Hi reddit! I'm Professor AC Grayling - British philosopher, secularist and author.

I'm also Master of New College of the Humanities - www.nchum.org - where I teach for the philosophy degree. Our visiting professors include such friends of reddit as Lawrence Krauss, Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins and Stephen Pinker, some philosophy and other lectures can be seen on our YouTube channel.

You can read some of my pieces for the Guardian here - http://www.theguardian.com/profile/acgrayling

My more recent books include The God Argument (The Case Against Religion and for Humanism) and Thinking of Answers: Questions in the Philosophy of Everyday Life


Today (19th November) is UNESCO World Philosophy Day, so to celebrate this, why don't you go ahead and ask me about philosophy, or indeed, anything?

I'll be here from 3pm-5pm GMT (10am - noon EST) and will try and come back later to answer any questions I've missed!

Comments: 122 • Responses: 30  • Date: 

Pussolini16 karma

Hi, I have been interested in philosophy since university, and your books have been an excellent help for me to understand philosophy.

I have one question that I wouldn't mind further clarification on,

Would you rather fight 100 duck-sized horses or one horse-sized duck?

ACGrayling25 karma

I'll take the one horse-sized duck, providing its on dry land.

LiterallyAnscombe16 karma

I have two larger questions, but I'll put them in the same post.

In your 1988 book on Wittgenstein, you controversially downplayed the importance of the Philosophical Investigations which still forms the keystone of most study of Wittgenstein today. Do you still hold to this thesis? If so (and as briefly as you wish to explain it) has anything in your experience since writing that book led you to be strengthened in that opinion?

What do you make of the late American novelist David Foster Wallace also downplaying the Philosophical Investigations in his personal correspondence and recorded conversations believing it was unable to deal with the "problem of solipsism" raised in the Tractatus?

And the second being...

Which contemporary philosophers do you admire the most?

Recently, the traditional division of philosophy into "Analytical" and "Continental" approaches has come under a good deal of fresh scrutiny. Do you feel this is still a useful way of classification of distinct approaches to philosophy? Are there any Continental Philosophers that you admire?

ACGrayling10 karma

I'm of the same opinion about the Philosophical Investigations as in that book. As time has gone by the PI has become less influential still. Wallace's view is a little surprising, given that the insistence in the PI on the essentially public nature of language is a pretty good answer to solipsism. We live in an age rich in philosophical studies, with a large number of fine thinkers contributing to the subject - often in highly technical ways which, alas, make it less accessible to public understanding. To name just a few would be unfair to the rest!

gitacritic9 karma

What do you think about Schellenberg's (Skeptical Religion) claim that ultimism is a good way to perceive faith? If the human race has millions of years to live on is it probable that we haven't had the best ideas on religion yet? Are we dismissing it too early?

ACGrayling14 karma

I'm rather hopeful that we are in the process of outgrowing religious ways of thinking about the world and humanity within it - the religions have their roots in early pre-scientific efforts at explanation, and their continuance in many ways stands in the way of further progress in human development. So in the future - not quite yet, but I hope not too far off - we can live on the basis of a sympathetic understanding of the human condition, and a rational appreciation of the way the world works.

rasungod08 karma

What are your thoughts on the trope of "Islamophobia?" Is criticism of Islam rightfully taboo? Are the critics of Islam racists?

ACGrayling18 karma

Criticism of ideas and beliefs is different from criticism of individuals or communities who hold and apply those beliefs, though both kinds of criticism can be justified if they are supported by good reasons. Criticism of Islam (the religion) and Islamism (political Islam) and any Islamists who commit horrible crimes (terrorism, murder etc) is as justified as criticism of any other belief system and what happens in its name, and of the people who apply those beliefs if their application is harmful. Hostility to a community or its members just because they are Muslim is not acceptable; one might disagree with a community's beliefs, but that is not a reason to be unfriendly to those who hold them peaceably.

nopointhangingaround6 karma

Hello, thank you for taking the time to do this.

My question is, is morality objective? If it is, where does the objectivity come from? If not, how can we base our actions on opinions; we may feel that one action is better than the other, but one of the key points made in any argument is that belief and truth are not the same thing. I believe that my thoughts have value, but that does not make it so.

