Michael Ruse on Philosophy Bashing

Ruse has my back in a blog on The Chronicle:

Then there is Jerry Coyne, University of Chicago professor and president of the Society for the Study of Evolution. Here he is on the works of St. Augustine: “But you have better things to do with your time than read them. He may well have been an intellectual giant of his day, but his ideas are so outdated and even then, so deliberately tendentious, that they are like much of modern theology—so much sophisticated hot air.”

Just at the moment, Coyne’s big beef is about some chap who has been given a postdoc to work on the philosophy of religion. How could God know what will happen and yet grant us free will? A couple of philosophers pointed out against Coyne’s first rant on the subject that the actual existence of God is not the point of the exercise. It is rather about the nature of time and free will and much more. Coyne’s response: “The theory is NOT philosophically interesting in the absence of an omniscient being. If there isn’t one, as I presume both of these folks agree, then the project becomes an exercise in mental masturbation, musing about what something nonexistent would do if it existed.” Or how about the free will problem in its own right? “The more I read about philosophers’ attempts to redefine and save the notion of “free will” in the face of the neurological facts, the more I think that they’re muddying the waters.”

Most recently, we have Freeman Dyson in the NYRB telling us that philosophy just organized stories. He quotes Bertrand Russell at his silliest: “Philosophy is just organized piffle.” Dyson tells us that “this is a view of philosophy similar to mine.”

Let me say that I don’t mind scientists talking about philosophy. I am glad that they do. I just wish that they would do us the courtesy of taking seriously what we are trying to say. It is not a subject that can be done over a few drinks in the faculty club at the end of a hard day in the lab. The questions are important and they are tough. I think science has much to say to philosophy. I showed that in my recent discussion of the foundations of ethics. But it doesn’t have everything to say to philosophy and the questions science doesn’t tackle need tackling.

Take just one example in which I have been much involved, the teaching of evolution in state schools in the U.S. It needs knowledge of science. It needs knowledge of the law. It needs knowledge of theology. It also needs knowledge of philosophy. What is science and is evolutionary theory science? What is religion and is Creation Science religion? Do the two overlap? Is Intelligent Design Theory science or religion? Should parents have the right in a democracy to decide on curriculum content? And so the philosophical questions continue.

Your Thoughts?

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About Daniel Fincke

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

  • ‘Tis Himself, OM

    Wow, a philosopher defends philosophy! Who’d a thunk such a thing possible? :-þ

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

      Here’s my personal favorite: its a three-way!

      In general, Ruse is not someone you’d want to be in an intellectual foxhole with.

  • Pierce R. Butler

    If Michael Ruse has your back, put your wallet in a front pocket.

  • http://dododreams.blogspot.com/ John Pieret

    Given Coyne’s prior treatment of Ruse, for example:


    … and who sometimes deserves it … I doubt this will do much to change Coyne’s mind.

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

    My thoughts?

    Look, Dr. Finke, you’re an idiot. You don’t know how to write, and you don’t know how to think. You have a Ph.D. in Philosophy, and a teaching position. Yay. That proves only that they’re giving doctorates and teaching positions to idiots. You’re not my instructor, so, unlike your students, I don’t have to pretend that you’re anything but a complete idiot.

    Just because someone thinks you’re completely full of shit doesn’t mean they’re not taking you seriously: You seriously are completely full of shit. To say that you’re not full of shit would be to *not* take you seriously, to not respect that you actually *mean* the trivial, long-winded, uninteresting and irrelevant things you say.

    You are already being taken seriously. If you want to be admired and respected, write something admirable and respectable.

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

    Also note that I don’t read your blog by direct choice; I notice you only because you’re syndicated on Planet Atheism. When you post your usual ponderously inane drivel, I usually just skip over the article. By now, I’ve learned that when I see “Camels with Hammers”, I can just skip to the next article without missing out on anything important. I usually read the first couple of paragraphs anyway, on the off chance that it might be something interesting. What can I say, hope springs eternal. I don’t think I’ve ever lasted more than two paragraphs. But, OK, maybe someone likes what you have to say, and it’s easy enough to skip over. I don’t have to like *everything*.

