📙 History of Philosophy

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by A. C. Grayling (2019)


Grayling, A. C. (2019). The History of Philosophy. London: Penguin.

Here’s another book that I got for course I was studying last semester: The History of Philosophy. It’s by Anthony Clifford Grayling who once said that he didn’t believe that there are any such things as gods and goddesses, for exactly the same reasons he didn’t believe there are fairies, goblins or trolls, and these reasons should be, “obvious to anyone over the age of ten.”

It is long — 600 + pages — and covers non-Western philosophies too and in so doing is distinct from the similar(ish) works of, e.g., Gottlieb, Kenny & Russell. As Michael Dirda of The Washington Post says, Grayling’s History of Philosophy seeks to offer itself to be a (or ‘the’) successor to Russell’s classic survey: 📙 A History of Western Philosophy. It can certainly be seen as an update as more than 200 pages to 20th c. thinkers, including Karl Popper and Jean-Paul Sartre. Recall that Anthony Gottlieb’s two linked volumes — The Dream of Reason & The Dream of Enlightenment — progress no further, to date, than the mid-18th c. — the era of Hume and Rousseau. (The other book that I got, by the way, was: 📙 The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy.)

People say there’s no jobs linked to English Lit. (my Major) or Philosophy (my Minor) and this is largely true (yep obviously there are jobs in say academia but not like there are jobs for Veterinary students or those studying Architecture), but like the study of ancient history and classics, the study of philosophy is of elemental and fundamental importance to the running and maintaining of civilized and cultured society — think of the perpetual battle of reason vs. superstition. Knowing about English literature and philosophical theories may not be all that vocational or marketable but, they are pivotal for the promotion of reason over fairy tale and thus a pious pursuit for those who prostrate at the alter of sublime (prophetic & profane) poetry, seismic (prophetic & profane) prose and the pondering of philosophical matters, principally those of epistemology — investigating the nature of knowledge — metaphysics — investigating the nature and realities of our existence — and ethics — what’s good, bad; right, wrong and, the morally right courses of action for any given situation.

I’ve read it said that Russell’s History of Western Philosophy looms over his academic successors in the same way James Joyce’s Ulysses overshadows novelists. The book is rarely read from cover to cover and it’s full of head-spinning digressions but Russell won a Nobel Prize in Literature partly on the strength of it, and it remains de rigueur on the shelves of any respectable intellectual. Trying to outdo Russell, then, requires not just considerable brainpower and a way with words but also a bit of an ego. “Grayling appears well qualified under all three headings.”

To read is to fly: it is to soar to a point of vantage which gives a view over wide terrains of history, human variety, ideas, shared experience and the fruits of many inquiries.

Anthony Clifford Grayling

Anthony Clifford Grayling
Grayling, A. C. (2019). The History of Philosophy. London: Penguin.

Selected Extracts

From the book’s ‘Introduction’:

In contemporary philosophy the principal areas of enquiry are epistemology, metaphysics, logic, ethics, aesthetics, the philosophy of mind, the philosophy of language, political philosophy, the history of debates in these areas of enquiry, and philosophical examination of the assumptions, methods and claims of other fields of enquiry in science and social science. Most of this is, and certainly the first three are, the staple of a study of philosophy at universities in the Anglophone world and in Europe today.
And correlatively, these are the fields of enquiry that determine which strands in the general history of ideas are selected as today’s ‘history of philosophy’, thus leaving aside the history of technology, astronomy, biology and medicine from antiquity onward, the history of physics and chemistry since the seventeenth century, and the rise of the social sciences as defined disciplines since the eighteenth century. To see what determines which strands in the history of ideas to fillet out as ‘the history of philosophy’ we therefore need to look backwards through the lens of the various branches of contemporary philosophy as listed above, and this requires a preliminary understanding of what these branches are.
Epistemology — or ‘theory of knowledge’ is enquiry into the nature of knowledge and how it is acquired. It investigates the distinctions between knowledge, belief and opinion, seeks to ascertain the conditions under which a claim to know something is justified, and examines and offers responses to sceptical challenges to knowledge.
Metaphysics — is enquiry into the nature of reality and existence. What exists, and what is its nature? What is existence? What are the most fundamental kinds of being? Are there different kinds of existence or existing thing? Do abstract entities outside space and time, such as numbers and universals, exist in addition to concrete things in space and time such as trees and stones? Do supernatural entities such as gods exist in addition to the natural realm? Is reality one thing or many things? If humans are wholly part of the natural causal order of the universe, can there be such a thing as free will?
Metaphysics and epistemology are central to philosophy as a whole; they are, as it were, the physics and chemistry of philosophy; understanding the problems and questions in these two enquiries is basic to discussion in all other areas of philosophy.
Logic — the science of valid and sound reasoning – is the general instrument of philosophy, as mathematics is in science. (see next extract, below).
Ethics — as a subject in the philosophy curriculum, is enquiry into the concepts and theories of what is good, of right and wrong, of moral choice and action. The phrase ‘as a subject in the philosophy curriculum’ is employed here because the word ‘ethics’ has multiple applications. Even when used as the label of an area of philosophy it serves to denote two separable matters: examination of ethical concepts and reasoning – this is more precisely described as ‘metaethics’ – and examination of ‘normative’ moralities which seek to tell us how to live and act. Normative morality is distinguished from the more theoretical metaethical enquiry by describing normative morality as a ‘first order’ endeavour and metaethics as a ‘second order’ endeavour. By its nature philosophy is a second-order enquiry, so ‘ethics’ in the context of philosophical study standardly means metaethics.
But the word ‘ethics’ also, though relatedly, denotes the outlook and attitudes of individuals or organizations regarding their values, how they act and how they see themselves. This is a familiar and good use of the term; and – interestingly – reflection on this use shows that the words ‘ethics’ and ‘morals’ do not mean the same. This is easier to grasp when we note the etymologies of the terms: ‘ethics’ comes from the Greek ethos meaning ‘character’, whereas ‘morals’ derives from a coining by Cicero from the Latin mos, moris (plural mores) which means ‘custom’ and even ‘etiquette’. Morality, accordingly, is about our actions, duties and obligations, whereas ethics is about ‘what sort of person one is’, and although the two are obviously connected, they are equally obviously distinct
This distinction naturally appears in the arenas of metaethical and normative discussion too. In their identification of the locus of value, some metaethical theories focus on the character of the agent, others on the consequences of actions, others again on whether an action conforms to a duty. When it is the character of an agent that matters, we are discussing ethics in the sense of ethos just described; when it is the consequence of actions or conformity with duty that matters, it is the narrower focus of morality which is in view.
Aesthetics — is enquiry into art and beauty. What is art? Is beauty an objective property of things natural or man-made, or is it subjective, existing in the eye of the beholder only? Can something be aesthetically valuable whether or not it is beautiful and whether or not it is a work of art? Are the aesthetic values of natural things (a landscape, a sunset, a face) different from those we attribute to artefacts (a painting, a poem, a piece of music)?
Philosophy of mind — is the enquiry into the nature of mental phenomena and consciousness. It was once an integral part of metaphysics because the latter, in enquiring into the nature of reality, has to consider whether reality is only material, or in addition has non-material aspects such as mind, or perhaps is only mental as the ‘idealist’ philosophers argue. But as consensus has grown around the view that reality is fundamentally and exclusively material, and that mental phenomena are the products of the material activity of the brain, understanding those phenomena and in particular the nature of consciousness has become a topic of intense interest.
Philosophy of language — is enquiry into how we attach meaning to sounds and marks in a way that enables communication and embodies thought, indeed perhaps makes thought above a certain rudimentary level possible in the first place. What is the unit of semantic meaning – a word, a sentence, a discourse? What is ‘meaning’ itself? What do we know – or know how to do – when we ‘know the meaning’ of expressions in a language? Is there such a thing as a language such as English, or are there as many idiolects of English as there are speakers of those idiolects, thus making a language in fact a collection of not completely overlapping idiolects? How do we interpret and understand the language-use of others? What are the epistemological and metaphysical implications of our understanding of language, meaning and language-use?
For good reasons the philosophies of mind and language have become conjoined into a single overall enquiry in more recent academic philosophy, as the titles of books and university courses ubiquitously attest.
Political philosophy — is enquiry into the principles of social and political organisation and their justification. It asks, What is the best way to organise and run a society? What legitimates forms of government? On what grounds do claims to authority in the state or a society rest? What are the advantages and disadvantages of democracy, communism, monarchy and other forms of political arrangement?
The history of philosophy — as it is viewed backwards through the lens of the above enquiries is an essential part of philosophy itself, because all these enquiries have evolved over time as – so to speak – a great conversation among thinkers living in different centuries in different circumstances but nevertheless absorbed in the same fundamental questions; and therefore knowing the ‘case law’ of these debates is crucial to understanding them. This prevents us from unnecessarily reinventing the wheel over and over again, helps us to avoid mistakes and to recognise pitfalls, allows us to profit from our predecessors’ endeavours and insights, and gives us materials to use in trying to understand the subject matter at issue, and to frame the right questions to ask about them.
Philosophical examination of the assumptions, methods and claims of other fields of enquiry is what is meant by such labels as ‘philosophy of science’, ‘philosophy of history’, ‘philosophy of psychology’ and the like. Every enquiry rests on assumptions and employs methodologies, and selfawareness about these is necessary. Philosophical questions about science, for example, are asked by scientists themselves and not only by philosophers; philosophical questions about the study of history likewise are raised by historians in discussing their methods and aims. Consider each in turn more particularly, as follows.
Should science be understood in realist or in instrumentalist terms – that is, are the entities referred to by technical terms in science really existing things, or are they useful constructs that help to organize understanding of the phenomena being studied? Is scientific reasoning deductive or inductive? Is there such a thing as scientific knowledge or, on the understanding that all science is open to refutation by further evidence, should it be understood as a system of powerfully evidenced theories which are nevertheless intrinsically defeasible?
As regards history: if there is no evidence one way or the other for a claim about something that happened in the past, is the claim nevertheless definitely either true or false, or is it neither? History is written in the present on the basis of evidence – diaries, letters, archaeological remains — that has survived into the present (or so we judge): it is partial and fragmentary, and many of the past’s traces are lost; is there therefore such a thing as knowledge of the past at all, or is there only interpretative reconstruction at best – and perhaps, too often, just surmise?
Reflection on the kinds of enquiries, and kinds of questions those enquiries prompt, shows that philosophy is the attempt to make sense of things, to achieve understanding and perspective, in relation to those many areas of life and thought where doubt, difficulty, obscurity and ignorance prevail – which is to say: on the frontiers of all our endeavours. I describe the role of philosophy to my students as follows: we humans occupy a patch of light in a great darkness of ignorance. Each of the special disciplines has its station on an arc of the circumference of that patch of light, straining to see outwards into the shadows to descry shapes, and thereby to push the horizon of light a little further outwards. Philosophy patrols the whole circumference, making special efforts on those arcs where there is as yet no special discipline, trying to formulate the right questions to ask in order that there might be a chance of formulating answers.
This task — asking the right questions — is indeed crucial. Until the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, philosophers did not often enough ask the right questions in the right way about nature; when they did, the natural sciences were thereby born, developing into magnificent and powerful fields of enquiry which brought the modern world into existence. Philosophy thus gave birth to science in those centuries; in the eighteenth century it gave birth to psychology, in the nineteenth century to sociology and empirical linguistics, in the twentieth century it played important roles in the development of artificial intelligence and cognitive science. Its contributions to aspects of neuroscience and neuropsychology continue.
But the core of questions in epistemology, metaphysics, ethics, political philosophy, the ‘philosophy of’ pursuits, and the rest, remain; they are perennial and perennially urgent questions, because efforts to answer them are part of the great adventure of humanity’s effort to understand itself and its place in the universe. Some of those questions seem unanswerable — though to act on the thought that they are so is to give up far too soon. Moreover, as Paul Valéry said, Une difficulté est une lumière. Une difficulté insurmontable est un soleil: ‘A difficulty is a light. An insurmountable difficulty is a sun.’ Wonderful saying! for it teaches us that the effort to solve even the seemingly unsolvable teaches us an enormous amount — as the history of philosophy attests.

Unlike say Bertrand Russell’s 📙 A History of Western Philosophy, Grayling does not give coverage to theological philosophers. In his Introduction to The History of Philosophy, he explains this decision as follows:

An oddity of histories of philosophy which include theologians among the philosophers is that there is no better reason to include Christian theologians while excluding Jewish or Islamic ones; and no better reason to include theology in a history of philosophy than to include a history of science (indeed, there is rather more reason to include this latter). A fundamental difference between philosophy and theology is that philosophy is the enterprise of trying to make sense of ourselves and our world in a way which asks what we should think and why, whereas theology is the enterprise of exploring and expounding ideas about a certain kind of thing or things taken to exist actually or possibly, namely, a god or gods – a being or beings supposed to be different in significant and consequential ways from ourselves. As I write ‘if the starting point for reflection is acceptance of a religious doctrine, then the reflection that follows is theology, or theodicy, or exegesis, or casuistry, or apologetics, or hermeneutics, but it is not philosophy’: and that is the principle of demarcation I apply throughout.
A way of dramatising the point more polemically is to say that philosophy is to theology what agriculture is to gardening: it is a very much bigger, broader and more varied enterprise than the particular, localised and focused one of ‘talking or theorising about a god’ (which is what theo-logos means). Of course in philosophy the question whether supernatural entities or agencies exist, and what difference would follow for our picture of the world and ourselves if one or more did so, from time to time arises; and there are philosophers who, drawing on a conception of deity from ‘natural theology’ (that is, some general considerations about a supernatural mind or agency), use it to guarantee the possibility of knowledge (as Descartes did) or as a basis for existence (as Berkeley and not a few others did). These views are discussed in the appropriate places in the following pages. But the tangled efforts to make sense of something like deity as traditional religions wish to have it understood – omnipotent, eternal, omniscient being or beings, and so forth – is not except tangentially a fruitful part of the story of philosophy, and is left to its own historians therefore.

