Simon Blackburn suffers from mood affiliation

Via Ross Douthat, here is the close of Blackburn’s review of the new Thomas Nagel book:

There is charm to reading a philosopher who confesses to finding things bewildering. But I regret the appearance of this book. It will only bring comfort to creationists and fans of “intelligent design”, who will not be too bothered about the difference between their divine architect and Nagel’s natural providence. It will give ammunition to those triumphalist scientists who pronounce that philosophy is best pensioned off. If there were a philosophical Vatican, the book would be a good candidate for going on to the Index.

The Nagel book continues to go up in my eyes.


That's what I said after Stephen A Smith and Bill Plaschke hated on the D'Antoni hire, "The D'Antoni continues to go up in my eyes." But then Skip Bayless approved the hire and I completely lost my bearings.

I once agreed with Skip Bayless on something. Shook me to my core.

From the review: "Given enough ocean and enough time, perhaps the proposition that there was an improbable sequence of events itself becomes probable. After all, as far as we know, it only had to happen once, since the tree of life has but one trunk."

There are two origin myths. One for those who believe in God, one for those who do not.

They are called "Genesis" and "Abiogenesis".

No, there is scientific thinking, for people who want to know the truth about origins, and there is magical thinking, for people who prefer to believe the myths.

One group of people have faith in God, the other faith in science. This why the book irks some, because it shows the magical thinking of those who claim to use reason.

False equivalence. We already understand the chemical composition of crude, self-replicating things like viruses. The scientific question is whether such a form is likely to emerge from purely physical processes of the sort that were taking place on earth 4 billion years ago. That question can -- and is currently -- being addressed using the tools of science.

I'm not sure why you can't understand the difference between a belief held as a matter of faith and a belief held as a rational conclusion from evidence.

It is a cheap shot for them to blame the expansion of the 5,000 year old creationist story on a writer who "confesses to finding things bewildering" ... especially since it is they have been majoring in the minors in terms of a comprehensive evolutionary discourse.

Sad to see that even Blackburn, who admits to being something of a conservative, had to take the cheap shot at Romney, putting him in the same sentence as Auschwitz.

Btw his Dictionary of Philosophy is excellent, as are his other books.

It would be a surprise to read anything else in the New Statesman.

I don't recall hearing during the campaign how terrible it would be to put an intelligent pragmatist in the office.

(this past campaign, that is)

I disagree that his books are all excellent, though some of the earlier ones definitely are. He is frequently intemperate, and he is, too, in his Plato book. He isn't a humorous man, but rather one who suffers fools poorly, and defines fools to some extent in terms of people he doesn't agree with.

Also, he is definitely not conservative. He writes for the Guardian, for the New Republic and the New Statesman.

No excuse for giving aid and comfort to the enemy.

The typical scientist probably assumes the fellows on either side of him should be "pensioned off." Why is everyone so worried about what is going on between other peoples' synapses?

Well, I might not feel so bad about taking all your money while you slept if I thought you were just a p-zombie...

"But I regret the appearance of this book."
Hey! Don't judge a book by its cover!

I suspect most scientists are philosophical zombies in that they need philosophy like their c. elegans need itty-bitty bicycles. Why do philosophers care what scientists think about philosophers? Scientists don't care what the lab rats think about scientists.

"Why do philosophers care what scientists think about philosophers? scientists don't care what e lab rats think about scientists" is the best comment. I mean that with a dose of Ron Swanson literalism.

"The Nagel book continues to go up in my eyes."

Agree or disagree, I usually think your opinions are pretty damn good.

Not this time, though. I find your support of Nagel's book baffling.

