Defending Philosophy 1: A Reply To Dr. Coyne

A little Nietzsche to set the tone:

Of the friend

Our faith in others betrays wherein we would dearly like to have faith in ourselves. Our longing for a friend is our betrayer.

And often with our love we only want to leap over envy. And often we attack and make an enemy in order to conceal that we are vulnerable to attack.

“At least be my enemy!”–thus speaks the true reverence that does not venture to ask for friendship.

If you want a friend, you must also be willing to wage war for him: and to wage war, you must be capable of being an enemy.

Jerry Coyne expresses regret at feeling the need to attack me, though I am a fellow freethinker. I won’t play this one cool (though it’s tempting to do so), I’m just pleased that Jerry Coyne (and, not to mention, my estimable colleague Ophelia Benson before him) cares enough to address what I have to say. I didn’t post critically about Coyne to get his attention (it was not literally the “at least be my enemy!” gesture described in the quote above) but I am happy to have his ear for the moment. I fully expected my original post to go into obscurity quickly (as most do). Predicting what will or will not make a ripple on the internet is beyond my powers of comprehension.

So, anyway, Coyne has defended himself and his original argument, so let me get to that. I also have much to say to the vituperative anti-philosophy comments which came in response to my original post by various commenters at several sites now. I hope to write a few posts addressing the issues related to the nature, value, and necessity of philosophy which were raised by their attacks, as time allows.

Coyne writes:

Sometimes people become so bound up in their own career paths that they’ll defend anyone who’s walking a similar path, even if they’re doing it rong. Two philosophers have just done this, guarding their turf without realizing that some dog has deposited a large poop on that turf.

Well this is not true at all. I have been around the block–er, the turf–and found many piles of bullshit. It took a long while to evade them and to stick with traversing the territory until I could find where the good shit (so to speak) was. I had to get out of the bullshit of theology first. But in doing so I made the common philosophical mistake of swinging to an overly extreme skeptical response that mired me in postmodernism for a while.

And it took me a while to come to terms with my deep rationalism and abandon postmodernism, frustrated again that there was little-to-nothing there to learn. Having gone deep into both theology and postmodernism to learn firsthand the ultimate emptiness of both, I am even more vigilant against bullshit in speculation than I was before. I am not just defending turf for turf’s sake. I am glad to concede turf other philosophers might want to fight for.

Remember last week when I singled out a California graduate student who was doing a Templeton-funded postdoctoral fellowship ($81,000 a year for two years, with $5500/year for travel)?  The subject of study was ludicrous: it was an investigation of how an omniscient God could both know everything we’re going to do and yet still allow us free will to make new choices. That, of course, means that God couldn’t know anything in advance. And that’s a big problem!  Time reversal!  Process theology!

I’m sorry, but I just don’t think that’s nonsense. I do not see how knowing what will happen is the same as causing it to happen. Like, for example, I know that Jon Stewart is going to continue to appear on The Daily Show for the upcoming week. Is this knowledge making him appear on The Daily Show all week? I don’t see that connection at all.

Now you might say I don’t know Jon Stewart will be on The Daily Show since (not being omniscient) I could be wrong and in the intervening time he can still use his free will not to. But I still don’t see the problem. The same way that I know—imperfectly but with high probability—what Jon Stewart will do this week without causally changing his will, similarly if I knew perfectly and with exact probability how Jon Stewart would use his free will this would also not be causally determining his will.

Now, maybe I am wrong. I am not a metaphysician. Even were I a metaphysician, I might get confused on some point or another. But I do not see why (a) a priori, in advance of careful study, we cannot infer that it is possible that I am right or (b) why investigating the views of William of Ockham, one of the greatest and most influential philosophers in history, should be considered a waste of time as part of examining all the conceptual issues involved in the question of whether knowing in advance would make freedom possible or impossible. (Studying Ockham, even from a historical standpoint can very illuminating. My first published philosophical essay summarized Hans Blumenberg’s defense of the legitimacy of secularism, and Blumenberg’s argument hinged on understanding how the Enlightenment represented a rejection of Ockhamist nominalism and voluntarism.)

What I don’t know is how I can say for certain, in advance of philosophical argumentation more sophisticated than I have yet seen, why I am wrong. The night I wrote that post, I had just taught two sections of Philosophy of Religion (with predominantly skeptical students) and we had just been reasoning about this issue and had found that discussing it had illumined several more tangible philosophical problems. And as part of that discussion I talked about how foreknowledge in the case of a hypothetical atemporal being would be a misnomer. This is because such a being would see all things at once, as one might be able to observe and think about a timeline or storyboards for a film, cases where one can look at all the parts not as they happen in history or in film but with the whole picture of the chronological sequence always there in front of you all at once.

From what I understand, Brian Leftow (who studied under my undergraduate teachers and was also at Fordham, but left before I got there when he moved on to Oxford) thinks that it is this extra-chronological perspective that would allow God to “retroactively” (from our perspective) “answer our prayers”. God would see the totality of all events in his “eternal present” and so could in that eternal present be accounting for everything that happens past, present, and future. And so any of the decisions God makes that are in response to what our wills are are ones he always knows to make. In other words, since he is always seeing what our wills do, though they happen chronologically for us, he knows how to layer things such as to answer our wills when he wants to or not answer them when he does not. I think this is Leftow’s basic view, but don’t cite me.

This strikes me as internally consistent, even if utterly false in fact. Maybe it’s not internally consistent. Okay. But even if it’s not, it is worthy of a philosophical investigation to explain why not. If it is consistent, it is worthy of a philosophical defense against charges it is not. Even if it has no practical value and even if there is no such eternal being it is valuable for us to know if the concept is internally consistent or not.

It is of course, especially of interest because if it turns out that it is internally consistent then maybe some would change their mind and conclude theism was less unlikely than they thought (for not having an inconsistency they thought it did and on which basis they rejected it). Or, alternatively, maybe showing there is an internal inconsistency reinforces atheism and serves philosophy that way. All of us atheists, including Dr. Coyne, will on occasion say “if there were a God, then x would be true, x is not true , therefore there is no God”. That means taking on the concept hypothetically has value, even if only to debunk it.

So let Patrick Todd ask the question. Qualified philosophers (I am assuming) approved his project after reading more than a mere synopsis and they probably know much more about Ockham and his philosophical worth than either Dr. Coyne or I do. So he has a right to do it. And once it is done, if it survives peer review maybe we will read about it in journals or in a book. Maybe the 84% of philosophers who are non-theists will find it unsuccessful and write articles about how yet another possible way to prove the internal consistency of the theist God has been tested and has failed. Maybe they will all convert. Who knows? That’s the open-ended process of knowledge. But, philosophy has proven empirically to be better at producing atheists than even science is. And we have done this even without forbidding (or decrying) funding for all God-related research projects.

I am even reminded of Dr. Coyne’s justifiable concerns over Francis Collins’s appointment to head the NIH. I remember Dr. Coyne arguing that Collins has specifically argued for various religiously-based prejudices against science ever being able to answer various important questions and wondering whether that would bias Collins in his funding decisions. Would he close off valuable lines of inquiry out of religious prejudice against them? (I defended Dr. Coyne’s position hereherehere, and here.) Similarly, I am troubled by Dr. Coyne’s desire to a priori delegitimize all philosophizing which so much as explores any conceptual investigation of non-existent beings. Choking off speculation like that seems to me too severe. Let the educated, qualified philosophers who are theists marshal the best new arguments they can. Who is hurt?

And maybe if foreknowledge and freedom are shown consistent by Todd’s work, it still does not prove God’s existence but, along the way, the exercise shows us 50 other conceptual relationships and exposes 50 other contradictions between our concepts. Maybe some of those clarified concepts, despite having used a wild hypothetical about a non-temporal being’s interactions with a chronological world to get them, can then be taken out of that hypothetical world and thought about in situations known to exist in the real world and will then help us make sense of some problem in the real world.

Sometimes even scientists have explored purely hypothetical models that they found interesting, or have found some arbitrary connection interesting, and then it struck them that this might explain a physical phenomenon they are puzzling about. Then they rigorously, experimentally test whether that model matches reality and, lo and behold, it does. Or it doesn’t, and they abandon it. Or modify it, etc.

Philosophers can and do speculate about the hypotheticals in order to illumine the actual. If that’s not serious philosophy then Descartes himself is not a serious philosopher. And philosophers often read other philosophers who are basically wrong in their main theses because they make numerous illuminating comments along the way, nonetheless.

So, Todd’s position sounds to me like something that an Oxford professor like Brian Leftow might approve of. I have no idea about the particulars of Todd’s approach, but I see how it is not theology since it’s not going to use the Bible or the presumed authority of any holy men as evidence (that I can see). If it is a philosophy department so I am assuming standard operating procedure and all the illicit theological interpolations will be excluded. I got my PhD in a Jesuit philosophy program. I know that competent, professional religious philosophers know how to leave their theological sources of authority out of their philosophical arguments so that they stand or fall on their philosophical merits and are assessable by other philosophers with no special pleading.

So, I assume, with no other information, the project is legitimate for a philosopher.

Next Dr. Coyne addresses my contention that even were there no omniscient being (and I think that there is no good reason to think there is) that the questions are still interesting:

The theory is NOT philosophically interesting in the absence of an omniscient being.  If there isn’t one, as I presume both of these folks agree, then the project becomes an exercise in mental masturbation, musing about what something nonexistent would do if it existed. Why is that any more valid than wondering how an omnimalevolent God could allow good in the world, or why an omnibenevolent God allows evil?  Or, for that matter, how fairies would keep their wings dry in the rain, or how Santa manages to deliver all those presents to billions of kids in only one evening. And what if you assume that God isn’t omniscient? Then the whole project is moot.

That exercise is not philosophy, it’s theology. And it’s a waste of money, for it accomplishes nothing.

First, there is no such thing as a real perfect square in existence. It is an idealization. Without it where would math be? Without math, where would science be? God as defined by philosophers for hundreds of years is an idealization concept. That’s all it functions as within the bounds of most philosophy. So, when you say “what if God isn’t omniscient” then you are talking about the concept of a different being than the idealization of an omniscient, omnipotent, omni-etc., being.

