This is the first of a four-part exclusive interview with Professor A C Grayling, first published in 2010
PETER BRIETBART meets world-renowned philosopher, humanist and atheist A C GRAYLING, Professor of Philosophy at Birkbeck, University of London and a supernumerary fellow of St Anne’s College, Oxford. He is a prolific author, whose works include Against All Gods, Liberty in the Age of Terror and Ideas That Matter, and he is a regular contributor to the Guardian newspaper. Their discussion ranges from burqa bans to circumcision, free will, great literature and the right to die.
PB: The universe can be a difficult and confusing place. How are we to find direction or purpose?
ACG: The direction and purpose of individual lives are a function of the work that an individual puts into creating them. When people ask “What is the meaning of life?”, the answer is that it’s the meaning you impose on it. It’s the aim you set for yourself. There are many different kinds of good lives, and many kinds of valid meaning in life — as many as there are talents for living them. We’ve all got different such talents.
The challenge we’re offered is as old as Socrates and probably older. Socrates said that the “considered life”, in effect meaning the “chosen life”, is the good life — always of course, under the government of principles that stop you from harming other people or preventing them from being able to form a good life for themselves.
PB: And personally? What gets you out of bed in the morning? What drives you, what inspires you?
ACG: Lots of things! I’ve always wanted to try to understand this world of ours and the human predicament: how best to live, how to form good relationships – for these lie at the heart of good lives – especially friendships and affectionate relationships.
The business of thinking philosophically also involves reflecting on literature and the other narrative arts, which can tell us so much about human experience, helping us to reflect on our own experiences and our efforts to create something of value from it.
We’re all equipped with an ability to create value. In my case the effort is made through teaching and writing, trying to make a difference to if possible by taking part in the conversation that humanity has with itself about what matters.
PB: A change of tack now, from the philosophical to the political. France is currently considering banning the burqa. Do you consider such an act justified, and would you support the UK doing likewise?
ACG: First it’s important to note that what is meant by “banning the burqa” is that any French citizen who accesses public provisions of the French state, such as education or welfare, is required to do so as a French citizen, rather than as a member of one or another self-selected identity group such as constitutes a religion. I don’t think France is asking anybody not to wear their religious symbols or their religious dress in their own private time.
I think the same should be true here. We’ve already had some similar difficulties about a woman wanting to wear a full veil while serving as a primary school teacher. Or people wearing visible crucifixes while providing a public service, or refusing to help gay people in an adoption agency because of their religious principles. The same principle applies in all these cases. Public provision is equal to all, and so one shouldn’t try to distort the relationships in the public sphere by means of these major assertions of religious identity.
ACG: Usually people who say that are quite ignorant of what’s involved in scientific research and of the wonder, the beauty, the amazement that comes out of encountering things in the exploration of nature through science. Such a person must obviously never have had the experience of solving a problem in mathematics or logic and realising how beautiful those rational structures are.
Also, it’s a silly and rather shallow view, because someone might be a technical geologist or physicist during the working day, and in the evening hugely enjoy music or writing poetry and reading it to his beloved, and the like. It’s a rather trivialising view that completely misunderstands the richness and complexity of human responses, probably all the richer in very intelligent people, people of the kind of intelligence that can do science seriously.