What Good Is Philosophy? (2 of 2)

What Good Is Philosophy? (2 of 2) March 14, 2014

Philosophy ScienceIn my last post, I summarized some of the useless fruits of the pop philosophy used by Christian apologists like William Lane Craig. Now, let’s look at issue from the other side. Let’s find the good within philosophy.

Something nice to say about philosophy

Philosophy contains important stuff. The laws of logic and the understanding of logical fallacies fall under philosophy, as does the study of ethics. The study of philosophy can be great training.

Alvin Plantinga argued that philosophy is relevant at the frontier of science when he said that philosophy is just thinking hard about something. By that definition, Werner Heisenberg (a physicist) was doing philosophy when he came up with his uncertainty principle, Kurt Gödel (a mathematician) was doing philosophy when he discovered his incompleteness theorems, and Alan Turing (a computer scientist) was doing philosophy when he developed the Turing Test. Maybe string theory or ideas on the multiverse are philosophy.

A broad definition of philosophy doesn’t bother me, but note that all these “philosophers” were first scientists or mathematicians. That’s why they were able to make their contributions. While a scientist can put on a philosopher’s hat and do great work, the reverse is not true. A philosopher isn’t qualified to contribute in science or math. This was the problem outlined in the previous post with philosopher William Lane Craig’s ill-advised dabblings in science.

I get annoyed with philosophers putting on an imaginary lab coat and playing scientist like a child plays house. Craig imagines himself strutting into a meeting of befuddled scientists and saying with a chuckle, “Okay, fellas, the Christian philosophers can take it from here” and seeing them breathe a sigh of relief that the cavalry has come to save them from their intellectual dilemma. He imagines that he has something to offer on questions that his discipline couldn’t even formulate.

In perhaps the height of hubris, Craig the non-scientist permits himself to pick and choose the areas of science that are valid. He likes the idea of a beginning to the universe, so the Big Bang is A-OK with him. But complexity in life without the guiding hand of God doesn’t sit so well, so he rejects evolution.

I pick on William Lane Craig here just because he’s a well-known example. Other Christian apologists take similar positions.

Contributions in science vs. philosophy

Lots of sites have Top Ten lists of scientific discoveries for 2013 (Scientific American, Science, HuffPo, Discover, and more). 2012 was a tough act to follow, with the Higgs boson, Curiosity rover on Mars, and hundreds of new exoplanets discovered, but 2013 didn’t disappoint. We found new clues that Mars was once habitable, the Voyager 1 spacecraft left the solar system, DNA was sequenced from 700,000 year old animal and 100,000 year old human remains, a meteor exploded over Russia, new gene therapies were found, life was found in a pristine Antarctic lake, and Jupiter’s Ganymede was mapped.

I couldn’t find a list of the Top Ten philosophical breakthroughs for 2013.

Philosophy as a caltrop

While thoughtless pop philosophy is one problem, weighty arguments such as the Transcendental Argument or the Ontological Argument are at the other end of the scale. This is philosophy as a caltrop.

A caltrop is a defensive weapon used when the opponent is getting too close for comfort. These and other complicated philosophical arguments can be handy when the expected evidence for God isn’t there. You want to discard the God hypothesis? Hold on—first, you must respond to this ponderous argument. And there are more behind it. These arguments are effective because they’re confusing, not because they’re correct.

What does it say that such arguments are necessary? If you want to see what keeps the planet warm, go outside on a sunny day and look up. A god who is eager to have a relationship with us and is so much more powerful and important than the sun should be at least as obvious. Complicated philosophical arguments simply try to paper over the glaring fact that evidence for God is negligible and that we have no justification for belief.

Philosophy is useful in the hands of scientists. But philosophers? What have they done for me lately?

Religion was our first try at philosophy,
it was our first try at epistemology.
It’s what we came up with when we didn’t know
we lived on a round planet circling the sun.
— Christopher Hitchens

Philosophers do not agree about anything to speak of.
— Peter van Inwagen

Photo credit: Emily Jane Morgan

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