• Philosophy – meh!

    Here is an email on the back channels from fellow SINner David, who runs a great blog at SIN at Avant Garde. The context is with regard to an article about how philosophy should be taught more in schools. Something I wholeheartedly agree with.  However, I can’t say I agree with David…


    I guess I’ll have to play the devil’s advocate. Well, not exactly – is just a rant-ish mail about calling it “Philosophy”.

    I don’t think Philosophy should be taught any longer as a degree. Since Naturalist Philosophy became Science, any other kind of philosophy, IMO, is just metaphysics.

    Don’t take this the wrong way. I mean no disrespect towards you or your careers. Please bear that in mind while reading this dissenting point of view.

    I just happen to think Philosophy has become what “Sophisticated Theology” is to religion: a confirmation bias cop-out. If you happen to think there is a supra-natural world, you can always read theologians and they’ll confirm what you think, or you can read Hegel, or even Plato. If you happen to engage in posmodernism and think the world is an illusion and there’s no objective truth or knowledge, you will read Foucault, Deleuze, Derrida, Heidegger, etc. If you happen to hold a materialistic world view, you will read Dan Dennett and A.C. Grayling. If you think Science and Skepticism are important but can’t exist without Philosophy, you will read Massimo Pigliucci (who I actually used to read when Rationally Speaking existed, not because I agreed with him, but because he challenged my points of view and had something to say – even if I disagreed with him).

    But you don’t need Philosophy to learn how to think critically or to have better ethics or to even have a naturalistic understanding of the world that surrounds us. You can do all that without calling it Philosophy. What’s more – we could teach kids to ask for evidence and why it matters. That’s what I always do when discussing Philosophy: what have been it’s achievements in the last 10 years? (I mean, I can point out Physics found out the Higgs boson and the BICEP2 experiment proved the cosmic microwave background.)

    What objective, evidence based knowledge have we acquired due to Philosophy? (When Massimo Pigliucci published a paper against New Atheism in a ‘peer reviewed’ Philosophy journal I couldn’t help wondering: what do they review?)

    I think kids should be taught how to think, Philosophy history, the history of ideas and how human thought has evolved, the history of ethics, moral thought and the changes in our moral compass as species (along with an evidence-based approach to the world). I’m all for it. But, once again: does it have to be called Philosophy?

    This is in the true vein of skepticism, itself a philosophical pursuit…

    [With permission from David.]

    Category: BloggingFeaturedPhilosophySkepticism


    Article by: Jonathan MS Pearce

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    • AdamHazzard

      If you spend a little time on any apologetic website, you’ll sooner or later see an atheist ask for evidence of the existence of God. And you’re equally likely to see that request met with a demand that the atheist justify his “evidentialist epistemology,” or with an assertion that no evidence is required because God is a “metaphysical entity,” or a claim that only the atheist’s “naturalist worldview” prevents her from perceiving the evidence that does exist…etc.

      And even if the atheist is not philosophically naive, the result is that a debate over the existence of a god is quickly transformed into a debate over, e.g., what constitutes a properly basic belief. Which works for the theist, because the epistemological debate (while interesting and important) will never be decisive: long-standing philosophical questions don’t get resolved in combox disputes.

      So it feels like a dodge. I think it is a dodge — the retreat from a stark existential claim (“God exists”) to a much murkier philosophical claim (“knowledge of God exists is properly basic”). But what’s the best way to respond to it?

      • Not that this is an answer to your question, but Matt McCormick has some pretty good video lectures about Plantinga’s epistemology here. In he last of the three videos McCormick offers several objections.

    • There is quite a lot here to disagree with. Just to take one example, David asks what peer-reviewers review in the case of philosophy journals. That has a fairly straightforward answer: scholarship and arguments. Reviewers check to make sure that submitted articles are scholarly, that is, that they engage with the positions and arguments of other scholars, that they accurately represent the arguments that they engage with, and that they don’t overlook relevant arguments in the literature. They also evaluate arguments; they look for holes, overlooked evidence or reasons, or ignored objections. Doing this kind of review requires expertise. It is not easy nor is it trivial.

      David also seems to be under the impression that the task of philosophy is the production of knowledge (Neil deGrasse Tyson also said something recently to this effect). But that is not correct. Philosophy aims to facilitate understanding through criticism. Philosophers don’t seek to generate new knowledge (as in knowledge-that) so much as to offer an understanding of fundamental issues that lie at the ground-level (so to speak) of our knowledge seeking.

      The only absolute in philosophy is that everything is open for criticism. Nothing is to be taken for granted now and forever. This is one reason that, in philosophy, advancement is slow. When a philosopher offers some new understanding of an area of inquiry, her answers are immediately subjected to criticism. As they should be. That is not to say that philosophy never advances, there are genuine discoveries and newly formed insights. But since everything is open to criticism, nothing is ever settled and there are always new arguments to be confronted. Further, since philosophy deals with fundamental problems that are often far removed from everyday concerns, advances in the field do not easily trickle into the larger culture.

      I think that one of the important advances in philosophy in the 20th century involved the work on reference done, at least initially, by Saul Kripke and Hilary Putnam. This work is significant and provided new insights into old problems. It really is a genuine advancement of the field. But this kind of advance is obscure; you have to be a philosopher to know anything about it. And this kind of thing doesn’t trickle into the wider culture for a few reasons: First, it is abstract and kind of hard to understand, second, it is not easy to see the significance of it; third, it takes a while even for the philosophical community to decide that it really constitutes a genuine advancement.

      One more point: Philosophers establish their positions via argument. That has enormous implications for what David is talking about. For one thing, this makes philosophical discoveries very unlike most scientific discoveries. The evidence that science appeals to is, at least ideally, concrete and physical. The evidence that philosophers appeal to is abstract: reasons. Reasons are often hard to articulate and hard to understand. Further, they are very much subject to interpretation. It requires a great deal of effort to follow a line of argument. For that reason, we cannot expect philosophical discoveries to have wide appeal or to be widely understood, at least not immediately. In my opinion, these are all good reasons to emphasize philosophy in education.

    • Axel Blaster

      there are too many areas within Philosophy to explore to declare it dead. Just in the specialized area of “Philosophy of Science” there are substantial disagreements and ideas to explore. The only problem with Philosophy is that too many charlatans redefined the discipline since the 60s.

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