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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Review: Philosophy of Mathematics, ed. Paul Benacerraf & Hilary Putnam
  • Verbose Stoic

    Well, the first part of your complaint seems to be something that holds for academics in general, not just academic philosophy. It seems to me that academics in science also have the same concerns to a large extent, where they have to have cool ideas instead of just stating/proving the obvious and where politics comes into play. Politics, in that sense, comes into play everywhere, and even in industry. What is different, though, is that while academics is judged pretty much entirely on PR, businesses have this overarching concern called “profit” that puts a limit on the politics. In academics, if your politics makes you mostly disfunctional but in a way where you look like you aren’t, you’ll get funded. In acadmics, if your politics makes you disfunctional to the extent that people internally think things look good but you don’t make money, the company goes out of business. Thus, in academics you can hold the “We look good” line longer than you can in business, and so business has a limit that academics doesn’t. But, again, this seems to hold for science as well, except for that funded by business, I suppose …

    As for the second part, I think the “dismissive” part is absoluetly critical here, and makes your reaction more reasonable. Even if you think an argument or philosophical view wrong, it is reasonable to react badly to someone who insists that it is just obviously wrong. Usually, it isn’t. As examples, I can defend those who think moralityis just what God says it is against some naive charges despite the fact that I think it completely wrong-headed. Even more relevantly, despite the fact that I think the Ontological Argument doesn’t work and that Kant’s rebuttal using the meaning of “existence” is absolutely devastating, I don’t think it is obviously wrong nor do I think that it is just ridiculous. There are arguments that are wrong, and yet are interestingly wrong, and it is these arguments that should get the attention in philosophy, and usually do, in my opinion.

    So it is entirely reasonable when someone takes an argument and just declares it obviously wrong to find that a bit off, especially if it has been looked at a lot in philosophy. Wrong is not as important as WHY it is wrong, and dismissive replies tend to give the why short-shrift in favour of calling it wrong.

    • Chris Hallquist

      “this seems to hold for science as well”

      To an extent, perhaps, but not to the same extent. There’s definitely room in science for publishing exciting results based on dubious statistical analysis, but we have pretty good methods for sorting those things out eventually. In philosophy, though, there is no “eventually” (at least, not yet). The inability to agree on anything is a permanent state.

      “There are arguments that are wrong, and yet are interestingly wrong, and it is these arguments that should get the attention in philosophy, and usually do, in my opinion.”

      There may be some tendency in that direction, but it’s not something you can count on. For example, I think Plantinga’s ontological argument is just transparently awful, yet lots of people insist on speaking of it in respectful terms.

      • Verbose Stoic

        For the first part, I was more referring to letting what is exciting guide what research is done and what gets published, as well as issues around not citing certain people who are out of favour, as well as trying to make sure that your papers hit what is currently a hot topic in the field, and all of that other political stuff, and I don’t see that as being all that different between science and philosophy. As for not being able to agree on anything, I see that as more reflecting the sorts of questions that philosophy concerns itself with now, especially since science has taken over natural philosophy, than with any real failing on philosophy’s part. When you’re dealing with concepts — as I think philosophy should and does focus on — you don’t have the clear-cut empirical tests to mostly settle the issue, and so agreement takes longer, if it happens at all.

        On the second part, I do recall reading this at some point. First, my interpretation of Dawkins’ story was not that they trotted out the modal ontological argument, but that they used modal logic to demonstrate how Dawkins’ specific argument about pigs being able to fly was in fact, false, which led me to opine on my unfinished critique of “The God Delusion” that he should have been ecstatic at them doing that since if he had really stated it using the same logic as the OA it would have disproved that as well.

        As for your argument, the problem with it is that I can disprove it without touching the argument for God. Yes, the logic is the same, but the conditions are not. The key is that I can refute the claim that it is possible for “Pigs can fly” to be a necessary truth. For it to be a necessary truth, it has to be the case that it is true in all possible worlds. But we know that pigs can’t fly in this world. Therefore, it is not the case that “Pigs can fly” is true in all possible worlds, since it isn’t true in this one. Therefore, it is not possible for “Pigs can fly” to be a necessary truth.

        In general, I’d ask if it is possible for you to have the same concepts that you have now of those things and have the proposition be false. If it is, then it is not possible for the proposition to be a necessary truth.

        Which comes back to the argument. Assuming your statement is indeed what it says, while with your argument I went after it being possible for the proposition to be a necessary truth, for Plantinga I’d go after the claim that if it is possible for something to be a necessary truth, then it IS a necessary truth. But again I wouldn’t say that it’s just transparently false, but ask why in the world Plantinga thinks that premise is true? And that, then, is where, presumably, all the interesting stuff happens.

        If intelligent and educated experts in a field all seem to think that there’s something interesting there, the humility that you ask in this post should also be extended up to assuming that there really is something interesting there … for them, at least, if not for you. As an example, I’m working through the “Philosophy and Pop Culture” books on my blog, and am skipping the “Battlestar Galactica and Philosophy” book for the next few times through the list because the essays focus on personal identity, which isn’t that interesting to me. But this is not to say that the essays are bad or don’t raise good issues, even if my cursory reading of one of the premises struck me as implausible.

  • Counter Apologist

    I can’t add too much substantial here, but there are few things I’d like to say.

    I’m an engineer that found interest in philosophy after deconverting, so I’m pretty amateurish. My issues is that approaching philosophy with it’s open ended problems that can’t really be nailed down it’s just…frustrating if you come from a science or engineering background.

    I have to wonder how useful this stuff is at all, so posts like this and your previous one about the general problems of philosophy are very interesting. It’s really nice to see that general problems I can’t articulate well are shared by someone who does have a good background in philosophy.

    I think the lesson you’re trying to make here is a good one, it’s always a good idea not to get too cocky, despite how much work or research you’ve done on a subject. This is something that applies to every field there is, and I think it’s mainly a lesson in maturity. It comes from the experience of making mistakes and accepting correction by others, which is one of the best features of modern science.

    Also, stuff like this pointed me at some other very good substantial reads, like your post “defending” Plantinga and Luke’s reply to you, which then led me to grab one of the BPD podcasts he’s got archived. Basically thanks for putting links to such good material in there, it’s given me a lot to chew on.

  • MNb

    In that other thread I already commented that academic philosophy has a tendency to become stale, sterile and/or dysfunctional. But still there is a lot of interesting philosophy around. Three examples which show that philosophy even isn’t done with physics yet:

    and the book

    That the likes of Craig, Plantinga and others can’t or don’t want to understand modern science only means we have to look elsewhere.