John Cottingham

John Cottingham

Philosopher

‘There’s something about genuine moral truths which exerts a pull on us, which exerts a demand on us whether we like it or not.'

FULL INTERVIEW 45 min

Are there some objective moral truths?

‘There’s something about genuine moral truths which exerts a pull on us, which exerts a demand on us whether we like it or not.'

Transcript

are there some objective moral truths?


Ard: Show me an example of something that you cannot explain in terms of scientific theories.

JC: Well, consider morality, which is a very important part of our human experience. Can the truths of morality, for example, that compassion is required of us, that cruelty is wrong, can those be reduced to, or explained in terms of, the laws of physics? Pretty clearly not. I mean, that’s obvious.

But can they then be explained in terms, perhaps, of biological drives, which would be explicable by biology, perhaps, and therefore ultimately through physics? Well, again, I think not, because there’s something about genuine moral truths which exerts a pull on us, which exerts a demand on us, whether we like it or not, almost irrespective of how we feel and what we would like to do. This is what philosophers rather unhelpfully call normativity. It’s the idea that moral truths have an authoritative force: they exert a requirement on us to which we must respond.

Now, either you explain those away as illusory in some way, or you have to acknowledge that there’s a part of reality which isn’t just configurations of particles interacting.

Ard: But wouldn’t one explanation of that be, well, that’s because it gives us better survival? Or maybe our group will survive better if we behave in this way?

JC: Well, this is a really interesting core issue, I think. Evolutionarily speaking, we’re, I guess, a ragbag of conflicting desires, inclinations and dispositions that have evolved in various ways. But had our history – our social or biological history – gone slightly differently, we would have different ones. So compassion might not be right: cruelty might be right. Or cruelty might not be wrong had things gone a bit differently. Now, that seems, at least to me, strongly counterintuitive.

David: Are you sort of saying that there is a moral compass? That just like there is a north, whether you’re headed north or not, it’s still there. You’re saying that there’s, sort of, a moral compass where there’s good and bad, and even if you like the bad, you’re aware of the good.

JC: Precisely.

David: Okay.

JC: So, even if I incline to be cruel, or incline to be destructive, or selfish, I’m, as it were, pulled. I think the compass analogy is a very good one. I’m not, of course, forced, because we often do turn away from the good, unfortunately.

David: But you know it’s there.

JC: But we know it’s there, and it would be hard to live as a human being, I think, if one didn’t have that sense that there was something more to morality than merely a set of contingent desires and inclinations.There’s an analogy, I think, here, with mathematical reasoning: that we often do go wrong, we often make mistakes, but we have a strong sense that there is something that’s the right answer, in principle, and that our reasoning, however faulty and shoddy, ought to be conforming to that. And I think it’s exactly the same in morality.

Ard: So moral truths are like mathematical truths? Or they could be?

JC: Yes, I mean Descartes held a view which I think many people would now regard as unfashionable: namely that we have a natural light – a light of reason which orients us towards mathematical truths and moral truths. Provided we focus on them accurately, they’re so clear that they compel our assent. So his mathematical example, things like 2+3=5, he thought as long as you focus on that, you cannot but assent to its truth. But I think he would have said the same about the wrongness of cruelty, or the goodness of compassion.

Ard: So how about people who say, well, you know, these things are just socially constructed?

JC: But, of course, that just begs the question, or demands the question, if I got morality from the previous generation, where did they get it from? Now, if you say it’s just a set of contingent factors that have led a certain society to have certain beliefs about what they should do, right and wrong, then you're back with that problem of the contingency: the radical contingency of the ethical. Had society developed slightly differently, we’d have to say then cruelty might not be wrong. You know, oppressing the weak might be good. And that just sounds wrong, doesn’t it?

Ard: Yes, it does sound wrong.

David: But between you, you’ve just made a much stronger claim. I mean, it’s one thing to say… You mathematicians or physicists are always saying that mathematics is there. Like your 2+3 was always going to be 5. It was 5 when there were only dinosaurs around and we weren’t here. It was still 5.

Ard: Yes.

David: And you’re suggesting that maybe moral truths are woven into the fabric of the universe, like mathematical ones?

JC: Well, I think I would say that. That is to say, there’s something in the nature of reality which makes these truths necessary. Not, of course, in exactly the same sense as logic and mathematics, but I would say about them what Frege, the German logician Gottlob Frege, said about the basic truths of logic and arithmetic and so on: that they are like boundary stones which our thought can overflow, but not shift.

And then you have to ask what makes them true. You could just say, ‘Well, they’re just true and nothing makes them true.’ If you don’t go that route, I think one is drawn… I’m certainly drawn to saying they’re somehow grounded in the way the cosmos is, and that leads to a more religious interpretation perhaps.

Ard: So this is something that you and I probably share, which is that we think morals are grounded in some way and something that transcend outside of ourselves: God, you might call that. Whereas David doesn’t believe in God, but he does want to hold on to there being moral truths that are independent of ourselves.

David: Yes, I mean, I do have the sense that there are things which were true before we imagined them.

JC: I think we are then agreed that there are these truths: they’re not just subjective inclinations.

David: They’re things we discover; I don’t think we’re making them up.

JC: Okay, we’re not inventing. So, then, I don’t think you have that many options in describing or accounting…
David: You’re ganging up on me, aren’t you?

JC: It’s just that either you’ve got to give a deflationary account and say, ‘Well, they seem like impressive, authoritative truths, but really they’re just disguised preferences’ – something like that – or you have to go a kind of Platonist route, I guess, and say they’re just wafting around in some abstract realm.

David: I’m guessing you don’t like that ‘wafting around’ option.

Ard: I think you like ‘wafting’, don’t you?

David: No, no, that’s not fair, I don’t.

JC: Or they are grounded in some ultimate reality.

David: Are you sure those are my only choices?

JC: Well, philosophers have come up with all sorts of labels. You know, ‘non-natural moral truths’.

David: Oh, never mind the labels; they don’t work for me. I just chafe at only being able to have these three choices, because none of those three options seem terribly appealing. I don't know… I don't know, yet.

What science can't say

‘It couldn’t be that an empirical investigation of the structure of our bodies or brains could reveal that there is no such thing as an authoritative moral requirement.'

Transcript

What science can’t say

Ard: On this topic of morals, what do you think is at stake if someone were to say, ‘Well, you know, I’m just going to let go of this idea that there is any kind of real normativity to morals, that they are really out there. They’re just something that we’ve created and, finally, science has told us that that’s all that they are.’? Some people say, ‘Well, who cares?’ Is that going to matter? Or is something at stake?

JC: Well, science, I think, could never tell us that that’s all that they are. It couldn’t be that an empirical investigation of the structure of our bodies or brains could reveal that there is no such thing as an authoritative moral requirement.

Ard: Well, there are people who claim that it does, but you just don’t think that’s right? On what basis? Why do you think that’s not right?

JC: I think you could certainly say that science exhausts all the reality that there is. And so anything not explicable in terms of the procedures of science just has no status. But that would be scientism, not science.

David: Yeah, what is scientism?

JC: I think we all have, I certainly have, an enormous respect and admiration for science. I think it’s one of the greatest of human achievements. But scientism is very different: that is the non-scientific dogma or doctrine that science exhausts all the reality that there is. And that could not be established scientifically, so it’s not a scientific claim.

David: I’m not quite sure. What does that mean? ‘It exhausts all the reality there is’.