That is fine too, of course, we can specify other beings. What about an omnimalevolent one? What about finite gods? What if this is all a dream? What if we are really in the Matrix? We can ask about such beings or situations. If you can develop interesting philosophical implications by exploring possible objects and their implications then by all means explore them.

In fact, we have art and literature to do just this. Should we defund all the grant money being wasted on literature departments? Do we learn nothing of truth from explicating in a rigorous fashion the implications of false beings? Philosophical hypotheticals more rigorously than literary studies use imaginary beings which represent key conceptual distinctions to get at how things work. Counterfactuals are a big part of how this reasoning works and they can be done with logical rigor thanks to modal logic.

So, yes, tons of conceptual variations of idealized and finite beings alike help us clarify and distinguish concepts. It’s a big part of how philosophy is done. I understand being on hair trigger against speculation and against fictional/literally-impossible beings, given how religious fundamentalists like to confuse people about the differences between myths and truths. But speculation and hypothetical beings and hypothetical scenarios are our way of thinking through logical implications of things in the real world which are not strictly capable of being settled in laboratories.

Each time you biologists and physicists and chemists work out empirical, mathematical models that we can pin the concepts down to, most of us philosophers are thrilled to hand them over to you as your nearly exclusive domain and we get busy primarily reexamining the remaining indeterminate concepts as best we can to get them as straight as they can be, consistent with the scientifically clarified world.

If you can nail down everything to mathematical equations and remove all the ambiguity which currently requires philosophical speculation if any clarity, precision, or logical order is to be achieved, then you can put us out of business. In the meantime though, we know what we are doing—we produce more atheists than you do even!—and don’t need your vetoes of our research projects based on synopses anymore than you need Congresspeople deciding to nix your rigorously scientifically vetted research proposals because they think they sound stupid or irrelevant or trivial or politically incorrect.

Finally, assuming the foregoing, I will address Dr. Coyne’s last points briefly:

1. I do take philosophy seriously, but only serious philosophy.  The kind of mushbrained lucubrations embodied in the Templeton proposal may be meant seriously, but they’re not to be taken seriously.  They involve spinning out the consequences of a nonexistent omniscient being. What’s the point?

The kind of philosophy I do take seriously is ethical philosophy—or any kind of philosophy that gives us logical tools to think about our beliefs, getting us to examine them closely and pointing out their fallacies.  In fact, one of my favorite colleges courses was a philosophy course in ethics, taught by a student of John Rawls.

But the veil of ignorance and the original position are scientifically impossible thought experiments! So was John Rawls not doing serious philosophy but just gobbledygook?

And I’ve read and appreciated a fair amount of philosophy.  But I’ve studied philosophy, I know some philosophy, philosophy is a friend of mine, and, Dr. Fincke, that proposal is not philosophy.  It’s addled theology.

I hope I have made the case why it is philosophy, whether it is a good project or not. If the proposal involved relying on the Scriptures or Church authority or anything besides reason, logic, and science as evidence, then I would agree and trash it as pseudo-philosophy/theology. But I am assuming, based on what I know about how scrupulous religious philosophers work, that while the concept of God specified will come from the Christian tradition, it will be explored with the same philosophical tools applied to any other hypothetical concept and mercilessly assessed using rigorous reason by other philosophers when the project is done. This is why I am not bothered by it and think it is out of turn for Dr. Coyne to imply the project is inappropriate for philosophy.

2.  I do indeed advocate scientism, if by scientism you mean “we accept no truths about the world that aren’t derived by logic, reason, and empirical observation.” That’s construing science broadly, but I think it encompasses what is meant by the term “scientism”. I’m proud to take that stand, though philosophers like Fincke and V.S. use it in a pejorative way. Philosophy alone cannot tell us what is true about the world.  It gives us tools to help us find what is true about the world. But that Templeton-funded Travesty tells us nothing about the world. It’s a waste of money that could be used to do something constructive, like funding scientific research.

No, that’s not what I mean by scientism. I mean by scientism the view that the only truths there are or which can be known are those which can be verified by the scientific method. There are philosophical truths, there are ethical truths, there are historical truths, etc. I wholeheartedly agree with you that they must be derived using rigorous standards of reason and evidence. But not all evidence is scientific evidence. Not all reasoning is scientific reasoning. What is important though is that nothing philosophically argued about truth can contradict what is known by science. Exploring hypothetical beings for their conceptual implications does not contradict science any more than rigorously deriving truths about perfect squares (yet to be unearthed in the empirical world) does.

I don’t need to go on because, if you look at the comments on Fincke’s post (there’s none on Verbose Stoic’s), nearly all of them take him to task for defending that postdoctoral proposal.  I find it very odd that a skeptic would defend a proposal to study what a nonexistent God would do if he existed. That defense can only be seen as a wider defense of the value of philosophy, and I don’t disagree that some philosophy has value.

Many of those comments trash or mischaracterize philosophy itself. Does that bother you, Dr. Coyne? If so, I would really love it if you used your considerable influence to help defend the value of philosophy to those who do not get it but do (rightly) admire you and your judgment in general.

Your Thoughts?

About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • http://freethoughtblogs.com/butterfliesandwheels/ Ophelia Benson

    I look forward to part 2!

    Even before that I see that I got my difficulty wrong – it’s not just god’s putative knowledge of the future but that combined with god’s omnipotence, combined with the assumption of free will.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Camels With Hammers

      Thanks Ophelia! Can you spell out the nature of your difficulty more? Is it how we could be free if God is omnipotent?

      I think the idea of God having underdetermined free will is incoherent, myself. And I think the postulate of our having undetermined free will is also incoherent too, for basically the same reasons. But hypothetically I can entertain propositions which ignore those problems for the time being and do not see an immediate conflict between omnipotence and undetermined free will. And, now that I think about it I can imagine us only being undeterminedly free if in some way an omnipotent God made us so in some way that we just cannot coherently grasp yet.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/butterfliesandwheels/ Ophelia Benson

      I can’t really imagine knowledge of the future – not absolute goddy-type knowledge, knowledge that can’t be wrong. But I’ve decided I’m not trying hard enough.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Camels With Hammers

      I just imagine it as memories just like of the past, but they’re of the future. I imagine it being identical in character. How it could happen would be the puzzle. You would need sort of mechanism if you were talking about an actual being within our causal world. This is why I think of course positing the true existence of such a being without any account of the mechanism by which it happens or any proof such a mechanism or being exists is wrongheaded and why I am a gnostic atheist.

      Nonetheless, were there a mechanism of which we were ignorant or were there a being that was beyond “mechanisms” since, being the source of the causal networks of which we are a part, it is not subject to and its abilities not dependent on causal mechanisms, then in some mysterious sense it is conceivable. It is just not something I find believable given the paucity of good evidence it is in fact true.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/butterfliesandwheels/ Ophelia Benson

      Ah, well that makes a difference – because memories are very unreliable. Ever read Elizabeth Loftus’s book on the subject?

      So if knowledge of the future is like memory it’s really very shaky “knowledge.”

      Of course, you said only that you think of it that way; that that’s a way to imagine it. But even so…it just reiterates that it’s highly dubious knowledge.

      The criminal justice system relies heavily on the memory of witnesses, and…that’s unfortunate.

  • Walter

    You go off the rails in P 6 when you put gods in our reference frame. After all, the Tralfamadorians could travel back-and-forth in our time reference and so could see anything at anytime, why not some god? You had free will to eat eggs or cereal this morning, but all the free will in the world could not have you now unchoose what you chose. (My personal opinion regarding free will -short form- is that water runs downhill whether it chooses to or not, and biology is chemistry and chemistry is physics.)

    The omniscience/omnipotence dilemma just goes to show that any god who has both is a real jerk, judging from the unpleasant things I see around me.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Camels With Hammers

      I am not quite sure I understand your objection. Essentially what I am saying I could conceive as possible is that all at once God perceives all possible wills in all their possible configurations recognizes which ones’ prayers he wants to satisfy and instantiates the world program that allows their wishes to be instantiated all in the eternal moment in which he creates the universe.

      Then, basically, we are on our way to Leibnizian paradigms.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Camels With Hammers

      I guess, on reflection, is the problem is that it is assumed that the only way to know what will happen in advance is to know the causal chains that will make what will happen in advance happen so that if a God who is behind us in time (and not truly atemporal) could see what we would choose in advance then that means there is a causal mechanism that will make our choice and that is how he is seeing in advance.

      But, I do not see why knowing a future event for such a being would have to involve knowing a causal chain. Why cannot it be like our power to know about events in the past which is not based on an understanding of the causal chains that made the past event happen? We know about the past from memory not from knowledge of causal chains.

      Of course memories come from causal chains from by which the event comes to be learned of and remembered by us. So the real problem from a reality standpoint is how a being back in time could gain memories of the future. By what causal chains? That’s what makes it seem quite impossible without some weird theory of backwards causation. But the problem is not in the knowing itself indicating that the choice is determined.

    • Zagabu

      Even assuming an atemporal god, I’m afraid I still don’t see how a choice that is known and therefore determined can actually be considered free in a way that isn’t just illusory.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Camels With Hammers

      Think of it this way, it is not causally determined to happen as it does by anything but a free will. The free will’s causing it to happen as it does then causes the atemporal or foreknowing mind to be determined as it is in its thoughts.

  • Zagabu

    I agree with you here insofar as I think good, interesting and useful philosophy can be done by thinking about a hypothetical omniscience. I disagree because it seems to me that the Templeton Foundation pays people not to do good, interesting and useful philosophy, but rather to think sloppily in ways that agree with them. Time will tell in this particular case, I suppose.

    I do want to take issue with one thing: I don’t think Coyne was making a causal argument about omniscience! If we are presupposing an omniscience, it seems silly to ascribe anything other than perfect knowledge to that being. If god has perfect knowledge of an event, regardless of it’s time frame it could not occur otherwise, and if it couldn’t happen any other way then there isn’t any room for free will, regardless of the causation.

