Catholic vs. Catholic - 2018-02-28 - Chris Fleming

Author Recorded Wednesday February 28th, 2018

There are 44 episodes in the Versus:Catholic series.

Recorded September 13th, 2017

Catholic vs. Catholic - 2017-09-13 - Thomas

Dr. Fleming is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Western Sydney University, Australia. He describes himself as 'Catholic among the secular, and secular among Catholics'. I spent most of our time picking his brain about philosophy. Good times.To be my guest, email me at : CVS.Podcast@gmail.com


Catholic vs. Catholic - 2018-02-28 - Chris Fleming

Author Recorded July 26th, 2017

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hi my name is Chris Fleming and you're listening through Catholic versus Catholic if you could just tell the listener a little bit about yourself please who you are what you believe and how you came to believe it well I'm currently an associate professor of philosophy at Western Sydney University I grew up in Sydney Australia it's where I still live and you know I still write Catholic on the census although maybe I'm just a misanthrope because every time I'm around Catholics I feel very secular but when I'm around secular people I I feel very Catholic so I maybe it just means I'm the kind of one of those automatic gainsayers or the light rebels who are you know who are basically perverse really and my how I've come to believe what I believe I guess is a combination of personal history cultural history and philosophical intellectual investigation so some somewhere in there yeah before we get too deep into the philosophy and I do want to get into that what were your first sort of ideas about God and religion and how did that affect you and how did that change as you turned into adulthood if you could just sort of paint a broad picture of that oh be good sure look I grew up as the youngest of seven in a big family and we went to Mass in in a very standard way every week it didn't matter where in the world we were it was just as important to secure a church attendance as it was to get accommodation I can only remember it Vitas once combination of times those changes and something else and there was a lot of prayer and talk of God in the house although and although it was Catholic with you know there were regular criticisms or admonishments of Rome there was an openness especially in my father to look at other scriptures and so on so you have a very Orthodox Catholicism combined with something that you might call the kind of post Vatican 2 radicalism and this can I and my dad still live is 93 goes to Mass every day but this is a guy that also knows the Upanishads and the bhagavad-gita and is a meditator and so on so that's the kind of environment I grew up in thinking about God and thinking about religion whether as natural as breathing to me from a very early age there was no sense in which I had any question about any of that until much much later and really talking in my early 20s and so it seemed a very normal and a very natural part of life to me I remember just to give you an example when I was a child in Sunday school I was very moved by John the Baptist the story of John the Baptist so there might be little events like that that sort of pop out in that timeline could you talk briefly about an event it's really interesting actually you know I've never thought of it before but in year four I remember hearing the story properly of the crucifixion for the first time and was just devastated by it and that sounds like a negative experience it wasn't a negative experience in some ways although there was a lot of tears and from my recollection there were a lot of tears in the classroom generally it was an extraordinarily powerful experience I guess and that was really a very powerful moment for me you would have been eight or nine years old yeah about nine I guess powerful the time I met Mother Teresa she was at a local frigid a nun convent in Randwick and I met her then and I mean I finally got dim recollections of it I guess the the one of the most powerful other influences and again I've only really I'm only really thinking about this for the first time within year 12 when I had a principal coming to our classroom and he was taking the Religious Education and Browns and coming in and giving us a whole series of dogmatic things to believe he started challenging us he said how do I know this is true anyway obviously this is a guy that lives in a you know in a religious community and it was a very powerful form of an introduction to thinking about the faith in a critical way with him knowing full well that when we left school we'd be getting these challenges and so he'll coming in and playing skeptic was an incredibly powerful experience in a way precisely because it seemed to imply that there was some intellectual foundation here and that we were comfortable in our faith and he shook us up a bit no that was a really meaningful experience too I think it brings to mind st. Thomas Aquinas with his Summa and the challenges that he proposed to his own way of thinking hmm so I think it would be appropriate now to sort of fill in the gaps in the sort of philosophical journey can you talk us through that a little bit the highlights yeah look I I became best friends I guess with a really rabid atheist and we would spend hours and hours in discussion and I think at the end of this of an end of a number of years a very intense debate and discussion I think I really shook up his atheism saying that he really should have my my belief right we destabilized each other and so there was this moment at which the intellectual approach to religion started to overtake what had been the ritual approach to it even to the extent of a very strange series of habits one was driving the church but sitting outside and reading philosophy kind of bizarre thing to do in a way but there was this intense challenging of my faith and and coming up face to face I guess with a kind of Neil ISM and thinking maybe none of this is true maybe you know I've been in cult rated to think these things maybe it's all rubbish and that was an incredibly challenging and disturbing thing and I don't mean it's specific to religious people you know my friend who's an atheist he was really disturbed by having his atheism shaken the other thing I guess is since I had a major relationship breakdown at that age too and in some ways the crisis of the relationship fed into this crisis of faith I think it's very difficult to separate these things out at the time I thought it was a purely intellectual thing now I don't think there is such a thing as purely interfering there were the real shaking up of my world because the end of a romantic relationship a girlfriend I've been going out for with free cheese combined with these other more existential questions I guess they're all existential questions right but that was really a pretty turbulent time for me in a time where I started to take all sorts of crazy personal risks I drank a lot I got into drugs and all