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Militant Agnostic

Ultimate Questions, by Bryan Magee, Princeton University Press, 144 pp, $16.95, ISBN: 978-0691170657 In a recent article for The Guardian, Richard Dawkins discusses writing about science. Like any fundamentalist, he endorses the use of rhetoric rather than reasoned argument when communicating with uninitiated minds (“If your readers can’t cope with higher mathematics, prose poetry is a good resort.”); and, perhaps thinking of himself, complains that science writers don’t get Nobel prizes for literature. He goes on to quote the allegedly “glorious” prose of chemist Peter Atkins: “We are almost there. Complete knowledge is just within our grasp.” For several decades, Bryan Magee has distinguished himself as one of the finest popularisers of philosophy in the English-speaking world. His BBC television interviews with philosophers, broadcast in the 1970s and ’80s and now available to watch on YouTube, are excellent examples of how complex ideas can be dealt with in a popular medium. In his books Magee never resorts to the Trojan horse of “prose poetry”: he presumes intelligence on the part of his audience, and goes about rendering hard concepts accessible without oversimplifying them. When he fails it is usually because he pitches at too high a level – better surely than falsely dumbing down. Magee dedicates his latest book to the argument that “complete knowledge” is necessarily forever beyond our grasp. He describes the notion that “we human beings have emerged from Nature by processes which science can, in principle, explain fully” as “deeply uncomprehending”. He rejects religious explanations as “intellectually impoverished” and at the same time admonishes atheists for underestimating the level of our ignorance: we cannot rule out the existence of a god. Magee therefore recommends a kind of extreme agnostic attitude. He summarises our predicament as follows: “So we, who do not know who we are, have to fashion lives for ourselves in a universe of which we know so little and understand less.” The central argument of this work is largely drawn from the metaphysics of Immanuel Kant. Magee believes that, despite Kant’s stature and the centuries we have had to digest his writing, the full implications of his work have yet to be taken on board. The reason for this is not the difficulty of Kant’s arguments, nor the notorious impenetrability of his prose, but a lack of imagination Magee finds typical of the modern professional thinker. Kant introduced the distinction between “things-in-themselves” (loosely synonymous with…



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