My “retirement” notice posted on SO last Sept. 1 got MUCH more attention than I expected–or wanted. Religion Dispatches has an article about the announcement and the subsequent brouhaha:
January 7, 2011 by 17 Comments
Several letters were written and a couple of questions were raised that I would like to address:
1) Q: If I no longer respect the “case for theism” sufficiently to devote professional activity (teaching, writing) to it, why do I continue to discuss these issues on SO?
A: As I indicated in the original post, much of my reluctance to write anything more about theistic arguments is that a number of outstanding philosophers, like Graham Oppy, Richard Gale, and the late, great Jordan Howard Sobel have addressed these arguments with great subtlety, penetration, and sophistication, and I just do not feel that I have that much to add to their accomplishments. In my view, the “case for theism” has been thoroughly debunked by such scholars and there just is not much reason for philosophers to devote more professional energy to the task–any more than professional scientists should devote space in their journals to debunking creationism. Professional writings should do more than keep beating dead horses.
However, there is an important distinction between one’s role as a professional academic and the role of a “public intellectual.” Debunking creationism may not be an appropriate topic to submit to Evolution or Paleobiology, but creationism is believed by millions and supported by well-funded institutions that promote it avidly. Therefore, I think, in addition to their responsibilities to their professions, scientists also have a responsibility to enter into the public discussion on these topics. Otherwise, the field is just abandoned to the creationists. The same goes with topics like global warming and the weirdly resurgent phobia about vaccinations. These issues affect the public well-being and those with the expertise need to participate in the discussion. Similarly, participating in discussions on SO is my, very modest, way of playing the role of “public intellectual.”
2) Q: The article in Religion Dispatches concludes with a quote from me that in debates on topics in the philosophy of religion we reach basic intuitions beyond which there is nowhere to go, so the discussion ends. But, should not debate question intuitions? Should not these be subject to philosophical scrutiny as much as anything else?
A: My view is that conflicting intuitions are a great place to begin a philosophical discussion, but a lousy place to end one. Of course intuitions should be examined critically; that is how a good philosophical debate can start. However, if, after a long chain of argument, patiently examining premises and deploying examples and counterexamples, we find ourselves led right back to the same bedrock intuitions, then I think there is, eventually, reason to despair. That is precisely how some of my discussions and debates with people like Craig have gone. Craig argues that everything that begins to exist must have a cause. He somewhere illustrates the bedrock intuition underlying this claim by asking whether we could believe that a live Bengal tiger would just now materialize from thin air right here right now. Well (fortunately), of course not. But a tiger materializing IN space/time here and now, with conservation laws in place, is not at all the same kind thing as the beginning OF space/time and, concomitantly, the laws of physics. Therefore, I feel perfectly justified in not having the same intuitions about tigers as about universes. Really, in fact, I have NO intuitions about the beginning of the universe, and if I did have them, I would not trust them. The upshot is that after going round and round, Craig and the atheist seem to wind up pretty much where they started, and it is not clear where you go from there.