Life and the meaning of death

I only just got around to watching this interview, by science writer John Horgan, with Sheldon Solomon, one of the architects of ‘terror-management theory’ – an attempt to explain how we cope with the existential terror created by the knowledge we’ll one day shuffle of this mortal coil. It’s excellent, and Solomon is the kind of guy I think I could spend an enjoyable evening talking with.

I wrote about some of the ideas covered in this interview a while back (turns out it’s 7 years – 7 YEARS?! That can’t be right…):

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

On how to be completely wrong about radicalisation: the curious case of Jerry Coyne

v2-IsisOn his popular blog Why Evolution Is True, Jerry Coyne – eminent evolutionary biologist, outspoken atheist, and unrelenting critic of Islam – recently found time between posting pictures of his new boots and the food he’s been eating to wade once more into the muddy waters of Islamic terrorism. Continue reading

Posted in Essay, Uncategorized | 21 Comments

Explaining violent extremism


Thirteen years into the ‘War on Terror’, and confusion still reigns about the roots of radicalisation.

The horrors visited on the streets on Paris on January 7 are the latest entry in the tragic catalogue of violence committed by Islamist extremists in Western countries since 9/11. Like 9/11, the 2004 Madrid bombings, and the 2005 Tube attacks, the attacks on Charlie Hebdo and a kosher supermarket have re-ignited a cluster of deep and divisive arguments that have become entrenched over the past decade or so. What is the place of Muslim minorities in European societies? What are the limits (or non-limits) of free speech? Is there a fundamental clash of civilizations between Islam and the free West?

Yet another profoundly important question seems to have been lost in all the commentary over the past few weeks: what drives people to commit such extreme violence? Continue reading

Posted in Essay | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Beyond belief: On the ethics of killing

Why Sam Harris’s argument that it’s ethically OK to kill people for what they believe still doesn’t stack up.

It’s not uncommon for a polemicist’s words to come back to haunt them, as Sam Harris knows all too well. For the past decade, he’s has been trying to exorcise the ghost of a notorious line in his 2004 book The End of Faith: “Some propositions are so dangerous that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them.”

Recently, someone going by the handle @dan_verg_ Tweeted a picture of Harris with these words plastered across it, along with the judgment that Harris is a “genocidal fascist maniac” (an assessment I’m not going to defend). This was re-Tweeted to hundreds of thousands of people, leading Harris to write another defence of his Infamous Argument, entitled ‘On the mechanics of defamation’. It’s time to revisit the argument. Continue reading

Posted in Uncategorized | 35 Comments

Owning our mistakes


To err is human; to forgive, divine. Somewhere in between sits the willingness to admit when we’ve done wrong, and to take ownership of our transgressions against others. This is the crucial ingredient of a sincere apology and the first step towards forgiveness, divine or otherwise.

It can be hard enough to face up to our simple mistakes, which may impugn our competence, but admitting that we’ve done something bad, or perhaps even just said something out of line, is even more difficult: it threatens our self-image as essentially decent, moral people. Even when people do acknowledge that something they’ve done has caused hurt or offense, it’s not uncommon for the subsequent apology to be more of a pseudo-apology than the real deal. Continue reading

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

On being thankful for the freely given kindness of others

Friendships begin with liking or gratitude – roots that can be pulled up
Daniel Deronda (1876), by George Eliot

Twice in my life I’ve been stood behind someone in a queue who has unwittingly dropped a £10 pound note. Both times, I picked it up, tapped the person on the shoulder, and gave it back to them.

This hardly makes me a moral saint or deserving of great praise. Yet I’d bet that for both people the simple act of returning their money generated at least a fleeting flash of gratitude, as I could easily have pocketed it.

Gratitude — like its converse, moral censure — is a basic moral emotion that fuels everyday social interactions. Now new research shows that how much gratitude we experience after people do us a favour depends on free we think they were to do it. Continue reading

Posted in RESEARCH, Uncategorized | Tagged , | Leave a comment

A Free Will Resource via Al Mele

Originally posted on A Philosopher's Take:

Al Mele, one of the most distinguished and recognizable philosophers writing on free will has launched a new blog where he plans to field questions and generate discussion a few times a week (see the blog here). He hopes to answer questions related to his last two books where he takes on scientific claims that supposedly lend support to the idea that we do not have free will. Here is a recent quote from Prof. Mele via facebook:

“Here’s something I posted on the Flickers of Freedom blog.

New Blog for Undergraduates

I’ve started a blog dedicated to discussion with undergraduates using either of my two latest books in a course:

A Dialogue on Free Will and Science

Free: Why Science Hasn’t Disproved Free Will

It’s part of an “outreach” idea I had while I was directing the Big Questions in Free Will project. The current…

View original 114 more words

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment