Wednesday, November 24, 2010


I don't know if this belongs on Philosophers Anonymous, the Philosophy Smoker, or (alternatively) the recent Women in Philosophy blog, but since nobody's picked it up I'll just have to throw it out there as a warning to maybe have a native speaker proofread little things like job postings. Two consecutive lines from a German job post (they seem to use these in all their postings):
We welcome applications from severely handicapped people. We particularly welcome applications from women.
Uhm. Oops?

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Tuesday, August 17, 2010

What Should We Learn From Arguments for Atheism?

In his recent contribution to NYT's "The Stone," Gary Gutting wrote a somewhat bland column on philosophy of religion. Perhaps bland isn't the right word: I am guessing plenty of non-philosophers may have appreciated it. It is only uninformative to someone who has taught philosophy of religion and may thus be puzzled by just what Gutting is recommending (actually, I read it with great interest up until the last few paragraphs, and then felt a bit let down). While his argument—that reason has a place in making sense of faith—is appreciated, one may have liked to see a stronger defense of that point. His claim here is mainly that reason and philosophy are needed in helping believers to justify their own particular religious narrative against other traditions. This is a legitimate point, but I think far stronger defenses for the place of reason in religion can be found in classic sources like Augustine, Anselm, Averroes ("the Law has rendered obligatory the study of beings by the intellect"), Maimonides, and Aquinas, among others. While Gutting is surely right that students—especially those already strongly committed to a particular faith tradition—need a hook to help them see the value of philosophy for faith, I wonder whether such a hook is something that needs to be given to them up front, or whether it is not best to help them uncover it through a study of the texts themselves.

In any case, here I want to take a look at Gutting follow-up article, where he attempts to defend his claim that defenses of atheism by Dawkins (and others) are "entirely based on demonstrably faulty arguments." Two points in particular interest me; while I am no fan of the so-called new atheists, I find the arguments Dawkins uses persuasive. Dawkins is not, of course, the originator of these arguments; they are ones many atheists immediately and naturally appeal to, and I've found them fairly compelling since long before I had even heard of Dawkins. They've been around for a while, and I am not likely to say anything new about them here. My aim is only to look at the appeal of the arguments (and not at Dawkins's formulation or use of them), take a glance at Gutting's responses to them, and suggest that he is far more dismissive of them than he should be: they say something important about the relation between theism and atheism and, also, about the relation between reason and faith, that both theists and atheists too often overlook. The two arguments are (1) the complexity argument and (2) the "no-arguments argument." Let me take them up in turn.

(1) The basic idea behind the complexity argument goes something like this: The world is complex. If God is to serve as an explanation of the world—as its creator—then God must be, if anything, even more complex than the world. But if so, then an appeal to God helps us explain the world's complexity only by means of inserting an even more complex explanandum—God—and thus fails to provide a satisfactory explanation of the initial perplexity. Gutting's response is that the argument begs the question by postulating that God is complex and material, or at least functions in a way similar to creatures. But, as Gutting correctly notes, there is a long history in the philosophy of religion of attempting to explain how a simple God can create a complex world, of trying to make sense of God's simplicity, and so on, and by failing to address these issues, Dawkins fails to make his case. This may be right as far as it goes, but a deeper problem lurks here. The conclusion that God must be even more complex than the world and thus fails to provide an explanation of the world's complexity is only one direction we could go here. What happens, from the atheist perspective, if we claim that God is simple, immaterial, and so on? Well, from the atheist perspective, this takes us nowhere: for now we have gone from trying to explain natural phenomena to trying to explain a supernatural phenomenon. But the argument seems to depend on a theist premise: that (a simple and immaterial) God can explain the complexity of the natural world. If you've granted this premise, you are already at least half-way to being a theist. But most atheists would simply reject it: they would respond that it makes no sense to try to explain natural phenomena by means of an appeal to supernatural ones. So the atheist response here could be that the theist argument doesn't even get off the ground unless one has already accepted the theist perspective, or at least something like it. So what we have here is not a genuine argument, but an incommensurability of perspectives: on one perspective, it makes sense to think of God as providing a feasible explanation of the world's complexity; on the other perspective, it does not. Whether or not one then moves on to defend some version of such an explanation, then, depends on whether or not one is already a theist. But then we run into a problem: the world's complexity can function as support for the existence of God only for someone who is already disposed to believe in God. There is no argument genuinely addressed to the atheist.

(2) The no-arguments argument is one I have always found appealing, and I want to quote at some length from Gutting's summary of and response to it:

To say that the universe was created by a good and powerful being who cares about us is an extraordinary claim, so improbable to begin with that we surely should deny it unless there are decisive arguments for it (arguments showing that it is highly probable). Even if Dawkins' arguments against theism are faulty, can't he cite the inconclusiveness of even the most well-worked-out theistic arguments as grounds for denying God's existence?

