On The Supposed Irrelevance of Philosophy to Most People (Defending Philosophy)

In this series, I am replying to common objections to philosophy. At least for now, I am going to do this by answering some of the comments objecting to philosophy which I have gotten in response to my posts Jerry Coyne’s Scientistic Dismissiveness Of Philosophy and Defending Philosophy 1: A Reply To Dr. Coyne. Specifically these posts were about Coyne’s presumptuous decision to denounce a research project approved by professional philosophers on the grounds that, though being a biologist and not himself a philosopher, he thought the synopsis of the project amounted to gobbledygook, pseudo-philosophy, and theology. The project in question involved researching the philosophy of William of Ockham—one of the greatest philosophers of all time—on the topic of divine foreknowledge, in part to see what relevance Ockham’s categories might have for the contemporary philosophical discussions of time and of causation.  My post backed up a philosophy blogger who writes as “Verbose Stoic”. In that post, I rejected Coyne’s idea that since there was no God at all, research into Ockham’s theory of divine foreknowledge had nothing to do with real knowledge. On this I wrote:

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.

In reply, New England Bob wrote:

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.

In reply, I first want to say that the test of whether an academic project is worthwhile is hardly whether 99.9999999% care about its direct findings. I don’t care at all about anything that theoretical mathematicians are working on right now. This does not delegitimize their endeavors. It does not mean that their findings will never have implications that will never trickle down to my layman’s life. It does not give me the right, in the meantime, to denounce the mathematicians doing this seemingly (from my point of view) completely boring work.  It does not give me the intellectual authority to determine that any one or another of their proposals are “gobbledygook” with no possible potential bearing, ever, on anything interesting. My ignorance of theoretical math is my problem, not the mathematicians’ and if I am a properly humble person, who understands my intellectual limitations, I will not use my ignorance of mathematics as a basis for criticizing the mathematical judgments of mathematicians.

Now, as it turns out, New England Bob is wrong about the mainstream irrelevance of the topic of the project under discussion. The philosophy of God is a topic of unusual mainstream interest. For example, New England Bob himself is here at an atheist blog. So he quite likely does care about the question of whether or not there is a God. Examining that question adequately involves, in part, developing a coherent account of what we mean (or could mean) by God. This involves developing various implications of various possible concepts of God. It means working out the possible implications of various metaphysical accounts of how a God (or gods) could be conceived to relate to the world. This is necessary if we are to conclude that such a being does or does not exist, or to conclude whether it either possibly or impossibly, likely or unlikely, interacts with the world in the ways that religious believers think is possible.

If we are to be rationally justified as theists or as atheists, we need to analyze the metaphysical concepts of God for their internal coherency and for their plausibility. And especially while the overwhelming majority of English speaking people believe in the existence of some form of monotheistic deity or another, the question remains open enough for the minority of professional philosophers (roughly 16%) who either lean towards or accept theism to explore new avenues for defending potentially plausible God concepts. And it aids atheists to see that such avenues are vigorously explored by theists so that we may either be shown the errors of our ways and become theists or be able to show the failings of even the very most genuinely sophisticated philosophical efforts of theists to make their concepts sensible and prove them plausible.

Beyond the relevance of the God question, philosophy absolutely does matter to New England Bob and to nearly everyone else too. Everybody cares (or should care) about a wide range of philosophical problems such as: what are the differences between knowledge, opinion, and faith? In what ways are our actions rightly characterized as free and in what ways are they rightly characterized as unfree? What constitutes fairness in punishment given our relative degrees of freedom or lackthereof? What is human nature like? Is there a human nature? What is personhood? What rights does it grant or not grant and why? Is being genetically human enough to give a being a right to life? What are rights anyway? Are they real things? Are they fictional? Why should they be recognized? What constitutes autonomy? Who can morally sufficiently give consent to sex? What is morality? Why is it binding or is it not? Is the death penalty fair? Is homosexuality good or bad? Is euthanasia good or bad? Or, under what circumstances is euthanasia good or bad? What about the ethics of suicide more generally? Is your own life rightfully yours to end or does society have a right to prevent your from hurting yourself when you are depressed but in all other respects physically healthy enough to live painlessly? Is abortion good or bad? Or under what circumstances is abortion good or bad? What is the relationship between consciousness and quantifiable forms of reality? Is it permissible to believe things on faith? What is just? What are people entitled to demand from their fellow human beings morally? What should people be entitled to demand from each other legally?

The frequency with which I see these and numerous other philosophical questions discussed all over the place, on a daily basis, is staggering. And without such questions, atheism blogs would altogether cease to exist as such. No one enthusiastically visiting Freethought Blogs or, even, Why Evolution Is True can say they find philosophy irrelevant with any self-awareness or internal coherence.

All one could say is that professional, specialized philosophers’ most technical, sophisticated, rigorous and complicated analyses of the issues above go beyond a layman’s ability to understand. So reading them is boring and understanding them seems impossible to the layperson since the specialized discussions move analysis beyond the presentations of the subjects that feel immediately accessible and relevant. But the questions remain relevant even though the discussion of them gets too intricate for the untrained and the unread person to keep up. And the discussion does not become mere sophistry simply because laypeople cannot follow anymore. At certain points physics and biology and mathematics, etc. all become virtually inaccessible to anyone but specialists too. So why exactly would anyone expect epistemology or ethics or philosophy of mind or metaphysics, etc. to remain accessible to everyone when being analyzed in the most rigorous and advanced ways? That’s the way it has to be if we are to get beyond a simplistic grasp of issues and into their deeper intricacies. If you do not personally care about all the details of a subject, since you are happy trusting credible authorities who have thought through them for you, then that’s fine. It’s inevitable we each have to do this in most cases since it is literally impossible, given the current state of the normal human brain, to assimilate all the knowledge required to have a specialized opinion on every topic.

One of the exciting things about philosophy is that the questions are relatively accessible. I think the basic problems of nearly any philosophical issue—even highly technical ones—can be boiled down to a fifteen minute explanation offered to intelligent laypeople. Another exciting thing about philosophy is that, as I just elaborated, its questions are some of the very most vital and pressing in our lives. But that does not mean that the only “relevant” ideas on the crucial topics of philosophy are the ones that laypeople can generate in fifteen minutes of thinking about them. As a philosopher, I very much appreciate that there are analyses which go beyond the levels of discussion which have now become common sense knowledge. I am constantly gaining a fresher, deeper, and more enriched understanding of topics I have studied for fifteen years. The idea that more probing philosophy should not be done because most people stop exploring at a superficial level is just ridiculous. I should have stopped thinking about these issues years ago and thought no further about them than what New England Bob does because he and (allegedly, but not really) 99.9999999% of other people do not want to think any further about them in order to achieve any more clarity about them? How preposterous.

