried for his ‘things we know’ speech, given in the context of dealing with political uncertainty. It’s about the one thing he said I agreed with…I haven’t got around to checking the exact words, but it was broadly along the lines of:
1. There are things we know
2. There are things we think we know
3. There are things we know we don’t know
4. There are things we don’t know we don’t know.
e.g. (1). Al Qaida are planning attacks (2) Possibly by end of the year (3) Don’t know the target (4) We ought to be paying attention to who is training in flying schools in the southern US.

Smart Choices (Hammond, Keeney, Raiffa). Pub: Harvard Business School Press.
This is the ‘sleep on it’ method. You get all the facts, try to come to a decision consciously, come to an impasse, then deliberately turn it over to the subconscious and forget about it. The answer may then come unexpectedly when you are driving, showering, making love, ironing, fleeing a burning building, performing neuro-surgery etc…

The issue here is: how does one trust one’s intuition ? The conventional wisdom is to ask yourself: ‘Did I put in enough prior work to give my subconscious the information it needed to work on?’ If I buy some shares based on decent research, it’s worth listening to my subconscious intuition. If I buy some shares based on one newspaper article I may lose money (I did…).

Some people will resolve some dilemmas by referring to their internal value system. ‘Should I give money to a street beggar ?’. A Christian will probably think ‘yes’.

However sometimes this leads to disaster – case the Credit Crunch. The dilemma was (and is): ‘How should we run the world’s financial systems ?’. For the last 20+ years the Chicago School inspired Efficient Market Hypothesis held sway, with unregulated markets being regarded as leading necessarily to the public good. This became conflated with the political view ‘state always bad, individuals always good’. It took the world economy to come within an inch of imploding for the moral position ‘leave it to the unregulated market in all cases’ to be questioned.


Related article by Celine: Dilemme... (in French)

Monday, 13 December 2010

Some thoughts on Freedom of Information

Dear Philosophers,

We are told that rights should apply equally to all human beings, and if one of them is allowed an action it would be illicit to deny another the same action. Except, of course, that the people who are supposed to guarantee our rights government officials are the ones who claim exemption from this rule of universality. The Wikileaks affair reveals strikingly how rights don't apply equally. Forget taxes, pension differentials, life employment and impunity from prosecution in many countries, and other markers of the difference between government and the governed. It is now the most immaterial of goods, information, that is at stake. Governments collect it in all possible forms, requiring records of all bank transactions, credit card payments and airline reservations, ordering Microsoft and other companies to give them backdoor entries into software systems, tracking all phone and internet conversations, and making it illegal to protect your privacy by encrypting your correspondence or keeping your assets invisible.

The fury when the table is turned and when some people do to a government what it does to all of us (spying) is the great entertainment of these last days of 2010. And these could well be the first days of a new era.


Sunday, 12 December 2010

Some thoughts on Democracy

Topic of the day: Can we reject Majority rule?
Majority rules – the basic principle of democracy. But are the majority always right? Does the government voted by majority represent the true interests of the majority? That’s the fundamental question. The majority arrive at their voting decision based on the information available given by the party campaigners even if that information is as absurd as the three slogans of the Ministry of Truth in the Orwellian world:
War is Peace
Freedom is Slavery
Ignorance is Strength

Every political party of whatever persuasion has to have a gimmick or slogan to sell their soap powder to the great unwashed.

For those who still hold firm to the belief that the Party is always right and the War on Terror is fully justified (despite any unintended consequences), perhaps they should spare a thought to the words of Norman Mailer:
Fighting a war to fix something works about as good as going to a whore-house to get rid of the clap” (The Naked and the Dead, 1948)

May I also remind you, the motto of our beloved politicians:
Don’t treat people like Idiots. But never forget that they are Idiots!”

(Ne prenez pas les gens pour des cons, mais n’oubliez jamais qu’ils le sont. – F.Beigbeder, 99 francs, 2000)

Friday, 10 December 2010


Que faire s’il on vous offre un travail bien payé dans un pays étranger, mais que vous ne pouvez pas emmener avec vous la personne que vous aimez ? Choisissez-vous l’argent ou l’amour? Ecoutez-vous votre tête ou votre cœur ?

Lequel des deux médecins que vous consultez croire s’ils vous donnent deux diagnostiques et deux traitements différents?

Qui, de sa femme ou de sa maîtresse, un homme devrait-il emmener en vacances?

On parle de dilemme quand on trouve difficile de prendre une décision entre 2 ou plusieurs choix, mais qu’aucun n’est défendable. Que faire face à un dilemme ? Peser le pour et le contre de la situation. Habituellement, on choisit la meilleure option, mais le résultat peut être regrettable.

D’une part, on peut penser que le processus de prise de décision dépend de nos origines culturelles et de nos valeurs, elles-mêmes composées également de nos préjugés. Ceux qui ont été élevés dans un environnement chrétien prennent souvent des décisions basées sur le jugement moral. « Faire ce qui est juste », ainsi on trouve l’harmonie en soi, sans recriminations. Beaucoup de décisions sont influencées par les origines sociales de la personne concernée, et des livres que cette même personne a lus : la culture apportera la solution.

« Si les décisions que l’on a prises sont influencées par la culture, est-ce qu’on peut trouver la solution dans les livres qu’on a lu ? » Ceux qui ont lu des œuvres classiques sont-ils capables de résoudre les dilemmes dans leur vie quotidienne en utilisant ce qu’ils ont appris dans les livres ? Dans la tragédie « Hamlet », le prince du Danemark faisait face à l’énorme dilemme qui consistait à tuer son oncle et sa mère pour venger son père. Comment ce type de tragédie peut-il nous offrir une solution applicable dans notre vie quotidienne?

D’autre part, on peut penser que la définition d’un dilemme n’est pas seulement un choix difficile voire impossible à faire, mais qu’il s’agit également de ce dont on a foi. L’ancien philosophe Grec parlait souvent du dilemme entre le corps et l’esprit. Croit-on en nos corps ou en nos cœurs ? Autre exemple : une mère préfère un de ses fils à l’autre, mais le second lui dit que son préféré a planifié de la tuer. Qui doit-elle croire entre lui et son préféré ?

Cependant, quelqu’un a souligné qu’un « dilemme » n’est pas seulement un problème qui peut être résolu en prenant simplement une décision. Un dilemme représente un problème difficile, qu’il est pratiquement impossible de résoudre. Quelques fois, une bonne décision peut aboutir sur un mauvais résultat, et vice versa (une mauvaise décision peut avoir de bons résultats). Par exemple, que l’Ouest commence une guerre avec l’Iran peut être vu comme un dilemme pour les gens qui ont leurs doigts posés sur les détonateurs. Il y a toujours un élément de prise de risque dans toute décision cruciale du fait que le futur est imprévisible. Les conséquences de nos décisions peuvent être inconcevables. Le projet du CERN sur l’expérimentation de la théorie du “Big Bang” est vue comme un dilemme, car si elle s’avère vraie, l’Humanité résoudrait le mystère le plus grand: les origines de l’univers. Si c'est un échec, ça n’engage pas seulement la perte financière et scientifique de ressources humaines colossales, mais de manière plus importante, il court le risque de détruire la planète entière (si les critiques sont justes).

