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.

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.

  • NewEnglandBob

    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.

    Talk about missing the point! Coyne talks about what 99.9999999% of people care about. Verbose Stoic might as well be fourteen galaxies over, because hardly anyone cares about the kind of things modern philosophy delves into. I get headaches trying to understand some of it. I will go as far as Daniel Dennett goes, and even his writings are no picnic to decode.

    Sorry, but to me and a lot of people, philosophy does not matter.

  • Matt Penfold

    So what you are saying in agreeing with Verbose Stoic, who certainly lives up to the first part of his name, is that sophistry is just fine.

    I remain unconvinced.

    And atheists need only take seriously philosophy that is serious. People sitting around playing let’s pretend does not qualify.

  • sailor1031

    Sorry folks – I’m with Jerry Coyne on this one. AFAICS only philosophers attach importance to philosophy.

  • http://secularcafe.org Ray Moscow

    Perhaps it would have been easier to take the project seriously if it hadn’t invoked a nonsense concept like “god” in its formulation.

    I don’t know enough philosophy to be proud of my ignorance of it. It’s one of several subjects I hope to learn one day.

  • http://www.startleddisbelief.com Gem Newman

    I like Coyne, but I’m with Fincke here.

  • Matt Penfold

    I note there does not seem to have been much discussion about the ethics of accepting money from the Templeton Foundation amongst philosophers. Certainly there seems to have been nothing like the discussion that has taken place, and continues to do so, amongst scientists.

  • Matt Penfold

    Daniel,

    Try replacing god in what you wrote above with faeries . It is a reasonable swap. A good number of people believe faeries are real, and there is no more evidence for the existence of faeries than there is for god.

    Would still stand by what you wrote if you did that ?

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

      Replacing God with faires would be a categorical mistake Matt.

    • wilsim

      How so?

    • Douglas Kirk

      Obviously because Fairies aren’t all powerful… not even the extra-super-magic ones

    • Matt Penfold

      The Greek, Roman and Norse gods were not all powerful. So being all powerful is clearly not a defining characteristic of godness.

    • wilsim

      Pretty sure the discussion is of omniscience not omnipotence.

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

      Are Faeries neccesary beings?

    • josh

      Your categories are arbitrary if not based upon the real world (in which case they are almost certainly only approximate at best.) People who cite
      “category mistakes” as an argument are off to a bad start.

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

      To start with, Faeries are contingent beings, no respectable form of Theism today would consider God contingent. That alone, make the comparison with God in error.

    • Achrachno

      Meff: To start with, Faeries are contingent beings, no respectable form of Theism today would consider God contingent. That alone, make the comparison with God in error.

      Fairies are imaginary beings, but “God” is less than imaginary because there are no coherent descriptions of what “God” is. I can imagine a fairy, but I can’t even imagine “God”, nor can you.

      But both are in the same category: childish nonsense. Non-sense.

      I’m tempted to call Poe, but I have a feeling you’re serious. Maybe I need to read more posts.

    • Tacroy

      No respectable form of Fairieanism considers fairies to be contingent beings, either.

  • http://barefootbum.blogspot.com Larry, The Barefoot Bum

    Is philosophy worth studying? I took philosophy pretty seriously for about 10 years. I read quite a lot of it, and I spent a lot of time discussing it, often with professors of philosophy. I initially was thinking about studying philosophy formally.

    In the sense that everything is worth studying, then sure, philosophy is worth studying. If someone is interested in studying philosophy, then by all mean, let them study philosophy.

    In the sense that philosophy is important to daily life, well, it might be. There seems to be some real, permanent, serious value in thinking about thinking.

    Philosophy certainly doesn’t deserve automatic respect and deference. A person who has completed a doctorate in philosophy and has secured a position in academia does not thereby deserve to be taken seriously. Opinions held by the majority of the philosophical academy — especially about what is important — do not deserve automatic respect. They might earn our respect, but this respect should not be automatic.