    Am I just stating the obvious and missing something? It seems like you’re accusing Coyne of claiming a causal relationship between omniscient knowledge and the event, when all he is saying is that omniscient knowledge necessarily precludes free will.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Camels With Hammers

      My point is that if the knowing is not doing the causing then even though the action can’t happen otherwise than is known to happen, when the action happens it can happen as a free choice. I know what Jon Stewart will freely do on Monday night. Even if I knew it perfectly it could still be done freely at the moment it is done. It will not occur otherwise, because, as I know, Stewart will use his freedom as he does. It could have been otherwise, but I knew the choice would go the way it did. The mechanism by which I would know it is mysterious if it’s not the inference of a causal chain, I grant you that. But I think the issue is that it is better to say that there is no literal foreknowledge but atemporal knowledge like the digression into Leftow seems to articulate more clearly.

    • Zagabu

      I suppose this might be a digression from the subject of a defense of philosophy, but I’m curious how events that are perfectly known by a god (even in an atemporal timeframe) and could not occur in any other fashion (regardless of the causation) can be considered freely chosen, if that god is “instantiating a world program.” That seems to imply that the (hypothetical) god is just choosing (hypothetically) to construct a world exactly as he (hypothetically) desires from his atemporal viewpoint, with an illusion of free will provided by our temporal perspective. Am I misinterpreting the phrase “instantiating the world program”?

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Camels With Hammers

      What I refer to by a “world program” is the possible world. There are an infinite number of possible worlds in which we freely choose differently. God opts to instantiate one of these worlds, ours. He knows that this is the world in which we make the free choices that we make in this world. Part of what he knows is what we will pray for and he chooses a world in which the things that some of those prayers ask for (including events) happen too.

      This is a Leibnizian way to solve the problem of God answering prayers by making things happen chronologically before we prayed for them to happen.

      I don’t, to be clear, think it is true that this God exists and I certainly don’t think any deity answers any prayers. But it is philosophically explorable.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Camels With Hammers

      I think attacks on Templeton are better launched with more actual evidence of corruption than was provided in the posts from Coyne at hand.

  • http://servileconformist.typepad.com/servile-conformist/ PatrickMefford

    It’s too bad Coyne thought you were trying to “pwn” him. Thanks for trying to have a decent discussion, but Arch-Bishop Coyne has spoken, so his fans already have their marching orders. Take care!

    • http://www.hyperdeath.co.uk hyperdeath

      Huh?

    • http://servileconformist.typepad.com/servile-conformist/ PatrickMefford

      I’m making fun of the massive group think from Coyne‘s fan club. There hasn’t been any clear demonstrations of any incoherence in Todd’s Postdoc project, just assertions to the contrary. When it was demonstrated that this has bearing on temporal and modal logics, it was met with a wave of objections that belonged in a freshman philosophy course.

      At the end of the day, Coyne is making a virtue out of ignorance, and the chorus in his combox laps it up.

    • http://www.hyperdeath.co.uk hyperdeath

      Ah, the old “let’s psychoanalyse the opposition” gambit…

  • NewEnglandBob

    …for example, I know that Jon Stewart is going to continue to appear on The Daily Show for the upcoming week…

    No, you don’t KNOW any such thing. You SUSPECT it from past behavior. This is no where equivalent to an omniscient deity.

    There are a number of other things wrong in this post, including your scientism straw man, but I won’t waste more time on this.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Camels With Hammers

      No, I do know it. I don’t have to say I just “have suspicions” about everything that is not 100% certain. That is NOT the way we talk, nor the way the best epistemologies I know of distinguish knowledge claims from mere suspicions. A mere suspicion is much more of a guess. I have much more confidence Jon Stewart will be on TV tomorrow night than that. If you have the patience to bear with me, you may benefit from considering the ideas in this post: http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers/2011/09/03/mostly-true-not-mostly-false/

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/butterfliesandwheels/ Ophelia Benson

      But but but – surely “God” is supposed to know what it knows absolutely. Knowing what Jon Stewart will do next week is so unlike that, it can’t be considered the same kind of knowledge.

      Oh wait, that was your point – let’s say that’s the kind of knowledge god has. Right; that would be a different discussion.

    • http://verbosestoic.wordpress.com/ Verbose Stoic

      Just to tie this back to the defending philosophy part, whether omniscience requires absolute knowledge is, in fact, a philosophical question that needs to be justified. For me, it’s one that I explicitly deny philosophically; knowledge is knowledge, and knowledge does not require certainty. God just knows more than I do, knowing everything and all while I don’t, in fact, know everything. I argue, to tie into something you said at your blog, that an omniscient being knows everything knowable, and doesn’t know anything that isn’t knowable. It’s potentially a weaker form of of “omniscience” than is normally used, but it’s also one that I think makes more sense and fits better with current epistemology.

      But there is a lot of philosophical debate that can go on about those concepts. You aren’t wrong to question the claims, but you are in some sense ignoring all the work that’s been done to address those issues.

    • Midnight Rambler

      But again, it’s irrelevant to NEBob’s point. You don’t know, down to the picosecond, exactly how long he will pause before asking a certain question to a guest; what the question will be, and his inflections in asking it; the precise expression on each of their faces, etc. That’s the kind of knowledge that an omniscient being would have, and the kind of things that are affected by free will.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Camels With Hammers

      But it does not matter. I know specifics of what he said Thursday night without knowing any necessary chains of causation that made him do what he did Thursday night. I just have a memory of it. Not all knowledge is “I know the exact causal chains that make this happen” knowledge. Therefore Stewart could make a radically free undetermined choice and I could know about it even if there are no necessary causal chains making it happen to know about. The mechanism by which I would acquire this is mysterious of course but we are positing omniscience, it would obviously have more capacity for understanding than we have.

      Again, I do not believe in either non-determined free will or think there is any good reason at all to believe in an omniscient being in case people are getting worried. I still think I know there is no god and no non-determined free will.

    • aspidoscelis

      So, I assume, with no other information, the project is legitimate for a philosopher to get a modest salary of $41,000 a year to research.

      Nitpicking–it’s $81,000 a year. I don’t know anything about normal pay for philosophy post-docs, but in biology this would be very high. That doesn’t have much to do with the legitimacy of the project, but it does seem to play a role in Coyne’s “WTF?” reaction to the whole thing.

      Overall, though, Coyne’s comments on this topic remind me strongly of Sarah Palin’s disparaging remarks on fruit fly research &c. It’s very easy for those outside a field to look cursorily at the situation and say, “Seriously, you’re paying someone to do that?!”

    • aspidoscelis

      Whoops, didn’t mean for that to be a reply up here. Oh well.

    • Midnight Rambler

      Holy crap; thanks for pointing that out. I also read it as an $81,000 grant, to cover two years of salary. $81k/year is more than most starting assistant professors! Especially since most new positions (where they exist) are 9-month appointments.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Camels With Hammers

      Corrected, thanks.

      And, yes, it is just like the Sarah Palin picking on fruit fly research. And it is potentially damaging in a comparable way to have scientists picking on philosophers without adequate information, rather than supporting our legitimacy and autonomy. We live in a “know-nothing” country in which all of education is under threat and philosophy programs are especially vulnerable in some cases because of their “uselessness”. It is short-sighted for an academic, and especially one ostensibly concerned with promoting atheism to attack philosophers in a way that feeds into perceptions that we’re somehow getting a way with thievery.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/butterfliesandwheels/ Ophelia Benson

      Yes. Shades of Proxmire. I do wish they wouldn’t.

    • Midnight Rambler

      And ironically, the fruit fly research she was referring to was not (as everybody assumed) regarding Drosophila – though of course that too is important – but for control of tephritid fruit flies like the medfly, with direct, immediately-applicable results for agriculture.

  • ‘Tis Himself, OM

    But I am assuming, based on what I know about how scrupulous religious philosophers work, that while the concept of God specified will come from the Christian tradition, it will be explored with the same philosophical tools applied to any other hypothetical concept and assessed by philosophers mercilessly using rigorous reason.

    I’m obviously missing the big picture. Philosophers study the products of bronze age shamans’ imaginations in order to determine The Truth™ of hypothetical concepts, but scrupulously and rigorously.

    Exploring hypothetical beings for their conceptual implications does not contradict science any more than rigorously deriving truths about perfect squares (yet to be unearthed in the empirical world) does.

    For me, a perfect square is a number having an integer as its square root, i.e. 25 is a perfect square because its square root is 5. Is this what you’re referring to as not unearthed in the empirical world? 25 is as empirical as any other number. Again, this philosophy is too confusing for my non-philosophical mind.

    So investigating Gandalf’s motivations is a Good Thing, philosophically speaking, as long as we don’t posit him performing magic, coming back from the dead, or any of that non-sciency stuff.

    Just as an aside, how does this philosophical rigmarole differ from literary criticism?

    As Bugs Bunny once remarked: “I knew I should have taken that left turn in Albuquerque.” Because I’m not getting anywhere near to where you think I should be at.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Camels With Hammers

      I’m obviously missing the big picture. Philosophers study the products of bronze age shamans’ imaginations in order to determine The Truth™ of hypothetical concepts, but scrupulously and rigorously.

      No, that’s not what they do. Philosophers think about things like what the concept of perfection entails or being omniscient would entail or being omnipotent would entail or what personhood would entail, etc., in order to clarify our concepts. Conceiving of a perfectly omniscient omnipotent person may have interesting conceptual ramifications, given the right puzzle.

      Positing the true existence of religious superstitions (ones which cannot be conceived of as referring to a basic philosophical concept like the idea of a perfect being, which predated Christianity) is rarely involved. When they get involved it becomes theology.

      Philosophers’ god concepts are quite different than concepts ordinary religious believers are thinking of, typically. This is one of the things I find so infuriating about religious apologists, especially those with philosophical understanding. They are basically giving people a bait and switch. What they mean philosophically is often, if not true, rationally coherent and minimally philosophically plausible, but what they are selling to the congregations and assuring the congregations has good philosophical support is sheer superstitions and fabrications. Often the philosophical understanding of a concept strips it of all the things which make it so magnetic to ordinary believers.

      I take it you have little patience for philosophy, but if you are interested, here is my breakdown (and takedown) of what Catholic (or at least Thomistic) philosophers basically mean by God being “good” and “not causing evil”: http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers/2010/07/09/on-god-as-the-source-of-being-but-not-of-evil/ I explore what a bait and switch the concept is in loving detail.