L’idéogramme chinois pour le mot « dilemme » est composé de 2 lettres, l’un qui est le symbole de la lance, l’autre qui représente le bouclier : la lance attaque, le bouclier défend, aucuns des deux ne gagne : c'est ce qu’on appelle un « dilemme » 矛盾
Related article by Peter: Dilemmas (in English)

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

Marriage Vs Love

Looking into the subject of marriage in the attempt to write something, I was amazed that most thoughts on this matter were rather humoristic and satirical. Indeed, what to think, just as examples, of George Bernard Shaw's "Marriage is the story of a young man and a young woman whom by picking a flower receive an avalanche on the head", or even of Montenoy's "People say that marriage is the grave of love"?

In the other quotes, it seems that the difference between marriage and love is very often brought forward. Isn't it important to differentiate the "idea" of marriage and its institution? And if so, can we think that, on the opposite of the ideal of marriage, which changes with the society and time, its institution is the only man-made creation which tries to give the notion of marriage some kind of consistency?

En essayant d’écrire quelques lignes sur le sujet de conversation de Samedi 20 Novembre, j’ai été surprise de voir que la majorité des dictons sur le mariage était humoristiques, voir amers. En effet, que penser de la citation de Georges Shaw « Le mariage, c'est l'histoire d'un jeune homme et d'une jeune fille qui cueillent une fleur et reçoivent une avalanche sur la tête », ou encore de Montenoy qui affirme que « le mariage est le tombeau de l’amour » ?

Dans les autres citations, le discernement entre l’amour est le mariage est souvent mit en avant. En effet, n’est-il pas important de séparer « l’idée » du mariage de son institution ? Dans ce cas, peut-on penser qu’au contraire de « l’idéal » du mariage qui change en fonction de la société et du temps dans laquelle nous vivons, son institution est la seule fabrication humaine qui tente d’apporter à la notion du mariage une certaine consistance ?

Tuesday, 30 November 2010

“Good” vs “Bad”

Last judgement
The adjectives “good” or “bad” used frequently in our Café often sound rather puerile to start with. We remember how our parents used to lecture us on how to be “good”: “Be a good girl/boy. Do what your teacher says. Stay with the group. Don’t talk to strangers...” What does it mean to “be good”? When our parents taught us to be good, it often implies that we ought to follow the rules, to be obedient to authority.  If the object of “being good” is to maintain social order, then perhaps a communist society, or a police state would be a good place to live because there no rebellious behaviour or criticism of the government would be tolerated. A totalitarian society is built upon conformism where individualism and original ideas are not encouraged.

Perhaps religion (no matter which faith or belief) is a more effective disciplinary tool than state policing, as religion under the guise of spiritual teaching, often uses the promises and punishment in the afterlife to regulate the behaviour of its followers. Can we say that religious doctrine is our yardstick of “goodness”?

How do you judge who is good who is bad? To be “good” do we have to be a saint? A person who sacrifices all earthly desires and devotes his life to helping others is generally praised as a “good person”. How do you describe a person who steals a loaf of bread in order to save some starving children? Or a person that kills an aggressor to help a victim? How do you qualify a "good thing" or a "bad thing"? If we define that an action that benefits majority of people but only harms a minority of people is a “good thing”; can we also classify an act of gang rape which satisfies a group of rapists but damages only one woman as a “good thing”?

If we say that all killing, rape, theft are “bad things” because they are morally wrong, why then there are such distinctions as “just war”, or “unjust war” where in both instances great numbers of innocent people were killed, raped, plundered? Why some historical instances were described as “crime against humanity”, “genocide”, but some others were described as “war on terror”, “war against tyranny”? The flip side of “bad” thing is considered a “good” thing depending on which side you are on.  If what Nazi did in the WWII was an act of genocide, why then the bombing of Dresden and dropping Atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were not also acts of genocide? Does it mean that punitive action, no matter how barbaric, can be justified as “good thing”? This proves the point that history is only written by the winners. 

Monday, 29 November 2010

Course at Mary Ward Centre

An interdisciplinary course, On Poverty, at the Mary Ward Centre, drawing on philosophy and economics will start in the new year.

The course will be looking at diverse perceptions of poverty: a curse in the Torah; a liberating condition in Stoicism, Christianity and Buddhism; a condition to be eradicated in modern economics... Themes opened for discussions will range from women and poverty, Michel Foucaults Great Confinement, Marx and the pauperisation of the proletariat, the deserving poor; and will go on to the reversal operated by the Welfare State, when poverty was deemed to grant rights, rather than wealth to create duties. We will be calling, of course, on the recent works by Peter Singer, Martha Nussbaum, Amartya Sen, and the authors around the CARE movement.

The course is open to all; it will run every Wednesday, 4 to 6pm, starting on 12 January, for 11 meetings. No prior knowledge of economics or philosophy is required. A friendly, illuminating and topical course is guaranteed.

Saturday, 20 November 2010

An 18th-century Paris Café-philo

We have approached the topic of Atheism numerous times in our previous discussions, coinciding with the rise of the celebrity writers and scientists the likes of Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, to Steven Hawking...

Just discovered a delightful new publication, Wicked Company: Freethinkers and Friendship in Pre-Revolutionary Paris by Philipp Blom (London, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2010), tracing the story behind a scandalous Paris salon – our earliest model of Café-philo, where philosophers met to eat and drink and deny the existence of God and the soul – run by Baron Paul Thierry d’Holbach. Its members included Denis Diderot, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and their contemporaries.

See review from The Economist, 28 October 2010

Thursday, 28 October 2010

Is there real fairness?

Andre writes: 
To be unfairly treated is very hurtful.  When do I feel that I have been unfairly treated, how one defines fairness?  Is more fairness in a society always a gain? 

I would feel it unfair if I judge that I have been singled out for poor treatment or I have not received my entitlement; We make a judgement that triggers an emotion: that in itself is interesting.  It may be that because we are essentially social animals, the fact that we equate discrimination with rejection, raises very strong emotions. From birth we are hardwired to entitlement, the baby cry for milk is part of its survival kit. As social beings, divided into family cells, neighbourhood clans, nations…we have devised and re-devised rules and customs distributing entitlements and duties. History shows that these distributions invariably advantage the powerful people: that is the strong and cunning and disadvantaged the meek. Throughout history rules and laws have been established that perpetuate our hierarchical society.  That is where Justice lies today: the rule of law.

When the rule of law is ignored and we are denied our entitlement, we may have recourse to the court to redress some unfairness.

When the law tolerates or reinforces some discrimination; remedy may come in two ways: change the law democratically or if not possible, direct action which may lead to deadly conflict.  A civilised society is defined by its statute and by the way the law is adhered to and administered.  For every entitlement gained there has always been a struggle by a group or an other, against, often, a minority, who would fight to maintain their privileges. Fairness has never come as a gift to progress.
Does that mean that a society which treats all its citizen equally is a civilised society? A society that privileges a minority or even a majority, we would find abhorrent, unless it was deemed positive discrimination to redress unfairness.
There is some good news: A recent publication The Sprit Level (Why Equality is better for Everyone), shows that more equal society improve the life of all citizens, including the more affluent.