In his ‘Concluding remarks’ Grayling makes the case that philosophy boils down to two things; two deep and fundamental questions: What is there? What matters?

The first is a question about the nature of reality. What exists? What is existence? What kinds of things exist? What is ultimately and finally real? This raises questions about knowledge. How can we know and say anything about reality, about the world and ourselves, and the relationship between ourselves and the world? What is knowledge? What is the best means to get it? This raises questions about concepts we have to understand in understanding knowledge and how to get it: reason, experience, truth and meaning – thus involving logic, perception, thought, theorising, making sense of language, mind and consciousness.
This shows that the question ‘What is there?’ is the source of metaphysics, epistemology, logic, the philosophy of language and the philosophy of mind.
The second question, ‘What matters?’ is about value – about ethics, and politics which as Aristotle saw is continuous with ethics; it is about the good life and the good society, the question of our obligations and responsibilities, our judgments about wrong and harm and how to remedy them, about how to live and what sort of people we should be, both individually and socially. It is about what ultimately and most deeply matters. And it is also about aesthetics, which relates to the quality of lived experience. Taking all these considerations together, this question about value is about humanity, and relationships, society and the meaning of life.
The second thing that is shown by reflection on the great adventure of philosophy is that philosophy is a highly consequential enterprise. It began as reflective and serious enquiry about anything and everything, and as it matured a number of central themes emerged – those just identified as implicated in the two great questions. Efforts to answer them have taken many forms. But progress has been made. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries CE [Common Era, a.ka., AD] philosophers interested in the structure, properties and behaviour of the material universe – people like Copernicus, Galileo, Newton – began to find good ways to ask and answer their questions, and the result was the birth of modern science. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries philosophers interested in what we now call psychology, sociology, linguistics, philology and historical research gave birth to the social sciences. In the twentieth century philosophy and logic played a major part in the rise of computing and cognitive science.
We still do not know what ultimately exists. We still wrestle with problems about what is good and right, about how society should be organised, about meaning and value, and especially about the quest for the good and worthwhile life. Many people do not think about these things, preferring instead to take a prepacked set of views from some tradition, typically a religion, from which most of them cherry-pick what is convenient, and ignore what is inconvenient. But philosophy is the refusal to be lazy about the great questions. It patrols the circumference of the little patch of light that is knowledge, looking out into the dark of ignorance to seek the shapes there. Even though most people shy away from accepting the challenge to think (Bertrand Russell said, ‘Most people would rather die than think, and most people do’), they still find themselves often enough confronted by a philosophical question: about right and wrong, about what choice to make in some fundamental respect, about what it all really means. Thus everyone is a philosopher at times; everyone takes part. And that makes us all players in the history of philosophy.

From the book’s Appendix, ‘A Sketch of Logic’

Just as mathematics is the tool of science, so logic is the tool of philosophy. It is useful to have a glimpse of what goes on in logic – and an acquaintance with some of the terms and concepts of logic – in appreciating many of the debates in philosophy. What follows is just such a sketch.
Logic is the study of reasoning and argument. It has three distinct branches. There is formal deductive logic, concerned with the study of valid forms of deductive reasoning. There is inductive logic, concerned with the kind of enquiry and reasoning typical in ordinary life and some of the sciences. And there is informal logic, which is about the many kinds of reasoning employed in debate, in law and politics, indeed in the setting out and defending of theses in any branch of discursive enquiry, and in the fallacies and rhetorical devices typical of such debate. In informal logic both deductive and inductive logical considerations apply, but an important feature is the identification and avoidance of informal fallacies of reasoning, that is, those that do not arise because of the form or structure of the argument itself, independently of its content.
In formal deductive logic the concept of form, as the very name implies, is central. Formal deductive logic studies not individual arguments, but types of arguments, to see which type is so structured or formed that, if the premises are true, the conclusion is guaranteed to be true also, independently of subject matter. This is what ‘valid’ means; it is a concept that applies only to the structure of arguments, not to their content. An argument is sound if in addition to having a valid form it also has true premises, that is, if both its content and its form stand up. Thus it is that the soundness of arguments is in part a matter of the facts, namely, those asserted in the premises, and partly a matter of how the argument is structured. But to repeat: formal deductive logic is interested only in this latter matter – the form or structure – and its aim is to identify which types of argument are valid in virtue of their form so that if true premises are supplied, that form will guarantee a true conclusion.
Inductive arguments, by contrast, if they are good ones, only make their conclusions probable to some degree. That the degree of probability can be very low despite the argument appearing plausible can be shown by an example of the simplest form of induction, ‘induction by simple enumeration’, in which a wholly general conclusion is inferred from a limited number of particular premises: ‘This swan is white, that swan is white, the next swan is white … so all swans are white.’ Some swans, in fact, are black; some are even black and white.
Inductive inference always goes beyond what the premises say, whereas deductive inferences contain no new information in the conclusion, which is simply a rearrangement of the information in the premises. Consider: ‘All men are mortal; Socrates is a man; therefore Socrates is mortal.’ All that has happened is that the terms occurring in the argument have been redistributed to yield the conclusion.
But although there might be no new information in the conclusion of a deductive argument, it can nevertheless be psychologically informative. This is shown by the story of the duke and the bishop. A famous bishop was the guest of honour at a country party hosted by a duke. At one point the duke left his guests to order something from his servants, and the bishop entertained the company by telling them that when, long ago, he was a newly ordained priest the first person whose confession he heard was a multiple murderer of an especially vile kind. The duke thereupon returned, clapped the bishop on the shoulder and said, ‘The bishop and I are very old acquaintances. In fact, I was the first person whose confession he heard.’ The rest of the guests, evidently logicians to a man and woman, hastily left.
The first systematic study of logic was made by Aristotle. With additions and extensions, especially by logicians of the medieval schools, his logic remained an apparently completed science until the nineteenth century. But then, in the hands of the mathematicians Augustus De Morgan, George Boole and especially Gottlob Frege, it was transformed into mathematical or ‘symbolic’ logic, an instrument of far greater range and power than Aristotelian logic. One of the innovations that made this possible was the development of a notation for expressing more and more complex notions. (The notation now standard is derived from one first devised by Bertrand Russell and Alfred North Whitehead in their Principia Mathematica.)
Aristotelian logic rests on three so-called ‘laws of thought’: the Law of Identity which states ‘A is A’, the Law of Non-Contradiction which states ‘not both A and not-A’, and the Law of Excluded Middle which states ‘either A or not-A’. (Augustus De Morgan showed that the latter two are merely different ways of saying the same thing.)
An example of the way inferences were explored in the framework of Aristotelian logic is afforded by the ‘Square of Opposition’. Taking the letters S and P to stand respectively for Subject and Predicate (in the sentence ‘the horse is brown’ the subject is ‘the horse’ and the predicate is ‘brown’), one can describe the four standard forms of the proposition as follows:
S: the subject
P: the predicate