      For me, a perfect square is a number having an integer as its square root, i.e. 25 is a perfect square because its square root is 5. Is this what you’re referring to as not unearthed in the empirical world? 25 is as empirical as any other number. Again, this philosophy is too confusing for my non-philosophical mind.

      No, by an empirical perfect square, I mean something in nature that is perfectly equilateral down to the precisest measurements. If I have this wrong and such a thing exists in nature, please correct me.

      So investigating Gandalf’s motivations is a Good Thing, philosophically speaking, as long as we don’t posit him performing magic, coming back from the dead, or any of that non-sciency stuff.

      As long as we do not posit that truly and in fact Gandalf exists, we can explore hypotheticals of him having motivations, performing magic if for some reason these would help us think about one of our concepts’ implications. Like, if Gandalf used his magic to switch my brain with yours such that my brain was now in your body and yours in mine—does that or does that not mean that I am now living in your body and you in mine? Does existing in a different body make me a different person automatically? This could help us (through a fantastic example) think about the really important thing—our concept of a person. It is better of course to make our example more scientifically realistic. But even there, we would be describing only hypothetical science and technology, and not the current state of either.

      Just as an aside, how does this philosophical rigmarole differ from literary criticism?

      We are not analyzing stories but concepts. We vary hypothetical scenarios to test how our concepts could cover them. We are interested in discovering, cataloguing, and relating different distinguishable concepts so that our thinking about various issues which are murkily equivocated about in common sense can be clarified and clearer implications drawn. This eventually matters when philosophical clarity about ambiguous topics is needed. This matters, for example, in numerous ethically problematic cases like understanding, say, the nature of torture, or the nature of a person or of rights in the abortion debates, or the nature of autonomy in difficult questions of whether consent is authentic, etc.

      As Bugs Bunny once remarked: “I knew I should have taken that left turn in Albuquerque.” Because I’m not getting anywhere near to where you think I should be at.

      I appreciate your desire at least to come along for the journey.

    • Midnight Rambler

      Conceiving of a perfectly omniscient omnipotent person may have interesting conceptual ramifications, given the right puzzle.

      Such as? You (and others, like Verbose Stoic) keep saying this, but I have yet to hear of what one of them might be.

    • http://verbosestoic.wordpress.com/ Verbose Stoic

      Here’s one question that’s made quite relevant by an omniscient being: If you can know the outcome of a free choice before it’s made, does that mean that the choice was not a free choice? You can use the “predictive” model approach — ie that if we know every single atom we can predict everything that will happen — but to me that clutters the question with particulars that might be misleading. Omniscience does not imply method, and therefore is a more pure concept to examine that question with. And that’s a question of great philosophical interest and import.

    • Midnight Rambler

      I still don’t see where the necessity for an omniscient being is in that question. In fact, it seems completely irrelevant.

    • ‘Tis Himself, OM

      All right, tongue out of cheek now.

      Philosophers think about things like what the concept of perfection entails or being omniscient would entail or being omnipotent would entail or what personhood would entail, etc., in order to clarify our concepts. Conceiving of a perfectly omniscient omnipotent person may have interesting conceptual ramifications, given the right puzzle.

      I can see how considering the consequences and implications of omniscience, omnipotence and various other omnis would be intellectually stimulating. I also see that since these attributes would be those of a god or god-like creature, conflating a philosophical model with a god would be tempting for a religious apologist.

      No, by an empirical perfect square, I mean something in nature that is perfectly equilateral down to the precisest measurements. If I have this wrong and such a thing exists in nature, please correct me.

      The pffft of all knowledge doesn’t give that as a definition of perfect square but I can grok the concept. While your perfect square is mathematically reasonable, like so many mathematical concepts it doesn’t actually exist in the real world.

      You’re saying an omniscient, etc. critter is intellectually conceivable but extremely unlikely to exist in the real world. So this critter can only be studied intellectually, not physically tested. I have no problem with this. As an economist, I’m used to intellectual models which are extremely difficult or impossible to test in the real world.

      As long as we do not posit that truly and in fact Gandalf exists, we can explore hypotheticals of him having motivations, performing magic if for some reason these would help us think about one of our concepts’ implications.

      Again, we would be considering an intellectually conceivable but materially highly unlikely critter with supernatural attributes. Essentially a demigod, which is what Tolkien had in mind when he invented Gandalf.

      I take it you have little patience for philosophy, but if you are interested, here is my breakdown (and takedown) of what Catholic (or at least Thomistic) philosophers basically mean by God being “good” and “not causing evil”

      I’ll read your other essay and possibly make some comment there.

      Unfortunately, I have problems with certain aspects of philosophy as it’s practiced nowadays. My beef with philosophy starts with the postmoderns. I am particularly unimpressed by postmoderns like Martin Heidegger (not just because he was a Nazi), Jacques Derrida (I agree with John Searle that Derrida indulges in dadaist sophistry) and Richard Rorty (whose disdain for social justice and dislike of science annoy me no end).

      Postmodernism is intellectually diverse, yet it promotes a quite reactionary obscurantism. I really dislike its anti-rationalist “critiques” (aka attacks) on science. It also has a fascination with authoritarianism, particularly fascism. I do think Sokal’s Hoax showed postmodernism is more involved in sophistry and anti-rationalism than trying to advance understanding.

      I’m writing my reflections on philosophy, but this post is already getting into tl;dr* territory, so I’ll make my further ramblings a separate post.

      *I came across a corollary to tl;dr which I rather like: tp;dr or “too pretentious; didn’t read.”

    • http://verbosestoic.wordpress.com/ Verbose Stoic

      I actually dislike postmodern philosophy myself, as it seems does the author of this blog. I managed to mostly avoid it during my entire undergrad and Masters (even going so far as to break my wrist in the one class I had to take and having to drop it [grin]). But I did have to deal with Derrida in one class since one of the other students liked him and did her main presentation on him, and there was something of interest in what he said. I just thought that analytic philosophy could do what he wanted to do as well or better. I also read Merleau-Ponty in another class and found it interesting.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Camels With Hammers

      Yes, ‘Tis Himself, OM, postemodernists are a problem. I would not say that there is no value in Heidegger or Derrida (I know a few exceptional scholars who I admire who work on both of them) but I would say that they represent philosophy badly and give a deeply misleading impression of what is going on in the field today.

      Philosophy in the English speaking world essentially marginalizes such figures and aims at being exceedingly clear in conceptual distinctions and logical clarity.

      This is what I am aiming for on this blog. I tried the postmodern route and struggled so much with hostility at my attempts to make it work in a clear way and finally came “home” to the analytics, who are primarily concerned with clarity.

  • dexitroboper

    Why not do some really useful philosophy and turn the word “omniscience’ into a coherent term. It took a long time for mathematics to coherently define the term infinity, but “infinite knowledge” is still lacks conceptual coherence.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Camels With Hammers

      I imagine, were you to dig into the metaphysical literature, that there are various competing conceptions that have been worked out and that can be tried out for their value. I am not a metaphysician though, so, forgive me for not attempting a comprehensive account of something on which I am not up to speed with the literature.

      Remember though, in many cases just because you’ve never heard philosophers come up with a good position on some issue or a consensus on some point that you are aware of does not always mean they haven’t. Without researching assuming philosophers are just hopelessly inept and have worked out nothing illuminating on a topic is arrogantly dismissive.

    • Midnight Rambler

      Since you sort of brought it up, I think Todd’s postdoc would be much more productive and useful if he tried to answer the following: can you come to any viable conclusion in philosophy when the fundamental premises are abstract concepts that not only have no universal definition, but are undefined even by the principle investigator?

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Camels With Hammers

      But they likely are well-defined by Ockham and will be further defined in the research project. That’s why you engage in such a project in the first place. There is this misperception apparently floating around that just because fundamentalists don’t bother to clarify anything they mean by these concepts, that neither to professional philosophers. But it is precisely the task of professional philosophers to make the kinds of distinctions you are complaining you do not know about. If you want to know what the distinctions are, then roll up your sleeves and dig into the philosophical literature. You will find it dense with terse, difficult, rigorous distinctions trying to meticulously disambiguate everything. Just because those distinctions are not mass-marketable does not mean they don’t exist for those with the patience and genuine interest in exploring them.

  • http://ussromantics.wordpress.com/ stewart

    I think I can understand the frustration Coyne has with some philosophy. For example maybe an attempt to rationally make sense of omniscience misses the point that it isn’t a ‘rational’ concept. Not that it’s irrational but that this property, and the gods who possess it, meet needs that are basic to individuals and communities, or have been historically – the faith in parental figures and ideal rulers who know everything and get everything right. How they achieve these qualities, or how they actually work is of less concern. The key to understanding all this seems to lie in children, to whom gods and superhuman qualities come so easily. That is, in something basic in our human nature which we actually have to actively suppress with our more ‘mature’ rationality [I still suffer from fantasies of invisibility which I give into from time to time].
    The point is that all this might be better understood from a psychological perspective than a philosophical one – which brings me neatly to the issue of scientism. I’ve occasionally worried about this problem – partly because in recent years my dilettantish reading has shifted away from philosophy and towards science [which I frankly find more rewarding and exciting to read about, and much less 'boggy']. I’ve tried for a wider definition of science as an open-ended set of methodologies, all under an umbrella of rigour, including testability and repeatability and the like. To me, most critics that throw around accusations of scientism have too narrow a definition of science. in fact, maybe the term ‘science’ should just be replaced with ‘methodologies that actually work’! In any case, it seems to me to be all about methodologies [used to harness and to tame speculation]. Given the right methodologies we might learn more about ethics, and about religion, than philosophy can tell us.
    Just speculatin…

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Camels With Hammers

      To me, most critics that throw around accusations of scientism have too narrow a definition of science. in fact, maybe the term ‘science’ should just be replaced with ‘methodologies that actually work’! In any case, it seems to me to be all about methodologies [used to harness and to tame speculation]. Given the right methodologies we might learn more about ethics, and about religion, than philosophy can tell us.

      We are using the most workable methodologies available. Whenever science develops a better, more workable methodology for addressing a specific question, it reliably becomes part of scientific knowledge with little uproar from philosophers. We are just doing the best we can with what science cannot yet sort out. If you have a better methodology, write a groundbreaking scientific or philosophical work that turns everything on its head.