all kinds of insane behavior took hold so you plunged into the dark side a little bit and into sin well if there's no god there's no scene right like I didn't think of it as scene at the time and also I'd always had a conception of sin as something that offends the other this seemed to be a form of self-destruction and yeah it got really bad there was a kind of absolute disregard for myself somehow I managed to hold my studies together through all of this I've got no idea how very deep depressions through a lot of hurt and a lot of behavior that's really you know it's a good middle-class kid I never held that banks right I never assaulted anyone I never but there was this incredible and very deep sadness and real forms of self abasement and self-destruction that continued which in my family had been going on for generations religious or irreligious a drug addiction alcoholism depression which I only found out about much later but I so I was really some very deeply into that it wasn't all darkness right there were moments and maybe days maybe weeks of joy but it there was a there's a good ten years there were things were at the very least very volatile I didn't fall into nihilism I went the other way the the polar opposite the extreme end of the spectrum which is solipsism at the end of my atheism I was atheist for 25 years and near the end I was a solipsist so I thought that I I was the only one that existed it is a brighter and a happier place to be the nihilism but it's not much better really because it really is lonely thinking that everything is an illusion and you really believe that you really thought there was nothing outside your own mental creation yeah this led me actually into a theistic satanism that is basically there is no God there is no devil but you are God do your will it's not my allistic but it's very narcissistic obviously but I do feel lucky that I didn't go into nihilism because in nihilism you don't even have yourself do you really not really not really everything is up for grabs all the time and there's no there are no values to which you can pledge allegiance which seem to give you any mooring there is nothing I've never met a nihilist who doesn't at some level leave aunt aesthetically to that philosophical scheme it's like a moral relativist I mean knowing someone just has to tell you about their moral relativism and then if you take their car that will get very upset you know they're not really relative us all the way down or you know if people that believe the world is an illusion ask them to get their checkbook out and to write you a check and you'll very quickly find they're maybe not as committed to that belief as what they thought they were and and in some way the opening to a more religious view was the understanding that I didn't really believe nihilism not at its deepest level I couldn't convince myself that things like love and my attachment to people were simply fabrications it's not something I could even will myself to believe in any serious way and in some sense with an intuition that maybe value itself is woven into the very fabric of the universe that love is a force in the universe and is implicated in reality in a way that anything else is you know and once you take that idea seriously things look a bit different do you remember having conversion experiences that centered on your worldview and on your philosophy and on your reading I remember having a debate with my dad and challenging him on a number of points the fight thing when he said to me as he said you more than welcome to reject this but I think you're obliged to understand it the problem I think for many Christians growing up is they think they know what they're talking about it sounds like a ridiculous thing to say but if you're born into something rather than coming but from the outside there's this assumption that you know what you're talking about if you say Christ died for our sins or you say I believe it Jesus is the Son of God or but I don't think I had any real sense of what those phrases even meant despite saying than thousands of times and so that was an interesting moment at which I realized this sensor which I've got no idea what I'm talking about I don't know whether I know know what I'm talking about but there was the kind of shattering of a certain kind of arrogance at that point and I guess the last point for me a really a really important point and again it I guess it's a it was an intellectual conversion was reading the work of the French American the truth dearest anthropologist Rene Girard and he has these discussions of the Hebrew Bible in the New Testament and uh it just blew my head off because I had no idea that you could make sense of these things in a way that was really coherent and wasn't just about a cosmology of this happen and this happened or a history it was about how humans operate how we behave how we form communities and destroy them and I was just so stunned that any of this stuff even made sense I'll give you an example one of the things that juror says is that I mean it's a very provocative point he says that nature this 19th century German philosopher understood Christian be better of the 19th century theologians and what he meant by that was in the 18th 19th century is Western intellectuals traveled the globe and they started to see other religious forms a lot of the myths looked a lot like Christian stories so you had these warring brothers right so Romulus and Remus or you also have dying and rising gods and so on and so forth now the insistence of a lot of theologians point was like yeah yeah we can see that we can see that but Christian who's actually the true one what nature ended up saying is no they're not the same if you think the Christian story is the same as these other stories you don't even understand the genre and sherrod says he was right I mean he's an atheist but he saw this difference and one of the key differences is that the stories in the Bible are narrated from the point of view of the victims of the violence so if you if you look at say something like Romulus and Remus to these brothers they get into this rivalry and Romulus kills Remus and it's seen as necessary and good and this human community is founded but it's seen as a good and just thing now of course in Cain and Abel the same thing happens you have the foundation of the first human community but the editorial perspective is entirely different your brother's blood cries out to you from the ground now if you miss that if you miss that you've missed the whole thing and you're answered again and again and again in the Bible what you have is this deconstruction of violence and the same things are narrated for the purpose of pulling the mythology apart so the Bible in a sense is an anti mythology it's something that looks at the way humans obscure their own violence from themselves there's so many examples of this you know Joseph and his brothers and the Psalms and leading right up to the crucifixion I mean the death and resurrection of Dionysus