Colin McGinn – Secular Philosophy and Skepticism

January 18, 2008

Colin McGinn, educated at Oxford University, is the author of sixteen previous books, including The Making of a Philosopher. He has written for the London Review of Books, The New Republic, the New York Times Book Review, and other publications. He has taught philosophy at University College of London, Oxford, and Rutgers University, and is a distinguished professor of philosophy at the University of Miami. He is best known for his work in the philosophy of mind, but has published across the subjects of modern philosophy. He was featured in Bill Moyers’ series Faith and Reason on PBS and also Jonathan Miller’s Atheism Tapes, a BBC documentary series.

In this discussion with D.J. Grothe, Colin McGinn explores various kinds of skepticism, giving his concerns about radical fallibilism and certain post-modern critiques of knowledge. He explains how he is certain that ghosts and Gods don’t exist. He details how atheistic the profession of philosophy is, and how the tolerance shown while philosophers criticize each other serves as a model for good citizenship. He tells the reasons that led to his religious skepticism and atheism. He examines William Shakespeare as a philosopher, the problem of evil in Shakespeare’s plays, and other philosophical subjects found in Shakespeare such as epistemology, ethics, life after death, happiness and the meaning of life. He also explains how getting into Shakespeare as a professional philosopher impacted his philosophy.

Links Mentioned in this Episode

This is point of inquiry for Friday, January 18th, 2008. 

Welcome to Point of inquiry, I’m DJ Grothe the point of inquiries, the radio show and the podcast of the Center for Inquiry, a think tank advancing science and reason and secular values in public affairs. Before we get to this week’s guest, Professor Colin McGinn of the University of Miami, here’s a word from Free Inquiry magazine. 

The world is under assault today by religious extremists to invoke their particular notion of God to try and control what others think can do. One magazine is dedicated to keeping you up to date with analysis that cuts through the noise and the surprising courage to appear politically incorrect. That magazine is Free Inquiry, the world’s leading journal of secular humanist opinion and commentary. Subscribe to free inquiry today. One year, six controversial issues for 1995. Call one 800 four five eight one three six six or visit us on the Web at Secular Humanism, Dawg. 

Colin McGinn, educated at Oxford, is the author of 16 books, including The Making of a Philosopher. He’s written for the London Review of Books, The New Republic, The New York Times Book Review, many other publications. He’s taught philosophy at the University College of London, at Oxford and also at Rutgers. And these days, he’s a distinguished professor of philosophy at the University of Miami. He’s best known in philosophy for his work and in the philosophy of mind. But he’s published across all the subjects of modern philosophy and listeners to a point of inquiry. Might know him because he was featured in Bill Moyers series Faith and Reason on PBS. Also, Jonathan Miller’s Athie ISM Tapes that BBC documentary series. Welcome to Point of Inquiry, Professor Colin McGinn. 

I’m glad to be here. 

Professor, I want to talk to you today about skepticism and secular philosophy and also about your new book about Shakespeare. First, skepticism, both philosophically and as movement skepticism. The kind where scientists and critical thinkers kind of as activists try to publicly confront all the nincompoops three people believe out there for no good reason. Both of these kinds of skepticism, philosophical and movement begin with the acceptance that we could be wrong about many of the things we take for granted in our society. Is there more to philosophical skepticism than that? 

Well, philosophical skepticism actually comes in different varieties, some some very extreme and some a bit less extreme. The very extreme kind of skepticism, radical, valuable ism is the idea that anything we believe we could be wrong about that. That would include even whether we have minds, whether we are thinking now the laws of logic, things like that, which most people would think, including Descartes and think were not doubtful at all. But then you’ve got the less extreme mistily, extreme examples of skepticism, like, you know, do we know there’s an external world or might we just be brains in a VAT or stuck in The Matrix? Then you’ve got skepticism about other minds. You know, how do we know what other people’s minds are? And do they even have other minds? Cynicism about the past? You know, how do we know how long the past was when things came into existence? There are all these cases that philosophers have talked about. They’re not examples of skepticism in the ordinary persons sense. That word, I think because most of these skepticisms wouldn’t occur to most people as genuine sources of doubt, they think. Whether I’m dreaming everything now is sort we’re just living in a real world. Most people may cross their minds, but they are not worried by that on a Day-To-Day basis. But skepticism, meaning, you know, the cultivation of a critical stance and questioning things for which there’s no good evidence and asking for evidence for claims. Know, that’s something which philosophers, of course, so keen to do and which everybody should do. 