      In the meantime, scientism does not mean what you say nor what Dr. Coyne says. It means what I said and that’s why I oppose it.

    • http://ussromantics.wordpress.com/ Stewart

      Wow, it’s good to see so many interesting comments here.
      You’ve written ‘In the meantime, scientism does not mean what you say nor what Dr. Coyne says. It means what I said and that’s why I oppose it.’
      This is a bit rough as I nowhere said what I meant by scientism. For what it’s worth, I’ve always thought it meant more or less precisely what you’ve said it meant, that is ‘that the only truths there are or which can be known are those which can be verified by the scientific method’. I only referred to how other people use the term. I did, though, write about the definition of science and whether it might not be broadened – as Coyne might want it to be ['That’s construing science broadly', he writes of the definition of scientism he gives]. I’m no philosopher, but I’ve read enough to know that the definition of science is highly contested [see for example A F Chalmers' still-relevant book 'What is this thing called science?', which provides critiques of earlier attempts to demarcate science, by the likes of Carnap and Popper - and which ends without really coming up with a solution to the demarcation problem]. You yourself don’t seem to have tried to define what ‘the scientific method’ actually is [unless it's in the replies to comments - I'm sorry I haven't read everything here]. You’ve said that Coyne is defining rationalism rather than science, and that may well be right, but that raises lots of questions about the relationship between the two, the answers to which might seem obvious but not to me.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Camels With Hammers

      Okay. Insofar as theoretical physics is far more conceptual and less empirically tethered (though still mathematically grounded), many of my more constrained notions of science need to be qualified. Nonetheless, I take science to be basically about what can ultimately be settled with math and experiments.

      While some problems can be treated both philosophically and scientifically, I like to cut the ambiguous interaction along the joints of controlled experiments and mathematics. The more it is towards those things the more it is “science” and the more it is a priori conceptual and not strictly settleable by appeal to numbers and experiments it is philosophy. This means sometimes scientists (unwittingly?) do some philosophy (and that’s where we can poke our heads in a bit to discuss how well they do it, insofar as we can understand the relevant math and experiments).

    • http://ussromantics.wordpress.com/ Stewart

      Well, like many commentators here I would require a broader definition of science than this. Paleontology, to take one example, is surely a fully fledged science but it doesn’t require much maths except the basic stuff for dating techniques, nor does it require much in the way of experiment. It largely requires close comparative analysis and matching of morphological features with evolutionary development. Textual analysis – of the Bible, say, requires similar general methodologies of comparative analysis and the study of morphological features and how they relate to the way written language was used in particular centuries. Is textual analysis a science? No matter, it has to use scientific techniques and methods to be bona fide.
      I have to agree with other commentators too that logical or philosophical analysis of omniscience, which is not a logical or philosophical construct but something which seems to emerge from ‘theories of mind’, related to basic aspects of human consciousness, isn’t going to be a very fruitful way of approaching our understanding of this concept. I think experimental psychology and neurophysiology, which are already making headway on this and related ‘supernatural’ qualities, are better equipped to deal with it. Having said that, I wouldn’t put anything in the way of such philosophical analysis, it might provide some unforeseen benefits.

    • Zagabu

      The key to understanding all this seems to lie in children, to whom gods and superhuman qualities come so easily. That is, in something basic in our human nature which we actually have to actively suppress with our more ‘mature’ rationality [I still suffer from fantasies of invisibility which I give into from time to time].

      I don’t think this is true. I don’t find myself actively suppressing a desire to believe in things like gods or the supernatural. It’s just that I know more about the world, and my experience is broader than it was when I was a child. Gods and ghosts just don’t make sense to me anymore.

      Contrariwise, I still indulge in fantasy, and I think that too is perfectly fine and normal in an adult. You might have fantasies of invisibility, but you don’t really believe that you are invisible. (At least I hope you don’t).

    • http://ussromantics.wordpress.com/ Stewart

      The notion that childhood thinking can provide an understanding of religious ideas is not something I’ve thought of off the top of my head – much scientific research is being done in this area, some of which is summarised in New Scientist Feb 7 2009 [cover story]. As the anthropologist Justin Barrett writes: ‘Children the world over have a strong natural receptivity to believing in gods because of the way their minds work, and this early developing receptivity continues to anchor our intuitive thinking throughout life.’ And he’s not just saying this – lots of empirical evidence backs it up, evidence of a ‘default’ mind-set which is dualistic [children have no problem at all with the idea of a disembodied mind] and animistic [children regularly attribute intention to inanimate objects - they have to learn not to].
      Of course we learn to ‘grow out’ of these ideas, but there’s also strong evidence to show that in times of crisis and stress we fall back into them. Rationalism is, I think, a more tenuous thing than some people assume. Of course, philosophers tend to be rather invested in it, pace Hume.

  • ‘Tis Himself, OM

    My problem with philosophy is simple. It is far too easy to create a logical framework from which to support any position you wish to take. And while philosophy is often good at presenting questions, it’s not always equipped to answer the questions.

    These days, the inadequacies of philosophy can be demonstrated by anyone who wants to bring up the cosmological or teleological or transcendent arguments for god. There’s a lot of effort spent spinning all kinds of sophistry into fool’s gold.

    There’s the philosophers who use some sort of modern version of Plato’s Forms. Whether it’s the dualists who argue for “qualia,” or Fibonacci’s Mask, Plato’s Forms is always rearing its scarred and skull-like head in one form or another.

    Sometimes it seems philosophy harms as much as it helps. I’m not sure if philosophy in general helped or hindered discovering the epistemology of science. The philosophers who have contributed have been those who explored what the epistemology of science means for the practice of science, people like Spinoza and Hume to Popper and von Weizsacker.

    • Zagabu

      I’m not sure I get what you’re saying, ‘Tis. What’s “philosophy in general” mean? Isn’t anyone who worked on or contributed to the epistemology of science necessarily a philosopher?

    • ‘Tis Himself, OM

      While certain philosophers, some of whom I’ve mentioned, have contributed to the understanding of science and the epistemology of science, others, such as Richard Rorty, have gone out of their way to denigrate science. As I said, I don’t know if philosophy has helped or hindered science.

      I’m familiar with the argument that science was originally “natural philosophy.” So what? Chemistry grew out of alchemy but that doesn’t add any respectability to alchemy.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Camels With Hammers

      ‘Tis Himself, OM, there are interesting reasons to take Plato’s Forms seriously if you do the hard thinking about the implications of both doing so and not doing so. Similarly with other questions you just want to go away.

      There are philosophers with your empiricistic bent and they make vigorous, challenging arguments against more rationalistic, realistic propositions like Platonic essences. These are debates, on-going, academically rigorous, sophisticated, carried out by competent, highly intelligent, highly trained people over the course of decades and centuries. I can understand the frustration that some positions which you find obscure or common-sensically wrong persist but there are conceptual reasons they are compelling to people.

      Both sides of most philosophical issues involve some counter-intuitive and unsavory results and both sides also provide a lot of illumination. This does not mean there is no right answer, in a lot of cases both points of view really are mutually exclusive in their essentials and cannot both be right on some key points. They’re not just two ways of saying the same things.

      And the problems that result drive us into difficult, terse debates that make various forms of progress but always leave open ends. That’s just the nature of the problems, not a character flaw of philosophers. It is the same skepticism of Platonic forms that can lead some people to a Rortyesque extreme. There are difficult intellectual judgments to make.

      And, again as I just replied to an earlier remark you made, not all philosophers by any stretch are in the camp of Rorty. The most popular, radically anti-realist, radically obscurantist philosophers are almost astonishingly unrepresentative of mainstream contemporary English-written philosophy.

  • cmv

    I also have an issue with your analogy of the usefulness of a perfect square. The major difference is that the conceptofa perfect square can be used to study the reality of imperfect squares, whereas the concept of a perfect multi-onni god can only bemused to study the idea of other equally non-existent gods. I think this is what Coyne was referring to as intellectual wanking; it may be stimulating, but it is not a useful object of study.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Camels With Hammers

      I think you misunderstand, cmv. First of all, there is no such thing as an “imperfect square”. If it is “imperfectly”, “not exactly” four equal sides then by definition, it’s not a square but a rectangle or some other form of non-square quadrilateral. There’s either a perfect square or it’s a non-square quadrilateral or a figure with four sides which are not all exactly straight lines. In fact, come to think of it, there may be no “straight lines” in empirical existence either, so maybe no rectangles either!

      Secondly, no, the idea of a perfect God is not only useful for understanding finite gods. It is useful for thinking about beings with finite versions of its posited traits, like us. We are imagining many of our own traits at their limit and asking what they would be like. Or sometimes we are asking about general features of finite things in general and how they would be as infinites. The goal is quite rarely to compare to finite gods. Those are only interesting concepts if we are trying to imagine what some particular high degree of power that yet falls short of omnipotence would be like.

    • cmv

      Ok. I didn’t quite think through the implication of an “imperfect square”, but it was late. What I meant was a sufficiently square-like object. It is somewhat disingenuous to state that there is no such thing as a square (or a rectangle), as there are shapes sufficiently close to them as to be indistinguishable (I think quadrilaterals are all out if we’re going with no straight lines). The same cannot be said of a multi-omni god.
      I didn’t say it isn’t interesting to ponder, and neither really did Coyne. The point is that it is not useful to ponder.
      I’m sure that this has been covered somewhere, but is there an answer to the problem of an omniscient, omnipotent being either unable to change his mind, or unaware of the need to?

  • Tom

    The Rawles’ thought experiment and the “Omniscient being” both demonstrate the problems of the these beloved philosophical tools. That is they take philosophers intuitions and plug them in as ground rules and implicit assumptions. They both have the problem of thinking we can conceptualise more than we can.

    Rawles goes wrong because he does not take into account all the complex feedback loops and hidden variable that generate all the unexpected consequences in real life.

    The omniscient being thought experiment is worse because we have no hope (pretty much be definition) of working out all the implications of knowing absolutely everything.