There are many more comments which contain many more objections to philosophy for me to patiently wade through. In the meantime, 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.

  • Kylie Sturgess

    Ooh! These links I included in my article might be of use? http://freethoughtblogs.com/tokenskeptic/2011/11/02/the-end-of-philosophy-classes-an-incidental-lesson-on-john-edward/
    Stephen Law has written a little on it as well. :)

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

      Thanks Kylie!

  • NewEnglandBob

    Sorry, but I see you as wrong again.

    Do I need to analyze everything possible to know that a poison is no good for me? Do I need to study every possible relevant physics issue to know that jumping off the Empire State building is bad for my health?

    Not seeing any evidence of any deity whatsoever is enough for me to not believe in a god. The rest of it is for those who want to contemplate their navel. Meanwhile there are so many more important issues for me to attend.

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

      Look, it’s fine if you do not want to do philosophy. But, seriously, unless you can define “a deity” clearly and specify what evidence would count for it and against it, and produce the arguments or evidence for your position, then you are not rationally holding your position.

      And given that what other people mean by a deity might be quite different and more plausible than the clearly fictional interventionist gods of some prominent religins, you may still not have done anything to show you have reasonable reasons for your atheism without actually addressing and disproving the philosophical arguments for those conceptions of deity.

      Or, you can be willfully ignorant of anything you do not adequately understand and on top of it arrogantly heap scorn on those who know more than you. But that’s your failing, not philosophers’.

    • Ramza

      How does that follow? The burden of proof exists for a reason. If someone claims to know about god and I ask them to prove it and they can’t we are done. I don’t owe it to them to devise experiments to test their god or to help them turn their thoughts into some coherent idea just so I can dismiss it. If theirs no proof we don’t need to analyze their ideas any deeper.

      Also what would a philosophical argument that could convince me of reality look like? The history of philosophy seems to me to be filled with people assuming all kinds of thing based on sound reasoning and then having science show them to be wrong. If all something has going for it is logic disconnected from the real world then I fail to see why I shouldn’t assume this to be the case.

    • Robert B.

      Would you really say that a doctor who carefully studies the effects of a certain poison on humans is wasting his time? Or that a physicist who performs detailed experiments on the dynamics of irregularly shaped falling objects is navel-gazing? That seems to be the argument you’re making, that analysis beyond the level needed to support simple day-to-day decisions is self-absorbed and wasteful. I feel you’re neglecting to consider the additional goods that deeper analysis can provide, like antidotes and parachutes. In the philosophical case, I suspect that investigating the relationship between a hypothetical God’s omniscience and human free will would turn up things that are relevant to ethical problems where a powerful party has detailed knowledge of the behavior of a less powerful party: parents and children, lawmakers and drug addicts, etc.

    • Ramza

      Free will and omnipotence can’t mutually co-exist. We figured this out a long time ago and just because some people are emotionally invested in trying make sense of it all doesn’t make it so.

      If I tell you that up is down and down is up and ask you to reconcile it I’m sure you can twist words and play games with language and give me an “answer” and its still gonna be equally true that up is not down.

    • Robert B.

      I more or less agree with you about omnipotence and free will, but I didn’t say omnipotence, I said omniscience. As I understand it, omniscience, not omnipotence, is also what the project that started this whole controversy was about.

      (Although, imagine a being that has the power to control our actions but never chooses to, leaving everything up to us. Would we still have free will then?)

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

      This post was not about that topic. But nonetheless, I do not think a priori you can forbid professional philosophers from formulating alternative conceptions of the meaning of free will and the meaning of omnipotence in order to account for ways that they might coexist. I can imagine some possibilities whose implications I would have to think through at length before ruling them out. What is the purpose of squelching all future inquiry into the meaning or nature of the ideas of omnipotence and free will? If they will fail, then other philosophers in the peer review process, or in the journals and in books if they get published, can explain the failure. And laypeople can poke holes in the arguments offered too with no objection from me.

      My only problem is with this a priori insistence, in advance of new thinking (and especially by a philosophically unqualified biologist who has not proudly examined the proposed project in any detail) deciding the project is illegitimate.

      That’s the closing of the mind in a dogmatic, anti-speculative, anti-freethought way. And it is hubris especially hubris to do this outside one’s own expertise. Coyne is not a metaphysician. It is not his place to assume that a project professional philosophers approved has no merits.

      Many people, in terms of common sense think that determinism and meaningful free will are just logically incompatible. In recent decades especially soft determinists have made (to me) compelling arguments they are compatible. I just cannot abide a closing of the mind that refuses to allow anyone to make a new argument because the issue is supposedly settled when there is no great empirical, mathematical, scientific proof involved but only certain logical conclusions from certain formulations of the premises but not from all possible formulations of the premises.

  • Tom

    This is a huge strawman.

    Neith Coyne nor NEB deride all philiosophy. Coyne specifically mentions that philosophy of ethics is valuable and NEB is specifically deriding the idea that “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” not philiosphy in general.

    So most of your long and passionately argued blog simply misses the point.

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

      This post is not about Coyne. I have addressed Coyne directly in the previous two posts, including explaining the inadequacies of his (I think failed) attempts to specify why his criticisms of philosophy are adequately limited.

  • Tom

    “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”

    Lets take an inconceivable concept (omniscient knower) a vaguely defined concept (belief) and two only basically understood concepts (causation and time). and argue about the implications of some very precise claims we are going to make using very rigorous analytical tools.

    It is still a GIGO exercise.

    Not all philosophy is like that.

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

      No, let’s clarify rigorously those various concepts, or working technical definitions of them or distinguish numerous possibly confused concepts all taken under each of their names, etc., and then let’s meticulously explore what the clarified concepts mean and their interconnections between each other. Then we will be able to better disambiguate real world uses of the terms which equivocate between distinguishable concepts, highlight contradictions and dissonances in our everyday use of these normally ambiguous and equivocated concepts, and think more clearly as a result.

    • http://songe.me Alex Songe

      I think a good example of clarifying these concepts might be something that’s occurred to me in the past few years. The problem of evil is actually not a problem strictly of any god, but of any benevolent purpose and meaning in the universe. Though sometimes metaphysical purpose and meaning don’t cause any theodicy issues, there may be some nasty “just world belief” consequences. One can see this in some forms of Buddhism where reincarnation is used to justify prejudice, injustice, or atrocity. Now, most concepts of god(s) are going to give the world meaning and purpose.

