Philosophy of religion is mostly not taken seriously in mainstream philosophy

In my very first semester in college, in my very first philosophy course, there was a unit on arguments for and against the existence of God. An article by Swinburne was assigned as the rebuttal to an atheist’s article on the problem of evil. However, the professor skipped lecturing on Swinburne.

When I asked him why in his office hours, his response was basically, “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.” Why put Swinburne on the syllabus, then? Well, previous years, he’d had a different article by William Alston in that slot, but it had been terrible too.

A couple years later, I asked a different professor about philosophy of religion, and he said the main thing to know about it was that it was a low-status specialty. He also had unkind things to say about theistic responses to the problem of evil, specifically mentioning Swinburne, and expressed disappointment at the number of grad students at his previous university who had been theists. Shouldn’t they know better by their age? seemed to be his attitude.

He did mention that he thought Plantinga’s ontological argument was worth looking at. This was something I’d encounter again, Plantinga as an exception to the general rule about philosophy of religion being a waste of time, but at other times I encountered philosophers who didn’t think much of Plantinga either.

Then I went off to graduate school at Notre Dame. This was the number one philosophy of religion department in the world, where Plantinga was the starring figure, and most of the other top professors were deeply religious. You might think I’d get a totally opposite view of philosophy of religion there, but the situation was more complicated than that.

While lots of people at Notre Dame were personally fans of philosophy of religion, they knew its status in the broader profession. Religious grad students were warned that if they did their dissertations in philosophy of religion, they’d be unemployable. I once heard a professor rant about how unfair it was that other philosophers were dismissive of Plantinga because of things he’d said about evolution.

This is something that amateur philosophy of religion buffs are likely to miss, although you can find hints of it in online discussions if you look closely. When atheist philosopher Keith Parsons declared he was calling it quits a few years ago, he wrote:

I have to confess that I now regard “the case for theism” as a fraud and I can no longer take it seriously enough to present it to a class as a respectable philosophical position—no more than I could present intelligent design as a legitimate biological theory. BTW, in saying that I now consider the case for theism to be a fraud, I do not mean to charge that the people making that case are frauds who aim to fool us with claims they know to be empty. No, theistic philosophers and apologists are almost painfully earnest and honest; I don’t think there is a Bernie Madoff in the bunch. I just cannot take their arguments seriously any more, and if you cannot take something seriously, you should not try to devote serious academic attention to it.

Brian Leiter, commenting on the story, said that, “My anecdotal impression is that this attitude towards philosophy of religion… may be fairly widely shared, though primarily among philosophers who have not devoted as much time to the literature and the issues as Professor Parsons.” The discussion at Leiter’s blog largely took for granted philosophy of religion’s low reputation within the discipline, and argued over whether it was justified.

Or, here’s theistic philosopher of religion Randal Rauser’s description of a stereotypical philosophy department:

The philosophy department is chock full of analytic philosophers (Heidegger is considered a bad joke) who are atheists. The last graduate student who was openly Christian only survived because she opted to write her thesis on environmental ethics. The departmental head recently referred to philosophy of religion as a complete waste of time.

The example is presented fictitiously, but in my experience it’s at most slightly exaggerated. Oh, and in the last few years even philosophers of religion have been doing a fair amount of hand-wringing over their sub-discipline looking too much like religious apologetics.

I say all this because Peter Boghossian has recently gotten a lot of flak for a tweet where he said:


Now, I don’t know many philosophers who would say that publishing in philosophy absolutely disqualifies you from doing good work in other areas. But there are nevertheless plenty of philosophers who think publishing in philosophy of religion is a waste of time at best, and potentially a bad sign about someone. Boghossian’s critics seem unaware of this, which is ironic since many of them are the sort to act superior over others’ supposed ignorance of philosophy of religion.

The assumption among philosophy of religion fans seems to be that the opinions of philosophers who aren’t specialists in the sub-discipline don’t count. But it has to be possible for experts in a given discipline to have views on the worth of sub-disciplines they haven’t published in. Otherwise, most psychologists would be barred from having opinions on parapsychology. Why is philosophy of religion any different?

  • Luke Breuer

    Isn’t it worthwhile to ask why opinions are this way? I’d also be careful with the argumentum ad populum; just look at what physicists at the end of the nineteenth century had to say. It is particularly instructive to read books like Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue, Charles Taylor’s Sources of the Self, and Mortimer Adler’s Ten Philosophical Mistakes, to see what damage is done by some of the premises philosophers hold to, which allow them to have their current statistical opinion of the philosophy of religion. You see, it doesn’t matter if the other guy’s position has weaknesses, if your own does, as well.

    It would be valuable, for example, to present an analogue of John Searle’s Chinese room—which was an atom bomb to the consciousness/understanding/meaning discussion—for the philosophy of religion. Is there some seminal paper, or a few seminal papers, which put a lot of philosophy of religion into question? Or is it more of a general prejudice that is nonlocal and hard to pin down? The latter form of anti-PhilRelig seems very non-scholarly.