    I don’t see that you or Verbose Stoic have made any real defense of Ockham’s thought. You quote Verbose Stoic as saying, “If conceptually coherent, [God's foreknowledge] 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.” First, why should what is of interest in philosophical circles be of any more interest outside of philosophical circles than more than Tim Tebow’s problems should be of interest outside the circle of Football fans? More importantly, why would just conceptual coherence have such major implications? Conceptual coherence is just not that high a bar. Give me enough arbitrary premises and I can make all sorts of absurdities — original sin, infant damnation, and the Invisible Pink Unicorn — “conceptually coherent”. Big deal.

    It would of course be one thing if it were just some run of the mill academic philosopher studying Ockham’s thoughts on God’s epistemology. Sure, it’s complete bullshit, like most of philosophy, but so what. It’s worthwhile to keep a few people studying bullshit, and one flavor is as good as another. But it’s quite another thing that the Templeton Foundation — which Coyne has consistently criticized — is studying this topic. The point of the Templeton Foundation is to reconcile science and religion. Coyne believes their mission is not only impossible, but insincere. Some guy is studying bullshit? Meh. No big deal. The Templeton Foundation is spending a big chunk of change to fund the study a piece of theological bullshit (that may relate to secular philosophical bullshit) with no scientific value? That’s relevant.

    Philosophy, as construed by the majority of professional, academic philosophers is, I concluded after ten years, just not worth studying. I follow this blog reasonably regularly (through Planet Atheism), and you’ve never written anything I’ve found remotely interesting. Even this post is interesting only because you’re acting just like the sort of arrogant, privileged, entitled asshole that you accuse Coyne of being. That’s just one person’s opinion, of course, but I’m neither stupid, incurious, nor completely ignorant (at least I think so, but there’s always Dunning & Kruger). I’ve read a lot of philosophers, and I’ve found most of y’all arrogant, privileged blowhards and bullshit artists, who think that because they spent ten years in school that rainbows and unicorns shoot out of their asses.

    Of course, because I do not have a PhD in philosophy, I am absolutely and totally unqualified to have any opinion whatsoever on the study of philosophy other than unqualified awe, so feel free to ignore this comment.

  • anatman

    loose philosophy like that can be fun. most people like to masturbate after all. but i’m with coyne on this piece of nonsense. maybe it is historically interesting to grovel out what ockham thought, but that is history not philosophy. an idea as ill posed as the given dissertation subject would disgrace a college freshman after a long night of beer and pot.

    1) the idea of an omniscient being is not only a very large assumption, it is not even a consistent one. you might as well discuss the supposed implications of a four side euclidean plane triangle.

    2) the very large assumption of free will is also being taken for granted in the most unphilosophical unexamined sense.

    3) there is an obvious false dichotomy between ‘goddidit’ and ‘not predetermined’. perhaps it is determined by natural law that is logically prior to this putative god. this hardly exhausts the alternative possibilities. pretty soon you have to smuggle in the risible concept of omnipotence and with it an even huger budget of incoherence.

    enough fisking. you might as well discuss the implications of phlogiston theory for nuclear fusion. if you want to reach conclusions about time and dependency, why not start with judea pearl or timeless physics? my point is that coyne is perfectly correct that it is absurd to treat babble like this as a thesis worth research. if the author cannot refine and express his basic idea more cogently than that how can his ‘research’ produce anything worthwhile? the author of this nonsense should have been sent back to grade school, not given a grant. i am as appalled that you, a serious philosopher, are defending this garbage as i would be if orac suddenly turned antivaxxer.

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

    I’m not sure I follow, Dan.

    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.

    Like a thought experiment. But is there? If the hypothetical is sufficiently outlandish, doesn’t that complicate its ability to illuminate? An omniscient knower seems to me to be so impossible and so unlike anything real that we’re acquainted with that playing around with it could be more muddling than illuminating. That seems to be to be the case with part of what you quoted from Verbose.

    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.

    Verbose there assumes that “would violate free will” means it is not pre-determined – but why assume that? (And why capitalize “He,” either, and why choose a personal pronoun, and why choose the male personal pronoun?) Verbose immediately gets into bizarre contortions because of the weirdness of the “omniscient knower” and the inviolability of free will.