is very different death and resurrection of Jesus simply because Dionysus comes back and wreaks revenge and there's you know like and so that was a profound inside and nature saw it first oddly enough you know because nature wanted to preserve the old myths he liked the old violence and he says if you think Jason is anything like Dionysus you dilute it he what he was in favor of Dionysus not quite lethal Christianity ruined everything can you talk just a little bit about this slave morality master morality if you know what that's about it's a complicated issue but nature ended up he has a book called the genealogy of morality and what he says is that what you have in Judaism and Christianity is basically a the narration of a defeated people and that what the Christians and Jews do is turn virtues out of weakness and so if you're defeated you become slaves then you turn being a slave into a virtue and so on and so what he thought was that Christianity and Judaism were essentially the results of resulting on they were the results of resentment towards powerful people so you can't beat someone you can't get on top of them militarily so you then you go alright well I can't get on top of them I will make meekness my chief value in that way I'll beat them now the fact is niche you got the story the wrong way around it's not so much that Christianity is the result of resulting mantras on t---minus a product of Christianity what I mean by that is that if you have a religion that outlaws of engines that puts forward turning your cheek and so on vengeance is much easier to do in the ancient world Christianity makes it much more difficult so what you do as a result is you Harbor resentments for people you can't kill them outright so you just present them now that's not a good thing either but what Nietzsche tends to kind of mix up is historical causation there I don't know whether I've explained that particularly well but I'll give you one sense of what I'm talking about in the ancient world the Romans never stood around saying well you know this neighbor and community they were mean to us and we're their victims therefore we will kind of exact justice they just said look we're stronger than you and we're going to destroy you it's what the Greeks did as well modern cultures find that very difficult to say even the most tyrannical behaviors always justify themselves on the basis of standing up for victims that's a very perverse legacy of biblical revelation which is very sensitive to the role of the victim of in human culture so in this sense Christianity changed the world changed the the attitude towards violence and the most atheistic ille de Nancy eight that's Christianity invariably invoke Christian values and are invariably the inheritors of a Christian outlook that is now in denial that doesn't understand its own moral sources it doesn't understand where its own editorial perspective comes from I haven't read Rene Girard I have two or three friends on Facebook that are very excited about his ideas but I recently did a post-mortem I think he may have started listening to it in preparation for this interview but in that post mortem I actually talked about the manliness of the Roman soldiers who nailed Jesus Christ to the cross and I contrasted that manliness with the cowardice of Judas Judas who snuck off and made backroom deals with the Sanhedrin and so on and so forth and so this was just a meditation where I was improvising just based on my intuition but it sounds like it's resonating not only with Nietzsche but also with Rene Girard who has sort of a truth of Nietzsche and puts it into a Catholic context is that right yeah he does but and he he obviously repudiates the morality behind nature I mean nature wants to bring back people don't want to admit this about nature but if you read the will to power it becomes very clear he wants to bring human sacrifice back I mean he really he really wants to bring some of these ancient practices back because he says without them culture degeneration what would nature say about the abortion Holocaust what would he saw what his analysis be well I don't think he'd have any problem with abortion at all but he would probably have problems with the quietness with which it's done he would want it kind of openly celebrate look I'm guessing in this and I can I've got some friends who are Nietzsche scholars who would be kind of yelling at me at this point but anyway it's a just one train of his thought that that is compatible with that okay you were going to say something about Rene Girard I cut you off what was I going to say about him I guess he's been taps the major intellectual influence in my life and I was lucky to know him and I went to Stanford in 2004 and I continued a dialogue with him over the years and I was lucky to kind of count him as a friend so it was he with a truly a gentle and lovely human being and it was a wonderful experience do you have any evidence to suggest that he might have been a dissident Catholic or was he faithful to the Magisterium and striving to obey you know he gave out Communion at Stanford like he was a very Orthodox Catholic in some ways now I guess if you're going to think of him as a dissident in in any way it was that his notion of the atonement was a non substitutionary atonement now he argued that the substitutionary atonement as its traditionally formulated it was much more of a Protestant issue any you know he said go through the Catechism you're not going to find it in there but there is a propitiatory notion of the atonement which is that God's honor was so offended that humanity cannot take God's vengeance upon itself so God requires a sacrifice and therefore puts his son forward to take his own wrath and punishment and oh sure I thought that with the most had seen and and non-christian version of the atonement and he rejected that notion what did he replace it with humans are the violent ones humans the ones that gang up on each other and demand blood God takes the punishment which is not divine it's human punishment and takes down upon his own body and thereby shows us that this is completely unnecessary and blows apart that system in so doing and so that what we normally read is the the wrath of God is in fact the wrath of humanity the God of love is not there's not going to I mean there's a whole lot of kind of economic absurdities to with the other you know how do you pay off a debt to yourself you know I'd love to work that out because they're not my credit would be good but you know like there's a even a kind of economic absurdity to the traditional way now I'm simplifying the Anselmi in account right and and as he got old those are you know initially want to reject the idea of sacrifice altogether from Christianity but as he gets older and dialogue with the Jesuit the Austrian German Jesuit ramage Fargo who was a karana chaired Innsbruck he relaxed about this and they have a thirty-year dialogue about seems like the atonement and Catholic theology which I translated with some Sheela