    P.S. Boghossian does not have a PhD in philosophy. Actually, according to A Manual press material:

    Dr. Peter Boghossian is a full-time faculty member in Portland State University’s philosophy department. He was thrown out of the doctoral program in the University of New Mexico’s philosophy department.

    Why are we respecting Peter Boghossian’s thoughts on philosophy? He is not an expert in philosophy.

    P.P.S. See Peter Boghossian ostracizing atheist/agnostic philosophers, which lists atheist/agnostic philosophers who also need to sit at the Children’s Table.

    • Whiskyjack

      I think the atom bomb on philosophy of religion was dropped a few centuries ago by Hume.

      • Luke Breuer

        And yet, his conception of ‘natural law’ was very questionable (see The Computational Theory of the Laws of Nature), and his conception of ‘miracle’ was also very questionable (see Leibniz’s theistic case against Humean miracles). Hume by no means settled things.

        • Whiskyjack

          Leibniz presupposed a perfect god who had preordained everything. Unless you make a similar presupposition, I don’t see how his arguments gain any traction against Hume.

          • Luke Breuer

            So because someone said something you think is false, you get to dismiss everything he said?

          • Whiskyjack

            No, it is because Leibniz’s arguments depend on things like divine perfection, divine benevolence and divine rationality. Those are pretty major assumptions to make, and his arguments depend on them. Personally, I haven’t been able to take Leibniz seriously since reading Monadology.

          • Luke Breuer

            Ahh, so Leibniz cannot make any assumptions whatsoever about miracles, and yet Hume can. Ok.

          • Whiskyjack

            Hume doesn’t make any assumptions about miracles, except that they are very rare and would require a lot of evidence to validate them. His specific claims are about people: that they may lie or be mistaken.
            I have first-hand experience with people lying or being mistaken. I have no experience or reason to believe that Liebniz’s god exists. Liebniz’s arguments also rely on Aristotelian notions of substance, which are unsupportable given our current best understanding of physics.

          • Luke Breuer

            Hume doesn’t make any assumptions about miracles, except that they are very rare and would require a lot of evidence to validate them.

            ‘except that’—Hume is assuming an objective universal prior probability, with zero justification for it.

            Liebniz’s arguments also rely on Aristotelian notions of substance, which are unsupportable given our current best understanding of physics.

            Are you referring to Structural Realism? Or perhaps to the fact that currently, physics has no ontology (leading to the many interpretations of quantum mechanics)?

          • Whiskyjack

            The fact that a miracle is unlikely or unusual is part of the definition of the word, not an unwarranted presupposition. As such, it does not require justification, any more than a presupposition of a bachelor being unmarried is unwarranted. If miracles happened all the time, they wouldn’t be called miracles.
            I understand that there is no consensus on the interpretation of quantum mechanics. That does absolutely nothing to support an Aristotelian metaphysics.

          • Luke Breuer

            You’ve addressed one claim of Hume’s, but another is that miracles “would require a lot of evidence to validate them”. Precisely how much evidence is required depends on one’s universal prior probability + subsequent updates. So, whence comes that universal prior probability?

          • Whiskyjack

            I think Hume’s maxim
            A wise man, therefore, proportions his belief to the evidence”
            encapsulates his outlook quite nicely. Since there is no convincing empirical evidence of miracles (or the supernatural, in general,) requiring evidence proportionate to the magnitude of the claim is reasonable. I expect a lot more evidence for a claim of seeing a unicorn over that required for a claim of seeing a horse.

          • Luke Breuer

            But your universal prior cannot come from ‘the evidence’, and neither can it be a 100% uninformative prior (the principle of indifference), given that this equates to radical skepticism, and radical skepticism cannot be escaped via observation. Remember, percepts are assimilated in this way (according to Bayesian inference):

                 posterior = prior updated by percept

            So, once again, whence comes that universal prior probability?

        • Ray

          Also worth adding. Hume’s argument in “of miracles” does not crucially depend upon his exact definition of the concept of “natural law.” All that is needed is that miracles are unpredictable and significantly rarer than errors in eyewitness testimony of the sort generally used to support said miracles.

      • Dante

        I think Paley defused that bomb before it even hit.

      • GubbaBumpkin

        I have read Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, which was published well before Darwin’s The Origin of Species, with a particular eye for the argument from biological design. Hume’s characters advance a number of arguments in favour of Creationist design which by Darwin’s time were known to be false. Example: that no species has been known to go extinct.

    • Ray

      I’d also be careful with the argumentum ad populum; just look at what physicists at the end of the nineteenth century had to say.

