Wednesday, 28 January 2009

Founder of Humanist movement dies aged 105

The founder of the British Humanist Association, H.J. Blackham, died this week. Believe it or not, this methuselah of Humansim was 105 years old. Blackham was one of the originators of the worldwide Humanist movement and that he was still alive in 2009 underlines the fact that organisations to promote ethics and the good life without any religious basis are a relatively recent phenomenon. I bought a copy of one of Blackham’s books on eBay a few years ago. Simply titled “Humanism”, it was first published in 1968, the year of my birth. Voltaire said “One owes respect to the living, to the dead one only owes the truth” and to be honest, with the exception of some memorable quotes, I don’t think his writing was particularly readable when compared to contemporary Humanists such as Alfred Ayer or Bertrand Russell. However, it is clear that Blackham was instrumental in bringing Humanists together in the 1950s and 1960s and that he played a huge part in elucidating what constituted the Humanist view. The part of his book that I found most memorable was the first sentence which sums up a minimum criteria for considering oneself a Humanist:
“Humanism proceeds from an assumption that man is on his own and this life is all and an assumption of responsibility for one’s own life and for the life of mankind..”

Saturday, 17 January 2009

Weird Science

I am writing this on the train home from the first conference put on by the Centre for Inquiry London which was held at Conway Hall in London (left), the home of the South Place Ethical Society. I have had an enjoyable day at the conference, entitled Weird Science (nothing to do with that 1980s movie). The first speaker was the psychologist Professor Richard Wiseman whose book Quirkology I have been reading (my edition has a great cover with a freaky photo like the ones Richard showed during his talk on the front - see below - can you tell what is strange about the cover photo?). Richard started out as a professional magician and included quite a lot of magic tricks to demonstrate perceptual illusions. When he was being introduced we were told that he had been working late last night with that pointy bearded mind fiddler Derren Brown testing alleged psychic mediums. Richard’s performance was very slick and funny which is more than can be said for the second speaker, his collaborator and fellow investigator of all things that go bump in the night, Professor Chris French, who was plagued by technical issues with the laptop he was using to make his presentation - all clips of him on TV. The highlight of his talk was listening to supposed satanic messages in Stairway to Heaven by Led Zeppelin. After lunch it was the turn of the first Provost of the Centre of Inquiry London, introduced by Andrew Copson from the BHA, the philosopher and former postman, whose blog I follow, Stephen Law, who seemed surprised by the large turnout for the event he had organised. Stephen said that they were planning to change the name to Centre for Inquiry UK. His talk was about Creationism and included talking about the infamous Ken Ham and his Answers in Genesis organisation in the USA. Stephen was heckled a bit by questioners in the audience, particularly by someone bringing up Karl Popper’s famous falsifiability test for any scientific theory. The last speaker was Ben Goldacre from the Guardian, whose excellent book Bad Science I read whilst on holiday in Italy this year. He spoke a lot about pseudoscience and wanting to "slam his cock in a door". It was an amusing presentation but he tried too hard. I thought Richard Wiseman was funnier.
(top photo:

Thursday, 8 January 2009

All aboard!

This week sees the launch of the most extensive Humanist advertising campaign in our history. Polly Toynbee and Richard Dawkins, respectively president and vice-president of the British Humanist Association, are pictured above with Ariane Sherine who came up with the idea. The advertising campaign is country wide with some posters appearing on buses in York today. A friend from the North Yorkshire Humanist Group was interviewed by the local press this morning about the atheist bus campaign - his comments can be read here:
The posters say “There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life”. When the fundraising campaign for the adverts started last year, some of my humanist friends were completely against the adverts, calling them anti-human and suggesting that the slogan merely reinforces precisely the religious presumption that people who don’t believe in God have no morality and are only interested in enjoying themselves. I don’t think that is a fair assessment. To some extent all publicity is good and this is easily the most successful Humanist marketing campaign in the BHA's entire 50 year history. The slogan does not suggest, to me at least, that "if God does not exist, everything is permitted" to use a phrase attributed to Dostoevsky in the Brothers Karamazov - though I have reason to doubt that he ever wrote it (
I suppose Robert Ingersoll's famous remark that "Happiness is the only good" is also open to being misinterpreted, though this has graced BHA promotional material for a long time. We live in a media, sound bite age and in my opinion, the slogan is a stroke of genius, attracting £140,000 in donations to date (see I hope that people will look at the web site links that accompany the slogans.

Monday, 5 January 2009

Are you a Rational Personality Type?

I just received the weekly Melvyn Bragg In Our Time newsletter (email) which directed me to the podcast of the BBC Radio 4 edition of In our Time that was broadcast on 1st January. This turned out to be quite a coincidence because the programme was titled The Consolation of Philosophy and consisted of philosophers discussing Boethius’ book in connection with our current economic fortunes, the subject of my last blog post. They also discussed Albert Camus writing about suicide which was also the subject of one of my recent posts.
The aristocratic A.C. Grayling, one of the contributors, is one of my favourite writers. I have read nine of his books and would particularly recommend The Choice of Hercules and Against All Gods, though the latter is very short. He wrote a series of books, starting with The Meaning of Things and progressing through The Mystery of, The Reason of, The Heart of and The Form of Things. These books consist of short, self contained monologues on a wide variety of subjects. I have also read a book by one of the other contributors, Roger Scruton’s An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Philosophy, though his writing is too conservative for my tastes.

