Innovation/Global Crisis Blog

Do You Believe Bullshit?  How to Strengthen Your Skeptical Muscles!

By Shlomo Maital



 Stephen Law


The Sept. 12 issue of Newsweek has a review of an unusual book by an unusual author.  

  The book is Believing Bullshit.  The author is Stephen Law.  Law was a British high-school dropout at age 17 (“asked to leave”), and spent seven years working as a postman and a sandblaster, before a fascination with the big questions of philosophy drove him back to college.  According to William Underhill’s Newsweek review, Law recounts,  “I did a lot of reading; one book led to another and eventually I found I was reading nothing but philosophy books. Finally it occurred to me that this was something you could study at university.” 

    The enlightened authorities at London’s City University overlooked his total lack of formal qualifications and accepted him.   Within a few years, Law was teaching at Oxford and at age 36 he was professor of Philosophy at Heythrop College, part of London University. 

    Law published The Philosophy Files, a book aimed at helping schoolchildren think through some of the trickiest of big philosophical issues. (The most popular one, Law says, is whether it’s right to eat meat.  Second in popularity:  where does the universe come from?).    Law dislikes the way education leaves kids vulnerable.   “It equips people to accept what they are told,” he believes, “and regurgitate it, so they don’t have robust intellectual defenses…(which means) people are going to take advantage of you.  It seems to me that every child should have some immunity to bullshit built into their upbringing”.  

   And, he might have added – every adult!

   One passage in Believing Bullshit relates to “effing the ineffable”.  Here is how it works.  Say you believe in G-d because of the massive goodness in the world and because of the fundamental goodness of human beings. (I personally believe this).  Someone recounts the massive inexplicable lack of goodness – suffering starving children in Somalia and Kenya.   You then say,  (as did a Christian minister Law cites), anyone who attempts to define G-d by using His attributes is not a Christian, because G-d is beyond our comprehension.   End of argument.   Beware of this, Law cautions. Beware of the “Mystery Card” argument. Beware of “Well, I just know it is true”.  Beware of those “Pressing Your Buttons” by repetition, code words and emotive manipulation. 

    I think Law’s major message is his life.    He loves mountain climbing and plays drums in a rock band.  He came to philosophy not in a classroom but through his life.  He came to it late, because he became passionate and curious about it, not because he needed a degree with an academic job attached to it.  For him, philosophy is intimately bound up with how we live, how we think, how we learn, how we choose between good and evil.

      In a world with a huge surplus of lawyers, and a massive shortage of philosophers,  we have too many law suits (bullshit) and too few clear values (truth).