      About those late 19th century physicists — the popular belief that they thought physics was almost done seems wrong. As far as I can tell it’s based almost entirely on the following quote from Albert Michelson:

      The more important fundamental laws and facts of physical science have all been discovered, and these are so firmly established that the possibility of their ever being supplanted in consequence of new
      discoveries is exceedingly remote.

      Even this quote isn’t nearly so stark in context. The point he’s trying to make is that you need really precise measurement to make new discoveries, since the laws we already have work quite well under ordinary circumstances. Indeed he goes on to say:

      Nevertheless, it has been found that there are apparent exceptions to most of these laws, and this is particularly true when the observations are pushed to a limit, i.e., whenever the circumstances of
      experiment are such that extreme cases can be examined. Such examination almost surely leads, not to the overthrow of the law, but to the discovery of other facts and laws whose action produces the apparent exceptions.

      Even so, this does not appear at all representative of late 19th century/ early 20th century thought:

      see e.g. the following quotes, from arguably more prominent physicists of the late 19th century:

      In a few minutes there was no doubt about it. Rays were coming from the tube which had a luminescent effect upon the paper. I tried it successfully at greater and greater distances, even at two metres. It seemed at first a new kind of invisible light. It was clearly something new, something unrecorded.

      Wilhelm Roentgen (April 1896)

      This characteristic of modern experiments — that they consist principally of measurements — is so prominent, that the
      opinion seems to have got abroad, that in a few years all the great
      physical constants will have been approximately estimated, and that the
      only occupation which will then be left to men of science will be to
      carry on these measurements to another place of decimals. …

      But we have no right to think thus of the unsearchable riches of
      creation, or of the untried fertility of those fresh minds into which
      these riches will continue to be poured.

      James Clerk Maxwell (1871)

      Without encroaching upon grounds appertaining to the theologian and the philosopher, the domain of natural sciences is surely broad enough to satisfy the wildest ambition of its devotees. In other
      departments of human life and interest, true progress is rather an
      article of faith than a rational belief; but in science a retrograde
      movements is, from the nature of the case, almost impossible. Increasing
      knowledge brings with it increasing power, and great as are the
      triumphs of the present century, we may well believe that they are but a
      foretaste of what discovery and invention have yet in store for
      mankind.

      Lord Rayleigh (1884)

      Note, I truncated these a bit, but they can be found in their entirety on wikiquote.

      • Luke Breuer

        Ahh, thanks for the details—it has long been on my list to investigate this issue more closely. Now, you’ve given me a taste, but that’s not the same as a proper, unbiased sampling. What’s the closest you’ve encountered to such a sampling?

        I have a bit of reticence to completely believe you, due to a friend of mine who was warded away from studying physics on the basis that it was mostly ‘done’—in the 1970s! I know this is but an anecdote, but it illustrates that the spirit of Albert Michelson’s claim was alive at least in some of academia.

        As for some more evidence that the Michelson-attitude is more prevalent than you may think, I point you to Sean Carroll’s recent Quantum Mechanics Smackdown, where he argues:

        My job, of course, will be to defend the honor of the Everett (many-worlds) formulation. I’ve done a lot less serious research on this issue than the other folks, but I will make up for that disadvantage by supporting the theory that is actually true.

        To be precise, Sean Carroll is arguing that the quantum wavefunction is not just a picture of the thing, but the thing itself. In other words, Ceci est une pipe. You can also look at his De Sitter Space Without Quantum Fluctuations, or the FQXi conference talk he gave called “Fluctuations in de Sitter Space” (available on YouTube).

        Yet another line of evidence is from Massimo Pigliucci, with one instance being Lawrence Krauss: another physicist with an anti-philosophy complex. I’ve argued that Einstein was most definitely a philosopher. There’s also Pigliucci’s HuffPost Neil deGrasse Tyson and the Value of Philosophy. Lee Smolin’s The Trouble with Physics discusses how physicists could easily work themselves into a hole that reproduces the “Whelp, we’ve probably figured out about everything we can” hole that Michaelson describes. For more philosophy-hatred, see Philosophy Now‘s Hawking contra Philosophy.

        Anyhow, as you can see I find this topic fascinating and want to learn much more about it! There’s yet a different angle which fascinates me, which comes from a sociologist who is studying my wife’s lab and is particularly interested in how the barriers to deep interdisciplinary research are stunting the growth of scientific knowledge. I’ve had first-hand experience with this, seeing how terrible the computer science (software architecture) and poor applied math knowledge stunt biophysics and biochemistry research. Science could easily grind to a slow crawl due to terrible philosophy and terrible ideas of how science ought to work. This would be bad, and I want to learn as much as I can about it to thwart it from being even a possible problem.

        • Ray

          Now, you’ve given me a taste, but that’s not the same as a proper, unbiased sampling. What’s the closest you’ve encountered to such a sampling?