So one philosophy, there’s a downside to the skepticism if it’s taken to the extreme. You mentioned some people in the academy are so successfully skeptical that they hold few beliefs that they’re radical skeptics of all knowledge. They kind of equate science, the scientific worldview, to just being one of many mythic narratives. Yes, like religion. 

Exactly. Well, that’s one of the things about philosophical skepticism, is it? It’s been misappropriated by some people. They say, well, the philosophers have shown that nothing can be established when they say that they’re speaking about these very extreme and very radical forms of skepticism. I just mentioned. Philosophers are not even try next to do those questions, are trying to discuss issues like the evidence for a scientific theory or there and the evidence against various supernatural beliefs and stuff that don’t question that kind of evidence at all. They say, no, that’s that’s perfectly well established. They’re concerned with much more dramatic questions about whether anything can be believed at all on the basis of any evidence whatsoever. But those are philosophical doubt. It’s not it’s not practical, scientific doubt. 

So the practical the scientific doubt, the skepticism that you espouse, not this extreme skepticism, but the everyday common sense, you you buy a new car, you’re going to look under the hood and kick the tires are the kind of practical skepticism are it allows that there is such a thing as reliable knowledge, even if there’s no certain knowledge that week that we can make claims, test them. So begin with doubt, but don’t end there. 

Yes. I mean, it’s a way of saying we can distinguish between claims for which we can provide evidence. And the evidence can be of many kinds. Experimental evidence, observational evidence of various kinds. There were those kinds of beliefs. And then there were other kinds of beliefs which there is simply no evidence of any kind. I believe in ghosts or poltergeists or those kinds of things. So we can make those distinctions. And those are perfectly workable distinctions. And that’s all consistent with acknowledging that in the background. There’s is much more radical question about can we ever get beyond those states of Prezant consciousness, you know, which philosophers are worried about? Those are philosophical doubts. They should. Feed into real doubts about actual beliefs and theories. 

As a skeptic, but not as one of these extreme skeptics, not as a post-modernist or something. Could you see yourself as ever believing in things like ghosts you mentioned or gods? Is it just a matter of waiting for better evidence? Or are you certain that such things don’t exist? 

I’m certain they don’t exist in the ordinary sense of certain simply because, you know, these things have been claimed for hundreds, if not thousands of years, and no evidence of any convincing kind has ever been produced for them. It’s always just somebody says that they saw something and nobody else can ever come in and corroborate that. So he’s just as you know, nothing would ever convince me. That really is a Santa Claus up there at the North Pole. You know, I know very well there’s no Santa Claus is just a myth. We tell our children. So in these other cases, I think that so it’s not that nothing could logically ever count as evidence for these things. Something could count as evidence. All of these beliefs, you know, if if somebody died a few weeks ago appeared a sort of gauzy form in front of me and you. And, you know, we called some friends and they came over and started discussing with this gauzy form in our hands would pass through it. And so. 

Yes. The evidence that we have, it goes it’s just never been any evidence that. 

It seems that this common sense skepticism you’re talking about fuels your secular, maybe secularist philosophizing, secular philosophy. It’s non-religious philosophy and naturalistic as opposed to supernatural philosophy. I want to talk about that kind of philosophy. Aren’t most philosophers out there non-religious, atheistic? 

Almost all I would say. And there are some exceptions. Notre Dame University has more people than it’s a Catholic university, has more religious philosophers. But in this department I’ve been a member of in my life, I don’t think I can remember anybody who is. Maybe there was one person who’s religious that wrote this. But the vast majority of philosophers teaching in the United States and U.K. and elsewhere pretty much agnostic for atheists. And I think, moreover, don’t even bother to consider theistic views at all. They’re just not on the agenda is worth talking about. 

Jim Underdown, is that a little close minded? If they reject out of hand, don’t even consider the arguments? 

No, I think most of them, if not all of these being philosophers, have been through all the arguments, usually in their late adolescence. They’ve been through the arguments. They know the arguments very well. They know all the arguments that are been given for belief in religion. They just rejected them, having thought through them critically. 