    But when you whine that you, and people like you, talentless, uncritical, uninteresting incompetent boobs deserve not only to be “taken seriously” (which, as I remarked earlier, we do, by assuming you actually *mean* the nonsense that you write) but to be granted the irrefutable assumption of profundity and relevance because, by God, you are Doctors of Fucking Philosophy, because you have Major Academic Position, well, it triggers the exact same sort of ajita* that caused me to become an atheist in the first place, and I can’t help but comment.

    *ajita: aggravation plus nausea

    • sunnydale75

      I find this response to Daniel’s post befuddling. Given the attack on him as a person rather than the quality (or if you believe otherwise, the LACK OF) of his post, I assumed the response was by some religious believer (or someone who has a beef against him). I guess believers aren’t the only people who launch personal attacks against those they don’t agree with.
      I’m appalled at your response. You don’t speak to any of the points he brings up. Perhaps it’s because philosophy is one of the few areas in academia that I actually enjoy and have some proficiency in (I’ve found that not many people seem able to think philosophically. That doesn’t mean they aren’t smart. Nor does it mean that philosophers are arrogant {or as you claim Daniel is, an idiot}. They just have a different skill set than others). Who knows?

      This post is the the first(that I ‘m aware of) by Daniel that I’ve read, and he doesn’t display an inability to write. Perhaps if you were to explain to the rest of us “how to write”, we might better understand where you’re coming from.

      Philosophy is a slippery subject for many people. It can be hard to conceive, and even harder to explore. Being a philosopher, IMHO, requires one to be able to think. I’m just saying that perhaps he *can* think and maybe you’re just not the target audience.

      With that out of the way, Daniel does ask several *very* intriguing questions.

      As I understand it, evolutionary theory contends that the diversity of life on this planet is due to change across successive generations. Science, as I understand it, is a systematic procedure that allows us to better understand reality and make predictions about and provide explanations for reality. Yes, I believe that evolutionary theory is science. It walks, talks, and behaves like a duck. Therefore it is science.

      Religion is defined in so many ways by many different people. A casual online search for “what is religion” reveals over 1 billion results. The definition from religioustolerance.org works for me: “Religion is any specific system of belief about deity, often involving rituals, a code of ethics, a philosophy of life, and a worldview.”

      Creation Science, by itself, is not a religion. It is part of *a* religion. I see it as an attempt by some believers to give scientific support or evidence for biblical accounts of the creation of the universe as well as disprove scientific facts concerning the origin and diversification of life, as well as the history of the Earth and the cosmos.*

      Do creation science and religion overlap?
      They do overlap.
      Creation science merely attempts to downplay its inherent religious aspects. In the mind of creation scientists, a higher power created the universe in a *very* short amount of time. This higher power also created humanity and all living creatures in their present forms. Finally they believe that fossils are left over from a worldwide flood.
      Even if one were to argue that this isn’t from Christianity, creation science is *still* religious.

      Is Intelligent Design science or religion?
      Intelligent Design Theory posits that various aspects of the universe were created by, well, an intelligent designer. Again, this downplays god, but you’d have to be an idiot to not realize IDT refers to god (and a specific one at that). If proponents of intelligent design correctly used the scientific method and came up with evidence that was replicable and peer reviewed perhaps they would have more success forcing creationist views into public schools.
      Yes. Intelligent Design is religious.

      Should parents have the right in a democracy to decide on curriculum content?

      A question that’s actually debatable. Despite my opinion on religion, my answer is yes. However, given the specific democracy in question (the United States) and that our country was founded-in large part-to escape religious persecution, and the founders were very specific in their wording of the Constitution and Declaration of Independence, when it comes to curriculum content, religion should be non existent. Yes, parents have the right to help decide content, but religious views of any sort are highly subjective and should NEVER have any influence our public school system.

