Thursday, December 22, 2016

THE MEANING MYSTERY (Wittgenstein on meaning, from my book The Philosophy Gym)


16. The Meaning Mystery


Language is an extraordinarily powerful tool – the most important tool we possess. How do our sounds, squiggles and other signs come by their astonishing power to mean something? Indeed, what is meaning, exactly? This chapter introduces some of the key ideas of two philosophers: John Locke (1632-1704) and Ludwig Wittgenstein (1989-1951).

Where does meaning originate?

Take a look at the following sequence of straight and curved lines.

            ILLUSTRATION: I am happy

In English these lines mean I am happy. But there could be other languages in which this same combination of lines conveys quite a different thought. There might be an alien civilization for which they mean my trousers are in tatters (I don’t say this is likely, of course. But it’s possible.) The lines are, in themselves, devoid of any particular meaning.
The same is true of other forms of representation, including diagrams, illustrations and samples. They don’t have any intrinsic representational power or meaning.
You might wonder about this. Here’s a well-known example from the philosopher Wittgenstein.

[ILLUSTRATE: STICK FIGURE ON SLOPE]

You might think that this simple combination of lines just has to represent a person climbing a hill. But as Wittgenstein points out, this same image could also be used to represent a man sliding down a hill backwards.
Indeed, we can imagine one-eyed aliens for whom the above combination of lines is used to represent a face

[ILLUSTRATE: ONE EYED-MARTIAN RESEMBLING THE ABOVE.]

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Oxford Literary Festival event with Prof Peter Atkins


This will be publicised shortly - March 2017, Oxford Lit Festival.

Can science answer every question? Is 'scientism' true? Is there not a place for philosophy, or theology, or some other ‘armchair’ discipline? Are science and religion ‘non-overlapping magisteria’ - with science focused on the age of rocks and religion the rock of ages, each unqualified to pronounce on the territory of the other? A philosopher and a scientist explore these questions.

Peter Atkins is Professor Emeritus of Chemistry at The University of Oxford, and has been called the Fifth Horseman of Atheism. Peter argues vigorously that science, and science alone, is capable of answering every legitimate question, and that disciplines such as philosophy and theology are a waste of time. Peter has said: that religious belief is 'outmoded and ridiculous’ and ‘I regard the teaching of religion as the purveying of lies’.

Stephen Law is Reader in Philosophy at Heythrop College, University of London, and the author of many popular introductions to philosophy including the Philosophy Gym and The Complete Philosophy Files (for children). He is also the author of OUP’s Very Short Introduction to Humanism. Stephen has debated a number of Christian thinkers including Profs William Lane Craig and John Lennox. He defends the role of armchair inquiry.