    • Tom

      No, let’s clarify rigorously those various concepts, or working technical definitions of them or distinguish numerous possibly confused concepts all taken under each of their names, etc., and then let’s meticulously explore what the clarified concepts mean and their interconnections between each other.

      But you wont, because you have no method of testing/proving your arguments other than internal logical and semantic consistency and, because philosophers are generally smarter than most and enjoy a good argument, they fool themselves into thinking they can reason about things that lesser mortals realise are simply incoherent.

      Philosophy has wrestled and come to no firm conclusion about a multitude of things that, once we worked out how to gather real evidence started to fall into place.

      PatrickMefford may get a feeling-superior kick out of it but it is only when some kind of evidence gets involved that things get settled.

      Philosophers would do better applying their considerable talents and skills to areas where they can actually engage with issues that make a difference rather than bragging how what they are doing is so rarified that the rest of us shouldn’t criticise that which we cannot understand.

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

      See this is where things get tedious. If philosophers reopen issues and come to counter-intuitive but well argued positions, rather than accepting that your dogmatic stance might change what do you do—you accuse us of playing semantic tricks and trying to feel superior. I don’t know your heart and mind so I don’t mean this personally—but whenever I hear this it sounds like simple ressentiment and know-nothing hostility to specializations. Rather than being open that someone might know or discover more with more rigorous, technical analyses or improved definitions, you want to feel like the issues are just closed so you don’t have to think anymore or worry anyone else might know more than you.

      What in the world is so offensive to people about the idea that philosophers who devote decades of their lives and all their professional efforts to philosophy might just come to deeper, more counter-intuitive, and revealing answers to questions than the laypeople? This is not elitism or trickery anymore than evolutionary biologists who go over creationists’ heads are in some conspiracy. It’s specialization. What is wrong with it? Laypeople are still allowed to think for themselves. Who is saying they cannot? They can even come to a blog like mine where every post ends by asking indiscriminately to all for “Your Thoughts”.

      And over and over I lovingly profile all sorts of people’s philosophical challenges and address them in detail and with respect without ever demanding anyone’s credentials and proof they belong to some Secret Society of True Philosophical Wisdom. This is all compatible with expecting just a little respect for the idea that philosophers who devote their lives to the questions just might make more progress on them in general than non-specialists would. And that they are entitled to decide for themselves what a fruitful reconsideration of old issues might or might not be.

  • Yoritomo

    And it aids atheists to see that such avenues are vigorously explored by theists so that we may either be shown the errors of our ways and become theists [...]

    Are you saying that in the absence of evidence you could be convinced by philosophical arguments that theism is the correct position? I doubt that. What would such an argument have to look like? Showing logical consistency is nice, but it’s not showing existence.

    I am aware that philosophers sometimes try to turn philosophical arguments into truth claims about reality (I had the misfortune to read W.L. Craig on the impossibility of an actual infinite and, by extension, on the impossibility of a Steady State universe), but what I read of those attempts amounted to an argument from incredulity. (Presumably you will reply that Craig is not a true philosopher, and I am tempted to grant that point, but if his publications in the International Philosophical Quarterly aren’t true philosophy, then what is? As a further aside, Craig’s line of reasoning relies on his misunderstanding of pure mathematics, so maybe you shouldn’t consider it quite that uninteresting.)

    More to the point of the supposed irrelevance of philosophy: What would you consider the philosophical advance of the past century that most affects people’s everyday lives?

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

      Craig doesn’t misunderstand pure mathematics, he just presupposes a few things about the Metaphysics of Time (A-theory) and physics (Neo-Lorentzian relativity) that give weight to his arguments about the cardinality of sets of an actual infinity actualizing in this world.

    • josh

      Craig shows no sign of understanding mathematics, time or physics. I’m trying to parse “cardinality of sets of an actual infinity actualizing in this world.” Putting aside ‘actualizing in this world’, an ‘actual’ infinity presumably refers to an existing thing or things which can be characterized as infinite. That’s a set, singular, which can have a cardinality relative to other sets.

    • Robert B.

      That last question is a tough one because philosophical advances are adopted into practice SO SLOWLY. The philosophy most relevant to current events is probably Civil Disobedience (OWS FTW!) which Thoreau published in eighteen frickin forty-nine.

      But you’re probably looking for analytic philosophy, which holds, among other things, that we should discover philosophical truths one-by-one by reasoning on evidence, rather than sit in a cave and create a sweeping model of the whole world which everything must then fit. To say “in order to reduce the rate of abortion, studies show that we must make birth control easily available” is to do ethics in the analytic style. To say “birth control and abortion are both wrong because they violate natural reproduction” is to do ethics in the pre-analytic universal-model style.

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

    I’m starting to get a kick out of the naïve evidentialism that grounds the thought of a lot of people in the “Free Thought” movement here on the internet.

    • Brandon

      If we are to be rationally justified as theists or as atheists, we need to analyze the metaphysical concepts of God for their internal coherency and for their plausibility.

      How so? Internal coherency and plausibility is not actually an affirmative argument for the existence of something, they’re just an absolute minimum standard. I can get why a theist would want their God to clear such a hurdle, but it’s really quite irrelevant to me, as an atheist, whether someone conceives of an entity that meets that standard. In the absence of actual confirmatory evidence for a deity, atheism and agnosticism still seem entirely rationally justified.

      And especially while the overwhelming majority of English speaking people believe in the existence of some form of monotheistic deity or another, the question remains open enough for the minority of professional philosophers (roughly 16%) who either lean towards or accept theism to explore new avenues for defending potentially plausible God concepts.

      The popularity of unsupported beliefs really doesn’t impact my take on their validity.

      And it aids atheists to see that such avenues are vigorously explored by theists so that we may either be shown the errors of our ways and become theists or be able to show the failings of even the very most genuinely sophisticated philosophical efforts of theists to make their concepts sensible and prove them plausible.

      If the most sophisticated philosophical efforts theists make proves their beliefs merely plausible, I do not see how that makes them rationally justified.

    • Brandon

      Oops, this should just be a general reply, not threaded. Sorry Patrick, what I wrote is unrelated to your comment!

    • Robert B.

      I admit, the logical plausibility of God shouldn’t convert anyone. But if God were logically plausible, it would make a difference. For one thing, it would then be the responsibility of science to search for evidence that he does or does not exist. Since there isn’t any theory of God that makes sense and is consistent with what we already know, science can responsibly tell theology to get lost.

    • Ramza

      I disagree. If it was consistent it would be the job of theologians to provide evidence and scientists to evaluate this evidence. I can make up dozens of consistent systems but I don’t expect science to bother with them till I’ve got facts.