I hear from some professional philosophers that over the last couple of decades or so, there are a lot more Christian philosophers kind of as a movement. And some of the best philosophers out there are believers. Look at Alvin Plantinga. You mentioned Notre Dame. Is that a growing movement or is that just good PR? 

It’s just good PR for the growing movement. There is this minority and they are often very able people philosophically, although they’re less good philosophers than the nonbelievers. But there is a very small minority. You know, there is some of them out there and they’re fairly vocal, but there’s no growing movement at all. If anything, I would say that is the contrary. These are older people, and I think we’ll find that in the next generation of even fewer Christian philosophers than there are now. I mean, it’s somewhat puzzling that that philosophy can contain both the extreme atheists like myself and also strong believers. And these people can get together and talk about those questions definitely sensibly. 

In a way, it’s it’s a model for what society should be like. You know, we’re members of the same profession, me, and we obey the same standards of arguments and reason. And it should be possible for people in general to do that. 

But that’s not because what we see in society today Jim Underdown you raise questions just now about tolerance. It seems in philosophy there’s a lot of tolerance of opposing views. Do you think that your hard and fast atheist them makes you intolerant in the real world, not just in the world, the philosophy of believers? I mean, obviously, you think they’re wrong. They’re deluded. 

No, I think there’s a distinction to be made here in the notion of tolerance. You can be tolerant to believers, other people in their beliefs. They’re not tolerant of their beliefs. If tolerant of their beliefs means you don’t disagree with me and express your disagreement with them, then I think there’s nothing to be said for that kind of tolerance. All beliefs are up for rational criticism. May not be polite with people. And I don’t do this. I come up with somebody who’s religious ideas, start to assault, you know, intellectually. But, you know, it’s it should be possible to write about to discuss the merits of any set of beliefs. What you shouldn’t do is persecute people for their beliefs. You may hold it. Somebody that you know has got a perfectly absurd beliefs. You don’t suspect for a second it’s beliefs. It doesn’t mean you should persecute them and stop them talking about their beliefs or meeting with other people with the same beliefs and so on. So that’s a distinction. Distinction maybe is between Christesen, which is good and intolerance, which is bad. And intolerance is what you do to people criticisms, what you do to beliefs. 

So you’re out there speaking on these issues more than a lot of other philosophers. You were featured in Bill Moyers series on Faith and Reason. Also, Jonathan Miller’s eight years of interviews. So you speak out on these issues a lot. You criticize people you think are full of nonsense. Do you think other philosophers should be speaking out more to you said that in your career you’ve met few who are believers. But most academic philosophers seem to just be quietly minding their own business, not engaging with these bigger social questions of how belief impacts us. 

So I think this it’s come to the point where it would be good for more philosophers to speak up. I haven’t spoken up about the subject until relatively recently simply because it hadn’t been called upon to do so. I had the same views since I was 20 years old or younger, but I haven’t spoken about them very much because there was no occasion to. I was living in England, of course, mostly in the US. People are far more religious. So the issue has become one that is more of a political issue these days. And so I’ve ended up speaking about it. It isn’t because I have any great interest in this subject, to tell you the truth. To me, it’s a bit of a dead subject, as I long ago decided what my views were and have never come across any reason to change them. But politically and ethically, it’s. Much more the hot topic, and so therefore I’ve ended up speaking more about it. 

And you’re imagining a day where these questions will be moot for just about everyone, not just you, that America will be post Kris Jenner post beliefs theists. 

I like to say yes. I mean, that may be optimistic. I think I used to think maybe back in the 60s that that would be the case. 

But I’ve been I’ve been somewhat stunned by the resurgence of religious belief in religious conservatism. I didn’t think that would happen. 

So it would be a, I think, overly optimistic of me to say that in the foreseeable future, religion might fade away. 

But I would suppose that when people’s level of education and the level of indoctrination is reduced, then I would have thought that people will stop having these kinds of beliefs. The reason people have religious beliefs is because they were taught them as children, as the general reason. It’s hard for people to to reject what they were taught to children by people they cared about and trusted and so on. That’s my view about why it happens. If that stopped being the case, children were not indoctrinated. Richard Dawkins always refers to as child abuse. I think not not unreasonably. That was a cease. I didn’t think many people would spontaneously arrive at religious beliefs, especially dogmatic and violent religious beliefs. 

Were you raised with any religion of any sort? 