Related post:
Fairness vs Justice

Monday, 18 October 2010

Le souvenir appartient-il au monde spirituel ou réel ?

La mémoire est l’une des caractéristiques qui lie les êtres vivants. En effet, il a été prouvé que les animaux sont dotés de cette capacité cognitive de rétention de souvenirs au même titre que les êtres humains. L’exemple le plus flagrant et bien sûr l’éléphant dont la mémoire est réputée très importante et dont un specimen a prouvé sa capacité à se souvenir des visages de personnes ayant fait souffrir son troupeau dans le passé. Mais qu’est-ce que la mémoire? Les souvenirs sont-ils inaltérables ? Quelle est la relation de la mémoire avec les autres fonctions psychologiques ?

N’étant ni neurologues ou scientifiques, nous autres, « Café-philosophes » avons essayé de définir la mémoire en tant que fonction neurologique qui sert a stocker, retenir et récupérer des souvenirs de notre vie quotidienne. Techniquement, comme l’a fait remarquer Kamel, tout ce qui se passe a chaque minute devient un souvenir, donc nous vivons constamment dans la mémoire, le passé.
Le model modal formulé par Atkinson et Schiffrin en 1968 va plus loin en établissant 3 sous-systèmes principaux à la mémoire : le registre sensoriel (qui peut retenir une grande quantité d’information sous forme visuelle), la mémoire à court terme (qui stocke des informations verbales pendant quelques secondes), et la mémoire à long terme (conception intuitive de notre mémoire qui retient des informations sémantiques , et dont la durée de rétention ne connaît pas de limites dans la durée ou la capacité). En effet, le rôle des sens dans la mémoire est important. On peut d’ailleurs reconnaître différents types de mémoires liées au sens : la mémoire photographique, auditive, gustative, tactile ou encore olfactive. Certaines personnes possèdent d’ailleurs d’exceptionnelles mémoires : n’est-ce pas sa mémoire photographique du détail et sa capacité d’observation qui ont fait la célébrité de Sherlock Holmes à travers le monde ?

La relation entre les sens et la mémoire a déjà été débattue par Descartes qui, dans ces Règles pour la Direction de l’Esprit, déclare dans sa 8e règle « qu’en nous, l’intelligence seule est capable de connaître, et qu’elle peut être ou empêchée ou aidée par 3 autres facultés, c’est à savoir l’imagination, les sens et la mémoire. Il faut donc voir successivement en quoi ces facultes peuvent nous nuire pour éviter [l’intuition], ou nous servir pour en profiter ». Freud quant a lui apporte la notion de « refoulement », processus de blocage de certains souvenirs traumatisants enterrés dans l’inconscient, et qui parfois peuvent donner naissance à de faux souvenirs, des fantasmes. Dans ces 2 cas, il est néanmoins suggéré que la mémoire ne stocke pas seulement les souvenirs, mais que ceux-ci portent l’empreinte de nos perceptions et de nos émotions.
Dans sa semi-autobiographie « A la recherche du temps perdu », Marcel Proust se souvient de son passé en utilisant la « mémoire involontaire », définie par Wikipedia comme un processus par lequel des souvenirs reviennent à la mémoire sans efforts volontaires de la part du sujet par le moyen d’indices rencontrés dans la vie de tous les jours. D’autres écrivains tels que Lord Byron ou encore Huysmans se sont inspirés de phénomènes de société, n’ayant pas vécu d’aventures extra ordinaires : cloîtrés dans leurs demeures bourgeoises, ils ont passé la majorité de leurs temps à « fantasmer » et a analyser le sens de leurs vies banales et ennuyeuses. C’est leur imagination liée à leur mémoire et leur créativité artistique qui ont rendu leurs œuvres uniques, alors que d’autres personnes ont peut-être vécu des aventures hors du commun, mais leur manque de créativité ne leur permet pas « d’enregistrer » leurs expériences ou souvenirs.
Bien sûr, l’inclusion de notre perception dans le processus de la mémoire s’avère un atout incontestable, et la preuve en a été donnée a maintes reprises, notamment dans le milieu criminel ou les témoins doivent faire appel a leurs souvenirs. Cependant, l’inclusion de nos sens et sensibilités dans ce contexte ne revient-il pas à introduire la notion de manque de fiabilité ou d’impartialité de notre mémoire ?
Peut-être est-ce la raison pour laquelle notre mémoire est de moins en moins sollicitée ? La technologie nous permet de stocker des informations à l’infini et de les retrouver a convenance : depuis l’invention de la calculatrice, les enfants n’ont plus besoin de se souvenir de formules mathématiques ; l’ordinateur, l’invention la plus acclamée du 20e siècle n’a pas seulement révolutionné nos méthodes de communication, mais il a également remplacé les efforts humains considérables engagés dans l’archivage de données ; les enregistrements vidéos sont maintenant utilisés dans les tribunaux. Certains pensent que le futur de l’humanité est menacé d’être remplacé par des machines, comme Stanley Kubrick le met en scène dans sont film 2001, concept qui désolerai Charles Péguy qui considère que « […] la mémoire fait toute la profondeur de l’homme » (Clio, 1931).
Il est également permis de se demander jusqu’ou l’histoire, supposée être la mémoire officielle de notre collectivité, peut-être crue, et quelle proportion de vérité elle contient. Est-il possible que tout ce que nous avons appris, tout ce que nous avons lu n’était rien d’autre que mensonges ? Comme Napoléon l’a déclaré, « qu’est l’histoire sinon une fable sur laquelle tout le monde est d’accord » ?

Sunday, 17 October 2010

Fairness vs Justice

Everybody knows: Life is unfair. Some were born rich, some poor; some intelligent, some not; some beautiful, some plain; some healthy and strong, some weak and sickly. It’s the luck of the draw. What can we do about it? If everybody was born equal, then the world would lack any diversity or variety as we know it. Life is unpredictable. You win some and you lose some. We need to be philosophical. That’s the raison d’être for our café-philo.

Nevertheless, inequality has always been the main culprit of turmoil and conflicts. Gross social injustice causes havoc in the world, uprisings, riots, revolutions, wars… No earth-shattering revelations here.

In an attempt to prevent social upheavals, governments adopted a series of measures to deliver “fairness” and minimise “inequality” among different classes so as to alleviate these growing social tensions between the very rich and the very poor. We are impressed by these slogans or promises: “democracy”, “meritocracy”, “equal opportunity”, “political correctness”, “multiculturalism”, “racial and gender equality”, “gay lesbian rights”.

Result: the tip of the balance has tilted towards the other end. Democracy has not given any real power to people but only make the power more concentrated on the top. Jurisprudence has been all but lost as lawyers act in favour of special interest groups. Social welfare systems created opportunities for fraudsters to rob society. Employment policy over-corrected itself by turning the formerly advantageous into disadvantageous. Tax system is controlled by accountants who favour the rich and rip off the salary-earning class.

During the recent two years, we have witnessed the decline and fall of many investment banks and high-street banks found lacking in any self-restraint by speculating in high-risk “investment” futures options. Massive funds have been usurped by hedge fund managers who design new vehicles for their instant gratification. Their bonuses redirected to offshore accounts in Cayman Island and the British Virgin Islands. Government has to rely on the taxpayers’ contribution to rescue banks to maintain their profligacy.