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

      Logical validity is easy. More to the point, since the most rigirious conceptions of God are Metaphysical, I’m not sure what a scientist has much to add to that.

    • Brandon

      I don’t really follow the thinking here; it seems, to me, pretty easy to dream up various sorts of deities that have internal consistency, but are sufficiently untestable that they can’t be ruled out. I suppose if someone desires to believe in such things, I’d consider it little more than an eccentricity, but I’m not about to grant it credibility and tell scientists to make with the disproving. While it’s probably a bit tired and cliche at this point, I’d regard the burden of proof to still lie with the claimant for said internally consistent deity.

    • Robert B.

      Well, if theologians come up with a coherent but untestable theory of God, theology has basically told science to take a hike, and science need do no more than sneer at theology’s cowardice. Philosophy can then come in and point out that to claim the existence of something that can never be tested – that is, observed – is to have a very strange idea of what “existence” means.

      But seriously – imagine a religious philosopher walks across campus to the physics building and says “I’ve proven that God, if he exists, is defined precisely thus and described by this mathematical model. His existence or non-existence can be established with 99% certainty by the procedure outlined in Appendix A; you will need a radio telescope, three pounds of selenium, and a ball peen hammer.” The rest of the philosophy department (all atheists) have unleashed their finest arguments and analysis, and they can’t find a hole in this guy’s work, it’s rock solid in every respect except the experiment hasn’t been done yet. Do you really think that the physicists all ought to just ignore that? Really? Or should they go “Holy cow, if this is true it would be hugely relevant to cosmology and our understanding of time! And if it’s false we can make the creationists shut the hell up! Grab some selenium and meet me at the observatory!”

      When we say that the burden of proof is on religion we don’t really mean that priests should perform experiments themselves; if they had experiments to run I’m sure scientists would be glad – indeed, prefer – to perform them. What we mean is just that, if there is no evidence either way about God, we should not believe in God.

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

      The question at hand in New England Bob’s concern was relevancy of philosophy to life. My point was to say, look, for as long as the vast majority of people still believe in God, philosophers will do well to address the question. This means finding all the ways it might be plausible or implausible. I completely agree that even were the concept internally consistent that would not directly prove its existence. But a priori we should not squelch all efforts to prove that it at least clears that hurdle. That’s it. Why should we stop theists (or attempt to stop them by whining about their getting research funding) from making their shot at clearing the hurdle?

      Should they clear the hurdle they defeat a major objection to their position. If we are openminded, non-intellectually authoritarian people—you know, freefuckingthinkers—we should welcome this. We can always make the argument that the internally consistent God concept still is overwhelmingly unlikely on other grounds. But who is hurt by letting the minority of philosophers who work on behalf of the majority of people from trying to improve their case in a debate that has not been conclusively and scientifically resolved and forced agreement among all peoples everywhere yet?

    • Brandon

      I’m unaware of anyone trying to prevent theologians from doing that work. Did I miss something? I know Coyne (and others) have chided organizations for funding what they perceive as pointless work, but that’s quite different from actually trying to stop anyone from doing the work.

      Provided that the research dollars being dumped into theological woo are private, it’s really nothing to me at all what someone would like to do with it. Sure, I think the money could be better spent, but that seems dangerously close to a fallacious line of thinking to suggest that my opinion on the matter is terribly relevant.

  • Ramza

    “If we are to be rationally justified as theists or as atheists, we need to analyze the metaphysical concepts of God for their internal coherency and for their plausibility.”

    No. For theists maybe, but I no more need to analyze religious claims for consistency to disregard them than I do to analyze the consistency of claims made by a man on a street corner rambling about the end of the world. Unless you mean to say that you’ve analyzed the consistency and coherency of every religion to ever exist.

    If I claim that I can fly and then provide no evidence of it you don’t need to do any further thinking on the coherency of my claim to dismiss it. Indeed quantum mechanics seems to show that coherency as least as many understand it is not at all necessary for something to be true.

    • Robert B.

      Imagine that we are visited by a race of friendly aliens who say they want to bring us the wisdom of their God, who hands down prophecies and tells them what is right and wrong. They pray to it frequently, making requests and giving thanks. Their God, as it turns out, is a super-intelligent computer that works out the best course of action for them, and is predicting the future based on evidence and scientific models. The prayers serve to give the computer-God feedback on whether it has actually done its people good, and on what their desires and intentions are. They aren’t just data entries, though – a praying alien is expressing, and sharing with the community, the profound positive feelings she has for the benevolent AI.

      If we humans rejected all this God-talk on the grounds that we are atheists and God doesn’t exist, we would be wrong. The argument for atheism is not perfectly general, it relies on specific details about what human religions mean by God that we had to analyze at one point. The case for atheism wouldn’t apply to these aliens, who mean something very different with their religious talk.

      We reject the factual truth of human religions and myths specifically because we have analyzed their coherency and plausibility. We don’t have to do it one at a time, because human religions have (so far, at least) had certain things in common, such as belief without good evidence (implausible, and ethically incoherent if you’re a Kantian). So when you encounter a new human religion, it’s safe to not analyze it in detail. When you do this, you’re basically betting that the analysis you’ve already done applies to this religion just as well as every other, or if it doesn’t, that some expert like a scientist or philosopher will go “Hey, they can actually prove this one!” and show you the data or the proof. In other words, you aren’t rejecting the need for analysis, you are applying analysis (yours, and that of experts) efficiently.

    • Ramza

      I’m not sure that really follows. In your example the aliens have evidence of this god. If I claimed I could fly and then appeared to do so then sure its time to take me seriously. If a religion shows up and seems to actually have some sort of facts supporting it then sure lets look at those facts.

      I also feel that your example is just semantics. The alien god is not anything even vaguely like what the god means when we use it. Indeed these aliens encountering our religions would likely be confused why we believed in gods that don’t do anything. I doubt they would want us using the same word for their actual real thing that we use for our imaginary ones.

      I disagree in theory with your last paragraph . Sure that’s how it happened in some sense but the right answer was far simpler. The first cave person talking about the name of the sun and how it wanted worship should have been asked to prove it. That people take religions claims seriously enough that we had to deconstruct them is a failure on our part as a species.

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

      Ramza, this is not about religion, it’s about the philosophical concepts of ideal limit beings or necessary beings. This is about concepts that go by the same word religions use “god” but which are really about ideal knowing or ideal power or the question of why something exists rather than nothing or what it would mean for there to be a necessary being. These are philosophical concepts. It’s not like we’re saying, “holy crap, how might blood turn into wine?” We’re looking at philosophical concepts that predate Christianity and were developed by philosophers like Aristotle and were adopted and explored, across religions, by philosophers for centuries.