Well, yes and no. I mean, in England, in the 50s and 60s when I was growing up, we actually don’t have separation of church and state in England. And so at school, we had prayers and assembly every single morning. So we I was saying prayers, you know, community since I was five at school. But that’s just part of the what the rituals you go through when you a child. 

But at home, we didn’t go to church and my parents were not religious. 

But, you know, I had a vague sense. I was brought up with it. And so I suppose I vaguely believe that insofar as an eight year old can believe anything. But, you know, when I got older, I started to question it a lot more and then and then rejected it. 

Did you question it as a philosopher or as kind of critical thinker? It seems like your Athie ism is informed by the scientific worldview. Or would you say it’s more informed by philosophical argument? 

I think it’s philosophical arguments. 

I think theory of evolution is definitely a major scientific reason to doubt the usual religious doctrine, because that’s a real questions is Dawkins always points out before Darwin’s theory came along, it was how did the idea of a world come to exist? It’s natural to suppose that there was a creator. But when you’ve got Darwin’s theory, that removes that potential argument for the existence of God. 

So there’s those scientific reasons, but largely for me, this is philosophical or the classic philosophical arguments of the existence of God started to strike me as I think they strike almost every philosophers as not valid. 

And so those disappear. Basically, I think you just wonder if you just have a very commonsense question, which is will people say there is this God and there are these angels and so on? Where’s the evidence for that? You know, as anybody ever seen one. It’s just what people say to each other. There’s no there’s no actual reason to believe in any of it any more than there is reason to believe in unicorns or Santa Claus or fairies at the bottom of the garden or anything of the kind. 

Well, without belaboring this point, one reason to believe in God is that people have these personal experiences of God and, you know, they report transformative, life changing events. You don’t hear those reports from believing in fairies or or unicorns. But your point’s taken. 

Yeah. No, no fairies. Unico sometimes UFO, of course. I mean, there’s a psychological basis. 

I mean, there are even psychological reasons to be attracted to the idea of gods. And people go through psychological crises and you could see why people have the need to believe in God. So it’s intelligible to people who believe in it. But if you say that something exists of a certain kind in the universe, then you have an obligation to provide actual observational evidence of that. And that we don’t have Jim Underdown. 

There are a lot of other topics I want to get into with you that you’ve treated in your writings, your OP ads you’ve spoken about, like the problem of other minds, consciousness, how to derive a sense of the meaning of life in a godless universe. You’ve talked about secular ethics. But I want to turn to your new book, Shakespeares Philosophy, which I enjoyed immensely. Reading Shakespeare is you know, they say it’s like reading the Bible. Whatever views you bring to it, you can find them espoused in Shakespeare. I’ve read people who make Shakespeare out to be a Christian or a very this worldly atheist. Should we be surprised that a distinguished philosopher read Shakespeare and sees him kind of as a fellow philosopher? 

No, I think what you say is true. I mean, there’s so much in Shakespeare that it is possible to select certain aspects of it and perhaps to exaggerate the aspects you select. 

So this is what Shakespeare really was in the case of my interests. I I just felt that the other aspects of Shakespeare have been very well explored. Because, you know, in textual aspects, but people have made a serious effort to try to dig out the philosophical content of Shakespeare. So I approached it with that particular purpose in mind. And that my book is written around that idea. But there are many other aspects in Shakespeare that would be equally valid perspectives to view Shakespeare from. That was the way I did it. 

It seemed to me reading Shakespeare with The Philosopher’s Eye that there were quite conspicuous philosophical themes there. 

What would a secular science type get out of reading? Shakespeare. 

I didn’t think a great deal, except, you know, the virtues of art. I mean, you’re reading about somebody with a great poetic imagination and a deep knowledge of human nature and great dramatic sensibility and so on. So even just in terms of culture, I don’t think you would get any sort of new information about the secular scientific world view from reading Shakespeare. I think Shakespeare doesn’t really try to use his plays as a vehicle to promote a philosophical point of view of that kind. I think he explores and he plays with philosophical ideas a lot and expresses skepticism about various ideas which he finds in the tradition, like the idea of the self being a substantial thing or causality being a rational and moral process. And that kind of thing. So I think he in Shakespeare, you find philosophical ideas at play, but you don’t really find them being preached for. 

He’s not espousing this or that philosophical position. He’s just exploring these big problems of philosophy, how we know something reliably, how we know what’s right and wrong, the nature and persistence of the self. You mentioned. 

