Coyne Responds …

So, Camels with Hammers picked up my post about that grant from the Templeton Foundation, responding to it favourably here. He generally agrees with me. Coyne replied to both us, and I’ll be addressing Coyne’s response in detail in this post. Camels With Hammers has already started a series of posts as a response.

So, with all the requisite links out of the way, I can jump right in to Coyne’s response:

Sometimes people become so bound up in their own career paths that they’ll defend anyone who’s walking a similar path, even if they’re doing it rong. Two philosophers have just done this, guarding their turf without realizing that some dog has deposited a large poop on that turf.

Now, at the end of my first post I commented that Coyne would not like people doing to biology what he’s doing to philosophy, and the opening paragraph here fits nicely because it carries on with that theme. I have seen in the past complaints leveled at scientists — even biologists — by, say, creationists arguing that those scientists would see how absurd their conclusions were if they weren’t trying to preserve their theories. I would expect that in response to these sorts of objections Coyne would be at best scornful and at worst apoplectic. And he’d be right; that sort of argument is the worst sort of intellectual dishonesty, as it refuses to grant the most basic level of intellectual charity to the person criticized by presuming that they do, in fact, actually hold the stance they claim to hold and hold it for reasons, reasons that need to be understood and addressed in any criticism.

And yet, this is Coyne’s opening paragraph, his opening volley as it were. And it doesn’t even work as a range finder.

So, after the summary of what has gone on before, Coyne launches into his actual critcisms, starting with whether or not this would be interesting if God didn’t exist:

The theory is NOT philosophically interesting in the absence of an omniscient being. If there isn’t one, as I presume both of these folks agree, then the project becomes an exercise in mental masturbation, musing about what something nonexistent would do if it existed.

The whole argument here turns on a one word difference, but as is so often the case in philosophy one word makes all the difference. Because, to me, the musing is about what it would mean if that omniscient being existed, not about what it would do. And when we start talking about meaning, and talking about concepts, then we can clearly see that it doesn’t really matter whether the thing exists or not, and in fact these musings may tell us interesting things about whether the thing could even exist or not. For example, presume for an instant that Ockham is right and this is the only way for omniscience to work. Now imagine that we discover that the concepts of time and dependence will simply not allow for this sort of mechanism; the mechanism is not only physically impossible, but is actually conceptually impossible. At this point, an omniscient being would be a conceptual impossibility and would be proven to not exist. Hardly uninteresting, then, if the entity actually doesn’t exist.

But it goes further than this. Again, we’re asking what it would mean if such an entity existed, and mean conceptually. If we can make a coherent concept of time and dependence that includes it, then we have to stop talking about it simply being “absurd” to think that it might be possible for past events to depend on future events. At best, then, if this can’t happen it would only be a physical impossibility for past events to depend on future ones. Which leads to two very interesting conclusions. First, since we know how to test to see if things exist in the physical world we can’t use the conceptual absurdity to stop us from doing that; if a scientific theory, then, required that to occur you’d need a scientific reason to reject that behaviour. Secondly, even if omniscient beings didn’t exist it’s then quite possible that other things do exist or could exist that make use of the concept. In both cases, we open up a whole lot of new potential theories once we’ve divested ourselves of the outdated notion that these things are conceptual absurdities … even if no omniscient being exists.

These seem, to me, to be interesting, and none of them rely in any way on any omniscient being actually existing. And it does that because we aren’t asking what this purported omniscient being would do, but what it would mean.

Why is that any more valid than wondering how an omnimalevolent God could allow good in the world, or why an omnibenevolent God allows evil?

Well, see, these are conceptually interesting. One of the reasons the “Problem of Evil” argument is so prominent and has been debated for so long is precisely because it has interesting conceptual implications, mostly by what it means to be good and what would be required to be omnibenevolent. Why are you not that likely to get grants for these issues now? Because it’s hard to find something new in them; they’ve been discussed for so long that most of the easy comments have been made. But the full resources of philosophy have been brought to bear on them, at least in part because those questions have issues for ethics. Such as the question of whether or not a completely evil being can ever actually pet the dog, or what it means to be evil — or good — in the first place. So these are, in fact, of philosophical interest, and it shocks me to think that he missed all the philosophical ink spilled on those questions.

