Tag Archives: Atheism

Come out, come out, wherever you are!

The New Scientist has a short article with the title, “Philosophers of Knowledge, Your Time Has Come.”  Right on!  Oh, but there’s a catch.

First, the setup.

A COMMON refrain heard around New Scientist‘s offices in recent weeks has been “episte… what?!” Even among educated and well-informed people, epistemology – the study of knowledge – is neither a familiar word nor a well-known field of enquiry. But it has never been more important.

Again, this seems right.  And many of the folks working in epistemology, and social epistemology in particular, have been working hard on getting the word out about the study of knowledge, the analysis of evidence, how argument works, and so on.  And it’s not just since the Trump Presidency — it’s been urgent for longer than that.  At least since classical Athens.  OK, so the New Scientist wants philosophers to enter the public sphere and discuss accounts of knowledge.

And herein lies a problem. In the current crisis over truth, epistemology is nowhere to be seen. . . .   Philosophers may be reluctant to enter the public square, afraid of being derided by the post-truthers as yet more “fake news” or tarred with that pejorative term “expert”. But epistemology has become one the most relevant and urgent philosophical problems facing humanity. Philosophers really need to come out – or be coaxed out – of the shadows.

Give me a break.  Seriously.  (In fact, when I read the above paragraph, I said something much stronger.)

The argument seems to be: philosophers are in the shadows, because we don’t see them in the public sphere.  And it must be because the ‘post-truthers’ have been keeping them there, or because they are just shy beasts.

The first problem is that this first line is an argument from ignorance.  Just because you haven’t seen X, it doesn’t mean there aren’t X’s.  In this case, the problem is that you’re often looking in places where you’re not seeing them.  Perhaps if one were to, say, go look.  Ask google.  Maybe ask a philosopher, “Hey, are there folks who do this epistemology stuff, but aren’t all academic-y who can sell this to a public audience?”

And just for the record, here are five, just right off the top of my head, who are public epistemology folks, who’ve been doing it, even before the great wave of orange anti-intellectualismMichael LynchJennifer LackeyLee McIntyre.  Alvin GoldmanPhilip Kitcher.  And one more that came to me while googling the pages for the others. Elizabeth Anderson.   And then there are lots of other folks doing that work, too.  I mean, geez, just look around for a second.  (And for the record, I count the work I do and what I’ve done with Rob Talisse as in this domain.)

The second bit of reasoning is truly insulting and erroneous as an explanation.  That philosophers shy from public controversy is not just nonsense, really, it is silly.  And it’s here that I think I have an explanation for why the folks at the New Scientist don’t know of any philosophers.  It’s that THEY ignore philosophers of knowledge.  I can recall almost every time, say, back in the NEW ATHEISM debates, the scientists would scoff at the philosophers when we talked about knowledge.  Why?  Because they thought THEY knew about knowledge, and we were bullshitters.  And that yielded the garbage arguments in Dawkins’ God Delusion and all the other ways scientists think they can handle questions external to their domains of inquiry.  And so when the editors of the New Scientist says, “Hey, where are all the philosophers?”  the answer is: “We’ve been here all along… it’s just that you’ve been ignoring us.”

Me and the Devil blues

Sanctimonious Christian moralist and Iraq war salesman Michael Gerson has questions about atheism:

But Christopher Hitchens is weaker on the personal and ethical challenge presented by atheism: Of course we can be good without God, but why the hell bother? If there are no moral lines except the ones we draw ourselves, why not draw and redraw them in places most favorable to our interests? Hitchens parries these concerns instead of answering them: Since all moral rules have exceptions and complications, he said, all moral choices are relative. Peter Hitchens responded, effectively, that any journey becomes difficult when a compass points differently at different times.

One of the neatest things about Philosophy is the way it forces one to think through remarks such as these.  Is it the case that that "good" has no meaning without God?  Whatever would that question mean anyway? 

It seems to me, after all, that's it's not obvious what it means to be good in the first place.  Is it to have the right kind of intentions–as in "when I dreamt up oratory justifying a human rights catastrophe I meant only the best."  That doesn't seem right.  What about this: "when I went along with those with insufficiently skeptical beliefs about the nature of the threat from Iraq and Al Qaeda, I was a sinner with an imperfect, flawed character"?  Well, that doesn't seem right either.  What about this: "no one really can know what the good is, like say invading Iraq, as we are not God, we're sinners and we can't know the future."  That has something going for it.  It just has one problem: it puts you on par with the atheist. 

State religion

It's Sunday, but instead of complaining about George Will's complaining–we'll do that tomorrow maybe–let's just read Michael Medved and marvel:

Actually, there’s little chance that atheists will succeed in placing one of their own in the White House at any time in the foreseeable future, and it continues to make powerful sense for voters to shun potential presidents who deny the existence of God. An atheist may be a good person, a good politician, a good family man (or woman), and even a good patriot, but a publicly proclaimed non-believer as president would, for three reasons, be bad for the country.

Hollowness and Hypocrisy at State Occasions. As Constitutional scholars all point out, the Presidency uniquely combines the two functions of head of government (like the British Prime Minister) and head of state (like the Queen of England). POTUS not only appoints cabinet members and shapes foreign policy and delivers addresses to Congress, but also presides over solemn and ceremonial occasions. Just as the Queen plays a formal role as head of the Church of England, the President functions as head of the “Church of America” – that informal, tolerant but profoundly important civic religion that dominates all our national holidays and historic milestones. For instance, try to imagine an atheist president issuing the annual Thanksgiving proclamation. To whom would he extend thanks in the name of his grateful nation –-the Indians in Massachusetts?

Well, he probably ought to thank the Indians in Massachusetts, but that's another matter.  The more basic point is this: last time I checked, there is no "Church of America," so that analogy does even rise to the level of weakness.  Solemn occasions are somewhat like church–you can't get up and go to the bathroom, you sit or stand watching a podium where someone talks–but that's about it.  Besides, if those things make something "church," if only analogously, then as one who talks somewhat ceremoniously to a group of people who may or may not have to go to the bathroom, I'm a priest.