*&^%$#@! Philosophers…

Speaking as a physicist, I think our biggest problem in science is being boring. Easily 95% of what we publish is ho-hum stuff, perhaps interesting to a handful of fellow experts in a sub-sub-subspecialty, but almost no one else. My own work has been no exception.

But as a physicist who is interested in religious and paranormal-related questions, I have to mess with philosophy as well as science (see my books). And I suspect that the problem with a lot of philosophy is pompous bullshit philosophers pull out of thin air.

The immediate cause of this rant is a book review I was reading, which discusses, among others, Heidegger (there’s exhibit 1 right there) and Levinas. Now, existentialist moaning from continental philosophers is bad enough, but when I came across the bit about Levinas responding to Nazism I snapped. Here it is:

After the war, gruesome revelations about the death camps–in which most of Levinas’s own extended family perished–provoked him to reassess the Western tradition in toto. Why was it, he inquired, that Western philosophy, despite its manifest sublimity and grandeur, could do nothing to prevent the genocidal mania of the Nazis? Especially damning, in Levinas’s view, was the realization that in the face of the radical evil of Nazism, Western thought had demonstrated its own comprehensive impotence.

So, what, aside from divining the bleeding secrets of the universe from their armchairs, philosopers are now supposed to be an equivalent of a military force? What sort of lunatic ambition is it to expect that philosophy should prevent Nazism? Levinas really did think, I’m guessing, that all that is important in a culture proceeds out of Very Very Deep Philosophical Presuppositions. After all, his way of solving the problem was to elevate ethics to a “first philosophy.” Sigh.

OK, I never expected much from continental philosophy in the first place. It can be an interesting form of literature, if you like that sort of thing and don’t take it too seriously, but that’s about it. I’m much more at home with philosophy of science and the sort of philosophy that works closely with and is continuous with the sciences. And maybe the more analytical strain of Anglo-American philosophy.

But then again, philosophers who are more interested in analysis and whatnot also, I think, regularly go off the deep end. Modal metaphysicians, and just about anybody enamored of armchair proofs or disproofs of God come to mind. Their whole enterprise is intellectually sterile, largely because they still haven’t quite let go of hopes for a “first philosophy,” and still entertain the delusion that you can get something interesting, even vital, solely by reflecting on concepts and not making connections to the rest of intellectual life. It’s the lingering ghost of the notion that you need to get some “metaphysical” things straight, and all the rest will proceed out of such fundamentals.

Now, this is just the sort of complaint many philosophers have long been making. I can only add my frustration from the outside, and hope the excellent insider-critiques by philosophers will eventually get somewhere. But damn, some parts of philosophy — especially backwaters like the philosophy of religion — have been slow in learning, and I’m not going to hold my breath for progress any time soon. Ignore the bastards, and get on with the real job of learning about our world.

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About Taner Edis

Professor of physics at Truman State University


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