JC: One way of putting it would be that everything, ultimately, is grounded in some ultimate physical entities, particles or forces, and that there are no truths which aren’t, in principle, explicable ultimately in those terms.
But I think, what we’ve just been talking about – namely normativity, authority, the idea of a requirement which is incumbent on me however I happen to feel, however my drives or inclinations push me – that’s something which it’s very hard to see as explicable in those terms.

David: Yes.

Ard: So, are you saying that, partially, the argument that science can explain everything is itself a non-scientific argument because it stands outside of science in order to make that claim?

JC: Yes.

Ard: So maybe a last question along these lines. Some scientists will say the beauty of science, or of mathematics even, is that science has a method by which we all end up agreeing. That’s not true of moral truths: we don’t have a science of morality that allows us to adjudicate in some kind of clear way – it’s a lot more fuzzy. So, given that it’s more fuzzy, it’s therefore not nearly as good a method as the scientific method is, because the scientific method allows us to agree.

JC: Yes, it’s interesting that. I mean, the great moral philosopher Bernard Williams, who died not that long ago, made a similar point when he said that in science, there’s always hope for convergence, but he saw no prospects for such convergence in ethics. I think in fact there is increasing convergence.

Ard: Okay.

JC: Things which were matters of debate 200 years ago – the rightness or wrongness of slavery – are no longer serious matters of debate. And similarly, there are ways of dealing with people who don’t share your particular preferences, say, sexual preferences or political preferences. There seems to be a convergence towards a less authoritarian… Of course, there are no guarantees in this, but I think those who take a religious view of the cosmos as a whole must believe that there is a right answer which, in principle, ought to be converged upon sooner or later, though no one can predict how long the search will take.

Our urge for transcendence

‘In the human case, no matter how comfortable, no matter how much our wants and needs are catered for, we have that human hunger to reach out for more.’

Transcript

Our urge for transcendence

David: Is this thing that, I assume, bothers you… is it saying, ‘All things will have a scientific answer, and that the scientific answer is the complete answer.’ Is that what it is?

JC: In a way, I think this question has to do with the notion of transcendence. I think there’s something in the human spirit – the human mind, our human nature, if you like – that will never be content with residing within fixed parameters, so this is a unique human characteristic. For any other animal, if you give it the right environment – food, nutrition, exercise – then it will flourish within those limits.

But in the human case, no matter how comfortable, no matter how much our wants and needs are catered for, we have that human hunger to reach out for more, to reach beyond the boundaries. And so, in a way, that’s an analogy for my objection to scientism.

I think the scientistic theorist will say, ‘Here are some rules and procedures: the rules and procedures of science – these exhaust reality.’ And I think our urge for transcendence will, even if there wasn’t other good evidence that there are truths and realities that are not scientifically explainable. But even if there wasn’t that, we would still say, ‘Wait a minute, I’m not convinced that human life and human reality and human understanding can be kept within those confines.’

Ard: So, basically, you’re saying you just don’t think scientism is true?

JC: I think there’s good reason to think that many areas of human activity, what we’re doing now when we’re discussing these issues, philosophising, scientific inquiry itself, not to mention poetic sensitivity, the way we respond to the beauties of nature, to love, to music, all these areas which have… which are partly to do with meaning, they’re to do with our human capacity for engaging in meaningful experience and meaningful dialogue. And meaning and value, those two things, I think are different from anything that we could conceive of as being explicable through some scientific equations, however sophisticated.

If one was to say, ‘Well, here we are. This is our human nature. There it is. We’re on this planet. We must live in this way because that’s the way it’s evolved. We find ourselves here; we find ourselves with a certain biological structure, with a certain atmosphere and a certain set of relationships. So that’s it. There is no further question to be raised, just get on with it.’ That that might work if you were a clever primate, but our particular species of primate, the human, won’t accept that. We always have this… St. Augustine famously referred to it is as ‘the restlessness of the human spirit, the restless heart’. We want to ask why. And I think the way you put it is right: we have an urge to find a reason, to find meaning. The answer, ‘It just is that way, so forget about it.’ I think there’s something in our nature that rebels against it.

Ard: Yes.

David: It seems a little bleak.

JC: It seems… Yes.

David: But also, where does meaning come from, then? I accept, you know, what any physicist will tell me: that the universe is made up of stuff. But this stuff has apparently made creatures that mean things, because I mean something and you’re nodding because you understand what I meant.

JC: Yes.

David: So, there is meaning in the universe, isn’t there? I just put some in it, surely? Or have I misunderstood this completely?

JC: No, I think that’s a very fair point, but that parallels our discussion about morality, I think. What essentially you’ve been saying is that we create meaning.

David: Well, you are, right now.

JC: Well, yes, but that would be parallel with saying we create morality. And…

David: Ah, okay.

JC: …what I would want to say is that we don’t create morality; we don’t create value: we respond to value. We recognise something not of our making…

David: But that’s already there?

JC: Similarly, if there is a meaning to the universe, or if there is a meaning of human life, it’s not just a matter of our making certain decisions. It’s something that we, in principle, might respond to. We might find our lives to be meaningless or random or wasteful, but then there would be a call to make them more meaningful, to orient them towards something rational and good.

David: When you say ‘orient’, it’s like the other compass example. There is a north, a ‘good’, in this example.

JC: Yes.

David: And therefore you orient yourself because it’s already there. We don’t make up north, it’s there.

JC: Yes, precisely.

JC: I mean, this desire for ultimate meaning and value might just run into the brick wall of contingency. There’s nothing that tells us it must be so, but it is nonetheless a remarkable fact about us, I think, that we do have this yearning for meaning and rationality and purpose which will validate our lives. And if that’s just a fantasy, then it’s pretty tragic, perhaps, that humans are absurd. Our lives are ultimately absurd, which, of course, is the view that some of the existentialists, like Camus, took. He compared human life to Sisyphus, just rolling the stone up the hill. It’s just going to crash down and just keeps going: there’s no ultimate point to it.

David: Wouldn’t it be slightly absurd, though? Well, maybe absurd is s not the right word – tragic – if we’re creatures created by this universe, and we have a need to find meaning, and we seem to have the capacity to imagine we have found it, and if that takes place in a universe where there is no meaning. That’s at least tragic, isn’t it?

Ard: Yes.

JC: I think it would be, yes. There would be a sort of mockery.

Is beauty subjective or objective?

‘Beauty is not entirely in the eye of the beholder: it’s in the object. The key there is that there’s something in reality which calls forth that response.’

Transcript

Is beauty Subjective or Objective?

David: In your essay, that lovely essay that I read, you chose truth, morality and beauty. So, truth, good and beauty. Why did you choose those three above anything else?

JC: Well, there’s a sort of traditional Platonic trio, I suppose. It’s difficult to explain, but they call forth a response from us.

David: They call us on in some way?

JC: In some way they call forth from us a response and we may be disinclined, if you like, to hear it. We may be disinclined to orient ourselves towards it, but nonetheless the pull still remains  I think a lot of people are accustomed to think of beauty as just a matter of subjective taste, but it’s surely more than that. When we are overwhelmed by some great work of art, or by some stunning natural beauty in the world, of course there is a subjective reaction, but we’re responding to something in the object: something which calls forth our delight, our admiration. But there’s something real, there’s something true in the object, which generates that response, and which is also, I think, good.

Wordsworth in some of his poetry talks about those ‘spots of time’. These are quite ordinary experiences, but they are moments when the mundane, drab, routine of reality somehow gives way, and we see through it to something richer, something which, as Wordsworth puts it, ‘lifts us up’, which raises our spirits. And the key there is that there’s something in reality which calls forth that response. It’s not just him subjectively musing about it, though, of course, he’s doing that, but he’s describing a response to a reality that’s already there.