We can see the evidence of our actions, doing action a makes someone happy, action b makes them sad; but this says nothing of the innate value of either action. What evidence is there that we should value action a or b? Isn’t the evidence our feelings?

In which case, what’s the difference (in amount of evidence) between someone saying their opinions matter or someone saying that God exists? To me, whether or not someone matters (or their opinion) is an external reality, a binary fact of life (true or false), much like whether or not reincarnation exists.

Not a philosopher, so I’m sure this is all fallacious, but I’d appreciate your opinion. Sorry if I’m asking you things you’ve already answered (I’ve read some of your work, but not all).

Good luck with the philosophy bus tomorrow! (couldn’t get time off work to come, unfortunately)

ACGrayling9 karma

Thank you for your interesting question - it is one of the most important that can be asked in moral philosophy too. For me the answer is this: morality is indeed objective, because it is rooted in natural facts about human beings (and other sentient creatures), namely, the fact that almost all such creatures would greatly prefer not to be hungry, cold, in pain, alone, and the like. This tells us something about how we should treat others; those facts make a claim on our concern, and provide the outer limits of what a defensible moral outlook should be. To say this is to disagree with the view that you cannot derive obligations from facts about sentient beings (the 'is-ought' debate) - but then I think that view ought to be disagreed with!

nopointhangingaround2 karma

If I could be cheeky and ask another; where does the value of human life come from? To me, morality has value because people have objective value. "I matter because I say I do, and my opinion matters because I say it does" seems to be the way many atheists operate, but that's a circular argument (sort of). What do you think?

EDIT: Basically, are people objectively important/valuable? Or only subjectively so.

ACGrayling2 karma

Yes, people have intrinsic value, which is why a humanist (in the modern sense of non-religious) ethical outlook needs nothing else to motivate it. It is easy to see how good lives have good relationships at their heart, and therefore how we think of and act towards others demands our best endeavours. Atheists are very likely to be among the most responsible thinkers about ethics because they have to take responsibility for their choices; unlike someone who accepts a one-size-fits-all, ready-made set of views about the right way to live and act. On the atheist-humanist view, there are as many possible kinds of good and worthwhile lives as there are people to live them; on traditional moralities, everyone has to think, act, and indeed be, the same in order to fit the mould.

LiterallyAnscombe6 karma

I saw the Larkin question, and I thought I'd add another if you're still here: who are your favourite fictional authors (living or dead, in poetry or in prose)?

You speak a lot of your admiration of Candide, do you feel any other philosophically-oriented fiction has reached the same level of accomplishment or engagement with its subject?

ACGrayling4 karma

The trouble with 'who is your favourite' and 'which do you think is the best' questions - beauty-contest questions - is that there are so many good writers, good ideas, good things out there, that it is invidious to choose just one or a few. The art historian Kenneth Clarke once said that he was an enthusiast rather than a connoisseur of art, because the connoisseur likes just a few things and disdains the rest, whereas the enthusiast enjoys much. I agree with this approach, subject to a reservation, which is that it is important nonetheless to have standards: so you can't just be indiscriminate in your tastes, but it is better if they include a wider rather than a narrower range. So my answer is: lots of writers and poets! - there really is such a lot to enjoy.

pc215136 karma

Have you read Philip Larkin's poem "Aubade"?
What do you think about the view of death it offers (i.e. that there is "nothing more terrible")?

ACGrayling9 karma

Larkin is a wonderful poet and 'Aubade' a moving poem - but there are many things worse than death: a life of suffering and loss, lovelessness, oppression, limitation - death is sometimes a release and a relief for those for whom life is a great burden. For that reason I support efforts to legalise physician-assisted suicide for people who have a sustained and clear-minded desire to choose when and how they die in order to end suffering that cannot be ended any other way.

sd51516 karma

Would you call yourself an atheist?

ACGrayling14 karma

Yes I do call myself an atheist. - By the way, the word 'atheist' is the theists' word for anyone who disagrees with them. The quarrel between theists and atheists is about metaphysics, that is, about what exists in the universe. The theist says that the universe contains (or has attached to it) supernatural agencies or entities of some kind (gods, goddesses, angels, demons), the atheist says that there are no grounds for accepting such a view, but - rather - very good grounds for rejecting even the intelligibility of such a view.

