Harmful Beliefs

The Top Ten
Most Harmful Beliefs

For the past few years as part of its annual fundraising efforts, the Skeptics Society led by Michael Shermer has used little fold over mailer booklets with Top Ten lists. This year the focus is on Shermer’s list of “the strangest beliefs I’ve come across in my quarter century as a professional skeptic” with the addenda that the beliefs be not only wrong but have a wide impact on society. Go here.

J. L. Austin


J. L. Austin‘s book How To Do Things With Words was very influential in my philosophical training. I was attracted to his careful analysis of how ordinary people USE the language, and the resultant sophisticated analysis of traditional philosophical problems through the lens of ordinary language. He would take some large problem, like the problem of reality, and then adduce the many ways we really use the word “real” in real life. He points to the pairs we use in discriminating real from non-real: false teeth; imaginary friends; counterfeit money; forged paintings; artificial limbs – and in doing so reduces the force of the traditional “but is it real?” query by showing that we have years of language usage that sorts out most of these kinds of problems.

I remember when I first picked up his Sense and Sensibilia I was convinced that he had titled it so it would be confused with J. Austen’s Sense and Sensibility. But although his book is novel it is no novel. In S&S Austin takes on A. J. Ayer and other sense data philosophers. Ayer, says Austin, starts by suggesting that the ordinary person in the street, when asked if she saw physical objects or sense data, would say “physical objects”. Austin reckons that Ayer has not really talked to anyone in the street who would answer that way! The point is that “physical objects” is already a technical term in some theory. People see trees, cats, breadboxes, shoes, rain, clouds, fog, but not physical objects. Check out Austin’s Putt!

I often run into someone claiming that “the inherent meaning” of X is such and such. I think that “inherent meaning” is like “physical objects” – it imports a theory without explaining the theory: a philosophical sleight of hand.

J. L. Austin was an important defender of common sense. His philosophical career was interrupted by the Second World War, during which he undertook intelligence work. He was honoured for this work with an Order of the British Empire, the French Croix de Guerre, and the US Officer of the Legion of Merit. It has been said that “he more than anybody was responsible for the life-saving accuracy of the D-Day intelligence”. He returned to academic philosophy with the hope that philosophers might work together on the collection and analysis of common-sense judgements and that, in so doing, they would make the sorts of progress that had been made by collective wartime intelligence operations. His central insight was that philosophical objections to common sense are often based on mistaken views about its content and commitments.  – Source.

Sunday Sermon on Tuesday – The Stoic Path – R. McNeil

A “sermon” in the broadest sense is a discourse on morality. And by morality I mean the rules of engagement in life – in other words the manual for living rightly (as opposed to wrongly). The incentive for living rightly – the carrot for following the rules in the manual – will of course be some sort of reward – heaven. The disincentive for disregarding the manual – living wrongly – will take the form of sort of punishment – hell. Virtue and vice represent the choices we face in approaching the rules. Virtue (following the rules) leads to heaven; and vice (disregarding the rules) leads to hell.

That’s also Stoicism in a nutshell. Follow the rules or suffer the consequences. Easy!

 Well it’s easy I suppose if the rules can be found between the pages of an anointed Holy Book (and we believe in the “divine” character of those rules), and if we accept the premise that all this rule following really does have a pay day, and if we have faith that the threat of some serious hell-time is more-or-less guaranteed for not sticking with this morality program. But what are the rules, and what is heaven, and where is hell?
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