A: universal affirmative ‘All S is P’
E: universal negative ‘No S is P’
I: Particular affirmative ‘Some S is P’
O: Particular negative ‘Some S is not-P’

Arranging them thus:
allows one to read off the ‘immediate’ inferences: A entails I, E entails O; A and O are contradictories, as are E and I; A and E are contraries (they can both be false together, but they cannot both be true together) and I and O are subcontraries (they can both be true together, but cannot both be false together). Making up appropriate versions of an English declarative sentence to put in the place of A, E and the others quickly demonstrates what all this means; take the example A: All men are tall, E: No men are tall, I: Some men are tall, O: Some men are not tall.
The main object of study for Aristotle and his tradition of logic was the syllogism, an argument form in which a conclusion is derived from two premises. In his Prior Analytics Aristotle defined syllogistic reasoning as a discourse in which ‘Certain things having been supposed, something else necessarily follows from them because they are so.’ The syllogism ‘All men are mortal; Socrates is a man; therefore Socrates is mortal’ is the standard example. This is a ‘categorical’ syllogism, and it consists of two premises – a major premise ‘All men are mortal,’ a minor premise ‘Socrates is a man,’ and the conclusion that can be inferred from them, ‘Socrates is mortal.’ It will be noted that in this syllogism the major premise is a generalization, whereas the minor premise and conclusion are particular. The Aristotelian tradition classified all the forms of the syllogism according to the quantity (all, some), quality (affirmative, negative) and distribution of the terms in the premises and conclusion, devising mnemonics such as ‘Barbara’, ‘Celarent’, ‘Darapti’, etc. for the 256 thus identified: ‘Barbara’ is AAA (bArbArA), ‘Celarent’ is EAE (cElArEnt), ‘Darapti’ is AAI (dArAptI) and so on. Of these 256 forms only nineteen are valid (and even some of these nineteen are controversial).

I found this next bit funny. I kind of go into a daze as soon as I see anything mathematical at all; as soon as a book or academic paper starts to introduce equations, my mind wonders and who knows what. But as Grayling made me do, I did here fight the urge to flight:

The new ‘symbolic logic’ is a far more powerful and extensive instrument than this traditional syllogistic. Its use of symbols alarms people who do not like the look of anything that smacks of mathematics, but a little attention at the outset shows that far from being alarming, they are extremely useful and clarifying.
In the standard way of notating this logic, lower-case letters from later in the alphabet are used to stand for propositions: p, q, r … and a small set of symbols is coined to show the relationships between them: & for ‘and’, ∨ for ‘or’, → for ‘if … then …’, and ¬ for ‘not’, thus:
p & q (pronounced ‘p and q’)
p ∨ q (pronounced ‘p or q’)
¬p (pronounced ‘not p’)

The operators ‘&’ and the rest can be very simply and informatively defined by ‘truth tables’, thus (where ‘T’ stands for ‘true’ and ‘F’ for ‘false’):

p q p & q

Under ‘p’ and ‘q’ are listed the possibilities of truth and falsity combinations – in the first row both are true, in the second row ‘p’ is true but ‘q’ is false, and so on down. In the third column is the result for ‘p & q’. A ‘T’ for true occurs only in the row where ‘p’ and ‘q’ are independently both true; in all other cases, where one of ‘p’ and ‘q’ is false or both are, ‘p & q’ is false. This gives a picture of the meaning of the logical operator ‘&’ (‘and’): ‘&’ propositions are true only when the propositions joined by it are both true.
For ‘∨’ (‘or’) matters are thus:

p q p ∨ q

This shows that ‘p ∨ q’ is true if at least one of ‘p’ and ‘q’ is individually true, and is false only if both are false. This defines the meaning of ‘∨’ in the logical calculus.
With these simple elements, and intuitive use of brackets to keep all clear, forms of arguments can be explored for validity or otherwise. For example: from the premises ‘p → q’ and ‘p’ one can always deduce ‘q’, no matter what truth-values are assigned to ‘p’ and ‘q’ individually. Write this argument as:
[(p → q) & p] → q
and one can show that this is a logical truth by making a truth table thus:

p q p → q (p → q) & p [(p → q) & p] → q

The fact that ‘T’ appears in all four rows under the main arrow in the last column shows that the whole string ‘[(p → q) & p] → q’ is T no matter what the individual Ts and Fs are of the components. This is a ‘logical truth’ or tautology; it follows that any argument of the form:
Premise 1: p → q
Premise 2: p
Conclusion: q

is valid. This form of argument happens to be called modus ponens. One can use truth tables to test for the validity of the following:
Premise 1: p → q
Premise 2: q
Conclusion: p

Premise 1: p → q
Premise 2: ¬q

One will find that the first is a fallacy, called the ‘fallacy of affirming the consequent’ (in ‘p → q’, ‘p’ is the ‘antecedent’ and ‘q’ the ‘consequent’, here being ‘affirmed’ by being used as the second premise), because there is an ‘F’ in one of the rows under the arrow in ‘[(p → q) & q] → p’, thus:

p q p → q (p → q) & q [(p → q) & q] → p

In cases where an ‘F’ appears in every row under the final operator, one has not merely a fallacy but a logical fallacy.
The second example is, however, a logically valid form of inference, as its truth table will show; it is known as modus tollens.
These are the rudiments of the ‘propositional calculus’, which deals with arguments involving whole propositions. But the real work begins when one adds a few powerful devices to this calculus, transforming it into the ‘predicate calculus’ by getting inside propositions. This is important, given that propositions assert that all or many or a few or some or at least one of a certain thing has a certain property; and we wish to understand validity in terms of this finer degree of structure using quantifier (‘how many’) expressions.
To this end lower-case letters from the end of the alphabet x, y, z are used to stand for individual things, and the quantifier symbols (x) and (∃x) are used to denote respectively ‘all things x’ and ‘at least one thing x’ (this latter doing logical duty for all other quantifier expressions short of ‘all’, for example ‘some’, ‘many’, ‘the majority’, ‘a few’, ‘three’, ‘four’, ‘a million’, and so forth). Upper-case letters from earlier in the alphabet F, G, H stand for predicate expressions such as ‘… is brown’ and ‘… belongs to the Queen’. So the sentence ‘the table is brown’ would be symbolized as (∃x) (Fx&Gx), pronounced ‘there is an x such that x is F and x is G’, here standing for ‘there is an x such that x is a horse and x is brown.’
Equipped with supplementary rules allowing general expressions of the form (x)Fx to be ‘instantiated’ to give individual expressions of the form Fa (using lower-case letters from the beginning of the alphabet to stand for particular individuals), arguments can be tested for validity as before. Thus modus ponens, represented above by [(p → q) & p] → q, might look like this in quantified guise:
(x){[(Fx → Gx) & Fx] → Gx}
The instantiation rules allow us to rewrite this as:
[(Fa → Ga) & Fa] → Ga
which one can plainly see is an instance of modus ponens.
Discussion of inductive logic often occurs in connection with discussions of scientific methodology, for the obvious reason that scientific enquiry concerns contingent matters of fact, and the process of formulating a hypothesis or prediction and then testing it empirically can never have the conclusiveness expected in deductive logic, except perhaps when an hypothesis had been shown definitely to be mistaken.
The interesting thing about inductive reasoning is that it is always invalid from the point of view of deductive logic. Its conclusions, as mentioned above, always go beyond what is licensed by the premises. Accordingly much of the debate about induction concerns the sense in which it can be regarded as justified. A sticking point seems to be that the only available justification for induction is itself inductive, namely, that it has worked well in the past. If this is not to be merely circular, then the underlying assumption that the world is a consistent realm in which laws and patterns of occurrence remain stable and reliably repeat themselves has to be accepted as a general premise. Attempts to justify this premise can only themselves be inductive; so if they are made they simply reintroduce the circularity that the assumption is intended to make virtuous rather than vicious.
Inductive inference can take a number of forms. Induction by simple enumeration has been noted; there are also – and more generally better — inductions taking the form of causal inferences, statistical and probabilistic inferences, and arguments by analogy, all of which, when responsibly controlled and their defeasibility accounted for, are of use in practical concerns and scientific investigation. Opinion polls infer from representative samples of the population to overall views, generally with a reasonable degree of reliability; that is one compelling example of how effective controlled induction can be.
An argument in support of induction might proceed by appealing to the concept of rationality: one who does not take seriously the conclusion of an inference such as is involved in thinking ‘I’d better take an umbrella because rain looks likely’ is behaving irrationally. If it is rational to take the conclusions of inductive inferences seriously, that fact justifies induction.
A celebrated twist to the debate about induction was given by the American philosopher Nelson Goodman. He argued that the problem could be recast as one about how we justify thinking that our description of things in the future depends on our description of them now. For example, we think we will be entitled to describe emeralds we encounter in future as green, because all emeralds so far encountered in history have been green. But consider this: suppose one makes up a new word, ‘grue’, to mean ‘green until now, and blue after a future date X’. Then the word ‘grue’ applies to emeralds just as legitimately as the word green, because emeralds have been green until now, and the definition of ‘grue’ requires only that they turn blue in the future. Now, obviously we think that we are better justified in taking ‘green’ to be the right description for future emeralds than ‘grue’. But on what grounds do we think this? After all, the evidential basis for both descriptions is exactly the same – namely, that all past and present emeralds are green.
In addition to inductive logic and formal deductive logic there are other domains of this science in which logical principles and notions are put to work in exploration of allied ideas. So there is ‘fuzzy logic’, concerned with domains containing vague terms and imprecise concepts; ‘intensional logic’, concerned with domains where context violates the ordinary workings of logic (for example, by interfering with the reference of certain terms); ‘deontic logic’ concerned with reasoning, chiefly in ethics, involving ideas of obligation (expressed by such words as ‘must’ and ‘ought’); ‘many-valued logic’ in which there are more than just the two truth-values ‘true’ and ‘false’; ‘paraconsistent logic’, which contains, accepts and manages contradictions; ‘epistemic logic’ in which the operators ‘believes that’ and ‘knows that’ occur; and others.

Grayling has the following to say about ‘Falicies of informal logic’

‘Informal logic’, as the name suggests, concerns not the technical matter of forms of reasoning alone, as discussed above, but everything involved in real-life discussion and argument: rhetoric, persuasion, exhortation, disagreement, enquiry, thinking things through, working things out, making decisions, putting forward a case in court or in parliament or in the classroom or in the marketing meeting.
An important – and interesting – consideration in informal reasoning is the detection and avoidance of fallacies. For everyday use the identification of fallacies is of great value. There are many of these, and many of these many are standard rhetorical devices that politicians, advertisers, even friends and lovers, use to try to persuade other people and to get their way.
First it is useful to be reminded that an argument can be valid in form but unsound, either because one or more premises are false or because a fallacy has been committed. Consider this syllogism for example: ‘Nothing is brighter than the sun; a candle is brighter than nothing; therefore a candle is brighter than the sun.’ This is valid but unsound, because a fallacy — the Fallacy of Equivocation — is committed by it. This fallacy involves using a word in two different senses, as happens with ‘nothing’ in the first and second premises, thus unsoundly allowing the nonsense conclusion to be drawn.
Some of the commonest fallacies, not a few of them employed on purpose to mislead, are as follows.
The Fallacy of False Dilemma — works by offering an alternative: ‘either we have nuclear weapons or the country will be in danger of attack’ which pretends to be exclusive in the sense that no other options are possible, whereas in fact several other options exist.
The Slippery-Slope Fallacy — involves saying that if X happens or is allowed, Y and Z and so on will inevitably follow. ‘If you give your son a mobile phone he will next want a television in his bedroom and then a car.’
The Straw-Man Fallacy — occurs when someone attacks an opponent or a point of view by representing either in his or its weakest, worst or most negative version so that he or it is easy to knock down.
The Fallacy of Begging the Question — (a.k.a., circular Reasoning) involves assuming in the premises what the argument claims to prove as a conclusion, for example, ‘God exists because it says so in the Bible, which was inspired by God.’ People nowadays typically misuse the expression ‘begging the question’ to mean ‘prompts or invites or urges us to ask the question’. These latter formulations should be used if that is what one means to say; ‘begging the question’ should be reserved to its proper meaning of ‘arguing circularly’.
A number of fallacies turn on the illegitimate use of emotion to get someone to accept a conclusion which does not follow from the offered premises. One is the ‘appeal to force’: ‘believe what I say (do what I tell you) or I will beat you up’ (argumentum ad baculum; this, though it puts the matter more bluntly than usual, is the essence of divine-command moralities).
A second is the ‘appeal to pity’: ‘I will be upset, hurt, troubled, miserable if you do not believe or do what I say’; ‘I’m poor’; ‘I’m offended’; ‘I’m from a minority’; ‘I’ve been discriminated against’ (argumentum ad misericordiam). The joke example given for this fallacy is the man who has been convicted of murdering his parents and who asks for the court’s leniency on the grounds that he is an orphan. Associated with this is the idea that people who have been victimized or who have suffered are therefore good, or right, or can be excused for bad things they do.
A third is ‘prejudicial use of language’, which means using emotive or laden terms to ‘spin’ the view taken of something. Racist and sexist language provide one kind of example, another is the use of euphemism to hide the real purpose of something; so Idi Amin’s death squads were called ‘public safety units’ and the CIA calls assassination of unfriendly foreign leaders ‘extreme prejudice’.
There are also the fallacies of appealing to ‘what everyone thinks’ (argumentum ad populum), to what people in an authoritative position think (argumentum ad verecundiam), or the claim that no one knows the answer so you can believe more or less what you like (the argument from ignorance or argumentum ad ignorantiam). None of these are good grounds for accepting a view or believing anything.
A very common form of fallacy is the ad hominem argument, which is an attack on a person rather than on his or her argument. It takes different forms; there can be direct abuse of an individual, insinuations and hints that associate the individual with bad people or happenings, ridicule of the individual and redounding a charge on the individual (‘you too’, tu quoque).
Equally common is the use of biased statistics, introducing red herrings to distract people from the true thrust of an argument, reasoning that if y happened after x then it happened because of x (post hoc ergo propter hoc), and generalising from just one or a very small sample of something. These are all fallacies.
And so finally is attributing a property of part of a whole to the whole itself — which we know to be wrong because we know that a school of whales is not itself a whale. This fallacy, called the Fallacy of Composition, is one applied to groups and nations all the time: ‘I met a Frenchman who was impolite, so the French are an impolite nation.’
Although fallacies of informal reasoning are often deliberately employed to win arguments by trickery, thus persuading and coercing people into a way of thinking or a belief, it is also very frequently the case that we each reason badly because we commit one or more such fallacies without realising it. A course in ‘straight and crooked thinking’ (to borrow the title of a celebrated book on informal reasoning by Robert Thouless) would be to everyone’s benefit – and it does not commit the Fallacy of Composition to say: to the world’s benefit as a whole therefore.

