Julian Baggini

English philosopher

Julian Baggini (born 1968) is a British philosopher.

QuotesEdit

  • If the house on the lake can become a new iteration of a philosophical retreat, that would pay homage to its first owner much more than any number of selfie-snapping visitors could.

The Edge of Reason: A Rational Skeptic in an Irrational World (2016)Edit

  • The rehabilitation of reason is urgent because it is only through the proper use of reason that we can find our way out of the quagmires in which many big issues of our time have become stuck. Without a clear sense of what it means for one point of view to be more reasonable than another, it seems that the position one adopts is ultimately based on nothing more than personal opinion or preference.
    • Introduction
  • Only our most intimate friends know our deepest flaws, and in the same way the greatest skeptics about reason should be those who seek to defend it. If we do not debunk the grandiose myths of reason then its enemies will do so far more destructively. My positive case for rationality therefore requires taking us through four key myths of rationality, all of which can be traced back to Plato. These myths are: that reason is purely objective and requires no subjective judgement; that it can and should take the role of our chief guide, the charioteer of the soul; that it can furnish us with the fundamental reasons for action; and that we can build society on perfectly rational principles.
    • Introduction
  • When you have strong desires to believe something, it is always possible to convince yourself that a decisive argument against one node wasn’t decisive after all, or that you have found a reply to it. Mending and making do can enable one to think a web of belief still holds together, even after a good critic has ripped it to shreds. But the fact that we know reason will not convince everyone is beside the point. Whether an argument is sound or whether it is persuasive are two different questions. It should come as no surprise that good rational arguments often fail to persuade people. The case for reason is not that it is always psychologically efficacious but that it genuinely helps us towards the truth. However, just as you can lead a horse to water but you cannot make it drink, so you can lead a mind to reason but you cannot make it think.
    • Chap. 1 : The Eternal God Argument
  • If it seems shocking to some that scientists are not cold computers but human beings with different preferences, dispositions, skills and temperaments then they must have a very strange idea of how people think. Science is indeed a rational pursuit par excellence. But it does violence to the notion of rationality if we pretend that it is not a complicated, somewhat messy capacity.
    • Chap. 2 : Science for humans
  • Really good philosophising requires something more than a razor-sharp brain, something that is sometimes called subtlety of mind, a philosophical sensibility or insight. I call it judgement, which I define somewhat cumbersomely as as a cognitive faculty required to reach conclusions or form theories, the truth or falsity of which cannot be determined by an appeal to facts and/or logic alone. There are numerous examples of this, but perhaps the clearest comes from moral philosophy.
    • Chap. 3 : Rationality and Judgement
  • Philosophical autobiographies do much more than simply reveal the personalities and prejudices of their authors, however. They provide striking examples of just why such factors inevitably colour our thinking beyond the biographical.
    • Chap. 4 : Lives of the Mind
  • That is why there can be no one account that is ‘the truth’, not because ‘truth’ is beyond us. We need to distinguish between an account which is ‘the truth’ and one which is ‘truthful’. If by ‘the truth’ of a life we mean the one, true, complete account of it, then no such truths can be told. But we can tell more or less truthful stories about our lives and those of others: ones that do not gloss over embarrassing facts, ones that reveal many sides of a personality and not just those we wish to promote. Relating such a truthful story is not about cataloguing the largest possible number of true facts about a person. That is why our commitment to truth and rationality requires that our conceptual maps only include genuine features of what we are mapping and do not leave out anything that a user of that map might reasonably be expected to find useful. But the idea that we can come up with any kind of conceptual map that does not reflect our values and interests is a mirage. Philosophical autobiography helps us to see that behind all reasoning is a reasoner who can never drain away all her individuality.
    • Chap. 4 : Lives of the Mind
  • Many are now skeptical of Freud’s theory – and of psychoanalysis in general – but the broad idea that the unconscious is in the driving seat has become widely accepted and has been given empirical support by contemporary research in psychology. Experimental psychologists might be less convinced by the primacy of Freud’s eros and thanatos – the sex and death drives – but they have catalogued a large number of biases and distortions of thought that affect each and every one of us. They may have abandoned Freud’s specific ideas but they have only added to the general picture of human nature he painted in which we are not so much rational as rationalisers, using reason to make sense of our beliefs and actions after the event. Must we therefore accept that reason is a mere veneer for irrational impulses, or can can psychology justify giving rationality an important role in human thought and judgement?
    • Chap. 5 : The challenge of psychology
  • Philosophers understandably focus on the nature of reason itself. However, in order for reason to flourish, it needs to be practised in the right environment. And that is sadly often lacking in the very places where reason is held in the highest esteem.
    • Chap. 5 : The challenge of psychology
  • As I suggested at the opening of this part of the book, to avoid hubris we ought to think of this beast as more like a mule than a thoroughbred. Our rationality is a somewhat messy thing that cannot be captured only in the formal processes of logic. But in many ways we mules are superior to Plato’s pedigrees, because whereas his cannot bring reason and emotion together, we can. Better to be a many-skilled mule than one-trick pony.
    • Chap. 5 : The challenge of psychology
