Archive for January, 2014

This week will see Chris Eddy talking on this topic. He says:
The ultimate question is not about what is true, but rather about what is good: it is always a practical question, – “How ought we to live?” (Socrates) “What must I do to be saved?” ( Acts) “What is to be done?” (Lenin). Truth matters only as it helps us decide what to do or refrain from doing.

Truth is a relation not between words and things, but between interlocutors: i.e., between speakers who, in making claims, exercise authority and thereby incur the responsibility to justify them to each other. If I say that a particular statement is “true”, I am implicitly asserting that we ought not to contradict it nor, when acting, to disregard it, and thereby making myself responsible for justifying it to you if called on to do so. To justify a truth-claim to you, e.g., about the Higgs boson, the battle of Waterloo or the existence of God, I must give you the kinds of reason for assenting to it that you might offer as reasons for my assenting to truth-claims made by yourself: the kinds of reason which are available to both of us and in that sense objective and non-arbitrary, but also acceptable to both of us as the right kind of reason for assenting to that truth-claim.

If you accept my reasons for my truth-claim, then that claim becomes something we can both appeal to as a “fact”. Facts do not exist until they are stated and agreed. Facts are derived from experience, but experience is not a given. Experience is what we are conscious of, but we are conscious only of what we are paying attention to (a fact which stage-magicians exploit), and this is where language has a foundational role in experience. The attention of dumb animals is at the mercy of events, drawn hither and thither by chance phenomena inside and outside their bodies, and they cannot resist being distracted by each new salient phenomenon; but language enables us to resist distraction, i.e., not merely react to particular phenomena, but focus our attention on them and construct them as objects of conscious experience.

Any object or event can be seen as in some respect like or unlike every other, and we construct our experience, using language to focus attention on particular patterns of likeness and difference, i.e., ways of categorizing experience. As we attend and collectively react to those patterns, we come to see them differently, new patterns are proposed and recognised, and so there is change in our experience, in the facts and therefore in what we accept as true. Ptolemy’s Solar System yields to that of Copernicus, Newton’s gravity to Einstein’s.

But our commitments as speakers require us to ensure that every statement we propose as a fact is consistent with, or corresponds to, every other such statement, so that any change in what we recognise as true can be very costly in terms of the intellectual effort required to readjust the whole existing system to the demands of the newly constructed fact, which helps to explain why people are generally reluctant to change their minds about the facts. The Correspondence Criterion for Truth, – that a statement cannot count as true unless it corresponds to the facts, – turns out to be simply another way of stating the Coherence Criterion, – that no statement can count as true for us if it is inconsistent with any other statement we accept as true.”


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This Friday’s meeting will be a ‘panel Q&A event’ with people from The Swindon Humanists Humanism. Topics are likely to include:

What do Humanists believe in?
What don’t they believe in?
Is it a religion…a faith…what is it?
How does it relate to agnosticism, atheism, naturalism, secularism, etc?
Does it align with any particular political position or political causes?
Is there a humanist morality?
Who are the Humanist heroes?
What is the Humanist attitude to death and dying, religious schools, animal welfare, the New Atheists?
What does joining a local group involve?

I hope to see you there.

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This Friday, Paul Archer will be speaking on this topic.

David Goodhart in The British Dream writes: ‘You can have a Swedish-style welfare state provided you are a homogeneous society with intensely shared values; in the US, you have a very diverse individualistic society where people feel lower obligations to fellow citizens; progressives want diversity but thereby undermine part of the moral consensus on which a large welfare state rests….’

Is this true and what does it mean for migration policy and for the role that national feeling / patriotism plays in the politics of redistribution?

I hope to see you on Friday.

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Go to https://docs.google.com/file/d/0B7iZI0bV-JFjMWVMWDl2VXFCN3M/edit?pli=1 and download a recording of Friday’s talk…..

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10th January: Psychopathy

This week, our Treasurer John Little will be speaking on this topic. He says:

“What do you think of when you hear the word psychopath? The manipulative con-artist? The person who lies to your face, even when they don’t have to? The Enron executive? The child who tortures animals? The cold-blooded serial killer?
For the past year, two books on psychopaths have been massive bestsellers (Jon Ronson’s The Psychopath Test and Kevin Dutton’s The Wisdom of Psychopaths). Recently, academics in Oxford have been diagnosing famous Britons (Henry VIII came out at the top, Charles Darwin at the bottom), and you may have seen Channel 4’s Psychopath night.

Psychopaths are characterised by an absence of empathy and poor impulse control, with a total lack of conscience.They tend to be egocentric, callous, manipulative, deceptive, superficial, irresponsible and parasitic, even predatory.
Is it a lifestyle choice or were they born that way…..are the brains of psychopaths different?
Is it an illness or could it be an adaptation….one more way of being human?
Is it on a continuum or is it a definite.category….a matter of degree or of kind?
What is the relative importance of genes, upbringing and environment?
Does it have a specific cause and can psychopaths be reformed?

About 1% of the total population can be classified as psychopaths, according to a psychological profile checklist. They are vastly over-represented among criminals; it is estimated they make up 15-20% of the inmates of most prisons. They commit over half of all violent crimes and are 3-4 times more likely to re-offend. They are almost entirely resistant to rehabilitation. So it’s a serious social problem.

But the majority of people with high scores are not violent, and many do very well in jobs where their personality traits are advantageous and their social tendencies tolerated. You probably know a few. They are often confident charming and addicted to risk. Our financial industry has been called ‘a playground for psychopaths’. Still a serious problem then.

Philosophically they represent a challenge to certain conceptions of morality, particularly those referred to as cognitive or reason-based.
Are psychopaths ‘amoralists’ (people who know the difference between right and wrong but just don’t care)….. ‘philosophical egoists’ – what Hume called ‘sensible knaves’…. or are they actually unable to make moral judgements? Would this be some sort of defence in a court of law?

Lots to talk about……

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