Interview with A. C. Grayling

A.C. Grayling is a marvellous gentleman. He put aside an entire afternoon to answer my then undergrad-level philosophy questions, and to explain his thoughts on the life, the universe and everything. We met in the charming Groucho Club in London, (I actually bumped into Noel Fielding of The Mighty Boosh fame in the entrance hall) which was a fantastic venue, were it not for the fact that as soon as I hit record on my iPhone – and I did record it all on my iPhone – construction workers started using a pneumatic drill right outside the window. Even the soothing timbre of Grayling’s voice did little to assuage the ear damage I sustained during the prolonged transcription process.

I give you, the philosopher-sage A.C. Grayling:


The universe can be a difficult and confusing place. How are we to find direction or purpose?

The direction and purpose of individual lives are a function of the work that an individual puts into creating them. When people ask “What is the meaning of life?”, the answer is that it’s the meaning you impose on it. It’s the aim you set for yourself. There are many different kinds of good lives, and many kinds of valid meaning in life — as many as there are talents for living them. We’ve all got different such talents.

The challenge we’re offered is as old as Socrates and probably older. Socrates said that the “considered life”, in effect meaning the “chosen life”, is the good life — always of course, under the government of principles that stop you from harming other people or preventing them from being able to form a good life for themselves.

So the idea is that we have to think about what we want to achieve, why we want to achieve it, what our capabilities are for achieving it, what we value — and then the pursuit of those values is what makes our lives good to live.

And personally? What gets you out of bed in the morning? What drives you, what inspires you?

Lots of things! I’ve always wanted to try to understand this world of ours and the human predicament: how best to live, how to form good relationships – for these lie at the heart of good lives — especially friendships and affectionate relationships. The business of thinking philosophically also involves reflecting on literature and the other narrative arts, which can tell us so much about human experience, helping us to reflect on our own experiences and our efforts to create something of value from it. We’re all equipped with an ability to create value. In my case the effort is made through teaching and writing, trying to make a difference to if possible by taking part in the conversation that humanity has with itself about what matters.

So that’s what gets me up in the morning, because there’s a lot to be done! There are a lot of problems in the world, and one would like to try to be involved in understanding them and to making some contribution, however small, to solving them.

A change of tack now, from the philosophical to the political. France is currently considering banning the burqa. Do you consider such an act justified, and would you support the UK doing likewise?

First it’s important to note that what is meant by “banning the burqa” is that any French citizen who accesses public provisions of the French state, such as education or welfare, is required to do so as a French citizen, rather than as a member of one or another self-selected identity group such as constitutes a religion. I don’t think France is asking anybody not to wear their religious symbols or their religious dress in their own private time. What it’s saying is, if you want to access public provision in some way, don’t come disguised, masked, or wearing any major religious symbol, which seems to give the message that you’re demanding you be treated differently. So in principle I’m very much with Laïcité, the idea of having a neutral, equal public domain, where you’re not going to listen to attempts by people to say, “look, I’m wearing a big crucifix” or, “look I’m covering my head” so, “you’ve got to treat me differently.”

I think the same should be true here. We’ve already had some similar difficulties about a woman wanting to wear a full veil while serving as a primary school teacher. Or people wearing visible crucifixes while providing a public service, or refusing to help gay people in an adoption agency because of their religious principles. The same principle applies in all these cases. Public provision is equal to all, and so one shouldn’t try to distort the relationships in the public sphere by means of these major assertions of religious identity.

Religious believers have been known to accuse those of a scientific mindset of “unweaving the rainbow”. That is, taking the mystery and wonder out of the universe and replacing it with a set of dry mathematical or logical laws. How might you respond to such a critic?

Usually people who say that are quite ignorant of what’s involved in scientific research and of the wonder, the beauty, the amazement that comes out of encountering things in the exploration of nature through science. Such a person must obviously never have had the experience of solving a problem in mathematics or logic and realising how beautiful those rational structures are.

Also, it’s a silly and rather shallow view, because someone might be a technical geologist or physicist during the working day, and in the evening hugely enjoy music or writing poetry and reading it to his beloved, and the like. It’s a rather trivialising view that completely misunderstands the richness and complexity of human responses, probably all the richer in very intelligent people, people of the kind of intelligence that can do science seriously.

