Don’t Think of Philosophies As Diametrically Opposed

Having grown up an Evangelical Christian, I had a few habits that were hard to break when I became a philosopher and, eventually, an atheistic philosopher.

The way I was raised, I was taught that I belonged to a faith that had all the right answers. Thinking was simply a matter of making explicit what my faith really taught so that we could see how it aligned with things known by reason, figuring out the logical connections between each thing we believed that must be there if only we think carefully enough, and figuring out how to explain our truth in a way that could help outsiders see it. While this involved a lot of intellectual ingenuity and even honed many of my skills as a critical thinker, it wasn’t really a truth-conducive project of free thinking, willing to go wherever the truth led, but a project of rationalization committed to creatively finding the best possible ways to make a large set of baseless prejudices as coherent, consistent and practically workable as possible. Eventually, the incoherencies, inconsistencies and impracticalities were so great that I realized the faith I was trying to ideally articulate was hopelessly false and flawed and no longer worth trying to salvage.

By the time my shift from theist to atheist finished, I had also gone from understanding my interests theologically to engaging with them philosophically.

But I tended towards looking at philosophy through a similar kind of prism. I tended towards thinking of the major philosophers each as a coherent, self-enclosed worldview. And I had a bad habit of implicitly thinking of them with the same view I approached theology–I implicitly leaned towards thinking as though there was one totally right system to be defended in all its intricate details and all others were fundamentally flawed.

So, instead of adopting Evangelical Christianity and attacking all other religions and all sects of Christianity that deviated from the one I saw as right, I was inclined to think of philosophy as about figuring out which of the great philosophers had the basically right total worldview and defending it against all comers. All other philosophers had some fatal flaws in their very foundations that would infect their entire system.

This is how Christian presuppositionalists see things. They crudely oversimplify all of thought and say that everyone, inevitably, just grabs a basic presupposition, or a few of them, and interprets all other experiences and data prejudicially in terms of that basic presupposition. No one can avoid having a presupposition at bottom. No one can defend their basic presupposition or refute another’s. So, we all just have faith, the supernaturalist and the naturalist alike. We all just work out our own worldviews, each unassailable from the outside because all criticisms assume our basic presupposition is wrong and theirs is right. So, by simply assuming our own basic presupposition, we can just ignore all the criticisms that don’t share it.

This is an awful, irrational way to think (were natural philosophers of days gone by to have adopted it, we’d never have had a scientific revolution), and it infected my habit of thought when it was drilled into me freshman year in a Philosophical Theology class devoted to defending it.

So, I tended to look at philosophical systems or the works of great philosophers as these non-overlapping, incommensurate, untranslatable worldviews at fundamental odds with each other because of their supposed differences in fundamental principles and assumptions that deterministically just made them incapable of both being right and even incapable of fundamentally criticizing one another or learning from each other. With no shared ground, they could not critique each other meaningfully.

As my undergraduate studies went on the picture became a little different. I started to see philosophers ranged dualistically on two major sides on all the major questions. Rationalists vs. Empiricists. Realists vs. Anti-Realists. I started not to think of each particular great philosopher as having their own isolated worldview and of having to figure out which one was the right one to adopt the way I’d adopted my theology. Instead I saw a big fundamental split down the middle of the whole history of philosophy and saw each philosopher a variation on one side of the split or another.

But as I further studied and further matured, I came more and more to realize that this was fundamentally wrongheaded too. These big categories philosophers superficially are classed into are the least interesting and most distracting things about them. You can find “rationalist” ideas all over the great “empiricists” and “empiricist” ideas all over the great “rationalists”. And realists about any given domain of philosophy say some anti-realist things and vice versa. In college my philosophy major friends and I had a huge argument in class one day with our theology professor because he called Berkeley an idealist whereas our philosophy professors had classed him as one of the British empiricists. In retrospect, such classifications were a barrier to simply reading Berkeley for what he was worth and being primed by professors to read Descartes as a Rationalist and Locke as an Empiricist (a distinction they didn’t apply to themselves) was only an invitation to read both with less nuance and less understanding and to miss the ways that they were fellow discussants on many common questions, with overlapping insights even. They are surely contrastable, but less importantly in the giant big strokes and more in the nuances where they’re otherwise similar and aware of the same problems and truths.