          Well, what I did was basically check all the wikiquote entries for Nobel prize winners from 1900-1905 (I also checked Maxwell, since he was arguably the most prominent late 19th century physicist — but didn’t live long enough to get a Nobel,) to see if anything looked relevant. There were a few other quotes I could have used, too. I’m not aware of actual surveys, though.

          I have a bit of reticence to completely believe you, due to a friend of mine who was warded away from studying physics on the basis that it was
          mostly ‘done’—in the 1970s! I know this is but an anecdote, but it illustrates that the spirit of Albert Michelson’s claim was alive at least in some of academia.

          The claim that physics was mostly done in 1970 is a different and much more defensible claim than the
          claim that physics was mostly done in 1904.

          See this and follow up posts. Basically, no discovery in fundamental physics since the mid 1930s has been relevant to any discipline other than cosmology/galactic scale astrophysics and particle physics itself. “Fundamental” is a key word here. (e.g. they didn’t know how to make transistors back in the 1930s, but the way transistors work can be adequately described using quantum electrodynamics as formulated in 1928.)

          That said, there were big conceptual issues in fundamental physics that weren’t cleared up until the mid 1960s, so it wasn’t until then that enough was understood to make claims along these lines with reasonable confidence. Indeed you can find Feynman making an almost identical claim to Sean in his 1964 messenger lecture (lecture 7: finding new laws.)

          • Luke Breuer

            Basically, no discovery in fundamental physics since the mid 1930s has been relevant to any discipline other than cosmology/galactic scale astrophysics and particle physics itself.

            So, I’ve seen Carroll’s post and it strikes me as extremely short-sighted: if a technological reality like the one imagined in Star Trek ever comes about, Carroll will be wrong, or at best, irrelevant. I’m also an anti-reductionist (see Pigliucci on emergence), so I don’t particularly care if it’ll be a while before we can make use of more fundamental physics. Right now, fantastic advances are being made in condensed matter physics and nanotechnology; who’s to say that those won’t provoke deeper understanding of fundamental physics that will be very much relevant for what will become everyday life?

            P.S. I recently skimmed Feynman’s The Character of Physical Law. Fun fact: he was skeptical of flying saucers “based on science”; the father of a current Caltech faculty member, who was on some thesis committees with Feynman, had a flying saucer patent, which worked. But I digress. :-)

          • Ray

            I’ve seen Carroll’s post and it strikes me as extremely short-sighted: if a technological reality like the one imagined in Star Trek ever comes about, Carroll will be wrong, or at best, irrelevant.

            So Carroll’s assertions are falsifiable and unfalsified. I don’t see how that’s a bad thing. As a side note, I would think the Fermi paradox should be taken as strong evidence against the feasibility of a Star Trek type future.

            In more detail Carroll’s argument isn’t just that no strongly coupled low energy physics has been observed, it’s that we’ve done experiments that could detect any such physics, unless quantum field theory is completely wrong.

            The argument basically goes as follows — there’s an observed symmetry of nature such that the rate of interaction between ordinary matter and the hypothetical objects of NEW PHYSICS is the same rate as the rate of production of said NEW PHYSICS objects in the annihilation of ordinary matter particle-antiparticle pairs.This principle has been extensively tested in particle colliders, perhaps most dramatically in the prediction of the properties of the newly discovered Higgs Boson.

            This is quite distinct from the situation in the late 19th century when it was quite obvious that we didn’t understand the small scale structure of matter (blackbody radiation, spectral lines, chemistry, life, “do atoms exist?” was still considered an open question etc.) and perhaps less obvious, but still fairly extensively discussed, that we did not have strong experimental verification of the behavior of matter at high relative velocity compared to the speed of light.

            The point is in the previous physics revolutions of the early 20th century, the parameters that defined the domain of applicability of the old theories were not obscure quantities, but rather straightforward combinations of mass, length, and time. If the current understanding of physics is wrong in a similarly parametrized way, we know what is and isn’t disallowed by experiment, and anything plausibly relevant to everyday life is disallowed.

            On the flying saucers thing, I hope that was just a joke, but if you’re being serious: Feynman was quite clear what he meant by his skepticism of flying saucers. He was dismissing the likelihood of flying saucers on Earth, designed by extraterrestrial intelligence. Flying saucers designed by human physics professors do not constitute a refutation of Feynman’s skepticism.

          • Luke Breuer

            In more detail Carroll’s argument isn’t just that no strongly coupled low energy physics has been observed, it’s that we’ve done experiments that could detect any such physics, unless quantum field theory is completely wrong.

            Well, I know Carroll is banking on the Everett interpretation being true. (See his FQXi “Fluctuations in de Sitter Space”.) If we could make quantum coherence happen at room temperature at macro scale (which it might), I could imagine new physics being discovered. There’s all sorts of quantum squeezing going on; maybe some non-locality stuff will be discovered which lets us know some [nonlocal] substructure to quantum state, which provides us new ways to manipulate matter in everyday life. As far as I know this is possible, but I’m not a physicist. I’m just so skeptical of people who make “we’ve figured everything out”-type claims; it just smells so arrogant. Too many times, this kind of thinking stunts progress.