tariff lay hidden came out a couple years ago is this exchange of letters between the tools and about these things but look and I'm not a theologian so I realized when I start talking about things like the atone and they very quickly come up against the vast chasms of my ignorance but yeah that if you were to characterize even if having a view that was some distance from some Catholics view of the atonement then that would be it apart from that it's it's very difficult to see him as anything but a very traditional Catholic man can you talk a little bit about maybe your master's thesis your PhD work what were some of the projects that you worked on sure I've been all over the place I mean really what my PhD was about has nothing to do with this is in epistemology so the theory of knowledge and I was interested in the difference between certain kinds of conceptions of knowledge and the extent to which knowledge always takes place in a historical moment it's always performed in particular ways it's always perform that is always done who are some of the big names that you were building on that shared your point of view Paul fire-up and would be one in real akatosh these philosophers science Steven Schaffer kind of sociologists of knowledge and historians of science bruno latour a French sociologist philosopher there's a bunch of them are they all sort of continental postmodern types or that's not a distinction I maybe respect as much as I should most of the things that I end up doing it related to a question rather than related to a particular disciplinary perspective so I tend to come up with questions and then figure out what sort of material is going to serve the answering of that rather than starting with in a disciplinary formation and letting that formation determine the kinds of questions I'm gonna ask I mean it's an ambitious kind of idea but it's very I mean I sort of think that the Waheeda answer questions and and the questions going to determine in some ways where you look for the answers to that it means that I again reach the limits of my knowledge very very quickly uh as long as people let me get away with saying what I say that okay I'll keep writing so I asked you about a conversion moment in your religious journey but in your own personal academic work have there been moments where you're like wow I actually understand what I'm talking about in this one tiny particular aspect of my paper or my work are there moments like that where you get a clarity and you feel self-assured and confident that you've understood at least part of something look yeah I think five but what what happens is that it happens retroactively later like I come back to revisit things that I may have looked at ten years before and suddenly I realized that I can understand a lot now that I didn't use to be able to understand there's one book in particular I remembered start trying to read it at the start of my doctorate and I'm turning to a friend and just saying I've got no idea what this person's talking about like not a clue I return to it a few months ago just out of interest - and it seemed absolutely clear now that's a really nice thing in some ways but it also makes me terrified the extent to which my own forms of communication alienate people but I mean there are those kind of moments when I look back and think oh okay I'm my understanding of this stuff is better than it yesterday you know I have been accused of being overly cerebral or intellectual not that I'm smart or bright but that I live in my head that too much something you said earlier in this interview was interesting is that that we can't isolate even though we'd like to and we tend to isolate the intellectual component of a human being we can't really do that you've you've come to see that it's part and parcel of the whole person can you talk a little bit more about that in terms of the role that Reason plays and all that you know I say the cognitive therapy cognitive behavioral therapy and psychology among a whole series of things it's built its whole career out of emphasizing the links between reason and the emotions if I walk into a room and there's a snake on the bed I freak out but if I then realize through a series of cognitive operations that that snake is in fact not a snake but it's a belt and I calm down so the idea that this is absolute dividing line is tricky now having said that I think the intellect can be used in a way that's defensive as a way of avoiding certain emotional moments that you rationalize things away that you minimize the impact of things on you and that you explain things away now I think that can be a danger I mean usually when people say you're thinking too much the problem isn't that I'm thinking too much the problem is I'm thinking too repetitively that's the intellect kind of grinding itself down into the ground but I don't ultimately accept that there's any real genuine separation I mean there is some separation that we can talk about reason and emotion they do name different sorts of things but when you get right down to the the depths of human experience that distinction really does break down the emotion emotion was in a sense of judgments right so if you for instance the experience of anger correlates most of the time against a felt sense of injustice and so angle riser very often not rightly or wrongly in the face of what you assess to be an injustice and now if you accept that then emotions themselves are forms of reason I mean the obvious response to that is yeah but that's crazy because you can be wrong about all that stuff you can be very angry about over nothing and the responses that is who cares we're wrong about our normal reason anyway we make mathematical mistakes and we made misjudgments and apparently someone in America recently was filed for a saying Australia was a country a universe so but you know like there is I think there they are raising the motion a deeply connected to each other and and there's nobody amongst us that runs along just one of these lines but you know they're really connected I want to talk a little bit about the will the human will the free will the reality of free will what that implies philosophically for you from your understanding and how it interacts with reason mmm I think the relationship between raisin and will is there's no coherent argument for determinism at all and I think really shows this in the critique of pure reason a number of people have shown it in a number different place I mean even see us Lewis demonstrates a version of this argument in a book miracles but if you are to accept the determinism is true then you have to admit that you were actually determined to come up with that answer which is of course incompatible with reason right in order to come to a judgment a rational judgment there is a sense in which we have to be able to choose between alternatives and the Catholic thinkers finis Tolleson and Greece's came up with a version of this argument that ultimately determinism is self refuting that any argument