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Professor Lipton
December 17, 2007 - 11:57am



It's specious, writes Philip Larkin in his fear-of-death poem, Aubade, for philosophers to tell us that

No rational being

Can fear a thing it will not feel, not seeing that

That this is what we fear: no sight, no sound,

No touch or taste or smell, nothing to think with...

Peter Lipton, an historian of science at Cambridge who died of a heart attack on November 25, after a game of squash (he was 53), liked the idea of philosophers getting out more, as he put it; he contributed to a website which welcomed questions from anyone interested in philosophy. Is it rational, a reader recently asked him, to fear death?

"It's irrational to fear what death will feel like if you know it won't feel like anything," Lipton replied. "But it doesn't follow that it is irrational to fear death. It's not irrational to look forward to the pleasures of living, and if we know that death will take these away, the fear of losing those pleasures doesn't seem irrational either."

One of the pleasures of life, it's clear to UD from reading reminiscences of Lipton, was attending his courses on philosophy of science and philosophy of mind. He was lucid, critical, and very funny. At the end of one of his recent courses, grateful students came up and "showered him with flowers."

Lipton had an odd attitude toward religion. Calling himself a "religious atheist," he was an observant Jew without belief in God, but belief in the moral value of faith. This approach has never seemed very attractive to UD, who recalls finding Vaihinger's theory of "as if" unpersuasive when she encountered it in grad school, and who thinks Michael Beldoch is right when he writes, in the book Psychological Man, that "Although... we may say that we can believe in something 'as if' it were true, these are in fact mutually contradictory states of mind. At the moment that we believe in something it is true; the moment that we add as if, we cease to believe and become rationalist 'hedgers' and religious imposters."

Lipton would no doubt happily have copped to being a religious imposter... But, never able to accept religion -- Larkin, in the same poem, calls religion a "vast, moth-eaten musical brocade/ Created to pretend we never die." -- Lipton nonetheless seems to have found in his own religious traditions a meaning that sustained him.


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