Maybe TC is a creationist? LOL if you can be a good biologist and geologist and still believe in Creationism (witness the story a few years ago about the PhD who was not denied his degree in Geology despite being a Creationist), then you can be a good economist! As for Intelligent Design, I do say there's something to that: recall the Star Trek episode about an intelligent being who was toying with a planet by 'acting like god' to the primitive inhabitants of that planet. Sorry I'm not a Trekkie so I can't tell you the exact details, but that sort of logic does appeal to me. And besides the latest evidence is that early life came from outer space, from meteorites, so it supports a sort of proto-Garden of Eden theory. Not that I'm a Creationist mind you.

"witness the story a few years ago about the PhD who was not denied his degree in Geology despite being a Creationist"

I can barely fit that into my head.

Maybe I'm a terrible biologist, but I sometimes wonder how evolution helps. We don't not validate animal models with human cells and then corroborate with human studies. And a bunch of geology is just finding the oil. I have no idea how this stuff makes you a good or bad X except that people are just looking for ways to dock you points like the douche committee members who won't support you because they champion some different school of thought, and everyone pretty much agrees that is douche behavior.

I know several creationist, 4004 BC and everything, geologists. In quite a few fields of geology it really doesn't matter. For the average working hydrogeologist or environmental geologist it just doesn't come up. Do you really need that understanding to measure groundwater flow rates? Most geology isn't even about evolution.

My own research is heavily evolution focused, but I think this conflict is really an artifact of mood affiliation. I wouldn't want a creationist to teach paleontology, but it really isn't that important.

A PhD is, more or less, someone who puts together an acceptable dissertation (or should be). If their dissertation is full of stuff unacceptable to a committee, that's one thing. If the committee waterboards a candidate until they confess their personal doubts that's another thing, something I would consider extra-curricular.

Much of contemporary philosophy is disappointingly adversarial, tribalistic, and sycophantic to science (really, some ideal of science that never really existed). Rather than focusing on arguments, thought processes often run something like this:
1. X holds a position that is incompatible with naturalism (or physicalism, or materialism, or whatever).
2. Such a position is obviously absurd (because naturalism, etc., is obviously true).
3. Therefore, X's argument is obviously wrong and does not need to be read or understood.

Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False????

Well you could say that Newtonian physics is false and you need relativity to make GPS work and quantum mechanics for subatomic particles but that seems rather extreme. It makes it sound more like alchemy. Just because the minimal explanation of consciousness by material reductionists is unsatisfying doesn't mean it is wrong, at most it is incomplete.

Why isn't saying that Blackburn "suffers from mood affiliation" an hominem attack? How do you know if he suffers from "mood affiliation" or anything else for that matter? Why is it relevant even if he does? If you disagree with Blackburn's take on the matter, why don't you just give your reasons why?

Why? Because Tyler just wanted to piss you off.

That actually explains a lot of things on this blog...

I'm pretty sure Rich was mocking the critic.

I can't say I fully understand "mood affiliation" but he describes it as a logical fallacy. As a logical fallacy, it cannot be an ad hominem. You may, however, rebut the judgment over whether it is mood affiliation.

It seems to fit the definition. Blackburn's mood or attitude definitely seems related to the quoted sentiment, and he certainly seems to be ardently defending the facts that support his mood even though he admits he find little fault with the arguments.

It is certainly relevant because if Blackburn is reaching a conclusion based on a logical fallacy, it is remarkable.

One need not agree or disagree with a conclusion when pointing out a logical fallacy supporting a conclusion. The burden of proof is in the arguer.

You must be new to philosophical debates.

I would love to hear what the appealing parts of Nagel's argument happen to be. Most seem to be of the form "i intuit such and such is unlikely ... and that's about it".

This. Too many reviews basically construe him as saying something along the lines of 'I intuit moral anti-realism is obviously false therefore naturalism is wrong.' One review and maybe they reviewer is getting it wrong. 4 or 5 and, well, it's going to take a lot to convince me to spend time on the book.

One reason it's appealing is that it seems more pleasant than a dead, mechanistically determined universe.

It's silly to think that mechanistic determinism implies an 'unpleasant' and 'dead' universe. The phenomenological experiences of wonder, happiness, existential conflict, passion &etc are no less pleasant or lively or interesting just because we know, or assume, or hypothesize, that they have natural causes.

