Jonathan MS Pearce, columnist at OnlySky, interviews author and philosopher Jonathan MS Pearce to see what floats his boat. Turns out, quite a lot. Philosophy, God, politics, and good chats.
“I don’t get out much. I could use the excuse of the pandemic. Or my multiple sclerosis. But the truth is, the beach is only just down the road and I’m lazy. No, not lazy…obsessed. Obsessive.”
Jonathan MS Pearce, sporting his anachronistic and somewhat iconoclastic mutton chop sideburns, offers me into his suburban house just a shingle-beach stone’s throw from the coast.
We settle down on a comfy sofa but not before he has made us a cup of tea. That’s the first thing I learn about him: He likes his tea. Pearce moves a pair of Playstation controllers from the seat.
“My 11-year-old twin boys really should learn to clear up after themselves. Mind you, I’m 45 and still haven’t learned,” he admits as he removes his laptop from his own cushion.
It’s not the only laptop I can see, and I point this out. He says that given the amount of writing he does in the many different forms and venues, he needs them at arm’s length.
“I have a couple of different ones for different purposes. One’s held together in the study with a bulldog clip. I think laptops are an extension of my body. Like my glasses. They are so often attached to me, they have become part of my experience of being. I literally experience much of my day, much of my daily sensory data, through them and my phone.”
It doesn’t take me long to realize that every aspect of a conversation is a potential for philosophizing.
The first thing that I really want to know is why the MS. No, not the progressive condition he was diagnosed with back in 2018, but his initials. What not just call himself Jonathan Pearce? Is he just being pretentious?
“It’s the multiple sclerosis. I like to be upfront with it. Let people know what they’re dealing with!” Of course, he’s joking.
“Okay, I have my parents to thank for superfluous names. To be honest, I use them publicly because there’s a far more famous football commentator called Jonathan Pearce who is often on television and radio. I don’t want people to think he’s moonlighting as an atheistic philosophical writer. Hence the initials. You know, a Christian blogger once took issue with my writing and posted a huge diatribe on his blog against me, and posted a picture of the Robot Wars and football commentator alongside. That was pretty funny. It was as good and accurate as the rest of the claims he ever made.”
Pearce has been writing philosophical and atheological books and articles for over a decade now. He has recently found himself a new home here at OnlySky, on this very column. It all started, he tells me, some 15 years ago when a work colleague—then a committed conservative Christian—invited him to a brand new philosophy and theology discussion group, meeting once a month to tackle a different topic in a casual (though semi-formal) way. Pub philosophy: The Tippling Philosophers, as a group, was born.
The inspiration for their merry band was, unsurprisingly for those who know their pub discussion groups, The Inklings—an assembly of thinkers and writers, including authors such as CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien, who met in a pub in Oxford in the 1930s and 40s in a similar vein. Pearce’s group does less pipe-smoking and more questioning of pipes. After all, “Ceci n’est pas une pipe.”
“Sometimes I joke that if there was a heaven, it would be my mates and I talking bollocks over a good pint. Forever. Then again, heaven’s a long time. I think even I would get bored of the sound of my own voice after a gazillion years, despite the conversation undoubtedly being good, top-notch bollocks!”
Our chat comes easy. It is convivial, but entailing a juicy combination of lightheartedness and ideas that are never far away from some deep thought.
With the pandemic and multiple sclerosis, Pearce is now working from home, from where he has been remotely meeting with the rest of The Tippling Philosophers.
“It suits me. I don’t mind it, although we did meet down the pub again recently and it was admittedly brilliant. I’m gregarious and love working and being with people but I’m also comfortable in my own company. And modern life has shown that we can fulfill so much of our social and work needs virtually, online. Friendships, collaboration, work meetings, all sorts of interactions—we can do them online and still get almost the same results. Sometimes I think Disney’s WALL-E was prophetic.”
