Courage, action and philosophy


Morning coffee on arrival at the Front, near Verdun, in 1916. The man on the right of the group is Teilhard de Chardin, the French scientist and religious  mystic.  A moment of normality and comradeship in the midst of hell. How did they find the courage to go on? And how did it shape Teilhard’s theology? (This image was published in the Teilhard Album, published by Collins, its provenance and copyright are being sought.)

I’m working on a book about the First World War and the impact it had on two religious thinkers – Paul Tillich and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin – the one a German Protestant chaplain, the other a French Catholic stretcher-bearer. By chance, they found themselves on opposite sides of the exactly the same ridge to the west of Verdun in 1916. The experience of the war was to shape their thinking and their lives, until both found themselves living as exiles in New York, the one having been banned from Germany by the Nazis, the other from France by the Jesuit hierarchy.

In exploring their lives, I find that their story touches on many issues in philosophy and theology that have developed over the last century. With just one chapter to go in the penultimate draft, here is the concluding paragraph of Chapter 10, where I have been exploring how men found the courage to enter into the hell of the trenches.

It is a feature of the best philosophy and theology that, beyond critical analysis or dogma, it encourages us to think about the values and goals to which we commit ourselves. Its value is illustrated by the courage of those who act, with their eyes open, in a world where the future always appears uncertain but the past, with hindsight, sadly inevitable.’

Does the world make sense? Are we fated to attempt to make sense of it? How, in times of confusion or trauma, do we find the courage to act decisively?  War – and especially the monstrous experience of entering a killing ground across mud and barbed wire – sets a question mark over all our easy philosophical and religious assumptions.

Through Mud and Barbed Wire is scheduled to be self-published (my first attempt at circumventing the conventional publishing route) this autumn.

Neuroscience as an antidote to commonsense? I doubt it!


Advances in neuroscience have given us new insights into the workings of the brain, at least to the extent that the measurement of blood flow suggests which parts of the brain are operating at any one time. When we make a decision, the only physical evidence for how we do it is in terms of brain activity, just as when we go for a walk, the only physical evidence for how we do that is the movement of muscles and limbs, along with the corresponding unconscious brain activity. Such an observation is in accord with a common sense view of the mind, for few today would subscribe to the idea that we have a disembodied self, independently capable of pulling our physical puppet-strings. We think, we walk and we decide what to do – that is how we experience ourselves. We are real and we are embodied.

I am utterly frustrated, therefore, by those who take a further step and try to suggest that the self is nothing other than neural activity, or that our every decision is an illusion, created by neural activity that has taken place prior to our becoming aware of it. They suggest that, because they can detect activity even a fraction of a second before we make a decision, it is not we who have made the decision at all, but our brains, and therefore that we have no more than an illusion of being in charge or of being morally responsible for our actions. At this point, neurodeterminism parts company with common sense. We know what it is to agonise over a decision and then take responsibility for it, and no analysis in terms of neural activity is going to render that process illusory, any more than a Mozart symphony is rendered illusory by being analysed in terms of a sequence of sound waves. Of course there is no symphony without sound waves, nor some extra-terrestrial ghost of Mozart, but no list of frequencies is going to replace what we mean by the symphony or our experience of hearing it.

Neurodeterminism only makes sense if we assume that the human brain is the cause of its own activity and that human social interaction and communication are merely its by-products. Indeed, some enthusiasts for neuroscience mock the common sense view that we have of ourselves as thinking, choosing, creating, conscious beings as a relic of a pre-scientific outlook. If it can’t be measured, it can’t exist!

In fact, I would argue that the relationship between self and brain is exactly the reverse. Communication and social interaction, with the development of signs and language, provided the context within which natural selection favoured the development of mental capacity. Those best able to identify one another, communicate and make good decisions about how to act together, were able to survive in a competitive world, and the brain capacity that made possible such thought and communication therefore increased over time. To suggest otherwise requires belief in some external force that appears to have determined that hominids should have ever-increasing cranial capacity. But – if natural selection is a valid way of looking at evolution – it just doesn’t work that way. Change requires context and competition. It is because we flourish as a species if we think, decide and communicate, that our brains develop over time. Pure Darwin.