We ask is it “unfair” to pay illegal immigrants social welfare on arrival? Or is it “fairer” to pay bankers unrestricted bonuses by using the tax-payer?

Sunday, 10 October 2010

Scientific memory or Romantic memory?

Persistence of memory
(The following debate was conducted in French: "Le souvenir, appartient-il au monde matériel, ou au monde spiritual?" The French version of this summary will follow shortly.)

Memory; is it merely a neurological function of recording and retrieving information from a past event: Or is it a fantasy, a ghostly apparition, or a poetic reinterpretation of our life experience? What is Freudian theory of « memory » ? Can memory be a reliable testimony / evidence of a past event? Can we trust anyone’s memory? What is the difference between « souvenir » and « mémoire » ? Memory, as a mental process of storing information, can it be replaced by technology, such as computer science? What is animal memory as opposed to human memory? These are questions our café-philosophers unearthed in our discussion yesterday.

Remembering and forgetting
Memory as a neurological function basically serves as a mechanism of storing, retaining and retrieval of information that we learn in our daily life. As memory records information that we perceived every minute, we can actually say that we are living in the past all the time, technically speaking.

Memory is not a function belonging uniquely to human beings. Most animals have superb memories, such as the elephant, who famously remembers every human face that has inflicted harm to his pride in the past – a vindictive species, who bears grudges against certain person and seeks to exact revenge when opportunity arises.

Some people are endowed with a photographic memory which enables them to become superb detective. Sherlock Holmes remarked that most people do not notice small things that pass in front of their eyes. It was his photographic memory and observation skills that marked him as the most famous private detective in the world.

If memories are used as important testimony/evidence in criminal prosecutions, we have to ask, can memory, as a mental process as opposed to material evidence, be trusted as a wholly reliable source of information? It is arguable that all memories are merely fantasies or imaginations. According to Sigmund Freud, repressed memories of traumatic events in childhood can resurface in later years, but they may well be false memories. As years passed, memories of many details are likely to fade, and one tends to make up the blank spots in their memories by using imaginations.

Memories used in education are now aided by the development of technology. Since the invention of calculators, children are no longer required to memorise the formulae of maths. The computer is the most acclaimed invention of the 20th century which not only revolutionised communication systems, it also largely replaced human effort of laborious record keeping. It seems that the future of Mankind is indeed under the threat of being taken over by machines – as predicted in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001.

Poetic memories
As our café-philosophers are not neuroscientists, or cognitive psychologists, it is better to devote our debating skill to discussing the romantic/sentimental aspect of “memories.”

Some authors like to declare in the introduction of their books that their story is based partly on memories of true facts, and partly on imagination. But who cares if you say it refers to actual facts or not? As we have already discussed above, all memories can be fabricated unless there is supporting material evidence.

In Marcel Proust’s “A la recherche du temps perdu”, a semi-autobiography, he recalled his past by using what he named as “involuntary memory (la mémoire involontaire)” – “a conception of human memory in which cues encountered in everyday life evoke recollections of the past without conscious effort.” (Wikipedia)

Some poets and writers (e.g. Lord Byron) consciously sought adventures in society to find inspiration for their creative writing.  Many non-creative people may have lived through the most extraordinary events in their life but unable to record their experiences as a result of their lack of talent, while certain creative people (e.g. M.Proust, J.K.Huysmans) have never experienced any exciting event in their entire life. Cooped-up in their bourgeois homes, they spent most their days fantasizing and contemplating the meaning of their cloistered existence. It is their imagination and fantasy, not their memory of actual events that added charm to our boring and grey existence.

A final thought, to what extent can HISTORY - supposedly the official records of our collective memories - be trusted, how much of it is truth?  What if all we had been taught, all we had read in the history book were nothing but lies?   As Napoleon remarked once, history is "a fable agreed upon."

Tuesday, 5 October 2010

Asker or Guesser?

I republish this cute little essay from Christian’s e-mail as an addendum to our debate on “Etiquette”:

"Dear Philosophers,

Are you an Asker or a Guesser? The question was going round the internet a few years ago following an insightful post on the Metafilter community forum. The theory runs like this. If you have been brought up in an Ask culture your role models encouraged you to be straightforward and to declare candidly what you wanted, a piece of cake, a present; later on, a date, a pay rise, a favour – fully accepting that the answer may be negative. You don’t take a ‘no’ personally, and you believe the people who turn down your requests don’t mean it that way.

If you shy away from boldly asking, however, you may be a product of the Guess culture. You avoid “putting a request into words unless you're pretty sure the answer will be yes… A key skill is putting out delicate feelers. If you do this with enough subtlety, you won't have to make the request directly; you'll get an offer. Even then, the offer may be genuine or pro forma; it takes yet more skill and delicacy to discern whether you should accept."

As a boy I once spent a few days with a family where you didn’t ask for anything at the dinner table. It certainly trained you to anticipate the other guests’ needs: salt, a piece of bread, more water. It probably taught me too much, actually. I tend to be a Guesser when the time comes for asking favours. On the other hand I am hopeless at reading clues and deciphering hints. I was at ease in Russia, where people routinely and peremptorily demand your time, efforts and money, only to smile graciously if you tell them to get lost. Nice try.

Misunderstandings arise when Guessers meet Askers. The former view the latter as boor; the latter don’t perceive convoluted approaches, leaving Guessers in the agony of having to be more direct, or desist.

This country used to be part of the Guess universe, at least its elite were. Is it changing? I was having sushi the other day with a young student. He nonchalantly grabbed the last piece.

— What? he asked, seeing me rather indignant
— Shouldn’t you ask before taking the last piece?
— You wanted it?
— No
— So?

Maybe that’s the solution. Don’t ask. Don’t guess. Just grab.


Monday, 4 October 2010


Settling down into my seat on the underground I took a quick look round and noted, accompanied by that delightful frisson engendered by a fix of cultural pessimism so necessary for a revolutionary, that nearly all my fellow passengers where playing mindlessly with their mobile phones or texting messages of the utmost banality to recipients who were no doubt equally unaware of the crisis faced by global capitalism. Before opening my book which happened to be on the Baader Meinhoff group which I knew would shortly be giving give me frissons of a far more problematic nature I noticed a young lady of Moslem appearance quietly and intently reading her own little book. For a moment in time we were united against the philistines around us but of course this happy state of affairs did not survive my weakness for cultural stereotyping that of course completely subverts my other belief that races and nations do not have essences that are capable of resisting historic and political developments. I thought to myself with an unbecoming smugness grounded it has to be said in enlightenment values that I bet, a secular form of Pascal's wager of course, that she is reading some holy book. Eventually after some considerable effort and a neglect of my own book I was able to confirm this was the case. However I was rather troubled by my finding. Was the proof of my assumption further proof that the young lady was somehow more determined , in a philosophical sense, than I was in her choice of book and if so could it further be the case that she is less free than me and for what it is worth the other passengers on the train whose activities were only really determined by their choice of means of communicating rather than the content of their message. (I sense the ghost of McLuhan hovering over me). Yes I thought it does for I doubted that the young lady, if she had been so minded, would have been able to guess the nature of the book I was reading simply by looking at me as the potential choices I had were almost unlimited including a holy book. I have previous in this area as I have in the past noticed that Africa looking ladies generally when reading on the tube opt for the Bible. So far one might think so prejudiced, though a prejudice based on empirical evidence. Anxious then to entertain an antithesis I considered that the women have just as freely chosen to read the Koran (or commentary which this was in the case of my fellow traveller) or Bible as I have my book. But I have a nagging doubt that their choice involved the consideration of other literary possibilities that were eventually rejected as having merit but less immediate relevance to their lives. But in what way does this matter, if at all? I would have liked to have to talked to the young lady but of course being British I knew I would have to be wait to be introduced and as she got out after a couple of stops that was highly unlikely to happen.
On a practical note.I said I'd try to keep a record of subjects proposed at Cafe. Should anybody remember any from say the last few months pleased let me know.I am only interested in the English speaking though on reflection it would be intriguing to compare them with the French language sessions

