Professor Anthony Clifford “A.C.” Grayling is a philosopher and founder and first Master of the New College of the Humanities, an independent college in London. He is the author of over 30 books on philosophy. His main interests lie in metaphysics and philosophical logic and he is often associated with the new atheist movement. He also sits on the board for a number of academic journals and is a regular judge of the Man Booker prize.
We’ve become cleverer because we’ve developed the spear into the guided missile, but no wiser because we’re still fighting wars.
On becoming interested in philosophy
I became interested in philosophy very, very early on; when I was a kid we had a set of encyclopedia at home and nothing else because I lived in the middle of Africa. So I used to page through, see these wonderful pictures of bearded ancients and names – Aristotle, Socrates – and I was very, very curious about them. When I was 12 I finally got my reading ticket to the grown-up library and one of the first things I saw in there was the complete dialogues of Plato translated by Benjamin Jowett, and that’s the translation that leaves out all of the sexy bits.
And I took down the first volume, and the very first dialogue that I opened and read was called the Carmedes. Now it happens that the early dialogues of Plato are very accessible, very simple, and to my twelve year old self they were a wonderful revelation. I thought if these great figures from the past devoted their lives to asking questions about knowledge and trust and goodness and beauty I want to do the same.
On the similarity between science and philosophy
There are not in fact in the, as it were, the origin of the impulse to inquire and to find out, to make sense or understand, very many differences between philosophy and science. In one way you could say that science was born from philosophy or that philosophy was born from science, because in the very early days of both enquiries, no distinction was made between them. If you look at the history of modern times, that is from the 16th/17th century onwards, what you notice is philosophers, natural philosophers, those who were interested in the nature of the physical universe, had begun to formulate questions and find ways of answering them that were really productive, in particular by the quantitative techniques, by the application of mathematics.
And so the natural sciences were, as it were, born out of the philosophical enterprise, which is fundamentally an enterprise of reflective enquiry, trying to make sense of things, trying to understand. The same is true, by the way, of social sciences. Psychology in the 18th century, empirical linguistics and sociology in the 19th century, cognitive science and aspects of artificial intelligence in the 20th century, and so it’s gone on. Because the thing about philosophy is that it’s an attempt to try and cast a bit of light across that border of darkness which is our ignorance. And the minute that it does that, the minute that some shape is caught out there, the opportunity offers for a much more systematic approach of the scientific kind.
On the clashes of science and philosophy
You sometimes get scientists being very irritated with philosophers and you get a few philosophers …I think rather misguided ones who in the hope of trying to protect their little patch, I suppose, of the academic corner, want to see a difference between philosophy and science, or generate a claim that they occupy different fields of enquiry. The clashes arise from misperceptions on the part of science about some aspects of philosophy, in particular what’s sometimes called continental philosophy, where post modernism has really had too much of an inroad into the way that people think. It’s too relativistic, it’s too much a play with words, it’s lost in a way any real connection with this original impulse for philosophy, which is the attempt to understand. But there is a great deal of work in philosophy, a great deal of very solid, good work in philosophy in the theory of knowledge and philosophical logic, in the science of reasoning, for example, which draws on science and is heavily dependent on it and has something to offer it. But, in particular, and this is a hugely important matter, Theodor Adorno, a continental philosopher, made a very good remark, he said we as a species, the human species, have become much cleverer over time but we’ve become no wiser. We’ve become cleverer because we’ve developed the spear into the guided missile, but no wiser because we’re still fighting wars. So there is a kind of urgency that attaches to reflection on the fact that scientific understanding, the mastery of nature, our understanding of the structure and properties of matter has been an immensely consequential thing, it’s transformed our world and the way that we live and engage with the world, but we still misapply some of that understanding. Weapons of mass destruction, for one salient example.
To the philosophical task of trying to make ethical and social and political sense of ourselves. The philosophical task of thinking through how we are going to make use of our knowledge. We don’t ever, ever want to stop enquiry or to stop development, but how we manage it and how we try and pick the best fruits of it, that’s something which everybody, not just people who are teaching philosophy in universities, scientists themselves, everybody, society at large, has to get involved in the conversation and that conversation is a philosophical one.
On teaching critical thinking
One of the key things in education is to separate out a little bit several of the different things that an education should be for. One is of course training in the basics, learning how to do your multiplication tables, learning how to spell, read and write, obviously you can’t get anywhere else unless you can do those things. There is what you might call schooling, we’ve got to give people the basics of science and of history and of geography, you know, some of the things that pass for facts. Then on top of that we need to educate, and that’s a different matter. That’s challenging people really to think, ask questions, not to take things on trust, always to look for the evidence, always to look for the arguments, that kind of healthy scepticism which says how do we know that and why do we think that and what assumptions are people making. In fact, that’s another thing about the philosophic enterprise, which is that it should be par excellence, the enterprise that challenges assumptions, it looks at the framework of concepts that we use through which we look at the world and which therefore shapes and colours the way the world seems to us and being very self reflexive about that, you know, being aware of the fact that we’re using concepts, that we’re using words, that we’re using inherited and sometimes conventional frameworks of thinking, is very important. So being critical, being really switched on, being really alert and attentive is a key skill that education should impart. It’s been very well said that education is what you’ve still got when you’ve forgotten everything you learned at school, so it would be that skill in particular.
It’s all the more necessary now because we live at a time where the rate of change is increasing, the rate of change in everything, in technology, in techniques, in indeed the way the world itself is organised and relates to itself. Think about people in education today: in the next 40, 50, 60 years they’re going to be encountering things that aren’t imaginable now because they haven’t been invented. So to try to train people now for something they’ll be doing in 30 years’ time is mistaken. What we should be doing is equipping them with the ability to keep on learning, keep on thinking, keep on being imaginative, keep on wanting to be challenged, never to settle down with some, you know, conventional ways of doing things and thinking about things but always ready to change because, you know, if you don’t change, you die.
On overlapping science and religion
It seemed a very attractive idea to some people, Stephen Jay Gould is one of them, to think of science and religion as what he would call non-overlapping magisteria, so two completely disjoined fields of enquiry and feeling and attitude and approach. I just don’t think this washes at all, I mean, all you have to do is to look at the documents of all the major world religions and they offer us accounts of the origin and nature of the universe, origin and destiny of man, a whole raft of claims about suspension of natural laws and the production of miracles, a way of thinking about the world, a way of making sense and account of its nature which is completely and systematically at odds with science. So the idea that there are non-overlapping magisteria is, as it seems to me, a rather feeble attempt to, in a way, protect one, that’s religion, from the encroachments of science. This endeavour to protect religion from enquiry, including for example psychological enquiry, enquiry into why it is that people believe, and there are very obvious reasons why; when we’re all children we rely on the authority of parent figures and later on in life we still yearn for the security and safety that a kind of archetypal father figure might give us, so there was one of many, many different little pixels of explanation of why it is that people cling to religious ways of thinking about things.
But naturally, someone who is committed to a religion doesn’t like that sort of reductive approach…reductive account of why they might believe and so they try to defend religion against the approaches of natural and social science. But there are competitors over a great terrain of explanation of our world and all one has to say to somebody is look, run a test, try and light and heat your house by prayer or try and connect it to an energy supply and see whether that works better and then you’ll get a sense of the difference.