From the archives: Seduced by sophistication (follow up to “Philosophy is dysfunctional”)

While writing another post, I just realized that while I had reposted my post “Philosophy is dysfunctional,” I’d never reposted this, the follow-up. Like the first post, it was originally published in July 2011.

Below is the post I was talking about when I talked about doing a follow up to “Philosophy is dysfunctional.” It may not be quite what you expected though, since it’s more personal, and not really about academic philosophy (at least not specifically).

If you want more comments on academic philosophy specifically, you should probably read this comment of mine if you haven’t already. It talks about possible solutions to philosophy’s problems, David Lewis, Alvin Plantinga, and compatibilism.

Anyway, where I left off, I had argued that academic philosophers put too much effort into being clever and too little into being right, because that’s what they’re given incentives to do.

This, though, treats philosophers as black boxes, things you can give incentives to and magically get behaviors out of. But what’s going on from their perspective? What, you might ask, is it like to be an academic philosopher?

In many cases, I actually think academic philosophers are at least partly aware of what they’re doing. When I was at Notre Dame, I heard some of my fellow grad students joke about just writing whatever they thought their professors wanted to hear in their term papers.

This was always said in a (semi-) joking way, but I’d bet there was a lot of truth to it, and I’d further bet that people don’t become magically more virtuous when they make the jump from “grad student worrying about making professors happy” to “young professor worrying about making hypothetical future tenure committee happy.”

Other things reinforce this. An adjunct professor (who had just gotten his Ph.D.) giving me tips on who you shouldn’t cite because they’d lost status lately. Rumors that so-and-so had privately admitted to not believing what he said in that one book. Rumors that some entire departments had a culture of just “playing around” in your academic work, and not necessarily saying what you really think.

So I’m fairly sure that academic philosophers sometimes do consciously focus on impressing other academics at the expense of other things. But I don’t think the tendencies I complained about in “Philosophy is dysfunctional” are always conscious. Rather, I think there’s often another explanation: being clever, being sophisticated, and thinking about how much more clever and sophisticated you are than other people, feel good.

I’m embarrassed to say that this fact about humans is something I’m intimately familiar with.* Though I never intended to specialize in philosophy of religion, my examples will come from there, because I’m still fairly sure I have something interesting to say about the subject.

First (specific) confession: I’ve long thought about writing my own “atheist book.” This is something I may actually finish doing, but when I used to think about doing it, I would imagine writing a book a good deal like the God Delusion, except that I would do this once I had gotten a ways into my career as an academic philosopher.

The goal would be to write a philosophical version of a popular science book. And as long as I could avoidbeing boring like J. L. Mackie, then obviously the book would be better than The God Delusion because it would have been written by a philosopher.

Now, that’s sounds like a pretty silly thing to believe. And like many things I used to believe, I’m no longer sure why I believed it. But I seem to remember thinking, “if what I believe about the benefits of studying philosophy is true, then some philosopher somewhere ought to be able to write a better version of The God Delusion, and I’m going to try to do that.”

In retrospect, I should have worried more about whether the “if” clause of that “if-then” was really true. I think the reason I didn’t is that believing that philosophers are more rational and sophisticated than ordinary people felt good.

To give a more minor, but possibly more embarrassing example, I have a handful of memories of hearing some atheist say how terrible William Lane Craig’s arguments are, and feeling superior to said atheist. I don’t think my inner monologue ever spelled things out so carefully, but on some level I think I was thinking, “Craig’s arguments may not work, but a sophisticated person, one who really understood them, would give them more credit before refuting them, so I must be superior to this atheist who’s dismissing them.”

Funny thing is, even when I thought this, I thought an awful lot of Craig’s arguments were terrible. And now I’ve gone on to thinking they’re pretty much all terrible. Worse, when I re-read criticisms of Craig by the sort of atheists I used to go around feeling superior to, say this piece by Dan Barker (president of the FFRF, but also a college dropout), I find their objections are actually pretty similar to the ones I’ve had all along.

I’ve had a similar experience with Plantinga. When I first saw Luke Muehlhauser’s rather dismissive attitude towards Plantinga’s epistemology, part of my reaction–even if I never said so in a blog post–was to think “even though I think Plantinga is wrong about his ultimate conclusions, a sophisticated person would acknowledge that he makes some legitimate points along the way.”

When this first happened, I blogged criticizing Luke, Luke responded, and then I was forced to pause, spend some time re-reading Plantinga, and try to figure out what those legitimate points made along the way were. And I honestly couldn’t find them, I had just sort of assumed they were there.

Um, I feel like I should draw some sort of lesson from this. And since I’m in a confessional mood, I’ll admit I’m not 100% sure what the lesson is. But I’ll give it a go: Beware feeling good about how much more sophisticated you are than the other guy. Beware noticing reasons why you are so much more sophisticated than people whose views are basically the same as yours. Beware just assuming that subtle differences between your views and other people’s views are proof of your sophistication.

And… I’m not sure this is so much something I’ve fallen victim to, as much as something I’ve noticed in other people, but I’d also recommend watching yourself to make sure your criticisms of others’ views actually have something to do with being right or reasonable. The fact that something is an old point, or an unoriginal point, or an obvious point, or a banal point, doesn’t make it wrong or unreasonable. Even if making those other criticisms feels good.

*Note: when I went to look up old blog posts in the course of writing this one, I noticed that I said plenty of harsh things about Craig and Plantinga around my junior year of undergrad. That was when I was also thinking, “this philosophy stuff is really interesting, but I’m not sure I want to make a career out of it.” I didn’t really decide to go to graduate school in philosophy until summer or fall of ’08, and the thoughts I’m fessing up to here probably mainly date from there onwards.

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