Caution! Philosophy in Progress.

Caution! Philosophy in Progress. March 16, 2012

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Last year, Theatre J sold out its run of New Jerusalem: The Interrogation of Baruch de Spinoza, so if you’re in the DC area and I didn’t successfully drag you to the show this past Wednesday, you had best get your tickets soon. The play is inspired by the excommunication of Baruch Spinoza by his synagogue and spins out a confrontation between him, a Christian official of Amesterdam, and his beloved rabbi and mentor.

In the play, Spinoza is still refining his philosophy. The cross-examination lets the audience see his ideas and their implications get drawn out and developed.  But what serves the audience well in the context of a performance may not correspond to the best way Spinoza could have shared his ideas with his friends.  He is thinking out loud in front of the entire congregation, many of whom do not have a philosophical background.

In my college debating group, it wasn’t uncommon for people to ‘break’ on the floor — i.e. for a line of questioning to catch a speaker in paradox and force him or her to admit that they had to give up at least part (or possibly all) of their philosophy.  But when you brought someone up to the edge of the abyss, it was only good manners to offer them somewhere to jump in the moment of crisis.  You were seldom doing the speaker a favor by pushing them into nihilism.

Eliezer Yudowsky might call this courtesy “leaving a line of retreat.”  A Christian who thinks it is impossible to behave morally without faith in God cannot possibly deconvert.  Before trying to persuade them the atheist side is right, you need to demonstrate the the hypothetical world in which the atheists are right is not unlivable.  Yudkowsky got the name of this tactic from the advice of Sun Tzu in The Art of War:

When you surround the enemy
Always allow them an escape route.
They must see that there is
An alternative to death.

From the beginning of the play, Spinoza knows he’s smarter than almost everyone else on the stage. Out of a combination of arrogance and ebullience, he keeps going over their heads and leaves them gasping, trying to catch up.  The cross-examination leads him to an epiphany that he finds satisfying and invigorating, but his interlocutors are left one step behind, still on the verge of nihilism.

You can debate whether or not Spinoza’s deterministic world is livable (and whether any philosophy can be so terrible as to be self-refuting). We did just that in the talkback I led after the show with John Shook and Jonathan Moreno. But what I’m left wondering is whether philosophers have the same kind of responsibility that my debate friends had to each other: not to shatter a worldview without an alternative ready at hand.

Just like a chemistry teacher talks about electrons whizzing around nuclei in precise orbits until you’ve taken enough classes to wrap your head around the VSEPR model, philosophers might refrain from upsetting the sufficiently-not-terrible ideas of someone who hadn’t signed on to the philosophical project and honed their reasoning skills.  The danger is that philosophy is a much less efficiently self-regulating field than chemistry.

Even if their art becomes arcane to most of us, chemists can hold each other to account, and the errors they haven’t caught yet aren’t likely to endanger the rest of us, since most of our day-to-day actions don’t depend on precise understandings of quantum theory.  But philosophers sound like they’re having conversations on our level, so there’s more danger of confusion.  On the other hand, if the philosophers retreat from the laypeople and lack a way to make their metaphysics pay rent, we’ll end up with more papers of this sort and the chaos that followed.


Bonus content: Eve Tushnet has thoughts on the play (“One God, Three Opinions“, “Occam’s Razor is the Worst Razor“) and so does The Groom’s Family (“Seeing the Jewish Convert in the Trial of Baruch de Spinoza“, “Spinoza is Back!“).

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  • “But philosophers sound like they’re having conversations on our level, so there’s more danger of confusion.”
    I’ve been to enough philosophy colloquia to say with some authority that this is not the case at all. Analytical philosphers do not sound like they’re having conversations on our level (if by “our” you mean “well-read graduate humanities student with some philosophy courses” and not “anyone”). Continental philosophers maybe, but even then probably not.

  • A Christian who thinks it is impossible to behave morally without faith in God cannot possibly deconvert.

    Very few Christians think it is impossible for a person to behave morally if she does not have faith in God. The Christian challenge usually comes from another quarter: without God, there can be no moral facts.

  • Daniel A. Duran

    I hope the play wasn’t as disgustingly distorted as “the courtier and the heretic;” the philosophical equivalent of the play Amadeus. You had your misunderstood genius Spinoza (Mozart) that was courageous, frugal, honest and brave to a fault. On the other hand you had the spiteful, envious and vain Gottfried Leibniz (Salieri) who spend his whole life and all his energies bent in destroying poor and saintly Spinoza. And yes, the courtier and heretic is as accurate as Amadeus: 10% non-fiction and 90% fantasy. Why does a second rate philosopher like Spinoza gets a play at all? Oh yeah, he’s martyr of atheism, almost forgot.
    Leah, you might be underestimating your Christian opponents when they say atheists cannot live morally. These are people usually not accustomed to argumentation and are most likely not making themselves clear on what they mean. They could mean:

    1-God is the source of obligation and without god there’s no right or wrong only natural goodness and badness.

    2-Without God there’s no obligation to do the right thing it will harm you (telling the truth, for example) or if it will not benefit you (if you find a lost wallet full of cash, why return it?).

    These are hardly non-sequiturs.

  • Daniel A. Duran

    BTW, the courtier and the heretic is a book not a play. But I don’t doubt we will see the play, oscar-winning movie and the musical based on the novel in the future. Leibniz will be as reviled by audiences as Saliieri is; count on it.

  • anon atheist

    I don’t think the analogy with chemistry teaching or science in general is appropriate. At the high school and even at the college level for pedagogical reasons you anyway only teach the stuff that is known and not the holes.

    And in science if new findings open holes in somebodies world view scientists are not obliged to offer an escape. For example when the scientist published the faster than light neutrinos they did not offer some way to save the old world view. They might have speculated about solutions but that’s about it.

    It is actually not unusual that new findings leave the scientists without a valid world view. As if I’m not mistaken it was known that Newton’s theory of gravity was wrong well before Einstein came up with his theory.