He can if he has good reason to think that, apart from specific theistic arguments, God's existence is highly unlikely. Besides what we can prove from arguments, how probable is it that God exists? Here Dawkins refers to Bertrand Russell's example of the orbiting teapot. We would require very strong evidence before agreeing that there was a teapot in orbit around the sun, and lacking such evidence would deny and not remain merely agnostic about such a claim. This is because there is nothing in our experience suggesting that the claim might be true; it has no significant intrinsic probability.

But suppose that several astronauts reported seeing something that looked very much like a teapot and, later, a number of reputable space scientists interpreted certain satellite data as showing the presence of a teapot-shaped object, even though other space scientists questioned this interpretation. Then it would be gratuitous to reject the hypothesis out of hand, even without decisive proof that it was true. We should just remain agnostic about it.

The claim that God exists is much closer to this second case. There are sensible people who report having had some kind of direct awareness of a divine being, and there are competent philosophers who endorse arguments for God's existence. Therefore, an agnostic stance seems preferable atheism [sic].

I haven't heard Russell's orbiting teapot suggestion before, but have been using a similar analogy for some time, and Gutting's response once again strikes me as the sort of response that could make sense only to a theist. The comparison he gives is with a physical object, and surely we know what it means to have evidence of a certain kind of physical object. But the difference between God and physical objects seems to vitiate the comparison: what would it mean to have evidence suggesting that God exists? In the case of a physical object, we might have eyewitness testimony ("several astronauts reported seeing something that looked very much like a teapot") and data ("showing the presence of a teapot-shaped object"). But God is not physical, and we haven't got a clue as to what could count as analogous evidence of his existence. Gutting seems to disagree: "sensible people who report having had some kind of direct awareness of a divine being" and "competent philosophers who endorse arguments for God's existence" are his analogues. But are these analogues? For one, I recognize that there are people, even sensible people, who claim to have had direct awareness of a divine being. But I don't have a clue what that could mean. This is, after all, an appeal to some kind of experience, and it falls into some well-known standard traps: How could these people know that their experience is an experience of a divine being? I've had all sorts of experiences that I've interpreted in various ways; perhaps their experiences are like some of these, but they interpret them differently. And surely "competent philosophers" endorsing arguments are not like "competent scientists" endorsing an interpretation of data. For one thing, although scientists might disagree about especially vague data, provided there is more data to be gathered, the scientific community should be able to come to a consensus. Non-scientists, ultimately, must rely on expert testimony (either that or become experts themselves). But in the domain of philosophy, we philosophers are the experts and can evaluate for ourselves whether or not the arguments are worth endorsing—after all, if an argument genuinely makes no sense to me and I can correctly use all the terms that make it up, I am unlikely to accept "X is a sensible philosopher and X finds this a plausible argument" as convincing; instead, I am likely to simply be puzzled by why X would find this plausible, or even to doubt whether X is sensible across the board. In fact, if expert consensus is the issue, surely Gutting is on the wrong side of this one: a recent survey of philosophers shows 72.8% of philosophers are atheists compared to only 14.6% theists, surely a fairly decisive consensus! (I am not, of course, claiming that philosophical debates can be resolved by appeal to majority views; my claim is only that Gutting's response to the no-arguments argument rests on a problematic analogy.)

So what, then, should we conclude from this? In the case of (1), I suggested that whether or not one finds the complexity argument decisive depends on whether or not one already has theistic leanings. The same seems to be the case in the no-arguments argument. The argument rests not (I think) on the claim that arguments for God's existence are inconclusive, but rather on the claim that the "evidence" in favor of theism only counts as evidence from the perspective of a theist. It is not that an atheist will not find the suggested "evidence" convincing; rather, the atheist will not recognize it as evidence. This is why debates about whether or not God exists tend to be massively unproductive: the theist will produce arguments; the atheist will accept them as arguments and respond to them as such. But both are speaking past each other: the atheist will not recognize the force of the arguments, that is, he will recognize them as arguments only because of the context in which they are presented. The evidence they adduce will not strike him as evidence: it will not be something that appears to him rationally sound, and he will—in puzzlement—attempt to figure out why someone could find this rationally sound. Meanwhile, the theist will take the atheist's rejection of his evidence as stubbornness, as if the atheist is intentionally failing to recognize good (or at least plausible) arguments as such. But I propose that the problem is more simple than that: theists take as conclusive, or at least strongly suggestive, propositions that to atheists are already loaded. To grant even the plausibility of either the claim that natural phenomena can have supernatural explanations, or that there are people who really do have experiences of the divine is already to go half-way toward abandoning atheism; but there is no argument available to convince atheists to take that step.