Ard: So, one critique of some of that would be that people clearly view beauty differently. There are things that some people think are beautiful and things that are not. Different cultures have different moral systems. So there’s a lot of diversity in our perceptions of beauty or our perceptions of what’s ‘the good’. And I think it’s a natural step sometimes to say, ‘Well, given that there’s diversity, perhaps we should just agree that that’s all that there is’. But you’re saying that’s not quite good enough somehow?

JC: I mean obviously there are wide variations in taste and fashion from culture to culture, but to believe in certain objective standards of beauty is to believe that, despite those divergences, there are core values which remain in place, which are common to these culturally variable differences.

So, to be beautiful, a work of art must have some harmony, rhythm, form, which intrinsically is valuable irrespective of cultural and social preferences. And we can’t, as it were, violate that. Well, of course you can make certain moves in the cultural game: you can create a disordered pile of bedclothes and put it in an art exhibition, and it may have a perfectly valuable function to shock people out of their complacency. I’m not, as it were, knocking it, but I’m saying you can’t make something which is messy or ugly, beautiful, just by an act of will. Beauty is not entirely in the eye of the beholder: it’s in the object, and so with goodness.

David: There’s something that bothers me about that.

Ard: Okay?

David: In the sense that I’m not sure I want to live in a universe where it can all be summed up, eventually, by the top ten in everything. I’m more attracted to a universe where we it continues to change rather than converging on a set of truths – whether those truths are ones laid down by scientists or God.

JC: But surely there can be creativity and variety? It needn’t be monolithic, surely?

David: Well, I hope not. But it sounds a bit that way – either monolithic or whittled away.

JC: If you think of music, there are many rich and varied and wonderful forms of music. There’s no reason why they should be whittled down to a single pattern. But it surely makes sense to say that they all exhibit certain structural features, symmetries of form or rhythm, which call forth our admiration – not identical in each case.

David: Yeah… maybe I’m putting it badly. To go back to mathematics is always the easiest one. I’m happy that there would be mathematical truths which are just true, and one set of truths opens up another. The question is whether that set of truths opens up new ones and new things emerge and it becomes… and the horizon broadens and makes up new things out of itself. Or whether it becomes a closed system, that eventually you’ve got all the answers. So, it’s whether it’s open and creative or just, sort of, finite: big, but finite.

JC: Yes.

David: I don’t want a prison house of certainties.

JC: No.

David: I’d rather live in…

JC: I totally agree with you, but I think this connects with what we were talking about, the transcendent urges that human beings have, not to rest content with the boxed set. So, something could be flowering every outward, if you like, in innumerable ways, always reaching forward, but informed by, infused by goodness and beauty, rather than degenerating into ugliness.

The limits of science

‘For all its wonderful achievements, and to which we all owe so much, science has led, in some people’s minds, to a sort of downward spiral: that something’s only valid if we can produce experimental data or graphs.’

Transcript

The Limits of Science

David: You were just talking about these, sort of, objective truths. Are you on the side of those who say, ‘Well, the objective is always going to be superior to the subjective’? Because I always saw that as one of those things which the reductionists and the materialists would say: ‘The only truths are those which can be objectively proved.’ And here I am thinking, well, I can’t prove that my children love me, but I’m pretty sure they do.


JC: Yes, it’s a very interesting question, this whole objective/subjective distinction, because it’s often thought that science deals with hard objective fact and this other stuff we’re talking about is ultimately pretty fuzzy: sort of matter of opinion or subjective conviction. But I don’t think that is the right way of putting it. I think, in a way, that this hinges on what sort of theory of knowledge you have. In many ways I think we privilege, wrongly, an epistemology of detachment.

David: What does that mean? Sorry.

JC: A theory of knowledge which says that knowledge can only be gained by a kind of distancing from the data. Where, as it were, we put it on the table, we examine it, and any rational observer, if they use the right methods and procedures, is compelled to draw a certain conclusion. It’s, if you like, ‘spectator evidence’, to use the term of the American philosopher, Paul Moser.

Now, I think there are many perfectly objective and genuine parts of reality which aren’t accessible via spectator evidence.

David: Yes, they’re private: they’re mine.

JC: No, no, that’s what I’m denying. I’m saying they’re genuine, real: they’re not just personal. For example, the properties of a great piece of music. These aren’t just my reactions.

David: Ah.

JC: Anyone, I think, has to recognise that there are genuine properties in, say, the Bach Matthew Passion, which are not just the applause or otherwise of the audience, but are the properties of the music. But they are not, as it were, just accessible in pure spectator terms. Many spectators could sit through and say, ‘It doesn’t do anything for me’. But it doesn’t mean it’s subjective. It may take many years of training, or of careful listening to start to discern these properties. So there are some genuine realities which can only be accessed if you have the right kind of receptivity.

So instead of an epistemology, a theory of knowledge based on detachment and distance, I think we have to acknowledge there are truths that are only accessible if we adopt an epistemology of receptivity. If we are, to use a word that Martha Nussbaum uses, if we’re prepared to be porous, open, receptive.

Ard: So what kind of truths have that nature, that we’ll only really understand them if we’re open to them, in some sense?

JC: Well another analogy, apart from the musical one, is truths about personal relationships. I take it personal relationships aren’t just a matter of subjective feelings. There are genuine facts about whether a relationship is flourishing, about certain goals that people undertake together. But if you always remain hard, detached – the spectator – that very insistence of adopting the scientific, detached attitude will cut you off from being receptive to the properties of the other person.

David: You mean you won’t even see them?

JC: You might not see them, or see them in the right way.

Ard: Let me try a layman’s analogy on you and see if I’m getting this about right. So, I love my wife and I believe my wife loves me. I do have evidence from that, but there’s a sense in which, if I stay on the side as a spectator and just wait for that evidence to come, then there’s lots of evidence that I will in fact never see.

JC: Yes.

Ard: I have to take a step of commitment to her, and from that step of commitment actually will come evidence.

JC: Yes, yes.

Ard: You’re saying some evidence is not visible to you, or you can’t see it until you take, almost, like a step of faith? That’s my layman’s…

JC: Yes, I think that’s very nicely put. I’d agree with that. I mean, it’s rather like a spiral of change, where you give ground a little bit and then something becomes visible which was before occluded. Then, as it becomes visible, it has a further effect on you. You undergo further change. And so, if things go well, this is what happens in relationships, there’s a kind of upward spiral of change where people are prepared to put down their guard, increasingly, and, as a result, there appear properties of the other person which they might not have seen before.

David: When you mentioned this spiral, where you see something and then you’re open to it, so you see it more, has the opposite happened in Western society? Where we’ve been tempted, largely, I think, through science, to say, ‘Look, certain things aren’t important or they don’t exist’, so we’ve seen them less. Is that part of the feeling that there is an alienation in the West?

JC: Yes, I think for all its wonderful achievements, and to which we all owe so much, science has, in some people’s minds, led to a sort of downward spiral: that something’s only valid if we can produce experimental data or graphs. I mean, I have been to philosophy conferences where people have put up slides of the brain lighting up and say, ‘Look, there you are. You see. That bit of the brain’s lighting up.’

