Monday, October 01, 2007

I need to adjust the settings on my tin-foil hat...

I had my suspicions after reading 'The God Delusion', but now I am officially creeped out. Somehow, Richard Dawkins is listening to my thoughts.


We who doubt that "theology" is a subject at all, or who compare it with the study of leprechauns, are eagerly hoping to be proved wrong... ...But as for theology itself, defined as "the organised body of knowledge dealing with the nature, attributes, and governance of God", a positive case now needs to be made that it has any real content at all, and that it has any place in today's universities.
Oh now common! Common! Ive been saying this for years!!! Biblotarians brag about the opinion of someone with a theology degree, or brag about going to 'divinity school' and Ive always been like "Hmm. You cant even establish there is a theos in the first place... Dont you think its a bit pretentious to make an -ology out of it?" "Oooh! And Ive got a degree in Unicornology! Theology, pffffff!" "Divinity-- a degree in nothing! How impressive!!"

Eh I can make people mad, though, by taking it a step further! I think philosophy is *almost* just as absurd. Thinking about things people have thought about since people could think, for a profession. Thinking about the same questions people have always thought about, but attempting to think about them differently than everyone else, or when all else fails, at least wording the same thoughts differently. For a profession.

I mean, look, I love talking philosophy! Its fun drunk talk! But to me being a professional philosopher is like being a professional eater. Huh? Maybe there is more to philosophy than I am aware of-- Ill certainly agree there is more to philosophy than there is to theology-- so Im open to being convinced! Anyone want to make a case for philosophy?


(hat tip to PZ)


Freelancer said...


Again, I agree with you and PZ, as theology was a required course all four years of HS. (unbelievably easy, your instructors couldn't disprove any claim you made, it was all opinion).

However, as far as your view of Philosophy, well I'm not the best one to defend it, but methinks that Dennett and a few of his predecessors (who introduced and made more acceptable a godless worldview might have a few things to say about it.

Blake Stacey said...

The best case I can make for philosophy, emotionally, is the existence of folks like Russell Blackford and David Corfield, sensible people who know their stuff and reason about meta-concepts by building solid foundations of science. I like that.

I find most "philosophy of science" to be tiresome and pointless. Instead of exploring anything of interest, people who have any good sense have to spend all their mental capital defending themselves from the infection of postmodernism — and by the time you're done with that, it's breakfast the next morning and you've got to go to sleep. You could burn all the philosophy of science books save only Feynman's Character of Physical Law, start the profession again from a clean reboot, and miss nothing of consequence. Philosophizing about science has been of startlingly little help in actually doing science; it's the world which presents our problems, not the Philosophy Department. We've gained a little benefit in the fight against pseudoscience, but again, you could incinerate the whole library save one book of Feynman and still have a fine exposition of "falsifiability".

Then, too, many pseudoscientific ideas are falsifiable, taken one at a time. To appreciate how bankrupt Intelligent Design is, for example, you have to see the endless game of whack-a-mole we play with the oncoming stream of antiscience quackery. I suppose one could express this in terms of Lakatos and his "research programmes", if you really wanted to; however, I think it'd be a wasted effort which brings no new, useful insight.

The best intellectual case I can make for philosophy is to crib a line from Daniel Dennett. The history of philosophy is, in large part, the history of smart people saying stupid things, and it is valuable for us to understand the types of attractive but fallacious reasoning which may appeal to the contemplative mind.

Dan said...

I don't think anyone's said anything worthwhile in philosophy in the past hundred years, though some philosophers do work that does not fall under "philosophy" proper, which is well and good.

300+ years ago, the "philosophers" were actually pseudo-scientists. Mathematicians, amateur physicians, etc etc. I mean, etymologically "philosophy" is "love of wisdom", technically almost everyone with a university degree is studying something that used to be "philosophy". A philosopher co-invented calculus, Descartes was a mathematician and theoretician, etc.

Since modern science came around, though, and most of the big philosophical questions have been ground to death, philosophy is a lot of very entertaining pomo word games now- which I love, but I also love reading randomly-generated text and bad propaganda.

We can thank Nietzsche for pioneering the long, psychotic rant that got modern philosophy, newly removed from science, off the ground.

Anonymous said...

I've always liked the phrase "biblical scholars." As if making up entire histories from a paragraph in the bible requires a "scholar." It's like being a "science fiction scholar."