If you were the Prime Minister of the UK, what actions would you take in order to defend against Islamic extremism and to increase social integration?

First, I’d get rid of faith-based schools. I’d make it a requirement that if people want to bring their children up in a faith-dominated environment that (a) it should be at their own expense and remain a private matter, and that (b), it should be open to inspection. But it should also be the case that religious instruction be removed from our publicly-funded schools because it’s very distorting, divisive, and could lead, eventually, in a small number of cases, to people becoming extremists if they follow the logic of what their faith requires of them … although If everybody followed the logic of what their faith requires of them, they would all become extremists.

Without an objective moral arbiter, how can we make meaningful moral judgements, and furthermore, how can we justify them?

It is actually very easy to identify and to act upon the moral baselines. Moral baselines derive from our understanding of what it is to be human and what human beings need to flourish. For example, at a minimum people need food, they need somewhere comfortable, dry and warm to be, they need friendship, they need opportunities to use their intelligence, because we’re a highly intelligent species. People need opportunities to develop, they need time to rest and benefit from the creativity of leisure, they need safety, and they need social bonds.

We know all these things, and if you look at human rights instruments like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, what they say is what the minimum requirements are for opening a space around individuals, so that they can use their abilities to do things that are good and satisfying for them.

So this very basic understanding of what it is to be human, along with what we dislike, what we want to avoid, what we need, what we benefit from, tells us something about what our obligations are to other people. It tells us how we should respond to them, and on the basis of that, how to deal with more complicated and sophisticated matters, including recognising that other people have interests and needs that we may not share, understand or even like – while recognising that they have a right to them.

That’s where the hard work of being tolerant towards other people comes in. We all think we’re tolerant, but that’s because we usually don’t really mind what others are doing. It’s when we do mind and yet we’ve got to let other people have their margin to be their own way, that we know what’s needed to be tolerant. So we have to start with our most sympathetic understanding of human nature and the human condition, and work from that to a livable system.

On a completely different tack, do you think there is a place for the circumcision of male infants in the 21st century?

No. There are arguments regarding AIDS and HIV, and about how much more hygienic it is, and how much women prefer the look of it, and all that kind of thing — but it is a form of mutilation. The practice started in religious myth, which is hardly a good reason for continuing to do it in the 21st century.

It does seem to be true that there is less HIV transmission, reduced risk of genital warts, cervical cancer and such. But what this suggests is that men need to wash more carefully and more often.

And in areas where hygiene is very difficult to maintain at high levels? Is there no case that could be made for it as a preventative measure?

Well, with consenting adults, and in circumstances where there is no alternative to it as a prophylactic against the transmission of STDs, then of course there might be a reluctant case for it. This is an example of saying, in general terms, any form of mutilation would have to be extremely well justified by powerful case by case arguments. Would one similarly argue a case for chopping off someone’s willy altogether if he were an absolute sexual maniac, say? Generally speaking, circumcising infant boys because it’s a fashion, because it’s a tradition, is not acceptable.

We’re in complete agreement there.

Now, what do you think can account for the multiplicity of independent and separate religions around the globe?

One reason has to be their falsity – that they’re all spurious, man-made inheritances – derived from humanity’s very earliest attempts to make sense of the world. I think that it matters tremendously that people recognise the plurality of religions as being an instance of evolution, and another indicator of support for the general presence of evolutionary tendencies socially and ideologically as well as biologically.

What we now call religion wasn’t always ‘religion’ among our earliest ancestors. It was proto-science and proto-technology. It consisted in attempts to impose some kind of explanatory framework on things. To ascribe agency to the clouds, the lightning, the wind is just a projection of our own felt capacity as agents too push things and throw things, to make things happen. So, people might have thought that the thunder was some great being walking on the clouds, that wind was a great invisible being puffing its cheeks and blowing. And as our knowledge grew and as our understanding of nature increased, so these agencies ceased to be part of the natural world, and beliefs about them ceased to be attempts at naturalistic explanation.

And therefore they receded over the horizon, and then upwards: first, to the tops of mountains, then up into the sky, and now the gods are outside space and time altogether. So the further our knowledge advances, the further away these beings go. They’re now in the realm of ineffability. Theologians now tell us we can’t understand them at all, but up to a few thousand years ago they were a part of nature. They weren’t religion. Attempts to appease them, make sacrifices to them, talk to them, a belief that you were making contact with them when you were drunk, or epileptic or after eating psychedelic mushrooms, probably suggests that our ancestors thought we could communicate with them: ask them to send us rain or keep the floods or disease away, cure our diseases, and so on.

