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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