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Joshua asked:

Sir, I will like to know what it will look like when at the end of the world, we got to know that none of the religions is the way to salvation, but rather something else? I mean not Christianity, not Islam, not Buddhism or the others? Isn’t that a possibility?

Answer by Gideon Smith-Jones

Yes, Joshua, in answer to your question it is indeed possible that no existing religion, nor any that is yet to exist, is the way to salvation.

There are many scenarios for the ‘end of the world’, but unfortunately in most if not all it will be too late to find out which way was the true ‘way to salvation’ because the human race will be long gone.

Salvation is a peculiarly Christian concept. Even if you are a sinner you can still be ‘saved’ if you ‘repent’ and acknowledge Jesus Christ as the only ‘way’ to God. The concept of salvation presupposes the doctrine of original sin. We all need to be saved because we are all sinners.

However, there is a way of understanding salvation in a broader sense. Human beings are finite and imperfect. There is happiness and fulfilment to be had in this life but also much suffering, some of which we cannot avoid but much that we bring on ourselves — through stupidity, negligence, cowardice, venality and all the other habitual failings of the human mind and character.

The great tradition of Stoicism, which traces back to the eminent example of the philosopher Socrates, is one example of a philosophical school offering an ‘eschatology’ or way to salvation through reason and mindfulness, as an alternative to the dogmatism of the religious faith. Stoics understand the meaning of the seeming paradox that a ‘good man can be happy on the rack.’ For the true Stoic, so long as you tread the narrow path of Socratic virtue, nothing truly bad can happen to you. ‘It is worse to do evil than to suffer it,’ said Socrates.

Most important of all, the true Stoic does not fear death. As Epicurus remarked, ‘Where I am death is not; where death is, I am not.’ By contrast, the exaggerated promises of religion trade on the fear of death and what might come after. There is no crime so great that it cannot be committed in the name of religion for the sake of eternal reward, no human achievement so worthy that it cannot be punished by eternal damnation for defying the ‘will of God’.

You have to laugh. Because otherwise you would give up this life in despair. Ridicule is the best response to the claims of religion.

Looking to the way of the philosopher, it has to be said that the hard road of Stoicism is not for everyone. However, as a recipe for self-improvement, there is nothing better than the study of philosophy. Philosophy won’t protect you from the worse that can happen to you, but it can at least save you from mendacious, mind-poisoning ideologies — and not just those of the various religious ‘faiths’.

Navid asked:

So, I am attempting learn philosophy on my own. To be specific, I want to know what you can tell me about learning to understand philosophical thinking and philosophical texts. How do I learn the language and the process of analyzing philosophical arguments and also crafting such arguments?

Answer by Gideon Smith-Jones

I guess, Navid, the question I’d ask you is, Why? Why learn philosophy on your own? what are you afraid of? being confused by the opinions of others? being made to look foolish? There will always be cleverer students than you, and a lot more who are less clever.

Sure, you can learn a lot by yourself, reading classic philosophical texts and trying to grapple with them. That would be one way. (You can start by looking at Section 3 of the Pathways Introductory Book List.)

But how can you tell whether you’re making headway, when you only have yourself to judge your progress? You may think you’ve ‘cracked’ Hume, say, or Plato, but maybe you were just making up your own idiosyncratic interpretation as you went along.

Yet some do it – successfully. Read the classic text first, then test your initial interpretation against the editor’s or translator’s Introduction, or modern secondary texts. (A big error students make is reading the secondary material first, so they never get to first base learning how to grapple with a text because it’s all laid out for them.)

Maybe, when you’ve been doing this for a while, you will begin to feel a strong urge to discuss your ideas with others. There are lots of philosophy forums out there. I’m not saying it’s an easy task deciding which ones are worth joining. You have to use your best judgement. But you were doing that anyway, deciding what to read, forming a view of what you’ve read. Discovering who is your ‘favourite philosopher’ maybe.

There’s a term you may have heard before, ‘autodidact’. It means that you taught (didact) yourself (auto). It can be done. Forums can help. The biggest stumbling block, however, is writing. Who is going to read what you write? Other autodidacts? That’s one of the main reasons why one takes a university or college course – to have the opportunity to have your work assessed by persons qualified to judge.

Something I haven’t mentioned: you will discover that there is no single agreed standard for the ‘language and process of analyzing philosophical arguments’. It all depends whether you study, say, at the University of London, or the University of the Sorbonne – or the University of Tehran.