      Philosophical talk about “God” is speculation about the unresolved puzzle about how there is anything rather than nothing, what necessary being entails, and what various limit ideals of various powers would entail logically. If you persist in thinking this is about respecting religious superstitions by treating them like they were serious contenders for truth, then you will persist in attacking a strawman and missing the point and you will persist in misunderstanding the value in philosophical speculation.

  • Felix

    Philosophy vs Theology – my take:

    Philosophy is an attempt to think very hard about the reality (or at least certain aspects of reality which are not amenable to the empirical sciences).

    Theology is an exercise in self-justication, pretend philosophy where you claim to know the answers before you even ask the question.

    Philosophers should therefore shun theology and anything that that is tainted by it lest they be thought to be pretend philosophers, and lest theologians use their work to claim unwarranted legitimacy.

    If a philosopher wishes to study a scenario involving an omniscient yet temporal entity she should avoid using god-language and should be wary of accepting funding which is tainted by an ‘agenda’.

    She could perhaps describe an alien super-intelligence that has the properties she wishes to consider and yet is not burdened by other attributes of conventional ‘gods’ which are not necessary to her thesis.

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

      That’s fine, but you have centuries of accumulated tradition in which “god” stands in for several valuable philosophical concepts. If theists want to try to defend that being’s literal being, they are entitled to. It is a philosophically defensible alternative in the way that strictly theological concepts are not. And other philosophers can critique the success of the theists to work out their views on strictly philosophical grounds and philosophers can take the insights into, say, omniscience from whatever thought experiments relate to it—even those of theists, regardless of what the theists personal or philosophical motives might be, if the theists simply do good philosophy. If they do bad philosophy that is unhelpful to anything else, then philosophers can criticize, clarify why the theists’ explored route is a failure and move on.

      The objection I have is the shutting down of all inquiry on “god” concepts a priori. They’re interesting. I have benefited a great deal philosophically by working on them all semester teaching philosophy of religion and I am a convinced atheist.

  • Robert B.

    How are you not analyzing for coherency and plausibility, though? Your very demand for proof is a plausibility check. It’s quick and simple, but that’s only possible because you have the benefit of decades or centuries of philosophical thought behind you, which has, first of all, given you all those nifty ideas about the empirical nature of truth and standards of evidence and so on, and second of all, applied those notions specifically to various religions and generally to universal or common properties of religions. Debunking religion wasn’t very hard compared to some other things philosophy has done or attempted, but this analysis was not trivial and it was philosophical and every time you decide to ignore someone because they are making religious claims with no apparent evidence you are relying on that analysis.

    I tried to make the alien God have a role in the alien’s lives that was very like the role that God is supposed to have in the lives of (some) religious people. In that sense, I hold that my alien AI does resemble what a human God would be like if such a thing actually existed. I don’t think my aliens would say we’re using the word “God” wrong; rather, they would be sad or confused that we think we have a God like theirs when we obviously don’t.

    • Robert B.

      Whoops, that was supposed to be threaded in reply to Ramza at comment 7.1.1.

    • Robert B.

      And you know what, Ramza, I think I was misunderstanding you, in a way that made my entire post much less relevant to your point than I would like. On a more careful reading, you’re distinguishing between a check for evidence, and the examination of a concept for logical coherency and plausibility that Dr. Fincke proposes. You’re arguing that, once you know whether or not there is evidence for something, you don’t need to examine the inner logic – if it exists, then it must be possible, and if it doesn’t, then who cares?

      The problem is, to find evidence about something, you first have to have a sound and thorough understanding of what that thing is that you’re testing. Consider the creationist who says “if humans evolved from monkeys, why are there still monkeys?” and considers this evidence against evolution. He is reasoning from a very mistaken idea of what evolution is, and so what he thinks is evidence is nothing of the sort.

      Or, consider free will. Some people have argued that, because thoughts and decisions are physical events with physical causes, free will does not exist. This seems to be arguing from the odd notion that a “free” decision would be uncaused, or caused by something outside the real physical world. You could call that concept “freedom,” in a way, but it doesn’t seem to be a desirable sort of freedom; personally, I would rather have “free will” in the sense that lets me make decisions for good reasons, that is, events in the real world that are important to me and my choices. Therefore, I judge that the physical nature of the mind doesn’t count as evidence against free will, in the sense of “free” that I care about.

      Of course, some things are much easier to understand conceptually. We can do experiments that confirm or deny the present existence of dodo birds, without having to commission a philosophical study of what the word “dodo” really means, because this is a much simpler concept to parse. We can draw a picture of a dodo. But I don’t think the concept of God (or omniscience, or several other religious concepts) is simple in this way. People mean different things by God, they are unclear or incomplete in their definitions, and most forms of the idea have consequences that aren’t obvious at first glance, such as the theodicy problem. It seems likely, therefore, that we can’t know whether a given fact constitutes evidence for or against God, unless we do some philosophy to clear up what “God” means and what consequences would follow if he existed.

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

      And you know what, Ramza, I think I was misunderstanding you, in a way that made my entire post much less relevant to your point than I would like. On a more careful reading, you’re distinguishing between a check for evidence, and the examination of a concept for logical coherency and plausibility that Dr. Fincke proposes. You’re arguing that, once you know whether or not there is evidence for something, you don’t need to examine the inner logic – if it exists, then it must be possible, and if it doesn’t, then who cares?

      The problem is, to find evidence about something, you first have to have a sound and thorough understanding of what that thing is that you’re testing. Consider the creationist who says “if humans evolved from monkeys, why are there still monkeys?” and considers this evidence against evolution. He is reasoning from a very mistaken idea of what evolution is, and so what he thinks is evidence is nothing of the sort.

      Or, consider free will. Some people have argued that, because thoughts and decisions are physical events with physical causes, free will does not exist. This seems to be arguing from the odd notion that a “free” decision would be uncaused, or caused by something outside the real physical world. You could call that concept “freedom,” in a way, but it doesn’t seem to be a desirable sort of freedom; personally, I would rather have “free will” in the sense that lets me make decisions for good reasons, that is, events in the real world that are important to me and my choices. Therefore, I judge that the physical nature of the mind doesn’t count as evidence against free will, in the sense of “free” that I care about.