            On the flying saucers thing, I hope that was just a joke,

            Mostly; I had to fly through chapter 7, as the library book was due that day. I just think it’s really funny that the father of one of the faculty on some of Feynman’s thesis committees was making real flying saucers and demonstrating them to the US military.

          • Ray

            On your links: I’m not sure what squeezed states are supposed to have to do with your argument — they basically represent quantum systems behaving in as classical a manner as possible given their dimensions. That said, I think it’s probably more urgent to point out that, while Penrose has done a lot of good work in other areas, his thesis from “the emperor’s new mind,” “shadows of the mind,” etc. which the link you provided is a continuation of is pretty much pure crackpottery. In brief:

            1) Microtubules are nanometer scale structures — if you want to call that macroscopic, that’s your business, but its a far cry from mental processes which have been shown to be associated with brain processes occurring over a range of several centimeters.

            2) Experiments only support that quantum effects need to be taken into account in modeling the behavior of microtubules.This is not the same as establishing that quantum computation is going on.

            3)If you believe Penrose’s Godelian argument (most mathematical logicians consider it fatally flawed), mental processes would be non Turing Computable. Quantum computers don’t do anything a Turing machine can’t do — they just do a few things, like factoring, much faster than a classical Turing machine would. Thus, you can’t even use standard quantum mechanics/ quantum information theory to account for what Penrose is trying to account for.

            4)Even the claim that people are quantum computers would have much more dramatic effects than vague conceptual features of mathematical understanding — e.g. people would be able to factor 100 digit numbers in their heads and that sort of thing. People do not act like factoring oracles, let alone halting oracles.

            5) In order to account for the claimed non-computable mental processes involved in consciousness, Penrose and Hameroff speculate that the true theory of quantum gravity is radically unlike the usual proposed theories of quantum gravity in the literature, in such a way that it can accommodate hypercomputation (which as I’ve already noted is not well motivated by actual human behavior.) This proposal is by the authors’ own admission neither supported by experimental evidence, nor even described by a fully developed mathematical theory. It is complete idle speculation.

            6) I pretty much knew all of the above before following your link through to the journal article, although the link confirms my suspicions, but what really horrified me was that Penrose had reduced himself to happily accepting praise from the likes of self help guru and quack extraordinaire Deepak Chopra.

            It is entirely possible that there will be fundamentally new physics discoveries — it’s even vaguely conceivable, though by no means likely — that such physics discoveries will be exploitable under ordinary conditions. That said, speculations which have been independently rejected by the vast majority of mathematical logicians, philosophers, computer scientists, neurologists, and physicists aren’t the most promising source for such new discoveries.

          • Luke Breuer

            On your links: I’m not sure what squeezed states are supposed to have to do with your argument

            They represent one possible way of digging beneath HUP. We also have awesome stuff like interaction-free measurements and entanglement-aided microscopy. None of these in and of themselves represent a breaking free from current understandings of fundamental physics, but they do involve getting ‘near’ the limits that fundamental physics currently presents to us.

            That said, I think it’s probably more urgent to point out that, while Penrose has done a lot of good work in other areas, his thesis from “the emperor’s new mind,” “shadows of the mind,” etc. which the link you provided is a continuation of is pretty much pure crackpottery.

            It’s just fascinating that you have a need to call his work “pure crackpottery”; it reminds me of Scott Aaronson’s threat to resign from FQXi if Joy Christian is not given the boot. I’m not predicating much at all on Penrose’s work; if anything, I’m merely pushing back against what I see as incredible arrogance on Sean Carroll’s part. You see, I’ve learned to be skeptical of anyone who claims he/she has something “all figured out”, unless that ‘something’ is a known-finite formal system.

            Let’s dig into something I previously mentioned, that Carroll thinks that the Everett interpretation of the quantum wavefunction is not just a picture of the thing, but directly corresponds to the thing, itself. I know faculty at Caltech (Carroll’s institution) who are questioning this very assumption, and making progress. I cannot say more in detail (unpublished results), but what I can say is that adamant statements that the picture of the thing is the thing are the roadblocks of science to which Max Planck alluded when he said, “Science advances one funeral at a time.”

            I’d like you to establish the precise nature of the ‘threat’ I am presenting, such that Penrose needs to be called a crackpot, Joy Christian needs to lose his funding, etc. Note that my viewpoint is not that of Penrose or Christian. I’m merely questioning Carroll’s Seriously, The Laws Underlying The Physics of Everyday Life Really Are Completely Understood. What is ‘dangerous’ about this? Is there perhaps a worry that too much money will go to people who aren’t doing what you would stamp as officially ‘science’?