GreaterOf2Evils6 karma

I really hope I'm not too late to the party.

Hello, Prof Grayling! I'm an American 18 year old looking to perhaps study philosophy and sciences during my college years. While I adore philosophy and consequently most of this AMA, I'm a bit concerned about how one would make a living as a graduate of philosophy. Going into my college career, I currently consider philosophy my intended minor with a major in astronomy and astrophysics, but as you could imagine, I would ideally major in philosophy if I could find my way fiscally.

And so my question to you is: How did you do it? You're obviously successful, and you get to live my dream to boot. I'm just trying to get a general idea as to how I'm supposed to blaze a trail for myself in this seemingly unstable field of study. Thanks in advance!

ACGrayling2 karma

You were late to the party, but not too late for a reply.

Thank you for your question. In my own case, I went from undergraduate to postgraduate studies in philosophy, and then into an academic career, reaching at university - which gives you great opportunities for pursuing one's interests. It is quite difficult getting academic posts in philosophy, but hard work and persistence helps to achieve this.

But the much more important point about studying philosophy, is that it is both an excellent platform for careers in many fields (Law, journalism, education, politics, business) and it is also personally enriching, providing you with an intellectual and cultural resource for your whole life. The skills you learn are eminently transferrable to other fields of work.

It's a question that is asked quite often, and even in the last week we have seen evidence that Humanities Degrees Provide Great Return On Investment and that many recruiters (even banks Full article scan - http://imgur.com/6ssDztZ) value a humanities degree like philosophy.

Whatever you decide, good luck!

brought_5 karma

Did anyone ever tell you that you look like a muppet version of Immanuel Kant?

ACGrayling13 karma

Almost any similarity to Immanuel Kant has its advantages.

nopointhangingaround2 karma

Other important question; are you growing a beard to compete with Dan Dennett's? Because you've got your work cut out for you if so!

ACGrayling5 karma

I wouldn't presume to compete with Dan on the beard question.

sd51515 karma

Do you believe in the philosophy that everything we know,everything we believe in ultimately amounts to nothing, and that really,nothing actually matters? Im sorry if my question is not as precise as the ones asked earlier by everyone. Im just looking to get an insight into what real philosophers think about it

ACGrayling6 karma

No I do not accept any form of nihilism. People, other animals, the natural world, our societies, all matter hugely, as does the question, personal to each of us ourselves, of how best to live and what values to live by. Albert Camus, in his essay 'The Myth of Sissyphus,' said that the great philosophical question is whether or not to commit suicide; for if we do not choose suicide, it is because there is a reason to live. And a moment's reflection shows that it is best if that reason is a really good one - one that persuades and motivates us to aim for the best we can do and be.

thisguystaint5 karma

"We are all one consciousness experiencing itself subjectively." -- Bill Hicks.

Which one of the following do you think most accurately describes that statement?




true in some sense

false in some sense

meaningless in some sense

true and false in some sense

true and meaningless in some sense

false and meaningless in some sense

true and false and meaningless in some sense

ACGrayling5 karma

false in some sense

normandkm5 karma

Do you see the world moving towards a more rationale, less religious society? And if so, what are factors contributing to this?

ACGrayling7 karma

Yes, the trend of history seems (a bit falteringly at present) to be heading towards a less religious future. The present noisy quarrel between those who have those who do not have religious outlooks is a function of the fact that religion is on the back foot - despite appearances: lots of people think it is making a comeback - but when you corner a tiger, it will growl a lot louder and lash out; and that is what the religious lobbies are doing.

scenebob4 karma

What music do you listen to?

ACGrayling2 karma

You can listen to me answer in my own words, from when I was on desert island discs - http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/features/desert-island-discs/castaway/3ed469fd

Stiffcock4 karma

Hi mr. Grayling. First I would like to thank you for your Philosophical Logic. That book introduced me to the wonderful world of what is broadly called analytic philosophy, and I still keep it and treasure it to this very day. My question is this: what is your take on what has been termed "scientism", the thought that philosophy can't contribute to any significant theoretic understanding of the world? Is this logical positivism all over again? I suspect many mathematicians and logicians won't be sympathetic to such brute naturalism. Any thoughts?

