Monday, 15 February 2010

'The pig that wants to be eaten' by Julian Baggini

A book of a 100 ‘thought experiments’ to provoke us into thinking – thinking about moral and philosophical issues. Each chapter presents a story, often developed from the ideas of a famous philosopher such as Plato, Descartes, Berkeley, Rawls or from more populist authors such as Philip Dick and Douglas Adams. Baggini then discussed the issue raised in a few paragraphs, so that each chapter is exactly 3 pages long and the book 300 pages long.

I first met Julian Baginni at a ‘Sea of Faith’ conference – or rather I heard a talk of his on ‘Selfhood’, without talking to him personally. His lecture was entertaining and approachable, yet touched on profound issues. So I was inclined to buy one of his (several) books when browsing in a bookshop a few months ago.

The format of the book encourages you to pick it up and put it down at short intervals, while one digests the individual chapters. At first I thought it slightly lightweight. Some of the thought experiments did not quite work for me – maybe I chafed against the necessary restrictions and unreality of artificial, fanciful ‘thought experiment’ situations. I could see that some raised important and tricky issues, but then felt unsatisfied by the mere few paragraphs that Baggini used to cover the issue, leaving many things unresolved. I even put the book down for a few weeks (though that is a common thing I do, since I often read 10- 15 books in parallel).

When I picked it up again, and ploughed along through the second half, I found familiar issues returning with a fresh perspective, and further commentary. I started to follow the connections to other chapters he suggests, and re-read earlier ones. I started to make notes on the book. Themes started to emerge from the mist. Baggini deliberately jumbles up the themes – but ultimately you realise that they are all related. So the book gained depth and weight, as I read backwards and forwards. I became more and more interested, and appreciated his self-restraint in limiting his commentary in each chapter. Instead a more resonant meta-commentary was emerging. I realised the author is an eternal questioner and is forever prising apart our ‘rationality’ our ‘morality’ our ‘common sense’. He does not propose evangelical solutions, but leaves a huge, sparkling scepticism hanging in the air, like stars in the night sky.

As an example, thought experiment #89 is titled ‘Kill and let die’. Here a man at a junction box knows a runaway train is going to kill 20 men in a tunnel, but he can divert the train to another track where he knows for certain it will kill only 5 men. What should he do? The Benthamite philosophy of the greatest good for the greatest number would dictate he flicks the switch to kill only the 5 men, rather than let the 20 men die. Doing nothing causes the greater harm, but flicking the switch requires an act on his part which is tantamount to choosing to kill the 5 men on the other track.

The thought experiment rules require that we introduce no excuses about uncertainty or a third way; by remorselessly focusing on this dilemma it forces us to decide and clarify our fuzzy, contradictory thoughts. So Baggini is charmingly slamming us up against a brick wall with a loaded gun to our heads, and forcing us to think, to work things out for ourselves.

John Vernon

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