Maybe, after you’ve done a bit of reading, you will have a better idea of how you want to take things to the next stage. You could do worse than join our own school, Pathways to Philosophy.

Gigi asked:

Hi. I don’t really know if this makes sense, but according to Deontology and the Universal Moral Imperative, are immigration raids considered moral? Meaning that if anyone was able to conduct an immigration raid at any time, would to world still be a rational place?

Answer by Gideon Smith-Jones

There was once a question on Ask a Philosopher about whether it was ethical according to the Universalizability Principle to post questions on Ask a Philosopher. The problem being that if everybody posted a question, then the service would be swamped and unable to cope.

This is absurd, of course, but it highlights the problem of applying the Universalizability Principle without sufficient thought about what exactly is the thing we are universalizing.

You have a hunch that immigration raids are not always ethical, and that this has something to do with the Universalizability Principle. But what, exactly?

Some would say, the more immigration raids the better. Get rid of all those damned illegal immigrants. Others see a problem — can you say what it is? Two words: probable cause.

In the US, to get a search warrant, or an arrest warrant, there has to be probable cause. You can’t just arrest someone and interrogate them on the off chance that they might confess to doing something illegal. You can’t just search someone’s house on the off chance that they have stolen goods stashed. There has to be something, some meaningful evidence to justify the warrant.

In the UK, the law is different, but a case still has to be made, that there is a reasonable prospect that illegality is involved. There have to be grounds for suspicion.

Well, we know which areas of town where you’re most likely to find illegal immigrants. Let’s just start at the end of the street and raid every house. But that’s not enough. The reason that it is not enough is that if the principle according to which the proposed action was accepted, then you could arrest someone for any reason you like.

Now, we’re getting close to the application of the Universalizability Principle.

Suppose it turns out that the proportion of criminals with the name ‘Smith’ is higher than the proportion of Smiths in the general population. Is that sufficient ground for arresting someone on the grounds that their name is Smith? Why, or why not?

Suppose it turns out that stolen goods are more likely to be found in houses that have a green door, than in houses with doors of any other colour. Is that sufficient ground for searching any house with a green door? Why, or why not?

When you’ve puzzled that out, you will have the answer to your question. If the law (where you happen to live) allows immigration raids without ‘reasonable suspicion’ or ‘probable cause’ then according to the Universalizability Principle the law is wrong. It cannot be ethically justified.

 

Kecha asked:

‘Spare the rod and spoil the child’ — does this view of love correspond to the role of philosophers in society?

Answer by Gideon Smith-Jones

I wasn’t going to answer your question, Kecha, because the premise seemed so preposterous. The idea that philosophers are in any position to USE the rod is wishful thinking, at best.

As a parent, you have the power to punish your children as you see fit, although the use of the rod is increasingly frowned upon. There are other punishments available so it’s no great loss. But what can a philosopher do if he or she thinks society needs to be called to account? You can write an article or give a speech. Big deal. The only people watching Noam Chomsky videos on YouTube are those already convinced.

Casting my mind back, Bertrand Russell is the last philosopher I can think of who succeeded in making himself truly objectionable, addressing Ban the Bomb rallies in Britain in the 60s. Aged 89, he served seven days in Brixton Prison in 1961 for ‘inciting a breach of the peace’.

I almost forgot, there was Abimael Guzman — currently imprisoned — former philosophy professor and leader of the Shining Path movement in Peru. No-one could accuse him of sparing the rod. Or rather the bullet.

To cut a long story short, just a couple of days ago, I started noticing a number of posts on the professional philosophy list Philos-L ‘I Am a Dangerous Professor’, referring to an article by George Yancy in the New York Times, November 30, I Am a Dangerous Professor about his appearance in the Professor Watchlist  run by Turning Point USA.

The organization describes itself as a ‘Student movement for free markets and limited government.’ Rabid Nazis, it’s obvious innit?

Someone suggested that if every professor volunteered to join the watch list, its purpose would be vitiated. Another philosophy professor pointed out that you can’t join the watch list unless a newspaper or magazine has reported something bad about you first. Damn!

The scene at the end of the movie Spartacus comes to mind, with the defeated rebel slaves standing up and taking turns to shout, ‘I am Spartacus!’ So the Romans crucified them all, and a jolly good job too.