(BTW, a quote from the “Pet the Dog” page aptly sums up the debate:

A kitten is frequently substituted, especially in anime. No one who likes cats is totally evil, and no one who is mean to them is actually good.

The philosophical question is whether or not that’s actually true.)

Or, for that matter, how fairies would keep their wings dry in the rain, or how Santa manages to deliver all those presents to billions of kids in only one evening.

The mistake here is assuming that if the standards of philosophy are not what Coyne thinks they should be, then they have no standards at all. But philosophy does have standards, and it judges philosophically interesting on the basis of conceptually interesting. The previous suggestions do, in fact, have interest conceptually because they challenge or clarify or at least raise interesting questions about concepts specifically. These last two, well, don’t. What does it matter to the concept of a fairy — ie what it means to be a fairy — to know how they keep their wings dry? Or to the concept of Santa Claus to know how he is purported to deliver all those presents? And what other concepts — like time or dependence or good or evil — are impacted by settling this about the concept, or presuming it for the sake of investigation? Absolutely none. So it isn’t conceptually interesting, and since it isn’t conceptually interesting it isn’t philosophically interesting. End of story.

And what if you assume that God isn’t omniscient? Then the whole project is moot.

No, we just end up with two projects. The first remains the same; they simply stop calling it God. The second, then, is to examine if the purported knowledge — or lack thereof — of God has any interesting conceptual implications. If it doesn’t, then the second becomes moot, while the first may remain.

That exercise is not philosophy, it’s theology.

Philosophy of time and metaphysics of dependence are, in fact, philosophy … the first by definition. That these examinations start with a theological problem does not mean that those examinations suddenly stop being philosophy.

1. I do take philosophy seriously, but only serious philosophy. The kind of mushbrained lucubrations embodied in the Templeton proposal may be meant seriously, but they’re not to be taken seriously. They involve spinning out the consequences of a nonexistent omniscient being. What’s the point?

First, theology is examined philosophically, by philosophy of religion. Most of the atheist arguments depend entirely on spinning out the consequences of the purported omniscient being, so I fail to see why Coyne is unwilling to allow philosophy and theology to work only when he doesn’t see how it leads directly to the conclusion he wants drawn, which is that God doesn’t exist.

Second, I’m not sure that Coyne is qualified to define what “serious philosophy” is or ought to be. Would Coyne allow philosophy or theology to define what “serious biology” ought to be?

Third, we did actually talk about the point before his reply: to tease out if the concepts of time and dependence can accommodate a past event — say, belief formation — depending on a future one. Which is philosophically interesting, even if it isn’t interesting to Coyne.

The kind of philosophy I do take seriously is ethical philosophy—or any kind of philosophy that gives us logical tools to think about our beliefs, getting us to examine them closely and pointing out their fallacies.

So, only logic/critical thinking and ethics, then? Unfortunately, while that’s valuable and all, I see the critical thinking part as only being useful as tools for doing the real work of philosophy, which is conceptual analysis, which is why philosophy has interesting things to say about ethics, in my opinion. That Coyne only finds interesting philosophy that relates directly to the things he wants to use it for is perfectly all right, but he doesn’t get to go from personal whims to declarations about what philosophy ought to do and what it’s good for. He needs a philosophical argument for that … which would be more than just ethics and logic/critical thinking, but would certainly be serious philosophy.

2. I do indeed advocate scientism, if by scientism you mean “we accept no truths about the world that aren’t derived by logic, reason, and empirical observation.” That’s construing science broadly, but I think it encompasses what is meant by the term “scientism”. I’m proud to take that stand, though philosophers like Fincke and V.S. use it in a pejorative way. Philosophy alone cannot tell us what is true about the world. It gives us tools to help us find what is true about the world.

A number of issues here.