Your off base on philosophy, though.

Mike Z said...

Oh, many things to's some of it.

Bashing philosophy is easy. But then so is bashing just about every other academic field. There is a whole lot of mini-minutiae being studied in every academic department in every university, most of which will never be read by anyone but the authors and journal editors. So, dismissing a whole field because a lot of it seems uninteresting to you is a bit hasty, to say the least.

Specifically relevant to this blog and it's readers:
a) The work against science-deniers has already been mentioned. A large part of this effort is a lot more like philosophy than it is like science. Robert Pennock, a professional philosopher, testified against ID at the Dover trial, and many other, less famous professional philosophers do a lot of work in debating and debunking the anti-science arguments. Many of the anti-science arguments are really anti-logic or anti-thinking arguments that philosophers are intimately familiar with (perhaps not surprisingly, the philosophers are much much more familiar with the arguments than are the science-deniers themselves).

b) Dawkins' whole book on the God Delusion is pretty much a philosophical argument. Also, his selfish gene view is based on a philosophical argument more than a scientific one.

other considerations:
c) Where did the scientific world view even come from? Much of what you and I enjoy as a scientific culture was established a few centuries ago by philosophers (and, of course, by scientists doing philosophical work).

d) Certainly, it is a big challenge for contemporary philosophers of science at large to make their work seem relevant to scientists, but why is that the measure of success in this field? Good philosophers are some of the smartest f-ing people you will ever meet, and their expertise at dissecting and assessing arguments can be very useful in a huge variety of contexts. Perhaps most important of those contexts is, so to speak, life philosophy. Students that learn the tools of philosophy and the history of ideas in that field are much better equipped to handle the bullshit that gets slung at them from all directions.

Like I said, there's a lot to say, but maybe that's a good start.

And by the way, do not judge philosophy according to postmodernism or extreme social constructivism or those sorts of things. Pay more attention to the analytical philosophy departments that are more closely linked to science-style thinking.

ERV said...

Thanks, folks!

But I totally agree philo is fun to talk about (ie 'The God Delusion') and has had a HUGE impact on our history.

I just dont get being a philosopher as a contemporary career choice :)

monado said...

There's something to be said for existentialism: "The proof is in the doing." Motivation follows action, after all. But most of philosophy seems somewhat like cotton candy - more appearance than substance. I got a bad opinion of it when my uncle rhymed off about a dozen axioms, including one clearly just an assumption, like someone palming an extra ace, to provide a proof that God exists. And then there's the hot air quotient.

Freelancer: "Theology" - not "Religion"?

The Factician said...

The only philosophy that I have much use for is ethics. No, not the "God told me to" ethics, but the "how do we decide between two icky choices" ethics of things like dying and illness etc.

Read some Peter Singer. You may not agree with everything he says, but at least some of it will make you think.

Mike Z said...

Ok, but do you "get" being a writer or historian or a sociologist, or a political scientist, or a communicator (or whatever it is they call people who graduate with communications degrees)? It still seems you're saying something like "Philosophy (maybe all humanities) is not science. Therefore philosophy is not worthwile." I hope there's something more to it than that.

PZ said...

Philosophy is about how people think; I've learned things from philosophers, so I'm not willing to throw it out.

Theology is about how nonexistent entities think. There's no point to it — I say good riddance.

G said...

Contemporary analytic philosophy does not look like what most people consider philo (including many philosophers). It's really oriented towards logic, cognition and science in general.

Dennett is a very good example of the "new brand". If you like Dennett, I'm sure you like philosophy. You just didn't read the good ones ;)

Like PZ said, philo is about the way people think. What makes Dennett so cool is that he applies the latest research in neuroscience (not po-mo rant) to his studies of how people think.

That makes his work much more interesting and valuable.

Torbjörn Larsson said...

Philosophy can be exasperating, because as much as philosophers can describe logic and uncover illogic, they have no other method for validation of beliefs. For every philosopher interested in debunking woo you find two more supporting it. And it all goes on top of the heap.

So what could philosophy contribute with? I see Wilkins systematize and present species concepts, scientist may feel less compelled to cover all presented variants. I used to argue that it would be interesting if philosophers tried to spearhead science, ie speculate sensibly without risking scientific reputation, but I don't know how it would get the capacity of doing so.