It isn't silly at all.

In a naturally caused universe, we are all merely a transitory cosmic accident or, at best, an unstable equilibrium.

In that world we have no purpose and no reason for being. Morality serves no purpose. The moon doesn't complain when it is struck by an asteroid, and neither should you when I break your arm with a baseball bat. That thing you call 'pain' is just a chemical reaction, and your response might as well be wonder and amazement. Hey, look at the way that bone split open! The arterial bleeding is making such a beautiful pattern on the sidewalk. I have only moments to live, so let me write a haiku to preserve this sensation for posterity and contribute to the arts.

It's also unclear why we have baseball and why I wouldn't rather break my own arm, my child's skull, or stare at the bat all day.

You are asserting that a world of natural causes places value on wonder, passion and conflict. You're begging the question.

Your world is boring, meaningless, and purposeless. Caught up in your cognitive dissonance, all you can do is flail about with baseless assertions. You can consider yourself an accident of nature. I choose not to. My world view is more consistent with the things you claim to value. Every breath you take proves yourself wrong because your sense of wonder hasn't led you to an early material transformation in a universe of accidents.

Yawn. The usual "materialism/naturalism = nihilism" nonsense beloved by religious/new-agey pseudo-intellectuals.

Yes, at one level of analysis, "pain is just a chemical reaction." Why you think that means we shouldn't complain about it I have no idea.

Actually, no, everything you've written is quite hilarious.

People give themselves purposes and reasons for being. So they have them. The fact that their doing so is caused is irrelevant.

People should do all sorts of things, by their own lights - the fact that they generate ideas of "should" and "shouldn't" deterministically is irrelevant to the existence of "oughts" relative humanity.

I didn't assert anything about what "a world of natural causes" values. "A world of natural causes" doesn't value anything. Some entities within that world do value things, however. I'm not begging a question, I'm stating something that is blindingly obvious.

My world is exciting and meaningful. Many things within it are purposeful. It is exciting and meaningful because creatures within it experience excitement and meaning, and it is purposeful because creatures within it give the world purpose for themselves.

Well, there you go again, asserting things as "obvious" when they are clearly not so. You are question begging.

People don't give themselves purpose, in your world view, any more than stars give themselves the purpose of warming planets and gracing boxes of raisin bran.

We beings have values because we were designed with a purpose. You have shunned awareness of that purpose and suppose yourself your own god. Yes, GiT determines its purpose the way magnesium in the presence of oxygen determines its purpose.

I'm sure your world is exciting, but for none of the reasons you describe. Your worldview can't be anything more than an amoral and transitory accident.

"I has purpose because I says so," exclaims the GiT, "and I ain't begging no god damned question."

Your world is empty and morally bankrupt.


There are lots of atheists out there. Following your reasoning, why aren't they running around braining each other, and the God-fearing, with baseball bats?

It's not obvious that people value things? Do you even know what question begging is? I'm making claims, and then deducing consequences. Claim: people give give themselves purposes. Deduction: Worlds for people have purposes. This is no different than the line of argument 'people make cars, therefore the world people live in has cars."

"In my worldview" (having fun making strawmen, are you?), people behave quite differently than stars, particularly in terms of their self-reflexive behaviors. In those self-reflexive behaviors they give themselves purposes. Stars don't do this.

"We were designed with a purpose." Everything that's designed is designed with a purpose, otherwise it isn't designed. Begging the question, very funny.

The question at hand is whether we were designed. Good luck with that one. (Let's not make the converse fallacy: All designed things have purposes, but not all things with purposes are designed. Note, again, that this isn't question begging. It's a statement. You can disagree with it's truth value, but that's not a fallacy.)

"I’m sure your world is exciting, but for none of the reasons you describe. Your worldview can’t be anything more than an amoral and transitory accident."

