Is Peter van Inwagen a conspiracy wingnut?

Well no, he isn’t. I ask only as a counterpoint to a Randal Rauser post from a few months ago titled “Is Daniel Dennet a conspiracy wingnut?” Rauser accused Dennett of being a “conspiracy theorist” for saying:

I think that theology, and particularly philosophical theology is a pseudo-sophisticated mugging game and there’s no reason to learn any of it because we’ve just seem some of the best of it and its full of I think willful obscurity and willful use of “deepities.”

Now, I’m not sure if I agree with Dennett here, because I’m not sure what he’s talking about. Is he talking about “philosophers of religion,” i.e. Plantinga, Swinburne, et al? In that case, I don’t agree; there’s a lot wrong with what they do but I don’t think they’re being willfully obscure. On the other hand, it sounds to me like like a pretty good description of the stuff that’s currently popular in philosophy departments. (There’s a cultural difference here that I’ve written about before.)

I am in good company saying this. For example, Peter van Inwagen, in his Gifford Lectures, accuses 20th-century theology of “proposing a meaning for the word ‘God’ that enables atheists who occupy chairs of theology to talk as if they were theists” (p. 19 of the published version). Atheists finding ways to talk as if they were theists is pretty much a paradigm case of willful obscurity.

Since van Inwagen accuses theologians of willful obscurity, and Rauser thinks Dennett making the same accusation is enough to make Dennett a “conspiracy wingnut,” so he ought to think the same about van Inwagen. Since van Inwagen is supposed to be “on Rauser’s side,” this is awkward for Rauser. This doesn’t make Rauser wrong, of course, but the fact is that what Dennett and van Inwagen are saying isn’t nearly as implausible as Rauser makes it out to be.

For one thing, the “conspirators” would never need to admit to each other what they were doing. The “conspiracy” could be maintained by everyone praising the “sophistication” of certain especially obscure writers, and damning the “superficial” nature of more straightforward writers. With each new generation of grad students, the grad students would hear this and learn both how they were expected to write and what writers they in turn were expected to hold in esteem.

Someone could defect from the conspiracy, but they wouldn’t be able to say, “oh, we had a big laugh in the faculty lounge about how we’re pulling one over on everyone.” Their criticisms would be easy to dismiss as “superficial,” and people could wisper that they were just disgruntled that their work didn’t get more attention. In the case of theology, defectors towards a more straightforward brand of religion could be condemned as “fundamentalists,” while defectors towards atheism could be dismissed as “militant atheists” (or even “fundamentalist atheists”).

While academic philosophers don’t always succeed in writing clearly, the culture of academic philosophy is still strongly pro-clarity, so much so that I have a little hard time understanding how anyone raised in that culture wouldn’t be exasperated by the culture of obscurity that exists in other disciplines, or find the idea of other academics being willfully obscure all that implausible.

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  • Kevin

    I’m not sure how you can excuse Plantinga from Dennet’s criticism since the model ontological argument is a prime example of a deepity.

    • Chris Hallquist


      I dunno. I’ve sometimes thought that to find Plantinga’s ontological argument convincing, you’d have to get into a weird spot where you know what deductions are valid in S5, but don’t actually understand what the premises are saying. So maybe.

      I also think that the main reason Plantinga’s arguments came to be well-regarded is that a certain subset of the academic philosophy world really, really wanted to believe in them. They’re obviously shit arguments otherwise.

      • Kevin

        Exactly, that is what a deepity is. A deepity is something that seems profound upon first inspection but when you analyze it deeper, it becomes trivial. It seems profound since it plays on our commonplace notion of what ‘possibly’ means, but once you learn what the premises are saying, it becomes trivial.

        I should have added that this doesn’t suggest that it is willful, that is an entirely different matter.

  • Azuma Hazuki

    Anyone who can explode Plantinga is more than welcome to do so. I have more respect for him than, say, Greg Bahnsen (may he rest in pieces). But modal logic is a little beyond even me; the man must have a genius-level IQ, regardless of his twisted uses of it.

    • KG

      Seriously? In the light of his so-called “Evolutionary argument against naturalism”?

      Modal logic is just a formal system (or rather, a set of formal systems, since there are multiple modal logics), and not a particularly difficult one. Whether a particular proof is valid in a particular modal logic (Plantinga uses S5) can be determined automatically. However, for a valid formal deduction to have any significance for arguments about the real world, you have to stick to the same interpretation of the symbols throughout. This is what Plantinga rather obviously fails to do. When he uses “possibly A” in the premises, it means something like “We have not shown that A is false”. But in the course of the argument it switches meaning, to something like “There is a logically possible (or consistently describable) world in which A is true”.