In fact, in my experience, philosophers fundamentally agree far more often than we disagree and so quite often the shades of nuance are blown up and exaggerated as huge dividing lines when they’re not. They’re just a disagreement, even an important one, between thinkers who inhabit shared concerns and usually have a wealth of overlap in other ways in their thinking.

Ultimately, philosophers are all basically dealing with the same world and the same basic faculties of reason. Science changes the information we have to work with, which can change a lot of the nuances of what we say, and over time philosophers carve out helpful distinctions that clarify differences between us. And there are some places where I strongly disagree with this philosopher or that.

But what I have retrained myself to do is to remember that with everyone I read, fundamentally, I can find at least as much to agree with, or at least learn from, as disagree with even if I disagree with their main argument at hand. I don’t pick up a book and say, “this philosopher identifies with the opposite school of thought as me or adopts a position I think is wrong, therefore everything here will be wrong”. I’m not on a team in that sense. I’m not with the good guys against the bad guys. I don’t represent the Truth and the one Right philosophy.

When I read a philosopher who differs in conclusions and doesn’t convince me to change my mind about the conclusions, I try to see what insights into what we can both recognize as true he or she offers. There is some aspect of reality that they’re onto and maybe they’re reading it the wrong way in the main, or maybe they’re trying to put something at the center of their thinking which I think belongs contextualized somewhere else, but fundamentally they’re trying to make sense of something that is true and even if they miss the mark overall they can help me understand it through their attempt to articulate it. Nietzsche once went as far as to say that for some philosophers their errors are precisely what is most valuable about them. Sometimes a wrong turn or stubborn persistence irrationally down a wrong path can lead to unexpected discoveries everyone else would have been too sensible to stumble upon.

For an example on my mind lately, I have many reasons to support the idea that we can talk about “objective” morality. Yet, I find that I agree with and can sometimes learn tons from moral anti-realists. I was a moral anti-realist for about nine years and still share many sympathies and benefit from having marinated in that viewpoint. It is not helpful to take one point of difference–an important semantic fight over the meaning and applicability of the words “subjectivity” and “objectivity”–and confuse that for a fundamental incompatibility of the basic structures of our thought or a fundamental tendency to see the entire world related to ethics differently.

And soon I want to write a post about why I think that asking whether I’m a deontologist or a consequentialist has come to feel like asking me whether I think math or science is true. It’s simply the wrong place to put a fundamental divider as far as I can tell. Deontology preserves formalism that matters in our thinking and consequentialism grounds ethics in reality. It’s a feature, not a bug, that seemingly all humans inevitably shift between both modes of thought, just as we shift between other forms of formal thinking and sense-based thought when appropriate. It’s just a trick in the case of ethics to find a rational way that’s not ad hoc and self-serving to know when to be deontological and when or how to be consequentialist. But ultimately both are rational and indispensable modes of thought. But again, that’s a thesis to defend another time. It’s a digression here (though what actually motivated me to write this post this morning).

I can agree with someone about 90% of metaethics and fight over the 10% because it is important and interesting and can be very consequential. It’s a wrongheaded mistake to build my identity as a philosopher around the 10% that makes me different and start to see those who disagree about that 10% as fundamentally enemies to be defeated.

This is why I spend so much of my time writing philosophy trying to make sense of my opponents’ points. (Here’s just one example post, on relativism, that I’m particularly fond of. Another favorite is one where I find common ground with pro-religionists) I ask myself what are they seeing, what true and good things are they trying to preserve and articulate and defend. How do I preserve, articulate, and defend those things myself, and why do I think the way they do it is worse than the way I do it? What causes me to not agree with them, why do I think my different formulation is decisively important? And that’s how I come to more sensitive, nuanced, and comprehensive viewpoints.

I conscientiously try to read each philosopher with an open mind as a collaborator with something to offer, rather than as an enemy to me or as a polar opposite to the other side they have a dispute with on some narrow issue.