  • Think of any serious participant in intellectual life. Is there any who does not try to be as comprehensible as is possible? Many are so incomprehensible that we doubt them, but this is almost always a failure of execution, not a success born of intent. Does anyone assert that it is not possible for anyone else to assess the merits of their claims? Very few, and the whole raison d’être of publishing and discussion is precisely that others are, in principle, capable of assessing what they have read or heard and sharing these assessments. Does anyone declare that what they have to say is wholly relative to the interests only of a particular sector of society? Surely not. Even as we acknowledge our biases and partial perspectives, we strive to overcome them as much as is possible. Does anyone think there is no way they could possibly be wrong about what they believe? We may sometimes feel this, but the fact that we nonetheless leave ourselves open to criticism and take those criticisms seriously shows we are committed to the idea that rational inquiry demands we treat our beliefs as defeasible. And finally, when you have seen someone provide what seem to you good reasons for their accepting their position, is your agreement not in some sense involuntary? Similarly, can you not help but dismiss arguments that seem to you weak or ill-founded?
    • Chap. 6 : Guided by reason
  • This point is critical. Reason is often assumed to be by definition disinterested. Disinterested reason has its place, of course, in mathematics and science, but sometimes it can legitimately be very interested indeed. Reason needs to be objective, not disinterested, and this means it can recognise the objective existence of needs and desires, good and bad states.
    • Chap. 7 : Rational morality
  • This point is, in essence, the most important and overlooked one regarding the rationality of ethics. The traditional dispute between Kantians and sentimentalists rests on an assumption that to be rational, morality must be grounded on a priori principles of disinterested reason. This is false. If we understand what rationality means in an appropriately catholic way, we see that it it is a matter of providing reasons for belief and that the sources of these reasons are not confined to a priori principles of logical or scientific facts. Once we accept that, we can see that although the Kantian project of founding ethics on pure reason is doomed, reason is still at the very heart of morality.
    • Chap. 7 : Rational morality
  • To answer this requires knowledge of ‘child development, healthy emotional lives, healthy cognition and what is going to equip children to become high-functioning adults’, and ‘there are scientific truths there waiting to be discovered’. But again, this only implies that scientific knowledge can inform ethics, not that it can determine it. Similarly, we can learn from a neuroscientific point of view why it is that heartbreak feels so bad, but neuroscience can’t tell us if it is worth taking the risk of paying that price by opening ourselves up to love.
    • Chap. 8 : Scientific morality
  • I think intellectual honesty demands that philosophers accept this all-pervading normativity more openly. Apart from anything else, this helps explain why philosophy matters. We are not just disputing what is true or false, we are arguing about what we ought to think. Persuasion is not the same as rational argument but every rational argument is and ought to be an exercise in persuasion. Ideas only matter because we ought to believe the right ones. Reason in philosophy is therefore in a sense never disinterested.
    • Chap. 9 : The claims of reason
  • In this way we can see that political reason is as much – if not more – bottom-up than top-down. Rationality requires attending to objective reasons for belief and many of the most important such reasons are provided by what we observe in the world. Indeed, what we observe is of primary importance: there is no hope of understanding justice, for example, if we attempt to do so purely by examining the concept without any reference at all to what we perceive to be just or unjust in the world.
    • Chap. 10 : The rational state
  • To be truly rational we need to acknowledge the limits of our rationality: nothing is more irrational than an unwarranted faith in reason.
    • Chap. 10 : The rational state
  • There is an irony here. On the one hand, all of these mistakes point to hubris, a belief that human reason is more powerful than it really is. But on the other, all these mistakes implicitly acknowledge how limited the power of reason is, because they require us to simplify our conception of the world in order to make it tractable to reason. It is as though in order to preserve the illusion that human reason is mighty, we have to rig its challenges to make them easier to overcome.
    • Chap. 10 : The rational state
  • Disenchantment with politics is therefore toxic, and populism can only increase such disenchantment, since it leads to the promise of simple solutions that cannot be delivered, while removing from the public square the more nuanced kind of discourse that is needed to explain why it can’t work.
    • Chap. 11 : Political reason
  • Even if we are pessimistic about the chances of changing our political culture to make it more reasoned, we have little choice but to try. In politics, the waters beneath the thin ice of reason are especially rough and icy. The predators that swim in them are opportunistic populists and divisive nationalists, destined to devour the few naïve idealists who are equally blind to the complexities of real politics. Reason might seem to be a meagre defence against such dangers, but it is the only one we’ve got.
    • Chap. 11 : Political reason
  • Some may be surprised to have found that my defence of reason has been so eager to point out its limitations. With friends like me, you might wonder if reason needs enemies. But reason needs this kind of tough love. It cannot be treated like a child that needs unconditional support. Rather, it needs to be treated like an elite athlete that always needs to be pushed to work harder and improve, because otherwise nothing can be achieved. The most difficult issues we face often require us to go to the edge of reason, stretching its capacities to breaking point. To extend the training analogy, it would be a mistake only to praise it for what it does well almost effortlessly, such as analysing the formal logical validity of arguments or spotting contradictions. It needs also to pay attention to where it is naturally weaker, such as when it has to deal with ambiguity or premises that cannot be proven, and when it requires the careful use of judgement.
    • Conclusion: Using Reason
  • Our obsession with our differences has created the impression that there is no common domain of rationality within which disagreements can be thrashed out. We just have a multiplicity of discourses and rationalisations to legitimise different interest groups. This is not just a criticism of those currents of thought broadly and loosely labelled postmodern. The enemies of postmodernism have set themselves up as the sole champions of reason – something made easier by their opponents’ willingness to relinquish the labels of rationality and reason. In so doing they too have contributed to the sense in which the intellectual sphere is too fragmented and divided along factional lines for any general dialogue to be possible. By dismissing large sections of the intellectual community as anti-rational, the anti-postmodernists have also contributed to the sense that it is pointless to seek to argue one’s case in the widest possible forum.
    • Conclusion: Using Reason

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