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Based at The University of Edinburgh, the ESRC Genomics Policy and Research Forum is part of the ESRC Genomics Network and pioneers new ways to promote and communicate social research on the contemporary life sciences.

Saturday, 20 August 2011

A Treatise of Humean Nature

Ken MacLeod is part of the ESRC Genomics Forum Writers team covering the Edinburgh International Book Festival 2011.

When the hero of Alastair Gray's Lanark was a typically tormented teenager, he happened to open a book. The book began:
All the perceptions of the human mind resolve themselves into two distinct kinds, which I shall call IMPRESSIONS and IDEAS.
As he read on, he found that the text soothed his mind by lifting him right out of his problems, and giving him something else to think about. This is one way that philosophy can be applied to everyday life. Another, of course, is by mining the great philosophers for nuggets of practical wisdom. Not many of us have time to do that, or have any idea where to begin prospecting, but thanks to the division of labour (you'll find that in Adam Smith) someone else can do the mining for us, and package the result in a book you can read on the bus.

On Thursday Peter Guttridge chaired a session - billed as 'Philosophers who get to the core of being', a rubric which all concerned promptly and modestly disavowed - with two philosophers, Simon Blackburn and Robert Rowland Smith. I'll follow their own cheerful convention and call these distinguished gentlemen by their first names.

Robert began by outlining his books Breakfast with Socrates and Driving with Plato as showing ways you can find philosophy relevant to life, without necessarily trying to 'get to the core of being' with Plato and Hedegger. Driving takes life's milestones, from birth to death via school, work, relationships and so on, and looks at what philosophers can teach us about them. Simon said he wasn't keen on philosophy as therapy, or the philosopher as sage - he's an academic philosopher, and having spent most of his life among philosophers he can think of only one he could call wise. What we can learn from philosophy about life is what we can learn from art: an example of what a dedicated life is like. His own current book, Practical Tortoise Raising (not actually about practical tortoise raising), was 'a bit of a hard read and I don't really recommend it'. He'd been shocked that the Book Festival had no celebration of the tercentenary of Hume - 'Britain's greatest philosopher, and Edinburgh's greatest son'. Hume's greatness was in his firm placing of the human intellect in the natural world, as that of a thinking animal, with all the limitation and dysfunction that carries with it - and in his dedication, despite that, to just getting things right.

The questions from the chair and then the audience drew from both authors clear and strong statements of their views on far too many points to cover. You had to be there - and that's what makes such events so worthwhile.

A question from the audience about confirmation bias found the two authors in agreement on this Humean point: that it's difficult to escape. Robert said that if he tries to present both sides of an argument fairly, he sometimes finds himself undecided. Another memorable comment, in response to a point about the increasing managerial regulation of academics: 'Press, politicians, police, the bankers are all corrupt. Doctors and university lectureres are the only people who are any good.' Which of the two said that, I leave to the discretion of the reader to decide.

Born in Stornoway, Isle of Lewis, Ken has been a full time writer since 1997 authoring thirteen novels, including The Star Fraction (1995) and Intrusion (forthcoming, 2012), plus many articles and short stories. His novels and stories have received three BSFA awards and three Prometheus Awards, and several have been short-listed for the Clarke and Hugo Awards. In 2009 he was a Writer in Residence at the ESRC Genomics Policy and Research Forum. Learn more from Ken’s blog The Early Days of a Better Nation

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