First, he didn’t need to guess about what, at least, my use of the term “scientism”. I spelled it out in some detail:

The second is that while he may not care about concepts, philosophy does, and unless he wants to take away all funding to philosophy and give it to science — which, I’m afraid, would definitely be scientism — …

So, my actual reply was that philosophy cares about concepts, and my argument previously had been that this was conceptually interesting. Unless, then, Coyne wants to claim that philosophy should only find interesting the things that science finds interesting, and so should only fund the things that science finds interesting, he’d have to allow this. If he denies it, then he really is engaging in scientism in a sense that deserves to be pejorative: he’d be essentially forcing all fields to be sciences, regardless of their history or actual areas of interest.

The second part is that no one here claimed that philosophy alone can tell us what’s true about the world. But that doesn’t mean that it must be relegated to being merely a tool for science. It has its own interests and finds out things that are interesting to it that are sometimes of interest to other fields, just like mathematics. But neither care too much if other fields find their examinations interesting; they are their own fields and have their own interests.

Which leads us to the third point: what does Coyne mean by his expanded definition of science? What’s included, first, in the term “world”? Are abstract mathematical theories and philosophical concepts included in “world”? If so, then to claim that there are not truths about the world that are not derived by logic, reason and empirical observation would seem false. Mathematics, for example, does not seem to be empirically derived, even if it may apply to the empirical world. And at least some philosophical concepts don’t seem to be empirical, such as empiricism itself (you can’t prove empiricism by empirical observation because that would be circular). So if he includes the subject matter of mathematics and philosophy in his definition of “world”, then he’s just plain wrong to think that empirical observation is required for truths about the “world”.

Now, he can counter that when he says “world” he means something like “material, empirical world”. If so, then he has a point. But then, of course, the subject matters of mathematics and philosophy don’t fit into Coyne’s definition of “world”, which means that if he protests that something in those fields doesn’t seem to have “real world” applications and so is useless both fields will simply roll their eyes noting that he really doesn’t understand the subject matter and interests of those fields.

The sad thing here is that my entire reply was based on presuming that he would object that it doesn’t apply to the real world, and pointing out that he didn’t know that and that at any rate philosophy is not so concerned about that. The bulk of his reply is nothing more than “It’s not relevant to the real world”, without addressing my actual comments.

And then there’s this gem:

It’s a waste of money that could be used to do something constructive, like funding scientific research.

Thus, let’s kill philosophy and fund science, because Coyne thinks it useful. The problem is that the same charge can be made against at least some science, and again to hold other fields to the standards of science for their funding is to ignore their unique contributions. No, philosophy is not a friend of Coyne’s; he doesn’t really want to have anything to do with it unless it helps his work directly, regardless of what it, in fact, actually wants to do.

4 Responses to “Coyne Responds …”

  1. Jerry Coyne’s Scientistic Dismissiveness Of Philosophy | Camels With Hammers Says:

    […] not need too many installments!): Defending Philosophy 1: A Reply To Dr. Coyne. Verbose Stoic also has a follow up post to Coyne’s […]

  2. Philosophers’ Blog Carnival #133 | Camels With Hammers Says:

    […] certain kinds of non-existent beings (like an all-knowing God). Verbose Stoic also has a lengthy counter-reply. Patrick Mefford has a shorter […]

  3. Facts, Non-facts, Science, Religion, Philosophy and All of That … « The Verbose Stoic Says:

    […] you’d think I would have commented on this given that the last time Coyne went on about facts and philosophy I commented on it twice, But I’ve been a little busy with an essay and a board game and playing Dragon Age: Origins. […]

  4. Scientism 101: Introduction. « The Verbose Stoic Says:

    […] Benson at least) and in comments on those posts (see the WEIT comments for examples). So, since I’ve accused at least Coyne of scientism before and had a specific meaning for it and since I already long ago replied to Larry Moran about other ways of knowing that are not […]

  5. Apropost Says:

    Coyne’s a hack. Always has been always will be. He’s not down on philosophy – he’s got no problem with it in general, he just hates religion so much that he is desperate to attack anything even tangentially related – and if he has to be intellectually inconsistent and attack philosophy in a naive ill-thought out manner then he damn well will!

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