            This reminds me of those who have to viciously argue against alien abductions. I prefer to simply say, “Look, I don’t feel a need to disbelieve your experiences, but if you want me to change anything about how I act or believe based on them, you’ll have to give me enough evidence such that I personally consider it ‘sufficient’.” I have no need to look down on other people. I just don’t.

          • Ray

            I’d like you to establish the precise nature of the ‘threat’ I am presenting, such that Penrose needs to be called a crackpot,

            You said you didn’t know much physics. I figured you might be interested in learning more. Knowing how to avoid wasting your time on things that are almost certainly wrong, and not particularly illuminating regarding the correct state of affairs is a useful skill to develop towards that end. As for the term “crackpot,” it is a useful term for separating almost-certainly fruitless and unenlightening speculations from speculations that are probably wrong, but promising enough to be worth considering (e.g. Hartle-Hawking Cosmology, Loop Quantum Gravity, MOND/TeVeS, the Minimal Supersymmetric Standard Model etc.)

            As for Joy Christian. I am unfamiliar with his research. Given the description from Aaronson it sounds pretty bad, and while one physicist’s opinion isn’t decisive, I probably won’t waste my time looking further into his work unless someone demonstrably cluefull about such things gives me reason to believe it is interesting. In any event, Aaronson has every right to choose what professional bodies he will associate with, and no researcher has an inherent right to be funded. One might argue that funding bodies have a duty not to pass up proposals for promising research — but I’ve seen no reason to believe that Christian’s research is promising, and obviously with a limited budget, funding bodies must pass up some research. (There’s also a case to be made for professional organizations explicitly refusing to be associated with bad research, so that association with said organizations can become a reliable signal of research quality, thereby making professional organizations a useful resource for scientists and science enthusiasts who want to avoid having their time wasted.)

          • Luke Breuer

            Knowing how to avoid wasting your time on things that are almost certainly wrong

            You see, it’s this “almost certainly wrong” which worries me. Do you know this?

          • josh

            You see, it’s this “almost certainly wrong” which worries me. Do you know this?

            Almost certainly.

          • Ray

            yes

          • Luke Breuer

            I would love to see an extended justification of just how you know it, and just how you’ve attempted to falsify it, but that might be an arduous road with you not seeing much potential fruit coming from it. Here’s one perhaps-interesting route: what precisely, would you have to change in your belief structure, for Penrose to be correct? That is, for there to be warm quantum coherence somehow involved in consciousness, while maintaining what we observe (nobody factoring 100-digit numbers in their heads, with an obligatory reference to Cube). I should think that given your “almost certainly wrong”, a lot would have to change, for Penrose to be correct. But perhaps this is incorrect?

          • Ray

            what precisely, would you have to change in your belief structure, for Penrose to be correct? That is, for there to be warm quantum coherence somehow involved in consciousness

            I generally don’t treat theses that need to be qualified by such vague qualifiers as “somehow” as being precise enough to count as serious intellectual contributions. Even if such claims are correct, they pretty much amount to cold reading.

            That said, I can’t think of a plausible reading, even of the weakened claim, that I think is true. So perhaps I should list results that, while not fully establishing your weakened version of Penrose’s thesis might lend it some plausibility:

            1) Building a large scale quantum computer (e.g. a factoring oracle) out of microtubules suspended in aqueous solution at room temperature. This would at least demonstrate that large scale quantum superpositions at the required scales were plausible under the relevant conditions. Alternatively if Penrose and Hameroff were to actually give a precise mathematical description of the coherent state they think the microtubules are in, that could be tested (and by the way, as I said previously I don’t think a single microtubule is a large enough system for their purposes — so the quantum state had better involve several microtubules separated by centimeter scale distances.)

            That said, you’re still leaving out the most important bit: demonstrating that such a superposition, even if present in the brain, has any essential role in consciousness — large scale quantum superpositions are by no means unfamiliar to physicists (superconductors, superfluid helium etc.) But, while those systems do some very interesting things, passing the Turing test isn’t one of them.

            2)In contrast, if anything like the BlueBrain project ends up working, the quantum mind hypothesis is even deader than it was to begin with, since such success would directly demonstrate the classical simulatability of the mind. From what I know of neuroscience, which is admittedly less than I know of physics and computability theory, even the more modest current successes of classically modeling neural circuits are enough to cast serious doubts on Penrose’s thesis.

            Of course, the claim you’ve asked me to make falsifiable (and isn’t this really Penrose’s job, not mine?) is significantly weaker than the claims Penrose actually makes — quantum field theory is wrong, and wrong in such a way that hypercomputation is possible. Demonstrating you have a hypercomputer isn’t actually possible unless the person verifying your demonstration also has a hypercomputer. That said, hypercomputation is sufficient to efficiently solve worst-case NP-complete problems, and an ordinary computer can efficiently verify that the purported hypercomputer can do that, so that might be a useful proxy.

