I Enjoy Philosophy, I Hate 'Philosophers'

When I have had a question about biology, physics, or some other subject for which I couldn’t find an answer on my own, I would make an appointment with a teacher at my university to talk about it.  Though issues of science are certainly beholden to their fair share of jargon, the teachers I spoke with knew I was not a scientist and would use language they knew I could understand.  Their goal was to communicate.

In my life, experts from every discipline have understood that using jargon-heavy language with people who are not part of their field is a poor way to communicate.  This fact seems obvious.  The only subject I’ve found where people fail to grasp this simple concept is in the field of philosophy.  And never is it so prevalent as with religious ‘philosophers’.

I use quotes on the word ‘philosophers’ to denote a specific group of people.  I have had meetings with my philosophy professors (Michael Boyle at Missouri State was instrumental in my understanding of Wittgenstein and Cartesian Philosophy) and have had conversations with prominent members of the field such as Richard Carrier and John Corvino that changed my mind and helped me to further appreciate the subject.  These people seem to get it.  The ‘philosophers’ I refer to tend to be non-majors or undergrads who seem to be less interested in helping others to understand their position and more interested in cowing the other half of the conversation and thereby ‘winning’.   Their long-winded descants are often accompanied by sneers of condescension at the lack of rigorous study of their opponents.

Enter one such ‘philosopher’ I responded to earlier today.  Jonathan asserted at one point:

Truth is, unless one has undoubtedly stood in the face of the Almighty, none of us have absolute evidence to the existence or non-existence of God.

I rebutted via substitution logic.

Truth is, unless one has undoubtedly stood in the face of the Almighty Spiderman, none of us have absolute evidence to the existence or non-existence of God Spiderman.

Is this a good reason to believe in Spiderman?  No.  Is it a good reason to think that anybody claiming that belief in Spiderman is justified is anything other than out of their mind?  No.  Presented with this statement, the response is obvious: there isn’t any evidence of Spiderman, and so no sane person should believe in him!  The same is true of god.

Jonathan came storming into the comments defending the existence of Spiderman using all the jargon in the universe.  Though he was defending a positively idiotic position, I guess he thought the use of polysyllabic words earned him the right to be taken seriously.  It doesn’t.  Another ‘philosopher’ came in afterward insisting that because I brushed off the guy insisting Spiderman exists, that I needed to sell myself to him as an academic.  This puts me in the interesting situation of having to choose the best application of my time: either engaging with somebody who thinks Spiderman is real and trying to prove myself to someone else for whose opinion of me I have no respect, or giving myself a paper cut all evening.  I hope I made the right decision.

Perhaps these people are just trolling and, if so, this is why Poe’s Law exists.  But Jonathan certainly seemed serious on my facebook wall and, if he is a troll, he’s a troll who doesn’t place a premium on his time (which is not unheard of).

The blame, I’m sure, will be cast at the non-’philosopher’ (as it usually is) for their failure to comprehend, as though the ‘philospher’s’ goal had been to communicate effectively the entire time.  Or, the other half of the conversation will call it a day (which is precisely what I did), and the ‘philosopher’ will take the other person’s unwillingness to spend an inordinate amount of time carving through all the jargon not as a sign that the ‘philosopher’ sucks at communication, but as a victory – since the other half clearly doesn’t want to tussle with so much academic muscle.  It’s a level of arrogance unmatched even by people believing the architect of the cosmos takes a personal interest in their lives.

These people are so often the religious ‘philosopher’, but there are a fair number of them on the atheist side as well.  The goal never seems to be to communicate, but rather to posture.  They’re all annoying, they’re all pretentious, and they should all be summarily ignored regardless of what they believe about the existence of god until they are forced to either keep the company of only other ‘philosophers’ or learn how to discourse like 99% of the population (like the experts in other fields).

Because I was hip deep in the atheism v. theism debate, I took a few philosophy courses in college and enjoyed them thoroughly.  The teachers were fantastic and it redeemed philosophy for me, which is good, because most of the ‘philosophers’ I’d met in my life had previously ruined the subject for me.  I find philosophy to be a fascinating subject, but I have a more charitable attitude toward hangovers than I do for amateur ‘philosophers’.

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About JT Eberhard

When not defending the planet from inevitable apocalypse at the rotting hands of the undead, JT is a writer and public speaker about atheism, gay rights, and more. He spent two and a half years with the Secular Student Alliance as their first high school organizer. During that time he built the SSA’s high school program and oversaw the development of groups nationwide. JT is also the co-founder of the popular Skepticon conference and served as the events lead organizer during its first three years.

