Spotting Bullshit

Philosopher Stephen Law teaches at Heythrop College, University of London, and edits the philosophical journal Think, which is published by the Royal Institute of Philosophy and is aimed at the general public. He is a fellow of The Royal Society of Arts and Commerce, and in 2008 became the provost of the Centre for Inquiry in London.

After Law was asked to leave Long Road Sixth Form College, in Cambridge, England, he went to work as a postman. His upbringing was not religious; in his early twenties, he went through an experimental and mystical period, which brought him to philosophy. At twenty-four, he persuaded City University in London to accept him to study for a bachelor of science degree in philosophy, despite his lacking top grades. There he achieved first-class honors, allowing him to move on to Trinity College, Oxford, to read for a bachelor’s degree in philosophy. He received a doctorate in philosophy from The Queen’s College, Oxford.

Law’s books include two introductory texts—The Great Philosophers: The Lives and Ideas of History’s Greatest Thinkers and The Philosophy Gym. The latter consists of twenty-five philosophical questions, chosen for their relevance to today’s society. The German edition of the book won the first Mindelheim Philosophy Prize.

Law also published a children’s version of this book, The Philosophy Files. His book The War For Children’s Minds discusses the various newly emergent forces—including popular right-wing tabloids, as well as George W. Bush and Tony Blair—that attack enlightenment thinking and call for a return to authoritarianism and religious tradition as opposed to leftism and liberal parenting.

Law aims to reevaluate the liberal approach to morality, and he attacks authoritarian rhetoric head-on, calling for children to be educated in ethics grounded in philosophy and the values of the Enlightenment. He has just completed a book on humanism for the Oxford University Press series A Very Short Introduction (to be published in February 2011) as well as another book with the no-nonsense title Believing Bullshit.

This interview was conducted by Floris van den Berg, who teaches philosophy at Utrecht University, the Netherlands. He is executive director of Center for Inquiry in the Low Countries. —Eds.


Floris van den Berg: How would you label yourself?

Stephen Law: I am a liberal, an atheist, a secularist, and a humanist, but I am not sure I am a naturalist. According to humanist philosopher and Center for Inquiry founder Paul Kurtz, secular humanism entails (scientific) naturalism. In his booklet What Is Secular Humanism?, Kurtz includes a naturalistic cosmic outlook as an essential part of the lifestance of secular humanism: “Naturalists maintain that the universe is intelligible to human reason and explainable by reference to natural causes. . . . [Secular humanism] looks to the sciences in order to understand nature.” However, according to a Philpapers poll, only about 15 percent of professional philosophers and philosophy graduate students are theists. But only 50 percent of the nontheists subscribe to naturalism. So, when naturalism is made an essential part of the package of secular humanism, the group of adherents declines significantly.

One can reject gods without signing up for naturalism. For example, many mathematicians are Platonists who believe true mathematical propositions correctly describe how things stand in a nonnatural numerical realm. They reject naturalism, but I don’t see why they can’t still be atheists or humanists.

Van den Berg: Can humanism include the belief in God?

Law: I characterize humanism as involving atheism or agnosticism. The term humanism has historically been used in a variety of ways, but for some time now, it has primarily meant the kind of god-free worldview advocated by “humanist” organizations such as the British Humanist Association.

Van den Berg: Why are you interested in philosophy?

Law: I was always most interested in philosophical questions, such as “Why is there something rather than nothing?” “Is time travel possible?” “Could a machine think?” and so on. I just didn’t realize that there was a proper subject that addressed them.

I was largely uninspired by the stuff I was taught at school, and I was kicked out at seventeen. I then worked as a postman for four years. I went through a New Age period, reading a lot of esoteric books, and I became interested in thinking properly and rigorously. Via Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, I discovered Plato and Western philosophy. Antony Flew’s Introduction to Western Philosophy put me further along on the philosophy track, and I ended up applying to read the subject at University. By some miracle, I talked my way into the City University in London, despite not having the usual school exam record.

Van den Berg: What is philosophy?

