EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW Oxford philosophy professor Timothy Williamson on Brexit: “I think the British university system will suffer”
The reality of Brexit has hit British universities hard, as they depend on European research funding and top universities like Oxford are already looking into the prospect of opening a campus in Paris, as to not lose the best and brightest minds flooding in from the continent. Evo News sat down for a talk with Oxford Professor and philosopher Timothy Williamson, renowned in his field for his theories on the concepts of knowledge, vagueness and language. He believes that British universities will have a hard time ahead, but says that they will remain on top in world rankings.
“I think the British university system will suffer because we can’t get European funding and we’ll get fewer students from Europe, but it’s not going to collapse as a result of Brexit. Perhaps we will have fewer scholarships, but I think that we will still be able to attract the very top students. It’s going to be bad for us, but not terrible. I think it will be harder to be world leading, but not completely impossible”, he said.
Williamson himself comes from a family of academics, as both his parents have taught at Oxford. “Being an academic is a family trade.”
As a child, he dreamt of becoming an archaeologist, but when he participated in his first dig in Oxford, he realised he was more inclined towards the abstract, thinking ideas, rather than actual archaeology.
“As a child, I wanted to be an archaeologist. In my case, it was Syrian archaeology that I really wanted to do, but then I went on an excavation in Oxford, where they were digging up a medieval rubbish dump in order to build a car park and I worked on that.
I quite enjoyed it, but at the same time, I realised that archaeologists have to deal with the messiness too. I wanted to deal with something more abstract and clearer. My father mentioned to me that Oxford University had just started a course in Mathematics and Philosophy and I thought that is something I want to do.
I was never much interested in the natural sciences as a thing to study, but Mathematics I really liked. The more abstract it was, the more I liked it”, he said.
His interest in philosophy began quite young, and was inspired by a great uncle of his, who had a passion for philosophy and psychology, but never got to follow them professionally as he became a businessman.
“I had a great uncle who had to go into business when he was very young because he was the only member of the family who was practical enough to earn any money, but his real interests were in Philosophy and Psychology and when I was 5-6 years old, he would talk to me about this. When I was about 14, I started getting interested in questions like free will”.
Williamson also listened to famous British philosophers on the radio and read transcripts of what they said. It was one such time, after reading the transcript of a radio talk in a magazine that he decided he wanted to think like them.
“The BBC had some radio interviews with some leading British philosophers of the time and I read some of these interviews in a magazine and I just wanted to think in that kind of abstract way. It was the style of thinking as much as the subject matter that attracted me”.
Since he was taken with Mathematics and all things abstract, logics was the branch of philosophy that interested him the most at first. He later developed an interest in the concept of knowledge and how is it different from belief.
“When I was a student, my main interest was in logical aspects of philosophy, the abstract fascinated me and the interest in knowledge was something that developed more later. Quite a few philosophers insist that the only things that could be real are things that could be known about.
That seemed wrong to me. Their attitude was that, ultimately, everything that there is can be known. Even if by some accidental reason you don’t know it at the time, given enough resources, you could know about it”.
“The Universe was not made to be known”
Williamson believes that the Universe was not made to be known, that is not its purpose and the fact that we are able to know some things about the Universe now doesn’t mean that one day we will be able to know all.
“It seems to me that the Universe was not made to be known by anybody and that it didn’t evolve for the purpose to be known and how much we can know about it is a completely open question and the issues of reality and issues of knowledge shouldn’t be confused with each other”.
Williamson says that the Universe isn’t looking to us to tell its story.
“There is no point in telling the Universe what it is because the Universe isn’t listening, but we can tell each other about the Universe”, he says.
Knowledge isn’t belief, it cannot be identified as belief
The concept of knowledge isn’t something sophisticated and inherent only to humans. It is, in fact, some things that other animals have, except that they don’t have the language skills to express it as we do, Williamson explains.
“I think that the notion of knowledge is something for which there are common names in all human languages, it’s something very simple and basic which children understand from very early in life. You can know about things by seeing or hearing them, then you can retain that knowledge and memory and pass it on to other people by telling them things
It is a concept that 2-year-olds have some understanding of, even quite a lot of animals seem to have a grasp of knowledge. Monkeys seem to understand that if they have a banana, then they have to hide it from other monkeys, so they can’t see it and eat it. It’s a very basic idea which I think philosophers have often presented as something extremely sophisticated that needed some kind of complicated definition”, Williamson explains.