ACGrayling4 karma

Thank you for your kind words; I hope you're keeping up with the study of philosophy and enjoying it! - As I understand 'scientism,' it is the view that natural science can explain everything - even the value to us of our moral and emotional lives and of art; and that it can solve our political and social problems - in short, that (natural) science is the answer to everything. I do not think self-respecting scientists actually hold such a view, which comes down to saying that in the end physics will explain everything (that all enquiries will 'reduce' to physics). Each of the natural sciences consists in exploration of some aspect of the physical world; the social sciences variously investigate social and psychological phenomena; the arts and humanities constitute the conversation that humankind has with itself about what matters to it, how it understands itself, how it deals with its dilemmas and demands, and how it navigates the complicated unfolding of history through which it lives. So natural science is only one part of the enormous endeavour that humanity engages in, in its hope of increased knowledge, deeper self-understanding, and progress.

5h1b33 karma

Hi Prof Grayling,

I'm going to ask the same question that I asked over in this thread, going on at the same time. What is your opinion on Zizek?

If you can be bothered/have the time, it would be nice to know what you thought of Foucault also, but if not you can stick with Zizek!

ACGrayling3 karma

I admire Zizek's energy and fertility of mind, but must confess to knowing rather little of his work; what I've read of his cultural criticism and views about politics, film and other subjects I've always found lively but not always persuasive, perhaps because I don't share some of its theoretical underpinnings. Foucault is one of the 20th century's most interesting minds, and his contribution to shifting our perspectives on a number of important topics was great. I don't think we can think of such subjects as madness, imprisonment, and sexuality after reading him as we did before reading him.

legalkimchi3 karma

Do you think some secular humanist losses the public relations battle by being so vehemently anti-religion? For instance Krauss's comments on islam recently caused a stir and more is made of his supposed "bigotry" rather than the point he is trying to make.

ACGrayling0 karma

It's sometimes necessary to be very robust and challenging to get an issue properly attended to - Richard Dawkins' 'The God Delusion' stirred up exactly the debate we need to be having about the plausibility of religious claims and the place of religion in various societies: in this respect being blunt and frank can be a good thing.

shivan213 karma

Are all kinds of religion unacceptable for you? I agree that it is often heavy loaded with an ideological and controling stuff, but isn't there a good core, that makes possible to feel a connection with the universe and from what one can draw his inner strength?

ACGrayling4 karma

If we think of religion as a view of the world premised on belief in the existence of supernatural agencies with an interest in how we behave and live, then I find no such outlook acceptable. By the way, it is important to distinguish religion thus focally understood from such outlooks as Theravada ('small-vehicle') Buddhism, Confucianism and Jainism which are not religions but philosophies. They do not turn on the supposed existence of gods which demand that we live this way or that, but are in fact humanistic philosophies which offer wonderfully rich, positive, kind adjurations about how we should live and act and treat each other.

Feldman7423 karma

Welcome to reddit Prof Grayling. My question:

Do you have any opinions regarding Sam Harris' recent forays into questions of morality and free will?

ACGrayling6 karma

I have great respect and admiration for Sam Harris and his work, but I do not agree with him on the free will question. Neuroscience is pushing us in the determinist direction but I have great reservations about what it really shows so far (further empirical results may be more convincing; if so we must accept them!). I think we genuinely have a capacity to make choices in the sense required for us to see ourselves as truly possessed of agency, and that the way we see ourselves in morality, law and society is fundamentally right therefore. It does not seem to me that neuroscience is going to turn out to be inconsistent with this.

pilbot3 karma

Hi Professor Grayling, Was wondering your thoughts on Transhumanism? At what point do we cease being human when we start giving ourselves synthetic upgrades?