The technology side of these early beliefs thus involved attempts to interact with those agencies to influence their behaviour. This became ritual, tradition and taboo. You can see how priesthoods, specialists in dealing with the gods, would want to hang on to their privileges and power. You can see how the temporal authorities would find it extremely useful that the ecclesiastical powers could help them to govern the people.

There’s nothing more powerful than persuading your subjects that there’s an invisible policeman who watches everything you do, all the time, even in the dark when you’re on your own.

It keeps control of people and so it evolves into a very useful tool.

It’s interesting to note that the major religions of the world today: Christianity, Judaism, Islam, even to some extent Hinduism, were modified from these early semi-naturalistic views at a time when political and social structures were monarchical: kingly and hierarchical. So all their gods are modeled on the idea of kings. They’re rulers who give orders, and who punish and execute. That’s exactly what the God of the Old Testament is – a tyrannical, kingly figure. Yet these religions are very young religions, only two or three thousand years old. For tens of thousands of years before that, what we had was quasi-naturalistic efforts to explain the world. Not really religion at all, but early science.

Daniel Dennett talks about it in terms of memetics, but why do you think religion has hung around so long?

It’s partly because humanity is in a very, very early stage in its history. We tend to think that we’re at the end of a long process but we’re not actually, we’re in a very early stage. But religions become institutionalised and get reinforced by society. You only have to look at something like the time, effort and money that has gone into building cathedrals and mosques and the like to see how deeply institutionalised religion really is in society. This is why a child will believe in God, the Tooth Fairy and Father Christmas until about the age of ten, then give up the tooth fairy and Father Christmas, but keep the deity. After that time, that’s when society reinforces it in the form of adults who take the idea of a deity very seriously.

If it weren’t for, in effect, proselytising and brainwashing children in early life, religion would vanish. That is the one major thing that keeps it going. Most children lose it for a while though, during the teenage years when hormones and sex make it rather inconvenient to be religious.

But then later something will happen: failure, grief at a parent dying or divorce, their first child born – a “miraculous” experience – and they go back to these beliefs for a time.

Most religious people don’t really think about their beliefs though. They don’t really believe them either. It’s a kind of con-trick they perform on themselves. What they want to do is believe that they believe. They would like it to be true, so they just act as if it were.

It’s a much more optimistic approach than that of, say, Christopher Hitchens, who reckons that the religious impulse just can’t be rid of. But you say there is hope for humanity? We can be rid of all superstitious thought?

I’m not sure about superstitions because, in just the same way as someone splats a Rorschach pattern and we see images in the shape, like someone’s face or an event simply because we are narrative seeking creatures. We impose interpretation on things.

Further, we’re very naturally credulous, which is a great evolutionary advantage for very small children who believe everything they’re told. Ghost stories and alien abduction stories, urban myths and conspiracy theories, we Hoover them up with enthusiasm. We love that kind of thing because they’re stories that are easy to understand and which provide alternatives to the dreary truth.

We really have a natural propensity for this, but if we didn’t feed that propensity during childhood, especially with all the gravity and seriousness of grown-up, religious behaviour it might not be so bad. It makes children think, “Well, it’s got to be true because the grown-ups take it so seriously.” If we didn’t do that, it would have a very, very loose grip. If I come to you in adulthood and present you with a story that a three-wheeled car plummeted from the sky, hit the ground and immediately dispersed into its component molecules, or made up some even more incredible and ridiculous story, you would laugh it out of court. But if I told you when you were very young and said, “This is really true and really important, and you’re in serious trouble if you stop believing it or ever turn your back on this” and I frighten you with it, then you’d accept it. It would be a powerful reinforcement.

If we consider humanism to be a good grounding for law and ethics, what is to stop it being corrupted by the same kinds of people that corrupt everything else? What makes humanism better?