Grayling also wrote a book on Ludwig Wittgenstein (pictured in Swansea in 1947), the archetypal introverted genius. One of my favourite anecdotes about Wittgenstein, which Dawkins mentioned in The God Delusion, is when he asked his students why people used to think that the Sun went around the Earth. When they gave the predictable response, he then asked, “and what would it have looked like if the Earth had gone around the Sun?”. Think about it.

Those who know me are acquainted with my frequent short lived fads and one of my recent obsessions was Myers-Briggs Personality Tests. These tests were developed from the personality type ideas of Swiss psychiatrist Carl Gustav Jung - the Aryan Christ as one book dubbed him. Dawkins thinks that Jung was a looney who thought that a book could spontaneously explode, but I think his ideas are quite interesting. Maybe I’m just a sucker for psychobabble.
Anyway, Jung thought that there were four main functions of consciousness, two perceiving functions: sensation and intuition and two judging functions: thinking and feeling. Further, these two functions are modified by two main attitude types: extraversion and introversion. Now, it’s not that you are either an introvert or extrovert. Rather, you have a dominant function which is either introvert or extrovert. Actually, I might be mixing this up with Keirsey temperament sorter or Socionics (which is the more controversial version of MBTI popular in Russia).
I have done lots of MBTI tests and I always come out as INTJ. NT Types are known as Rationals. So my dominant function is introverted intuition and my secondary function is extroverted thinking. No wonder people think I’m cold as ice.

Friday, 2 January 2009

The Consolations of Philosophy

I have just watched Polly Toynbee, the current president of the British Humanist Association, give her assessment of the political landscape in the coming year.

I think the message was bleak but realistic. Thinking about the coming year and our changing fortunes brings to mind the last of the great classical writers of antiquity.

Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius was born in Rome around 480 CE. His family had been Christian going back a century and his ancestors had included two popes and two Roman emperors. Boethius himself was consul in Rome in 510 CE.
Recent scholarship suggests that Boethius was an apostate, abandoning Christianity in favour of paganism, though he is still recognised as a saint in the Roman Catholic church.

He wrote his Consolation of Philosophy in about 524 CE whilst imprisoned, awaiting trial, after which he was executed, accused of treason.
The book is written as a conversation between Lady Philosophy (an embodiment of philosophy) and himself and discusses the transitory nature of fame and wealth. In particular, Boethius popularises the idea of The Wheel of Fortune.
"I know how Fortune is ever most friendly and alluring to those whom she strives to deceive, until she overwhelms them with grief beyond bearing, by deserting them when least expected … Are you trying to stay the force of her turning wheel? Ah! dull-witted mortal, if Fortune begin to stay still, she is no longer Fortune."
The writings of Boethius are often alluded to in literature and film.
I was a big fan of Joy Division and New Order in my youth and
one of my favourite movies is Frank Cottrell Boyce's 24 Hour Party People.
It is a comedy film about the rise and fall of Factory Records and includes a scene with Christopher Eccleston as a tramp under a bridge saying to Tony Wilson, the Factory Records boss, played by Steve Coogan:

“It’s my belief that history is a wheel. ‘Inconstancy is my very essence,’ says the wheel. Rise up on my spokes if you like but don’t complain when you’re cast back down into the depths. Good times pass away, but then so do the bad. Mutability is our tragedy, but it’s also our hope. The worst of times, like the best, are always passing away.”
Tony Wilson is also portrayed as hosting the game show Wheel of Fortune.
Frank Cottrell Boyce was also the writer of God on Trial which formed the basis of a World Issues day that I took part in at a local school recently.
This was a day of discussion about why there is evil and suffering in the world, one of the themes of Boethius’ book. The Boethian view is taken to be that evil is just the absence of good. I presented the Humanist view, others presented the perspectives of Christianity, Islam and Judaism.
I noticed that one of the other speakers, Brian Winston, was a former producer of World in Action, a programme that the above mentioned Tony Wilson worked on. A week earlier I had gone to a talk by Humanist David Boulton who co-incidentally was also a producer of World in Action but I am getting sidetracked...
Boethius can be seen as something of a Humanist because he sought to answer religious questions without reference to Christianity, relying instead on natural philosophy and the classical Greek tradition.
In the book, Lady Philosophy suggests that happiness comes from within and that it is virtue itself that is the only thing one can cling to because it is not dependent on the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.

That last quote from Shakespeare is one of the many influences Boethius’ writings have had on our culture.
The influence on Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings is something worth investigating.
The wheel of fortune is also depicted in the Tarot.

Returning to Polly Toynbee's warnings of an imminent turning of the wheel of fortune, some would say that Boethius' writings were a council of despair from a man facing imminent death and that his consolations are philosophical pie in the sky.
The upside is that the wheel continues to turn.

Thursday, 1 January 2009

New Year Veisalgia

I over indulged at the New Year festivities last night. You know how it is when someone offers you that one last drink. You know that you've had enough but it seems like a snub not to accept when someone offers to buy you a drink (I know – just say no). You know that you are going to regret the decision the next morning.

One of the pre-Christmas-party stories running in the press recently was that doctors Rachel Vreeman and Aaron Carroll from the Indiana School of Medicine have published their research findings in the Christmas edition of the British Medical Journal. Their conclusion, from controlled random double-blind trials is that none of the alleged cures for a hangover work. The truth appears to be that whatever you are doing to deal with the hangover that you are suffering with this morning, in a few hours the headache will subside. When it does, don't start claiming it was all of those artichokes, bananas and flat coke you have consumed (substitute your own pet theory) that helped you get better.

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