    I agree with you that lots of people dismiss all philosophy out of hand and that that’s silly, but I’m not sure this project provides the ideal example.

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

      “Verbose there assumes that “would violate free will” means it is not pre-determined – but why assume that? ”

      I was actually just summarizing — unread — what I think Ockham’s argument was or was likely to be. You can indeed reject any part of that progression to show the argument problematic, but for the most part for the purposes of the specific project that’s not going to happen since the interesting part IS if past events can be coherently dependent on future events. So they’d accept it for the sake of argument just to see how it all shakes out conceptually.

      “(And why capitalize “He,” either, and why choose a personal pronoun, and why choose the male personal pronoun?) ”

      Because, as you very well know, I happen to BE a theist and thus will write consistently with how I consider the concept. Before you jump on me for this, in the first comment on one of the comments I point out that at this point in time I’d rather accept that God does not exist than accept this backwards belief-causation thing. Fortunately for me, I don’t think it required.

      Which also answers the “contortions” that I’m supposedly doing; I was summarizing, not advocating.

  • cello

    Though I am not anything close to a philosopher, I think the commenters are taking the word “God” too literally (and too seriously). Yes, this could be done if God was replaced with fairies – as long as they were omni omni fairies.

    Further, in that this line of thinkgin overlaps with some religious philosophers recent work, it is good for atheists to be current with where the religious calculus is, so to speak.

    • Matt Penfold

      Well part of the problem is that god has not been defined.

      When we look at the history of religions throughout history, there have been many gods, not all of which are the all-knowing, all powerful type god of Christianity, Judaism and Islam.

  • dalesmith

    If “god” came to knowledge of things that hadn’t yet happened, this implies nothing of interest about causation, time, or epistemology — it merely implies something about a being whose existence is very much in question, and (incidentally) whose existence is doubted *because* feats of this sort are routinely attributed to it/him/her/them.

    If “god” comes to knowledge of things as they happen, it only implies that “god” perceives and interprets things much as we do, or (for that matter), the same as dogs or lizards or fruit flies do. This is even less interesting, and implies nothing novel about time, causation, knowledge, etc. It gets “interesting” — allegedly — if you add in the notion that “god” both (a) learns things in real time AND (b) already knew them beforehand. (A) contradicts (b). At the risk of repeating myself, I’m afraid contradictions aren’t terribly interesting. If flat contradictions count as compelling areas of inquiry in philosophical circles, then philosophical circles need an upgrade.

    There are valid reasons to study philosophy, and arguably the best one is among its most famous and oldest aims: separating philosophy, properly understood as the love/pursuit of knowledge/wisdom, from flim-flam, bullshit, and sophistry. Coyne is doing that. What are you doing?

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

      This is misconceived, thinking about time from a “God’s eye view” is exactly what A and B theories of time do to try to explain time. Thinking about time and events from the view of God has the potential to shed some light on some unseen problems that have gone unnoticed, or provide a new way of thinking about concepts that are not even 100 years old yet.

      It could turn out that we can’t even speak about “God” or some being from the God’s eye view as having propositional knowledge, which would turn a lot of Philosophy, much less Theology, on it’s head.

    • wilsim

      Shorter PatrickMefford: Lets think of new things we can attribute to god(s), but this time all new things nobody has thought up before.

      lol

  • Kiwi Sauce

    I posted on Ophelia’s blog about this and and won’t repeat myself here.

    One extra point: a lot of “real” science used to be done for knowledge, without an expectation that the studies would translate into dollars. This has changed, and I have heard a number of these scientists complain over the years that the change was for the worse as they felt it slowed down the rate of novel discoveries. It sounds like a number of arguments being made about this project is that it’s not “real” philosophy. Maybe the same possible limitation of outcomes also applies if we restrict the subject matter of philosophy also.

    • wilsim

      Haven’t you been paying attention, there are novel (and/or new) discoveries being made all the time. The rate at which discoveries are being made has increased over time, as we build our knowledge on the things that our predecessors discovered.