      *I think creation science is pure and utter crap. There is *no* scientific evidence to support creationism. The only support for creation science comes from the bible, and given the contradictions and falsehoods throughout it, the bible is hardly a credible source for anything related to humanity (ok, I take it back, it might be credible for religious historians)

    • The Vicar

      Oh, come now: if you’re reading through Planet Atheism you should be aware that Mr. Fincke isn’t bad by any means. Or have you been skipping Allen Small for so long you have forgotten he exists? Go and read some of his recent posts, and you’ll find yourself longing for Mr. Fincke, who — whether you like his profession or not — at least has a sense of humor and tolerance for dissent.

    • Laurence

      Wow! I love this sort of poisoning the well and dismissal. I think I might start doing this to every blogger I find that I disagree with.

  • Pierce R. Butler

    Y’know, Larry, there’s a long and uninspiring tradition of those who can’t even properly spell the names of those they deride, and the seriousness of the response they merit.

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

      1. Arguing from tradition.
      2 . Correlation does not imply causation.

  • Kiwi Sauce

    I’m still surprised at the level of vitriol against this one post doc.

    I’m more appalled at the number of people with quantitative PhDs in the sciences who don’t understand basic statistics. And the journals that publish their “findings”. Also, I don’t then assume their entire field is crap on the basis of a couple of poorly designed/analysed/discussed articles.

  • EdW

    I’d like to ask a quick question — I don’t have much education in terms of philosophy, but one point has always bothered me.

    Let’s take the issue of Free Will and the Omniscient Mind, which is at hand here. Let’s say this postdoc study ends up with a philosophical model of the Divine Mind-Changer, which touches on several questions of Free Will and epistemology.

    Now let’s say I come up with an opposing model, which I call the Divine Steady-State model, which has completely different philosophical underpinnings.

    How do we determine which model is true? What if neither is true? How do we apply these models to our lives?

    I’ve never seen how this kind of philosophy can provide any kind of useful information, or even information that we can validate in any meaningful way.


    • Robert B.

      Well, in this particular case, the philosophy concerns God. We can be pretty sure that every model whose name starts with the word “Divine” is going to be false to fact. We know it by the staggering lack of evidence of God, every time one would expect such evidence to exist.

      You’re worried that the philosophy can’t be confirmed or falsified, which is a respectable concern, but when philosophy makes claims of fact, they are just as falsifiable as anyone else’s fact claims. Sometimes they’re falsified by evidence, collected by scientists others, and sometimes they’re falsified by logic explained by other philosophers.

      Descartes, for example, had a theory called “dualism,” which basically said that people had two parts, a body and a soul, and that the soul was very independent of the body and made of some non-physical stuff. He guessed that there might be a part of the brain that connected the two, and let the soul control the body. Nowadays, evidence is piled deep and getting deeper that Descartes was wrong. Not only does the part of the brain he mentioned (I forget which one it was) not do what he hoped it would, there’s more and more data showing that the supposed functions of a soul (decision making, morality, etc.) can all occur in a brain, and don’t occur when there is no brain or when the brain is damaged.

      But Descartes is still read today, and the dualism bit isn’t skipped despite being false – in fact, I think I had to read the Meditations for two different philosophy classes, and I was only getting a minor. This is because, when you discuss something philosophically, you get to understanding and defining it more completely and precisely than you otherwise would. No one ever defined “soul” for me in Sunday School – I was told that I had one and it would go somewhere when I died, but I had no real idea what people even meant by the word “soul.” I didn’t even realize that I didn’t know that, or that it was important to know that. My understanding was so fuzzy I didn’t even know anything was wrong with it. By reading Descartes, I learned that by “soul” people meant this dualistic stuff, this other non-physical half of the self that is supposed to interact with the body somehow. And it was only once that was pinned down that I was able to satisfy myself that there is no such thing. How do you disprove something you don’t understand?