Yeah, I think he’s been casting some doubt on the easy traditional ideas in those. So it was that there was a kind of point of view there, which is to be skeptical about these traditional notions. 

Let’s touch on a couple of these subjects, Anne, and more Debbie Goddard. Let’s take evil for Shakespeare. Where does evil come from? Is it the satanic supernatural force or something innate within people? Or is it. 

I think he thinks it’s something innate. But in people we know, you might think there are three possibilities. It comes from the supernatural satanic force. It comes from society inculcating habits in people who have an undesirable kind do. It comes from the way people are made innately. I think Shakespeare in a different place, rather, goes to the third of those positions that some people just born that way. They are particularly made that way isn’t family. So he’s saying King Lear, you’ve got the three daughters of Lear who was three sisters. One of them is extremely virtuous. The other two are amazingly evil. But there’s no reason to believe they were differently brought up by King Lear and presumably Queen Leo at the appropriate moment. The difference appears to be in the way they were born. And I think there were various indications in Shakespeare that that’s what he thinks, that it’s just people who are innately born that way. 

So for Shakespeare, evil is born, not made. Does he offer any hope for healing this human evil short of relying on God? You say he doesn’t exactly preach how people should best live. 

I don’t think he does think there’s any any obvious solution. I think he’s basic point is you have to keep a very keen eye open for it because it can come in a form which is very disguised. So, you know, in the case of the argot, the most famous example everybody in the play thinks of, the Argo is a thoroughly virtuous, solid, reliable, truth telling soldier. They all think that. And yet beneath the surface, he’s an absolute scoundrel, a total liar. 

So I think Shakespeare’s point is, you know, there are these people and they can’t be spotted simply by, you know, the mark on the four heads. You know, you’ve got to keep an eye out. You’ve got to be very, very watchful. 

And I think that’s a sound lesson to draw. I mean, in our own history, you know, some of the greatest villains, Stalin, Hitler and so on. It wasn’t as if it was obvious to everybody that these were villains. Yes, he very acute and be ready to notice them if they come along. 

Affleck’s a central topic in philosophy. You’ve written on it and you say questions of right and wrong could hardly be more central to Shakespeare. But for him, right and wrong, these ethical questions, it’s all naturalize goodness doesn’t come from God and Shakespeare. 

I don’t think that means it’s naturalized in a different sense. I mean, it doesn’t come from the supernatural, but it doesn’t also come from, say, our biological nature, if that means, you know, you can reduce ethics to biology. I don’t think HHC has a view about that. 

Yeah. There was no evolutionary psychology in Shakespeare’s day. 

Exactly. I think Shakespeare has a robust belief, belief in the difference between right and wrong. He’s not a relative estimating that he knows what’s right. He knows what’s wrong. And I think he is aware that in human relations, right and wrong, play a very powerful role. And, you know, we need to obviously do the right thing and not do the wrong thing. I think his point in most of the plays is just it’s not always obvious whether somebody is a villain or indeed whether they’re a hero. It can be sometimes can be difficult to determine. But it’s really a it’s sort of a hard fact about people, but they are one or the other. 

If it’s hard to figure that out, though, if our knowledge about other people isn’t really reliable while in Shakespeare’s skepticism about how we know things, well, it says that we consistently get things wrong. Our senses aren’t reliable. It’s hard to ever really get someone else to know their minds. So in Shakespeare, how do we get to the truth? Or is it just a matter of incessant best? 

Guessing, given our fallibility and the incompleteness of our knowledge, particularly of other people’s characters, we can’t really be sure. We have to just make our best estimates of what’s going on. We have to just guess the best we can. You know, we may, of course, observe an actual act which we see to be a murder or something of the kind. Then we can more or less tell. But we can’t tell except in the most remote way. We just can’t be sure. It’s a little bit like cold Popper’s view about science. 

This notion of fallible wisdom. Yes, this is we’re very fallible. And anybody knows if rush into either condemning others on insufficient evidence or approving it, insufficient evidence. I think Shakespeare’s point would just be you just have to be much more careful with that and much more self-aware about the possibilities of error. 