He thinks that philosophers have been mistaking knowledge with belief, and there needs to be a clear definition of each concept separately, as they are not the same. Many times, belief is mistaken for knowledge, when in fact it is false knowledge.
“Their idea was to start with belief because it is something more internal to us. Knowing is a relation like seeing, it relates us to the outside world, whereas believing was pictured as just something that goes on in our heads. Then they try to explain what knowledge is by defining it as belief.
I was arguing that they were getting things the wrong way around, and that we should be explaining what belief is in terms of knowledge. If attempts to get knowledge, you sometimes end up with belief. It’s a case of failed knowledge.
If you make some kind of mistake, if you’re subject to some kind of illusion or deception, that you may end up with a false belief. False belief is not knowledge. Some people may believe that the Earth is flat, they just think they know, but they are wrong about that, of course”.
“I regard religion as containing a large amount of false knowledge”
Professor Williamson says that a clear give away of knowledge is curiosity. When someone expresses curiosity, they are searching for knowledge. Animals do that too.
“Even these beliefs that completely misrepresented the world, they actually were the result of our curiosity and curiosity is a desire to know what’s going on, to know the world and humans are not the only animals in the world that have curiosity. It’s important for any intelligent animal to have knowledge of its environment so it can adjust its behaviour to help it survive.
Human beings have this instinct to ask questions in order to find out more about the world they’re in which is a fundamentally healthy attitude. Because we have language, we can ask much more abstract, general questions than animals can”, Williamson says.
Religion is a place where one can find a great amount of false knowledge, from a desire to know things, but not acquiring the knowledge you seek and settling for something false in stead.
“Wrong theories are in a way a response to the world that we’re in, so it’s a desire to know.”
“False knowledge is just something that looks like knowledge, but isn’t really knowledge. There are huge amounts of false knowledge in the world in that sense and as a non-religious person, I would regard religion as containing a large amount of false knowledge, and pseudo-sciences like astrology. It’s false knowledge, a result of a desire for real knowledge which gets satisfied too easily.
A certain amount of wishful thinking is involved because the world is a pretty frightening place and there are stories which make sense in a reassuring and comforting way and are likely to take people in”, Williamson says.
“People who voted for Brexit are a similar sort of group of people who voted for Trump”
Williamson is also interested in the concept of vagueness as it is applied to the ordinary language we use every day.
“One other thing I’ve been interested in is the problem of vagueness. Most of the words in ordinary language don’t have any precise definition. For example, the paradox of the heap – if you have a pile of sand and you take one grain away, it’s still a pile of sand, but if you repeat that enough times, eventually there’s no heap.
People have used that to argue that standard logic which is based on a distinction between truth and falsity where every statement is either true or false, but not both. It doesn’t work for ordinary language because ordinary language is vague and you can’t make this kind of distinction that it’s either true or false.
For example, people have advanced something called fuzzy logic, which is a different sort of logic that is supposed to work for vague language. I have argued that, in fact, vagueness is a problem of ignorance, that there are in fact sharp boundaries between heaps and non-heaps, but it’s impossible for us to know where they are. Standard logic based on truth and falsity can apply even to vague knowledge in the standard sort of way. Just because we are ignorant of the boundaries doesn’t mean that there are no boundaries”, Williamson explains.
When it comes to the vagueness of language used by politicians, Williamson says that that is is hard for politicians who are well educated to convey a message that can be understood and believed by everyone and people like Donald Trump are more likely to reach a broader audience, except that what they convey is an illusion.
“Not very much human thought takes the form of logical argument. Trump is quite a successful communicator because he’s tweeting these quick instinctive reactions to people who are reacting instinctively, who feel he is somebody that can relate to because he thinks the way they do.”
“It’s often harder for politicians who are very well educated to communicate with the general public because people have the feeling that somebody that speaks in an educated way doesn’t understand the problems of ordinary people.
I think he is conveying a huge illusion that he cares about the problems of ordinary people, whereas he only cares about himself as far as I can see”, Williamson says.
Looking at the electorate, one can see similarities between the group that voted for Trump and those who voted for Brexit.
“I think that people who voted for Brexit are a similar sort of group of people who voted for Trump and it was not based on any analysis of the economic pros and cons. Many of the people who voted for Brexit were relatively poor people who are blaming their problems on foreigners and perhaps are regarding the European Union as some kind of elite conspiracy. Brexit was not something that was based on rational argument”.