The Irish Times ‘Unthinkable’ column started out as an intellectual experiment for World Philosophy Day in 2013. Over four years later, it is still going strong, covering discussions from the nature of consciousness to the ethics of selfies. Showcasing Ireland’s philosophical talent – yes, it does exist – ‘Unthinkable’ continues every Tuesday in The Irish Times and www.irishtimes.com/culture/unthinkable

President Michael D Higgins is presented with a copy of the book 'Unthinkable; Great Ideas for Now' by Joe Humphreys at Aras an Uachtarain.

The ‘Unthinkable’ book is out now – the perfect seasonal gift for the thinking woman or man – via the Irish Times bookstore: www.irishtimes.com/offers/irish-times-books

Philosophical top trumps

(c) The Irish Times/Dearbhla Kelly


Links to the most recent columns can be found at https://www.irishtimes.com/culture/unthinkable

Earlier columns, from November 2013 to November 2015, are listed below:

Nov 3rd 2015:

  1. Would you want to live in the afterlife? Author Raymond Tallis imagines himself as a corpse and discovers new wonder for life


Oct 27th 2015:

  1. What makes humans valuable if not God? You can’t escape religious or metaphysical thinking, argues William Desmond


Oct 20th 2015:

  1. When does a nudge become coercion? Cass R. Sunstein, he man behind Obama’s ‘nudge unit’, says people need to be protected from their biases


Oct 6th 2015:

  1. Should morality be treated as an experimental science? Moral truths can’t be spoon-fed to people by priests or sages, says Sarin Marchetti, invoking the wisdom of William James


Sept 29th 2015:

  1. Should college places be awarded by lottery? Using a lottery is preferable to distributing goods based on ‘bad reasons’, argues political scientist Peter Stone


Sept 22nd 2015:

  1. Is Stoicism the answer to modern living? Mindfulness with an ethical twist is the Stoic way, explains philosopher Massimo Pigliucci


Sept 15th 2015:

  1. Are there truths that can’t be spoken? Cultivating ‘a sense of wonder that the world exists’ is central to Wittgenstein’s philosophy


Sept 8th 2015:

  1. Should education be student-centred? Teachers should not try to make content ‘relevant’, says sociologist Frank Furedi


May 26th 2015:

  1. Is thought the best medicine? If you don’t have meaning in your life you won’t have mental health, says Stephen J Costello


May 19th 2015:

  1. Should children be encouraged to doubt? School debating is no substitute for Socratic inquiry, argues author and campaigner Peter Worley


May 12th 2015:

  1. Are parents entitled to rule their children? Parents must seek the ‘consent of the ruled’, argues political theorist Dr Allyn Fives


May 5th 2015:

  1. What’s the use of poetry? Science ‘doesn’t do feelings’ but it should not ignore poetic truths, argues physicist and poet Iggy McGovern


April 28th 2015:

  1. How to deal with disagreement? It’s not easy but there is a third way to the realist and relativist approaches to truth, says UCD professor of American philosophy Maria Baghramian


April 21st 2015:

  1. Is uncertainty such a bad thing? We should not eradicate doubt but use it to our advantage, says philosopher Luciano Floridi


April 7th 2015:

  1. Is rewiring the brain the answer to ethics? Ignoring developments in neuroscience means neglecting a chance to become more ethical, argues Prof William T O’Connor


April 1st 2015:

  1. Is psychotherapy a licence to deceive? Although their work is usually helpful to patients, therapists are slow to acknowledge that there is a ‘Wizard of Oz’ element to it, says researcher Charlotte Blease


March 23rd 2015:

  1. Why should the State fund universities? Even non-students benefit from higher education, argues Prof Thomas Docherty


March 14th 1015:

  1. Why should men care about gender inequality? Academics should acknowledge their biases and avoid the ‘nice bloke’ trap, says Ian James Kidd


March 3rd 2015:

  1. Is religion just a matter of taste? Ideologies have a power to build communities; that’s why they endure, says philosopher Alexandra Grieser


February 24th:

  1. How good are we at spotting propaganda? Some of the most subtle forms of propaganda spring from the false idea that people can be neutral or objective, argues American philosopher Jason Stanley


Feb 17th 2015:

  1. Is the media just an arm of the market? ‘The single greatest tragedy in Ireland today is the absence of a free press,’ says Marcus deBrun


Feb 10th 2015:

  1. Does thinking about love kill the passion? A philosophical tip for St Valentine’s Day: ‘You can very easily talk yourself out of love,’ says philosopher Noel Kavanagh


Feb 3rd 2015:

  1. Why Charles Darwin is a threat to religion Evolution would not have become so contentious had Charles Darwin’s findings come later, argues Prof Peter J Bowler


Jan 27th 2015:

  1. Should the State fund religious schools? Unthinkable: Children have a right not to be indoctrinated, argues professor of philosophy Desmond M Clarke, and schools that discriminate on religious grounds should not receive funds


Jan 20th 2015:

  1. Is mystical thinking a cop-out? Trappist monk Thomas Merton believed that silent contemplation was far from impractical. Rev Scott Peddie explains.