      Similarly, I see some really valuable philosophy lurking behind the regrettable Goddishness of this controversial postdoc project. Even though there is no God, the project will still work on questions like “what do we mean by ‘free will?’” and “Does knowing about something mean you’re responsible for it?” I can definitely see how understanding those things better would be useful in making tough decisions.

      Also, even if there is nothing observing our universe from outside time, if we imagine that there is, we can think about time and cause and effect in new and informative ways. If you can’t think of an application for that, think about the sentence “God caused the Big Bang.” There’s something fundamentally troubled in that sentence, a problem of the “Are you still beating your wife?” variety, and you need some clear ideas about time and cause and effect to work out what it is.

      Philosophy is not so great, by itself, at providing information and answering questions of fact. What philosophy does is build and strengthen ideas, and then gives the ideas to scientists (and historians and anthropologists and linguists and so on) so that they can figure out the facts.

    • Sammi C

      Robert B.:

      What philosophy does is build and strengthen ideas, and then gives the ideas to scientists (and historians and anthropologists and linguists and so on) so that they can figure out the facts.

      More accurate would be “Philosophers’ conceit is that they build…”.

      So let us worship these mighty thinkers as they generate fact-free ideas so us mortals can test them? No, make your own pinheads, count your own angels! Typically scientists generate more complex questions than philosophers, and attempt to answer them. “Is there a god?” is a simple question, with a simple answer.

      It is no good just posing questions and spouting a load of hot air, that’s pathetic. If you don’t come up with some answers, you are useless. A bridge builder who only says “yeah, it might be possible to build a bridge there, I don’t know” would not be highly regarded. Why should a philosopher be lauded for similar uselessness? That’s one good reason why many practical people hold philosophy in contempt. If the only answer to the question “what’s in it for me?” is “oh, you can better respect and praise my phatic offerings”.

      Some years ago, John Searle did some imaginative and adventurous stuff, actually trying to use philosophy as a means to answer questions!

      Understanding of the scientific method will generally lead to a better understanding of philosophy than vice versa. Amongst other things, it helps one to appreciate that the real world is the arbiter of truth, not academic puffers.

      You cannot argue truth into existence. Do all philosophers understand that?

    • Robert B.

      Where are you finding these wishy-washy philosophers that don’t give answers to their questions? That’s completely contrary to my experience. The philosophers I’ve read have, if anything, the opposite problem: they rush ahead to answers too fast without spending enough time considering their questions and their premises. I’ve never read a philosopher that matches your description. You’re going to need to drop me some quotes, otherwise I can’t remotely accept the idea that Descartes was unimaginative, that Locke was fact-free, or that Nietzsche was unadventurous(!).

    • EdW

      Thanks for the response, Robert B.

      I guess my problem is dealing with separating the bad from the good — this postdoc seems to be more about providing fodder for “sophisticated” apologists (see? omniscience ISN’T a problem for my beliefs, here’s the research!!) than any of the questions you’ve listed.

    • EdW

      Although, I wonder if there is a whole other category for “scientific metaphor” — thinking about the Big Bang from a perspective outside of time, or Einstein’s light-speed bicycle. Impossibilities that help to illuminate facts about the real world.

    • Robert B.

      Nope, that’s a thought experiment, and it’s still philosophy, though many scientists like Einstein and Schrodinger have famously made good use of the technique. (It doesn’t replace actual experiments, of course, it’s used for generating hypotheses and theories.) And it’s just as easy to do badly as any other kind of philosophy. I seem to recall that Berkeley used a thought experiment to “show” that material objects have no independent existence, but exist only because they are perceived. (But it’s okay, you see, because God perceives everything all the time.) It was a profoundly confused bit of so-called reasoning that I can’t imagine would ever fly with anyone who wasn’t looking for new reasons to believe in God.