I can see the connection he is making—it is one I have made before myself. The animated movie is set in the context of humanity ruining the planet and escaping on large spaceships, only to float around in space lounging on electronic chaises-longues, becoming ever more horizontal in the absence of the need to move about. Pearce talks about how present humanity is moving in that direction: Work, shopping, social needs, even political activism, can all be done online.
“I don’t feel like I need to get out there with a placard and protest any egregious government decision, or despicable corporate excess, if I can fill out an online petition,” he opines. “Though that is a context that plays the poor cousin to the real thing. Mind you, petitions and protests aren’t nearly as effective as hitting these organizations at the ballot boxes or in the wallet. That’s what effects real change. And I suppose you can pretty much do both of those things from your own home these days, so…”
I soon learn that rabbit holes are common around here. One has to mind where one conversationally steps, so to speak.
It doesn’t take long for Pearce to get round to talking about God. It’s like some uncontestable magnetic draw, pulling God-talk into his frontal cortex. This time it was after we returned to his MS, as he stumbles over a door threshold on the way back from the kitchen with something to nibble.
“Thanks, God. Thanks for that. I can perhaps understand me being punished for my lack of belief (except I can’t when I think that God knew this in advance and created this universe anyway with all the variables in place that led to my lack of belief). But my children? What have they done to deserve having a father who can’t do all the things with them that other fathers do? I used to manage their football team, help coach their rugby team, run around in the park with them, swim and kayak with them. I was a parent governor at their school. Not any more. God saw fit to put an end to those family activities and responsibilities. He’s punishing my children in punishing me.”
He is railing against an entity he knows full-well does not exist, like some well-rehearsed soliloquy. This railing is not for my benefit because he knows I don’t believe, either. No, there is some intrinsic joy in his protestations of the non-existent “OmniGod,” as he often calls this now-abstract divine entity. “It” never used to be so abstract, he can’t help but muse, because the God of the Hebrew Bible—the Old Testament—clearly had a body.
I glance over to see Francesca Stavrakopoulou’s hefty book—God: An Anatomy—resting on one of the furniture units, and make sense of what he is saying. “I don’t have enough time to read,” he adds, seeing my gaze, “because I’m always writing. That annoys me!”
“Why do you care?” I ask him. “You know, about God. If God doesn’t exist, then why are you so preoccupied with the idea?”
He repeats the question as if to curl it around the inside of his mouth, a fine wine to be savored, a tipple to be tasted.
“Why do I care? God, that’s a good question. Not that she’s going to help me.”
I’ve noticed that he likes to play around with pronouns for God. I’ve seen this in some of his writing, arguing that God would be an abstract entity devoid of a body and gender, and so “it” is really the most appropriate pronoun, a pronoun he had already utilized. At this juncture, he again sidetracks himself.
“I like to make a point. Perhaps it’s to annoy Christians. In an era of choice of personal pronoun being so prominent, I’d really love to know what God would announce on its Twitter profile. ‘God (it, them, they): creator of the universe, designer of pain and suffering, hider of cure for cancer and malaria.’ Yeah, that’s about right.”
Sometimes it seems like Pearce likes to mess around with ideas in an amusing fashion to make that point, to be all the more poignant. And it’s another rabbit hole. With a shake of the head, we get back to the initial question.
“Why do I care? Hmmm. It’s that obsession I mentioned earlier. Because, really, whether or not God exists makes no practical difference to me. After all, I live in apathetic Britain. We’re not technically secular, here, but we’re a lot more practically secular than our friends across the pond. God’s existence has very little purchase for anyone around here, whether they actually believe in God or not. Because the vast majority of believers have traditionally been pretty nominal. So, in reality, I think I am just addicted to being right. God-belief is just wrong. Pretty obviously so.”
When he says he likes being “right,” does he mean that he likes “truth”? Is this a quest for some kind of objective truth about reality, or is he psychologically addicted to being right, to winning the argument, irrespective as to whether “his right” is the same as an “objective right?”
To put it another way, is this just intellectual jousting when with others, or when thrashing out articles and books on his own with energetic keyboard tapping, mental masturbation? Or is there something nobler going on?