      Of course, some things are much easier to understand conceptually. We can do experiments that confirm or deny the present existence of dodo birds, without having to commission a philosophical study of what the word “dodo” really means, because this is a much simpler concept to parse. We can draw a picture of a dodo. But I don’t think the concept of God (or omniscience, or several other religious concepts) is simple in this way. People mean different things by God, they are unclear or incomplete in their definitions, and most forms of the idea have consequences that aren’t obvious at first glance, such as the theodicy problem. It seems likely, therefore, that we can’t know whether a given fact constitutes evidence for or against God, unless we do some philosophy to clear up what “God” means and what consequences would follow if he existed.

      QFT.

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

    Philosophy asks questions. Science answers questions.

    • Robert B.

      Nice line, but you’re oversimplifying a bit. Consider the question “How ought a good man respond to an unjust law?” Philosophy posed it, and science is unequipped to answer it. I can imagine a reasonable argument that history can answer that question, but even then, there’s so much philosophy hidden behind the words “just” and “good” and “ought” that the historian would have to be half a philosopher anyway.

  • wat

    I’m really getting a kick out of all the people using philosophical arguments(poorly) to try to argue against philosophy. I think people have this idea that philosophy is just a bunch of woo hand waving, instead of what it actually is, i.e. logic, ethics, epistemology(good luck doing science without at least a rudimentary understanding of this one), aesthetics and metaphysics(which does not have anything to do with physics, seriously people, at least read the fracking wiki page.)

    • http://www.twitter.com/jalyth Jalyth

      I think you’re right. Although I’m still figuring out what Philosophy is/is for. I’ve only been reading this blog for 2 weeks, maybe it’ll help if I start reading it sober. :(

      Sure I’ve heard of Kant and, um, others, but I don’t know how they propel society forward. And who are modern-day philosophers? Do they ever become famous? If not, why not?

      I retain an open mind. Cause that’s me.

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

      Man, I can hardly name a contemporary chemist who is important. We don’t live in an age of many great sweeping figures in knowledge. We live in an age of specialization. There are philosophers who do amazing work which, as a philosopher, deeply affects my views when I read them—regardless of how famous they are. I will talk about how philosophers influence things in practical terms at some point. But that’s not ultimately what is important. What is important is whether or not reading philosophy gives you (a) clarified and improved understanding of your concepts, (b) clarified and improved general accounts of important areas of your life and thinking, (c) a clearer sense of how to formulate some problems empirically since relevant possible distinctions have been sorted out conceptually, and (d) a greater developed personal ability to critically analyze the dimensions of problems that are not strictly empirical. If any of that happens, philosophy is working. There need be no list of great accomplishments to justify its existence (even though we all, everyday, in “common sense”, and in contrarianism, think in the victorious philosophical ideas of our era and of previous ones without ever properly crediting the philosophers behind them).

      In the meantime, I appreciate a great deal your willingness to read my ideas, Jalyth. If you did through my archives on numerous philosophical topics then you can simply test philosophy (or at least my abilities with it!) by asking yourself—does this clarify what various problems and solutions are in questions of ethics? If it does, then philosophy (or at least my own) is benefiting you. If it doesn’t then try better philosophers! ;)

    • wat

      We don’t live in an age of many great sweeping figures in knowledge. We live in an age of specialization.

      Is this really true? It seems more likely to me that the full impact of sweeping work in a given field in generally recognized decades later. Gregor Mendel, for example.

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

      I am not saying that there is no hope of people’s influence and reputation growing over time. Surely some of the contemporary philosophers are slowly becoming canonical. That’s an inevitable process. I think the reason that happens is that a few philosophers will in their work summarize and epitomize the strongest arguments in one direction or another in such a way that their era can be encapsulated by reading them. It’s not that they are stand alone geniuses bringing fire from the gods but because reading them is the most efficient and illuminating way to get the wisdom of a generation or a movement within that generation. For all his moments of original genius, for example, Nietzsche is also a compendium of views that were common intellectual thinking in his day. Without the context of who he was ripping off (or sometimes outright plagiarizing!) he looks more like he is writing in an unprecedented way than he is at times. So, in the future, some contemporary philosophers will seem more original than they were and will also be more rightly recognized to be essential reading with the judgment of history.

      Other fields may have revolutionary figures still to come but there is a great deal of basic framework already in place in so many areas and so much innovation is done within highly technical specializations, I wonder what the mechanisms for any individual scientist to strike the public imagination as an especially genius contributor would be. (Maybe she just needs a blog? ;) )

    • Ramza

      Maybe its just me, but I think having this is your article would have fixed most of my issues with it. I can only speak for myself but what I’ve been looking for is a purpose or reason for philosophy.

      I’ve always had smart people telling me that philosophy had value but I could never see too much of it in the present. It had seemed to me that the good of philosophy had become science and all that was left was the woo. The fact that theology and philosophy can sometimes blend together didn’t help.

      To clarify and make sure I understand this, you are saying in a sense that philosophy is more or less mental exercise? It feels good, and helps strengthen the mind? Or am I trying to cram it into too small a label?

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

      Well, the mental exercise in dealing with conceptual and logical clarity is minimally justifying. I do think, however, that since there are numerous practical questions (which I listed in my post) which as of yet do not admit of scientifically exact empirical resolution, philosophy has vital importance for life. Conceptual clarity about what it is to be a person, to be free, to be good, to be just, to think, to know, to be real, to do science, etc., etc. is necessary insofar as we have to make real world practical choices about justice and rights and responsibilities, etc. Those choices will either be informed by the best conceptual clarification we can achieve or sloppier, more ambiguous, more dissonant concepts.

      If we are to overcome the confusions of common sense we must do science wherever possible and do philosophy wherever necessary. And philosophy is necessary where we have important decisions which hinge on important distinctions and no empirical experiment can itself adjudicate them for us but rigorous conceptual and logical clarification is all we have available.

    • Robert B.

      At the very least, I would draw your attention to where good parts of philosophy have become things other than science, such as the way ethics informs politics, or the way empirical epistemology informs history and journalism. Also, it’s not like modern science is exhibiting a perfect grasp of the philosophy of science and will never need help with it again, cough string theory cough cough.

    • wat

      Sure I’ve heard of Kant and, um, others, but I don’t know how they propel society forward. And who are modern-day philosophers? Do they ever become famous? If not, why not?

      I’m sure you have heard of some. Daniel Dennet is a philosopher. So is Sam Harris. If you are a skeptic or interested science, you will have heard terms like “falsifiability” and examinations of how science produces knowledge, or differs from pseudo-science. These are epistemological concepts routinely employed by most of the readers of these blogs, despite what they may think.

      Another thing to keep in mind is that everyone is always using philosophy in some way. It forms the intellectual underpinnings of every discipline, and informs much of our day to day action, even when we try to deny it(by ironically using philosophical arguments).