Switching gears, but still on Shakespeare. Let’s talk about tragedy. The tragic sense of life in Shakespeare. It’s something that a secular humanist can sink your teeth into. Shakespeare seems to be saying, yes, life is brutal. There’s much weeping and gnashing of teeth. But it can be beautiful in the process. In his tragedies, some of the most fleshed out characters who live the fullest lives in all of Western literature die at the end. No ultimate happy ending, no going to have a no being saved. In Shakespeare’s philosophy, isn’t that the boat that we’re all in? 

Yes, I think that’s what he’s saying. I mean, you get these larger than life characters who go through very unusual situations and they end up dying. But, of course, always that that’s something where the audience can see their own life merit and they may not go through such extremes like as extreme. But, you know, Lee is homelessness and his rejection by his two evil daughters. Everybody can experience the idea, the fear of homelessness or the fear of exposure to the elements. And also, of course, the feeling of of being rejected by one’s own family or people that you want to reject you. And so so, you know, you see in Shakespeare just a very large version of experiences in people’s lives, which are which are quite common. And because everybody does die in the end. So, you know, that’s something by seeing grand people go through it. Then we in the audience can become more accustomed to the idea that we might go through it. 

And in Shakespeare, people die. Even the greatest characters die and they don’t get happy endings going to heaven. And. And it all working out in the end. In his tragedies on talking. 

Yes. I mean, some of the most admirable characters die. Cordelia never does a thing wrong, really. And she ends up dying in the most tragic and completely accidental way. There’s no meaning to it. There’s no sense that she’s the way things ought to be. When she dies, it’s just a tragic fact. And I think Shakespeare’s making the point many other artists have made, which is we simply have to face it. Religion itself, of course, is largely powered by the inability of human beings to accept this tragic fact whose death is a terrible thing. We all die. We don’t want to die. And we would like to believe that we don’t die and we go to heaven. But, you know, an honest view of things says that it isn’t the way things are. 

Because that can have a positive side, because then you start to appreciate life, what it is, and, you know, disposing of happiness until until you’re dead, achieve it. 

Now, when you and other people have to achieve the same and in that way, Shakespeare, the center of the Western canon, along with the Bible, seems to be an alternative to the answers derived from the Bible. He says live life fully now, despite this kind of beautiful tragedy that, you know, will envelop us all. 

Yeah, I think that’s right. I mean, there have been and always will be two very different philosophies about this. One is to say death is absolutely intolerable. Therefore, it can’t be real. Therefore, we have to live our lives in such a way as to make life beyond death as good as it can be, i.e., go to heaven and avoid going to hell. The other point of view says that death is a real thing. It can’t be avoided. And there is nothing beyond that. Therefore, we have to live our life in such a way as to get the most out of it while we’re living, because there’s nothing beyond that. And everything has to be done now and not acting in such a way as to prepare ourselves for this supposed future. You know, everybody has to make that decision themselves, how they’re going to live that. 

You mentioned about how, you know, as a young person in school. Yes, you read Shakespeare, but it really didn’t hit you like it did later as a philosopher. I remember that Churchill and his painting as a pastime. He quips that, you know, youngsters should not read Shakespeare. This is an adult endeavor. Right. If you read it too young and inoculates you to the meaning, the power of the plays. Reading it as a philosopher, did it make you a better philosopher or did it change your your. How did it impact you as a philosopher reading Shakespeare? 

Well, I think it’s something where you become a bit more humanistic about your. These are kind of a dry subject in many ways. But if you tried to connect it with with things like drama, I’ve also written a book about film. I was just reading a book about sport. If you tried to connect philosophy with those other human activities, it becomes less drys more humanistic. So I think, you know, when I’m teaching, I’ll give examples of literature or film or even from sport to illustrate things. So that philosophy doesn’t come across to people, as, you know, this very remote and rather desiccated subject, but that she has real connections to things that people are already interested in. But I think with the on the question of children, I think it’s too difficult for children to read. 

I mean, to anybody up to the age of maybe even a very literate up the age of about 20. So it’s very difficult. Maybe it could be taught in a way that was better. I don’t know. Maybe it is sort of I suppose in a way I was I was taught it. Maybe my book would be good for people because then they could see the themes, you know, laid out and then they’d understand, you know, what those difficult words were about. They may still be sensible to expose people to Shakespeare when they’re young. So even if they’re rather baffled, something sinks in. I think it’s sunk to me with 50, with Othello, and then later in life, they can rediscover and start to understand what they read before. I mean, this is true of many works of literature. I read, for example, Lolita, my favorite novel. 

