Turf war?

There is some substance to the perennial debate over whether the existence of gods is largely a philosophical problem or a scientific matter. But I also wonder whether much of the debate is an artifact of existing academic disciplinary boundaries.

So here’s a suspicion to consider: most of this dispute is due to an artificial, socially constructed and historically reinforced separation that makes philosophy and the sciences separate cultures with their own sets of habits (“methods”). Our educational process certainly reinforces this sort of separateness, where talking across disciplinary boundaries becomes very difficult due to different established subcultures. In other words, I suspect a much of the dispute over whether supernatural beliefs should be evaluated within philosophy or within science is a useless turf war.

I further suspect that most people who have something serious to say about the question of the gods would agree—broadly speaking, and subject to the usual disagreements about matters of emphasis. After all, you can’t launch into a scientific critique of the gods while ignoring the tendency of theological claims of all levels of sophistication to become insulated from reality checks. And you can’t get anywhere understanding why “a supernatural agent did it” has become implausible as an explanation without availing yourself of the immense background knowledge due to the naturalistic development of modern science.

If we organized intellectual life differently, maybe we’d have less of these unproductive turf wars. Right now, our training in various disciplines perhaps focus too much on clusters of habits (“methods”) and a particular research tradition. But at least in my experience in the sciences, productive crossing of disciplinary boundaries often comes about when people get interested in a particular question or puzzle, and then don’t feel constrained to be exclusively channeled into existing traditions when figuring out ways to approach that puzzle. If research is driven by a particular question rather than an established tradition, it might have a better chance of avoiding getting trapped in various turfs.

So if the alleged reality of supernatural agencies is the puzzle facing us, I would expect that anyone interested would gather a variety of tools for themselves. They would avail themselves of the philosophical tradition, yes, but they could hardly overlook physical cosmology, evolutionary biology, cognitive science, sociology of religion, etc. etc. and so on and so forth.

Again, I hardly think this is to say anything controversial. And yet, I still regularly read articles by philosophers griping about someone in the “New Atheist” orbit supposedly naively taking God to be a scientific problem (John Shook in the latest Free Inquiry, for example). So I suspect there is a turf war hidden in these disputes. And like most academic turf wars, this one is largely bullshit.

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About Taner Edis

Professor of physics at Truman State University