            Then there is the thornier issue, of what to do about Penrose putting forth claimed deductive arguments (e.g. the Godelian argument) that experts in the relevant fields almost unanimously agree don’t work. I mean, in practice we do use empirical tools to verify the correctness of deductive arguments (both automated theorem provers and mathematicians are physical systems whose reliability is determined empirically) but I don’t know what I would do if an argument which showed every sign of invalidity in the past suddenly started looking valid. That’s the sort of thing that would cast doubt on the reliability of mathematics in general, which is dangerously close to radical skepticism. So I think given your “maintaining what we observe” proviso, even if Penrose is right in his conclusions, and again I strongly doubt that he is, he’s still guilty of putting forward deeply flawed argumentation in order to get there.

            EDIT — perhaps it’s not as dire as radical skepticism. I mean mathematicians, even occasionally large groups of them do make mistakes — but verifying the soundness of a formal argument is not a particularly open-ended task, and the mathematical community as a whole VERY rarely makes mistakes about things as well known as Penrose’s Godelian argument (which is based on earlier arguments by Lucas and Godel himself.) I generally trust the mathematical community to get it right even on things where I haven’t actually examined the proof, (e.g. Fermat’s last theorem and the four color theorem.) and in this case, I’m fairly confident that I personally understand the errors in Penrose’s argument.

          • GubbaBumpkin

            … if a technological reality like the one imagined in Star Trek ever comes about…

            Fiction, how does it work?

            If only someone would bother describing The Physics of Star Trek and explain why it isn’t at all consistent with what we know about the real universe.

          • Luke Breuer

            Yep, because Star Trek has at least one error, Sean Carroll is correct in his Seriously, The Laws Underlying The Physics of Everyday Life Really Are Completely Understood.

    • GubbaBumpkin

      John Searle’s Chinese room—which was an atom bomb to the consciousness/understanding/meaning discussion…

      (roll-eyes) If something of the caliber of the Chinese room argument would be an improvement for the philosophy of religion, it is in a sorry state indeed.

  • ZenDruid

    Even with Plantinga’s exposition of modular logic, it’s difficult to take anything serious that begins with something like “Imagine a god….”

    But what do I know anyway. I’m uneducated.

  • Whiskyjack

    Having done a philosophy degree, and having taken two Philosophy of Religion courses, I can say that (from that limited sample) they were the two worst courses I took. Both professors were ardent theists – one Christian and the other Jewish – who seemed more interested in convincing students to believe than in presenting a dispassionate evaluation of the arguments for and against the existence of god.

    • MNb

      I have followed the blogs of two Dutch philosophers of religion; moreover I have read their theses. They both totally fail to present a dispassionate evaluation of those arguments. What makes me sick is that one of them has a degree in math as well; he still doesn’t (want to?) recognize why the fine-tuning argument fails.

      • Dante

        Many serious phjysicists with Phd’s like Davies , Polkinghorne …etc, think the fine-tuning arguments do not fail. So perhaps its you who are in error about whether the fine-tuning argument works.

        • josh

          That’s not many.

  • GubbaBumpkin

    I once heard a professor rant about how unfair it was that other philosophers were dismissive of Plantinga because of things he’d said about evolution.

    Considering things Plantinga said about Dawkins writing outside his area of expertise, Plantinga deserves all the scorn and ridicule he gets for that.

  • http://aremonstrantsramblings.wordpress.com/ Episcopius

    I saw an anecdote but I didn’t actually see any hard evidence for the claim of the title of the piece. Is there any? A couple of opinions don’t constitute a consensus. And of course, some very serious atheist/agnostic philosophers disagree with this view – Peter Millican, Quentin Smith, Graham Oppy, Michael Tooley, Daniel Came, Nicholas Everitt, Paul Draper and many others. And Boghossian appears to be suggesting all those philosophers belong on the kid’s table (along with Russell, Mackie, Flew, Law et. al.). Good luck to him if he thinks he can dismiss all these fine philosophers with a mere tweet.

    Here’s Nicholas Everitt taking a very different view for example:

    “When I was a philosophy student, I once told my tutor that I would like to write an essay on the existence of God. ‘My interest in my maker ceased when I read Hume’s ‘Dialogues’, he loftily replied, leaving me in no doubt that my interest should be similarly short-lived. I never wrote the essay, but nor, in spite of Hume’s ‘Dialogues’, did I lose the interest. Since those distant days, the philosophy of religion has enjoyed a remarkable renaissance. In those bad old days, with a few honourable exceptions, it was dominated by the woolly pieties and crass objections of third-rate thinkers. Since then, the field has been taken over by by imaginitive, creative thinkers who are themselves cutting-edge contributors in other areas of philosophy. These philosophers have brought with them an array of the sharpest weapons in the armoury of analytic philosophy. This combination of able thinkers and sophisticated techniques has transformed the field in the last few decades.”