I read maybe three times in my life. When I first read it, I was quite young and I just miss most of it. Then I read it again and maybe I was about 40. And then I started to understand a lot more. I ended up teaching a literature course where I teach it and have a much deeper understanding of it. So you can, you know, you can read a great work at different times and your own maturity will determine what you can derive from that work. 

And when you just mentioned that going back to Shakespeare later in life as a professional philosopher, this distinguished philosopher, that it humanized or kind of brought humanism and you mean academic of kind of literary humanism, not the humanism. That’s a movement, kind of an ethical, non-religious approach. 

I didn’t mean and I mean literary humanism, having infusing philosophy with a bit more real life and real real people, instead of being very abstract subject, it can easily become you know, some people are working philosophy. I’ve worked some very abstract subjects for a long time. And if you do that for too many years, it’s very rather it’s a rather withering thing to do. And I think it’s good for philosophers to try to keep their intellectual connections with, you know, areas which are a bit more full of life. 

Jim Underdown professor again, was Shakespeare the genius that he is? Well, obviously, he was a great dramatist, but was he the genius that he is also because he was a great philosopher? 

I think he was a great thinker. I wouldn’t say he was a great philosopher because he’s not really doesn’t have the philosophical temperament. And this is pure form. I’d never put him up there with the great philosophers of, you know, of history as a philosopher. But I think he was he was very capacious, comprehensive mind. So I think he was a great thinker. And he put together history, ethics, society, personal relations and abstracts of ideas in a way that perhaps nobody else had done quite so successfully. But I wouldn’t say that the ideas, philosophical ideas and so that he played with were particularly original or systematically articulated. I think he just brought together those ideas with many other things he knew about to create that unique thing, which is a Shakespearean play. 

Thanks so much for being on point of inquiry, Professor Colin McGann. 

The pleasure. I enjoyed talking to you about these subjects. 

You’ve seen the headlines, Bill seeks to protect students from liberal bias. The right time for an Islamic reformation. Kansas School Board redefined science. These stories sum up the immense challenge facing those of us who defend rational thinking, science and secular values. One adviser to the Bush administration dismissed as the reality based community who could have imagined that reality would need defenders. The educational and advocacy work of the Center for Inquiry is more essential than ever. And your support is more essential than ever. Show your commitment to science, reason and secular values by becoming a friend of the center today. Whether you are interested in the work of Sackhoff and Skeptical Inquirer magazine, the Council for Secular Humanism and Free Inquiry magazine, the Commission for Scientific Medicine, or a Center for Inquiry on campus. By becoming a friend of the center, you’ll help strengthen our impact. If you’re just learning about CFI, take a look at our Web site. W w w dot center for inquiry dot net. We hosted regional and international conferences, college courses and nationwide campus outreach. You’ll also find out about our new representation at the United Nations, an important national media appearances. We cannot pursue these projects without your help. Please become a friend of the center today by calling one 800 eight one eight seven zero seven one or visiting WW w dot center for inquiry dot net. We look forward to working with you to enlarge the reality based community. 

Thanks for listening to this episode of Points of Inquiry. To get involved with an online conversation, go to our online discussion forums at Center for Inquiry dot net slash forums. Views expressed on point of inquiry aren’t necessarily CFI his views nor the views of its affiliated organizations like the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry or the Council for Secular Humanism. Questions and comments on today’s show can be sent to feedback at point of inquiry dot org or by visiting our Web site. Point of inquiry dot org. 

Point of is produced by Thomas Donnelly and recorded at the Center for Inquiry in Amherst, New York. Executive producer Paul Kurtz Point of Inquiry’s music is composed for us by Emmy Award winning Michael. 

Contributors to today’s show included Debbie Goddard and Sarah Jordan. And I’m your host DJ Grothe. 

DJ Grothe

D.J. Grothe is on the Board of Directors for the Institute for Science and Human Values, and is a speaker on various topics that touch on the intersection of education, science and belief. He was once the president of the James Randi Educational Foundation and was former Director of Outreach Programs for the Center for Inquiry and associate editor of Free Inquiry magazine. He previously hosted the weekly radio show and podcast Point of Inquiry, exploring the implications of the scientific outlook with leading thinkers.