Because it’s not premised on the idea that there is an orthodoxy, that there is one right way of doing things, that some humanists know better than others about what the truth is or how to understand “the great founding texts of humanism”. There’s no “Arch-Humanist”, no bishops of humanism. The point about it is that it is nothing more than a premise. The premise is: our ethics must be derived from our best and most sympathetic understanding of human nature and the human condition, that there’s plenty of room for discussion and negotiation, that we must move with the needs of society and be responsive to what happens in history. Of its very nature it’s about discussion, thinking, reflection, argument, being tolerant of other people’s points of view. It’s not about observing an orthodoxy. It’s not about obeying. It’s not about the submission of your will to the deity. It doesn’t tell you that you’re proud, and therefore in danger of hellfire if you think for yourself. It’s a very different mindset, a different way of thinking about everything.

If we are to agree that the mind is the brain, then it must be held in accordance with deterministic physical laws. Where, then, is free will?

The free will question is by far the hardest question in metaphysics. All the evidence that is coming out of brain science, neurology and neuro-psychology at the moment tends to push us in the direction of thinking that as a part of the natural world, the brain and what it secretes, that is, consciousness, thought, memory and so on, must be subject to deterministic causal laws. We look as though we’re headed in the determinism direction rather than the free-will direction.

There are several things to think about here. Firstly, we shouldn’t be too simplistic with the problem, to think that what we call the mind is the same as a set of physical events in some structure in the brain, pure and simple.

Identity theory is too simple, and for the following reason. Mental properties are properties of properties. They’re not properties immediately of the brain. They’re outputs of very complex interactions of the brain. The parallel would be to say that the property of a motorcar of being able to be driven from London to Brighton is a property of the combination of the parts of the motorcar. You couldn’t dissemble a motorcar and then expect it to drive to Brighton. It’s got to be organised in the right way, everything has to be in the right relationship so that is can have the property of being able to drive to Brighton. So conscious and mental phenomena are high-level properties, which arise from the relationship of the low-level properties.

Secondly, remember that the mind is not just what the brain does. The mind is also the relationship with other minds and with the environment. Meaning is the relationship between something that you know and things out there in the world to which these things refer and of which they can be true and so on. In the same way, your mind, your experience, your consciousness are only really understandable with regards to the relationship between your mind and the physical and social environment through which you move throughout your life. It’s as if the mind were somehow connected with the outside world. The activity of the brain is responding to information from the outside world, information which is both natural, like light and sound, but also social, like the significance of the noises and marks produced by other people. So when we think about ‘mind’, we’re thinking about something, a full description of which would have to contain more than a description about brain events alone.

Now, what that says about free will, one can’t yet work out. It doesn’t say anything one way or the other. So we have to set against it the following thought: That if there is no such thing as free will, if everything that we do is written into the early history of the universe and is simply an outcome of all the causal occurrences that connect us with 13 billion years ago, then all our thinking about human nature, morality and human life is massively and systematically wrong. It seems very odd when we consider that, that we live with this completely unfounded error theory about other people’s behaviour, their intentions, their choices, how to relate to them, how to predict them, what their character is, we’re just completely wrong about it because they are just, in fact, automata. We think of ourselves and others as agents, but we wouldn’t be, we’d be patients of the causal process.

It’s very hard to accept that as true. It might be true. If science settles that it’s true then we’ve got to accept it. We’d have to think again about reward and punishment, praise and blame, the idea of choice, the idea of changing ourselves through reflection. It’s all just accident, just chemistry.

So as we currently understand the mind/body free-will problem, would you call yourself a compatibilist?

I think I’m some kind of compatibilist, yes. My own temptation is to think that there is more to this than it seems. Imagine this: there are two people standing at the side of a field. The first person, a physicist, describes the set of events on the field in terms of bodies of a certain mass, velocity, the principles of mechanics, emissions of radiation and so on. The second person, a sociologist, describes the same set of events as a rugby match. In the vocabulary of the sociologist there will be explanatory concepts of a try, a penalty, a fly-half. There won’t be any such concepts in the language of physics. But in the language of sociology there are no such concepts of velocity and radiation. They don’t have a role there.