Now, that’s very interesting. Of course, we are physical creatures, and it’s very interesting that parts of our brain work at different times, in different ways. But if you’re trying to understand someone listening to a Beethoven symphony, or someone discussing a problem with their wife, or whatever, both those things have meaning, and the data going on in the brain doesn’t capture that. And it’s absurd, when we start to think that some computer printout or diagram of what’s going on in the brain could capture the meaning of what’s happening in a relationship or in a musical enterprise.

Nonetheless it exerts a seductive pull on people. They think, ‘If only we can get the data, we’ve got to the essence of the phenomenon.’ And so that’s, in a way, what scientism, as opposed to science, is saying: trying to reduce things down to whatever can be quantified, measured or put up on an overhead projector.

Religion and meaning

‘There’s a kind of coherence, I think, in the religious view of reality. It sees rationality, meaning, value, purpose in things at some deep level.’

Transcript

Religion and meaning

David: Scientism, then… Taking your three: truth, good and beauty, it’s saying… it’s just basically… truth is just saying, ‘Look, the other two… Don’t listen to the other two, they don’t even exist’. And then, it’s even taking truth and saying… and reducing what we mean by truth down to just stuff that we can measure with a ruler.

JC: Okay, yes, to the quantifiable.

Ard: You’re contrasting that a little bit with truths that you have to be open to, where a spectator view doesn’t work. And you’re saying things like beauty and moral truths fall into that category. So to understand them better, more clearly, you need a certain openness or receptivity. There would be a positive spiral where you understand it better and therefore more is revealed. Do you think that is also true of religious knowledge: that there’s an aspect to that which is only accessible to you from a non-spectator point of view?

JC: In the religious case it’s clear that a lot of religions set great store by spiritual praxis.

David: Praxis?

JC: Praxis, that’s to say practices, like singing psalms, meditation, prayer. You don’t necessarily have to believe in God to believe in the value of praxis. I mean, a lot of Buddhists are atheists, but they set great store by meditation, by the right kind of practice. And the purpose of these practices, spiritual practices, is to change the person. It’s not to change the reality: it’s to change the person. But it doesn’t mean it’s subjective. The change is in order that that person becomes more receptive to realities that were there all along – it’s just that they didn’t see them.

I think that’s the meaning of the famous saying in the gospels: ‘He that hath ears to hear, let him hear, or eyes to see, let him see.’  There are truths that are not just there waiting on the table.|

Ard: You need to do work to get access to them.

JC: Yeah.

Ard: It would be strange if everything in the world was accessible to you only by scientific method, which, for it, you need to be relatively wealthy and born in the right place to have access to. But it would be strange if some of the deepest realities, like spiritual realities, were not accessible by a set of other things.

David: It’s funny, though, you turned it so that here’s, sort of, the stuff that science can reveal, but there’s a deeper reality, you’re saying – these deeper realities that are there, one of them being spiritual, for instance. But isn’t it the classic way that science always depicts it? There’s all this stuff that you might believe about beauty and morality and goodness, it’s all on the surface and you blunder around on the surface, but as scientists, we peel that back and we look down, and underneath there are rules. And you know what? The rules don’t mean anything.

So you’ve taken that scientific principle and turned it upside down and said, ‘Actually, the deep stuff is…’ So, you’re fighting over what’s deep and what’s not!

Ard: But I think if you are a religious scientist, like I am – a Christian who’s a scientist – you don’t think about science as this little thing over here and your religion as a little thing over there. You think of your religious way of looking at the world of being the totality which, within it, has science as part of that totality. So I think that my Christian faith helps me explain why science works.

David: Ah!
~
Ard: Yeah, I think it helps me. I think if I start from the idea that there is a god, it’s much more natural to find something like the intelligibility of the world and the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics as not so surprising.

David: Mm.
Ard: And so I can explain that within this bigger picture, of which science is part of the picture, but it’s not outside the picture. It’s not like God is here and science is there – it’s that my idea about God and the world is much bigger than the science. But it doesn’t make the science not very powerful or very beautiful: it just makes me realise that box is not the whole story.

JC: So, it’s not a competition for which is more real. The issue is whether reality’s more extensive, more…

Ard: I think what I’m saying is that what is real or true maybe bigger than what the methods of science can reveal to me, no matter how powerful those methods are. And I think it’s actually incoherent to think that the methods of science are the only way of obtaining truth. Mathematics is effectively something outside of science. We use it to do science, but it isn’t itself science, but it’s manifestly true.

David: And it’s in the universe.

Ard: And it’s in the universe, yeah, I don’t want to use a location analogy, but it exists.

David: Can I just ask… I want to make sure I haven’t understood. I get the sense being religious for you is not a matter of a belief about God, but more about a belief in the nature of the world.

JC: Well, again, I think there are a lot of misunderstandings about what religious people believe. Thomas Aquinas, who’s one of the most definitive theologians, actually didn’t claim to know a great deal about God. He thought there was an ultimate goal and purpose, ultimate principle, which, he says, ‘All men call God’. So, it’s almost as if it’s an unknown X to which people apply the label, God. But which, through scientific or philosophical reasoning, not a very great deal can be said.

So we were talking earlier about practice: spiritual praxis or practice, and about change – the need for change in order to open oneself so that one is receptive to richer forms of reality. So I see being religious more in those terms, of the adoption of forms of practice which will open oneself to goodness and to beauty, and change one’s life to orient it progressively towards those things, rather than necessarily signing on the dotted line of any particular sect or group of believers.

Having said that, I think we need a vehicle for our spirituality, just as if you’re going from A to B, you need to choose some car or some vehicle. So, it’s no surprise that people invariably do choose a certain religious vehicle in order to pursue this quest. You’re looking sceptical.

David: No, no, that’s my thoughtful look.

JC: So the motivations for being religious, I think, are the sense of transcendence: the sense that there are these transfiguring experiences of love, of beauty, of truth, and that our lives ought to be more richly informed by those. To think that there is some ultimate reality in the cosmos which supports the beauties we find in the world — that things aren’t just there. They’re not just meaningless, ‘brute’ contingent collections of configurations of things they have a rhythm, a harmony, a meaning, a beauty, which is not of our making and which we are made to respond to.

And goodness, again, rightness, justice: these are not just arbitrary creations of our own, values we’ve come up with, or just matters of our personal taste or preference, but they are somehow rooted, grounded in the way things are.

So there’s a kind of coherence, I think, in the religious view of reality. It sees rationality, meaning, value, purpose in things at some deep level. It’s not very theoretical. It corresponds to a way in which all of us, perhaps in principle, are capable of feeling: that we respond to a world which isn’t meaningless, which isn’t just what we put into it plus some janglings of particles or some explosions of atoms or whatever. It’s a world which is already imbued with meaning and value.

John Cottingham

John Cottingham is Professor Emeritus of Philosophy, University of Reading. His is also Honorary Fellow, St John’s College, University of Oxford. A world  expert on Descartes, he has written widely about Western philosophy, and more recently has begun to focus on ethics and religion. His books include: How to BelieveThe Spiritual Dimension; The Moral Life and On the Meaning of Life.