    “The topic of God is a huge philosophical river junction, a confluence into which flow streams from metaphysics, the philosophy of mind, epistemology, the philosophy of science, moral philosophy, and the philosophy of logic, and of course from the history of philosophy.”

    Nicholas Everitt ‘The non-existence of God’ pp.xiii, xiv

    • ncovington89

      Quentin Smith once wrote an article (“The Metaphilosophy of Naturalism”) on how many Christians had come into academia through the sponsorship of religious institutions, and about how he thought naturalists ought to engage them to show them that they are wrong. My own opinion is that philosophy of religion is not a waste of time (after all, it’s perfectly legitimate to wonder if there is a god) but nonetheless most philosophy of religion (especially on the pro-god side of the argument) is poor quality. If anything, philosophers ought to write something on philosophy of religion every now and again in order to show what crap the other side is to laypeople, kind of like when evolutionary biologists write a book on what crap creationism is.

      • Luke Breuer

        most philosophy of religion (especially on the pro-god side of the argument) is poor quality.

        Most anything is poor quality.

      • http://aremonstrantsramblings.wordpress.com/ Episcopius

        I’m glad you mostly agree.

        Smith, however, in that article you point to actually states that theistic arguments are not on the whole of poor quality but rather the atheist responses to them so far have been poor quality. I find myself agreeing with him even though things have improved a bit for atheists since he wrote it.

        What is unbearable is this patronizing view of Boghossian’s who thinks he knows better than all these very fine atheist philosophers (who I have serious doubts he’s even bothered reading). Talk about shooting oneself in the foot!

        • ncovington89

          @Episcopius, if I recall correctly Quentin Smith said that most philosophers weren’t prepared to defend naturalism against the new invasion of Christian philosophers. I have no idea if he thought this because of in-print conversations that had taken place or if that was just his personal impression.

          For my part, I haven’t seen much from the Christian side of the fence that was compelling or difficult to answer. I think the atheist community was taken by surprise with the revivification of the arguments for the resurrection, but after sober examination those arguments seem dead in the water.

          • http://aremonstrantsramblings.wordpress.com/ Episcopius

            I wouldn’t be so quick as to jump to that conclusion myself. I think the probable cases made by various Christians is stronger than most realize – N.T. Wright, the McGrew’s, Habermas, Swinburne – they’re all pretty intimidating arguments if read properly and seriously. But it’s not like that’s the only argument by any means. Most Christian philosophers tend to take a cumulative case approach to the evidence so there are many other arguments as well (such as the moral argument etc.). For myself I cannot find any atheistic hypothesis which attempts to answer these philosophical problems as well as Christianity. But, having said that, I’m not claiming all forms of atheism are irrational. It’s just some atheists (like Boghossian) who need a wake up call.

          • josh

            “…they’re all pretty intimidating arguments if read properly and seriously.”

            They’re really not. Most Christian philosophers take a cumulative approach for the same reason as Duane Gish.

          • GubbaBumpkin

            Most Christian philosophers tend to take a cumulative case approach to
            the evidence so there are many other arguments as well (such as the
            moral argument etc.). For myself I cannot find any atheistic hypothesis
            which attempts to answer these philosophical problems as well as
            Christianity.

            The moral argument? Seriously? One of the first problems would be the Christian having to explain away the terrible morality to be found in the Bible. If you wanted to backtrack and take a more generic theist approach, I don’t see any theist explanation which is more likely than an evolutionary explanation.

          • http://aremonstrantsramblings.wordpress.com/ Episcopius

            Yes. Seriously. Well I can think of at least about 15 accounts of that issue in scholarship worthy of very serious interaction. I would suggest ‘Divine Evil? The Moral Character of the God of Abraham’ edited by Bergmann, Murray and Rea, ‘Good God: The Theistic Foundations of Morality’ by Baggett and Walls, and Christopher Wright’s ‘OT Ethics for the People of God’ for starters. So I see no good reason to “backtrack” there in the slightest and certainly not to an “evolutionary explanation.”

          • ncovington89

            I agree that Boghossian was out of line.

            However, I think Wright, the McGrews, Habermas and Swinburne are thoroughly unconvincing. Their writings can *look* intimidating if you don’t know anything about new testament scholarship or philosophy, but if you take the time draw out all the assumptions their arguments make and evaluate the credibility of said assumptions, the whole thing falls apart.

          • http://aremonstrantsramblings.wordpress.com/ Episcopius

            I’d love to see your response to them if you have one then? (They are themselves all experts in these fields of course so it appears obvious that it’s not a question of inexperience in the field!)

          • GubbaBumpkin

            I think the atheist community was taken by surprise with the revivification of the arguments for the resurrection…

            Surprised, yes. Impressed, no.


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