The Atheist’s Guide to Reality

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Although it came out late last year, Alex Rosenberg’s book, The Atheist’s Guide to Reality: Enjoying Life Without Illusions hasn’t been getting the press it deserves. Indeed, the comparative attention lavished on Alain de Botton’s much less interesting Religion for Atheists seems downright unfair. Probably Rosenberg’s title is largely to blame. He has all but admitted choosing it as a marketing ploy. This was probably a mistake. The title does the book no justice, since one thing The Atheist’s Guide has relatively little to say about is atheism. This has led people like this Independent reviewer to focus on complaining that the book offers little to atheists (more sensitive to logical solecisms than de Botton, Rosenberg declines to offer them religion) while ignoring its real topic.

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Tradition and Politics

Detail from James Gillray's 'New Morality'. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

‘Without a tradition, everything is impermanence and flux.’ Thus writes David Brooks in a New York Times piece giving advice to the rebellious and dissatisfied youth of today. If you are one of these youth, Brooks’ advice is that your rebellion should be grounded in a past tradition:

‘If I could offer advice to a young rebel, it would be to rummage the past for a body of thought that helps you understand and address the shortcomings you see. Give yourself a label. If your college hasn’t provided you with a good knowledge of countercultural viewpoints — ranging from Thoreau to Maritain — then your college has failed you and you should try to remedy that ignorance.’

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The Philosophy of Safety Nets

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Source: Wikimedia Commons

Achieving happiness is easy. I don’t mean eudaimonia – that oversophisticated happiness for Pinot-snuffling yuppies. I mean ordinary, practical happiness for ordinary, practical folk: utility. Achieving eudaimonia is definitely not easy; at your very approach it dances away like a will-o’-the-wisp on gossamer winds of pretentiousness. But utility? Utility is solid and graspable. In fact, Australians say ‘utility’ to refer to what Americans call a ‘pick-up truck’. A ute, we normally say. What’s more blunt and practical than that? Eudaimonia is a concept for sprinkling on your puy lentils to add that certain je ne sais quoi. Utility, on the other hand, is a concept you could change your sparkplugs with.

So, achieving ute is easy. Here’s how you do it. Start with the things you have. Now exchange them with people for other things you would prefer to have. People will participate in these exchanges whenever their preferences are different to yours. This will be often, since humans are psychologically diverse. Keep exchanging for as long as your preferences fail to be maximised, and you’ll always be getting closer to full happiness.

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Neoclassical Economics as a Predictive Social Science?

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So the big news is the Eurozone crisis and what to do about it. This obscures the bigger question, which is what to do about the system of international finance. I have an idea. Let’s get rid of it. Something seems simply wrong with the idea of a system of giant, closely integrated lending firms, backed up by nationally-owned central banks. New regimes of regulation, or the ‘utility model’ – where credit institutions are treated like nationalised water or electricity suppliers – are weasly halfway houses. Let’s go eliminativist. Why not? Think Distributism, without the anti-Semitism, the leanings towards theocracy, and the social conservatism. Ok, don’t think Distributism. Just think very, very different from the way things are now.

But I’m just a historian of philosophy. I have no idea what I’m talking about. I just feel like that would be the right thing to do. Before you accuse me of being naïve, however, consider what you’re accusing me of not knowing. Is the accusation that I don’t understand economics? The problem with that is that there is no reason to think that if I did understand economics I’d be any better placed to legislate for the future. At the risk of raining on a great ongoing parade, we don’t have a social science with predictive power. We don’t even, as Jerry Fodor said in a different context, know what it would be like to have a predictive social science. If I don’t know what the consequences of a policy will be, I take comfort in the fact that nobody else does either.

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Government Debt and Anti-Governmentalism

The standout nominees from the Ames straw poll were one Tea Party member and someone who may as well be. They are set to make every possible opportunity out of the obvious weaknesses of their common rival, Mitt Romney, not least, as The Onion put it, his ‘dark past of trying to help uninsured sick people.’ There is a good deal of media fluff and bubble about the border issues these candidates like to campaign on – gay marriage, evolution, and other emotive distractions. But the real meat of their political philosophy comes down to one thing. They are small government people. They are seriously small government people. They are nanogovernmentalists. Rick Perry hates the idea of government spending so much he thinks quantitative easing is treason.

When a political philosophy of this extremity becomes mainstream, the philosopher should take stock. Where does all the extremism come from? The answer does not lie in economics.  According to the New York Times finance correspondent, Floyd Norris, ninety-five out of a hundred economists will say that government should be expanding rather than shrinking right now (listen to him on the NYTimes podcast, The Caucus). Even Christine Legarde has recently made a general recommendation for short-term increases in spending, balanced by long-term commitments to debt-reduction, as have George Soros and Gordon Brown.

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On Public Intellectuals

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A host of British public intellectuals have sounded off on the question of public intellectuals… again. For some reason this topic has become something of a refrain for the British (the Americans as well). We are meant to think there is some tremendous mystery to be solved: the French, we are told, love their intellectuals – fête them even – but the British hate their intellectuals; they look at them cock-eyed, or askance, or sometimes even askew. The journalists ask: why this difference? John Naughton, for example, has reviewed some books that return to this depressing cliché, dragged out every so often and wheeled around like the sad, emaciated final elephant of a bankrupt travelling circus. The fact that the whole theory is a giant pile of garbage does not prevent it from being meticulously picked through, over and over, usually concluding with the staggering revelation that it is, in fact, garbage. Continue reading “On Public Intellectuals”

The Debate on Martin Rees’ Templeton Prize

Last week, the theoretical astrophysicist Professor Martin Rees, former president of the Royal Society and current Master of Trinity College, Cambridge, accepted the Templeton Prize. Funded by a massive endowment from the Tennessee-born billionaire Sir John Marks Templeton (1912-2008), the prize is awarded, according to its website, to ‘a living person who has made an exceptional contribution to affirming life’s spiritual dimension, whether through insight, discovery, or practical works.’

That Rees’ acceptance of the prize has caused controversy should surprise few, given the number of highly opinionated and vocal participants in the current science-religion debate. Indeed one thing Rees was undoubtedly being rewarded for was his unusually conciliatory contribution to this often hostile conversation. But those who feel their hostility to be justified, particularly on the scientific side, regret what they perceive as the conversion of Rees into Continue reading “The Debate on Martin Rees’ Templeton Prize”