    And then, in both cases, philosophers build huge edifices on these flawed foundations and spend happy decades arguing subtle nuances of the finer points of the sub-definitions of the implications of the garbage that has come out of this enormous GIGO exercise.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Camels With Hammers

      The problems of hidden variables and feedback loops can surely be built into a more sophisticated understanding of the veil of ignorance or the original position. Or they can be abandoned for a new concept which retains what value they have while incorporating more sensitivity to how things work. As it was, Rawls parsed out in detail all sorts of details about precisely what people could or could not be conceived to know for the OP and VI to work.

      Secondly, anglophone philosophers no longer build “huge edifices” and they do not just take anything for granted as settled forever. The foundations of every philosophical system are perpetually under attack—by other philosophers, not by outsiders who see where we are blinkered—and so they are constantly being refined and sometimes are even abandoned. We are still in the era of Descartes in a fundamental way—we still understand that if the foundations are rotted, the building is unstable. And now, in the analytic era, most philosophers are quite suspicious of giant buildings and instead try to keep their problems as microscopic and manageable as they can.

    • Tom

      The problems of hidden variables and feedback loops can surely be built into a more sophisticated understanding of the veil of ignorance or the original position.

      Actually, they cannot; not without some actual input of real data (hence unintended consequences). Its a similar problem to that of command economies, however clever you are the real world wins out.

      The world is too big and too complicated to work on large theoretical constructs without grounding in empirical data. (its hard enough with data…)

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Camels With Hammers

      I grant, it’s not an exact science, that’s why it is still qualified with the tentativeness of philosophy. But as an ideal it is worth employing along with other tools. And as much as possible you can account for real empirical factors and adjust to them when they arise, you can help realize the ideal one wobbly step at a time.

      It’s better than the alternative—eschewing all ideals. And doing that is impossible for agents who make choices anyway, so there’s no worry about anyone successfully trying it!

    • Tom

      That’s a fair point, we all hypothesise and make models, its how we work (I think).

      But there seems to be a lot of “lets pretend we can conceive of these three, probably impossible things, and carry out a series of thought experiments using them as presuppositions ” thought experiments which, demonstrate simply that if you have bizarre enough presuppositions you can prove anything.

      Maybe I’ve just been spending too long reading about zombies and grue.

      As for not being exact, that is part of the irritation. It isn’t an exact science and yet the participants seem to tie themselves in endless knots arguing about seemingly trivial semantic points when all the premises were made up in the first place!

      (probably why I find a lot of cosmology irritating too, far to much math and not enough data; so maybe its more about me)

  • Pi Guy

    Wow. I’ve been reading your stuff, including your reposted old posts, since you’ve arrived at FtB and am digging this!

    I’ve read Why Evoltion is True and loved it. I majored in physics, worked in chem-bio defense, have taught HS science, and definitely think I see the world as a scientist. I’ve followed Dr. Coyne for a long time and have enjoyed his published work and critiques. And ye I find your arguments defending this philosopher’s grant proposal very compelling.

    Will be back for more and thanks!

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Camels With Hammers

      Thanks Pi Guy! It’s a pleasure to meet you. Keep chiming in! I especially love knowing when physics people are reading since I have so so much to learn about physics.

  • Richard Wein

    Hello Daniel,

    While I would disagree with Coyne on some of the specific points he’s made here, I think he’s right to conclude that the work in question will (almost certainly) contribute nothing to the sum of human knowledge.

    First, I should say that in my view the majority of philosophy is seriously misguided and fails to contribute to the sum of human knowledge. In many major areas philosophers have failed to reach a consensus. In metaethics, for example, there are multiple inconsistent views with none commanding the support of a majority of philosophers. So whichever view is correct, it seems that the majority must be wrong. (I also think the majority is wrong about metaethics based on my own thinking about the subject.)

    The right approach to philosophy in my view is what is sometimes broadly called a “naturalized” approach. It seems to me that most philosophers do not usually take such an approach, and consequently their work ends up being seriously misguided. Those who do take a naturalized approach are almost inevitably non-theists, and it seems to me unlikely that theist philosophers will make much useful contribution to the difficult problems in philosophy. I suspect that even a secular paper about the relationship between foreknowledge and free will has low probability of being very useful. But I think that such a paper which is not only written by a theist, but specifically relating to God, is almost certainly doomed to failure.

    With regard to the study of time, I think the best naturalized philosophers may well have a contribution to make. But any successful study will be primarily driven by developments in fundamental physics. Again, I find it implausible that the theist philosopher in question will have anything useful to contribute.

    “Philosophers can and do speculate about the hypotheticals in order to illumine the actual.”

    That’s quite right. And even New Atheists often argue from hypotheticals involving the existence of God. The Argument From Evil is one such case. But it’s one thing to argue about the existence of God from a hypothetical about God. It’s another to hope to illuminate a very difficult question that’s independent of God (about foreknowledge and free will) while placing that question in a theistic context. There would be more chance of addressing that question successfully if God were left out of it. If necessary one could hypothesize a secular omniscient (or vastly knowledgeable) entity, as is done in the case of Newcomb’s paradox.

    “I hope I have made the case why it is philosophy, whether it is a good project or not.”

    I think the question of whether it can be called “philosophy” is not a very useful one (either way). Let’s address the substance rather than worrying about labels. Ditto for your use of the word “scientism”.

    Much of the confusion over “science” and “scientism” arises from the tendency of some New Atheists (including Coyne) to stretch the word “science” to mean all of empirical inference. I think this stretching is based on a correct realisation that all of empirical inference lies on a continuum, with no clear lines of demarcation between formal science, philosophy, history, everyday inference, etc. Nevertheless I think it causes confusion when other people continue to use “science” in something like its usual narrower sense.

    “There are philosophical truths, there are ethical truths, there are historical truths, etc.”

    Ugh. I think this is just the kind of overblown demarcation that New Atheists are rightly kicking against. Of course it’s true that historians study somewhat different questions using somewhat different methods than do scientists. And we broadly call what they do “history” rather than “science”. But they don’t deal in fundamentally different kinds of truth. Both scientists and historians use broadly similar types of empirical inference to discover empirical facts about the world. (To contrast, I would say that empirical truths and pure mathematical truths are different kinds of truth in a much more significant way.)

    IIRC Coyne did state that he was using “science” to refer to all of empirical inference. You can justifiably make the point that this is a non-standard usage, and be excused for having overlooked it. But hopefully now that I’ve drawn it to your attention, you will see that your difference with Coyne about “scientism” is a terminological difference and not a substantive one.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Camels With Hammers

      Thanks Richard.

      My quibble over the word “scientism” was to appeal to what the word actually means. The issue of scientism long predates the New Atheists. It is not about them. Those accusing them of it just see them as the latest guilty of it. Sometimes they might be, sometimes not. I don’t have a clear enough, exhaustive enough knowledge of their views to comment on that.

      The point is that my charge of scientism was leveled based on what the word really means. If Coyne redefines it he steals a word for criticizing a specific kind of problem and that is problematic. It’s not a helpful use of language. It is THE word for thinking that the ONLY way to ever gain truths is through empirical science.

      That is apparently not Coyne’s ultimate position even though in the previous post he was arguing like a scientistic person and making it sound like any research project whatsoever could only be judged on its immediate interest to science. Good on Coyne for spelling out some places where philosophy can matter in his follow up post.

      The position he elaborated and defended as “scientism” is more properly called “rationalism”, so let’s just keep using THAT perfectly useful word. It’s the word for the idea that all beliefs must be grounded in good reasons.

      As to the value of this project, it is one way to approach the topic. Who can predict with certainty its potential usefulness or uselessness? Even if it will be useless, who is hurt by someone with an idea that other philosophers think is interesting going off and trying something. Who knows where it might go? Who are we to question qualified philosophers’ judgments of a worthwhileness of a project without examining all its details? And why cannot we study Ockham for his own sake even if the usefulness is unclear at the moment? Should historians all have to prove the short term relevance of every historical event they take an interest in?

      Medievalists in analytic philosophy have been unearthing, I am told, a number of insights worked out in late Medieval philosophy. A renowned Medeival philosopher I studied with briefly (i.e., I dropped out because the class involved more math than I knew) said that “everything the contemporary analytic philosophers have come up with, the Medievals already figured out twice”.

      From outside the field you have no idea how true or false that statement is. You are not in a position to assess it. Quite frankly, neither am I! But I have heard it from several people that the Medieval scholars do mine insights that illumine contemporary debates in impressive ways.

      Let a thousand flowers bloom and a thousand scholars run down obscure trails looking for obscure flowers that may turn out to be more beautiful than anyone could have guessed. That’s my view.

    • Richard Wein

      Thanks for the reply, Daniel.

      Given your understanding of the meaning of “scientism” and Coyne’s clarification of his position, would you now say that his position is not correctly described as scientism?

      The trouble is that if you’re clear that you’re using “science” in the narrower sense, where the work of historians is not science, then there is probably no one who would deny that we can gain knowledge through methods other than science (in this sense), since no one would deny that the truth about historical events can be discovered by the methods of historians. Thus, no one really takes a position of “scientism” in the narrower sense.

      The term “scientism” is useless for categorising people’s positions, which is why people almost never describe their own position that way. The term is almost purely a polemical one, used for its pejorative connotations.

      “From outside the field you have no idea how true or false that statement is. You are not in a position to assess it.”

      I’m not a physicist or a Medievalist, but I would have excellent grounds for disbelieving an equivalent claim about physics (“everything contemporary physicists have come up with, the Medievals already figured out twice”). Even amateurs can sometimes make reasonable assessments, especially when the claim is so extreme. I believe I have good grounds for finding the claim of your Medievalist friend extremely implausible.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Camels With Hammers

      Obviously, my Medievalist analytic philosophy professor is being a bit hyperbolic. But the point is that (obviously) in non-physics matters, in matters of metaphysics, philosophy of language, and logic it is quite possible (and I have reports from those who study this stuff, and I know how esteemed the reputations are of some of the scholars) that indeed there are important insights being gleaned from Medieval philosophers, relevant to contemporary debates.

      Again, you do need training and familiarity with narrow sub-specializations in philosophy to assess the quality of these insights. I do not have it in either metaphysics, philosophy of language, Medieval philosophy, or logic. So, as I do with economics, physics, biology, chemistry, mathematics, etc., I trust the experts who assure me that some interesting stuff goes on there.