Jan 13th 2015:

  1. Is a school’s ethos worth the paper it’s written on? The moral life is realised through actions, not words, says Dr Kevin Williams, former president of the Educational Studies Association of Ireland


Dec 28th 2014:

  1. Why is whistleblowing on the rise? Whistleblowing is a form of disobedience ‘well suited to a society in which our lives are shaped by mammoth, impersonal, bureaucratic institutions,’ says political scientist Bill Scheuerman


Dec 9th 2014:

  1. Should virtue be taught in schools? Some 2,400 years after Aristotle, fresh attempts are being made to develop character through the classroom, with Prof James Arthur, of the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues


Dec 2 2014:

  1. Has Cardinal John Henry Newman’s vision for universities died? The UCD founder believed tutorials, not exams, produced flourishing students. With Paul Shrimpton


Nov 25:

  1. Are the days of feminism numbered? More men are claiming to be feminists but what does that mean for the philosophy? With Lilian O’Brien


Nov 18:

  1. Has women’s thought been devalued? Philosophy stands accused of being the most chauvinistic branch of the humanities, with a 5:1 ratio of men to women. With Clara Fischer


Nov 11

  1. In the marketplace of values, how do you choose the right ones? Modern society is characterised not by a lack of values but rather a surplus, says Niall Keane


Nov 4

  1. Should research always give ‘value for money’? Current funding structures encourage safe and pre-determined research, says Orla Hardiman


Oct 28

  1. Should Trinity make poverty history or find a cure for cancer? TCD has pledged to tackle one of the ‘great questions facing humankind’, but which one should it choose?


Oct 21

  1. Is it ethical to eat plants? Plants are ‘intelligent’, says philosopher Michael Marder, which is why we need to eat them with respect


Oct 14:

  1. What are the limits of civil disobedience? From boycotting water charges to ‘informing’ on your boss, what duties do you have when you protest?With Kimberley Brownlee


Oct 7:

  1. Does living in relative poverty count as being ‘poor’? Not being able to afford the right clothes can amount to poverty, argues Jonathan Wolff


Sept 30:

  1. Are elite students just excellent sheep? Today’s top students are technically gifted but risk-averse and typically stressed, says William Deresiewicz


Sept 23:

  1. Can ‘love-in’ between faculties answer life’s big questions? Philosophers are increasingly drawing on psychology and neuroscience for inspiration but does push “pure” thinking to the margins. With Meredith Plug


Sept 12:

  1. Should public office be reserved for the over 30s? Plato may be inherently unfashionable but his ideas on compulsory national service and ‘moral’ education remain important, argues John Dillon


Sept 5:

  1. Would we be better off without the state? Given the crimes of the state, is it time we gave ‘libertarian anarchy’ a go? With Gerard Casey


Aug 29th

  1. Is artificial intelligence the greatest threat to humankind? AI could lead to human extinction, says Nick Bostrom


Aug 22:

36. Was the 1916 Rising morally justified? An insurrectionary group must have solid evidence that they represent the people, says James G Murphy


Aug 15:

  1. Why do we use time-saving devices to work longer? Bertrand Russell’s vision of a four-hour day resonates today in another era of high unemployment. With Joel Walmsley


Aug 8:

  1. The moral sense of Down man Francis Hutcheson: The forgotten Irish philosopher liked to think the best of people. With Michael Brown


Aug 1:

  1. Is the selfie an act of narcissism? Byron scratched his name into the supreme temple at Sounion, and compared with that a selfie is quite harmless, says Simon Blackburn


June 27

  1. Why do you feel compelled to flee boredom? Market values have turned summer into a platform for further consumption and turned all of us into a ‘resource to be used up’, says Dr Felix Ó Murchadha


June 20:

  1. How can we be free from corporate domination? Philip Pettit warns that we are holding corporations ‘less effectively to their responsibilities than we hold individuals to theirs’


June 13

  1. Have you a moral duty to care for others? Kant’s lesson for nursing home operators: people shouldn’t be treated simply as a means to an end. With Manus Charleton