      What is there to discover from thought experiments other than more ways to hide cognitive dissonance from our conscious?

    • Kiwi Sauce

      Yes, I have been paying attention and I have heard scientists complain that their research is being limited to areas that attract funding grants, so that science for the joy of discovery is now limited.

      Re rate of new discoveries, I can see how there could be some issues coming up with a definition that is appropriate and historically applicable, e.g. do we count as a rate of level of funding or number of scientists, if the latter how do we define “scientist”, and what is the definition of a “discovery” (e.g. is this measured by some scale of importance, and if so how is importance defined)? I can point to examples where the rate of discovery has tapered off, e.g. new antibiotics.

      But my main point is that we should investigate things that don’t appear to have even a medium-scale payoff. Research grants aren’t the answer as they tend to want you to show the outcomes of your research project in tangible benefits, and a number also have preconditions about involving more than one organisation in the grant application.

  • InfraredEyes

    it is good for atheists to be current with where the religious calculus is

    Eh?

    From a purely political point of view–as in, “know thine enemy”–this may be arguable. Otherwise, I say again: Eh?

  • robnyny

    Can you give me a list of ten things that philosophers have settled and reached agreement upon, say, to the extent that physicists agree on Newtonian mechanics and geologists agree upon plate tectonics? I can’t think of any offhand.

    • Physicalist

      Well, one problem with your question is that often when a philosophical problem gets solved, the very fact that it’s solved means that it’s now labeled “science” rather than philosophy.

      So, for example, it was a great result of 17th century natural philosophy to discover that the motion of heavenly bodies is non-circular, that the Earth orbits the sun, and so on.

      Also, it’s not entirely clear what standard you’re suggesting, since obviously Newtonian mechanics is not completely accurate. So are you allowing philosophical solutions that work as long as no one cooks up clever counterexamples? Those are a dime-a-dozen.

      Part of the reason that philosophical problems persist is that philosophers typically don’t stop when they get a “good enough” solution; they’re looking for an answer that works all the way down. (Pragmatists excepted, perhaps, along with some applied ethicists maybe . . . )

      So is there anything that philosophers have “settled and reached agreement upon”?

      Well there are easy ones:

      (1) Modus Tollens is a valid argument form.

      (2) Affirming the consequent is an invalid argument form.

      (3) Torturing babies for fun is morally wrong.

      But depending on just how strong the consensus is supposed to be, I think we could list more interesting, less obvious, claims as well:

      (4) Some truths are necessary and a posteriori (Kripke).

      (5) Not all justified true beliefs qualify as knowledge (Gettier).

      (6) Interactionist substance dualism is false.

      And I’d be willing to say that even though there’s still some controversy, philosophers have more or less agreed on the following as well:

      (7) Free will and moral responsibility are compatible with determinism.

      (8) Everything in the world is physical.

      (9) There is no personal god.

      There are also many points that philosophers get right that scientists too often get wrong:

      (10) Time travel is logically consistent.

      (11) There are consistent (non-local) hidden variable interpretations of quantum mechanics.

      (12) Verificationist accounts of meaning are fatally flawed, and do not offer a consistent interpretation of quantum mechanics.

      I’ll stop now . . .

    • josh

      I think robnyny was asking for things philosophers agree on that we need
      philosophers, as distinct from scientists/mathematicians/smart people, to
      settle. (I actually agree that there is no hard distinction, but we’re talking about philosophers like Verbose who insist we need their expertise to save us from ‘scientism’.)

      So, e.g, the discovery that heavenly bodies don’t move in pefect circles was made through observation and what we would now term science, not through philosophical musing about the order of the cosmos as perfected by God.

      One could certainly argue that philosophers don’t settle on answers not so much because they don’t stop at “good enough” but because they don’t agree on what’s good.

      As to your examples:
      It’s hard to imagine anyone arguing against 1) and 2) so it’s hard to credit philosophers with their ‘discovery’. Certainly some credit can be given to, say, whoever first fomalized them in a boolean truth table, but that gets into whether they are doing ‘philosophy’ or simply math and programming.