Notice that it is the reality of countless individuals in their interaction with one another and with their environment that enables this evolution to take place; it provides the context within which increasing brain-power makes sense. But, quite apart from evolution, we also know that the brain is plastic and constantly changing. It responds to our choices and actions. As we learn a new skill, the relevant neural pathways enlarge to reflect that achievement and to facilitate it further. We don’t find that we have a new skill because the neural pathways have changed; they change as we learn the skill!

This popular and ‘reductive’ misconception of neuroscience is not just a matter of putting the cart before the horse, its having a cart with no horse at all – and that is a recipe for going nowhere, and for having no explanation for how the cart arrived in its present position! Let Darwin come to the rescue of commonsense on this one!

What happens in the brain mirrors and continues to make possible what happens to us as persons and as social agents. We are more than our brains, and even if neuroscience were one day to achieve the impossible and give a full description of the activity of each and every neuron, it would still not explain what consciousness is like, or what it means to be a human being. That may be a common sense view, but I think it is none the worse for that!

For more on my views on The Philosophy of Mind, visit my website.

Naked thoughts?


Another extract from The Philosopher’s Beach Book

George Formby got his cheeky implications wrong. In his ‘Hi-Tiddly-Hi-Ti Island’ (a Pacific beach paradise with fantasy images to rival Gaugin, but without the latter’s sinister side) he offers what appears to be an escalating scale of sexual provocation when he suggests that ‘the girls there are all full of sport’ leading to ‘and wear their frocks a trifle short’, and ending with ‘and some are simply wrapt in thought’ in Hi-Tiddly-Hi-Ti Isle. Trouble is, it doesn’t quite work like that – and never did, not even in the 1950s when he recorded the song. No; when it comes to nakedness, glimpses of flesh and whisps of material are always going to be more sexy than straightforward, in-your-face, all-shapes-and-sizes-accepted nakedness.

We’ve already looked at paradise, so what about nakedness? Should the genuine philosopher, straining to appreciate the existential implications of being alive, prefer to be naked on the beach?

Among ‘textiles’, nakedness is associated with sex; but among the naturist fraternity it is just the most beautiful and natural way to be. Feeling the breeze and sun on your body, outside with no clothes on, you feel ‘in’ the world in a way that the clothed cannot. Even under an overcast sky, with a breeze whipping in off the water, there is something wonderful and liberating about displaying your goose bumps to the universe at large.

And clothes are problematic anyway. They make social and existential statements that may or may not reflect the reality of who we are. Uniforms take away our individuality and encourage us to conform to the social role they represent. A major feature of the ingenuity of British teenagers lies in modifying their school uniform in a way that is provocative and rebellious while remaining just about within the letter of the school law. But clothes make statements in so many ways: the hijab and burqa, the veil, the clerical collar, the punk outfit, the studded leather jacket, the judge’s wig. Clothes are eloquent. But are they necessarily honest? Martin Heidegger, in his Being and Time (caution: this is a great book, but not an easy read), argued that we are often tempted to adopt particular social masks rather than being ourselves, to play a role rather than act with authenticity. Clothes play a large part in affirming such masks.

Clothes may also reflect the wearer’s attitude. The extreme example of this is The Dandy – the title also of a new book from Nigel Rodgers. He makes the point that Dandyism is not simply a matter of fastidiousness of dress, it is a way of thinking about oneself, an aloofness of thought and behaviour, an elevated state of mind.   At a more mundane level, designer labels perform the same function – they say more about you than flesh ever can.

But there is a negative side to nakedness, for it is associated with death and with poverty. We are encouraged in the New Testament to clothe the naked as a means of giving them basic aid, and none can forget the terrible images of naked bodies piled up in heaps at Auschwitz. To choose to be naked is one thing, to have it imposed is quite another. Those who are naked have no status, they reveal their human vulnerability; to humiliate someone, first remove their clothes.

But ever since Adam and Eve were said to feel shame at their nakedness, and reached for the fig leaves, a minority of religious people have been trying to regain their lost innocence. A major dispute within the Jain community in its early days was whether monks should remain naked (‘sky clad’ was the delightful term used) or accept a simple form of clothing. Some became clothed, but nakedness remained the ideal. Nakedness for the Jain is a sign of renunciation, of absolute simplicity and innocence. Those who have nothing, not even clothes, symbolise the value of non-possessiveness. And that, of course, holds true for the long tradition of naked asceticism within Indian religions. Of course, the temperature helps; naked ascetics do not thrive in polar regions.

