Monday, 2 December 2013

Philosophy and Religion

Kicking off the first blog post of the academic year with such a controversial topic – religion. Not long ago we had a seminar on Christianity and Philosophy, and the question ‘Is religion and philosophy the same thing? If not, then what are the basic differences?’ was asked and it came up with a very interesting debate.

The first idea we came up with was that yes, they were the same – they are both a set of ideals or beliefs that one attempts to base a life around. However, this seemed to be a too general description. If this was true, then it would also have to include the political system as a philosophy (and while some political ideas are philosophical in nature, most are not) and it would also have to include the many other ‘groups’ that follow rules, or suggestions as the case may be, and we would have no need for names for all of them, if they all just came under ‘Philosophy’.

Our next idea was that they are similar, but not the same. Philosophy is the study of life, origins, happiness and the afterlife using reality and the experiences and experiments of everyday life, whereas religion was the explanation of life, origins, happiness and the afterlife using the teachings of a God, or at least his messengers, without exploring further. 

However, this explanation led to the very finite decision that religion is, was and always will be unable to evolve. In certain cases this would certainly seem true (for example, it remains against homosexuality, for certain aspects of the patriarchy and the ideas of heaven and hell) but as we have seen throughout history this is not always the case (for example, the bible condones slavery, child marriages and the stoning of none-virgin brides-to-be, all of which have since been cast aside)
This discussion then led to a definition of ‘Philosophy is questions that may never be answered, where religion is answers that may never be questioned.’

Of course this debate didn’t take into the account other religions, such as but not limited to Hinduism, Sikhism, Judaism and Buddhism. Some are vastly similar to Christianity, with the worship of a deity that gives them answers to life’s mysteries, whereas, for example, Buddhism, does not follow a deity, but a set of teachings that instead of explaining life teach how best to navigate it and limit ones suffering, which would lend itself more toward Philosophy than it does religion.

So then a definition of ‘Religion is the following of an all-powerful deity, whereas Philosophy is the following and expansion of the pre-existing teachings of men’ and this was the closest we could get to an answer that we all agreed upon (which, coincidently, filed Buddhism under Philosophy as opposed to religion)

Sunday, 28 July 2013

Civility and Toleration

I would like to report on one of our more interesting visiting speaker presentations - by Medhat Khattar, a biologist here at NTU. Medhat introduced the some of key ideas of the political philosophy of R.G. Collingwood, especially the concept of toleration and how it articulates itself into wider notions of civility. Collingwood's political philosophy explores the 'paradox of toleration' - why tolerate something that you actually disapprove of? According to Collingwood, we must disapprove of things we find intolerable but yet still tolerate. To tolerate without disapproval is to render ourselves merely 'indifferent' and thus in a sense radically unjust. Thus for Collingwood, the opposite of toleration is not intolerance but indifference. Tolerance is active, whereas indifference is merely passive. Tolerance is related to atonement, love, hope and especially to forgiveness. It thus has its roots in Christian theology and Collingwood's political philosophy is an attempt to articulate in secular terms something that is fundamentally religious in nature. This for Collingwood, modern liberalism, the political philosophy that extols toleration above all others, is grounded in Christian theology. The true ground of liberalism is the Christian God of equality that values the worth of every human being. This is the absolute presupposition of liberal political philosophy, the assumption that all forms of liberal argument presuppose and depend upon (even though most liberals are scarcely aware of them). The absolute presupposition of toleration in liberalism is itself a theological presupposition in another guise. Neil Turnbull