Philosophy is (not) dead

James Sharp — writing for Aero (named after Milton’s speech in defence of freedom of speech, Areopagitica; it publishes essays that are typically liberal and humanist in viewpoint) — begins his review of Grayling’s History of Philosophy by pointing out that in The Grand Design, Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow state that “philosophy is dead” as it has not “kept up with modern developments in science, particularly physics.” However, this is something of a straw man argument.

As Grayling points out, modern science is a result of philosophy asking the right questions about metaphysics and epistemology, and philosophy also contributed to the creation of the social sciences and cognitive science. Philosophical debates on concepts in ethics, morality, epistemology, methodology, politics, aesthetics and even science are still important, for it is through philosophical conversation that progress has been made in these fields and it is through philosophy that clarity in concepts is achieved and relevant questions are asked.

Science is the surest way to knowledge about the universe and has much to say about traditionally philosophical concerns, but this does not mean that philosophy is dead: on the contrary, areas outside of science, such as ethics, still require the philosophical touch, and science itself is at its best when working in partnership with the concerns and methods of philosophical questioning (until quite recently natural philosophy meant what we now call science). The writings of Daniel Dennett, for one, are exemplars of philosophy and science working together for mutual enrichment.

The enduring value of philosophy is one of the central themes of Grayling’s exceptional new book. In the tradition of Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy, Grayling takes us through the field from its beginnings to the present day, throwing in a comparative study of Indian, Arabic-Persian, Chinese and African philosophy along the way. The book is a triumph—”a philosopher’s magnum opus” as the Edinburgh International Book Festival has described it.

The history of philosophy is a big field and it takes a steady and expert hand to guide a reader through it. Grayling, a longtime proponent of philosophy in public life, achieves this. The general reader, the student and even the scholar will come away from the book having learned a great deal. It is comprehensive yet concise, complex yet clear. Ranging through everything from ancient Greek and Roman philosophy, the scholastics of the Middle Ages and the humanists of the Renaissance to twentieth-century analytic and Continental philosophy, Grayling takes us on an intellectual adventure, expertly explaining the concepts and debates which have been most salient through the centuries: from Lockean political theory to Wittgenstein’s philosophy of language, via Hume’s moral philosophy, Kantian epistemology and metaphysics and much else besides.

Grayling likens this story to a on-going conversation. We humans, he argues, find ourselves in a tiny point of light surrounded by darkness and ignorance. Each discipline has its own special spotlight as it peers out into the dark. Philosophy “patrols the circumference” of these spots of illumination: in each case extending the little bit of light just that bit further. It tries to posit the right questions to aid this goal, focusing especially on areas in which there are as yet no special disciplines, thus helping us progress towards finding reasonable answers and reducing our ignorance.

The story of philosophy is also likened to case law: the thinkers of the past are our touchstones in present enquiries. We read and study them to provide inspiration and clarity in dealing with current concerns. Plato, Aristotle and Kant, Grayling writes, are the three greatest philosophers in terms of their intellectual powers, even if their work is often disagreed with. That too is why we look back—we formulate rebuttals of certain strands of thinking in order to provide context and ballast for our preferred ones: it is all dialectic, a concept for which we have the pre-Socratic thinker Zeno to thank, according to Aristotle.

One thing in particular marks out this book from other such histories: theology is explicitly excluded. For, Grayling says, “if the starting point for reflection is acceptance of a religious doctrine, then the reflection that follows is theology, or theodicy, or exegesis, or casuistry, or apologetics, or hermeneutics, but it is not philosophy.” Philosophy is agriculture and theology is gardening, as Grayling puts it: “[philosophy] is a very much bigger, broader, and more varied enterprise than the particular, localized and focused one of ‘talking or theorising about a god.’” Thus, the Church Fathers and the religious aspects of, say, Augustine, are omitted and theology is only discussed as it relates to philosophy proper, such as when it tries to posit philosophical arguments for the existence of a deity or impinges on ideas about free will, determinism and society.

This will no doubt cause some heads to explode, but it is correct. The long, dull and dreary debates of theology are irrelevant to philosophical enquiry because they take as given the truth of religion and focus on concepts within that tradition, rather than asking the bigger and more important questions in which philosophy deals.

Grayling is a critic of religion, but he deals impartially with the medieval religious thinkers and expresses admiration at their progress in fields such as logic. He takes seriously, too, some of the more esoteric of the Continental philosophers, though he takes great care to explain why some of them, such as Michel Foucault, do not merit full inclusion in the philosophical canon—essentially, their contributions are in sociology, cultural criticism and the like, rather than philosophy as such—he briefly considers these excluded thinkers in a section called “Un Salon des Refusés.”

There is one rather amusing—and understandable—lapse of impartiality when Grayling deals with Jacques Derrida’s prodigious literary output: “it is hard to see how to avoid the charge that if he is right [about deconstructing philosophy etc.], forty books about it would be thirty-nine (perhaps even forty) too many.” Grayling also discusses the differences between analytic and Continental philosophy; the former, he says, sometimes sees the latter as consisting of pseudo-profundity and fraudulent thinkers. But Grayling deals with these thinkers impartially (for the most part) and finds great value in the ideas of Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, Simone de Beauvoir and Paul Ricoeur.