Simplicity is one thing, innocence another, and the quest for innocence through nakedness is best exemplified in the Adamites, a 17th century English sect who undressed to worship. Nakedness expressed innocence, absolute equality (and, no, we’re not talking physical features of a personal kind) and open honesty within the community. They saw it as a return to the Garden of Eden, a celebration of what humankind was meant to be, going naked and unashamed before God.

So, as you look about you on your literal or metaphorical beach, consider what the textiles are saying with their clothes, however casual or minimal; from designer gear to distressed jeans, clothes are eloquent at presenting a personal image that may or may not be the truth about the wearer. Clothes categorise people and therefore also divide them. By contrast, there is a natural camaraderie on a naturist beach.

And if philosophy, particularly of the existentialist sort, includes exploring who we are and how we relate to the world and to other people, affirming ourselves in honesty and acting with authenticity, would it not be better of philosophers remained naked? Weather permitting!!

For more about The Philosopher’s Beach Book, click here.

Did you bring your camera? (from The Philosopher’s Beach Book)


The joy of the small-format digital camera is that it enables you to capture the moment with ease, edit out the unwanted details in Photoshop, shrink the image to an appropriate size for emailing and then send it to your friends. Even the most fleeting experience can be captured and shared, if not with a camera, at least with a phone. How things have changed since aristocrats, arriving in Venice as part of their grand European tour, would commission a painting to commemorate their visit. Canaletto thrived on wealthy patrons who wanted to capture the moment.

But Canaletto also anticipated (in his own most wonderful style) the curse of the small digital camera, in that both he and it tend to make everything in the scene so sharp. That, of course, is no doubt what he, and those who market cameras today, parade as a virtue; people want sharp pictures. But tear your eyes away from the Canalettos as they hang in the gallery and observe for a moment those who are viewing them. They first stand back, taking in the scene, but almost immediately move forward to scan the painting, enjoying the small tableaus that are to be found in every corner, each detail revealing something of the life of the city. Some, like moles, almost sniff their way across the canvass, luxuriating in fine brushstrokes and acute observation. Take a Canaletto home from your travels and you have not one picture but a whole album. So also the small format camera, with its short focal length lens, can render everything sharp across the frame, the foreground characters are set against an equally sharp background that constantly distracts the eye. You are tempted, as with a Canaletto, to explore detail. Continue reading

‘Reader View’ on iPhone or iPad?

If you use an iPhone or iPad, I need your advice.

RV off

When you visit my site on an iPhone, this is what you see. Notice the ‘lines of text’ icon on the left of the address bar. This is  the ‘Reader View’ button.  All of my ‘Notes for Students’ pages, in addition to my home page, are now ‘Reader View compatible’, but do you use Reader View if you visit using Safari on your iPhone or iPad?

I asked three people who seem to be on their iPhones all the time and none of them even knew what Reader View was. Do you? I would make reading my notes much easier.

When you visit a ‘Reader View compatible’ page, there is a little icon representing lines of text to the left of the address bar. Click on that icon and you get the main column of text set out in an appropriate size for your phone or pad, without any of the menus or additional columns. It makes reading chunks of text much easier. If you want to go back to see the whole page, you just click that icon again. This is what you see on my home page (as it is at the time of writing)…

RV on

This is significant for anyone designing a web page – and it may change the way I present my pages as I develop my site. Up to now, the standard way to make a site compatible with smaller screens is to make it ‘responsive’ – in other words, it either expands of shrinks to fit the screen available, generally presenting just a vertical menu followed by a text column if you are browsing from a mobile.   But the result is that many of the options for those with large screens are not available. You can’t see my comments in the side column, or run down my ‘contents’ list for the page as you work your way through the notes.

Using Reader View, you can glance at the whole page – just using your fingers to enlarge the menus or whatever else you want to see – and then hit ‘Reader View’ to get on with reading the text, returning to the full view whenever you need to.

It would be ideal to design pages with ‘Reader View’ in mind – making sure that the first column just has photos and text, making for an easy read, and keeping everything else to the side for those who want to refer to its menus.

If you have not used it before, give it a try and let me know what you think. If you already use ‘Reader View’ for my notes, how does that work for you?