Sunday, 3 October 2010


Interesting to find how many synonyms people have used for “Etiquette” during our last session of Café-philo: faux-pas, mannerism, code of conduct, protocol, rules of the game, formality, ritual, ceremony, decorum, politeness, and finally a ticket or a label.  
Hunting etiquette in Book of Hours (Livre d'Heures), 1442
 Etymology: originated in France meaning “ticket” which defines the prerogatives of the nobilities. The 17th century European court education consists of the learning of code of etiquette, which includes sensitivity to language and demeanours, deference and pomposity, ceremonial behaviour and festive disorder, fostering the “natural” superiority appropriate to hereditary aristocracy. Such education was the aristocracy’s response to the absolutism in the French monarchy.

Etiquette differs from “good manners”. Etiquette is artificial set of rules imposed on society where good manners can be part of the natural instinct of being polite.

Exclusivity: Etiquette may reflect a person’s fashion and status. It often serves as a “ticket of admission” to a special club. In pre-Revolution Russia, speaking French was the decorum of the “polite society".  In other words, a prerequisite for the status of an aristocrat in Tzarist Russia.  Being of French origin arising from the practices in Louis XIV’s court, the notion of etiquette and decorum is frowned upon in the United States – a country without a history of monarchy and aristocracy. From the 20th century, the notion of etiquette in Europe has gradually been eroded by the notion of equality, along with the diminition of aristocracy. Conventional etiquette is only practiced in special ceremonies.

We may see distinct differences in social mores in different countries. Some etiquette serves no particular purpose except showing pure aesthetic values such as flower arranging. Some etiquette just seems so pointless that it verges on the ridiculous with its pomposity and ceremonies. The most commonly quoted Japanese etiquette is the Tea Ceremony. The tea serving in Japan has been so ritualised that it fascinates and mystifies outsiders with its theatricality which defies reasoning. Japan may not be the only country with tea ceremony. In Middle-Eastern countries, where the weather is arid and hot, mint tea is often served in a special manner to relieve the fatigue and thirst of Muslim brethren. Some rules of etiquette are similar in different cultures, such as the removal of shoes in sacred places as a common practice in both Buddhist temple and Islamic Mosque.

Culture clash: Some rules of etiquette in one country can often be seen as offence by another culture. Take table manners for example, the Orientals eat with chopsticks and they have a habit of slurping while eating noodles. This would be construed as revolting table manners in the West. Vice versa, where in America a guest is supposed to eat all he has been offered while this would be seen as greedy and gluttony behaviour in Oriental culture.

Rules of etiquette may reflect the underlying ethical code. Every society has its own code of conduct incorporated into the local legal system for the purpose of disciplining people’s behaviour and reinforcing the conformity of certain social convention. Certain code of social convention might be obstructive to the economic growth, for example, fasting on Ramadan or closing of business on Holy Friday can seriously reduce business output in the society. Because of different family values, Nepotism, which is illegal in the West, is considered quite normal in the East. Business dealings can be tricky when there is cultural clash. In China, the most important concept in business dealing is “face”, which loosely translates as honour, reputation, and reliability. Any breach of etiquette that causes embarrassment to oneself means loss of “face”. In America, to say “yes” means “yes”, “no” means “no” this kind of direct no-nonsense answer would be considered a “Faux-pas” in Asia. The stereotyped Oriental businessmen often give the impression of being non-confrontational, as they rarely give a straight answer as “no”. The usual answer is “they will think about it”, or they “will see”. Even the British use the expression “in due course” can be interpreted as a convenient way of avoiding a specific time or date.

As a consequence of the globalisation, many cultural differences are on the verge of disappearing. With the rapid economic growth and the emphasis on “time is money”, some codes of etiquette are construed as obstacles or impediment of effective business dealings. Consequently, many conventional protocols have been dispensed with in the face of social demographic progress of the late 20th and early 21st century. The call for efficiency and effectiveness of management style requires that the modern men and women use plain language and direct answers in business world, effectively abolishing the nuances and subtlety of languages. How much does it say for the future of our civilisation?

A practical guide to business etiquette in different countries can be found here:


The French are often impressed with good debating skills that demonstrate an intellectual grasp of the situation and all the ramifications.” - from above website

Tuesday, 28 September 2010

L'Art, est-il la représentation de la folie?

Posted on behalf of Céline :

La Grotte de Lascaux, France, ca.15,000 BC
Depuis au moins l’antiquité, la philosophie s‘interroge sur l’art: il est donc bien naturel que notre Café Philo de Samedi dernier débatte sur l’une des innombrables questions qui se pose: l’art est-il la représentation de la folie?  
L’art a effectivement évolué depuis ses premières expressions sur les murs des grottes habitées par les hommes préhistoriques. En effet, jusqu'au siècle des Lumières, il n’y a pas de véritable différence entre l’artiste et l’artisan : le travail est basé sur la notion de beau en tant que représentation de la réalité, ainsi que les connaissances techniques démontrées. Alors que l’art servait essentiellement aux représentations religieuses, (une arme intemporelle pour défier la mort, même s’il avait occasionnellement une fonction publique ou sociale illustrée par la commande de livres d’heures ou de portraits), la renaissance place l’homme au centre des préoccupations artistiques et fait ainsi appel a nos sens et nos émotions : c’est la séparation rationnel (« logos ») et du sensible. Au XXe siécle, l’artiste remet en cause le rapport entre beauté et art, et n’hésite pas à désacraliser ce dernier en lui donnant une fonction de «révélation libératrice », comme le déclare René Magritte. 
Livre d'Heures, 1442
Il est vrai qu’il est difficile de définir l’art : est-t-il contextuel et ne se révèle en tant qu’art dans une galerie dûment exposée (Shéhérazade nous donnait l’exemple de la Joconde, exposée au Louvre, et qui serait peut-être méconnue internationalement si elle était exposée au fin fond le la campagne italienne), ou bien est-ce qu’il « n’a que faire des proclamations et s’accompli dans le silence » (Marcel Proust) ? L’art doit-il avoir une fonction autre que celle d’exprimer ses émotions personnelles, et créer un lien entre l’auteur et le spectateur ? N’a-t-on pas néanmoins vu certains artistes repousser les frontières du réel à travers leurs arts jusqu'à en sombrer dans la folie, tels Schuman ou encore Van Gogh ? 