Law: Philosophy is about applying our powers of reason so far as we are able to certain big questions, the answers to which at least appear to lie beyond the reach of science. For example: the metaphysical question “Why is there anything at all?”; the ethical question “What is right or wrong?”; the epistemological question “How do I know that other people have minds?”; or another metaphysical question, “Does time travel even make sense?” The territory overlaps with religion, but religion can (though it need not) downplay the role of reason, especially the importance of getting individuals to apply their own powers of reasoning. True, reason may not ultimately be able to answer such big questions, though I believe it can pretty conclusively answer some and can at least rule out certain answers to others. I value the kind of philosophy that is clear, precise, and succinct.

Van den Berg: What is the use of philosophy?

Law: Does it matter whether or not it is useful? I am interested in truth for its own sake, and when it comes to many big questions, a philosophical approach is our best bet so far for finding out what’s true (though obviously science has a role, too). However, I think philosophy is useful, as a matter of fact. Philosophy involves acquiring skills of thinking—being able to think clearly and rigorously, putting a point succinctly, spotting bullshit, and so on. These skills are “transferable”: they are useful in many walks of life, and they never go out of date. Philosophy is really more an ability than a body of knowledge (though of course you need some background knowledge of the history of philosophy if you are not to repeat the mistakes of the past).

Here’s another use of philosophy—a healthy society requires that citizens ask the big questions. It requires that citizens not just accept whatever they are told and do as they are ordered. A society of moral sheep is a dangerous thing. Getting people to think philosophically can help immunize them against the wiles of moral and intellectual snake-oil salesmen who might otherwise lead them astray. In fact, as the Oliners point out in their book The Altruistic Personality, what distinguished those who saved Jews from those who did not during the Holocaust was that the former had been raised to think and question and sympathize with others rather than just passively accept what they were told. If we want to avoid similar moral catastrophes, those are the kinds of citizens we sh
ould be raising.

Van den Berg: What about Germany? It has a long and profound tradition of philosophy, but Germany also dominated the twentieth century with two World Wars.

Law: The Nazi Adolf Eichmann, who orchestrated the deportation of the Jews to concentration camps, knew about Enlightenment thinkers such as Kant. Kant is chief among those who emphasized the importance of individuals applying their own powers of reason and being brave enough to make their own judgments—such individuals are “enlightened,” according to Kant. But Eichmann entirely misunderstood Kant. As Hannah Arendt points out, when asked, Eichmann said Kant’s ethics is about “doing your duty.” He thought the right thing to do is to unquestioningly follow orders! Of course, this is a complete misinterpretation of Kant. Germans such as Eichmann were clearly not enlightened, despite the role of many enlightened thinkers in their cultural tradition. It is a poisonous myth, put out by postmoderns and religious conservatives alike, that Kantian enlightenment was responsible for the Holocaust. In fact, raising citizens who are enlightened in Kant’s sense is probably our best defense against such catastrophes.

Van den Berg: What is the biggest problem in philosophy?

Law: I’m not sure. Maybe the mind/body problem, or the question “Why is there anything at all?”

Van den Berg: Who are your favorite philosophers?

Law: Ludwig Wittgenstein, Saul Kripke, and Peter Singer. They are all interesting. They have intriguing ideas, even if I don’t necessarily agree with them.

Van den Berg: And your most disliked philosophers?

Law: All the postmodern French “philosophers” as exposed in the book Intellectual Impostures by Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont: Deleuze, Derrida, Lyotard, Baudrillard, Kristeva, and all the others. They deserve to be laughed at. They give philosophy a bad name.

Van den Berg: Who would you add to the humanist canon?

Law: Peter Singer. He is one of the most significant moral thinkers of the past one hundred years. Perhaps the most significant.

Van den Berg: Do you do academic philosophy?

Law: Yes, I regularly publish papers on the field of the philosophy of religion, for example on the problem of evil.

Van den Berg: You are involved in education: you teach philosophy at a university, you popularize philosophy, you write philosophy books for children, and you write about the philosophy of education in The War for Children’s Minds. What’s the aim of education?

Law: Education has many aims. No doubt a good education should help pupils get a grip of their own culture and become reasonably scientifically and culturally literate (and thus should know at least the main Bible stories). My interest in education was provoked by reading conservative religious writers such as Melanie Philips and John Sachs, who both blame enlightenment (in Kant’s sense) values for much of what is wrong with contemporary society. Their proposed cure is increasing reliance on traditional-style religious education. I think children should be educated about religion, but they should not be encouraged to passively accept a religion (or, indeed, atheism). They should be encouraged to think and question and make up their own minds.

