Jerry Coyne's Scientistic Dismissiveness Of Philosophy

UPDATE: Dr. Coyne has been kind enough to take the time to reply to my remarks (and those of Verbose Stoic) below. My reply to his riposte is the inaugural post in a new series (which I hope does not need too many installments!): Defending Philosophy 1: A Reply To Dr. CoyneVerbose Stoic replies here.

Thursday, Jerry Coyne mocked Templeton for funding a post-doc studying issues related to Ockham’s account of foreknowledge and how people’s decisions in the present could affect God’s beliefs in the past. Arrogantly and unjustifiably treating Ockham like a moron not worth studying, Coyne quotes the summary of the recently approved plan to study his theory of foreknowledge and then trashes it in the following manner:

This is an area about which I’m completely ignorant, and happy to remain so, because it sounds like a godawful cesspool of theological lucubration. It of course begins with three completely unsupported premises: that there is a God, that that God has a mind that has “beliefs,” and that how we act now somehow influences God’s beliefs about our actions long before we performed them. It sounds as if what we do now, then, can go back in time and change God’s beliefs. (That, at least, is how I interpret the gobbledygook above.)

Given those three bogus assumptions, the candidate will then spend many dollars ruminating about how God’s prior beliefs relate to the philosophy of time and metaphysics of dependence, whatever that means.

In other words, all the money is going to work out the consequences of a fairy tale. So much money for so much “sophisticated” philosophy!

Verbose Stoic explains why Coyne is missing the point. In short, it does not matter whether there actually is a God. There is still philosophical illumination from exploring the implications of a hypothetical omniscient knower for our understanding of things like the connections between belief, causation, and time. As the verbose one writes:

Ockham likely argued that if we have an omniscient being — God — then that God would know what we’re doing right now. But that could mean that God knows that and can know that because He determined it, which would violate free will. So, then, if it is not pre-determined then God’s belief about what we will do must be formed as we do it right now. But God has always known it, which would mean that our decisions now have an impact on beliefs formed in the past. If conceptually coherent, this has major implications for the conceptions of time and of dependence — ie what it means for one fact or truth or action to depend on another — both of which are currently of interest in philosophical circles.

So, that’s the translation of what Coyne calls “gobbledygook”. Now, does it depend on, as he puts it, “three completely unsupported premises”? Not if one understands philosophy, it doesn’t, because the question and the theory is philosophically interesting even if God does not exist. There’s a reason I talked about concepts above. If we have the concept of an omniscient being, we have the concept of something that clearly knows (okay, okay, that’s debatable, but grant it for now) everything that we will do before we do it. If it is conceptually consistent with our notions of time and dependence that any knowledge of that sort would involve the determination of a belief in the past by an action in the future, that would have very interesting consequences for the concepts of time and dependence, even if no such entity existed.

Now, Coyne can protest that he doesn’t care about concepts at all, or at least not unless they have applications in “the read world”, but there are two replies to this. The first is that he has no idea if these concepts will have applications in “the real world” anymore than he can say what portions of abstract mathematics will. The second is that while he may not care about concepts, philosophy does, and unless he wants to take away all funding to philosophy and give it to science — which, I’m afraid, would definitely be scientism — it seems odd to protest funding given for post-doc work that’s relevant to philosophy just because he doesn’t personally care about the results … or, rather, because it uses a concept that he doesn’t like.

So, if he understood philosophy at all, he’d have an idea what “philosophy of time” means for certain.

The Verbose Stoic goes on to explain a number of other problems with the dismissiveness of both Coyne and various of his commenters towards philosophical issues. Most egregiously they hastily and ignorantly repeatedly lump in genuine philosophical problems with bogus theological ones as though they were identical. The whole piece is illuminating, and one hopes the reflexively anti-philosophy crowd (which is unfortunately large in the atheist community, despite the fact that this very community is usually primarily engaged in philosophy as it frequently goes well beyond merely defending scientific propositions to philosophically attacking religious propositions and epistemologies) will give it a fair hearing. Verbal Stoic himself sums up the hypocrisy of not doing so:

I think I’ve proven my point that there’s a lot of talk here about philosophy, but not much actual philosophy either understood or being done. They’d protest—and do—if people from other fields did that to scientific ones, so why is it okay to exhibit such ignorance—and be proud of it, as Coyne is—about fields other than scientific ones?

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: atheists need to take philosophy seriously.

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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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