for determinism is going to undermine determinism if the conclusions I come to intellectually are simply the result of brain firing then there's no reason to trust them every atheist that I talk with who's willing to debate with me on a friendly level I do confront them with the laws of thought and their various ways of regrouping these laws of thought but you know the law of non country the law of the excluded middle and what's the third popular one their identity identity yeah the law of identity so how how rock-solid is that foundation philosophically in your estimation is it emphasized in academia is it completely glossed over is it mocked and ridiculed as outdated not really it's not even very commonly covered probably this is so self-evident I mean these things are taught but usually the way they're taught is through what we call in for more plausible reasoning so you teach trying to basic critical thinking skills and all of those things are assumed no I'm much more confident with non contradiction and excluded middle than the law of identity but I mean I I mean I think that they're about as rock-solid as you can get you know and you find people tripping themselves up and I mean any attempt to argue against those laws are going to end up affirming them at a certain point it's like quicksand every attempt to denies and the firm's them at a deeper level now have you ever considered yourself a hard agnostic meaning epistemological II you threw your hands up in the air or were you ever confident labeling yourself as a some sort of skeptic if you could talk a little bit you know in terms of religion and or philosophy about these notions of doubt and your expertise in epistemology and how agnosticism is skepticism sort of play where do they fit into that world one of one of the extensible selling points of agnosticism is its humility right you'll get someone saying well you know I I can't believe or not believe I you know and and there's this kind of implied nobility over the agnostic and I I have a bad reaction to that generally I mean partly because the agnosticism itself depending on the form that it takes has an incredibly ambitious view of human knowledge so if you say look human beings cannot know X Y or Z then you've that's them you have an amazing confidence about the extent the limits of human reason so there sensing which agnosticism does not appeal to me in a sense partly also because we live our beliefs anyway regardless of what your view for instance about morality is you actually inhabit and and you you live your philosophy in a sense it's not something you can withhold judgment about our skepticism yeah again I'm not sure where the skepticism can be upheld because of course you're going to be skeptical you need that that's the universal acid right and that works against skepticism itself you have to be skeptical about your skepticism and the fact is is that for all intents and purposes our skepticism dissolves when faced with the realities of the world you can be a skeptic but you find if you're crossing the road very quickly you're not is this truck really approaching me isn't it you know like you find again even at these limit points of human experience skeptics drop their skepticism my students are all very skeptical kind of relativists and but their basis for it is different their basis is they think that if they're not then they're going to be intolerant and intolerance is the worst thing in the world I mean that's another thing to talk about but the reason that that skepticisms comes into the social domain a lot of the time it's not an epistemological thing at all it's an ethical and a political thing I think that's a mistaken view but anyway maybe we can get to that yeah there's this idea that's floating around sort of in that in the right the political right as a reaction to the left and I'm not a big right left proponent I don't fall into one side or the other I don't get into politics but there are people that claim to be on the right and that talk about the left and what they say is and there seems to be some evidence for this is that it's rooted in Marxism it's a sort of cultural Marxism where the physical violence didn't work so now we're going to just attack ideas and it seems that the people on the left whether they know it or not they're serving a sort of cultural Marxism and undermining Christianity undermining absolute objective truth and morality and they don't even know that they're doing it can you just sort of talk from your perspective as a philosopher what have you read what have you seen in our culture with political correctness what's your analysis you know I think that the left seems to have this idea that you can't oppress people and the way you're oppressed people is almost by disagreeing with them let me put this another way there is a certain conception that civil peace is based on agreement that if anyone disagrees with you so someone on the right will say X and someone unless is basically you can't say that with the idea that the way that we secure any sort of civic order is through agreement and that you treat everything as equivalent in a way now the left of course doesn't believe that because it has its own hierarchy of values but there is that assumption now the problem is is that you end up treating beliefs as if their children's paintings you know all that one's nice and I like that one and that one's good that one's good too that's not really a way of paying respect to anything yeah to accord every single cognitive formation as somehow equivalent which of course people don't do but they pretend that they do anyway there's not a form of respect I mean I think science and some way provides a really good social model you have a community based on rational and principled disagreement that doesn't fall apart because of that so we've somehow falsely equated civic order with agreement and that's a really dangerous thing to have done now political correctness is a tricky one because generally when the term comes up it means someone's attacking an idea nobody on the Left goes I'm going to be politically correct now right so it's used as a term of criticism and it does actually name a phenomenon and a stifling social phenomena but what I guess won't political correctness is is this awareness of the extent to which we produce victims and this I suppose sometimes uncritical reaction to that which I don't think is a coherent reaction alot of the time I'm buddy I think it comes from a good place and this awareness it's a post holocaust phenomena after the Holocaust we have an acute sense that people should not be persecuted on the base of their identity Rachel national and so on but we can being humans we can then exploit that moral insight to our own ends and make ourselves look virtuous and wonderful I mean this is a huge topic and I realize I'm talking quite abbreviated ways about it but I think political correctness names a genuine danger in discourse but I think it's danger can be overestimated and I think that the ethical