I haven't really given any reasons for why my world is exciting, I've stated simple facts about my world, amounting to the statement that "I experience excitement." If I experience excitement, then excitement is a quality possessed by "my world," ergo my world contains excitement - it can be exciting.

I don't suppose myself my own God. I suppose myself someone who acts in accordance with values and purposes that I myself participate in forming.

The one here supposing themselves God would be the one assuming that they have access to the purposes which we were "designed" to have, and that they somehow know what my worldview is like such that they could claim it is empty.

Doing that is what's morally bankrupt.


That's exactly my point. They don't believe their own BS.

They don't live their lives as if they are a cosmic accident with no particular importance. They do more honor to their philosophy than they do to themselves.


Yes, I'm quite sure I know "begging the question" when I read it, and that's what you were doing. Your "deductions" were equivalent to your claims and, hence, you were begging the question.

No, it's quite obvious that people value things. What's not obvious is why, in your world view, that they would have a reason for doing so or, for that matter, possess a concept of "value." Life and all of its features is merely a natural reaction. Your death, the destruction of the solar system, and the ultimate end of the universe is inevitable. So why wake up for Saturday morning cartoons and pour yourself a bowl of Lucky Charms? All those things are transitory.

Just put a gun to your head, pull the trigger, and enjoy the brief moment of cool air tingling your brain. Why should you do that? Why should you NOT do that? Does your purpose in life compel you to respond to a post from Willitts on Marginal Revolution? Maybe I'm just a figment of your imagination - a remnant of your cognitive dissonance.

I'm sure your life is quite exciting, but in your professed world view there is no reason it should be exciting. There's no reason it should be less exciting than your body slowly dissolving in a tub of acid. Why avoid pain and why preserve yourself, Mr. Cosmic Accident? Eventually your atoms will re-form into something resembling a sentient being, shouldn't they?

Your answer is that it just is. You assert, therefore it is. You have a purpose because you say you do. We all have to take your word for it.

GiT is GoD.

It does not matter HOW you were created in your world. There is no reason WHY you were created in your world.

You just think you're HERE and you're YOU so you might as well do....whatever the chemical reactions in your skull tell you to do, and you perceive a modicum of control over those reactions. Let's call that measure of control and its consequences your "purpose." You still haven't explained why your "purpose" is to seek particular ends through particular means.

I haven't asserted that all things with a purpose must have a design, but you guess correctly that's where I'm headed. In your world, a series of cosmic accidents created an equilibrium of of chemical reactions so ordered, that they can take measurements of their surroundings, alter themselves and their surroundings.and become self-sustaining and self-perpetuating. It makes perfects sense that this COULD happen. It does not make sense and you have not explained WHY this happens. Why should ordered chemical reactions alter themselves to be self-sustaining and self-perpetuating? They just do? With no reason? With no....purpose?

A star is a self-sustaining, self-perpetuating chemical and nuclear reaction, yet remarkably we find no sense of intellect, purpose, or will in it. When we consider sentient life in the universe, we often imagine it resembles us. But why wouldn't a star, a planet, a wisp of gaseous clouds, or any other physical manifestation of order in the universe possess the same quality of purpose that we do?

Are we more rare and unique then we thought we were?

It is all so meaningless in the cosmic order of things. You were an accident, but you think that the things you do aren't an accident. But whether they represent order or chaos, does the universe in your world care? Not a bit. Do you care? If so, only for an instant. But your cares are as vacuous as your world.

Seriously, I'm not denying that you have feelings, purpose, will, desires, goals, ideas, pleasures, and morals. In fact, I'm quite sure you have all of these. I'm merely saying that in a naturalist/materialist world, those things are entirely meaningless.

There's no reason to go from "my existence is the result of natural forces," to "I should be a nihilist." Nihilism is not a logical consequence of naturalism.