      Speaking of which, the bit about philosophers providing sophisticated arguments for apologists is indeed troubling. But… well, when we figured out that industrial pollution was harmful, we didn’t stop industry and go back to the iron age, we controlled the pollution. If we’re looking at a sort of philosophical pollution here, the solution is not to stop the philosophy, it’s to control the pollution – probably by educating people in spotting lousy arguments. You don’t do philosophy by believing in it, you do philosophy by arguing about it. One thing this blog does that I really like is it gets philosophy out of the ivory tower and into the public where everyone can learn from the good bits and hammer on the bad bits.

  • wat

    Philosophy isn’t about discovering facts about the world. It’s about refining and clarifying thought so that when we have those facts we know what the fuck they mean. This isn’t hard, guys.

    • EdW

      do you have any examples of this in effect?

  • Richard Wein

    I’d like good philosophy to get more respect. But the trouble with those who complain loudest about philosophy bashing is that they are so often defending bad philosophy. That’s not going help make the philosophy-skeptics any more friendly to philosophy.

    Ruse is right to criticise certain comments that go too far in dismissing philosophy altogether. But he does philosophy no favours by speaking up for religious philosophy. Philosophers need to do much better at sorting the wheat from the chaff if they want to be taken more seriously.

    • EdW

      What would you categorize as “good philosophy?”

  • The Vicar

    I’m afraid I find myself in the anti-philosophy camp. There may be valuable purely philosophical writing out there, but I have yet to encounter it; whenever philosophers (students or teachers or mere admirers) try to convince me that philosophy is a valuable subject, I end up more convinced than ever that — if I may be excused a cliche — there’s no “there” there.

    Much of philosophy seems to exist to justify the existence of philosophers (or their cousins, theologians). Nietzsche said sins are necessary to priests — and this true, but not terribly surprising to a cynic. But it is equally accurate to say that sloppy thinking, muddled understanding, and imprecise definitions are necessary to philosophers. In fact, a philosopher will constantly look for sloppy thinking, muddled understanding, and imprecise definitions, and is all too likely to build a professional viewpoint out of them.

    Take, for example, “the teaching of evolution in state schools in the U.S.”. From a scientific — or even an honestly general academic — standpoint, this is a non-question. Science classes teach science; evolution is science (and creationism is certainly not); science classes should teach evolution. You might as well question whether language classes should teach verb conjugation. But there is muddy thinking about the purpose of teaching, and so theologians and philosophers can insert themselves into a discussion in which they have no proper place.

    In fact, the more pointless, time-wasting meta-discussion there is about this or any other “question”, the more importance the philosopher/theologian has. It’s even better for the philosophers if the debate can be framed in terms which either are not rigorously defined but seem like they are, or which have a highly technical meaning to philosophers which is at least partially different from the meaning most commonly used by non-philosophers. The tattered remains of my mathematical background are pained whenever I read philosophical argumentation for precisely this reason.

    • Robert B.

      But muddy thinking is a straight-up philosophical problem. Clear thinking is what philosophy is for. Your complaint is like someone saying “The problem is you get all these questionable experimental results, and then those pesky scientists stick their noses in where they aren’t wanted.”

  • Ray Moscow

    Why does the teaching of evolution in state schools require a ‘knowledge of theology’, or even a ‘knowledge of philosophy’? I think Ruse is confusing subjects.

    • EdW

      I thought the same thing, but then I realized what he meant — “arguing with school boards about the teaching of evolution requires knowledge of theology”

      which may well be true, but shouldn’t be.