Accordingly, the vocabulary of brain science and the vocabulary of intentionalistic “folk psychology” are two quite different vocabularies that address two quite different phenomena, and with respect to which we have very different interests. And what we want is to make everything simple, we have a very good, well rounded desire to effect a reduction of a psychological explanation to a physiological or neurological explanation. It’s a sound and scientific impulse. But that doesn’t mean that we won’t find out that high level properties of brain activity are such that different aspects of our conscious life interact with one another in certain ways, as for example, you might have an impulse to bash somebody in the face, but you control yourself. You deliberately think, “I’m not going to do that”, I’m going to control myself. So there was a point when you could genuinely have done either of those two things. If the proposition “Peter could have done A but chose to do B” is literally true in a way that makes the use of the concept “choice” irreducible. If such a proposition could be true then we have free will.

In your view, and, given human nature, what might Eutopia look like?

It would be a place where people are given the maximum opportunity to explore different ways of living and relating, but without harming other people or causing them distress or getting in the way of their lives. A sort of John Stuart Mill paradise. But that does seem to be a bit unrealistic given human nature! As it is, human nature is full of greed and selfishness and so on, making it very difficult. It seems to me that if we had the right resources and the right teachers that we could really make education work. To get children to think and to really see why they shouldn’t harm others, and why it is important that they have freedom, and how to enjoy it responsibly. Given the flaws we have, Mill’s view might be the best we can achieve.

And if we could transcend the merely human with the aid of science and technology, what sort of trans-humanism can you foresee?

It looks as though we’ve evolved contradictory sets of capacities. On the one hand, we have the capacities to be very empathetic and concerned about other individuals, even if we don’t know them. To shout, “Look out!” if we see they are in danger. On the other hand we have things that are purely self-regarding, non-altruistic, greedy and aggressive, that may make us respond with anger. We elect people into out-groups and de-humanise them and so on. What one would hope is, since any journey has to start from here, any trans-human reality that eventuates is going to have to be a down-playing of the negative and the aggressive, hostile and divisive aspects and a promotion of the more empathetic and positive emotions. One can imagine a situation where people have a greater propensity to be tolerant, generous and kind towards other people and a lessened propensity to be aggressive and to place people into out-groups, without at the same time everything collapsing into a kind of pink, fluffy nursery where there’s no edge, criticism or discussion. Ideally like a philosophical discussion between friends, unlike in a seminar with people showing off and trying do someone else down.

I’ve experienced my fair share of that.  

Now, what question do you wish you were asked more often, and why?

That’s a tough one. I must preface this admittedly unsatisfactory answer by saying that these “beauty contest questions” like “who is the greatest philosopher”; “what is the most important thing to know”; “what question do you wish you were asked more often” really force me to pick from a range of all of the things I know. All I can really say is what subjects I like to talk about, so that I can try and articulate an answer that I’ve spent some time thinking about.

I like to talk about why the arts matter to human life. We all take them for granted, we all produce pieties about them, we’re all meant to be in favour of them, but there are deep reasons why humans have always told themselves stories and drawn pictures and enacted things. They’re part of the continuing education of our sensibilities, which is terribly important. If someone were to ask me where the best philosophy is to be found, I would say: in literature, in novels, in plays. That’s where we really get an opportunity to explore something which is real, and makes a difference to people’s lives.

So, whilst I’m asking these broad, sweeping questions, would you care to name some of the novels that you consider to contain the greatest philosophy to be found?

Yes, I could certainly. One thing I think that is distinctive about literature with a capital L and a golden glow, as opposed to railway station paperback thrillers, is that they do strike us as having an insight into the human condition from which we can learn. Not that I’m saying that it is a criterion of literature that it should be educative – god forbid it. Literature is many things, including the beauty of the prose and so on.

Let me give you some examples. Everybody knows Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austin. Among all of its other virtues, including its wit, the beauty of its prose, the sense of irony in it, and the wonderful perception of human variety… that novel is about moral epistemology. It’s about characters misreading one another and having to rethink the judgments that they should properly make about one another. So Elizabeth Bennet and Darcy misunderstand one another, and through the events of the novel they recalibrate their understanding. It always amuses me that Elizabeth finally understands Darcy when she sees his big house. In the end, they get one another as a reward for having re-learnt something quite painful to them about how they judge other people.

A much more powerful example would be in the series of fictions written by Dostoevsky round about the 1850s, starting with Notes From Underground, going on to Crime and Punishment and then, later, The Idiot. What’s interesting is that if you read Dostoevsky’s letters of correspondence at the time, we see he was trying to do something with those novels. In Notes From the Underground he was writing about someone who’s so abased, so degraded, so humbled that when he was walking home after being humiliated at that party he sees all these old, toothless ex-prostitutes sitting at the side of the road and he feels a kind of compassion or love for them, because he feels worse than they are. This is Dostoevsky’s attempt to try and explain what it would be like to have true Christ-like compassion for other people. Of course, it’s because he’s got a religious agenda going on.