      3) falls in the same category of ‘not exactly news’, although if (big if here) it can be said that most philosophers agree with it, I’m inclined to say they are wrong.

      4),5) and 6) are definitional and vague, they are primarily rejections of previously proposed philosophical definitions.

      7),8) and 9) are nice to hear but obviously disregard most if not all religious philosophers, which rather supports Coyne’s point. 7) is false or meaningless as written. 8) and 9) again sound like the opinions of scientists as much as philosophers.

      10),11), and 12) are not particularly specialities of most scientists, nor I would wager of philosophers so they’re kind of moot. 10) is vague.
      11) hinges on non-local which scientists who study the subject were the
      first to carefully point out, 12) The Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics seems explicitly verificationist to me, though, again, you’re talking about a philosophical term of art so I don’t know if I could say that scientists get it wrong when they don’t explicitly use the term.

      So I’ll stop now because I’m really not trying to say that all philosophers have nothing to contribute, just that it’s pretty hard to be triumphalist about the accomplishments of ‘pure’ philosophy.

  • Brandon

    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.

    I find it vanishingly unlikely that we’re going to learn anything about the real world by pretending to know what rules apply to a make-believe entity. The lack of an actual omniscient knower allows us to simply make up any rules we like for the hypothetical one, and that seems to be more or less what most theology consists of.

    I don’t pretend to know enough about philosophy to make broad, sweeping claims about its usefulness to various disciplines, but this doesn’t seem like a particularly good example of sophisticated philosophy.

  • http://www.mirandaceleste.net Miranda Celeste Hale

    Promoting ridiculous concepts like “scientism” (read: “realityism”) isn’t going to help persuade atheists to care about philosophy. If anything, it just highlights the absurdity and meaninglessness of many of the philosophical claims put forth in the religion vs. science “debate” (for lack of a better word).

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

      I wish this was about scientism, but from Coyne, all we get is pure ignorance. Trying to understand the metaphysics of time from God’s eye view is exactly what A and B theories of time do. Anyone who tracks that, immediately sees the value of exploring this avenue, especially in respects to things like causation or explanation in a tenseless universe.

    • Achrachno

      Exploring the metaphysics of time from a gnat’s eye view would be much more productive.

      Are you trying to convince us that philosophy is bunk?

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

      Yes, theories of time are philosophically important, but that isn’t what Coyne is attacking. He’s attacking the addition of ill-evidenced superstition into the philosophy of time. The difference is like that between studying time dilation due to gravitational fields, and time dilation due to unicorn magic.

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

      Anytime you try to describe time like A or B time theories, you immediately assume something akin to a God’s eye view, that is, you start talking about being outside of time and looking at a four dimensional block. What does it even mean to be outside of time? A four dimensional block? These descriptive metaphors are just as incoherent as the notion of God. Coyne thinks he is attacking a superstition, but he’s just sounding off on a topic he’s admittedly ignorant about and getting cheers from his echo chamber.

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

      No, it is only when you try to examine A and B theories using child-like concrete thinking, that it becomes necessary to take a “god’s eye view”. Scientific acceptance of B theory is largely based on the fact that the equations of the standard model and of general relativity lack any quantity describing the present, and don’t even imply that time must have a direction. They are not based on the spatial metaphors that may be used to describe the concept, or on any external onlooker. Reifying this metaphorical onlooker and calling him “God” only compounds the confusion.

  • Midnight Rambler

    Not if one understands philosophy, it doesn’t, because the question and the theory is philosophically interesting even if God does not exist.

    No it isn’t. Except as intellectual masturbation for people like Verbose Stoic*, it’s only interesting if some omniscient being exists. That thing would have to be some kind of god, pretty much by definition.

    * not that there’s anything wrong with that, but don’t pretend that the rest of us should like to watch

    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.

    One big difference is that for mathematics and science, even for things that don’t have immediate real-world applications, we can come up with potential ones. These may or may not pan out, or they may turn out to have additional uses we haven’t thought of. Furthermore, we know from experience that many tools and principles have applications well beyond what they were originally conceived for. Neither of these applies to this kind of “philosophy”.