  • Former Activist

    As a former atheist activist (still an atheist, although less “proud”, to be honest), I’ve got to say that this kind of silliness is what distanced me from the movement. JT offends more secular thinkers than Christians, I’m sure.

    • JT Eberhard

      Come back. The movement is great and it’s important, even with all its flaws.

      Also, is it weird I took that as a compliment? I think with a little dedication and a little sexism I could alienate everybody…

    • Cwayne

      You have your experiences, and sure enough I have been pissed at a few folks on the atheist corner. Eberhard and Myers are two I have yet to find offensive or silly…and doubt that I will.

  • Gordon

    When I was studying philosophy one of my tutors told us that the way to tell if you really understood a concept was to see if you could explain it in ordinary language that anyone could understand.

    • JT Eberhard

      I like that. Will use that in the future. :)

      • Randomfactor

        I believe that’s known as the five-year-old rule: if you can’t at least explain the concept in language a five-year-old could grasp, you don’t understand it yourself. (That may be a bit overdrawn, but a good rule of thumb.)

    • raymoscow

      I think that’s true for any field: if you understand the subject, you can explain it in plain language, although it might take a while.

      Jargon is a great time saver for communicating with peers who already understand the concepts, but sometimes it is thrown around with poor regard to the recepients or, at worst, to spread bullshit or silence other people.

  • MurOllavan

    Corvino was my prof back in college. He was probably one of the best they had at WSU. Thanks for the reminder as I see he’s put out some LGBT stuff since then I should like to read. He reminds me of Shelly Kagan at Yale. His free death lectures online are so plain and clear they could be given to a ninth grade class.

  • Laurence

    As a person with a B.A. in Philosophy, I hate pretentious philosophy people. It gives all of us a bad name. But at the same time, I get irritated when people dismiss philosophy because it’s not necessarily empirical. Studying philosophy helped me become a better person and clearer thinker.

  • http://www.xtwatson.com T.X. Watson

    I’m a philosophy undergrad, and I think this is one of the biggest issues in the discipline today. I’m actually going to be changing my major this semester to a double in philosophy and journalism, because I want to point my career trajectory toward bridging the gap between philosophers and non-philosophers. But a lot of people with a passing knowledge of philosophy seem to see it as their responsibility to build up that wall, rather than to help tear it down.

    I have to admit I cringe every time PZ says something about philosophers, both because it’s hurtful to read someone you admire taking jabs at your major, and because he so often has a point.

  • zachpidgeon

    The philosophy jerk practices one of the purest forms of bullshit available. Every argument is intended to convey the speakers vast authority within a given discussion without actually advancing a defensible (or possibly vulnerable) position.

  • Finney

    I think the distinction is between teachers of philosophy and other philosophers. Teachers tend not only to understand their stuff but to communicate it well.

  • fastlane

    This puts me in the interesting situation of having to choose the best application of my time: either engaging with somebody who thinks Spiderman is real and trying to prove myself to someone else for whose opinion of me I have no respect, or giving myself a paper cut all evening. I hope I made the right decision.

    I hope you got a bandaid for those papercuts….

  • http://verbosestoic.wordpress.com/ Verbose Stoic

    Well, I think “amateur philosopher” is right, in the same sense that you can call a scientific crank an “amateur scientist”. If he actually knows philosophy, he isn’t very good at it, because the whole “Spider-man exists” argument can only be relevant if he’s equivocating. Sure, there are senses in which you can indeed say that Spider-man exists. Without reading his comment, I’d bet that he slipped “possible world” in there somewhere, and probably “referents” and things like that. All of which is fair enough. But is that the sense of “exists” that’s relevant to the debate? You could have forestalled him by simply accepting his argument, and saying that you accept that God exists in precisely the same way as Spider-man does: as a fictional being. Since it’s clear that that’s not the way the debate needs God to exist, his argument is deflated and you’d have to move on to something productive.