Van Gogh 1889

Les formes les plus contemporaines de l’art explorent différentes théories, en se servant de l’art comme moyen de thérapie : écriture, peinture, composition musicale, ou encore création de concepts, la « définition» de l’art est ainsi très diversifiée. Mais la plus grande folie a laquelle succomber ne demeure t-elle pas le risque d’exagérer l’utilisation de art, et de l’exploiter commercialement au point de voir s’établir comme le déclare Andy Warhol « l’art des affaires qui succède a l’art. […] »

See also:
Bosch and Freud - on Art and Madness

Sunday, 26 September 2010

History of Economic Thought: Plato

 Being a complete novice at economics, I went to the course of the History of Economic Thought at Mary Ward Centre with great curiosity.  In the first lesson of economics, I was delighted to learn something about ancient Greek society and the rise of Greek philosophers.  Ignorant as I am in philosophy as in economics, I had only heard of Plato in the context of Platonic Love.  Never had I had the faintest idea that Plato was also the forefather of Communism!  In the 4th century BC, he exposed three main evils of an imperfect society: inequality, greed and ignorance and attributed the roots of all evils to ruthless profit-making and exploitation.

To be serious, Plato was not a communist.  The difference between Plato and Marxism lies in their theories of social divisions. Marxists advocate a society ruled by Proletarians as in their slogan: “Workers of the world unite; you have nothing to lose but your chains.” Whereas Proletarians/Producers/the working class in Plato’s ideal “city” would be placed in the lowest strata of the society.  Plato’s ideal was a society ruled by Priests and Philosophers – the thinkers, not by Producers/the working class.

Let’s be honest, can the working class really rule the world without the “intellectual guidance” from “Priests and Philosophers”? I wonder if anybody still remembers George Orwell’s Animal Farm, in which Squealer – the intellectual pig, run the whole show of the Farm with his glib tongue.  The egalitarian slogan of the communist farm reads:


Related topic:
History of Economic Thought

Wednesday, 22 September 2010

Shyness and introversion

Good news for those who suffer from "shyness":
'hormone of love' cure for shyness

Palpitation, raised blood pressure, hot blushing face, sweaty skin, clammy hands, fidgety feet, uncontrollable tremors. We have all experienced such fears. But this is a particular brand of fear, namely the fear of being seen, fear of making a fool of oneself, fear of being ridiculed. It’s like a fever, a disease. One feels ill and helpless when such fear strikes.

But it is such a strange topic for Café-philo: Shyness. Does an awkward personal trait merit a serious philosophical debate?  To my surprise, our fellow café philosophers have proved fairly flexible about the range of topics that might be admitted into our discussion, as one can argue that “philosophy” is also about questioning anything under the sun. So be it, we can talk about “shyness” just as we can babble on about the foul British weather, no doubt which is largely responsible for the making of the British characters: moodiness, shyness, introversion, stiff-upper-lip, and so on. 
Shy Politicians

Normally we would attribute a person’s shyness to a deep inferiority complex about one’s appearance, hence such a word as self-consciousness. Some café philosophers, however, tried to use Reverse Psychology to analyse the situation. They think that “shyness” could be interpreted as a manifestation of Superiority Complex – it describes certain persons who rate themselves higher than others and their inhibition and reticence can therefore be seen as a way of showing their contempt for others. I am not sure if I would agree with this theory. To my mind, it is one thing to be shy and bashful and it is another to be inhibited and reticent. Some former “Spin Doctors” in the previous government had a reputation of being secretive and not forthcoming. Can we say that the “Prince of Darkness” of the previous Cabinet suffered from “shyness”? Or, shall we assume that they felt “self-conscious” of their secrecy so that they had to borrow some fig-leaves to cover up their shame, like our biblical ancestors did?

In Asiatic feudal society, women were required to behave in accordance with certain social protocols, in which shyness was regarded as a virtue, and modesty and humility the quality of a well-educated woman. Even in old Europe, this kind of social protocol was not uncommon. Before French Revolution, people from lower social strata had to show diffidence in front of nobles. Assertiveness in the old days was considered bad manners, equivalent to the behaviour of drunkenness.

As Jean-Christophe pointed out, those who like to speak out in the public are usually those who try to impress, to show off their eloquence. Of course, there is nothing wrong with show-offs. Neither is there anything wrong with introverts. Some like to be in the limelight, some like to be on the sidelines. Some are loud; some are quiet. Some like crowds, some like solitude. Chacun a son goût. This is the beauty of living in a multi-cultural society, if we allow diversity of cultures to co-exist, why can’t we allow diversity of personalities to co-exist?

Why then in this day and age are there so much negative connotations attached to the words vaguely connected with “shyness”, such as introversion, inhibition? I think there is a lot of misunderstanding about the trait of introversion in general perception. If you are interested in popular psychology, there is an article worth reading:
Introverts should be left by themselves

Tuesday, 21 September 2010

the pigeon of ealing spreads his wings after lunch

I came to the conclusion some time ago that I am much less philosophical than many of my fellow cafe goers.By this I mean I prefer to think and talk concretely rather than abstractly or devote too much time to definitions, both worthy exercises of course.However and this is a contradiction when the discussion is more overtly political or sociological I look for the philosophical principles underpinning it.Contradictions are I believe the motor of both history and personal development so I am not too troubled by playing host to them. All this is a slightly nervous prelude to suggesting that there are three main conflicts, dichotomies call them what you will that provide the intellectual base to our discussions. Conscious of Hegel's dialectic as few cannot be after spending their Saturday mornings in that oasis of thought that is the cafe I put forward my ideas in the hope, no expectation let me show some confidence ,that others will take them forward if not actual penetrate them with opposites to a higher plane. The three are free will and determinism, cultural relativism and universal values and the third nature versus nature. Now I was wondering if it is possible to establish a hierarchy in the sense that one of these conflicts shapes the course of the others or are they totally autonomous in terms of their battle grounds or more tantalising is there an ur conflict from which all three have sprung. A pretty strong case could be made for determinism, if its validity could be established, but as I cling to the belief that free will does play its part in human affairs I am reluctant to let it crush all opposition that has the temerity to stand in its way. Of course others may suggest other such conflicts.I thoiught about faith and reason but decided this was not a conflict of interpretation but a difference in approach, similarly with deduction and instinct (not sure that is one?) and so on. I await enlightenment.
On a completely different subject.Would members be interested in keeping a record of topics discussed as well as those which were proposed but not discussed. If so I am happy to use this blog to do so if Sherry can come up with the means.

Monday, 20 September 2010

Aesthetics (philosophy of art) overview

Posted on behalf of Peter:

Aesthetics is normally seen as the province of the ‘fine arts’ i.e. painting, poetry, dance, music, drama and sculpture. In the twentieth century, art photography and film were added. This blog entry lists some of the definitions that have been put forward to explain what makes something ‘art’, and a sample problem for each definition when used in isolation. (Note: these ideas occur in many works on aesthetics, but a good source is ‘Philosophy of Art’, by Noel Carroll, used as reference here).