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Friday, July 2, 2010

Reason Says What?

One problem raised by Euthyphro is, of course, the question of why, if "good" is determinable independently of the gods, we would need the gods to tell us anything. If moral laws are rational, then we should be able to figure them out by using our reason; so why do we need divine revelation? Saadia Gaon, the first major systematic Jewish philosopher (post-Philo, at least), suggests that reason just isn't precise enough; it tells us what things are right and wrong, but doesn't give us the details regarding how to act rightly. That's where revelation comes in. Here is a particularly interesting example:
Whereas reason regards fornication as reprehensible, it does not define how a woman is to be acquired by a man in order to be considered as belonging to him. [It does not state, for example,] whether that is to be effected by means of a word only, or by means of money only, or with her consent and the consent of her parents only, or by the testimony of two or ten witnesses, or by having all the inhabitants of the town bear witness thereunto, or by marking her with a sign or branding her.
So one of the options is "her consent" while another option is "branding her." Apparently, reason alone doesn't tell us whether women are human beings or cattle. I find this a bit disturbing; if reason can't figure that out, I'm not sure about reason's prospects for anything else!

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Monday, May 17, 2010

Critchley: Sinking Like a Stone

What just happened? Critchley's occasional contributions to the New York Times have never exactly been prime content, but he's now been given a column and has decided to kick it off with a bang. Not, mind you, the sort of bang that one hears marking a celebration, but more like the bang of a very confused unfortunate choosing to step into the unknown. The most charitable reading I can give is this: Critchley is desperately trying to be as cool as Zizek, and he's got his tongue firmly in his cheek. See, the idea of the column, as far as I can tell, is that NYT readers are probably lawyers or pettifoggers who don't give a crap about philosophy--they must think it's all loony. So the best way to get the philosopher's revenge is to explain to them in great detail that, unlike them, the philosopher has time. See, if you just wasted five minutes reading this column and you're a philosopher, you won't feel bad about it, because what else would you have been doing instead? Grading? But if you're a pettifogger, well, the joke's on you: you just spent five minutes on a completely aimless fantasy that stands to Phil 101 in something like the relation that a dirty sock has to a Prada loafer.

That's the charitable reading, anyway. Less charitably, what the hell? Does the question "What is a Philosopher?" have to be answered by readings of Plato that, well, have nothing to do with Plato? I suppose it's better than actually drawing on Plato, not because Plato isn't great, but because philosophy has undergone a few changes in the past two and a half thousand years. But really it doesn't matter, because aside from masturbatory fantasies of philosophical self-aggrandizement, what we have here is a rehashing of almost every cliche you can come up with.

Did you know, for example, that according to Socrates, "the philosopher’s body alone dwells within the city’s walls"? This must be before the Crito, where Socrates seems to have more than a bodily obligation to Athens. But perhaps we should interpret this in light of the philosopher's absent-mindedness, since "It also does not occur to the philosopher to join a political club or a private party." Perhaps while we are on the subject of Socrates, we might remember his Pythagorean pedigree; but maybe starting a political party is an activity far removed from joining one. Philosophy's all about origins, right?

But maybe we are on more solid ground when we recall that "philosophy has repeatedly and persistently been identified with blasphemy against the gods," as the referenced cases of Socrates, Bruno, Spinoza, and Hume remind us. Of course we are! But only so long as we completely forget about all those other philosophers, like Augustine (who spent some quality time branding heretics), Aquinas, or Maimonides. Someone, of course, could always be ready to call them heretics, but if the point is just that anyone who takes a stance on a contentious issue is likely to be branded a heretic, this defines philosophers the way "green" picks out a single member of a large class of tree frogs.

The important thing to keep in mind throughout is that philosophy is dangerous. Yes, folks, you heard it here first! Taking this column seriously can threaten your credibility in some social circles, like the ones composed of just about anyone who has ever learned something in a philosophy class. But since I'm tired and down on my wit, the best laugh line I can provide is just by quoting Critchley: "Nurtured in freedom and taking their time, there is something dreadfully uncanny about the philosopher, something either monstrous or god-like or indeed both at once."

Of course maybe--maybe--popular writing about philosophy doesn't have to be simultaneously insulting to its readers and as defensive as a guard at the Alamo. Maybe it doesn't have to keep hammering in the idea that what philosophers do is completely pointless, since no philosopher would ever stoop to addressing anything of relevance to the non-monstrous, non-god-like mortal (at least, no philosopher worth her salt, right?). Ah, but to do anything other, the mythical philosopher would have to step down from his imaginary timeless throne and find immediately that "the water of time’s flow is constantly threatening to drown them." No indeed, the philosopher--sorry, I meant the tenured philosopher--doesn't go swimming in that stream.