Tuesday, 9 July 2013


Does the Left Have a Post-Liberal future? I recently attended a conference at Nottingham University that examined the philosophy, theology and politics and the Blue Labour phenomenon; a broadly Aristotelian innovation within the Labour movement that promotes the values of (as its leader Maurice Glasman puts it) ‘vocation, virtue and value’. It is interesting that Blue Labour likes to think of politics in terms of trinities, because a significant element of Blue Labour thinking is post-secular in orientation. This was clearly reflected in John Milbank’s highly stimulating presentation where he argued that secularism is neither inevitable nor necessarily normative. In his view, secularism is a kind of Christian heresy and the intellectual legitimacy of its liberal forms is now increasingly challenged by a post-secular political philosophy that links the left’s traditional concern with greater economic justice with theologically inspired ideas of personal virtue and honour. Here, the capitalist mechanics of commodification are counterpoised with a ‘neo-Maussian’ economy of gift exchange. This in turn brings with it a mediaeval idea of politics of friendship and a Burkean problematic of community and the common good. The key philosophical issue here is ‘what constitutes a good?’ ‘What broad ends of flourishing should human beings pursue?’ For Milbank, the genuine good remains the good even if everyone votes to reject it. Drawing on Aristotle, Milbank claims that knowledge of the good is a kind of skill, a knowing how to behave and conduct oneself in appropriate ways in appropriate contexts; phroensis - a kind of moral art, or tact. This shows the extent to which ‘right and wrong’ cannot be precisely defined in the Aristotelian tradition. Aristotelian philosophy suggests that individuals are capable of participating in the good, and acting and reacting in ways that we recognise as good. This is the essence of post-liberalism. Milbank claims that it is now clich├ęd to claim that liberalism offers an optimistic view of human nature. However, in his view precisely the opposite is the case. In fact, liberalism assumes that human beings are greedy and selfish. Its roots lie in metaphysical dystopias of Hobbes and Locke. Also important in this context is Adam Smith’s Jansenism and Calvinism, where it is proposed that human beings are so depraved that public virtue becomes impossible (this, argues Milbank, is the ideological root of Adam Smith’s idea of the ‘hidden hand’). An optimistic strand of liberalism can be found in romantic liberalism – especially the ideas of Rousseau, where the solitary natural individual is good, and egoism emerges from rivalry and comparison – that is from society. Here the state becomes the mechanism that returns to us our natural isolated innocence that threatens to collapse the liberal ideal of the emancipated individual into a tyrannical collectivity (20th century statism being the most obvious pathological symptom of this tendency. Milbank then discussed the politics of the New Left – the politics of emancipation that became the fashion after May ’68. Milbank suggested that this politics cannot conform to s shared norm and misreads the necessity of hierarchically organised care. In so doing, as many have pointed out, it tacitly assists the cause of right wing liberalism that it seeks to oppose. The New Left, in this scheme, is left liberalism shorn of its socialist heritage; a liberalism that celebrates random individual desire. In Milbank’s view it ignores, trust, friendship, reciprocity and in this way cuts against the grain of human aspiration as most people pursue association. People are basically Hobbits in Milbank’s view. Overall, Milbank attacks the liberal idea of the priority of evil in human affairs. He accuses it of Catharism that denies the possibility of ‘higher happiness – eudaimonia. This, he believes, is the main aim of government – to increase human flourishing. However, this requires a commitment to metaphysical truth. In Milbank’s view, the lack of belief in metaphysical truth in contemporary liberalism engenders criminality and the breakdown of the social order. Human beings want recognition for excellence rather than a primal hording and this anthropology provides the basis for a co-operative civil economy socialism based around associationism and gift exchange. This is another politics of the third way – of the radical centre, that aims to expose the hidden collusion between two seemingly opposite political poles, what are in fact two versions of political liberalism Neil Turnbull

Saturday, 2 March 2013

The Philosophical Gamer: Deus Ex - Human Revolution

This is the first in what I hope will be a series of posts on philosophical themes in the video game industry. This will be of most use to Philosophy of Media and Philosophy and Everyday Life students, but it's aimed at everyone and will hopefully provoke some interesting debate!

Enjoy :)

TL;DR: (too long, didnt read) Deus Ex's major themes are transhumanism, existentialism, artificial intelligence, and capitalism. Try it!

Prequel to the original and critically aclaimed Deus Ex, "Human Revolution" delves further into philosophical themes largely skimmed over in the first game, namely Transhumanism. But first, lets get some context.