And is there an equivalent for those using Android?  How do you generally view multi-column pages?

Over the next couple of months – while students are off doing more important things on beaches or up mountains – I shall be up-dating my site (apologies… it has been much neglected during the writing of three more books), so your advice at this stage would be most welcome.




Thought Experiments in Ethics


Fed up with diverting trolleys, pushing fat men off bridges or killing one hostage to save twenty? Not sure whether you are prepared to be medically hooked up to a famous violinist for nine months, or whether that pig really does want to be eaten?

Thought experiments have become a common feature of ethical arguments, but how should we treat them and what are their limitations?

richardbaronphotoThe London-based philosopher, Richard Baron, has kindly allowed me to post the notes of his recent talk about Thought Experiments on my website, to which I have added my earlier rant about going ‘Off your trolley?’ and links to some books of Thought Experiments, including, of course, Julian Baggini’s popular consideration of ‘The Pig that Wants to be Eaten’.

Just visit my website by clicking here.

The Beach Book – sample


Introduction: Your ‘beach’ opportunity

A holiday beach is a strange phenomenon. For the ancient Hebrews the sea symbolised chaos; the deep out of whose dark depths the world had originally been created, the home of Leviathan, an unformed, threatening and untamed mantle thrown round the solid earth. It was something to be approached with trepidation. Yet observe a holiday resort and you see people turning their backs on the land of their everyday life. They sit on a beach and stare out over the sea to a near-featureless horizon, lulled by the sound of the waves into a soporific state in which even the arrival of a seagull becomes a significant event. Flesh creamed and eyes shaded, they lie out in rows, absorbing the warmth of the sun, seeking to avoid the sensory overload of home and work by luxuriating in just a few sensations. They attempt to relax and clear their minds.

Whereas at home they would choose to eat on a clean table, here they are prepared to risk getting sand in their sandwiches. The comfortable sofa is exchanged for the folding chair, a blanket or simply a stretch of sand hopefully free from litter or the needs of the doggy fraternity. They are drawn out here to the margins of something into which they can (literally or metaphorically) do little more than dip their toes. They may, of course, paddle boats on it, windsurf, water or jetski across it, entertainingly skimming the surface. For some, the snorkel or scuba kit take them further away from the land, immersing them in a wonderful world which has not been their natural home since the first amphibians crawled out onto the land 400 million years ago. Few would choose to venture further down into the sea’s murky depths and it only takes a few seconds of rhythmic bowing from cellos and basses to remind us of Jaws.

All human life is here. People parade up and down through the shallow water – observing or keen to be observed. The beach is a place for sexual display. It is also the place where the sheer variety of human physicality dampens sexual ardour. Little knots of people, burning in the sun or shivering in the cold, stand staring out to sea, while around them children amuse themselves by moving sand from one place to another, and creating castles that the tide will soon overwhelm – providing them with a valuable and necessary image of life. Next to them, parents stand and stare, and perhaps wonder how they can defend their own domestic sandcastles against the inevitable tide of time.

But if the beach is, for the purpose of our title, used as an image of what a holiday is all about, it certainly does not exhaust that phenomenon. Nowadays we take adventure holidays, climb mountains, struggle with foreign languages, try new foods (although a diminishing possibility in a world where diet is globalised). We may choose to take to a canal, throbbing along in a narrow boat at 4 miles an hour, until the rhythm of the diesel engine soothes us into a relaxed state in which every moorhen crossing the canal commands our willing attention.

But whether you are backpacking, engaging in life-threatening activities, or simply sitting by beach or pool, holidays provide you with an opportunity to stand back from your life, consider who you are, and perhaps make resolutions about what you will do on your return. It is a time when relationships are threatened (rivalled only by the stress of Christmas) or love re-affirmed, when families come together or blow apart. It is time of heightened awareness. When did you last spend time just staring at a beautiful scene? It is a time when you can ‘be yourself’ or (if you don’t much like yourself) pretend to be someone else.

It is an opportunity to think about who you are, what you believe and what you want to do with your life. It gives a longer perspective on your work, your family, your values. It may be the wine, the heat, the fact that my mind is freed from routine hassle, but it seems to me that holidays are the ideal opportunity for a bit of non-routine thinking. And just as the slightly inebriated sense that they have glimpsed the meaning of life, even if they cannot articulate it when sober, so – with the mild inebriation that comes from being on holiday – we may find that our intuitions and thoughts give us insights that would not occur in the daily routine of home. Freed from everyday pressures, the mind sees things new.