June 6th

  1. Is the Irish media devoid of intellectual depth? ‘We need to see there are different ways of looking at the world to that served to us by the mass media, which is necessarily pretty banal,’ argues Desmond Fennell


May 30th

  1. Should religions get out of education? Linda Hogan doesn’t think faith formation ‘is something best achieved sandwiched between maths and English’


May 23

  1. Is Irish literature too local to have philosophical heft? In broader European and American literature, it is easier to find genuine marriages of philosophy and fiction than in Ireland. With Dr Áine Mahon


May 16

  1. How equal should we strive to become? John Baker makes the case for ‘equality of condition’ and a basic income


May 9

  1. Zombie blues and the hard problem of consciousness: Explaining consciousness is ‘last great challenge for science’, says David Chalmers


May 2

  1. How atheists can still believe in God: ‘If you ever stop deconstructing God and then reconstructing God, you get an idol’, says Richard Kearney


April 25

  1. Tired of capitalism? Try ecofeminism: Economies undervalue ‘women’s work’ – but are men to blame? With Mary Mellor


April 18 

  1. When it comes to human rights, we want duty-free: Human rights are brought ‘into disrepute by trying constantly to inflate all of them’, says Onora O’Neill


April 11

  1. What duty do you have to future beings? Is it fair to class anonymous sperm donors as ‘deadbeat dads’? With David Velleman


April 4

  1. Does Ireland’s ‘greatest’ philosopher stand the test of time? Ever wondered whether a falling tree heard by no one makes a sound? George Berkeley has an answer for you. With David Berman


March 28

  1. Are freedom and equality inevitably in conflict? In the cry for freedom, what exactly are people looking for? With Maeve Cooke


March 21

  1. Irish radical’s challenge to notion of God: As the Richard Dawkins of the early Enlightenment, John Toland created a pantheist outlook that’s still relevant today. With Ian Leask


March 14

  1. Should the nation be divorced from the state? National identity plays a role in binding citizens but, as with religion, the state should stand above it, says Attracta Ingram


Mar 7th

  1. Could philosophy in the community aid Ireland’s recovery? The pub is ‘an unrivalled space for civic discussion’, but discussion must lead to action, says Brendan Flanagan


Feb 28

  1. Are the good things in our lives our own doing? Do we acknowledge the role of luck sufficiently in political and personal affairs? With Vittorio Bufacchi


Feb 21

  1. Should we ever be ashamed of our bodies? Is obsessing about appearances, and the ‘spectacle of the public putdown’, all driven by economics? With Luna Dolezal


Feb 14

  1. How much loving are you ethically obliged to do? Why U2 got it right with ‘Love is Blindness’ and the Beatles got it wrong with ‘All You Need Is Love’. With William Lyons


Feb 7

  1. Can you cheat in sport and still be said to have won? Making a case for the ‘moral victory’ in sport. With John William Devine


Jan 31

  1. Which ‘golden rule’ of ethics is best, the Christian or Confucian? The rule of reciprocity can be found in all major religions, but with a different emphasis. With Yinya Liu


Jan 24

  1. Can a machine have a mind of its own? A computer replicating the voice of Scarlett Johansson might be able to convince users that it is human – but does that in fact make it human? With Phil Maguire


Jan 17

  1. Who decides what it means to be a person? Can either science or philosophy provide a satisfactory definition of personhood? With Dermot Moran


Jan 10

  1. Who’s running the show, you or your brain? The question of whether the brain is paramount has profound implications for all of us. With Kevin Mitchell


Jan 2 2014

  1. How far should we go to improve ourselves and our morality? Should we welcome new drugs that could artificially enhance human morals? With Bert Gordijn


Dec 27 2013

  1. Is the passing of time just an illusion? A thought for the new year: how you perceive time has moral implications. With Peter Simons


Dec 20

  1. Is Christmas a cause for celebration? Yuletide, winterval? Bah! Shouldn’t it just be called salesfest? With Helena Sheehan


Dec 13

  1. Does innovation always mean improvement? What, if any, responsibilities go along with the freedom to research? With Gabriel J. Costello


Dec 6

3.  Is scepticism a sustainable philosophy? Sceptics have the upper hand these days but are they hiding values of their own? With Paul O’Grady


Nov 29

2.  How do you eat with a clear conscience? Is meat murder, as Morrissey would have it? With Roger Yates


Nov 22 2013 (for World Philosophy Day)

  1. Was Socrates right about the unexamined life? A new weekly philosophy column begins with a Greek classic. With Catherine Kavanagh



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