"It makes perfects sense that this COULD happen. It does not make sense and you have not explained WHY this happens"

Lightning occurs because Zeus is angry, rainbows appear because God wants us to remember our covenant with him, and natural disasters occur because we've angered the nymphs, I'm sure. Enough with the magical thinking. Things do not need to be intended in accordance with some aim to "make sense."

The fact that you think there is no reason to be moral unless some divine creator made you in order to try to be good is an indictment of your own character. It's got nothing to do with naturalism or determinism.


My philosophy is simple. I don't know what the hell is going on, and neither do you. For whatever reason, I'm built to try. Why? I dunno. I have thoughts on the matter, like most people. My thoughts resist supernatural explanations.

Most people make up some kind of narrative. Good for them.

Am is hypocrite for not braining people?

Mood affiliation fallacy:

The emotions I desire require me to believe in God.

Therefore I believe God exists.

It seems to me the logic is working the other way 'round:

I believe in God;
Therefore the emotions I experience require that God exist.


We beings have values because we were designed with a purpose.

No, we beings have values because we are intelligent agents. There is no evidence that we were designed with a purpose, unless by that you mean "design" and "purpose" arising from the natural processes described by evolution.

In fact, I’m quite sure you have all of these. I’m merely saying that in a naturalist/materialist world, those things are entirely meaningless.

Then I'm saying you are utterly confused. What do you think it means for something to be meaningful rather than meaningless? Why do you think something more than natural processes is required for anything to have meaning? What is that "something more?" How does it produce meaning that would not otherwise be present?


The burden is on you to explain or show how "meaning" can be derived from naturalism.

I suppose I can partially answer for you: the chemical reactions we call "thought" and "emotion" evolved through natural processes that persist through natural selection. However, the meaning of "meaning" and "purpose" seem to have tautological origins that are no less circular than the religious ideas you criticize.

You create your own purpose. How convenient!

And you somehow think you're doing otherwise when you claim that a divine creator has given you a purpose?


The burden is on you to explain or show how “meaning” can be derived from naturalism.

No it isn't. Since you're the one claiming that "meaning" requires something more than naturalism, it's up to you to justify that claim. Anser the questions: Why do you think something more than natural processes is required for anything to have meaning? What is that “something more?” How does it produce meaning that would not otherwise be present?

I suppose I can partially answer for you: the chemical reactions we call “thought” and “emotion” evolved through natural processes that persist through natural selection. However, the meaning of “meaning” and “purpose” seem to have tautological origins that are no less circular than the religious ideas you criticize.

You still haven't explained what you think "meaning" and "purpose" actually mean. And what are these "tautological" and "circular" origins? If you think meaning and purpose are tautological and circular (or is it just their "origins" that are such?), then I'm not sure why you think a lack of meaning and purpose is a problem.

The last sentence of this post was a perhaps too-subtle gentle mock of myself...!

Thank God for that! (So to speak)

Phew. I was worried for a second there.

From the article one would be led to believe that Nagel has not heard of the anthropic principle. Can someone who has read the full book confirm or deny the supposition?

Nagel is right, so far: physics and chemistry cannot explain mind and consciousness. Not yet. Nor can Nagel or the creation myths of tribes of iron age desert nomads. Which of science, common sense and myth are making progress?

Well not science or common sense. Myth seems to be doing an excellent job to me. In the sense that FGM is likely to be more common in the Paris of the future than discussions in a cafe about what Plato really meant.

