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Can we please bury philosophy? It’s starting to smell. – Part II

October 12, 2013

So, to continue on from my prior post, suggesting why I find the arguments of philosophy proponents underwhelming. I present here my responses to the final four most common arguments I’ve seen presented. If these responses seem ad hoc and to lack an overall disciplined structure, it’s because in general the arguments against Krauss and others are also lacking in disciplined structure. Like I said previously, long on invective and short on disciplined structure.

Argument 3 Insert-Name-Here-ism

One thing I’ve noticed in my occasional thread debates with philosophers is that they absolutely hate been accused of using the Courtier’s reply. More than once has it been suggested that all my doubts over the value of philosophy would melt away if I would only pay for a venerable philosophy tome that will change my life. But ask them for the wonderful argument contained within the tome, and only silence reigns.

I’ve got a theory for why this is. If a philosopher writes, he generally wants to persuade people to come to a certain point of view. But putting forward that point of view often isn’t convincing enough. What needs to be done first is to guide the reader in a stepwise progression, whereby the reader’s definition of common words and rules are altered, to a place where the philosopher’s argument makes sense. Brainwashing is too a strong term, but it does resemble a type of indoctrination. The best example I know of this is the ontological argument, which is irrefutable provided the reader first changes his definition of “necessary”, “perfect”, “conceive” and probably also the word “the”. Do all that, and the ontological argument makes perfect sense!

So the accusation of the courtier’s reply puts some philosophers in the position of baldly stating their argument without the ritual redefining and walking the reader, syllogism by syllogism, off the cliff of reason. Because their baldly stated arguments often sound silly, they often prefer to use labels for their arguments. Scientism is one such label, because it sounds more pejorative and damning than saying “you have adopted a position that the supernatural does not exist”

So when some philosophers accuse Krauss and others like him of “scientism”, “realism”, “anti-positivism” or “insert-name-here-ism”, I think we should consider these labels smokescreens for hiding smelly arguments that the philosopher is too embarrassed to state baldly.

Argument 4 People who dismiss philosophy are the ones who most need it.

I’ve run into this one a few times, usually delivered in a condescending tone that suggests that the philosopher sees one more person who refuses the enlightenment of philosophy and remains huddled in ashes and filth, then she will just puke.

The problem I have is that the philosophy just assumes that philosophy has proven benefit in helping its students avoid being taken in by conmen peddling false logic. Does philosophy really help prevent its students from being taken in by conmen peddling false logic? Hmm, Sounds like a scientifically testable hypothesis to me. Perhaps someone could collect 500 philosophy students and 500 non-philosophy students, and run them through artificial situations to see who is more easily conned.

But checking through several higher educational and psychological databases in my hospital library didn’t offer up such studies. If any readers know of any, then please forward the reference to me, as I would be very interested to read it.

But until then, any time a philosophy proponent proclaims the superior reasoning skills of philosophy, my stock response will be “Citation, please?” If they can’t offer a citation from a peer-reviewed journal, then I will kindly suggest that their viewpoint lacks an evidential basis, and most likely reflects individual bias.

Argument 5 Science requires philosophy, but philosophy doesn’t require science

This one puzzles me a bit. Some philosophy proponents swear that science can’t actually prove anything true, and that only philosophy can prove things true. When pushed to expand on this argument, they invoke a transcendental, higher meta-meaning of “truth” that only philosophers care about.

One point I’ll make that one obviously doesn’t need philosophy to make good science, because the vast majority of scientists do not have philosophy training. Nor are articles subject to review by philosophers before publication. If the people doing science don’t need philosophy, then how can science need philosophy?

Secondly, science is generally a more prosaic discipline than philosophy, and is under no obligation to reach a philosophical standard of “truthiness”. If a drug works in preventing heart attacks, then the scientifically important part is showing a bunch of people on the drug who had fewer heart attacks than people not on the drug. There’s no obligation to please Thomas Aquinas’ ghost by reaching an arcane definition of “cure” that no-one outside of philosophy thinks is relevant.

Argument 6 “This dead philosopher provides the gold standard definition of nothingness…..because I said so”

One way in which philosophy differs from other fields is that in other fields, is that experts in other fields gradually lose their contemporary relevance, and become more notable for their historical significance. This is not because their work was not transformative, but because the value and implications of their work is settled early on. For example, Isaac Newton was an incredible scientist, but his work has been accepted and expanded on, and contemporary physics has moved onto other areas (e.g. quantum mechanics). In contrast, to this day prominent philosophers are still debating and trying to refine the philosophical treaties of philosophers who believed the world was flat.

One prominent example of this way of thinking comes from Ed Feser, a philosophy professor at Pasadena City College. He took particular umbrage at Lawrence Krauss’ book A universe from nothing, noting in his online review:

“For Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas, for example, things in the world can change only if there is something that changes or actualizes everything else without the need (or indeed even the possibility) of its being actualized itself, precisely because it is “pure actuality”. Change requires an unchangeable changer or unmovable mover”

The above paragraph reads like weapons-grade bunk to me. It comes across as pretentious and sloppy, and I think the bizarre use of the verb “actualize” is a good example of the point I made earlier that philosophers often need their readers to redefine their vocabulary for their ideas to sound sensible. But of course I freely admit that I’m biased against philosophy. S how do we determine if there is a worthwhile idea in that paragraph, in a manner that overcomes our respective biases?