  • Max

    Several of the comments here nicely illustrate why I’ve lost interest in on-line atheism. Much of it seems to come not so much from rational thought about religion as from an underlying prejudice against the word disciplines: philosophy, literature, history and the like. I feel as if I’m eavesdropping on a very boring crowd of science majors who haven’t gotten over their resentment at being forced to meet a breadth requirement in the humanities. The mere fact that we share a disbelief in God is not enough to hold my attention — at least not after I’ve gotten past the horrified fascination one sometimes feels at the raw spectacle of unashamed antiintellectualism (the sort of feeling I used to get from watching George Wallace talk about pointy-headed pseudo-intellectuals who can’t park a bicycle straight).

    • ‘Tis Himself, OM

      If you don’t like on-line atheism then you don’t have to read it. Bye-bye. Have a nice rest of your life. You won’t be missed.

    • Robert B.

      You know, I think you said much the same thing to me once. Then, as now, I found it a staggeringly unwise way to respond to criticism. Do you think you’re perfect, that you can afford to rudely dismiss from your presence anyone who dares to point out a possible problem?

    • EdW

      I haven’t heard one word against literature or history. Personally, I find philosophy interesting in the same way I find theology interesting. After all, there’s nothing inherently wrong with mental masturbation, it’s just not something I’d spend money to do.

  • InfraredEyes

    No one ever defined “soul” for me in Sunday School – I was told that I had one and it would go somewhere when I died, but I had no real idea what people even meant by the word “soul.” I didn’t even realize that I didn’t know that, or that it was important to know that. My understanding was so fuzzy I didn’t even know anything was wrong with it. By reading Descartes, I learned that by “soul” people meant this dualistic stuff, this other non-physical half of the self that is supposed to interact with the body somehow. And it was only once that was pinned down that I was able to satisfy myself that there is no such thing. How do you disprove something you don’t understand?

    I think this is a really important point. Philosophers can help us to define exactly what we mean when we talk about stuff. It’s important because not all stuff is obvious; not all nouns nominate things, some of them nominate concepts, like “soul”.

    I think part of the problem is similar to that faced by some of the social sciences: many of the conclusions reached by philosophers sound like common sense. The fact that the “common sense” in question (a) may not be all that common, after all, and that (b) may be more subtle and/or more far-reaching in its implications than we think at first glance…these are things that require structured, disciplined thought. That’s what philosophers do. No doubt some of them do it badly. I’m a chemist, and I have plenty of colleagues who do chemistry badly. But that doesn’t make chemistry as a whole into a bad idea, it just means we need to do it better.

    • EdW

      My question, again, is how do we tell the bad from the good, without some real-world “results” to base a value judgement against?

    • Robert B.

      I think you may have an incomplete picture of philosophy. Yes, there are philosophical movements that march away from evidence en masse like lemmings filing off a cliff into the sea. But that’s true in a lot of fields; it happens in physics (string theory), medicine (chiropracty), politics (Tea Party) etc. etc. etc. There have also been practical, empirical philosophers that drag philosophical thought (kicking and screaming, sometimes) back into line with the way the world actually works. Check out Aristotle’s ethics, or Russell’s philosophy of language.

      You seem to keep asking, “how do you tell good philosophy from bad philosophy when there’s no way to tell if it’s false and no reason to care if it’s true.” It’s actually easy – when that’s the case, you are always looking at bad philosophy.

    • EdW

      See, I guess that’s where I have a disagreement with you in general — I see no real, applicable, tangible, or useful purpose in contemplating in what ways an omniscient mind might or might not be constrained by free will (neither of which probably exist in any meaningful way). It seems like arguing about whether pixies compete with fairies for moonbeam rights. These might be important concepts for New Agers, but any reasonable person denies the question as a non-starter.

      I think if the postdoc premise weren’t couched in the language of apology, I wouldn’t have a problem with it. After all, questions of free will and causality are interesting, just as the questions of God’s existence are interesting. But this seems like an attempt at *reconciliation* between two assumed truths, instead of an honest examination of real-world concerns.

    • Robert B.

      Ah. Yeah, omniscience is just the infinite limit of knowledge, so if you figure things out about omniscience they probably also apply to merely very powerful knowledge. But if you don’t accept free will, this probably would be a singularly useless area to study from your perspective.