sources for what produces that a sound regardless of how perverse its manifestations are so what this brings to mind is Socrates he's one of my heroes of philosophy can you talk a little bit about Socrates Plato maybe even Aristotle to a limited extent just in terms of the enduring value of that way of doing philosophy because that really is the heart and soul of what gets me excited all through the history of Western philosophy that is really the trail that I'm gonna follow and that I intuitively relate to can you talk a little bit from your perspective and the Millennials the young kids today how do they respond have you seen people responding to Socrates and Plato look it's interesting they respond really well I teach a course that used to be called ancient and Hellenistic thought nobody did it so I called it philosophy and the good life suddenly enrollments went up Socrates you have this encapsulation of the notion of philosophy as a way of living not simply a series of propositions not a number of doctrines or a number of texts of course he didn't write anything down but you have this approach to philosophy as a form of spirituality that is this relentless and incredibly honest search for the truth and this of course had him killed for doing this now play of course formalizes all that stuff and he's unusual because he's one of the only ancient philosophers which we have almost everything I think everything he ever wrote and again you have a view beautiful stylist and and and some incredible dialogues that I think just keep were you know worth being revisited Aristotle gained a student of Plato but here you have perhaps some of the most well worked out versions of what it mean insta live the good life of course the conception of virtue and virtue ethics comes really from Aristotle and of course he the impact on the Catholic Church was absolutely enormous I mean Plato also through the neoplatonist to Agustin but Aristotle of course requires now unfortunately we've only got Aristotle's lecture notes we don't actually have any of its kind of proper books but in Aristotle I think you have them some of the most fleshed out and some of the most incredibly articulated versions of what it means to live a good life what stands up today is a still an amazing body of work and it's rude I mean the the cliches Alfred North Whitehead once said that philosophy isn't really just a series of footnotes to Plato this over states are right that this there's something in there and there are between these three thinkers a real setting of the agenda of Western philosophy that's still very much in evidence today and the thinkers that are worth revisiting for a number of reasons but yeah is there anything juvenile or naive about Plato's epistemology do you as a sort of quasi expert on epistemology look back on him and laugh to yourself at how naive he was or no it's such an interesting thing you know like philosophy has a very anxious relationship to its own history right and in a way that literature doesn't nobody ever looks back and go oh you know Shakespeare he's so old and so pathetic you know like but philosophy has this incredibly anxious and fraught relationship with its own past it's basically a series of depending on who's teaching and I mean if you read Bertrand Russell's history of Western philosophy it's like it really can be summed up in a few sentences which look at all these idiots until I came along if you read philosophy as a history of errors you're doing you're really not doing much service for yourself now cause looking back on certain kind of platonic doctrines and the most obvious one is epistemology in his theory of the forms and so on no there's a big discussion about what the theory of the forms is that the naive I think view that his view of the forms is that you know apart from an actual sheet there's a ghostly shape living in a heavenly realm there a number of experts on player--oh that suggest that he's he's not really talking about that noise just talking about abstract objects but yeah I mean there's a lot about Plato we can buy in the way that it was articulated but he's worth engaging with because the options that he use philosophically are in many senses still live options but I tried at least when I teach these things I try to resist wheeling Plato out of some kind of pinata that we look at and then everybody has a stick that can give a whack which is often the way philosophy is taught and does a huge disrespect to its own history and blinds you from the the extent to which you can still learn and put yourself at the feet of these people and learn something what do you think about sort of on the other extreme what I consider the other extreme which is nominalism and in particular William of Ockham can you talk a little bit about his impact on the sort of death of scholasticism and that sort of thing yeah this is this is a big one I guess is that I mean the classic thoughts on this John Milbank and Catherine Pickstock and he's not an easy read but Milbank came out with is a english philosopher and theologian came out with a book and i think late nineties other 2000 called theology and social theory which she laid at the fate Ockham every I mean linguistically we were nominalist in the sense that you know the English is only a contingent way of naming things that you know you have a French vocabulary you use a different word I mean there's a kind of tripe nominalism but I don't think that that things have no essences I mean if that were true then there's a whole series of things that would be impossible to do like baking a cake and because it wouldn't matter whether you're throwing butter or you know or bolts you know like I really if you're gonna if you want to talk in terms of essences and it's not normally a kind of word that I use much is I think nominalism is a kind of almost scientifically disprovable hypothesis even at the level of philosophy JP Moreland's book universals is a fantastic criticism of nominalism now I'm not representing it very well I'm not representing in eating its strongest form there right I'm kind of doing exactly what I said you shouldn't do which is just kind of give something a whack but no I I'm not a nominalist in that sense do you see a pendulum swinging this way then that way then this way then that way and there's a time in place for the discussion to go over here and then back over there is that how you see it yeah a human-sized I mean this is the thing is most of our thinking resolves itself into binaries and and there's awful and this is a big alien point I guess this is something true about both ends of the spectrum and the debate is away in a sense of I think a lot of the time you're not resolving it but trying to show you that there's some strengths in an opposition now there's a general opposition to binaries which i think is itself incoherent oh man you know I had a student saying to me said I don't yeah i you know i think binaries are a terrible thing there this Western invention I said so you're a non-binary