      As for whether Coyne is scientistic on the definition he gave, it’s hard to say. He only conceded the value of some parts of philosophy. I get the impression he still may be wary of its ability to do any metaphysics whatsoever. And in his post yesterday was sticking to his guns in wanting to squelch all appearances of academic respectability to a metaphysics project because it involves beings that are not scientific.

      I think he has clarifying to do and some concessions to make before he can be cleared completely of the charge of scientism. At least as things stand he appears to be scientistic on some points (excessively restrictive of what knowledge or scholarship can do in some non-scientific areas) if not scientistic on all points that the most scientistic people would be.

      But scientism is not just an empty charge. The logical positivists were scientistic pretty unambiguously. And many scientists and laypeople use scientistic formulations of their positions, even if they don’t mean them.

      And few scientists are going to admit that philosophers are in any way shape or form “scientists” so that we can just be assumed to be included under their umbrella when they say “all knowledge is scientific knowledge”. I’d feel very happy if they so welcomed me under that umbrella, but I don’t think they mean to! I think they mean by the word “science” to delineate empirical/mathematically grounded knowledge from other kinds, and I respect that there is an important distinction there worthy of its own word. I just think science is not all there is to knowledge for as long as philosophy, history, studies of the arts, and even social sciences and many facets of common sense knowledge are not strictly reducible to the rigorous standards of double blind experiments and mathematical models, etc.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/butterfliesandwheels/ Ophelia Benson

      Much of the confusion over “science” and “scientism” arises from the tendency of some New Atheists (including Coyne) to stretch the word “science” to mean all of empirical inference. I think this stretching is based on a correct realisation that all of empirical inference lies on a continuum, with no clear lines of demarcation between formal science, philosophy, history, everyday inference, etc.

      That’s the thing I was looking for a new word for, last week. I guess “all of empirical inference” is it. It’s what I was trying to get at, certainly.

  • sailor1031

    “I know that Jon Stewart is going to continue to appear on The Daily Show for the upcoming week…”

    No you don’t. It is your expectation but it need not be met. Many things that you don’t know may occur to prevent it. In the case of ‘god’ all those things are supposedly already known.

  • http://furiouspurpose.me rorschach

    OMG, nested comments…*shudder*

    Anyway, please be reminded of the first rule of holes. Stop digging ! I say we start planning studies on fairies wings getting wet in the rain stat.

  • Max

    Thanks for this excellent post, and for the astonishing patience and generosity you’ve shown in responding to comments.

    It seems to me that there’s another relevant meaning of scientism, namely the casual contempt that scientists (and science students and former science students) often express for work in the humanities and social sciences — not just for the methods used but for the subjects themselves. Coyne would doubtless deny taking such an attitude, but I think it’s amply on display in his occasional comments on fields such as literary criticism and economics, and in his apparent willingness to countenance crackpot history as long as it provides ammunition against religion. As with his remarks on philosophy, the tipoff to his contemptuous attitude is his obvious belief that it isn’t necessary to know much about these fields in order to speak dismissively of what their practitioners do. Thus, for example, every strained reading of a literary text is “postmodern,” because who really cares about different schools of criticism? After all, literary criticism is just “fun,” not knowledge, to cite a statement that Coyne heartily endorsed from a recent Stone column by Alex Rosenberg. I think the underlying belief is simply that these subjects aren’t important, so it doesn’t really matter what you say about them.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Camels With Hammers

      Thanks, Max. I think those are all good (and troubling) points about what we might call “soft scientism”.

    • Max

      I like the expression “soft scientism,” although a google search suggests that it’s already been given a different meaning. I take your point, though, that it’s better not to blur the meaning of “scientism” itself. Perhaps what I’m talking about is attitudinal scientism, or just scientists with attitude.

  • consciousness razor

    What I don’t know is how I can say for certain, in advance of philosophical argumentation more sophisticated than I have yet seen, why I am wrong. The night I wrote that post, I had just taught two sections of Philosophy of Religion (with predominantly skeptical students) and we had just been reasoning about this issue and had found that discussing it had illumined several more tangible philosophical problems. And as part of that discussion I talked about how foreknowledge in the case of a hypothetical atemporal being would be a misnomer.

    That last sentence is so very close to my argument below, yet so far away.

    This is because such a being would see all things at once, as one might be able to observe and think about a timeline or storyboards for a film, cases where one can look at all the parts not as they happen in history or in film but with the whole picture of the chronological sequence always there in front of you all at once.

    I don’t understand how this could tell us anything about knowledge. How do we get knowledge? It isn’t atemporal, I can tell you that much. So in what sense could such a being possess “knowledge”? Now I know you’re not claiming it actually exists, but how is it even conceivable, much less physically possible, that an “atemporal being” observes or thinks or does anything else?

    Your analogy of looking at a timeline or a storyboard (or, say, a painting) seems to imply you someone can see the whole picture all at once. Sure, it exists in front of us all at once, we’re there in front of it all at once, but that isn’t how we see or think about it. And, as far as I’m aware, there isn’t any kind of experience we have which comes in one big holistic chunk like that, or one which is unchanging and present in every moment of our lives. I don’t think it’s just a question of whether it’s physically possible, a question of how it could happen, but whether we’re still talking about “knowledge” in the same sense we’d apply it to a temporal being like ourselves or an AI computer (or the lack of it in a turnip). Perhaps I’m biased here as a temporal being, but I’m definitely inclined to the position that, by definition, knowledge (or just simply thinking) requires time. Something happens, then we start thinking about it and integrate it with what we thought before, then we might act on it, and in the process may accumulate more knowledge. If you take all of that out, then it doesn’t look like we’re talking about the same thing anymore.

    Now, take your argument from a comment above:

    First of all, there is no such thing as an “imperfect square”. If it is “imperfectly”, “not exactly” four equal sides then by definition, it’s not a square but a rectangle or some other form of non-square quadrilateral. There’s either a perfect square or it’s a non-square quadrilateral or a figure with four sides which are not all exactly straight lines. In fact, come to think of it, there may be no “straight lines” in empirical existence either, so maybe no rectangles either!

    … and apply it to the case of knowledge. I’m not concerned about perfect knowledge, or absolutely certain knowledge, or whatever. Your “omniscient being” could have knowledge in the ordinary sense: as long as it has all ordinary knowledge, it would be omniscient. However, if we’re not actually talking about ordinary, run-of-the-mill knowledge either (per my argument above), then perhaps a different term, analogous to “non-square quadrilateral,” could be invented for that sort of purpose and omniscience could be redefined in terms of it. I have no idea what term would be appropriate, but probably it should sound nonsensical so as not to be too misleading. ;)

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Camels With Hammers

      Yes, I agree wholly with your remarks about all knowing and thinking being temporal and the atemporal being being hard to fathom. This is part of why I think I know there is no such being.

      Yet, I can imagine a temporally omniscient being in some meta-time in which our time was contained.

      And I also know that respected metaverse theories posit multiple universes that are neither spatially nor temporally related to each other and I cannot wrap my mind around that either. The problem becomes fathoming the timeless as time-bound beings. Could a mind think timelessly? Ours don’t. But if someone wants to break their brain trying to figure out how it might possibly be conceivable, I’m not going to stand in the way of the attempt.

    • consciousness razor

      Yet, I can imagine a temporally omniscient being in some meta-time in which our time was contained.

      Well, if I’m not mistaken, existing in some meta-time is a different concept than existing atemporally. From our point of view, they might look the same (or might not), if either were detectable at all, but one is measurable according to a particular kind of (temporal) dimension while the other is not. It’s like the difference between talking about a square-like object which extends in three dimensions (a cube) and one which doesn’t extend in any spatial dimension. For the latter case, we’re no longer talking anything like a square, even if it’s supposed to be “space” in a conceptual or mathematical sense rather than physical space.

      Could a mind think timelessly? Ours don’t. But if someone wants to break their brain trying to figure out how it might possibly be conceivable, I’m not going to stand in the way of the attempt.

      I wouldn’t either, but my impression is that the project is just taking that particular can of worms for granted, instead asking how this confused thing called “omniscience” could jive with human free will (which also makes no sense). Sorry, I’ve got nothing against philosophy in general; but this doesn’t look like a very promising line of thought to me.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Camels With Hammers

      Fair enough. I just have no idea what resources Okham might bring to bear or what this guy’s proposal is. And a priori Coyne doesn’t either. That’s all that really matters to me here, not defending the guy’s ideas that I disagree with.

  • Nonimus

    I’m not really qualified to debate this issue, but a couple of thoughts:
    1) I don’t think it is god(s) knowing, per se, that invalidates free will but the idea that future decisions can be known in advance. If they are known in advance then, regardless of by whom, those decision are no longer free, but obligatory, i.e. they will be made a specific way.
    2) Isn’t philosophy by nature/definition an a priori investigation?

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Camels With Hammers

      It depends on what you mean by a priori. It is conceptual but it has to be deeply informed by empirical understanding coming from the sciences and (more hazardously) introspection and general experience too. It’s an inexact science which needs to consider how things really are as part of working out better definitions, concepts, and grasps of a priori necessities.

      But, as a short answer, right—a basically a priori analysis of concepts is not foreign to the discipline at all and should not be besmirched at all.

  • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Camels With Hammers

    Above, in earlier in the comments I said I could imagine an omniscient mind knowing the future the way we know the past even if I know of no mechanism for this to happen by. But the concept itself of just having information about the future the same way as the past didn’t bother me intrinsically.

    Ophelia wrote:

    Ah, well that makes a difference – because memories are very unreliable. Ever read Elizabeth Loftus’s book on the subject?

    So if knowledge of the future is like memory it’s really very shaky “knowledge.”

    Of course, you said only that you think of it that way; that that’s a way to imagine it. But even so…it just reiterates that it’s highly dubious knowledge.

    The criminal justice system relies heavily on the memory of witnesses, and…that’s unfortunate.

    Our memories are clearly very shaky knowledge—of course. But the whole concept of an omniscient knower is of one without any of the limitations of our minds. So, why bring them up? Just think about the ways our minds do get memories right and imagine they were always like that and that they also knew all information about the past, present, and future, and voila, you can construct a coherent concept of omniscience.