The Setting

Whereas the orignal was set in a more "far future" setting where every man and his dog has whimsical cybernetic gizmos coming out of their ears, Human Revolution is a much more "near future" experience, set years before when cybernetic "augmentations" are just beginning to make an impact on society.

You step into the shoes of Adam Jensen, cop turned corporate security chief, and due to a rebuilt-after-accident gimmick, (something totally not exploited in modern storytelling) the most augmented human on the planet. You also have a unique immunity to the side-effects of augments, i.e. the human body not being ok with bits of metal jammed in it, thus he doesnt need to take the medication to avoid this, but this will be explored later. Jensen is hired on to the security wing of a leading cybernetics company when stereotypical shadowy military types storm the building, kidnap the love interest alongside box-of-top-secret-whatnot, and render Jensen crippled and on the brink of death. His boss, taking a page from the Umbrella Corporation School of Human Resources takes the opportunity to cram Jensen with more cybernetic gadgetry than the space shutte. Voila! One gritty superhuman with a chequered past and an axe to grind.

Now referred to as the next stage in evolution by his employers, and an unnatural bucket of bolts by his enemies, Jensen will wander a neo-renaissance Earth and see first hand the effects of the revolution of cybernetics and, as is customary, uncover a deep conspiracy and save the earth. Hurrah.

The Themes

- Transhumanism
At the core of DE-HR's story is the fundamental question of what it means to be human. Indeed, Jensen himself is quite literally "more machine than man", who among other things, can see through walls and is immune to toxins. But on top of that, while Jensen is superhuman by pure accident, many people in this world choose to replace their original body parts with new augmentations. Does replacing body parts with durable, reliable machinery make you inhumane, or unnatural?

On the one hand yes, it does. Humans are organic life which evolves, sustains itself, reproduces and dies. Intergrating something synthetic into that means that you can no longer really call yourself an organic lifeform. You're robbed of the need to evolve, you can live an unnaturally long life, perhaps even become quasi-immortal if machines replace vital organs. As a matter of fact, during this story you can hear a young couple lamenting over their choice to "augment". They can no longer feel each other when they hold hands. Just cold metal. At another point, you hear a woman tell of how she needs, not wants, needs to be augmented in order to keep her job as a stock broker, else she'll lose out to people who can afford the implants.

But on the other hand, if we are to call this unnatural then we must look back at the entirety of human history and ask a serious question; aren't we already unnatural beings? Right now, I'm not actually talking to you. I'm sitting at home in my PJ's, creating my message on a device created in a factory, which can access this profoundly unnatural realm of exitance, i.e. the internet. Those of us with short or long sight, use synthetic lenses to correct our vision. If we break our legs, we are given a crutch. Even when you read a book, you're utilising something unnatural to convey ideas that cant be expressed in the "natural" world. We already use technology to enhance our lives, so why is this such a big moral leap?

- Capitalism
More of an undercurrent in this story, or more the effects of hypercapitalism on the poor. It's one-sided but also makes a poignant observation. Cybernetics dont just magic themselves into existence. Someone has to make them, and nothing in this world is free. The rich can pay for the very best implants, as well as the medication to stop the body rejecting them. Those struggling to feed kids can afford no such luxury, thus creating an elite of wealthy near-superhumans, who are in some ways mentally and physically superior. The game exaggerates this, but it's not entirely unrealistic. Just look at education here, or healthcare in the United States.

- Some Theoretical Perspectives (very brief)
Marx would be apopleptic at the state of the world in DE-HR. Not only are the working class ruthlessly explioted by their corporate masters, but this obsession with augmentation, replacing human parts with machinery absolutely shatters the sense of authenticity in life.

Nietzsche would perhaps see this as the "Superman" coming to fruition. A new type of sentient being which is quite literally exempt from natural laws and protocals which govern "normal" humans. All hail our cybernetic overlords.

So, in summary, I hope you enjoyed reading and I hope that this will inspire you to see the philosophy all around us.

Now lets have some debate in the comments!