thinker you should yeah I said so non-binary / binary then but is of course a binary right like binarism is a very greedy Idol I mean even Derrida even Jacques Derrida in an interview this actually accuses him at one point of being overly binary which you won't normally he Derrida being accused of and they say II you know you say that things mean this or mean that couldn't there be differences of degree and Derrida juices are the differences of degree or no diff of degrees I think you can take most of our forms as orders as ways of moving between two poles each of which have something to say now having said that there are binaries that you can actually deconstruct and say you know politics is a good example are you left are you right well one response is I'm not sure the kind of post-revolutionary seeding of the French you know the state's general you know the post-revolutionary Frances is the ultimate guide for how we should still be thinking about politics right maybe it's not the most productive set of opposition's that you have to think about the political world but you know in another way sure that does name something and and these shifts between two poles I think without relativizing everything is a way of saying hey there's something here we haven't considered so the difference between dualism and monism I think is a really interesting one because both of them have got something to say that I think is of important I'm not trying to be a peacemaker here and say where everybody's right you know but it does name a dialectic of thought that we have to be sensitive to you bring to mind the topic of the East if you could just talk very briefly about the East and the futility of reason and all that sort of thing that I find so repugnant yeah yeah well you do get that and there are ok so for instance there are traditions within Buddhist thought that try to carry on a state of debate until it is shown that rational debate is pointless after which there is a delivery from rational thought into a kind of enlightenment which is non linguistic the way that's often characterized is relative versus absolute so reason has its validity at the relative level but ultimately in many cases just to show you that reason is pointless after which there is an absolute which is outside of all opposition's outside of all reason now for me the problem is I can't make sense of that really because the very proposition that there's a relative versus absolute requires a rational assent it requires that you believe and understand certain things and so I can't really make those forms of thought intelligible to myself and so what I'm talking about here is you know the tradition I'm thinking of specifically is Mahayana Buddhist and and texts like Nagarjuna said wisdom in the middle way and so on now I find those forms of thought quite difficult and there are you know there are some sophisticated parallels between west nice and thought I think Messiah Arbor a Japanese philosopher of the twentieth century in a book called Zen and Western thought Casey nishitani and a book called religion and nothing that's what's called the kyoto school now you there is a fruitful dialogue to be had there but look I I find it very difficult at a certain point to even follow the argument and if I do then it ends up looking to me like it's self refuting but that may just be a limit of my own appreciation of these philosophies one of the difficulties is that Eastern philosophy the very terms of engagement are very different to Western philosophy there's a lot of bridge work that needs to be done what comes to mind as you're speaking is one of my favorite quotes from Nietzsche which I find true and very powerful is that we will not have killed God until we have also killed grammar if we want to abandon the Western way were reduced to sort of sitting in the corner and maybe grunting incoherently that's about it basically we cannot engage with grammar with any sort of rational communication so it was Nietzsche I know he's a very colorful character and he brings a lot to the table it's not necessarily coherent but was he influenced by the east was he dabbling in eastern ideas yeah he was he was but again he engages with it in his eye he's very own specific kind of way you know like and for him it was an SS II thought Buddhism was like a bad Christianity you know but it was weak just like Jesus you know there's these funny if you want a religion for men you kind of go to Islam but you know so there were in he did had some engagement with Eastern thought Graham Parks as a guy who's edited a book called niche an AIDS patient thought but again he's not a Nietzsche was not a he was definitely not a skull hephaestan thought he did not have you know if for a start you're dealing with an expertise in language it's the only now is sort of becoming available having said that I mean this is I think what he's saying can be you know you can you can take it in it in a very specific way and put it this way if human beings are simply you're kind of the product of random processes of natural selection then our cognitive capacities have not developed to tell us the truth have developed in order to have a survive you know that may involve the truth it may not I mean there's a place we could talk about this for instance you know if someone might say to me are but we have evolved to kind of be able to tell the truth you you see the car raging up the road if you can see it and jump out of the way then you're going to have an evolutionary advantage and it's not necessarily true you could see that as a ghost you could see there's a storm coming at you you could just see it as a superstition so in a sense just a kind of purely naturalistic account of evolution is going to give us not absolutely no guarantee that our thought that our forms of language in any way connects to reality what it is going to ensure simply is that it's our survival but once you admit that the new evolutionary naturalism itself we don't even know whether that's true anymore so there is a you know his points kind of well taken and it was developed ought about grammar and God has been subject of a lot of reflection some of the good some of them not so good in continental philosophy but yeah this there's something to be said for it sort of idea it's floating around in my mind as we've talked today about the sort of history of Western philosophy is well I could draw a parallel with fashion the 80s had a specific fashion in the 70s had a fashion the 60s definitely had a fashion you know the 40s the 30s the 20s we can see these trends in fashion but we don't really see the fashion of the day I'm wondering if the genius philosophers see the whole history of the fashion of philosophy the ideas that are being thrown around do the geniuses of philosophy see that and are they aware of that and are they are they working with that or is it only in hindsight do we always build on a few generations before a few decades or centuries before are we limited to looking back a certain