A.C. Grayling Interview
A.C. Grayling- interviewed by Nicola Walker RE teacher Rainham Mark Grammar School
What is Philosophy?
Everybody knows if they look in the dictionary that philosophy means ‘love of wisdom’; but what it actually means and has meant right until very recent times is ‘enquiry’- trying to understand the world around us, which is something more than having knowledge. Getting knowledge is one thing but then making sense of that knowledge is another and that is where philosophy comes in. So it’s an attempt to understand. There are two great questions in philosophy. One is-: What is the world really like? And the other question is: What matters? What is of value? All the different aspects of philosophy are some aspects of those two big questions.
Which philosopher have you been most influenced by and why?
Well I’ve been influenced by a number of philosophers in the sense that I’ve found things in their views which have been particularly useful to me, one is Aristotle, especially his ethics. He is the first true systematic theoriser of ethics. His great work the Nichomachean Ethics is particularly useful for anybody who wants to start thinking about the good life. I’ve been influenced by Descartes, Locke, Berkeley, Hume and by Kant. Kant is very special figure because his way of thinking about things in technical, philosophical terms has been rather important to me. Then I’ve been influenced by Russell and by P.F. Strawson. So from all these philosophers I’ve learned something and the whole point about studying philosophy and trying to think about philosophical problems is that you should be a kind of thief and plunder all the best ideas and try and make the best use of them for your own purposes. What you shouldn’t do is be anybody’s disciple.
Are there any arguments for the existence of God that have any strength?
I think the general consensus is that the arguments for the existence of God are in general very unsatisfactory. They take two different forms. There are the arguments that try to infer something from the nature of the world; for example from the fact that there is a causal sequence in the world which must have a first term, or that the world is contingent (that is everything that happens in it happens by accident) and so needs some necessary basis. These arguments try to persuade us that there is some necessary being or first cause which is identified with the God of traditional theology. Then there is another set of arguments which are purely logical- that a perfect being has to exist otherwise it wouldn’t be perfect. None of these arguments are very persuasive. All of them were given a very powerful refutation by Kant back in the 18th century at the height of the enlightenment.
Do you think that the philosophy of religion has reached its end?
Well I think philosophical reflection in general on the beliefs, the outlooks, the conceptual systems that people use to try and understand the world and to think about the world through; that kind of philosophical enquiry will never end. It will probably be quite a long time before we manage to educate people out of thinking in terms of there being supernatural agencies or entities that have a part in the constitution of the universe. So in that sense philosophy of religion still has some work to do, mainly, as it were, disinfecting work.
Can you have the good life without God?
Yes, you certainly can and in fact you may do very much better without God in trying to understand the basis of ethics and the good life. The point is that if the ultimate resource in your ethics is the command of a deity then you have all these questions about why you should obey the deity. The answer might be that he will beat you up; but then that’s the argument ad baculem which is a logical fallacy. There’s no logical reason for doing something because someone threatens you, or promises you a reward. If people say you should obey the dictates of a deity because the deity loves you, then you could say ‘ok I love you so jump off that roof’. Why would you think that was sufficient reason to obey that injunction? On the contrary if you think instead about why you should treat other people well; why you should respect them; why you should take their interests, desires and needs into account; and you answer on the basis of your best understanding of human nature; your best endeavour to place an intrinsic value in the fact of experience and consciousness; that people are capable of feeling pleasure and pain and that it makes a difference to them which they experience, and that that is a reason why you should treat them one way rather than another- then you have a much stronger, firmer, more empirically based footing for thinking about the good. So, appealing to a supernatural policeman or somebody who is giving orders as the ultimate basis for why anybody ought to do anything, is in fact vacuous, it’s an empty gesture.
Lots of sixth form students find relativism appealing. What are your thoughts on this?
Well there are two kinds of relativism. One which is harmless, it just says that there are differences between the French and the English, and there are differences between different phases in the history of a culture. Long may those differences last, as the French themselves say ‘Vive la difference’. But deep relativism, which says that there are ways of thinking about the world, kinds of truths, kinds of knowledge which are not the same as our own (what might be true for me might be false for you, what is good for you is wrong for me) that kind of relativism is unsustainable and there are all sorts of reasons why. I’ll give you a simple example, the truth example. Even in order to understand that somebody else’s view of the world is different from your own, you have to share something in common with them. There’s no recognising difference between conceptual schemes without a shared basis. If relativism were literally true then you wouldn’t even be able to understand that another conceptual scheme was one. So there has to be something in common, some mapping, which enables you to recognise what you disagree about in order to see what the differences are. So ultimately it just comes down to variation not deep difference. Moreover on the ethical front (which is where being relativist usually bites these days) the truth of the matter is that things like a right to life, a need for companionship, a right to certain sorts of opportunity, leading a good life for yourself- whatever that might be- all those things are common to all human beings because of our human nature. We all have five senses, we all feel the cold, we all feel hunger and we are all social animals; and so those very deep structural features of what it is to be human show that it just simply cannot, in the end, be the case that some things are really bad for some people and really good for others.
Some have argued that Richard Dawkins has done no favours for the atheist cause. Have you any comments?
Well some people find Richard Dawkins’ manner rather rebarbative, brusque and combative. All those of us who have argued on the non- religious side of the argument, have sometimes been rather irritated and irritable in our approach towards matters of religion. There are certainly people, people who have a deep faith and religious commitment who find him offensive because he is so blunt in what he has to say. But I think if people read him carefully and with an open mind, they will understand that his target which is- relatively unreflective, unthinking, knee-jerk and assumption accepting religious outlooks (as exemplified by evangelicals in America) really deserve very tough treatment. In any case in recent years, perhaps just in the last five years, since 9/11, the conflict between people of religious and non- religious outlooks has become a bad tempered one for very good reasons. It’s because it’s exposing these deep differences in thinking about how we should understand the world, how we should behave ourselves. It is good that the quarrel is out in the open and we can really understand one another. Rather than pussyfooting around we now see what the genuine differences are. He is just a spokesman for one side of the argument.
What do you think of Antony Flew’s conversion to deism?
Well I think he is obviously going mad in his old age because he premises it on the thought that you just simply can’t explain the universe’s existence and all its complexity unless you presuppose that there was some originating agency. That kind of manoeuvre has always really, really surprised me. The question that you think you’re answering about the universe by saying there must be some originating agency arises in connection with the agency. How does the agency come to being? How do you explain that? It’s just plucking something arbitrary out of the air. If you said ‘Why is there a universe?’ and I said ‘Because Fred made it’; you would naturally want to know who Fred is and how he got there. How is he sufficiently equipped to produce a universe? Substitute the word God for Fred and you see the problem.