In Crime and Punishment he wrote about a man, Raskolnikov, who commits murder because he wants to see if he can do it, and then live with having done it. He finds that he can’t, but is it because he’s being confronted with the true horror of a moral crime? Or is it just because he is weak? So he’s in the dilemma and he can’t work it out. When he finished the novel, Dostoevsky wrote to his niece and said that he was going to try and write about someone who had plumbed the depths like Raskolnikov, but come back to a position of virtue.  He found that he just couldn’t write it.

So he just left the position of absolute virtue to the character of Prince Myshkin, trying to explore in this fictional context how it would be possible for such a character to be. I suppose the closest thing we can think of is Peter Seller’s character in the film Being There, which is again about this Christ-like figure who is weirdly detached from the world around him, and yet, strikes people with his simple wisdom.

Now Myshkin doesn’t actually do that: what he does in The Idiot is fail, because an entirely good person can’t survive in this world. It’s an analogue of the Grand Inquisitor in The Brothers Karamazov saying that if Jesus Christ were to come back now he’d be thrown straight into prison for being disruptive.

Now there’s an example of a real effort being made through fiction, through the medium of a novel, to grapple with very fundamental moral questions, admittedly from a certain point of view, a 19th century, superstitious point of view, but it’s a very good example of it.

Better examples might be found in Thomas Mann in, say, The Magic Mountain, which is all philosophical discussion. There are so many good examples, but those are some favourites.

Should there be a legal right to end one’s own life, or seek the assistance of another in doing so? Should Britain change the law?

Yes, it should. There’s no question about it. We’re thinking specifically about people who are condemned to interminable suffering, or suffering that can only be terminated by death, mainly those with incurable diseases or terminal illnesses. If you think about being old and being diseased with no hope of recovery, but able to linger on and on and on with medical help, being incontinent, having to be cleaned up all the time by nurses, but offered an alternative. Either you go on like this, progressively being more and more drugged until you can’t even interact with your family, or you could choose to die at a time and in a manner of your own election.

Do you worry about a subtle pressure on the elderly? A sort of suggestion that they could just get out of the way? That seems to be the only contra-argument that carries any weight.

That is an argument, and it does carry weight. The truth is, however, that families keep people alive who don’t want to stay alive, by saying, “Oh daddy don’t die. We love you, what are we going to do without you?” So 99 percent of the pressure comes from the other direction. But it is certainly true that there will be cases where elderly people will be subtly coerced to choose early assisted death by family members. The fact that is possible, the fact that something may be abused, is not a good enough reason for continuing the suffering of tens of thousands of people because we’re too squeamish to do anything about it.

I sometimes tell a related story that makes me ashamed. We had some pet hamsters when my children were very young, and a very typical thing that happens to hamsters is that they get inverted intestines, whereby their intestines come out of them because of the diet we give them. And when that happens, they die. If they are not put down they die in a very slow and painful manner. So this happened to one of our hamsters, and I rang a friend who was a vet and asked what I should do. She said to take the hamster and just twist its neck sharply and kill it. I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. She said in that case I should put it inside a plastic bag, put it under the wheel of your car and drive over it. I told her I was sorry, but I just couldn’t bring myself to do that to a living creature. I cannot do it. She gave me all sorts of other suggestions of how to kill it, but in the end it died as a result of what had happened to it, and not as a result of us helping it to die quickly as possible to release it from its suffering. To this day I feel ashamed: that my squeamishness prolonged the suffering of a little thing like that.

That’s what happens in our society. There are people in the most awful situations. Whilst pain can be controlled to a large extent, it’s the indignity of it, having to worry about choking to death and so on. People want to make their own choices about their own life and death. Suicide used to be regarded in the Roman era as ‘the last great freedom’. The fact that you could commit suicide and that it was a real possibility for people to do it really made them powerful, because it made them free. In the end, no-one other than themselves could make a final decision about how they felt on the matter.

First published February 22 2010 at freethinker.co.uk

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