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Book review: Ultimate Questions, by Bryan Magee

See my 570 other reviews

In Confessions of a Philosopher, published twenty years ago, Magee described his thoughts about the possibility of survival after physical death and said that this was a question that troubled him deeply. In his new book he returns to this theme, whose importance for him is now even greater than it was when he last wrote because of its greater immediacy (he is now in his late eighties). The book could be described as an extended meditation on the nature of the self and what this means for our future prospects, if any.

Many people would turn to religion for answers to questions of this kind but not Magee; he has no religious faith. The alternative is often taken to be the view that there is nothing beyond the empirical world—what we know or can know. But this is wrong too, according to Magee, who holds, on rational grounds, that we cannot know the whole of reality.

We can know (and I think we do know) that aspects of reality exist that are permanently outside the possibility of human apprehension. We can raise questions about them which, as questions, have enormous significance; but unless we can make contact with a source of information which is outside the range of human apprehension we cannot get answers on which we can rely.


Religious people think that God is such a source of information but Magee does not find this credible, although he is agnostic about the existence of God as he is about practically everything else, including our own nature.

Science is important in helping us to shape our view of ourselves and the world but it is not sufficient. Magee names three philosophical mentors who have done most to guide his thinking; he sees them as links in a continuous chain of development extending over 200 years.

There is a tradition within Western philosophy that has irradiated these questions with light, even though it has not and cannot provide them with definitive answers. This tradition began with Locke, proceeded through Hume, and reached its highest development in the works of Kant and Schopenhauer.


The lack of definitive answers may make some readers feel that this is a bleak outlook. Magee himself seems to feel this. Now that he is in his eighties he finds that his attitude to the search for truth has changed somewhat.

I used to regard commitment to this kind of truth-seeking as the overriding value—the need to discover and live in the light of as much truth as we can find out about whatever it is we are—and it is still how I would like to live as much as I can. But I have discovered that there are things that I cannot bear.


But this not his ideal position—it is a compromise, as he makes clear later.

What I find myself wanting to press home more than anything else is that the only honest way to live and to think is in the fullest possible acknowledgement of our ignorance and its consequences, without ducking out into a faith, whether positive or negative, and without any other evasions or self-indulgences.


This is a deeply personal book. Although Magee occasionally quotes other philosophers he provides no references or lists for further reading. Perhaps for this reason, I found it impressive but rather claustrophobic. Not everyone is as appalled by the thought of extinction as Magee is. In Confessions of a Philosopher he mentioned that Karl Popper was not troubled by it; nor was David Hume, and there are plenty of other examples among philosophers. In fact, the late C.D. Broad said that he would be more annoyed than surprised to find he had survived the death of his physical body.

As always, Magee writes clearly, without jargon, and he makes his case for profound agnosticism with considerable force. I find it difficult to disagree with him, but I think the distress he describes himself as feeling is probably an individual quirk of character.

03-01-2018
%T Ultimate Questions
%A Bryan Magee
%I Princeton University Press
%C Princeton and Oxford
%D 2016
%K philosophy
%O kindle version downloaded from amazon.co.uk, 3017

OpenBSD after 4 years' use

Note added 31 August 2019: OpenBSD has just introduced a new feature, sysupgrade, which makes it even easier to upgrade than it was already.



Why I'm posting this
I started using OpenBSD for my desktop in September 2014 after many years on Linux. I thought it might be useful to summarise my experience since then, particularly for anyone who is thinking of making the same transition. I've blogged a lot about this previously (see the bsd tag) so this is really just an update.

In brief, I still like OpenBSD and have no thought of going elsewhere. I use the -current flavour and update the system about once a week. OpenBSD -current is roughly the equivalent of Debian Sid or Arch; in other words, it's a moving target. This may suggest that you need a lot of experience to use it and that doing so is rather risky, but I've found it to be if anything more stable than either of those linux distributions.

There have been occasional hiccups, mainly with packages rather than the base system (unlike in Linux, these are maintained separately in the BSDs), but there have been no show-stoppers and I've been able to solve problems with help from various kind people on the internet. But OpenBSD differs from Linux when it comes to finding help.

Getting help
OpenBSD users are always advised to read the (excellent) man pages, which often provide the answer, so that's usually the place to start. The online FAQ is also essential reading.

All the Linux distributions I've used have mail lists and these are probably the most widely accessed resources for help with the different distributions. OpenBSD has a general mail list (misc@openbsd.org) but this is not the place to ask newbie questions. Most of the discussion is more technical than what you will find on a typical LInux list and many of the topics are not relevant to desktop users. I read it daily and learn from it, but even after 4 years much of it still goes over my head.