  • Midnight Rambler

    If we are to be rationally justified as theists or as atheists, we need to analyze the metaphysical concepts of God for their internal coherency and for their plausibility.

    No, see, this is where you’re approaching this whole thing fundamentally upside-down. Nothing about any metaphysical concepts is relevant until there is any basis for believing that they are real. Making stuff up and working out whether it could be real might be an interesting intellectual exercise for people who like that sort of thing, like William Lane Craig. But it’s literally no different from analyzing the kind of dance moves an angel would have to do in order to stay on the head of a pin.

    The only related thing I can think of that has the slightest bit of relevance is examining whether some sort of super-advanced aliens would be distinguishable from gods. But since there’s no evidence for the existence of aliens with that sort of technology, it’s also pretty much a pointless exercise.

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

      No, see, this is where you’re approaching this whole thing fundamentally upside-down. Nothing about any metaphysical concepts is relevant until there is any basis for believing that they are real. Making stuff up and working out whether it could be real might be an interesting intellectual exercise for people who like that sort of thing, like William Lane Craig. But it’s literally no different from analyzing the kind of dance moves an angel would have to do in order to stay on the head of a pin.

      The only related thing I can think of that has the slightest bit of relevance is examining whether some sort of super-advanced aliens would be distinguishable from gods. But since there’s no evidence for the existence of aliens with that sort of technology, it’s also pretty much a pointless exercise.

      Unless we clarify the concepts of god, we cannot talk about whether there are reasons to believe or not to believe in them. It is only because we have clarified the idea of, say, Thor as a being in the sky making thunder happen that we can go—yep, no such guy observed or likely to be observed.

      The metaphysical concept of God has an important and philosophically rigorous treatment historically. Descartes, Leibniz, Spinoza, Aristotle, Aquinas, Whitehead, et al. did not make angels central characters in their philosophies because the philosophical relevance of such beings is completely unobvious. But insofar as metaphysically we have a deep mystery—why is there something rather than nothing—and god is their word for whatever must be a necessary, uncaused being, we have a question much more serious than the implications of your average fictional being.

    • josh

      This is wrong I think. I don’t believe in heffalumps, not because I have a clear and rigorous definition of heffalump, but because I have no reason to believe in anything answering to that name. Evidence, meant in the broadest possible sense here, is what leads us to formulate useful concepts, not the other way around. That’s why, even though you don’t understand in detail what an electron is, you can reasonably say that you believe they exist.

      Now various classical philosophers had, or thought they had, reasons/evidence to posit and develop a god concept, just as ancient norsement thought they had reasons to develop their idea of Thor. But on critical review, it is easily seen that there are no valid reasons to believe in anything close to Thor or any other god. Rather we see that various believers have smuggled in all sorts of assumptions and unwarranted conclusions, most often based on societal upbringing and desired conclusions.

      I can’t agree that God has been treated rigorously by the historical figures you list. God is not just an uncaused neccessary being to Aquinas, Leibniz, and Descartes. They were explicitly Christian and tried to reconcile the God of their religion with their philosophical systems. Aristotle isn’t Christian but that doesn’t make him non-religious, and Spinoza and Whitehead are clearly influenced by religious notions of god. Even the phrase ‘neccessary being’ is saturated in religious and anthropomorphic assumptions and has yet to prove of any use in understanding the nature of the universe. Isn’t it time to drop this primitive concept from our discourse?

      Going back to the issue that started this kerfuffle, you’ve defended the proposed ‘research’ as a sort of thought experiment on time and causality. First, the evidence does not support the idea that philosophers are experts at thought experiments. More to the point, why start with Ockham’s theology of God; again, he was explicitly Christian and had no idea of modern concepts of relativity, among other things.

      A good thought experiment is tailored to the questions and phenomena one wants to address. So given a modern understanding of time and causality, one might ask “is it, in principle, possible to exactly predict future events in this understanding”, “if it is possible, suppose someone could do so: what would be the consequences for our understanding of mental processes, or decision-making”. Etc. I wouldn’t count on this postdoc making much progress, but a very clear-thinking person might add some insight. However, there is no good reason to invoke god, much less God according to William of Ockham. Asking how God’s foreknowledge can be reconciled with free choice is like asking how phlogistons would propagate in the ether.

    • Robert B.

      See, here’s the thing about your electron example. A layman’s belief in electrons is not based on analysis he’s done or on evidence he’s seen. The layman has given electrons no particular study at all, and even in our electronic culture he’s personally seen no evidence that should make him prefer the concept of electrons to that of, say, vitreous and resinous fluids.

      The reason most people believe in electrons is because they’ve been told about them by experts. And when the experts first stumbled across electricity, the concept they came up with, just by looking at the evidence, was vitreous and resinous fluids. That is to say, they got it wrong: a flat observation of raw evidence, uninformed by any kind of theory, won’t get you much farther than “hey, look, sparks.”

      It is true that when we create concepts it is usually because we have been prompted by some observation. But when we are observing an entirely new phenomenon, the concepts we create from this first observation are, historically, always bad and inaccurate. To make progress, we need to examine our concepts, make sure they are coherent, and work out what consequences they ought to have. Then we can check if they really do explain what we saw, and we can devise new experiments to see if our model can predict things we haven’t seen yet. Armed with a clear understanding of our concepts, the evidence becomes much more informative – a scientist armed with a theory can learn much more from an experiment than a scientist who has no idea what he’s looking at. The better our concepts, the more we can learn by observing. Extrapolate this trend backwards, and we can see why the first form of any concept is always so terribly inaccurate. The observations that prompted us to form that initial concept were uninformed – we didn’t understand what we were looking at, so our analysis was naturally very poor.

      I certainly agree with you that to form a good concept we must observe the evidence. But it is also true that to perform a good observation we must understand the concepts. This is why science is so iterative – basic observations allow basic theories which let us design deliberate experiments which inform better theories which lead to more insightful experiments, and so on and so on. Disciplines other than science sometimes have more trouble with their observations, but the iterative process is otherwise the same, and to halt either conceptual analysis or empirical observation is to break the wheel of discovery.

    • josh

      I don’t disagree with anything you wrote here. Science is definitely iterative, so we refine our concepts in response to experiments and part of that process is thinking in depth about our current concepts and models in order to tease out their implications and design better experiments. I’m a theoretical physicist so this is basically a description of my day job! And therefore I’m not objecting to philosophy, broadly construed.

      Although, I do have my caveats about the claimed ‘expertise’ of professional philosophers. I think exposure to philosophy courses would be great as part of everyone’s general education and professional philosophers are, of course, very familiar with the history and breadth of arguments within their particular subdisciplines. I just don’t find them, as a class, to be markedly better at evaluating those arguments or advancing new ones.