      Personally, I think it still makes sense to call a brain’s decision-making “free” even though the brain is strictly biological and strictly causal, so it’s not so useless from my perspective – more like, “would we still have a right to explore the moon if it was inhabited by a civilization of moon fairies.” In other words, aside from the silly choice of noun, it’s a fair question that might be useful someday. So while I think many reasonable people would agree with you, I have to disagree that any reasonable person would agree with you.

  • http://lapisphilosophorum333.blogspot.com/ NChen

    I haven’t read Coyne’s responses to all his critics but I did read the notorious first anti-philosophy blog.`Let’s call his argument what it is: silly.

    He may have elaborated on it so that it is a better argument but I just can’t see any way to make it sound.

    His main argument simply seems to be that we need to think deeply about non existent beings such as god and all philosophical problems related to god. This reasoning seems to suggest that non existent beings are irrelevant to the pursuit of anything worthwhile such as the pursuit of truth.

    But that assumption is clearly false. Examples from science, a subject that Coyne should be familiar with shows this falsity. Scientists make use of all sorts of fictional objects (in clear-eyed understanding that they do not existent)in their thought experiments. Things and events they know to be non existent.

    Just a few famous examples from physics:

    -Newton’s bucket. Newton knew that our universe does not contain a single object (the bucket filled with liquid). But the thought experiment illustrated interesting points that advanced science.

    -Maxwell’s Demon. Again, Maxwell knew that there is no such demon; that wasn’t the point. the thought experiment illustrated interesting points that advanced science.

    -Schrodinger’s Cat. Again, no physicist takes such a being seriously. It is merely meant to demonstrate a point about the conceptual foundations of quantum mechanics.

    -Objects with mass riding on a beam of light. Used by Einstein when he fully knew that such actions are impossible.

    -Time machines. Most theoretical physicists do not believe they are possible and yet there are plethora of papers in physics journals using these fictional objects to demonstrate points about our very real world.

    Additionally, there are also objects that are very well possibly non existent but worth considering anyway such as strings and even time (which may be illusory according to many physicists today). But if these things turn out to be not real, they would still be considered useful fictions that advanced science. The conceptual tools developed in thinking about them makes it worthwhile to develop even if it turns out they don’t exist.

    The most obvious example of a useful fiction is the mathematical world assuming physicalism is true as most scientists (and I’d imagine Coyne) would proclaim allegiance to that doctrine. Numbers may not exist as such but they are useful for the advancement of knowledge.

    But Coyne may respond that in all these cases, there is some criterion or criteria distinguishing the putatively non real but useful objects from their non-useful counterparts. But then the onus is on him to show what that criteria is (I’m sure philosophers of science would love to know. What a time saver for scientists that would be!).

    Coyne may respond that no such criteria is necessary for it is just plain obvious that things like god are too silly to be useful to advance knowledge about our world while things like rotating buckets in otherwise empty universes, Maxwell demons, etc are not. But because his intuition is not shared among many others including philosophers, his intuition shouldn’t be taken any more seriously.

    Here’s a more positive reason Coyne is wrong. The point of the Templeton project is free will in the face of certain kinds of certain knowledge (of future events, etc). The notion of god is merely a rhetorical device.

    It may very well be possible that one day technology will allow prediction to be very accurate so that we can have what was once thought to be god-like epistemic faculties. If that is the case, it is useful to think deeply about free-will and moral responsibility in counterfactual terms to illustrate the conceptual structure of the concepts now.

    Coyne misses the whole boat in thinking the god is the primary object to be analysed in this project; it’s not. Free will, moral responsibility, the nature of time and knowledge about time is, things that even a scientists should admit are well worth investigating. If fictional objects helps facilitate that venture as Newton’s bucket, Maxwell’s Demon, etc has for science, then so be it.