Van den Berg: Why are you not protesting against religious schools and pleading for a ban on them?

Law: If you oppose faith-based schools entirely, you will make more enemies than friends. You won’t succeed. But if you say things like “All schools should meet basic minimal standards,” you will find that most people agree. It’s a strategic approach.

In truth, I am not sure religious schools are at all acceptable. But they are not going to go away, so let’s make sure they meet certain basic standards, such as encouraging children to think and question and giving them awareness of a range of views, including atheism and humanism (preferably explained by those who hold such views). A recent poll of young British Muslims suggested that about a third think that any Muslim who leaves the faith deserves death. Clearly, their schools were not successful in encouraging the idea that individuals should be free to make their own decisions about what to believe.

Van den Berg: Are you a New Atheist?

Law: I am an outspoken atheist. I believe atheism is true, and I am not shy about saying so for fear of offending people. I am more interested in the truth of religious claims than I am in the question of whether religion is a force for good or evil in the world (which is more of a concern for some New Atheists). There are lots of good religious people, but obviously religion can be dangerous. I think of it as being a bit like nuclear power. Religion does have benefits, and most of the time it ticks away in the background doing little harm. But when things go wrong—kaboom! Or it can slowly but fatally poison us.

Because religion has the potential to do so much damage, it needs to be closely monitored. In particular, what goes on in religious schools needs to be closely monitored. Imagine that political schools started opening—a communist school in one town, a neocon school in another, and so on. Suppose these schools start each day with the collective singing of political anthems. Suppose portraits of political leaders beam down from classroom walls. Suppose pupils are selected on the basis of parents’ political beliefs. Suppose they expect children to uncritically accept the political tenets of their ideological leaders—Marx, Irving Kristol, et cetera. What would be the public’s reaction? In the U.K., there would be outrage. It would be understood that such schools were a threat to democracy and a healthy society. In fact, they are just the kind of schools you find in totalitarian regimes. Yet cross out political and write religious, and you will discover that countless such schools exist in the U.K. and the United States. I cannot see why such religious schools are any more acceptable.

Van den Berg: You plead for philosophy to be included in the school curriculum. Personally, even though I teach philosophy myself, I am skeptical about philosophy in schools because of the risk that what is taught will be postmodern nonsense. Ninety percent of philosophy is complete nonsense. What is the use of making students acquainted with that?

Law: I mean good philosophy, not bogus. So, no postmodern crap.

Van den Berg: To debate or not to debate? Should we debate believers or not?

Law: We should encourage debates, with the possible exception of Young Earth creationists. There are good reasons for not giving them a platform (I have changed my mind about this recently).

Van den Berg: Have you ever succeeded in getting believers to rethink their belief? If not, what is the use of debating believers as you do regularly?

Law: It has happened that a believer came up to me after a talk and said: “I am having second thoughts.” However, when it comes to rapid conversions, more people go the other way. Becoming a true believer typically happens very quickly. Becoming an atheist is usually a fairly slow process. There’s rarely a road-to-Damascus-type moment.

Van den Berg: You are provost of Centre for Inquiry in London. What is it and to what do you aspire?

Law: CFI in London is an educational platform organizing
debates and events on religion, the supernatural, and ethical issues. We use the humanist edifice Conway Hall in downtown London, and we participate in the Oxford Literary Festival. We are associated with the British Humanist Association, but we don’t duplicate their activities. We are complementary to the other humanist and atheist organizations.

Van den Berg: Can you be a scientist and believe in God, crop circles, homeopathy, et cetera?

Law: I am often struck by how otherwise intelligent people believe weird things—even the scientifically trained (though they are less prone, in fact). People, more generally, have an astonishing ability to accept the ridiculous. We should be cultivating an alertness for bullshit—a red light should come on when there’s bullshit around. My forthcoming Prometheus book, Believing Bullshit, exposes some of the main ways in which bullshit belief systems are able to suck people in. Sadly, even the otherwise scientifically literate can end up trapped inside such intellectual black holes. My guess is that it is bullshit that will ultimately bring about the end of civilization.


Philosopher Stephen Law teaches at Heythrop College, University of London, and edits the philosophical journal Think, which is published by the Royal Institute of Philosophy and is aimed at the general public. He is a fellow of The Royal Society of Arts and Commerce, and in 2008 became the provost of the Centre for Inquiry …

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