But of course you don’t need to be on holiday to benefit from a bit of distance. Problems often clarify only once we step back from them. Sleep on it, they say, with good reason. Take a break; stop the meeting; bring in the coffee; take a walk to clear the mind – we all need our ‘beach’ moments, when we relax and wait for a new set of ideas to arise.

If that’s the way it is (or could be) for you, then you are in good company. Many of the greatest insights have come once the mind is removed from the routine. Archimedes is famously said to have jumped out of the bath shouting ‘Eureka’ – he had found it! Leaving aside the inevitable crude jokes, or the unlikely story that, in his excitement, he ran naked into the street in Syracuse, his moment of insight is instructive for us. His answer came when he stepped back from the problem of slicing shapes in order to calculate their volume, and had gone to take a bath. Archimedes had wrestled with the problem of finding the density of an irregular object – in this case a votive crown in which the gold had allegedly been replaced with an equal weight of silver. He knew the weight, but only the volume would tell him the density and thus if the crown were solid gold. The displacement of water in his bath gave him a practical solution to his problem. An alert mind in relaxed state is open to both intuition and ingenuity.

Sometimes it’s a matter of finding the right place to relax. In 1637, the philosopher Descartes published his famous Discourse on the Method of Rightly Conducting one’s Reason and Seeking the Truth in the Sciences – hardly a catchy title but absolutely to the point! At the opening of Part 2, he says that, while returning to the army (he had become a gentleman officer) after attending the coronation of the Emperor, he found himself delayed by winter weather in a small village in Germany where, with no other diversions, he spent the whole day shut up in a stove-heated room with leisure to pursue his own thoughts without distraction. Whether it was by that stove that he came up with his famous, indubitable claim ‘I think therefore I am’ we cannot be certain. What we do know is that he sat there and quietly reviewed his habitual way of thinking, resolving to set all pre-conceived notions aside in his quest for certainty; the ideas he developed were to set a trend in philosophy that was to last for the next three centuries.

Finding the right spot to think is one thing, having the determination to stay there focused on one’s philosophical questions is quite another. The Buddha sat beneath a Pipal tree and vowed that he would not move until he had discovered the secret of life and the cause of suffering. That does seem a bit drastic, but it clearly worked. After a night of struggling with all manner of distractions and temptations, his insight came with the dawn. This book will not necessarily recommend that you determine to stay on holiday until enlightenment comes!

One thing is certain; it’s difficult to be creative when tired – the best ideas come, almost accidentally, when relaxed and receptive. So, to get an intellectual and personal focus on your life, what better place than the beach – of course, there is no need to take that literally, your ‘beach’ may be a mountain track, or a woodland walk, or a deckchair in the back garden. You may be in five star luxury or camping in the corner of some French farmer’s field. You need not even be on holiday to find your ‘beach’ – it is just a metaphor for taking a break from the routine of life and asking yourself What do I really think? What makes sense? What am I looking for in life?

These personal, existential questions are not of course the whole of philosophy. Much that is practised in university departments is highly abstract, analysing meaning, language and logic to a degree that would not be appropriate on a beach. But that does not imply that the more general, existential questions are any less important. Many of the ancient philosophers, from whom we have received the whole tradition of Western thought, were absolutely committed to the question of how we live and what is worthwhile. Plato, the Stoics, the Epicureans, all expected philosophy to make a difference to ordinary life. And in modern times, philosophers such as Hume and Kierkegaard have clearly lived out their philosophy and others, particularly the existentialists, made the question of human significance and meaning primary. Marx was not the only thinker to argue that his task was not merely to understand the world but to change it. Every worthwhile philosophy presents a challenge, always intellectual but sometimes also personal and social.

But clear thinking requires a basic framework and questions to get it started. That is what this book seeks to offer you. Each short chapter will introduce a question; some of these will be more personal, others more abstract. All are designed to challenge habitual ways of thinking.

So this is the moment to dig your toes into the sand, put on your shades, and let your mind freewheel along the gentle undulations of an intellectual path.

To see more about The Philosopher’s Beach Book, or to order a copy click here.