A very good place to go when starting out with OpenBSD is http://daemonforums.org. There are some very knowledgeable people there who kindly and patiently answer beginners' questions. Remember to search the site before you ask your question; you'll often find that it's already been answered.

If you think you've found a bug either in the base system or a package you can submit a bug report. Even if you don't do this it can be useful to keep an eye on the bug reports at https://marc.info/?l=openbsd-bugs. If the problem is with a package you can email the package maintener whose address is given in the info page for each package; I've had very helpful responses in this way. Incidentally, a useful place to look for ports is http://openports.se.

If you are following -current you should certainly keep an eye on https://www.openbsd.org/faq/current.html.

Finally, anyone who has decided they want to use OpenBSD regularly should get a copy of Absolute OpenBSD by Michael W. Lucas.




Book review: Confusion, by Elizabeth Jane Howard

This book continues the story of the Cazalets from the point it reached at the end of Marking Time. It covers the period from March 1942 to the end of the war in Europe in 1945. The main characters are the same as in the previous volume except that Sybil, who had terminal cancer, has died. Read more

Water companies use dowsing to find leaks

Today's Daily Mirror reports that an engineer working for the Severn Trent water company used dowsing to search for a leak at a property. The property owners' daughter, who is studying for a Ph.D in evolutionary biology at Oxford University, contacted the water company; they confirmed that some of their engineers practise dowsing and they have no objection. She then wrote to other water companies and found that nine of them used dowsing.

Dowsing is generally regarded as pseudo-science. Wikipedia lists a number of scientific studies of the practice that have been conducted since the early twentieth century; they have almost uniformly found the results were no better than chance.

A number of homeopaths use dowsing, usually with a pendulum, to choose their medicines. In the 1980s, when I was a physician at The Royal London Homeopathic Hospital (now The Royal London Hospital for Integrated Medicine), I contacted a dowsers' society to ask if their members were willing to take part in a trial to see if they could distinguish real homeopathic medicines from placebos. They agreed to do this and I started to set up the trial, but unfortunately they then backed out.

Book review: How Language Began, by Daniel Everett

Everett is an anthropological linguist who has lived for extended periods with the Pirahăs, a small group of Amazonian natives (see Don't Sleep, There Are Snakes). His new book presents his view of how language has developed in the course of human evolution.

There is a wide range of opinions about the antiquity of language. Some, notably those influenced by the theories of Noam Chomsky, think that it is quite recent, perhaps only 50,000 years old, and is due to a new brain adaptation to construct and understand grammar. Language is therefore confined to Homo sapiens, and recent Homo sapiens at that. Everett is at the other end of the scale; he finds that language is more than one million years old and arose in Homo erectus. No sudden mutation was required for this; it resulted from a progressive increase in brain power linked to more complex culture. Language is a cultural invention, not primarily a biological phenomenon. Continue reading.

A shocking story

This morning I happened to hear On Your Farm on BBC R4, in which Caz Graham was talking to a Herefordshire tenant farmer, Steve Clayton, who with his partner Joyce is being forced to leave his farm and home because the local council has sold the land. Steve couldn't raise enough money to buy it himself, and so he's left with no option but to sell up and move out. Now in his 50s, and after a lifetime in farming, he's not sure what may lie ahead. He has no work and nowhere to live. We heard the sounds of his farm equipment being auctioned off.

I found this a truly shocking story to listen to. I know councils are strapped for cash but surely this situation could have been managed better.

Book review: The Disappearance of God: A Divine Mystery, by Richard Elliott Friedman

In a sense this is a sequel to Friedman's earlier book, Who Wrote the Bible?, but its focus is different and more personal, particularly in the later chapters. Like the first book, it has a detective story element, which is signalled by its being framed in the form of three Mysteries. The first of these, which takes up the first half of the book, is about the progressive hiding of God's face in the course of the Bible: the second and third mysteries concern what this implies for the modern world and its future.

