On Friday April 24th, the first New York ‘Night of Philosophy‘ was to be held – a 12 hour marathon of lectures and performances on the Upper East Side. It appeared to be going under the radar for quite a while, but received some very good publicity on big websites towards the end of the week. The New York Times ran a piece on the Friday. Despite this, I still felt it was something that would receive modest attendance – after all, who wants to spend their Friday night (and early hours of Saturday) listening to philosophy lectures? Apart from people like me, that is.
As it turned out, there were quite a few people like me. In fact hundreds. Armed with an itinerary of which of the 62 lectures I wanted to see, and where and when they were happening, I arrived around 7:30, hoping to make the one rejecting moral relativism at 8pm. I had agreed to meet Joe, a friend with whom I did Philosophy at Durham. There was no chance of that. The event was being held in two buildings – French and Ukranian cultural institutes – and then lines outside each were sizeable. There must have been at least 300 in each, and moving incredibly slowly, for they could only let people in once others had left. And who was leaving after the first hour? Pretty much no one. Cue 2 hours of occasionally shuffling forward.
I got talking to a few people around me in the line, and ended up sitting with a few of them once in. We got in at 9:30, just in time for the talk on Pascal’s Wager. I’ll write a little about each talk below, but a few thoughts/observations:
- It’s amazing how people can do entire lectures without making a single thread of eye contact with the audience. As someone who does a lot of public speaking (and speaking generally in my day job), I can’t fathom this. OK, you don’t need to go ‘no notes’, but at least look up from the essay you’re reading now and then. Otherwise, we could have just read your piece online. OK, rant over.
- One bathroom for an event catering for hundreds of people isn’t usually a good idea
- It seemed more than ironic that an event being staged through the night, advertising its free coffee on demand, should suffer a coffee-machine breakdown.
Although the delivery of each talk I saw left a lot to be desired, the content was, at times, very interesting. The first was on Pascal’s Wager, by Dan Garber. Garber suggested that from Pascal’s point of view, the traditional arguments against Pascal’s Wager, e.g. that you cannot force yourself to believe, aren’t as convincing as they first seem. Pascal suggested that once we try to believe in God, we will find arguments and reasons which convince us, and that it he (speaking as God) does not request blind faith. Garber left this unaddressed, on purpose.
However, he did make distinctions between first order rationality – relating to evidence and argument, and second order rationality – related to how we got to our beliefs in the first place. Belief in God has a somewhat troubled history in terms of second order rationality (being brought up in religion/feeling forced to believe by Pascal). However, we should follow David Hume’s advice and pay attention to how we got to our beliefs, and try to notice the difference between first order and second order rationality, and worry about whether we have been caught in a ‘cognitive illusion’.
The next speaker, Talbot Brewer, called his piece ‘Proselytism without true believers.’ He suggested that capitalism requires a mass of desire, and that it is replacing religion (with more effective results) in telling the world’s population that consumerism will lead to a better life. And whilst almost everyone would probably rather a less consumer-driven world, this is the ‘tragedy of the cultural commons’ – in other words, it can’t be done, because we all buy into it, and there is no one/no body strong enough to stop it. He also made an interesting observation that a big cost of free speech is the recognition that eyes and ears are available for commerical capture, and there is a thriving market for human attention. Unfortunately, amplication of speech with commercial content is far more profitable than any other type of speech.
One more speaker I wish to mention, Roger Pouviet, gave a talk on whether religious faith was rational. He argued that despite prevailing opinion, it is. His reason was that ‘rationality’ does not imply justification. In other words, if we call a belief rational, that doesn’t suggest there is good justification/evidence to hold it. Rationality simply means that there is a lack of ‘known-down evidence’ to disprove it. He pointed to Richard Swinburne’s attempts to defend faith as rationality by citing probabilities. Pouvet suggested that all beliefs can be rational, but disagree. And indeed, by criticising an argument, you are implicitly acknowledging its rationality, because you are making the effort to engage with it. I was drawn to think of the fact Richard Dawkins refuses to debate with creationists, because he doesn’t see the need to, for evidence has already disproved their beliefs. This seems to fit with what Roger Pouviet was saying. If you get into an argument with another point of you, you are accepting it has some strength, and its rationality.
I stayed for one more talk, which happened to be a criticism of the efforts to boycott Israel by those in support of Palestinians. It had originally been to do with obedience and thinking, but changed at the last minute in response to a complaint letter about letting somebody speak. We didn’t quite follow, but remained to listen. I was now behind the speaker after my back was calling for something to lean upon. The talk began with a very random segment from a patronising, strident toned voice somewhere off stage, talking about the philosophy of names. it seemed no one followed it, and were left confused by its purpose. After about 10 minutes, myself and another new friend, Steve, decided to burst into spontaenous applause, which of course everyone followed. Sadly, it didn’t spell the end of the voice-over.
I understood much of what Omri Boehm said, but won’t try to paraphrase here for I don’t think I could do it justice.
With a queue of what looked like over 50 for the one bathroom, I made a move around 11.30, falling far short of my original target of 7am. I felt I had no choice, given how unsuitable the venue was for its attendance. It was good to see Philosophy so popular among New Yorkers, though. I worried that some of them may have come along to be seen at the Night of Philosophy. That’s the cynic in me though. The line was just as long at 11.30pm as it was at 7.30pm. Unfortunately for those waiting, it was going nowhere fast. I’d had my fill of philosophy though, and as often, was heading back for some food.