The section on twentieth-century philosophy is the busiest. Grayling marshals a veritable cavalcade of thinkers and movements, which are discussed over many pages. He argues that that era is too recent to narrow all the thinkers down to a few of the greats—perhaps, in a couple of hundred years, the Kants and Aristotles of the twentieth century will have been identified, but it is impossible to tell who they are now (and increases in access to higher education and advances in communications mean that more people than ever have had the opportunity to think and write). Grayling compares philosophers to mountains and foothills: the thinkers he chooses to write about in the book represent the highest peaks of philosophical thought, and they are surrounded by other thinkers, who may be important but have to be excluded in order to deal with the most influential.

Grayling enthuses about the complexity and sophistication of ancient Indian epistemology, logic and metaphysics, and incisively compares Indian and other traditions to western ideas. Philosophy flourished in China, India and the Greek world at around the same time: Socrates, Buddha and Confucius were approximate contemporaries, and the traditions that flowed from them exerted enormous influence on subsequent discourse in their respective cultures.

But we must be wary of such iconic figures: many of their ideas come down to us from text written many years after their time, and much legend and superstition has sprung up around some, particularly the Buddha. These thinkers were lucky, Grayling says — it was their followers who tended to be more original. Perhaps their ideas were intrinsically good, or perhaps they were simply easier for the populace to understand and that was why they were adopted— after all these thinkers were only a few of the many roving teachers and preachers of the era. Alluding to Thomas Gray’s Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard, Grayling wonders how many geniuses of antiquity have been forgotten, their words never written down.

Discussing Arabic-Persian philosophy (a label used in place of the misnomer Islamic philosophy) Grayling wonders how history might have turned out had more humanistic Classical philosophy survived in the Islamic world—might something similar to the European Renaissance have occurred? This is merely an aside but, as with so much else in this book, it prompts a great deal of thought.

This section of the book is a lament: for the Islamic world experienced a golden age of philosophy for a few centuries in the Middle Ages, before religious orthodoxy exerted its grip and choked free enquiry. What would have become of that world if Islam had allowed more Averroes to flourish—instead of al-Ghazalis? Even the Shia branch of Islam, more conducive to philosophy than the Sunni, has not produced many great philosophers since that time—a true shame. In this, west and east converge, for early Christians burned pagan philosophy and Christianity rejected those Classical ideas that conflicted with its theology. It was through transmissions from the Islamic world that Europe rediscovered many lost works from antiquity (though, of course, medieval Christians, like medieval Muslims, did not reject Classical thought tout court: Aquinas reconciled Aristotelian philosophy with theology in Thomism, which became, and remains, the official philosophical doctrine of the Catholic Church).

Some critics may find Grayling’s book too narrow, focusing overmuch on the west, and feel that its treatment of non-western traditions is too thin. However, Grayling explicitly acknowledges his expertise in western philosophy and the reader is given to understand that his brief overview of other philosophical traditions and concepts does not represent a comprehensive examination of them.

Then there is the lack of women thinkers in the book. This is a more understandable criticism, but it too does not quite stand up. As Grayling says, the book is a study of the case law of philosophy, the thinkers and schools who have exerted the most influence on its big themes and questions. While there have been many women philosophers, none have achieved the status of the most important thinkers who address the core questions of philosophy. Grayling laments that Simone de Beauvoir, for example, is overshadowed by Sartre (she is discussed in the section devoted to him) — but attributes this to the historical exclusion of women, and adds that hopefully this will change and her influence in her own right will be appreciated more fully in time.

There is also a brief but sympathetic discussion of feminist philosophy in the twentieth century and Grayling is unequivocal that, in the history of twenty-first century philosophy, the feminist schools will be among the most important. Criticisms of Grayling’s book as anti-feminist therefore fall wide of the mark.

Philosophy and philosophers are often seen as boring and dreary: another misconception. The ideas, while complex, are anything but boring, as the book shows. But Grayling also reminds us that philosophers themselves have often been involved in politics and wider society and lived tumultuous lives. Boethius was executed for suspected conspiracy and Bertrand Russell was imprisoned twice for his political principles, to give but two examples.

The History of Philosophy is an excellent overview of great philosophical thought by an insightful practitioner of the field. It is a credit to Grayling’s abilities that he has penned such a perspicuous book on some very difficult subjects—giving the a reader a clear overview of the complexities of Scholastic logic, Analytic philosophies of language and mind, and much else besides is no easy feat, but Grayling has achieved it. This is a book to be treasured, both as a guide to the subject and as a beautiful piece of writing in itself, containing great insight and wisdom. It is a testament to the continuing importance and value of philosophy.

Anthony Clifford Grayling
Grayling, A. C. (2019). The History of Philosophy. London: Penguin.

If there is anything worth fearing in the world, it is living in such a way that gives one cause for regret in the end.

— A. C. Grayling

Another work by Grayling is his 2013, The God Argument.

Religion and science have a common ancestor - ignorance.
Grayling, A. C. (2013). The God Argument: The Case against Religion and for Humanism. London: Bloomsbury.

Religion and science have a common ancestor – ignorance.

Apocalypse now

By Brian Appleyard for The New Statesman

Years ago, I asked Richard Dawkins what his next book was about. “God,” he replied. “But,” I responded in a state of shock, “why?” Dawkins’s 2006 book, The God Delusion, sold around the world, so, perhaps, that answered my question. More seriously, in the wake of 9/11 and in the midst of the anti-scientific demands of American fundamentalists, it could be argued that an anti-religious book was a necessary corrective. There were many such books, the most influential being by the group known as the “four horsemen” of the anti-religious apocalypse — Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens and Daniel Dennett.

With The God Argument, Grayling announces himself as the fifth horseman. He is very conscious of being a member of this club. In the acknowledgements, he writes of other anti-religious writers as “comrades in the task” and “colleagues and fellows in the cause”. The cause seems to be to extend a humanist awakening to the people of the world and thereby free them from religion, which is, Grayling admits, “a pervasive fact of history” but also “a hangover from the infancy of modern humanity”.

The book is not intended as a reprise of the arguments of the other horseman comrades; rather, it aims to extend the battlefront. The book is in two halves – the first is Grayling’s case against religion; the second outlines the humanist alternative, which is “an ethics free from religious or superstitious aspects, an outlook that has its roots in rich philosophical traditions”.

First, to take the book on its own terms, this is a lucid, informative and admirably accessible account of the atheist-secular- humanist position. Grayling writes with pace and purpose and provides powerful – though non-lethal – ammunition for anybody wishing to shoot down intelligent theists such as Alvin Plantinga or to dispatch even the most sophisticated theological arguments, such as the ontological proof of the existence of God. That said, the first half, which is in essence analytical, is much better than the second half, which is rather discursive and feels almost tract-like in its evocation of shiny, happy people having fun in a humanist paradise. Nevertheless, this is rhetorically justifiable to the extent that it is an attempt to answer the question necessarily posed by any attempt to eliminate religion – what would be put in its place? Even the most rabid followers of the horsemen cannot seriously deny that religion does serve some useful purposes: providing a sense of community, consoling the bereaved and the suffering, telling a story to make sense of the world, and so on. Grayling tells a humanist story in the belief that it is perfectly capable of answering all these needs.

There are flaws in all this. For example, Grayling breezily dismisses Stalinism and Maoism as being “counter-Enlightenment” forces. Communism, however, was an Enlightenment project based on a belief in reason to reorder human affairs. You may say Stalin and Mao were communist aberrations but then the Catholic Church could legitimately claim forgiveness for the Spanish Inquisition and the slaughter of the Cathars on the same grounds.

There is also an irritating and highly self-serving argument that appears in various forms throughout the book. This seems to be an attempt to delegitimise all religious discourse. “Atheism,” Grayling writes, “is to theism as not stamp-collecting is to stamp-collecting.” In other words, not to be a stamp collector “denotes only the open-ended and negative state of not collecting stamps”. Equally, not being a theist is not a positive condition; it merely says this person “does not even begin to enter the domain of discourse in which these beliefs have their life and content”. The word “atheist”, therefore, is misleading; the phrase “militant atheist” doubly so.

This is silly. First, “militant atheist” is a phrase that Grayling justifies by his talk of comrades and causes. If he really believes this argument, he shouldn’t have written this book. Second, this is a transparent ruse to get the four (or five) horsemen off the charge that they write about religion while knowing nothing of theology. If religion is treated as a child-like superstition – like the belief in fairies – then there is no need to understand it in detail and, of course, this particular superstition is also dangerous and should therefore be exposed as well as refuted, if not in detail.

You may agree with this but consider the implications of where Grayling’s argument leads. He writes that the “respect agenda” – the tolerance of religious beliefs – is at an end. Is that really where atheists want to go?

At this point, the book needs discussing in a wider context. Western humanism in its present incarnation is a very small sect in the context of global beliefs and world views. The idea, advanced in this book, that it could and should become a world ideology is both wildly improbable and extremely dubious. Like it or not, religions are here to stay. Grayling sort of gets round this by ignoring the primary argument for their continued existence – that religion is a beneficial adaptation. He argues that religion is kept in place by, in essence, political power. This is altogether too weak and too inconsistent to explain the prevalence of religion and most thinkers accept some sort of evolutionary explanation. If you do accept at least some version of the adaptive argument – or, indeed, if you are a believer – then the study of religion becomes an obligation. Religious faith is not remotely like the belief in fairies; it is a series of stories of immense political, poetic and historical power that are – again, like it or not – deeply embedded in human nature. Seen in that light, to dismiss all religious discourse as immature or meaningless is to embrace ignorance or, more alarmingly, to advocate suppression. It will also make it impossible for you to understand the St Matthew Passion, Chartres Cathedral and the films of Andrei Tarkovsky.

The broad point is that Grayling, like the other horsemen, goes too far. He narrowly defines religion as a system of physical beliefs and then says such a system has nothing to offer the world. When another atheist, Alain de Botton, gently suggested that non-believers might have something to learn from religion, he was immediately trampled on by the horsemen. But what religion has to offer is a great mountain of insights into the human realm. Belief, in this context, is beside the point. Reading John Donne’s Holy Sonnets, the Fire Sermon or the Sermon on the Mount will teach you more about the human condition than anything written by the horsemen.

The reason I was baffled by Dawkins’s decision to write a book on God was that all of the above seemed to me self-evident. It still does. We know that there are strong arguments against religious belief and we know that religious belief is a human constant. We also know that it will always be too early – and too dangerous – to say that our science has advanced far enough to justify a fundamental re-engineering of the human realm in the name of humanism. I enjoyed reading Grayling’s book and I still ended up asking, “But why?”

But Why?

Religion is about turning untested belief into unshakable truth through the power of institutions and the passage of time.

'Creazione di Adamo' (c. 1512) by Michelangelo (b. 1475 – d. 1564)
“A White Man’s World”
The Creation of Adam (c. 1512) by Michelangelo (b. 1475 – d. 1564)

Religion is the great excuse to evade the need to think and evaluate evidence; it is the belief in spite of, even perhaps because of, the lack of evidence.

Apocalyptic literature is a genre of prophetical writing that developed in post-Exile (t o Egypt) Jewish culture and was popular among the early Christians living under the Roman Empire. . . . Apocalypse is a Greek word meaning “an unveiling or unfolding of things not previously known and which could not be known apart from the unveiling.” We can say that apocalyptic literature predicts/prophesies/fantasies about the complete final destruction of the world (because from this will rise heaven on earth for those who ain’t to be condemned to one of the circles out dear friend Dante describes in devilish detail). . . . The Four Horsemen appear in the final book of the Bible’s New Testament, Revelation, an apocalyptic story. They also appear in the apocalyptic/prophetic Book of Ezekiel in the Bible’s Old Testament, where they are named as punishments from god. . . . Ezekiel lists them as “sword, famine, wild beasts, and plague.” . . . The biblical apocalyptic vision is that the Four Horsemen are to set a divine end time upon the world as harbingers of the Last Judgment. . . . The Last Judgment is part of the eschatological world view of all Abrahamic religions (we know it as: یوم القيامة‎ / یوم الدین‎ lit. ‘Day of Judgement’) . . . Many religious people believe it will take place after the Resurrection of the Dead and the Second Coming. . . . The Last Judgment has inspired numerous artistic depictions:

Death on a Pale Horse_(1796)
“Death on a Pale Horse”
By Benjamin West (1796)

Religion teaches us to be satisfied with not understanding the world.

Source: The Four Horseman – Hitchens, Dawkins, Dennet, Harris (2007). Retrieved, https://youtu.be/n7IHU28aR2E

To implant religion into the vulnerable mind of an innocent child is a grievous wrong.

Four Horseman (2012)
Four Horsemen is a 2012 British documentary film directed by Ross Ashcroft. The film criticises the system of fractional reserve banking, debt-based economy and political lobbying by banks, which it regards as a serious threat to Western civilisation. It criticises the War on Terror, which it maintains was not fought to eliminate al-Qaeda and other militant organisations, but to create larger debt to the banks. As an alternative, documentary gives voice to commentators who promote a return to classical economics and the gold standard.


God Is Not Great - How Religion Poisons Everything
Hitchens, C. (2007). God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. New York: Twelve Books.




Eldridge, R. T. (Ed.). (2009). The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy and Literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Gottlieb, A. (2000). The Dream of Reason: a History of Philosophy from the Greeks to the Renaissance. New York: W. W. Norton & Co.

Gottlieb, A. (2016). The Dream of Enlightenment: The Rise of Modern Philosophy. London: Penguin.

Kenny, A. (1998). An Illustrated Brief History of Western Philosophy. New York: John Wiley & Sons

Russell, B. (1945). A History of Western Philosophy. London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd.


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