fixed distance before we can see clearly that's such a difficult question might in some way the genius in the philosophy in some way we say them because they say past fashion some ways we say them like that because it's earthy they are the most fashionable and you don't I didn't say this a time when I was doing my doctorate there's all these names floating about and problems and twenty years later and he kind of look at it I don't think oh they're all uncool now I mean not that they're wrong they're just uncool right they're just and and and these things come back I remember when I first started my doctorate nobody wanted to mention John Paul Sartre you know like he was just a human that he was the worst of the worst and last conference I went to as a whole session dedicated to his work now does that mean suddenly he's become really we've suddenly seen that what he said was really coherent and really you know good in a way that we didn't appreciate no this is I mean this is the thing is the cool and fashion permeates academia just as much as it permeates any other area of culture one of the advantages of fashion is that it creates a common discourse if everyone is converging around a particular problem or theorist then we're talking to each other and we can try to figure stuff out and that is one of the advantages to it but whether thinkers see through fashions and and where they don't I think anyone who has a good sense of intellectual history realizes just how little novelty there is in fourth that the same issues the same problems I mean I was looking you know one of the ancient skeptics sexist in Paris recently and it was stunning some of the things that he said look like they could have been written you know one in the mid 90s one in the early 2000s and so any broader sense of history relativize as the newness of what of what we're doing but yeah it's very hard to step out of our own historical moment why what you just said it brings to mind the fool in the marketplace with his lantern or whatever what will be he was sort of ahead of his time right is that what nature was trying to say yeah I mean what I mean is if you think she's trying to say but one of the myths that there's a kind of casual you know middle-class atheism that doesn't understand itself which is the idea that you can give up God and everything remains the same they just but nature says if you actually see what you've done you understand that things really have to change that you as an atheist things done look the same as what they used to and what he saw was a kind of cultural Christianity that was absurd given the the presuppositions it's rejected I mean you see this in my students all the time I remember coming to the end of a particular unit and I was trying to get people to sum up their own essay and one guy a little bit it can capsulated the whole generation he said I look my mind ethic is do unto others as you would have them do unto you but you know like not not in a Christian sense like wow I mean the niche in the marketplace is there there then but yeah it is there's a few there's a few senses of that but yeah the senses that the person being ahead of his time is that he sees that people have rejected something but they don't understand the implications of that rejection are you familiar with this term that I've heard kicked around cognitive dissonance what what is that exactly psychologically and philosophically I'm not a psychologist but it's my understanding of the term is that in their state of cognitive dissonance something is proved to be incorrect but what would would normally undermine the belief is doesn't undermine the belief so you have a doomsday cult for instance and they put a particular day at the end of the world and that day comes and goes and yet the the cult remains integrated and stronger than ever and that I think it was in those kind of context the cognitive dissonance was first used as a way of talking about this fact that a belief that should be undermined by evidence is in fact strengthened by another notion that sort of comes to mind during our talk here is I forget who said it was a Catholic maybe a saint who said that if we don't live according to how we believe that soon we begin to believe according to how we live when we don't face our philosophy then we get a default philosophy because you did mention this earlier in our talk I trying to flesh that a little bit for me that sort of danger is implied in that yeah look I think the thing is that philosophy is not something that you do or you don't do you either do it consciously and coherently or you do it unconsciously and incoherent like the fact is that philosophies only got a few questions really what's real what can we know and what's good and what's evil that's about it I mean my discipline don't like to put it so boldly because it sounds too soon too simplistic but that's it really I mean there are versions of that so philosophy of science grows out of the knowledge question I mean political theory grows out of the good and evil question so on but they're really the questions that philosophy asks now the fact is is that all of us have conceptions of what those things are speaking to what engineer once and each of us told me that the only things it's real you know measurable right where was his statement to me logical positivism yeah basically yeah yeah and the only philosophy that's been proven false well exactly right like it you know you kind of said well unless things that I said about what I did in my doctorate but not have to think more about it well we'll definitely have you back for part two if you're willing at some point sure look I am gonna let you go but when I when I wrap up my interviews I always give my guest the last word and you did mention earlier that in your early 20s you or at some point in your early adult life you had a boat of depression and some darkness there are whether you like it or not there are a lot of people out there on the internet that are just isolated by technology they're lonely they're depressed some of them are suicidal so I always like to give a little message of hope not from myself but from my guests what have you lived what have you experienced what have you learned what wisdom do you have to share in a very general and pleasant way so just to wrap up the show what might you say to someone that might be out there listening now well with respect to depression online moods one of the things that you can end up thinking is that you know I'm never gonna feel good again and my life is never going to be right again that's basically what I'm facing is the darkness of today played out into all eternity I guess the thing to realize is that's a symptom hope is not an unfounded thing I don't think it's a form of optimism I think I really the form of realism there is a way of living on and living through these things and part of it just requires persistence and some faith that things can turn right and and the fact

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