“Don’t get me wrong, I love the thrill of the fight, mind to mind, and winning an argument against someone else is the geek equivalent to winning a boxing bout. But there is more to it than that. Truth is important. Important to me, personally, but also important to the correct functioning of society. We must disabuse people of inaccurate understandings of reality because such errancy won’t serve society well in the long run.”
In what way? I wonder what this might look like in real life.
The obvious way concerns morality. After all, philosophy pretty much always boils down to moral questions because that is how it affects us in practical terms: How we should act as individuals; how we should act as societies. At the end of the day, politics is morality writ large. If we are inaccurate about morality because we are still beholden to a parochial 2000-year-old book, then society suffers. Accuracy matters. Truth matters. People matter.”
“Well,” he sits forward, “there is also the idea of providing a resource service and a legacy. I’m hardly thinking up wholly new ideas myself. Philosophy is a game that someone has always played before you. They leave the board out and all the pieces so that you can mess around yourself. But the game has essentially been played in all of its combinations. Rather, I see my job as communicating sometimes complex ideas for a more general audience. Online, with my audience, there are many lurkers, not just people who argue to toss in the comment threads. There are those who don’t comment on articles but who read them, digest them, and who regurgitate the arguments in other contexts. You want your ideas to find fertile ground to grow into trees that drop countless further seeds. You want your work to matter. And in that, there is legacy.”
Mattering seems to matter to him. I wonder whether this is what underwrote his involvement in his community—as well as helping out with his children’s sports clubs, he was also a board member for a local environmental charity and action group (part of his local Transition Network town). The environment has long been on his agenda.
“Maybe,” he muses. “Or it could be that I’m rubbish at saying no. If someone asks for help, I’ve traditionally been a sucker for saying ‘Yes.’ It’s just a shame that I can do less of that these days. You know, fun fact, when I was backpacking around Australia at the age of 19, in the mid-90s, I was in this hostel in Melbourne and I was known as ‘the Yes-Man’ because I could never say ‘no’ to going out on the beers. I’m just not very good at saying ‘no,’ I guess.”
A little later, we walk about the house (he often uses furniture or walls to cruise around to help with balance), popping into his small office room to discuss some books. In the hallway, there is a wall of photographs of his children at different ages. This prompts me to ask him about his children and God.
“It’s important to me to teach them the processes of critical thinking and not to teach them the conclusion. Just because I believe there isn’t a God shouldn’t mean I teach them that conclusion, especially devoid of any justification. Instead, I want to teach them how to critically think, to give them the tools to reach their own conclusions. Teach a man to fish, and all that.”
He regales me with the story of when his boys, at age 8, returned home from school where they had been learning about God. “Daddy, do you believe in God?” Oscar had asked. “Well, no, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t-” But before he could finish, Oscar had interrupted. “But Daddy, I want to believe what you believe.”
That, he tells me, was pretty good anecdotal evidence as to how susceptible children are to misinformation and disinformation and believing anything their parents or people in authority tell them. They have a desire to believe, and be like, their elders, he speculates.
This was another excuse for a diversion to discuss the evolutionary pressures and reasons as to why it would have been advantageous for early man to believe their elders unquestioningly.
He is animated, as he so often is talking about these sorts of subjects. It makes me wonder whether he ever has time for small talk.
“It was better to believe your elders when they said that the berry over there was poisonous. Questioning the received wisdom could lead to death, so it was advantageous to believe your elders. The problem is, these days, this now means children end up believing in silly stories like Noah’s Ark and other outright myths and falsehoods. And it’s that nonsense that end’s up being dangerous in one context or another.”
Standing in his kitchen, a large and wide room, with modern glossy white units reflecting the light streaming in through the wall of folding French doors, I look into his back garden. Beyond the patio and garden furniture still wrapped up for the winter months, there is a small patch of lawn with a couple of sheds behind. No, the one on the right is “The Crab Shack” he tells me.