QUOTES FROM THE INTERVIEW

For me, religious awareness isn’t some abstract area. It’s not like science. It’s not about explanatory theories and the production of hard data or evidence that confirms them. Rather it’s about our place in the world, our place in reality – how we are to understand it – and it’s about modes of understanding, I think, which connect much more with morality, with literature, with the imagination, with complicated human responses to aspects of reality which can’t be explained in terms of scientific or explanatory theories.
There’s something about genuine moral truths which exerts a pull on us, which exerts a demand on us whether we like it or not, almost irrespective of how we feel and what we would like to do. They exert a requirement on us to which we must respond. Now, either you explain those away as illusory in some way. Or you have to acknowledge that there’s a part of reality which isn’t just configurations of particles interacting.
I think there’s something in the human spirit – the human mind, our human nature, if you like – that will never be content with residing within fixed parameters. For any other animal, if you give it the right environment – food, nutrition, exercise – then it will flourish within those limits. But in the human case, no matter how comfortable, no matter how much our wants and needs are catered for, we have that human hunger to reach out for more, to reach beyond the boundaries.
I think a lot of people are accustomed to think of beauty as just a matter of subjective taste, but it’s surely more than that. When we are overwhelmed by some great work of art, or by some stunning natural beauty in the world, of course there is a subjective reaction, But we’re responding to something in the object: something which calls forth our delight, our admiration. But there’s something real, there’s something true in the object, which generates that response, and which is also, I think, good.

 

John Cottingham Full Interview Transcript

Introduction


Ard: John, how did you become a philosopher? How did you become interested in philosophy?

JC: Well, I was very interested in philosophy quite early on at school, particularly, sort of, grand questions: the sorts of things that the existentialists discuss about the meaning of life, and so on. It wasn’t really until I was a graduate student and started to work on Descartes that I had a better sense of… because Descartes has a wonderful sense of the grand sweep of philosophy, including metaphysics, theory of knowledge, ethics, psychology, relation between mind and body – all kind of considered as part of one big system, and I found that really quite exciting.

Ard: You’ve worked on Descartes throughout the rest of your life?

JC: Yes, more or less. Although in recent years I’ve become very interested in moral philosophy and philosophy of religion in particular.

JC: For me, religious awareness isn’t some abstract area. It’s not like science. It’s not about explanatory theories and the production of hard data or evidence that confirms them. Rather it’s about our place in the world, our place in reality – how we are to understand it – and it’s about modes of understanding, I think, which connect much more with morality, with literature, with the imagination, with complicated human responses to aspects of reality which can’t be explained in terms of scientific or explanatory theories.


1.40 – are the some objective moral truths?


Ard: Show me an example of something that you cannot explain in terms of scientific theories.

JC: Well, consider morality, which is a very important part of our human experience. Can the truths of morality, for example, that compassion is required of us, that cruelty is wrong, can those be reduced to, or explained in terms of, the laws of physics? Pretty clearly not. I mean, that’s obvious.

But can they then be explained in terms, perhaps, of biological drives, which would be explicable by biology, perhaps, and therefore ultimately through physics? Well, again, I think not, because there’s something about genuine moral truths which exerts a pull on us, which exerts a demand on us, whether we like it or not, almost irrespective of how we feel and what we would like to do. This is what philosophers rather unhelpfully call normativity. It’s the idea that moral truths have an authoritative force: they exert a requirement on us to which we must respond.

Now, either you explain those away as illusory in some way, or you have to acknowledge that there’s a part of reality which isn’t just configurations of particles interacting.

Ard: But wouldn’t one explanation of that be, well, that’s because it gives us better survival? Or maybe our group will survive better if we behave in this way?

JC: Well, this is a really interesting core issue, I think. Evolutionarily speaking, we’re, I guess, a ragbag of conflicting desires, inclinations and dispositions that have evolved in various ways. But had our history – our social or biological history – gone slightly differently, we would have different ones. So compassion might not be right: cruelty might be right. Or cruelty might not be wrong had things gone a bit differently. Now, that seems, at least to me, strongly counterintuitive.

David: Are you sort of saying that there is a moral compass? That just like there is a north, whether you’re headed north or not, it’s still there. You’re saying that there’s, sort of, a moral compass where there’s good and bad, and even if you like the bad, you’re aware of the good.

JC: Precisely.

David: Okay.

JC: So, even if I incline to be cruel, or incline to be destructive, or selfish, I’m, as it were, pulled. I think the compass analogy is a very good one. I’m not, of course, forced, because we often do turn away from the good, unfortunately.

David: But you know it’s there.

JC: But we know it’s there, and it would be hard to live as a human being, I think, if one didn’t have that sense that there was something more to morality than merely a set of contingent desires and inclinations.There’s an analogy, I think, here, with mathematical reasoning: that we often do go wrong, we often make mistakes, but we have a strong sense that there is something that’s the right answer, in principle, and that our reasoning, however faulty and shoddy, ought to be conforming to that. And I think it’s exactly the same in morality.

Ard: So moral truths are like mathematical truths? Or they could be?

JC: Yes, I mean Descartes held a view which I think many people would now regard as unfashionable: namely that we have a natural light – a light of reason which orients us towards mathematical truths and moral truths. Provided we focus on them accurately, they’re so clear that they compel our assent. So his mathematical example, things like 2+3=5, he thought as long as you focus on that, you cannot but assent to its truth. But I think he would have said the same about the wrongness of cruelty, or the goodness of compassion.

Ard: So how about people who say, well, you know, these things are just socially constructed?

JC: But, of course, that just begs the question, or demands the question, if I got morality from the previous generation, where did they get it from? Now, if you say it’s just a set of contingent factors that have led a certain society to have certain beliefs about what they should do, right and wrong, then you're back with that problem of the contingency: the radical contingency of the ethical. Had society developed slightly differently, we’d have to say then cruelty might not be wrong. You know, oppressing the weak might be good. And that just sounds wrong, doesn’t it?

Ard: Yes, it does sound wrong.

David: But between you, you’ve just made a much stronger claim. I mean, it’s one thing to say… You mathematicians or physicists are always saying that mathematics is there. Like your 2+3 was always going to be 5. It was 5 when there were only dinosaurs around and we weren’t here. It was still 5.

Ard: Yes.

David: And you’re suggesting that maybe moral truths are woven into the fabric of the universe, like mathematical ones?

JC: Well, I think I would say that. That is to say, there’s something in the nature of reality which makes these truths necessary. Not, of course, in exactly the same sense as logic and mathematics, but I would say about them what Frege, the German logician Gottlob Frege, said about the basic truths of logic and arithmetic and so on: that they are like boundary stones which our thought can overflow, but not shift.

And then you have to ask what makes them true. You could just say, ‘Well, they’re just true and nothing makes them true.’ If you don’t go that route, I think one is drawn… I’m certainly drawn to saying they’re somehow grounded in the way the cosmos is, and that leads to a more religious interpretation perhaps.

Ard: So this is something that you and I probably share, which is that we think morals are grounded in some way and something that transcend outside of ourselves: God, you might call that. Whereas David doesn’t believe in God, but he does want to hold on to there being moral truths that are independent of ourselves.

David: Yes, I mean, I do have the sense that there are things which were true before we imagined them.

JC: I think we are then agreed that there are these truths: they’re not just subjective inclinations.

David: They’re things we discover; I don’t think we’re making them up.

JC: Okay, we’re not inventing. So, then, I don’t think you have that many options in describing or accounting…
David: You’re ganging up on me, aren’t you?

JC: It’s just that either you’ve got to give a deflationary account and say, ‘Well, they seem like impressive, authoritative truths, but really they’re just disguised preferences’ – something like that – or you have to go a kind of Platonist route, I guess, and say they’re just wafting around in some abstract realm.

David: I’m guessing you don’t like that ‘wafting around’ option.

Ard: I think you like ‘wafting’, don’t you?

David: No, no, that’s not fair, I don’t.

JC: Or they are grounded in some ultimate reality.

David: Are you sure those are my only choices?