Many people probably think of the Bible as a collection of stories and other texts of varying kinds but not as having a unifying plot. But Friedman says that if we read it as a whole, instead of, as usual, in small extracts, we see that it is really a coherent drama which traces the history of the Jewish people and their relation to God as it developed over a long period. What gives it dramatic unity is precisely the theme of God's progressive withdrawal. This is certainly a surprising idea—Friedman himself finds it "astounding". But he demonstrates it with ample citations. [Read more]

Book review: The Meaning of Belief, by Tim Crane

In 2007 Tim Crane was invited to give the Bentham Lecture at University College London. The lecture is sponsored by the Philosophy Department at UCL and the British Humanist Association. His lecture was badly received. The reason, Crane thinks, is that the audience members were expecting an attack on religion of the kind they were used to, whereas what they got was a call for understanding and toleration.

Crane identifies himself as an atheist, but he disagrees with those he describes as the New Atheists: Richard Dawkins, Daniel C. Dennett, A.C. Grayling, Sam Harris, and the late Christopher Hitchens. The combative attitude of these writers and others who think like them has, he believes, been counter-productive; they want to eliminate religion but they are unlikely to succeed. [Read more]

Book review: The Winter King, by Bernard Cornwell

This is the first book in a trilogy, The Warlord Chronicles, telling the story of Arthur. As Cornwell concedes in a pThis is the first book in a trilogy, The Warlord Chronicles, telling the story of Arthur. As Cornwell concedes in a postscript, we know very little about Arthur—his very historical existence is in doubt—so this is largely a work of imagination.

It is set in the Dark Ages, in the early years of the sixth century. The Romans left Britain a hundred years previously and now the Britons are fighting the invading Saxons. Unfortunately they are also fighting one another.This is the first book in a trilogy, The Warlord Chronicles, telling the story of Arthur. As Cornwell concedes in a postscript, we know very little about Arthur—his very historical existence is in doubt—so this is largely a work of imagination. [Read more]

Strange medical term in Casualty

In the last episode of 'Casualty' the surgeon Connie Beauchamp described a patient as suffering from cor pulmonale. She pronounced this in such an odd way, with the stress on the final 'e', that for a moment I didn't understand what she had said. The stress is normally on the 'a' (third syllable).

It isn't the first time that Connie has come up with odd things in this show. Some time ago, as I noted here, she told a patient to complain about her to the BMA - she should have said the GMC.

Andrew Marr traduces Thucydides

In 'Start the Week' today Andrew Marr referred to Thucydides, the Athenian historian, as 'the father of history' and also 'the father of lies'. This is incorrect; both these epithets have been applied to Herodotus, not Thucydides, who is regarded as a serious and reliable historian, still studied by academics today. But even Herodotus is now thought to be generally reliable and is our only source of knowledge for many features of the ancient world.

Dr Giles Fraser's Latin tag

Giles Fraser's 'Thought for the Day' has figured here before. Today he mentioned the demise of the old one-pound coin and its inclusion of the motto 'fid. def.', which he said was an abbreviation of 'fides defensor'. It isn't: it should be the genitive form, 'fidei defensor'. Quoting Latin and getting it wrong is a regular trap for speakers on 'Thought for the Day' - see this entry.

Book review: Living with a Wild God, by Barbara Ehrenreich

Barbara Ehrenreich, two of whose previous books I have already reviewed here, has many talents. She trained as a scientist and obtained a Ph.D in cellular immunology from Rockefeller University. But she then changed course and has been active in numerous other areas, especially feminism and left-wing politics. Throughout her career she has been a freelance writer, producing a wide variety of books and journalism, for which she has won many awards.

The present book is quite different from anything she has written previously. It is based on a journal which she started at the age of fourteen in 1956 and continued intermittently until 1966. The main reason for returning to it now is that it included the account of an ecstatic or mystical experience that happened to her when she was seventeen. As a rationalist and atheist she had not been able to come to terms with this and kept it to herself for many years, but now she feels it is time to try to understand it. [Read more]

Book review: Improbable Destinies, by Jonathan B. Losos

An important controversy in evolutionary biology concerns the inevitability or otherwise of the appearance of humans. According to Steven J. Gould, if the tape of life could be rerun from the beginning it is very unlikely that anything resembling humans would appear. But Simon Conway Morris disagrees. He and those who think like him hold that something very similar to us was pretty well bound to arise, and similar organisms would evolve on any other planets that support complex life (though these are likely to be rare). So who is right? This is the question that Losos tackles in his new book. [Read more]

Book review: Strange Bodies, by Marcel Theroux

This is a complex book. It could be described as science fiction or fantasy, but also as a philosophical or metaphysical novel—perhaps a fictional extension of the kind of thought experiments that Derek Parfit makes use of in Reasons and Persons; a meditation on the nature of human personality and its uniqueness or otherwise. And, finally, it is a thriller. [Read more]