Welcome Dr Stephen Law

Stephen Law, our new Director of Studies in Philosophy, is a former postman who entered University as a mature student aged 24. His doctoral research was on essentialism, Kripke and how natural kind terms function. He also publishes on the later Wittgenstein. Stephen has also worked on the relationship between science and religion, and on pseudoscience, and is currently working on papers on consciousness and free will. He directs our Undergraduate Certificate of Highter Education.

Tell us about your research.  

I have fairly broad research interests, including philosophy of religion, metaphysics (essentialism and mind), and philosophy of language (especially Kripke and later Wittgenstein). 

I’m particularly fond of Wittgenstein’s later work (found in, for example, his Philosophical Investigations) and have some sympathy with his views that philosophical problems are really pseudo-problems generated by our not paying enough attention to how language is used. That’s at least quite often true, I think. In particular, I suspect that the classic philosophical problems about mind and meaning – which can both seem profoundly mysterious and indeed almost magical – are largely pseudo problems. 

Take the problem of how your mind – which might seem to be a kind of strange, private ‘inner’ world to which, necessarily, only you have access – relates to your body – to that lump of grey matter between your ears. Are they one and the same thing? It’s hard to see how they could be. But then what and where is your mind? And how do the physical events taking place in your body generate such private subjective experiences? This problem can seem intractable. 

Wittgenstein’s view is that this problem is a pseudo-problem that results on a deeply confused way of thinking about minds. In particular, the idea of the mind as a necessarily private inner world is fundamentally confused. There is no such private realm – it is an illusion, a linguistic illusion. More recently, philosophers like Dan Dennett and Keith Frankish have suggested the necessarily private inner world is a psychological illusion and there’s growing scientific evidence to support their view. On the other side, many philosophers insist it is clearly bonkers to deny the existence of private mental experiences.  ‘Surely’, they say, ‘If I can be sure of anything, it’s that I have this’ (directing their attention to their private inner experience). Personally, I think that the ‘illusionist’ view has a great deal going for it.   

For the layperson: why study philosophy? 

Philosophy is fun. Very many of us enjoy thinking about the 'Big Questions': What is the mind? Could a machine think and feel? Does God exist? Can I know anything about the world outside my own mind? How do I know it’s not a Matrix-like illusion? What, ultimately, is real? What makes things morally right or wrong?  

Of course, some people don’t enjoy digging down to these fundamental questions, because often we find that what we thought was secure ground beneath our feet is actually not secure at all. We find ourselves  scarily hanging over a void. We experience philosophical ‘vertigo’. Personally, I enjoy that experience of intellectual vertigo (I also enjoy vertigo, which may be why I am a climber). 

But philosophy is not just fun – it’s important. For example, our philosophical assumptions (and we all have them – that God/does/doesn’t exist, that other minds exist, that a foetus is/isn’t a person, etc.) inform our moral and political decisions, and so shape our world. 

Philosophical reflection is also important because, without it, we become moral sheep, blindly following tradition, authority, or what our peers or political/religious/cultural leaders think and say, etc.  

History repeatedly shows that such moral sheep can easily be led down some very dark paths. It’s important we all have some immunity to such seductive pied pipers, and our best bet seems to be to raise people to be independent critical thinkers – to think philosophically. 

An area of your research centres on science and religion. Some might say that science looks at the natural world, while religion looks at the supernatural. 

No, it’s not fair to say that science looks at the natural world while religion looks at the supernatural. Many religious people insist religion has much to say about the physical world, including when and/or how it came to exist. Many scientists, such as Richard Dawkins, have something to say about God (Dawkins argues there’s a scientific case for claiming God’s existence is highly improbable). 

Of course you might insist that the two disciplines should keep to their own turf, even if they don’t: as Stephen J Gould put it 'science should restrict itself to e.g. the age of rocks, and religion to e.g. the Rock of Ages'. But that view seems wrong to me also.  

Many religious claims have empirically observable consequences. Petitionary prayer can and has been scientifically investigated, for example. The Catholic Church scientifically investigates, and confirms, miracles. And we all know there’s no all-powerful, all-evil God because there’s clearly far too much good in the world: love, laughter, ice cream, rainbows, puppies, etc.  

But if we can rule out an evil God on the basis of observation, why not a good God? In fact, I think we can rule out a good God on the basis of observation (including e.g. the scientific observation that for almost the 200,000-year history of humans beings, child mortality rates were around 50%), just as we can rule out an evil God on the basis of observation. 

What does your research tell us about current tendencies in belief, for instance, in fake news, conspiracies and pseudoscience? Is this a new thing? 

My book 'Believing Bullshit: How not to get sucked into an intellectual black hole', sets out eight warning signs that you have been sucked into a belief system that is, frankly, bullshit.  

Philosophers are increasingly interested in bullshit, fake news, conspiracy theories, and other examples of how even smart, educated people can end up believing ludicrous things. (Arthur Conan Doyle, who created the quintessentially rational detective Sherlock Holmes believed in fairies and was convinced by two young girls who took black and white photos of paper cut outs). 

What are your plans for the Department’s teaching in philosophy for the coming years? And for the Certifcate of Higher Education? 

I have only been in the role a few weeks , but I have more time to devote to development than my predecessor and am consulting very widely about what we might do in the future. I am confident we will be able to expand and refine provision in some exciting ways. 

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Published 10 November 2021