    Now, let me take a stab at your argument (not sure how philosophical my reply will be, except that it gets into what is meant by evidence). The problem with your argument is that you are concluding “no evidence” by using some definition of evidence that is not generally what I mean, at least, when talking about evidence for a thing. A set of passed down tales is indeed in some sense evidence for God or any other god. It’s very weak evidence, but it’s evidence nonetheless. In theory, the books and comics and movies and TV shows showing Spider-man are, in fact, evidence for Spider-man’s existence, and actually stronger evidence for Spider-man’s existence than we generally have for God. So why, then, do we reject the existence of Spider-man, if not because there is “no evidence”? It’s because we have ADDITIONAL evidence, evidence that Spider-man is a fictional character. With that, it’s obvious that the rational thing to do is conclude that Spider-man is a fictional character and so does not really exist because I think we can all agree that the evidence for that is compelling enough to be knowledge.

    Now, do we have that for God? Well, it’s not the same sort of evidence because all of the links to that — authors’ words, in medium that depict fictional characters, states fictional in some places — are gone. We don’t really have that. So we need something else. And it isn’t clear that we can know based on the evidence we have that God is fictional. So that’s the difference.

    Think of it this way: imagine 1000 years from now someone picks up “The Lord of the Rings” and has no indication beyond the book of its history or its status as a fictional work. They just have the book. Would it be more rational to conclude that it was a work of fiction or a true history? My thought is that you really couldn’t tell one way or the other.

    • infinite improbability

      @Verbose Stoic -

      I agree with your summation of the evidence, but I think your example is faulty. I think we could certainly dismiss LOTR as fiction based on internal evidence – it’s full of magic. (I admit I haven’t read it, I have seen the movie which is reputedly a fairly faithful treatment).

      The most one could claim for LOTR (in ignorance of its provenance) would be that, like say the King Arthur legends or the typical ‘based on a true story’ TV drama, it might have had a basis in some historical figure of long ago, but much fictionalised.

      By the way, back to the original topic, the classic examples of philosophical nonsense must be those cited by Sokal and Bricmont in their book ‘Fashionable Nonsense’. (Googling ‘Social Text affair’ will provide an entertaining read, or try this, from Dawkins: http://www.physics.nyu.edu/faculty/sokal/dawkins.html ).

      • http://verbosestoic.wordpress.com/ Verbose Stoic

        The issue with that is that you would be assuming what is and isn’t possible based only on your current knowledge. Could you actually say that you know that magic couldn’t have happened in that way? The same argument might be made against, say, a documentary on WWII in a “post-apocalyptic future” that lost its technology, on the basis that nothing mechanical can fly.

        • infinite improbability

          I think we’re getting into Invisible Pink Unicorn territory here. I’m at a slight disadvantage in not having read Tolkien (the example was yours, not mine) but I think the books were full, not only of magic, but also mythical creatures like orcs and dwarfs and so on. Assuming that in 1000 years time the state of knowledge was similar to today’s, I maintain that one could tell it was fiction. That the chances of such creatures – or of magic – ever existing are negligible. I maintain that the onus of proving that magic exists, or mythical creatures, lies on those claiming them – it is not logically possible to prove beyond all doubt that the Invisible Pink Unicorn or the FSM do not exist (though Bertrand Russell’s teapot might just be detectable by now). And if magic is not credible today, then it is no more credible to suggest it could have existed 1000 years ago. The laws of the universe would have had to have changed to permit it.

          Now, I assumed that in 1000 years time the state of knowledge would be at least equivalent to today (or better). You’ve since invoked a post-Apocalypse world where much knowledge has been lost. I think that invalidates your point since if one assumes sufficient loss of knowledge, one ends up living in a cave wondering if the little lights in the sky at night are holes in the giant cave-world roof, and everything is driven by ‘magic’.

          (To come back to the evidence for God – while nobody can prove him/her/it non-existent, my personal view is that he/she/it is (almost) infinitely improbable. Which is why after years of thinking I was an agnostic I decided I’d been a de facto atheist all the time).

  • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

    I don’t get the point of this post. Why tar real philosophers over uneducated hacks? What if someone wrote a post complaining about “biologists” whereby they meant creationists and said that a handful of biology professors barely redeemed the subject of biology for them since they so often have to run into “biologists” of the creationist variety.

    Philosophy is a centuries old discipline which has influenced Western civilization and underpins our modern lives in countless vital and indispensable ways. Cavalierly implying that hacks can in any way be used as a basis for judging the worth or value of the subject is just unbelievably wrongheaded and dismissive.

  • Lyrad

    It hurts that I’m guilty of what is written but it’s true, in a lot of ways. I never called myself a real philosopher. I just enjoy philosophy as it is too, but I’m not really studying it. This is a very nice article. :)