Hmm. I guess Blake and PZ makes the most compelling case. Philosophy is a collage of different personalities thoughts, and that can be useful to some degree.

Torbjörn Larsson said...

Update before posting: ... and PZ and G makes...

Logan said...

We've talked earlier about it, and I think philosophy is a worthwhile endeavor.

I'm kinda inclined to agree that philosophy isn't a career, but I think that being a historian (an historian?) or an artist is as valid a career choice as being a philosopher. As a philosopher one engages in the propagation of ideas, which, in some cases, can be as powerful or useful as a piece of technology or a scientific discovery.

Besides pomos, I think philosophy tends to get a bad rap because it is seen as stagnant while science quite measurably progresses. In it's defense, I think that philosophy's timelessness is its strength but I also think that it does progress (I don't think Plato and Aristotle thought of all the good ideas and everyone else rides on their coattails and eats their scraps).

And then there's the observation that just about everything has a philosophical underpinning: science, politics, arts, etc.. Being "reductionists", all of these are a type of philosophy (metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, aesthetics). You can't explain your political stance, for instance, without at least touching on some philosophical issues. But people who are philosophers for a living (I once joked that Colin McGinn was paid by the hour to philosophize) look into the underpinnings of such things.

Also, philosophy is so broad and amorphous that maybe that cajoles negative opinion. From what I've read, philosophers themselves find it hard to agree on what constitutes "philosophy."

One could argue for philosophy as a meaning of life. Your purpose, why you get up and why you care, is a personal philosophy as much as any instincts we have against meaninglessness.

Luis said...

I'm amazed that nobody here is mentioning literature studies. In my first undergrad year, I had to sit in a Spanish lit. seminar, and at one point, we were discussing a poem from one of the major authors of the 20th century. We had spent about 30 minutes arguing whether a metaphor in that poem referred to the author's hometown or to something else when I, out of boredom and naivety, said: "but this guy is still alive. Why don't we write to him and ask?" Silence fell over the classroom, lit guys looked and me in disbelief that I had said that, and the lecturer proclaimed: "That is *not* the point". Too bad that by this time I was too intimidated to ask what the point was --and perhaps better that way. I might have been failed for trying to bring objectivity into poetry.

Fred Ross said...

ERV, you should grab Gian-Carlo Rota's book 'Indiscrete Thoughts' from your library. Aside from some lovely sketches of mathematicians he knew and rather scathing book reviews, it has a series of gorgeous essays on philosophy, and the philosophy of mathematics, which are empirical proof that philosophy can produce something useful.

Most philosophy of science is useless because the philosophers don't actually care what the scientists really do, and the scientists, usually safely in their native field where they know the mental structures the way I know my milk tongue, have no need of it. But a really solid exposition of how geneticists think would have saved me months when I switched from physics to biology.

He also points out that the scientific idea of progress need not apply to all fields, and that if you try to make a field into something that progresses the way, say, mathematics does, then you end up with a monster which is neither good mathematics nor good whatever else it was.

Your average analytical philosopher trying desperately to make philosophy into mathematical language games is a relatively uninteresting individual. A really good metaphysicist, ethicist, phenomenologist, these people richen your world.

But you're right, theology is completely uninteresting. Where it verges into metaphysics it is a mental training exercise, but it is so far inferior to mathematics as mental calisthenics that this cannot justify its existence.

Kicker said...

I attended a lecture given by Elliot Sober a few weeks ago, and the discussion was totally ruined (for those of us with limited time) by philosophy grad students and professors. Perhaps the most annoying part was that the smallest bit of effort on their part to attain Dr. Sober's latest works regarding ID and evolution would have answered most of their questions.

On the other hand, Dr. Sober used simple philosophy to totally obliterate ID as something beyond creationism.

At least here in Missouri we get Sober, whereas Oklahoma gets Dembski. That's what you get for leaving!

Courtney said...

I'm taking a philosophy course about Feminist positions, and I think it has much more content and progression than normal philosophy classes. Ethics could probably also be useful.
It's my minor, but I think you're kind of right. At the same time, most philosophy majors don't make it a career, or care what they will do with it. The utility isn't the point.

Wes said...