I repeat myself again: the areas of contention are sometimes really worth fighting over. They can be consequential. There’d be no point to doing philosophy if we just said, “we agree on 90%, who cares about that 10%, let’s just be friends”. The 10% is the stimulating part. Sometimes tangible real world effects or implications for other spheres of thought hang in the balance. But these disputes still much more frequently happen within a shared 90% than not. Recognizing that, working with that, and working within that helps clarify the real differences, minimize distractions, and make clear the shared resources available for making progress.

So this is why when people ask me what school of philosophy I belong to I want to really just say all of them. It’s the wrong question. It presupposes the wrong expectation and the wrong attitude when approaching philosophies.

If someone thinks that because I happened to work out my philosophy the most through a deep study of Nietzsche and an attempt to systematize him, that I must always side with him against other philosophers (especially ones he attacked) or that I must come down on one side or another of some presumed crucial dividing line that supposedly makes philosophers fundamentally at odds, they’re going to guess wrong about what I think a whole lot of the time.

The worst is when people read something I wrote and simply quote Nietzsche at me like it’s a refutation. I have no religious devotion to Nietzsche. If I contradict him, so be it. I really don’t care. I know how my thinking is enriched through both defending and wrestling with Nietzsche. I have extensively defended my reading of him in my dissertation and explored openly how and why I both agree and disagree with him. He’s not the Right Philosopher to be defended against all others. And, as tempting as he makes it to see him this way, he is not the One Honest Philosopher who shows all the others to be simply prejudicial and false and the whole endeavor of philosophy to be wrongheaded. He’s just a very insightful philosopher with some crucial ideas still not exhausted by other philosophers, and a child of his time who serves in places as a compendium of interesting 19th Century thought, and is an heir to a long philosophical tradition who anticipates and agrees with him about a lot. He is a participant in a conversation who still shares more than he lets on with other participants.

For all this, you might think, “But don’t you identify as an atheist against theists? Surely you think that that difference in 10% of views is a huge deal!”

Yes, that’s correct. I am adamant against theism for two basic reasons. I oppose it where it imports, and tries desperately to rationalize, theological posits that are philosophically baseless. When theists try to use philosophy to defend indefensible beliefs they get from arbitrary religious sources that have no grounding in fact, then they’re corrupting the whole philosophical endeavor.

The best they can do here is import interesting thought experiments. It is interesting in its own right philosophically to think through conceptually what an omniscient being would be like and what the logical implications of one would be, or to think through whether a perfect being is conceptualizable or possible or necessary, etc.—these are fine conceptual puzzles that might just help us think about actual existent knowers and beings more clearly. I have explicitly defended not having theist philosophers defunded or institutionally drummed out of the academy by philosophers as refuted.

But when theists wind up defending simply baseless and ludicrous propositions, or holding to views in the teeth of outright contradictoriness, or contradicting scientific facts or even math as William Lane Craig is guilty of, then they’re letting their religious commitments ruin their philosophical acumen (and genuinely misrepresenting and embarrassing philosophers to other intelligent people).

And, worse, they attempt to use philosophy to prop up religious institutions that are anti-philosophical at their core, that substitute bare theological posits and faith-based rationalization for philosophy and short circuit the endeavor of philosophy for billions of people. My problem with theological theists is that they prop up religions that are active obstacles to widespread philosophical and scientific virtues. They hinge on anti-philosophical approaches to thinking to stay around and some of those theists actively try to defend their intellectual vices as virtues. These things insulate, harden, dogmatize, and radicalize people. In my own case, they crushed the love of science I had when I was in elementary school and they hindered my ability to develop proper philosophical attitudes and habits in the ways I discussed at the beginning of the post. They gave me passion for the questions and taught me creativity, but were counter-productive to learning philosophical virtues.

But, for all that, when you strip out the religious, theological, and science-disregarding baggage from theism and just deal with what actually has some metaphysical merits or thought experiment value, theist arguments too can be part of the shared philosophical conversation that I read with no animosity. As a metaphysical postulate without theological trappings it can be interesting and some formulations of it I don’t feel very strongly about people holding to if they hold to it as they do other weird metaphysical postulates I don’t happen to accept but could see the reason in accepting. The reason to have one’s back up against theism is because, as tied to traditionalistic and dualistic religions, it tries to hijack philosophical credibility to illicitly claim some legitimacy for anti-philosophical theologies, practices, and modes of reasoning.

Your Thoughts?