    If the concept is still incoherent or impossible then that has to be demonstrated. But that’s a philosophical project, not an absolutely known truth that should preclude philosophical projects.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/butterfliesandwheels/ Ophelia Benson

      Oh; ok, never mind that then. I thought you were dropping the “omniscient” part – as Verbose Stoic did (which seemed oddly ad hoc to me).

      But then this:

      But the concept itself of just having information about the future the same way as the past didn’t bother me intrinsically.

      Well this is so obvious it’s babyish, but it’s why I can’t flog my imagination past it. Knowledge of the past is different from knowledge of the future because the future hasn’t happened yet. (I said it was obvious-babyish!) If the future is knowable…that has all sorts of odd and contradictory-seeming consequences. In short, I don’t geddit.

    • http://verbosestoic.wordpress.com/ Verbose Stoic

      “I thought you were dropping the “omniscient” part – as Verbose Stoic did (which seemed oddly ad hoc to me).”

      Where did I drop the omniscient part? In what sense?

  • Richard Wein

    [Starting a new top-level comment, to avoid excessive indentation.]

    Camels With Hammers wrote:

    I think he has clarifying to do and some concessions to make before he can be cleared completely of the charge of scientism. At least as things stand he appears to be scientistic on some points (excessively restrictive of what knowledge or scholarship can do in some non-scientific areas) if not scientistic on all points that the most scientistic people would be.

    Let’s note that you are now switching to a different definition of “scientism” from the one you gave earlier. This one includes the word “excessively” so it makes scientism necessarily erroneous (by definition). Since users of the word “scientism” almost invariably mean it to be pejorative, this is probably a better definition. But since this is not how it’s most often defined, I think the onus is on the user of the word to give this definition.

    The drawback with this definition is that it makes the accusation of “scientism” dependent on an epistemic judgement: just how much restrictiveness about “what knowledge or scholarship can do in some non-scientific areas” is excessive? I think Coyne gets it about right (though I don’t entirely agree with him) so I would deny that he is scientistic in this sense. I think that those who take the opposite view give excessive credence to non-scientific thinking. If we’re going to debate who’s right about this we can do it much better by sticking to discussing the substance of our differences, and avoiding ambiguous words like “scientism”, whose purpose is almost entirely polemical.

    • http://verbosestoic.wordpress.com/ Verbose Stoic

      My quick take on the definition is this: Insisting that non-scientific fields be held to the standards of scientific fields, without regard to their own standards or subject matter. This is always clearly problematic, but doesn’t rely on any notion of excessive. Science can make suggestions, of course, but non-scientific fields should be allowed to define their own standards as to what makes sense for their subject matter.

      Note that I generally use the more restricted sense of science here, but that even the expanded one runs into problems with fields — like philosophy — whose subject matter isn’t amenable to empirical investigation (like ethics or concepts).

    • Richard Wein

      Well, that’s yet another very different meaning. If the word has so little in the way of established meaning, this tends to support my contention that it’s used almost entirely for its pejorative connotation, and not for any descriptive content.

      Anyway, I’m not sure anyone holds the position you’ve defined. I’m not clear what it would mean to hold history or philosophy to the standards of science, but I don’t think anyone says that we should do so.

      I do say (along with other proponents of “naturalized” philosophy) that philosophy needs to take a more scientific approach than has generally been the case to date. Is that “scientism”? If so, I’m proud to wear that badge. It would mean attributing “scientism” to a number of modern philosophers, including Quine.

      Incidentally, I reject your assertion that ethics and concepts are not amenable to empirical investigation, but perhaps I have a wider sense than you of what constitutes empirical investigation. As far as I’m concerned, “concepts” are the meanings of words, and the way to investigate the meanings of words is (at least in part) by looking at how people use those words.

      My own metaethical analysis (which I say is rooted in empirical inference) leads me to moral error theory and the view that moral (ethical) propositions cannot be true. I could agree that ethics are not amenable to empirical investigation, but only in the sense that there are no “ethics” (moral truths) to be discovered by any means, empirical or otherwise. However, that metaethical conclusion was itself the result of empirical inference.

    • http://verbosestoic.wordpress.com Verbose Stoic

      “Well, that’s yet another very different meaning. If the word has so little in the way of established meaning, this tends to support my contention that it’s used almost entirely for its pejorative connotation, and not for any descriptive content.”

      And when I see this, my first thought as a philosopher is to indeed figure out what the descriptive content is and what it means. So let me briefly start to do that:

      The term, I think we can all agree, is generally used in cases where it is felt that science is encroaching unduly or unreasonably on another field of study. So, what does that mean? Well, let’s look at philosophy specifically here, and we can eliminate a couple of candidates:

      1) Scientific facts are being used in the field. Philosophy has never objected to scientific facts being used where appropriate.

      2) Attempts to naturalize philosophy by using the methods of science to perhaps solve all problems (which is what you and Quine and others want to do). Philosophy hasn’t objected to this either, although in at least some cases the common view of philosophy is that it doesn’t work (the is/ought problem in ethics, for example). But all attempts to naturalize philosophy have been allowed, if argued against.

      So, then ,what WOULD be scientistic? Well, an idea that, say, a method in philosophy should be given automatic higher priority simply because it originated in science. Or that a solution from science to a philosophical problem should be given credence or more credence than other solutions that are more philosophical just because it came from science. Or that a solution from science shouldn’t receive the same sort of scrutiny that philosophical solutions would receive because it came from science. Or that questions that are not interesting to science shouldn’t be interesting to philosophy either.

      Is this what you support when you talk about scientism? Because to me that seems to encompass most of the actual complaints when people complain about scientism, and can be summed up in one clear sentence: The idea that science is to be privileged no matter what question is being considered.

      One of my old professors defined naturalism as the idea that philosophy is contiguous with science. I agree if that is interpreted thusly: Scientific solutions to philosophical problems deserve to be considered in philosophy, but only on par with other more philosophical questions, and it must fit the philosophical demands of the problem to be considered a solution. I consider this to be an acceptable mix or role for science in philosophy. Anything more than this, to me, risks scientism.

  • Brandon

    This strikes me as internally consistent, even if utterly false in fact. Maybe it’s not internally consistent. Okay. But even if it’s not, it is worthy of a philosophical investigation to explain why not. If it is consistent, it is worthy of a philosophical defense against charges it is not. Even if it has no practical value and even if there is no such eternal being it is valuable for us to know if the concept is internally consistent or not.

    Maybe this just screams ignorance of philosophy on my part, but why? I don’t understand the value in investigating whether things that are “utterly false in fact”. If someone finds them personally interesting, sure they’re welcome to do whatever they like with their own time, but what could possibly justify paying someone to investigate falsehoods? What does it even mean to be “investigating” something that doesn’t exist?

    Again, I’m willing to grant that these questions might all be a result of simple naivete or ignorance on my part, but I’d appreciate it if someone could fill me in on how this is a useful exercise.

    • http://verbosestoic.wordpress.com Verbose Stoic

      In a recent class, I was talking to some of the students and they were wondering about why money was spent researching, say, the impact of emotions — like fear — on attraction, and the famous “high bridge” experiment that proved that fear made you rate members of the opposite sex as more attractive. I said that they’d proved that, and their reply was basically “Well, duh! We already knew that, so what was the point?” to which my reply was basically on the level of “But now we aren’t guessing; we know for sure”.

      The same thing applies here. Most of us think this conceptually incoherent, but it hasn’t been proven yet. Trying to prove it such — or prove it not incoherent — moves us closer to actually JUSTIFYING that belief and that intuition, and actually know it to be the case. It’s useful to know that that conceptual intuition is true (or false) even if the physical world wouldn’t allow it if it occurred.

      Now, just like in my first example, most people in their everyday lives don’t care about either. But academic research, ultimately, is done to justify these sorts of things so that people don’t have to spend their time investigating it. Sometimes, we get counter-intuitive and incredibly interesting results. Sometimes, we find out that we were right all along. Sometimes, we justify this and find out there’s really nowhere interesting to go after this. But the investigation itself was still worthy, no matter where we end up.

    • cmv

      Brandon:

      I don’t understand the value in investigating whether things that are “utterly false in fact”… snip …I’d appreciate it if someone could fill me in on how this is a useful exercise.

      Verbose Stoic:

      In a recent class, I was talking to some of the students and they were wondering about why money was spent researching, say, the impact of emotions — like fear — on attraction …

      @ Verbose – Brandon is asking how it is a useful exercise to investigate things that are “utterly false in fact”. How does your example of investigating things that exist, but most people don’t care to look at translate into investigating things that don’t exist as if they matter? I mean, by that logic, the morality of Vampires and their antipathy towards Werewolves is a valid field of Philosophical discourse. Is it? Where is the line between philosophy, theology, and literary criticism?

    • http://verbosestoic.wordpress.com Verbose Stoic

      It’s because we have beliefs that we think are justified, but we really should do the work to actually justify them. For the emotion case, that was testing empirically. For the belief that there is a conceptual problem with something in the past being dependent on something in the future, that means doing the conceptual work, and this is part of it. But they all are underlined by the same issue: justifying beliefs that we already have.

  • http://norwegianshooter.blogspot.com Mark Erickson

    Please get a thesaurus and look up “illuminate.” It’s getting old. And you are high if you think $86,500 per year is modest. I found this website with a calculator to find out that your modest salary places one in the 91st percentile for individual income. You’re not one of the 1% are you?

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Camels With Hammers

      I used the word illuminate (or cognates) twice in the post and once in the comments.

      Yes, $86,500 is not that modest. I originally had the number wrong as $41,000 and edited it to correct it in reply to a comment but overlooked that it was preceded with the word modest. I will now remove the word modest.

    • http://norwegianshooter.blogspot.com/ Mark Erickson

      I got four in text, three in comments. There was also two uses in the first response to Jerry. The first one from that post caught my eye, so then the others jumped out too: “There is still philosophical illumination from exploring…”

      I also saw the video of Plato’s cave so it struck me that philosophical illumination is precisely like the illumination that the prisoners experience. If they could just turn around, they’d see the error of their ways, but alas, it is not possible. (metaphor of course, with certain philosophical commitments being the chains.)


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