“We did it up quite nice inside so we could sit out in the summer and drink a glass of wine. Didn’t last long as an idea. It’s full of the boys’ crap now. “
There is a large trampoline and a goal for his children to enjoy.
“I used to garden quite a bit but I guess I’m too obsessed with writing these days to get out there. I use the excuse that there’s no point growing anything because the boys will only kick a ball into it. True enough, but, really, I’m just a workaholic.”
He drains the last of his tea.
“Even when I’m out there,” he says, pointing out to the garden, “I’m in here.” He points to his head. “I can’t do menial tasks without killing two birds with one stone. There’s not enough time in the day. Gardening or having a shower, I will be listening to a book or a podcast. It got to the point a few years back that I used to listen to the Reasonable Doubts podcast every time I mowed the lawn. Now the podcast has finished, If I mow the lawn—like Pavlov’s Dogs—I hear the theme tune in my head or hear their voices. It’s like Morgan Freeman having to ask permission to go relieve himself at the end of Shawshank Redemption.”
He lets out a chuckle.
“Yeah, I’m too busy. I wonder whether I’m too busy to enjoy normal life. Always writing, or doing YouTube videos, or whatever. I’m in the middle of writing three books at the moment. Because one just isn’t enough. I’m amazed my partner puts up with me. She has the patience of a secular saint.”
Three certainly sounds like overkill. The subjects reflect the vast array of his interests: one is a book providing a number of philosophical arguments against the existence of God, another (with an archaeologist co-author) is a historical and exegetical analysis of the Exodus in the Hebrew Bible, and the third, also co-authored, is a children’s fiction book.
“It turns out,” he says with a wry smile, “that our children’s novel—aimed at 10-14 year-olds, and with a little element of philosophy and history—is the most popular book I’ve written. It’s been picked up as a core text for English and history in a bunch of schools up and down the country. Shame they don’t teach atheism: I’ve got a whole bunch of books they could use…”
As time moves on, with conversation freely flowing and free-wheeling around the intellectual neighborhood, we decide to take a short trip to the local pub. “It overlooks the sea. You’ll love it.”
I’m sold. I just can’t say “no.”
The pub has some lovely views across the Solent, a short stretch of water a few miles across to the Isle of Wight. It is busy with craft of all shapes and sizes, serenely going about their business. There is only a small gap to the right, between Southampton and the 20-mile wide island, that allows me to see the English Channel beyond. If you were to keep sailing in that direction, you would soon reach France.
Through the large windows, the Solent is like a millpond, protected from more inclement weather by the Isle of Wight. The late afternoon low February sun paints oranges and pinks across the calm sea.
We both choose a suitable ale. “Good choice. A man after my own heart. You’ll like that one. Rich and plummy,” Pearce affirms.
We sit at a table with some cracking views. Pearce drinks from a pint glass with a handle. It’s an opportunity for another nugget.
“When I was 18 and getting into beer, these old-school pint glasses with a handle were going out of fashion. I decided to run a one-man campaign to make them cool again. Almost 30 years later and I can safely say I’ve failed.”
What about hipsters? Surely, somewhere, now, there’s some top-knotted and bearded, shorts-wearing hipster drinking craft IPA from a trendy pub that now only sells beer in pints with handles (“jugs” as he calls them), and fish and chips not on a plate but in an aluminum flower pot on a tray?
“Yeah, probably. World’s a funny place. Drinking from a jug is a bit like my sideburns. Not sure what’s going on there. I’m certainly not cool. It’s a weird mix of not giving a shit what I look like, and caring deeply about looking like something, I guess. I need to think about that some more.”
We look out again to the sea, taking in the view in a rare moment of silence. It doesn’t last long. There’s an observation just around the corner.
“It’s a bit like watching a fire. Unceasing movement of water and boat makes this panorama endlessly watchable. I grew up around here and this was one of my local pubs as a youngster. I have fond memories of this place, though it looks completely different now.”