1. Art as Representation (Imitation).
Dating from the time of Plato and Aristotle, this view states that art is representation of life. (Problem: some things now regarded as art are clearly not representational e.g. abstract painting).

2. Art as Expression of Experience.
This view became popular during the Romantic period: it’s not so much reality that is important, rather the artist’s response to it. (Problem: just because something expresses feelings, however sincerely, does not make it good art).

3. Art as Significant Form.
This view states all art must have a significant form i.e. combination of lines, colours, space etc. (Problem: how does one distinguish between significant and insignificant form).

4. Art as provider of Aesthetic Experience.
This view states there is a category of emotional response specific to works of art. (Problem: is there an aesthetic response separate from an ordinary emotional response, appreciation of pattern etc).

5. Art as Family Resemblance.
This view states that something is art if it resembles artefacts that are already regarded as works of art. (Problem: how does it cope with things that break the mould of what has gone before).

6. Art as Institution.
This view states that if a member of the art world (critics, curators, gallery owners etc.) defines something as art, then it is art. (Problem: what criteria make you eligible to speak for the art world).

7. Art as Historical Definition.
This view states that something is art only if the intention of the artist was to exemplify an acknowledged historical, artistic perspective e.g. representation, expression. (Problem: something currently defined as art may not have had an artistic intention behind it when it was created e.g. tribal artefacts now regarded as art).

8. Art as Historical Narrative.
This view states that something is a work of art if it can be seen as part of a logical progression in a historical process (narrative) i.e. the evolution of the art context. (Problem: something currently defined as art may not have been part of an acknowledged evolution in artistic thinking e.g. tribal artefacts now regarded as art).

Monday, 13 September 2010

Is philosophy dead?

(This debate was conducted in French: 'La philosophie, est-elle morte?')

Apparently the renowned physicist Steven Hawking recently made a remark that “philosophy is dead.” He claims that philosophy has failed to explain the creation of the Universe; only the laws of natural science have so far made some successful attempts in finding logical conclusions, mainly by using the disciplines of mathematics, physics, chemistry, biology. In a similar vein, another celebrated scientist, Richard Dawkins recently declared that the world was not created by God. Interestingly, the claim that God never existed gains more traction than any apparently very popular conspiracy theory.

It is understandable that as a scientist, Hawking, like his contemporary Dawkins, would automatically reject the theory of God’s creation of the Universe as there is no scientific proof to support this religious hypothesis. However when he crosses the boundary of natural science and ventures into the realm of philosophy, we cannot help wondering if Hawking is fully qualified to proffer a plausible argument. In his rejection of the validity of this independent discipline, Hawking does not seem to distinguish philosophy from religion. In his opinion, philosophy, with its fuzzy logic, is unable to find answers to the mysteries of the world in the same way as religion cannot provide any valid proof of the existence of God. It appears that Hawking had made an equation between philosophy and the existence of God. Shall we quote this as a classic example of fallacy – a valid but unsound deductive argument? (see Critical Thinking 1, 3 September 2010)

In this day and age, some scientists have to resort to the marketing tactics and self-promotion style of pop stars and post-modern artists in order to gain public recognition. No offence intended, Hawking and Dawkins enjoy practically the same degree of fame as their counterparts in arts and entertainment business. Making seemingly provocative anti-establishment statements is an effective and sure way of elevating a scientist’s status to the level of a celebrity. I dare say that the only difference between the two learned gentlemen and Michael Jackson is that the formers deliberately show their contempt of our presumed Divine Creator while the latter considered himself the reincarnation of the son of God. Hawking said: “Philosophy is dead.” Dawkins said: “There is no God.” Michal Jackson said: “I will never stop helping and loving people the way Jesus said to.” Carrying that cross must have been a burden for him during his short life on earth.

In any case, if philosophy has indeed been taken over by natural science, why are we still carrying on debating endlessly questions after questions in our Café-philo drowning ourselves in cups after cups of coffee? Well, our discussion last Saturday has drawn some unanimously agreed conclusions to justify the absolute necessity of Café-philo:

1. Natural science cannot explain ethical questions: when Dr. Oppenheimer invented the Atom Bomb in New Mexico, maybe he was unaware of, or simply ignored the moral consequences of his invention because he was not a “Philosopher”. Owing to his invention, the extinction of mankind has now become possible; if not inevitable. Shall we allow this kind of Frankensteinesque scientific experiment to go on without any philosophical intervention?

2. Natural science cannot find answers to artistic flairs: can we use math, chemistry, or physics to explain the inspirations that a composer, or an artist, or a poet received during the creation of music, art, literature? Obviously not! That’s where the philosophy of art (aesthetics) comes in.

3. Natural science does not teach us how to drink a delicious cup of coffee, or how to appreciate the finer points of life: For philosophy let us watch the world go by, ask questions about ourselves and about others, and try to find answers to these deeper questions, even though there may never be any final answers to all the questions we asked. If all questions can be solved by using fixed mathematical formulae, then philosophy shall indeed be pronounced dead on arrival and we shall all pack up and leave our Café-philo in search of the miraculous.

Tuesday, 7 September 2010

The Beauty of Fig Leaves

The theme last Saturday focused on “Religion” as a follow-up of the previous topic of “Suffering”. Since the majority of the café-philosophers are self-proclaimed Atheists, the topic of religion seemed to be an easy target of ridicule.  The God, our all mighty divine Providence received a fair dose of thrashing… The quotes of the day:

The only difference between Religion and Cults is the amount of real estate they own.”

God is triangular.”

God is our absentee landlord.”

God is a dog spelt backwards.

Christian art is full of fig leaves.”

Let’s have a look at some more Fig Leaves:

For this topic, I would recommend this website: Atheism & Agnosticism.
I would also recommend the four articles written by our co-author Peter on philosophical theories, critical thinking, and philosophy of religion (see articles below).

Our next session will be in French.  I hope our Francophone friends can make some contributions to this blog in the language of Descartes or in the language of Shakespeare.

Au plaisir de vous lire...

Religion, Suffering and the Pursuit of Wealth (2)

Posted by Peter:

Some Critical Thinking issues
This entry is one of an occasional series to raise Critical Thinking issues associated with Café Philo topics, or other discussion threads. The origin for this entry comes from Café Philo on 28/08/10, and subsequent blog ‘Religion, Suffering and the Pursuit of Wealth’.

1. Straw Man fallacy
Statements criticising the pursuit of wealth often produce apoplectic responses from free-market fundamentalists, economic neo-conservatives and similar demographics. A typical response is to accuse the speaker of wanting everyone to go back to living in caves, repudiating the technical / medical advances of the last two centuries. This is an example of a Straw Man fallacy i.e. deliberately mis-representing someone’s position, and then attacking this distorted position. In fact it is perfectly consistent to wish for a basic standard of living for everyone, taking advantage of core benefits of modern science, while still criticising the pursuit of money as the ultimate goal. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is an example of a more balanced view of what it means to be human.

Two associated ideas aiming to justify the pursuit of wealth are also open to challenge, but are not developed here for space reasons. (1) Trickle-down effect (2) Facilitation of philanthropy.