JC: Well, philosophers have come up with all sorts of labels. You know, ‘non-natural moral truths’.

David: Oh, never mind the labels; they don’t work for me. I just chafe at only being able to have these three choices, because none of those three options seem terribly appealing. I don't know… I don't know, yet.

9.58 – What science can’t say

Ard: On this topic of morals, what do you think is at stake if someone were to say, ‘Well, you know, I’m just going to let go of this idea that there is any kind of real normativity to morals, that they are really out there. They’re just something that we’ve created and, finally, science has told us that that’s all that they are.’? Some people say, ‘Well, who cares?’ Is that going to matter? Or is something at stake?

JC: Well, science, I think, could never tell us that that’s all that they are. It couldn’t be that an empirical investigation of the structure of our bodies or brains could reveal that there is no such thing as an authoritative moral requirement.

Ard: Well, there are people who claim that it does, but you just don’t think that’s right? On what basis? Why do you think that’s not right?

JC: I think you could certainly say that science exhausts all the reality that there is. And so anything not explicable in terms of the procedures of science just has no status. But that would be scientism, not science.

David: Yeah, what is scientism?

JC: I think we all have, I certainly have, an enormous respect and admiration for science. I think it’s one of the greatest of human achievements. But scientism is very different: that is the non-scientific dogma or doctrine that science exhausts all the reality that there is. And that could not be established scientifically, so it’s not a scientific claim.

David: I’m not quite sure. What does that mean? ‘It exhausts all the reality there is’.

JC: One way of putting it would be that everything, ultimately, is grounded in some ultimate physical entities, particles or forces, and that there are no truths which aren’t, in principle, explicable ultimately in those terms.
But I think, what we’ve just been talking about – namely normativity, authority, the idea of a requirement which is incumbent on me however I happen to feel, however my drives or inclinations push me – that’s something which it’s very hard to see as explicable in those terms.

David: Yes.

Ard: So, are you saying that, partially, the argument that science can explain everything is itself a non-scientific argument because it stands outside of science in order to make that claim?

JC: Yes.

Ard: So maybe a last question along these lines. Some scientists will say the beauty of science, or of mathematics even, is that science has a method by which we all end up agreeing. That’s not true of moral truths: we don’t have a science of morality that allows us to adjudicate in some kind of clear way – it’s a lot more fuzzy. So, given that it’s more fuzzy, it’s therefore not nearly as good a method as the scientific method is, because the scientific method allows us to agree.

JC: Yes, it’s interesting that. I mean, the great moral philosopher Bernard Williams, who died not that long ago, made a similar point when he said that in science, there’s always hope for convergence, but he saw no prospects for such convergence in ethics. I think in fact there is increasing convergence.

Ard: Okay.

JC: Things which were matters of debate 200 years ago – the rightness or wrongness of slavery – are no longer serious matters of debate. And similarly, there are ways of dealing with people who don’t share your particular preferences, say, sexual preferences or political preferences. There seems to be a convergence towards a less authoritarian… Of course, there are no guarantees in this, but I think those who take a religious view of the cosmos as a whole must believe that there is a right answer which, in principle, ought to be converged upon sooner or later, though no one can predict how long the search will take.



14:29 – Our urge for transcendence

 

David: Is this thing that, I assume, bothers you… is it saying, ‘All things will have a scientific answer, and that the scientific answer is the complete answer.’ Is that what it is?

JC: In a way, I think this question has to do with the notion of transcendence. I think there’s something in the human spirit – the human mind, our human nature, if you like – that will never be content with residing within fixed parameters, so this is a unique human characteristic. For any other animal, if you give it the right environment – food, nutrition, exercise – then it will flourish within those limits.

But in the human case, no matter how comfortable, no matter how much our wants and needs are catered for, we have that human hunger to reach out for more, to reach beyond the boundaries. And so, in a way, that’s an analogy for my objection to scientism.

I think the scientistic theorist will say, ‘Here are some rules and procedures: the rules and procedures of science – these exhaust reality.’ And I think our urge for transcendence will, even if there wasn’t other good evidence that there are truths and realities that are not scientifically explainable. But even if there wasn’t that, we would still say, ‘Wait a minute, I’m not convinced that human life and human reality and human understanding can be kept within those confines.’

Ard: So, basically, you’re saying you just don’t think scientism is true?

JC: I think there’s good reason to think that many areas of human activity, what we’re doing now when we’re discussing these issues, philosophising, scientific inquiry itself, not to mention poetic sensitivity, the way we respond to the beauties of nature, to love, to music, all these areas which have… which are partly to do with meaning, they’re to do with our human capacity for engaging in meaningful experience and meaningful dialogue. And meaning and value, those two things, I think are different from anything that we could conceive of as being explicable through some scientific equations, however sophisticated.

If one was to say, ‘Well, here we are. This is our human nature. There it is. We’re on this planet. We must live in this way because that’s the way it’s evolved. We find ourselves here; we find ourselves with a certain biological structure, with a certain atmosphere and a certain set of relationships. So that’s it. There is no further question to be raised, just get on with it.’ That that might work if you were a clever primate, but our particular species of primate, the human, won’t accept that. We always have this… St. Augustine famously referred to it is as ‘the restlessness of the human spirit, the restless heart’. We want to ask why. And I think the way you put it is right: we have an urge to find a reason, to find meaning. The answer, ‘It just is that way, so forget about it.’ I think there’s something in our nature that rebels against it.

Ard: Yes.

David: It seems a little bleak.

JC: It seems… Yes.

David: But also, where does meaning come from, then? I accept, you know, what any physicist will tell me: that the universe is made up of stuff. But this stuff has apparently made creatures that mean things, because I mean something and you’re nodding because you understand what I meant.

JC: Yes.

David: So, there is meaning in the universe, isn’t there? I just put some in it, surely? Or have I misunderstood this completely?

JC: No, I think that’s a very fair point, but that parallels our discussion about morality, I think. What essentially you’ve been saying is that we create meaning.

David: Well, you are, right now.

JC: Well, yes, but that would be parallel with saying we create morality. And…

David: Ah, okay.

JC: …what I would want to say is that we don’t create morality; we don’t create value: we respond to value. We recognise something not of our making…

David: But that’s already there?

JC: Similarly, if there is a meaning to the universe, or if there is a meaning of human life, it’s not just a matter of our making certain decisions. It’s something that we, in principle, might respond to. We might find our lives to be meaningless or random or wasteful, but then there would be a call to make them more meaningful, to orient them towards something rational and good.

David: When you say ‘orient’, it’s like the other compass example. There is a north, a ‘good’, in this example.

JC: Yes.

David: And therefore you orient yourself because it’s already there. We don’t make up north, it’s there.

JC: Yes, precisely.

JC: I mean, this desire for ultimate meaning and value might just run into the brick wall of contingency. There’s nothing that tells us it must be so, but it is nonetheless a remarkable fact about us, I think, that we do have this yearning for meaning and rationality and purpose which will validate our lives. And if that’s just a fantasy, then it’s pretty tragic, perhaps, that humans are absurd. Our lives are ultimately absurd, which, of course, is the view that some of the existentialists, like Camus, took. He compared human life to Sisyphus, just rolling the stone up the hill. It’s just going to crash down and just keeps going: there’s no ultimate point to it.

David: Wouldn’t it be slightly absurd, though? Well, maybe absurd is s not the right word – tragic – if we’re creatures created by this universe, and we have a need to find meaning, and we seem to have the capacity to imagine we have found it, and if that takes place in a universe where there is no meaning. That’s at least tragic, isn’t it?