      Putting any broad opinions aside, my point above was that ‘god’ is not a useful concept now if it ever was. We aren’t finding god-like or god-suggestive evidence, and I’m including here observations like ‘there is something’; it’s not a valid concept that needs some refining, it’s a primitive dead-end.

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

    Since a lot of people are more interested in addressing what is or is not a legitimate philosophical problem (which was the debate with Coyne but not the intended focus of the post above), let me make a quick qualification. I defend the seemingly irrelevant philosophy (like conceptual clarification of beings I don’t actually think exist) not because I do not think it important for philosophy to have any practical relevance but because for philosophy to be as thorough and rigorous as possible it must do some theoretical stuff that does not have immediate implications but which it will be helpful to have available when it comes time to do practical stuff. This is parallel to every scientific discipline. They all involve theoretical research and/or research with no known applications to human life. So does philosophy. But that does not make purely theoretical projects self-indulgent mental masturbation any more than it makes science or math done with no immediate problem to solve self-indulgent mental masturbation. It is just part of how thinking works that sometimes it treats the theoretical for its own sake and for the sake of the truth and only later or in other contexts worries about the real world implications.

    • Ramza

      Quick question(not trying to play gotcha just curious). Do there exist any philosophical questions that you would consider worthless or gibberish?

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

      Sure, ones that involve clear and apparent contradictions and impossiblities, for example, “what are square circles like?” I am also not that interested in exploring all the philosophical implications of all possible entities. We do need to make choices between more or less fruitful avenues of inquiry. My contention with Coyne was that it was not a biologist’s place to decide which questions are or are not worth philosophers’ time. And before I were to criticize a particular philosopher’s path of inquiry, I would have to know damn well what it was all about first and why it was utterly futile. I can only do that in a narrow set of specialized areas in which I have any expertise. I’m not a Medievalist, I don’t work on philosophy of time or causation, and I’m not primarily a metaphysician by any means. So, who am I, let alone Coyne, to know what potential value there is or is not in a project on William of Ockham’s theory of foreknowledge.

  • Douglas Kirk

    I really love the analogy of philosophy as mathematics. They are both incredibly useful in everyday life (although there are plenty of occupations that do not require them) and indescribably important to other disciplines.

    The basic rules of logic and argumentation are the algebra of pretty much every other discipline… including science. And like mathematics, the advanced forms of philosophy are more about rigorously defining aspects of itself rather than solving real world problems because, like math, philosophy as a concept is independent of reality. The rules of logic aren’t really based on evidence that If A, then B; not any more than math is based on evidence that 2+2=4.

    The only problem I see is that at the advanced levels, where both Math and Philosophy require internal consistency; Mathematic theorems all play in the same world and Philosophies do not. Once a theorem has been proven consistent in Math, the other theorems have to account for it, but philosophy seems to face no such pressure to create a unified view of itself.

    I wouldn’t know how to fix it, but the lack of progress in advanced levels of philosophy is discouraging. Not that philosophy is useless or anything like that. Like I said, philosophy is extremely important for every discipline and I wish there were more emphasis on critical thinking and philosophy from middle through high school.

    • wat

      but philosophy seems to face no such pressure to create a unified view of itself.

      This is simply due the nature of the subjects involved. How could you unite aesthetics with logic? In any case, math does not give a unified account of itself either, as Godel’s famous theory(which I no way understand) showed.

    • josh

      Math is based on evidence that 2+2=4; it was developed to handle everyday problems like measuring land and dividing up comestibles and, of course, trade of valuables. 2+2=4 reflects the fact that, if you think of an apple as a discrete object, there is a physical difference between 1 and 2 apples and they can be piled together or divied up in ways that comport with the laws of physics. The symbols of math are a way of encoding those facts and manipulating them abstractly, they are a model of reality. Of course, like any model it can break down if you apply it outside its domain or misidentify the symbols with the ‘real’ phenomena you want to model. So when you start worrying about partly eaten apples, and irregularly shaped apples and apples owed you expand or modify your model with fractions, infinitestimals, negative numbers, etc.

      Now at some point, you realize that you could have written down your model without a reference to the ‘real’ world, and that you can modify the rules in ways that don’t obviously describe the phenomena you started with. So you can write down models that you don’t have a useful interpretation for, but you are still only writing down what the physical universe will allow you to, and since we usually prefer things like enforcing rules of non-contradiction you are still, even in abstract spaces, consciously basing things on your models of the ‘real’ world.

  • Richard Wein

    Daniel,

    I think you’re conflating different senses of “philosophy”. When people say they find philosophy of little or no use, they don’t mean that nothing useful can be said on any of the subjects that philosophers study. I think they mean more that philosophers don’t have anything useful to say that can’t be just as well said by people who haven’t studied philosophy as such. For example, we don’t need to have read any philosophy books or attended a philosophy course to think effectively about the existence of God or to be rationally justified atheists.

    You draw an analogy between philosophy and other disciplines (physics, biology and mathematics) but you fail to mention one very important difference: those disciplines have an enormous body of well-established results accepted by a clear consensus of the experts. So much philosophy, on the other hand, is misguided that philosophers are unable to achieve a consensus or make much progress.

    Even if philosophers one day manage to establish a body of solid results, I’m dubious about the practical value of philosophical knowledge. I think the correct answers to many philosophical questions are quite nihilistic, and their broad acceptance could be damaging to society. Some false beliefs, such as belief in moral realism, are probably good for society. To the extent that philosophy is epistemically successful it may be practically harmful.

    That said, I do think that good philosophy has some limited practical benefits. It can help with clear thinking generally. And it can make some contribution to other disciplines, where it overlaps with the theoretical end of those disciplines: epistemology (overlaps with statistical theory), philosophy of physics/biology/mathematics (overlap with those fields), theory of language (overlaps with linguistics), theory of mind (overlaps with AI).

    • Robert B.

      I dunno. Dr. Fincke keeps mentioning how eighty-odd percent of philosophers are atheists. If that’s the case, then philosophers are doing much better than the general population on at least one key question.

      And obviously you don’t need formal training to be a good philosopher, just like you don’t need formal training to be a good mathematician – but boy does it help. Though you’re right about the lack of consensus, which denies philosophy instruction the unified voice that other disciplines have. My philosophy courses mostly just discussed famous historical arguments without passing judgement; I think we were meant to figure out the right answers for ourselves, and I bet a lot of people didn’t.

      But… what are these questions to which you claim the correct answers are nihilistic? And why is it that you are apparently fine with figuring out and knowing these answers, but you don’t think other people should?

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