    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

    Sounds like a good plan to me.

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

    Your Thoughts?

    Posts like this are doing a very good job of convincing me otherwise. Verbose Stoic and William Lane Craig sound like two sides of the same tin coin.

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

      I actually strongly doubt that you could find potential concrete applications for the most abstract forms of mathematics, and in fact some of them were seen to have no practical applications. Some of them ended up with them later. Philosophy, like mathematics, is on the abstract end, and neither of them care too much if their ideas have practical impact. It’s nice if they do, but not a requirement.

  • William

    The only thing Verbose Stoic convinced me of is that the idea of omniscience is absurd, requiring a relationship between cause and effect that goes against everything we know about how things work. Trying to ‘make sense of it’, while possibly an interesting exercise, does not seem particularly full of new insights.

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

      Well, if you’d read the post in its entirety, you’d see that I agree that this seems absurd, although I’m waiting for the final results to judge it for certain. However, I don’t think omniscience requires this sort of way out either; I can deny both that foreknowledge means determination and also, if that turns out to be wrong, deny actual knowledge to omniscient beings on the basis that they’d have to know something unknowable but omniscience doesn’t, in fact, grant that.

  • http://doubleplusunruly.blogspot.com/ evilisgood

    Philosophy is cool and it can be useful, but this is a bad example. It seems pretty useless to speculate about how our decisions in the present affect God’s opinions way back when if you don’t accept God as an actual thing that exists. Once you put God in there, you have to make assumptions about God’s properties, what it can do, where in spacetime it exists, etc. The whole argument gets bogged down with this, and further separated from reality, and applicability.

    Verbose Stoic said that God isn’t necessary for the argument, and I totally agree with this, but we are talking about Templeton here.

  • Matt Penfold

    Another mistake being made here is that in science there is nothing wrong with hypothesising. Indeed it is essential to the process. However scientists create hypotheses to explain real observations. They do not make up observations and then offer explanations for the made up observations.

    However that is exactly what is happening here. There is nothing to suggest god is real. There is nothing to begin talking about.

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

    Thanks for all the vigorous challenges everyone, I have been teaching and travelling all day and evening and have to lecture again in the morning. Hopefully I will be able to blog some replies to everyone in the afternoon tomorrow.

  • consciousness razor

    Verbose Stoic:

    If conceptually coherent, this has major implications [...]

    If not conceptually coherent, this has no implications. I have no reason to think it is, and I don’t even see anything offered as a candidate. If I were omniscient, perhaps I would have such a reason, but otherwise I’m not sure how I could know that.

    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.

    Again, if it’s incoherent, then for all intents and purposes, we have no such concept. So this really doesn’t look like Verbose Stoic is explaining anything about why this is a meaningful subject. Perhaps it’s a good demonstration of one reason why many philosophers aren’t understood or taken seriously. Give us the real meat of the problem, if there is any — at least point to the right sources so we can study it ourselves — or else don’t be condescending about how we don’t understand it.

    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.

    This part of Coyne’s complaint (or at least mine) isn’t about all concepts. One certainly could tell the difference between a coherent concept like you’d find in mathematics (if one is familiar with the relevant mathematics) and an incoherent one which has no such logical basis and thus zero probability of being applicable to the real world. (Why “the real world” is in scare quotes, I don’t even want to guess.) This is just such an astonishing claim that I don’t know how to respond other than that. It’s all completely baffling. Is this intentionally equating our knowledge of mathematics with our knowledge of an “omniscient being,” or am I misinterpreting it?

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

      This person’s doctoral thesis, one presumes, was an attempt to show that it IS conceptually coherent. Intellectual honesty should at least get me to reserve some judgement until I see the full details, no? We can’t credibly simply say “Well, I don’t think it is” and dismiss it as wrong and useless. If you concede that it would be interesting if coherent, then you can understand why giving the person the chance to show it coherent and therefore interesting is perfectly reasonable.