I think an important thing to keep in mind is the different branches of philosophy:

Logic: This is what I teach, and I believe it's absolutely crucial. I think logic and critical thinking should be part of the required curriculum starting in middle school. I've had to spend 10 to 20 minutes explaining to college age students why a modus tollens inference is valid, but denying the antecedent is invalid. People need to know this stuff--otherwise they don't have the tools necessary to know a good argument from a bad argument. This is the area where philosophy and mathematics overlap.

Ethics: This, I think, is also crucial. Most people rely on gut instinct when thinking about ethics. Reasoning about morals is not easy to do, and lots of people simply avoid it. Political philosophy is also crucial to understand. How can we expect to have a functioning democracy if people don't think about these things? Many people don't even know what they mean when they say things like "freedom" or "moral values". I see the success of the religious right movement as a sign of the failure of education in ethics.

Epistemology: This is where philosophy and science overlap. The nature of what's called the "scientific method" is not innately obvious to most people, and learning about knowledge can be very useful. How do we differentiate good knowledge from bad "knowledge"? What standards should we use?

Metaphysics: I'll admit to being less than enthused about metaphysics. A lot of what goes on in metaphysics really does seem to fit the stereotype of sitting around asking pointless questions that, while mentally challenging, are no closer to being answered than they ever were.

Axiology/Aesthetics: I haven't spent much effort in this branch of philosophy, so I can't say much about it. As a lover of art and literature, I think it's very important, though. A lot of what goes on in Aesthetics will be very subjective, though.

Physicalist said...

[Quote]I love talking philosophy! Its fun drunk talk! But to me being a professional philosopher is like being a professional eater.[/Quote]

As a professional philosopher, I can report that my friends and I sometimes get drunk at parties, too, but we like to do science instead of philosophy when we're inebriated! We think it's great fun to figure out how to apply quantum mechanics to black holes, and how to develop super-duper-anti-retro-viruses that'll stop AIDS and stuff. The problem is, it's not very good science.

Same goes, I strongly suspect, for the philosophy that scientists produce at cocktail parties. Philosophy, as a professional discipline, requires a care of argument, and a familiarity with historical and contemporary debates that is quite exacting. I can report from personal experience that studying real philosophy is more difficult and painful than studying quantum field theory.

It's also worth keeping in mind that many of the questions that philosophers of science address are questions that scientists themselves find themselves confronting in their research. The question of levels of selection, of whether there is really such a thing as a "gene", of whether the quantum measurement problem needs to be solved, of the ontological significance of spacetime singularities, etc. are all questions that are confronted by both scientists and philosophers.

It's also worth remembering that many great scientists were also extremely well versed in philosophy, and often saw themselves as doing philosophy. The area I know best is physics: Einstein, Bohr, and Heisenberg all knew at least as much about the history of philosophy as your average philosophy prof. Bohr saw the real importance of his account of complementarity being in *epistemology*; it wasn't (to his mind) just a fact about atomic physics.

Now there certainly is foolishness in philosophy; but then there's foolishness in science too. I'll mention too that a good deal of the silliness that philosophers of science address is silliness that comes from scientists (whether the example of Bohr above, or the knee-jerk verificationism of physicists, or what have you).

But the take-home message should probably be that philosophy is about careful thinking, and there's certainly a place for this even in areas where we don't (yet?) have a reliable scientific project to rely on.

Physicalist said...

Regarding Courtney's comment, I feel I should add that several feminist philosophers of science have done excellent work in revealing bias in scientific studies. Elizabeth Lloyd's work on the female orgasm comes to mind, but there are many others. These are examples of philosophers demonstrating that some scientists are doing bad science. That's a good thing (and -- to my great regret -- it generally isn't done around the keg).

Reginal Selkirk said...

The only philosophy that I have much use for is ethics. No, not the "God told me to" ethics...

One of the actual useful contributions of philosophy was Plato's Euthyphro dialogue, which exposed the divine command dilemma about 2400 years ago.

Anonymous said...

Dont get me wrong, I love philosophy... however, I always say that philosophy stirs the pot, but science bakes the cake.

AL said...

Minor nitpick, and please don't hate me for bringing this up, but the word is "c'mon", not "common." =P

"Oh c'mon, creationists bullshitting is so common."
"You evolution and racial eugenics have something in common? C'mon now."

a_theist said...

". . . to me being a professional philosopher is like being a professional eater."

The sheer arrogance in that statement is appalling.