Ard: Yes.

JC: I think it would be, yes. There would be a sort of mockery.



21:16 – Is beauty subjective or objective?

David: In your essay, that lovely essay that I read, you chose truth, morality and beauty. So, truth, good and beauty. Why did you choose those three above anything else?

JC: Well, there’s a sort of traditional Platonic trio, I suppose. It’s difficult to explain, but they call forth a response from us.

David: They call us on in some way?

JC: In some way they call forth from us a response and we may be disinclined, if you like, to hear it. We may be disinclined to orient ourselves towards it, but nonetheless the pull still remains  I think a lot of people are accustomed to think of beauty as just a matter of subjective taste, but it’s surely more than that. When we are overwhelmed by some great work of art, or by some stunning natural beauty in the world, of course there is a subjective reaction, but we’re responding to something in the object: something which calls forth our delight, our admiration. But there’s something real, there’s something true in the object, which generates that response, and which is also, I think, good.

Wordsworth in some of his poetry talks about those ‘spots of time’. These are quite ordinary experiences, but they are moments when the mundane, drab, routine of reality somehow gives way, and we see through it to something richer, something which, as Wordsworth puts it, ‘lifts us up’, which raises our spirits. And the key there is that there’s something in reality which calls forth that response. It’s not just him subjectively musing about it, though, of course, he’s doing that, but he’s describing a response to a reality that’s already there.

Ard: So, one critique of some of that would be that people clearly view beauty differently. There are things that some people think are beautiful and things that are not. Different cultures have different moral systems. So there’s a lot of diversity in our perceptions of beauty or our perceptions of what’s ‘the good’. And I think it’s a natural step sometimes to say, ‘Well, given that there’s diversity, perhaps we should just agree that that’s all that there is’. But you’re saying that’s not quite good enough somehow?

JC: I mean obviously there are wide variations in taste and fashion from culture to culture, but to believe in certain objective standards of beauty is to believe that, despite those divergences, there are core values which remain in place, which are common to these culturally variable differences.

So, to be beautiful, a work of art must have some harmony, rhythm, form, which intrinsically is valuable irrespective of cultural and social preferences. And we can’t, as it were, violate that. Well, of course you can make certain moves in the cultural game: you can create a disordered pile of bedclothes and put it in an art exhibition, and it may have a perfectly valuable function to shock people out of their complacency. I’m not, as it were, knocking it, but I’m saying you can’t make something which is messy or ugly, beautiful, just by an act of will. Beauty is not entirely in the eye of the beholder: it’s in the object, and so with goodness.

David: There’s something that bothers me about that.

Ard: Okay?

David: In the sense that I’m not sure I want to live in a universe where it can all be summed up, eventually, by the top ten in everything. I’m more attracted to a universe where we it continues to change rather than converging on a set of truths – whether those truths are ones laid down by scientists or God.

JC: But surely there can be creativity and variety? It needn’t be monolithic, surely?

David: Well, I hope not. But it sounds a bit that way – either monolithic or whittled away.

JC: If you think of music, there are many rich and varied and wonderful forms of music. There’s no reason why they should be whittled down to a single pattern. But it surely makes sense to say that they all exhibit certain structural features, symmetries of form or rhythm, which call forth our admiration – not identical in each case.

David: Yeah… maybe I’m putting it badly. To go back to mathematics is always the easiest one. I’m happy that there would be mathematical truths which are just true, and one set of truths opens up another. The question is whether that set of truths opens up new ones and new things emerge and it becomes… and the horizon broadens and makes up new things out of itself. Or whether it becomes a closed system, that eventually you’ve got all the answers. So, it’s whether it’s open and creative or just, sort of, finite: big, but finite.

JC: Yes.

David: I don’t want a prison house of certainties.

JC: No.

David: I’d rather live in…

JC: I totally agree with you, but I think this connects with what we were talking about, the transcendent urges that human beings have, not to rest content with the boxed set. So, something could be flowering every outward, if you like, in innumerable ways, always reaching forward, but informed by, infused by goodness and beauty, rather than degenerating into ugliness.

27:56 – The limits of science

David: You were just talking about these, sort of, objective truths. Are you on the side of those who say, ‘Well, the objective is always going to be superior to the subjective’? Because I always saw that as one of those things which the reductionists and the materialists would say: ‘The only truths are those which can be objectively proved.’ And here I am thinking, well, I can’t prove that my children love me, but I’m pretty sure they do.


JC: Yes, it’s a very interesting question, this whole objective/subjective distinction, because it’s often thought that science deals with hard objective fact and this other stuff we’re talking about is ultimately pretty fuzzy: sort of matter of opinion or subjective conviction. But I don’t think that is the right way of putting it. I think, in a way, that this hinges on what sort of theory of knowledge you have. In many ways I think we privilege, wrongly, an epistemology of detachment.

David: What does that mean? Sorry.

JC: A theory of knowledge which says that knowledge can only be gained by a kind of distancing from the data. Where, as it were, we put it on the table, we examine it, and any rational observer, if they use the right methods and procedures, is compelled to draw a certain conclusion. It’s, if you like, ‘spectator evidence’, to use the term of the American philosopher, Paul Moser.

Now, I think there are many perfectly objective and genuine parts of reality which aren’t accessible via spectator evidence.

David: Yes, they’re private: they’re mine.

JC: No, no, that’s what I’m denying. I’m saying they’re genuine, real: they’re not just personal. For example, the properties of a great piece of music. These aren’t just my reactions.

David: Ah.

JC: Anyone, I think, has to recognise that there are genuine properties in, say, the Bach Matthew Passion, which are not just the applause or otherwise of the audience, but are the properties of the music. But they are not, as it were, just accessible in pure spectator terms. Many spectators could sit through and say, ‘It doesn’t do anything for me’. But it doesn’t mean it’s subjective. It may take many years of training, or of careful listening to start to discern these properties. So there are some genuine realities which can only be accessed if you have the right kind of receptivity.

So instead of an epistemology, a theory of knowledge based on detachment and distance, I think we have to acknowledge there are truths that are only accessible if we adopt an epistemology of receptivity. If we are, to use a word that Martha Nussbaum uses, if we’re prepared to be porous, open, receptive.

Ard: So what kind of truths have that nature, that we’ll only really understand them if we’re open to them, in some sense?

JC: Well another analogy, apart from the musical one, is truths about personal relationships. I take it personal relationships aren’t just a matter of subjective feelings. There are genuine facts about whether a relationship is flourishing, about certain goals that people undertake together. But if you always remain hard, detached – the spectator – that very insistence of adopting the scientific, detached attitude will cut you off from being receptive to the properties of the other person.

David: You mean you won’t even see them?

JC: You might not see them, or see them in the right way.

Ard: Let me try a layman’s analogy on you and see if I’m getting this about right. So, I love my wife and I believe my wife loves me. I do have evidence from that, but there’s a sense in which, if I stay on the side as a spectator and just wait for that evidence to come, then there’s lots of evidence that I will in fact never see.

JC: Yes.

Ard: I have to take a step of commitment to her, and from that step of commitment actually will come evidence.

JC: Yes, yes.

Ard: You’re saying some evidence is not visible to you, or you can’t see it until you take, almost, like a step of faith? That’s my layman’s…

JC: Yes, I think that’s very nicely put. I’d agree with that. I mean, it’s rather like a spiral of change, where you give ground a little bit and then something becomes visible which was before occluded. Then, as it becomes visible, it has a further effect on you. You undergo further change. And so, if things go well, this is what happens in relationships, there’s a kind of upward spiral of change where people are prepared to put down their guard, increasingly, and, as a result, there appear properties of the other person which they might not have seen before.