ACGrayling4 karma

Interesting question! - but perhaps we are already 'trans' with respect to our forebears, given the way we modify ourselves, survive and flourish as a result of surgery, antibiotics, the survival and reproduction of people who in earlier times would have died in childhood, medical prostheses, airplanes and electronic communications. Of course you mean (say) brain implants and intelligence-enhacing drugs, in vitro selection of superior genetic endowments, electronic replacements for organs and muscles...well, at a certain point we will have crossed a grey area between human beings as we now know them, and something more electronic or genetically modified than that: and perhaps those future beings will have a clearer grasp (because they will be far smarter!) than we do about where the line lay.

sd51513 karma


ACGrayling3 karma

Religion very probably began as humankind's earliest effort to provide explanations and interpretations of the phenomena of nature - by imputing agency to (e.g.) the wind, thunder, movement of the sea, etc. We have good evidence of this from our understanding of contemporary animism and from mythologies. These views became institutionalised and more sophisticated over the millennia, resulting in religion as we know it now. Religion survives mainly because of the proselytisation of small children; few adults, if they hadn't ever heard of religion, could ever believe any of its stories or claims. That is why, event hough we are (I hope) in the process of leaving the infancy of humanity behind, religion persists.

Ibrey3 karma

The publisher's page for The God Argument calls it "the definitive examination of the issue". What do you think of your book's pompous marketing?

ACGrayling10 karma

Marketing folk do their best to promote whatever they are promoting. Few things in the world are definitive of their kind, so I wouldn't claim it myself. But while seeking to be clear at a reasonable length, I address the main issues in that book.

BuickRendezvous2 karma

I guess I'll be the only one to ask the one true philosophical question here. What is your favorite McDonald's dipping sauce?

ACGrayling3 karma

Tomato sauce

deviantmoomba2 karma

You often say we should live the best life we can: whatever that entails (being a gardener/scientist/philosopher, etc). You also promote a naturalistic world view; do you think disbelieving in gods is best for everyone as individuals? Why?

What if it was proved (it is certainly believed) that some people require belief to maximise their life's 'goodness'? Would you still hold that atheism/humanism is best (even if these people don't push their beliefs on anyone), perhaps for humanity in general rather than for individuals ?

ACGrayling4 karma

Yes, I do think it is best to base one's choices in life on considerations that are rationally and evidentially supported, rather than on traditional or mystical beliefs which are not rationally or evidentially supported. So, much better to live on the basis of truth or what is on the way to truth, than on the basis of beliefs we accept mainly because they are comforting or because they exonerate us from the obligation to keep thinking and enquiring. It is already a matter of proof that people need to believe in things to maximise the felt value of life - but as Bertrand Russell said, it is not what you believe but why you believe it that really counts, and here the difference between the traditional religions and (say) science and humanistic outlooks is very great.

completely-ineffable2 karma

Hi Prof. Grayling!

What is your opinion on groups like Atheism+, formed in response to a perception of sexism and other bigotry within the secular community. Do you think they are correct that such problems exist in the secular community? Are they going about addressing these problems in a productive way? If not, how should such issues be addressed?

ACGrayling2 karma

Sexism and bigotry are alas to be found almost everywhere, but in my experience far less among secularists than among other groups (especially religious groups) - very far less. The idea of a 'safe space' in which to discuss things is a good one - for any subject matter whatever. Why should anywhere not be safe to discuss things? As contemporary experience shows, the least safe places are those where dogmas and non-rational belief systems are the overriding motivation for how people act.

nodlehssuiram2 karma

What is the acceptance rate at NCH (% of people who get in out of the total that apply) ?

ACGrayling2 karma

There is no set acceptance rate; we look for bright, interested, interesting students who will benefit from the way we study at NCH, and if we believe that you have the potential to flourish in our academic environment and community, we will offer a place. We take a lot of care over admissions, getting to know candidates and interviewing everyone suitable - in a friendly way! no trick questions - because we don't rely simply on grades and a paper-trail, but like to back our own judgment about a person's potential.

StereotypicalAussie1 karma

If you could bring them back for an evening, which historical philosopher would you most like to go for a beer with?

ACGrayling8 karma

Aristotle - but there might be two problems: (a) whether my grasp of ancient Greek would be good enough and (b) whether he would like beer.

mew1155661 karma

If you had to choose, would you go to a party with ISIS or the Westboro Baptist Church?

ACGrayling4 karma

I'd take the third option (the one that results if you choose neither).