Pearce tells me a little of what he frankly admits was a privileged upbringing. His family lived around the world as his father was in the Royal Navy, with the children—he has two older sisters—going to boarding school. They returned to the local area when Pearce was 17.
He openly recognizes that privilege, owning it. Part of that recognition helped to drive his desire to teach locally in some challenging and deprived environments, a job he loved before…you guessed it, the MS.
I can’t help but think that this whole world he has around him here—his family and his experiences—are an ocean away from the US. Literally and metaphorically, which makes me wonder how he has become so obsessed (there’s that word again) with US politics. This is a subject that takes up a lot of his focus in his writing, and, he also tells me, in his conversation.
“Though most of my audience is American, I don’t think that’s what drove me. When you become fascinated with politics, you can’t help but get drawn to the global powerhouse that is the US. And, from the outside, you can see how brittle, how frail, how full of systemic problems US politics is. The US thinks they represent democratic idealism in the global community. But they have a two-party, first-past-the-post system—the narrowest form of democracy you can get. And they are doing their very best to screw that up right now.”
And we’re off. No beating around the bush, no dipping the toe in to test the warmth. We’ve bombed straight in at the deep end and are swimming fast.
“Sometimes, and I’m thinking of the Trump years here,” which is problematic because there is nothing to say that this should be a past-tense phrase, “I look at US politics like a car crash on the motorway. You just can’t help but be morbidly drawn to looking at it, to find out what has happened, all the while sitting in the comfort of your own car. It’s compulsive viewing. Even my partner became addicted to watching US news on CNN every night when Trump was President, and she’s got no real interest in politics!”
Pearce is in full flow now, stopping only to refuel with a drink of his beer. This is tippling philosophizing.
“But just imagine being in that car crash! Imagine being an American now having to deal with all the political fallout. And just to finish the metaphor—I do like me a good metaphor—while we’ve been rubber-necking the crash on the other side of the motorway, it turns out we’ve driven ourselves off a cliff. Austerity, Brexit, retreating to Little England, the impending break-up of the Union, our own mini-Trump with stupid hair and a penchant for lying, sleaze, corruption. We’ve got it all. No need to look across the road.”
And he’s right, of course. The state of politics and government services in the UK is deeply worrying. From healthcare to education, the environment to welfare, the party in power, the Conservatives, are doing their very best to break things up and set the cat among the pigeons.
“Politics is important. And global politics can shape the world, and strongly influence your own paradigm.” Pearce is gesticulating with vigor. “Like it or not, the US has long been the big player in that global game. But it’s a game where there are lives at stake and the shared global environment. There are many good reasons to be obsessed with what the US does politically. Both internally and in terms of foreign policy.”
He tells me how UK politicians and strategists are learning quickly from the US landscape: lies come easy and can cause a lot of harm (or good, depending on your view) without there being any recourse; culture wars narratives work to divert the electorate from real policy issues; using the media to drive further polarisation by harnessing misinformation and disinformation; lobbying and corruption; even down to labeling opposition politicians with silly names.
It’s not so much that this country has become “Little England” but that it is becoming “Little America.”
“It’s like we’ve taken all the bad bits about corporate politics in the US and imported them here. When you see people like Steve Bannon working explicitly as an exporter of dangerous ideas, it’s troubling.”
Our time together draws to a close with still so much more to talk about, not least where he goes from here. But I really want to know what his goals are because, in some sense, that has not been altogether clear. Is this a means to an end or are the means the end? Is the goal of much of what he does actually in deriving the enjoyment from doing what he does?
I hope there will be a next time to delve into this. In the meantime, we have covered a number of different topics. I’ve peaked in rabbit holes, and I’ve glanced a warren, with twisting tunnels, some bending round in loops, others leading off into the darkness, some well-worn, others throttled with roots and debris waiting to be negotiated again.
“I’ve got an opinion on everything,” he assures me. But duty calls. His family will be back from the ice rink by now (one of his boys is getting rather useful on his blades).
We agree to do this again.
I guess neither of us can say “no” to the offer of a good chat, and a fine pint.