      “Is this intentionally equating our knowledge of mathematics with our knowledge of an “omniscient being,” or am I misinterpreting it?”

      Well, you’ve misidentified the relevant concepts here, which are of time and dependence. The omniscient being is just a posit that can be used as a test, and is coherent enough to see if it could fit in — with the specific explanation Ockham gave — with the concepts of time and dependence. Templeton may want something that might prove the existence or coherence of “omniscient being”, but I don’t.

      As for why “real world” was in scare quotes, it’s because philosophically that’s a pretty loaded term. Plato thought that abstract forms make up the actual “real world”, for example, which is absolutely NOT how Coyne thinks of it.

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

    Camel, you’re missing an important distinction, as the word “philosophy” can mean two things:

    1. What professional philosophers do.
    2. The field of knowledge encompassing metaphysics, logic, epistemology, ethics and so on.

    The “reflexively anti-philosophy crowd” is largely dismissive of philosophy by the first definition. It does no good to defend the second definition.

    I agree that some skeptics go too far in dismissing what philosophers do, but given that people like Mary Midgley, Alvin Plantinga and Genocide-is-A-OK! Lane Craig are often taken seriously, you can see where the confusion comes from.

  • Ishmael

    I think that the said Camel has been using his Hammer on his head too long. I’m assuming that it was a real hammer, not a philosophical one. Or maybe Thor’s hammer. Maybe.

  • Physicalist

    I’m inclined to say they are wrong [to agree with (3)]”

    Then I hope you’ll understand if I consider you to be intellectually and/or morally deficient .

    4),5) and 6) are definitional and vague

    No, they are significant results in metaphysics and epistemology.

    10) is vague

    And if you want a non-vague account, you’ll find it in the philosophical literature.

    11) hinges on non-local

    Which feature is understood and discussed primarily by philosophers.

    12) The Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics seems explicitly verificationist to me

    No doubt. But if you want an accurate understanding of the so-called “Copenhagen Interpretation,” you should go talk to your local philosopher of physics. The physicists are generally philosophically and historically confused on the topic.

    Which was the point. And which is why you are wrong to suppose that it’s moot.

  • Zero

    Seeing the debate help me to admit one conclusion: philosophy is interesting, but time expensive — thinking in metaphysics and philosophy of religion — and with no signal of progress. Some new areas like experimental philosophy or formal epistemology look promising, but I think they deserve the label “science”.

    In terms of profession, around the world the departaments of humanities are closing, and that is a problem for philosophers. If the research is not useful, why continue? Benevolence? Hope? Respect to the tradition? You see, part of the philosophy deserve to continue the debate, but others areas are really sick.

  • ildi

    I saved the link to this paper posted on commonsenseatheism back in the day:

    There Is No Progress in Philosophy by Eric Dietrich at Binghamton University:

    One is strongly reminded of the old saw “Scientific debates are won only when the combatants die and a new generation comes of age adopting the new theories.” If group (and multilevel) selection theory does eventually win, it will be because a new generation of biologists embraces them.

    It is remarkable how common this is in science. Einstein apparently went to his grave believing that quantum mechanics was wrong (even though he helped create it). Henri Poincaré, Leopold Kronecker, L. Brower, and L. Wittgenstein went to theirs believing that Georg Cantor’s theories of transfinite numbers were not just wrong, but “a grave disease,” to quote Poincaré. Though few in number, legitimate scientists to this day disbelieve evolutionary theory, preferring instead some sort of creation-by-intelligentagent(s) theory. No doubt they will go to their graves maintaining such beliefs (and vice versa for evolutionists).

    But what of philosophy? It clearly does look a lot like science here: no one can convince one’s opponent, etc. etc. Does it also thus lurch forward?

    No, it does not.

    2. How Philosophy differs from Science

    Philosophy does not even stumble forward. Philosophy does not move forward at all. It is the exactly the same today as it was 3000 years ago; indeed, as it was from the beginning. What it does do is stay current; philosophers confuse this with advancing, with making progress. Staying current is not moving forward any more than staying up on the latest fashions or music is movement toward greater social justice.


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X