Seriously, is this any way to apologize for being full of crap? And does every other philosopher have to get dragged into it? Don't get me wrong, I like Critchley. Sometimes I even like his philosophy. But not all Derrideans were born to be columnists, alas.

(Thanks to Lauren for the pointer.)

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Friday, February 26, 2010

Brief Comment on XPhi

Simon Cullen's recent 'Ok kids, let Daddy talk for a moment' take-down of experimental philosophy is not a simple rejection of xphi. His point is that it might be important, but not yet. Cullen's argues that X-Phiers have been blind to the pragmatics of survey interpretation, and therefore, are discovering less about the untutored intuitions of the folk and more about latent biases built into the surveys they administer.

I have little to say about that, other than that Cullen's argument seem persuasive to me and I'd like to hear an x-phier respond. But it did get me thinking about a related, if more amateurish point:

The assumption behind x-phi is that there are rules for basic but philosophically relevant concepts like knowledge, intention, value and so forth. They like to draw an analogy to linguistics: any English speaker effectively knows a whole lot about English grammar, even though most hard-pressed to tell you much about it. So too, reason the x-phiers, the average knower knows a lot about knowing, as the average valuer knows a lot about value, but they are unable to say a whole lot about it explicitly. That's why we have surveys, in the same way that linguists proffer tests to learn how a particular linguistic community deals with this word, or that transformation, or this sort of sentence, etc.

More importantly, there is an explicitly normative component to experimental philosophy. Lots of philosophical arguments seems to come down to the tutored intuitions of trained philosophers. But we philosophers are a weird bunch. So we likely have abnormal and biased intuitions. We should--argue the x-phiers--at the very least weigh our intuitions against the folk before deciding whether to trust them. A similar dynamic of course plays out in linguistics, where there is a strong feed-back relation between the normative and descriptive elements.

In any case, my thought is this: why disparage our training? Joe Folk probably knows what he needs to know about knowing, and valuing, and intention-ascribing, and no more. Put Joe Folk in a weird, Gettier type situation, a situation he's never had to confront before, and he breaks down. X-Phiers will argue that giving Joe Gettier, or Old vs. Young Mary, or Truetemp situations is the philosophical equivalent of a wug-test. But it's not. Let me illustrate with the following analogy: Joe Folk also has intuitions about gravity. He knows that what goes up must come down. He knows that the farther things fall, the faster they go. Now physicists have some pretty strange intuitions about gravity and the shape of the universe. From what I can gather, lots of them think that the universe might well be a flat, and shaped like a donut, because, you know, donuts are flat. Suppose we ask Joe if he thinks that space is flat and shaped like a donut?Or suppose, because we want to wug-test him, we ask a question like 'Suppose that Jane starts out in a space ship in one direction from the Earth at light speed and travels for an infinite amount of time. At some point, continuing exactly in that direction, will she wind up where she started?' intending to get at Joe's implicit knowledge about space, time and gravity? I hardly need point out that Joe's answers to such questions, while interesting for folk-theories of space and time, are hardly important for physics.

My point is that, in some sense, Joe's theory of gravity and the physicists theory of gravity are the same thing and aimed at the same object: in some sense, they are both thinking about objects like rocks falling to the ground. But this hardly means that we should give equal weight to Joe's implicit beliefs about gravity. A better assumption to make is that Joe doesn't really have a 'theory' of gravity at all...he has whatever idea of gravity is necessary for him to get around in life, and no more. So too with Joe and philosophers. In some sense, sure, we share a basic understanding about knowledge, and value and intentions with Joe. But we are experts in the field, and so our intuitions are special. I would finally add that the field of mathematics relies upon intuition-based arguments quite often, and while this causes problems about the nature and possibility of proof, hardly any mathematician thinks that the right answer might be to go survey Joe and Jane Folk about Incompleteness and transinfinite numbers.

Let me briefly address a counter argument: one might argue that physicists' intuitions about space, time, etc., don't matter until they are testable and subject to public and verifiable scrutiny. The x-phier argument is that, in many philosophical disputes, intuitions themselves are the 'test' and 'verification', and since these are potentially biased, we should look to correct that bias. My reply is to iterate, what benefit do we get from extending our 'testing' to the folk. Many issues are insoluble and untestable in physics as well. Does anyone think that including the Folk in these disputes is going to clarify matters at all?

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