One means is to see if Aristotle and Aquinas made testable predictions based on their theories. For example, Isaac Newton is a famous physicist, but he actually wrote far more theological treatises than physics papers (he was also a notorious plagarist and took delight in sending men to the gallows when he was Master of the Royal Mint). Today he is famous for his physics discoveries because they explained observable natural phenomena (motion of planets) and has been used make testable predictions (see the Cavendish experiment). His theological writings are largely forgotten, because they were just a random opinion, with no means of testing.

I believe that Aristotle’s and Aquinas’s opinions on an unmovable mover are just the opinions of two dead men, and have not helped advance human knowledge in any way. For Feser to say that they are brilliant insights that all should be familiar with, I would reply, “How do you know they were right?”. They don’t help describe or understand observable phenomena and don’t make testable predictions. They are just opinions, and like buttholes, we’ve all got them.

In replying to people who cry out that we simply must read these dead philosophers, I would quote Paul Krugman:

What every [person], and for that matter every writer on any subject, needs to realize is that unless you are a powerful person and people are looking for clues about what you’ll do next, nobody has to read what you write — and lecturing them about what they’re missing doesn’t help. You have to provide the hook, the pitch, whatever you want to call it, that pulls them in. It’s part of the job.

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3 Comments
  1. guymax permalink

    I find it odd that an atheist would argue that there is no philosophical basis for atheism, and not even notice that this is what he is doing. Is there really no logical case that can be made for atheism? Is there really no point in us even thinking about such matters? It seems to me that you are confusing the failure of the philosophers you happen to know about and understand for the failure of philosophy as a whole.

    It is surely just plain common sense that it would not be a good idea for a person to choose what to believe about the world, and therefore how to conduct their lives, without giving the main issues a moment or two of thought.

    And then, if you do not find philosophy comprehensible, then what does it mean to say you are an atheist? Is this just a view plucked at random out of a hat? Is it not inevitable that an argument against philosophy is an argument against atheism? Metaphysics is, in the words of the English philosopher Francis Bradley, ‘the only certain way of protecting ourselves against dogmatic superstition’. Have you managed to refute Bradley’s solution for philosophy? Nobody else has. This means that nobody can show that philosophy is useless.

    At any rate, philosophy is not useless just because you do not understand it. Only a bad workman blames his tools. Yes, it must be obvious to most people that the professional academic philosophy of our western universities is bankrupt. Krauss is part of the evidence. If this is what the argument here is aimed at then it ought to say so, and then I could then agree with a lot of it, even that this kind of philosophy has begun to ‘smell’. It is becoming ever more obvious to just about everyone, thanks to the internet, that this approach must be fundamentally flawed. It has made no progress in the last thousand years. Of course, to know this, or to argue that this is the case, we would have to do some philosophy.

    But the professors do not own philosophy. If they do not understand philosophical issues then this is no reason to dismiss the entire discipline as useless. An argument against philosophy as whole, as opposed to just one school or method, must be a commitment to agnosticism on every philosophical issue including God. But we all know very well that some views make more sense than others, and this is because philosophy is not useless.

    I would like to direct you my blog, bit I’m not sure of the etiquette here. I will if asked. There I try to demonstrate that philosophy is not useless if we keep it simple and think for ourselves, and if we stay away from university classrooms.

    May I suggest changing the title so that it is clear what you mean by ‘philosophy’, what it is exactly that your argument is aimed at. Otherwise it may just reinforce the idea that people with extreme philosophical views such as atheism and theism rarely like to do much philosophy. For myself, I would say that one the many useful properties of philosophy is that it endorses atheism.

  2. Travers permalink

    Hi guymax. Thank you for your comment.

    I certainly agree that it is important to discuss, debate and reason over many areas of our lives, including religion. It seems a bit of a stretch to me to describe that as philosophy, however, because it is so broad as to encompass all thinking activity. After all, if everyone is a philosopher and everything we do is philosophy, then what use does the term ’philosophy’ have left? The definition of philosophy that I personally use is “stuff that professional philosophers do that people in other disciplines cannot do”.

    This definition seems to fit the context to me, because when philosophers like William Lane Craig or Ed Feser criticize atheists, they never do so using the generic reasoning that everyone uses, but rather obscure arguments unheard of outside of philosophy. My posts were trying to argue that these specialized arguments (and the person presenting them) are given a respect they don’t deserve.

    I’d be very happy for you to link to your blog here. I’m interested in your views, so perhaps you could present an opposing viewpoint. This could be posted on your blog, or alternatively i’d be happy to post it on my blog.

  3. guymax permalink

    Hi again travers. What a great idea. Thanks. The trouble is that I have little idea about how all these buttons and links work here. I’d be pleased to show the discussion on my blog but wouldn’t know how to do it. Anyway its http://theworldknot.wordpress.com/

    I promised not to rant and then I did. Sorry about that.

    I can now see the problem. You define ‘philosophy’ as precisely the philosophy that I also believe is dead, or should be by now. Indeed, I am trying to contribute to its demise. If you made this definition clear at the start of your two posts then they would make a lot more sense. It is quite an idiosyncratic definition. As it is you seemed to be arguing against the pursuit of wisdom.

    I’d extend your definition to “stuff that professional philosophers do that people in other disciplines cannot do and that they cannot do themselves”.

    Fortunately this is a sub-set of philosophy. I wouldn’t disagree with all of your criticisms of this kind of philosophy and may even feel more strongly about it, but find that much more telling objections can be made from outside of the sub-set, by coming at philosophy in a more simple and honest way.

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