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.

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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.


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