Of course, professors have enormous power — over their students. If you are a socialist leaning professor and one of your student writes an essay making an  impeccable case for a conservative or libertarian view of some topic, you are less likely to be impressed. Ditto, if you are a conservative leaning professor marking an essay by a student making a case for socialism. Why be surprised if a group of disgruntled conservative students decide they’ve had enough of what they see as unjust discrimination?

If that’s all it is. In his article, George Yancy mentioned Orwell’s 1984 and Newspeak. The very principles of academic freedom are being threatened. To quote Mandy Rice-Davies, ‘He would (say that) wouldn’t he?’

In truth, the fascists of the left are every bit as repellent as the fascists of the right.

What is NOT fascism? I am not talking about being apolitical. No-one can escape politics. It’s a difficult line to tread. As a teacher, you have to foster and actively encourage disagreement. The students who have the courage to disagree in the face of strong opposition are the most valuable that you have. But leave your own political convictions at home. Make YouTube videos or write articles for the popular press if that makes you feel better.

If you really want to make a difference, run for office. That’s what Plato would have advised.

 

Francisco asked:

I am interested in philosophy because I want to become a better critical thinker, which hopefully will result in me becoming a better debater. I want to beat others in arguments. What do you suggest I do to achieve this goal?

Answer by Gideon Smith-Jones

If you just want to beat others in arguments, being a better critical thinker isn’t too important. Far more useful would be a willingness to keep on arguing until you opponent gives up or backs down — or collapses from exhaustion — coupled the implicit belief that you are never wrong.

As a first step towards this goal, I would recommend that you take a course of assertiveness training. You need to give your ego a bit of a boost. Don’t let the bullies with more knowledge or higher IQs get you down. You can work on your voice, too. Lower the register a bit (it’s more manly) practice your auditorium filling, parliament filling ‘boom’.

Are you married, Francisco? The experience of many, or possibly even most husbands is that they regularly lose arguments with their wives. If this happens to you on a regular basis, you need to learn how to do so gracefully. It would be better in the long run. There’s a lesson to be learned there, on more than one level.

For the philosopher, there is one, and only one reason for wanting to win an argument: you want to establish the truth. The desire to win arguments when the truth is not on your side is the mark of a sophist. If you are wrong in your beliefs, then as a philosopher you should want to be proved wrong — as Socrates says on more than one occasion. When you prove to someone that they are wrong, you are benefitting them. When they prove that you are wrong they are benefitting you.

John Stuart Mill, in his brilliant defence of the liberty of thought and discussion in his book On Liberty (1859) describes truth as the outcome of a ‘contest of opinions’. Think of debate in those terms, rather than a contest between persons. When, as a result of a healthy contest of opinions, the truth wins out, we all — ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ — have reason to celebrate.

 

Kamyar asked:

I have two questions if it’s all right.

First of all, I want to know do humans really need god and in a bigger sense absolute faith in something other than the physical world (let’s call it religious beliefs).

And if we indeed need it, will there ever be a time that we can truly be free of every form of religion and religious beliefs?

Answer by Gideon Smith-Jones

Kamyar, first of all I want to say that it is brave of you to give your location as Teheran, Iran. You must know that Iran is one of the countries where ‘apostasy’, i.e. atheism, is punishable by death according to the Iranian state’s enforcement of religious law.

You must also know (unless you are very naive) that right now in Iran there are persons who spend their working days in darkened rooms in front of computer monitors, whose only job is to scour the internet for evidence of any Iranian national who expresses his or her belief in atheism. Iranian bloggers have been arrested, beaten up, subject to kangaroo ‘religious’ courts.

From my own experience, I know that there are many Iranians, both those of faith and those without faith, who are devoted to the pursuit of truth. In Iran, they keep a low profile. Whatever passes as study of ‘philosophy’ in Iranian universities is something that has no place in any genuine philosophical tradition.

Would we be better off getting rid of religion?

Karl Marx, looking forward to a time when religion would no longer be needed described religion as the ‘heart in a heartless world.’ Things are still so bad for so many people that I would not take away the comforts of religion from them, even though it is a false comfort.

The sad fact is that human beings are weak. Those of us who reject religion are tempted make a god out of something else. Even materialism, or science, have an innate tendency to be deified, so I would not even consider ‘faith in a physical world’ as free of the taint of religion.

That said, I believe that the time will come when gods are no longer needed, when human beings accept their finitude and the inevitability of death without recourse to fantastical fairy tales about punishment and reward, ‘holy’ texts whether of science or religion, obsessive-compulsive ritual — and judicial murder.

 

Books by Geoffrey Klempner

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