2. Cognitive Dissonance (holding inconsistent thoughts) / Information Bias
Particularly popular amongst certain sections of the American religious community, the theory of the Prosperity Gospel takes wealth as a sign of God’s approval, thereby attempting to square the unsquareable circle between right-wing economics and the Christian ethic ‘love of money is the root of evil’. It provides the glue between religious fundamentalists (representing God…) and the Republican Party (representing wealth and privilege…). There is no shortage of Biblical references for the polar opposite to this view, so Information Bias (ignoring these embarrassing counter-examples) has to be used in order to avoid Cognitive Dissonance (the Bible can’t be both pro and against the pursuit of wealth).

3. Slippery Slope fallacy
An interesting recent example of the Catholic Church’s attitude to material wellbeing comes from the Liberation Theology movement in Latin America during the 1970s/1980s. The motive power for this came from a core of brave Catholic priests, looking to improve the economic situation of their people in the face of huge disparities of wealth and power, under oppressive right-wing regimes. Their natural allies were left-wing parties. Led by Pope John Paul, the Church institution (allegedly) suppressed this movement, on the basis it would inevitably lead to atheistic left-wing governments, if successful. The Slippery Slope fallacy says that taking one step on a certain path will inevitably lead to a (worst-case) scenario. Better to support repressive right-wing regimes, nominally Church supporting.

Religion, Suffering and the Pursuit of Wealth

Posted by PeterFurther thoughts from Café Philo on 28/08/10

“All life is suffering”, the Buddha is reputed to have said. In Christianity the Sermon on the Mount promises future rewards for those suffering now: “Blessed are the poor, meek etc.”

Many countries with a strong religious ethos are, or were historically, economically poor – and religious / political authorities have certainly used the promise of post-death riches to make a virtue of necessity (and stop the peasants revolting…). But can one conclude that religious statements on suffering are contingent on economic contexts, and that once living conditions improve they lose their relevance ? Is the pursuit of wealth the final answer ?

An expanded definition of suffering suggests an alternative interpretation. Major religions have traditionally seen the pursuit of material wealth as inimical to spiritual development, but as part of a wider warning against the idea that true happiness can be found through satisfying the demands of the ego (self) in the external world. Wealth is just one of several traps: others include power, reputation, fame, comparison with other people, defining one’s value by virtue of a role (e.g. job title, parent), or by adherence to a system of ideas (religious / political).

Of course some of these things can be pleasurable, even creditable. However suffering comes because (1) A person may not achieve any of these external factors of validation (2) Even if they do, the happiness is often transitory or unsatisfactory - a loved one leaves, we buy something but soon get bored and have to buy something else etc. Suffering, defined as the inevitable result of over-emphasising the needs of the ego in the external world, is as big an issue for a rich person as for a poor one - though the external trigger issues might be different.

The proposed alternative is to go within the mind and seek peace / happiness by accessing one’s deep Self (spirit, divine essence, Buddha nature, God, Tao, atman etc.). It is interesting to note that, whereas theologies tend to divide both within and between religions, the mystical traditions of major religions are more tolerant and tend to unify around the concept of ‘one God, many paths’.

There are many Critical Thinking issues that arise in discussions on ‘the pursuit of wealth’. Some will be discussed in a separate blog entry.

Friday, 3 September 2010

Philosophy Overview

Posted on behalf of Peter:

Any definition of Philosophy will inevitably be partially subjective, since it involves individual choices of emphasis and scope. For a birds-eye view however, the traditional division of philosophy into five main areas is still very useful. These areas are Logic and Epistemology (foundation thinking skills), Ethics and Aesthetics (how to assess the value of something), and Metaphysics (speculation on the ultimate nature of existence).

1. Logic: how to reason
This area is further divided into Formal Logic and Informal Logic - also referred to as Critical Thinking. Formal Logic can get very mathematical and self-referential, and tends to be the province of academic philosophers. Critical Thinking is much more accessible and is a key tool in assessing our own, and other people’s, arguments. (Note: in logic the word ‘argument’ means ‘an attempt to persuade by reason’, not ‘a dispute’).

2. Epistemology: how we know what we know
This area covers knowledge, and when it is justifiable to assert that we know something . It includes issues of scientific method (philosophy of science) and divine revelation (I know it is true because God revealed it to me / someone else).

3. Ethics: what is a moral act
We confront ethical questions both as individuals and at a societal level, where politics is hugely informed by ethical questions (e.g. assisted suicide, fairness of competing political theories).

4. Aesthetics: what is good / beautiful in art
This area has become less important over time, as the distinction between high and mass culture has become less significant. However it is still relevant in, for example, arts funding, where we have to ask why we should subsidise ‘x’ over ‘y’.

5. Metaphysics: the ultimate nature of being.
At one level, this area has also become less important over time due to the enormous discoveries about the world made using scientific methodology. But if one puts the philosophy of religion into this category, then it remains of huge importance to vast numbers of people.

Other definitions
At the next level down we find various permutations of the ‘philosophy of xxx’, where ‘xxx’ equates to mind, language, science, law etc. Here ‘philosophy’ tends to mean the underlying assumptions, goals, methodologies and scope of the topic. In most cases these can be linked back to one of the five main areas e.g. philosophy of science (epistemology), philosophy of law / jurisprudence (ethics).

Critical Thinking 1 - Argument Structures

Posted on behalf of Peter:

Critical Thinking provides a set of tools to assess the truth of arguments (argument = ‘attempt to persuade by reason’). Arguments that we need to analyse are everywhere: media commentators, financial advisors, business proposals – in fact anywhere where we need to decide if we should believe someone’s line of reasoning (including our own…).

Argument composition
An argument has one or more premises leading to a conclusion. Premise and conclusion are types of statement. Assessing an argument basically involves asking the following two questions. (1) Can I rely on the information used in the premises i.e. is it true, false, biased, complete etc. (2) Can I rely on the way the argument structure is used ?

Argument structures
There are two major types of argument: Deductive and Inductive. There is also a third type, Abductive, that tends to be used mostly in relation to scientific enquiry. Each major type has a set of associated thinking errors, or ‘fallacies’.

Deductive arguments
Deductive arguments deal in certainty. A ‘valid’ deductive argument is one where, if the premises are true, the conclusion must also be true. If the premises are in fact true then the argument is also ‘sound’. A deductive argument can be ‘invalid’ (even if the premises are true, the conclusion could be false) or ‘unsound’ (the premises are objectively false). An example of a valid, but unsound, argument would be: ‘All Greeks are green. Socrates was a Greek. Therefore Socrates was green’.

Inductive arguments
Inductive arguments are those seen most often in daily life, and are based more on probability / rational expectation than certainty. The equivalent of deductive validity is ‘inductive force’ (probability of conclusion being true greater than 0.5). The equivalent of deductive soundness is ‘inductive soundness’. An argument is inductively sound if its premise(s) are true and the structure is inductively forceful e.g.: ‘John rarely hands his homework in on time. Therefore it is likely to be late again tomorrow’.

Abductive arguments
Much scientific development is based on inductive reasoning i.e. if an experiment is testable and repeatable, then a general rule may be able to be built. However abductive reasoning is also used. Here, faced with an event or set of circumstances, a number of possible hypotheses are developed to explain the event. The most plausible explanation is then taken as a provisional explanation (subject to further testing).