I have come to the conclusion that the discussion of whether the origin of humans has been explained by "scientists" (of whom I doubt there are more, at any given moment, than a couple dozen actual examples in the world) shouldvery rarely, at most, be discussed in books, or articles, or career-deciding academic syllabi, but only among friends after a long day of work and a good meal, For my part, I am willing to listen to anyone who will give a proposed solution (solve for x) to defined variable questions on the subject (i.e., the workings and provenance of the design of a combustion engine, given the existence of gasoline, can be explained to a 99/100 degree of specificity, and a 99/100 degree of generality, by someone who has designed one, and - here comes the variable - the workings and provenance of the mind of someone who is as creative as myself (if I am creative) or much more creative than myself (if I am not), given the existence of carbon, can be explained to the x/100 degree of specificity, and the x/100 degree of generality, by someone who has thought about the design of such a mind); Some of the excellent commenters on this thread could probably give real answers to this, instead of the arrogant signalling that usually accompanies "opinions" on the subject (which, on the internet, seem to generally boil down to "I am smarter than those Bible reading fools")

Oddly enough the 'bible reading fools' seem to grasp the essence of the issue by having lots of kids. Maybe modern intellectual thought is just a stray mutation that will disappear in a couple of generations due to it's inability to breed adequately.

Like a virus, they perpetuate themselves by infecting the offspring of others - eventually killing the host but usually only after infecting others.

Nagel seems to grasp that science and religion are not enemies in man's quest for knowledge about himself or the Universe. The Church had its Inquisition in medieval times, and by reading the thoughts of people here and elsewhere, science seems to be holding its Inquisition now.

Nagel's thesis that science cannot answer every question is true but totally trivial -- the key question is whether the methods of science are more effective in the search for truth than the irrational methods of religion (and politics for that matter) are

Animal instincts, non-scientific observation, trial and error, superstition, and religion ushered homo habilis to modern civilization through a period of more than 2 million years. These eras included cataclysmic climate changes from greenhouse to icehouse conditions - far greater tests of human resilience than anything in the nascent scientific era.

Science has a long way to go to prove itself the equal of non-scientific methods, much less the better.

Not to denigrate science, but isn't it possible that science and technology have distracted us from the development and maintenance of basic survival skills? What percentage of humans could build a fire without modern methods? How many people could identify edible plants?

With all the people moaning about the effects of Hurricane Sandy, our Homo Habilis ancestors would be doing their equivalent of laughing at us. They found food and survived when mile-high sheets of ice covered half the planet. People in New York are complaining that FEMA hasn't showed up yet with MREs and their cell phones are dead.

Of course, to they extent their survival techniques were at all successful, it's because they were being empiricists.


Valuing non-scientific methods of survival will not vindicate a religious point of view. The survival abilities of bacteria are far more impressive than anything sentient beings have been able to come up with.

You're saying that religion isn't a social innovation that contributed to mankind's survival?

I respectfully disagree. Even if we knew God did not exist, there might still be social value in harboring fictions of moral and ethical idealism.

I would not part with my childrens' cherished belief in Santa Claus, and I hope society never does.

And what fictions were efficacious, why they were efficacious, and what they would tend to cultivate in those who practiced them would all be a matter of... fill it in.

You’re saying that religion isn’t a social innovation that contributed to mankind’s survival?

There's no evidence that religion is beneficial to human welfare rather than harmful. Even if it were beneficial, there's no evidence that it's true.

The reason you can tell the amazing story of our ancestors' survival is because of science. Beats Noah's Ark, IMO.

Uh, no. Fairy tales and Biblical stories taught moral, ethical, and survival lessons that pre-dated the printing press and the internet.

Religious texts were used as survival manuals long before Darwinian evolution or the Big Bang Theory. It's hard to quantify how much these modern theories, however practical, have added to our survival chances.

In fact, without denigrating the profound benefits of both theories and science in general, dare I suggest that scientific interloping into the human and viral genome and into subatomic physics could lead to the death of all of us? The advancement of science might also be outpacing our ethical development.

Of course, the practicality of religious ethics is... a matter of empirical experience. Oops, looks like it's science all over again.

From the review: "Its problem is that only a tiny proportion of its informed readers will find it anything other than profoundly wrong-headed. "

I wonder how Douthat knows what proportion of informed readers will find it profoundly wrong-headed? Or is that his definition of "informed"?

Easy. If you do not find the book wrong-headed, you are obviously not an "informed reader." Victory by Definition.

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