David: When you mentioned this spiral, where you see something and then you’re open to it, so you see it more, has the opposite happened in Western society? Where we’ve been tempted, largely, I think, through science, to say, ‘Look, certain things aren’t important or they don’t exist’, so we’ve seen them less. Is that part of the feeling that there is an alienation in the West?

JC: Yes, I think for all its wonderful achievements, and to which we all owe so much, science has, in some people’s minds, led to a sort of downward spiral: that something’s only valid if we can produce experimental data or graphs. I mean, I have been to philosophy conferences where people have put up slides of the brain lighting up and say, ‘Look, there you are. You see. That bit of the brain’s lighting up.’

Now, that’s very interesting. Of course, we are physical creatures, and it’s very interesting that parts of our brain work at different times, in different ways. But if you’re trying to understand someone listening to a Beethoven symphony, or someone discussing a problem with their wife, or whatever, both those things have meaning, and the data going on in the brain doesn’t capture that. And it’s absurd, when we start to think that some computer printout or diagram of what’s going on in the brain could capture the meaning of what’s happening in a relationship or in a musical enterprise.

Nonetheless it exerts a seductive pull on people. They think, ‘If only we can get the data, we’ve got to the essence of the phenomenon.’ And so that’s, in a way, what scientism, as opposed to science, is saying: trying to reduce things down to whatever can be quantified, measured or put up on an overhead projector.


35:36 – Religion and meaning


David: Scientism, then… Taking your three: truth, good and beauty, it’s saying… it’s just basically… truth is just saying, ‘Look, the other two… Don’t listen to the other two, they don’t even exist’. And then, it’s even taking truth and saying… and reducing what we mean by truth down to just stuff that we can measure with a ruler.

JC: Okay, yes, to the quantifiable.

Ard: You’re contrasting that a little bit with truths that you have to be open to, where a spectator view doesn’t work. And you’re saying things like beauty and moral truths fall into that category. So to understand them better, more clearly, you need a certain openness or receptivity. There would be a positive spiral where you understand it better and therefore more is revealed. Do you think that is also true of religious knowledge: that there’s an aspect to that which is only accessible to you from a non-spectator point of view?

JC: In the religious case it’s clear that a lot of religions set great store by spiritual praxis.

David: Praxis?

JC: Praxis, that’s to say practices, like singing psalms, meditation, prayer. You don’t necessarily have to believe in God to believe in the value of praxis. I mean, a lot of Buddhists are atheists, but they set great store by meditation, by the right kind of practice. And the purpose of these practices, spiritual practices, is to change the person. It’s not to change the reality: it’s to change the person. But it doesn’t mean it’s subjective. The change is in order that that person becomes more receptive to realities that were there all along – it’s just that they didn’t see them.

I think that’s the meaning of the famous saying in the gospels: ‘He that hath ears to hear, let him hear, or eyes to see, let him see.’  There are truths that are not just there waiting on the table.|

Ard: You need to do work to get access to them.

JC: Yeah.

Ard: It would be strange if everything in the world was accessible to you only by scientific method, which, for it, you need to be relatively wealthy and born in the right place to have access to. But it would be strange if some of the deepest realities, like spiritual realities, were not accessible by a set of other things.

David: It’s funny, though, you turned it so that here’s, sort of, the stuff that science can reveal, but there’s a deeper reality, you’re saying – these deeper realities that are there, one of them being spiritual, for instance. But isn’t it the classic way that science always depicts it? There’s all this stuff that you might believe about beauty and morality and goodness, it’s all on the surface and you blunder around on the surface, but as scientists, we peel that back and we look down, and underneath there are rules. And you know what? The rules don’t mean anything.

So you’ve taken that scientific principle and turned it upside down and said, ‘Actually, the deep stuff is…’ So, you’re fighting over what’s deep and what’s not!

Ard: But I think if you are a religious scientist, like I am – a Christian who’s a scientist – you don’t think about science as this little thing over here and your religion as a little thing over there. You think of your religious way of looking at the world of being the totality which, within it, has science as part of that totality. So I think that my Christian faith helps me explain why science works.

David: Ah!
~
Ard: Yeah, I think it helps me. I think if I start from the idea that there is a god, it’s much more natural to find something like the intelligibility of the world and the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics as not so surprising.

David: Mm.
Ard: And so I can explain that within this bigger picture, of which science is part of the picture, but it’s not outside the picture. It’s not like God is here and science is there – it’s that my idea about God and the world is much bigger than the science. But it doesn’t make the science not very powerful or very beautiful: it just makes me realise that box is not the whole story.

JC: So, it’s not a competition for which is more real. The issue is whether reality’s more extensive, more…

Ard: I think what I’m saying is that what is real or true maybe bigger than what the methods of science can reveal to me, no matter how powerful those methods are. And I think it’s actually incoherent to think that the methods of science are the only way of obtaining truth. Mathematics is effectively something outside of science. We use it to do science, but it isn’t itself science, but it’s manifestly true.

David: And it’s in the universe.

Ard: And it’s in the universe, yeah, I don’t want to use a location analogy, but it exists.

David: Can I just ask… I want to make sure I haven’t understood. I get the sense being religious for you is not a matter of a belief about God, but more about a belief in the nature of the world.

JC: Well, again, I think there are a lot of misunderstandings about what religious people believe. Thomas Aquinas, who’s one of the most definitive theologians, actually didn’t claim to know a great deal about God. He thought there was an ultimate goal and purpose, ultimate principle, which, he says, ‘All men call God’. So, it’s almost as if it’s an unknown X to which people apply the label, God. But which, through scientific or philosophical reasoning, not a very great deal can be said.

So we were talking earlier about practice: spiritual praxis or practice, and about change – the need for change in order to open oneself so that one is receptive to richer forms of reality. So I see being religious more in those terms, of the adoption of forms of practice which will open oneself to goodness and to beauty, and change one’s life to orient it progressively towards those things, rather than necessarily signing on the dotted line of any particular sect or group of believers.

Having said that, I think we need a vehicle for our spirituality, just as if you’re going from A to B, you need to choose some car or some vehicle. So, it’s no surprise that people invariably do choose a certain religious vehicle in order to pursue this quest. You’re looking sceptical.

David: No, no, that’s my thoughtful look.

JC: So the motivations for being religious, I think, are the sense of transcendence: the sense that there are these transfiguring experiences of love, of beauty, of truth, and that our lives ought to be more richly informed by those. To think that there is some ultimate reality in the cosmos which supports the beauties we find in the world — that things aren’t just there. They’re not just meaningless, ‘brute’ contingent collections of configurations of things they have a rhythm, a harmony, a meaning, a beauty, which is not of our making and which we are made to respond to.

And goodness, again, rightness, justice: these are not just arbitrary creations of our own, values we’ve come up with, or just matters of our personal taste or preference, but they are somehow rooted, grounded in the way things are.

So there’s a kind of coherence, I think, in the religious view of reality. It sees rationality, meaning, value, purpose in things at some deep level. It’s not very theoretical. It corresponds to a way in which all of us, perhaps in principle, are capable of feeling: that we respond to a world which isn’t meaningless, which isn’t just what we put into it plus some janglings of particles or some explosions of atoms or whatever. It’s a world which is already imbued with meaning and value.

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