Keep your little pulses


Melvyn Bragg?! I liked Melvyn Bragg; I think In Our Time is a great thing and I wish we had anything nearly as good in the US. But this is a nasty, ragey, wrong, silly outburst.

What he says about reason is ridiculous, for a start. He begins with a superfluous and venomous announcement that Hume is a much better philosopher than Dawkins, then goes on to argue from authority that Hume said so ha. He also misunderstands what Hume said (which must have been calculated; he’s bound to know better).

Here’s my transcript of that part:

He uses reason to destroy Christianity, and says that reason says there is no all-good god – that’s fine. Reason says there are no miracles; that’s fine; but one has to challenge his view of reason: David Hume, who is immeasurably a greater philosopher than Richard Dawkins could ever dream of being, put reason second in the scheme of things. We start with emotions, and passions, and feelings, the roots of which we don’t know, and perhaps we’ll never know; after that reason comes in to steer and sort them; it’s not the primary source of knowledge. Things come to us outside reason: intimations of love, surprised by joy, little pulses that we don’t know where they come from…

“In the scheme of things” – what does that mean? “We start with” – start what? “Things come to us” – what things? What kinds of things? What about them?

He’s either bullshitting or totally confused, and since he’s a knowledgeable guy, I’m guessing he’s bullshitting. Yes feelings are important; yes we mostly don’t rely on reason; no it is not therefore the case that emotions and feelings are reliable sources of knowledge. He implies that they are. I call bullshit.

Later he spits out a venomous attack on the claim that the bible is not an anti-slavery pamphlet, and again he just gets things wrong.

I’m a bit shocked. I would have thought Bragg was above this kind of cheap bullying.


  1. Mattir says

    Plus who every thought Dawkins was a philosopher anyway? I read Dawkins for biology.

    Also, trying to divide emotions and reasoning is a false dichotomy – they’re part of the same mechanism. The trick is for the reasoning part to understand how the emotions operate, which includes understanding inherent biases, and for the reasoning part not to dismiss emotional reactions just because the factors that go into the reactions can’t be articulated as easily.

  2. says

    Dawkins and the rest asked a very simple question: Is it likely that some sort of conscious supremely powerful and invisible entity has acted and continues to act upon the physical world? This is simple question about the physical world, with a simple binary answer (an answer which no one seems willing to speak.) Such questions are best dealt with by the scientific method, although I am tired of calling it that because it is the same method we try to use in our courts, our politics, our journalism, and in all other endeavors where we are trying to establish facts about the world. It should be more properly called the modern method.

    Bragg’s position is now as commonplace as dirt–so commonplace that I suspect that many who repeat it haven’t actually given it any serious thought. We should probably call it the postmodern method, which is to say that there is no method at all. It would be like being convicted of murder solely on the testimony of a witness who has never met you, has never been anywhere near the scene of the crime, has no expertise relevant to the case, but who feels deeply in her heart that you are the murderer.

    But, we are told, her deep feelings constitute knowledge.

  3. mnb0 says

    What Bragg possibly means is that we first make our decisions and only then continue to rationalize them. That’s an empirical fact from psychology, so we better accept it.
    The next step, that reason comes second as a source of knowledge after emotions and feelings is a non-sequitur. Still there are atheists who state something similar:

    Great article, I fully agree, but pay attention to this:

    “Craig’s distinction between the intellectual and the emotional problem is seriously flawed. The reason for this is that emotions can have cognitive content.”

    So Bragg might be less wrong than you assume …..

  4. Jef says

    Lord Barg seems to be one of Dennett’s ‘believers in belief’. He doesn’t really seem to have much more than that plus a misunderstanding of Hume and history on his side.

    It’s doubly disappointing that he’s in the ‘oh no, I’m not religious, but you do have to admire their faith’ camp.

  5. says

    Hume meant something quite specific, of course, i.e. that reason’s role in decision-making is ultimately an instrumental one. It cannot determine our desires all the way down, but ultimately assists us to satisfy our desires (or attempt to). It has a role in helping us understand and order our desires, but this role is limited and never transcends our desires in their totality.

    I agree with Hume on this (and disagree with Kant), but Hume wasn’t saying anything like what Bragg seems to think he was saying, as Ophelia was saying in the OP.

  6. Dave says

    Reason is the slave of the passions. That is Hume’s view. It was quite commonplace in the late C18 – you can find echoes in Smith’s ideas of moral sentiments, and even in Rousseau. There’s something to it, I think; but either way, it’s certainly well-attested as a philosophico-psychological theory.

  7. says

    Ironically…it’s partly this view of Hume’s that has taught scientists and other inquirers to be alert to biases, to devise methods to control for them without relying on one’s own probity, to seek intersubjectivity. At least I think it is – I’m neither a philosopher like Russell nor a historian like Dave, so correct me if I’m wrong!

    In the meantime, that’s what makes Bragg’s claim so idiotic. Of course reason is the slave of the passions, which is why humans are so apt to decide what to believe on the basis of what they want, which is how we get religions. Dawkins among others is trying to correct for that, and here’s Bragg babbling about “intimations of love, surprised by joy” as if they were epistemically superior to rational inquiry.

  8. Svlad Cjelli says

    “… put reason second in the scheme of things.”

    The schemes of my enemies are to be obstructed.

  9. mark d says

    To me — loyal ex-scientist that I am — Bragg’s vapourings about ’emotion’ and ‘passion’ and suchlike are the kind of self-indulgent crap that only comes out of the mouths of people who live and earn in the ‘talk-talk’ world: as soon as we leave the pampered corridors of broadcasting, and watch someone who has to make something *work* — be it a food-mixer, a street-lamp, or a kidney transplant, we see perfectly clearly that they know *nothing is going to happen* unless they put REASON at the heart of everything they do.

    Melvyn, you’re drunk. Get home.

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