Jerry Coyne, in an attempt to continue his campaign against the Templeton Foundation, has taken aim at a new post-doc funded by them and in the process manages to prove that neither he nor those who comment on his blog actually really understand philosophy.
First, Coyne’s objections. Here’s what he quotes as to what the thesis is about:
His postdoctoral research project, “Divine Foreknowledge, the Philosophy of Time, and the Metaphysics of Dependence: Some New Approaches to an Old Problem,” assesses a core Ockhamist thesis about foreknowledge. William of Ockham was a 13th century philosopher.
“The central contention of the Ockhamist concerns a point about the order of explanation. According to the Ockhamist, it is because of what we do that God long ago believed that we would do these things. That is, God’s past beliefs depend in an important sense on what we do, and thus, says the Ockhamist, we can sometimes have a choice about God’s past beliefs,” he explained. “The overarching goal of this project is to develop and assess this core Ockhamist thesis along two underexplored dimensions: the philosophy of time, and the metaphysics of dependence – both of which have seen an explosion of recent interest.”
This is an area about which I’m completely ignorant, and happy to remain so, because it sounds like a godawful cesspool of theological lucubration. It of course begins with three completely unsupported premises: that there is a God, that that God has a mind that has “beliefs,” and that how we act now somehow influences God’s beliefs about our actions long before we performed them. It sounds as if what we do now, then, can go back in time and change God’s beliefs. (That, at least, is how I interpret the gobbledygook above.)
Given those three bogus assumptions, the candidate will then spend many dollars ruminating about how God’s prior beliefs relate to the philosophy of time and metaphysics of dependence, whatever that means.
In other words, all the money is going to work out the consequences of a fairy tale. So much money for so much “sophisticated” philosophy!
So, to start with, we have to note that this is based on a theory of Ockham. Yes, that Ockham. He of the Razor. Which was invented, BTW, to prove a theological point. So first, this is at least potentially as much philosophy as theology — which is Coyne’s usual target, you’ll recall — and second let us now remember anytime anyone asks what theology gave science to remind them of Ockham’s Razor.
Now, Coyne’s summation of the point seems to be fairly decent; that’s about how I take it as well. But it’s much more complicated than Coyne admits. Let me expand on my guess on it a bit, without having read any of it (so at least Coyne and I are in good company): Ockham likely argued that if we have an omniscient being — God — then that God would know what we’re doing right now. But that could mean that God knows that and can know that because He determined it, which would violate free will. So, then, if it is not pre-determined then God’s belief about what we will do must be formed as we do it right now. But God has always known it, which would mean that our decisions now have an impact on beliefs formed in the past. If conceptually coherent, this has major implications for the conceptions of time and of dependence — ie what it means for one fact or truth or action to depend on another — both of which are currently of interest in philosophical circles.
So, that’s the translation of what Coyne calls “gobbledygook”. Now, does it depend on, as he puts it, “three completely unsupported premises”? Not if one understands philosophy, it doesn’t, because the question and the theory is philosophically interesting even if God does not exist. There’s a reason I talked about concepts above. If we have the concept of an omniscient being, we have the concept of something that clearly knows (okay, okay, that’s debatable, but grant it for now) everything that we will do before we do it. If it is conceptually consistent with our notions of time and dependence that any knowledge of that sort would involve the determination of a belief in the past by an action in the future, that would have very interesting consequences for the concepts of time and dependence, even if no such entity existed.
Now, Coyne can protest that he doesn’t care about concepts at all, or at least not unless they have applications in “the real world”, but there are two replies to this. The first is that he has no idea if these concepts will have applications in “the real world” anymore than he can say what portions of abstract mathematics will. 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 — it seems odd to protest funding given for post-doc work that’s relevant to philosophy just because he doesn’t personally care about the results … or, rather, because it uses a concept that he doesn’t like.
So, if he understood philosophy at all, he’d have an idea what “philosophy of time” means for certain. “Metaphysics of dependence” is a bit harder. But in knowing, he’d know why philosophers care. But does not know, and yet somehow will still say. He really needs to take Zathras’ advice: Saying would mean knowing. Do not know, so will not say.
There are a ton of comments to the post that would make me tear my hair out in frustration if I had enough left to tear out:
Holy Freakin’ Moley! I’ve never read such bunkum!. Is he really saying that if I decide to have strawberry jam on my toast tomorrow morning, rather than, say, blackcurrant, that my decision changes god’s past belief about what I would choose?
I suspect even god(if he exists)’s head hurts thinking about that one! LOL!
Quite possibly, but more likely that our present choices determined the past event of that sort of belief formation. Neither option, however, makes my head hurt, even though I’d probably agree with Coyne and others — if they knew what they were saying, mind you — that this seems far too complicated and we’re probably better off either going for a simpler solution or even dropping the God concept before accepting this. Of course, I’d have to see how it all shakes out before making a final decision. Which, of course, stooshie seems unwilling to do.
According to Webster, belief is 1) An acceptance that a statement is true or that something exists. 2) Something one accepts as true or real; a firmly held opinion or conviction.
But if god is omnipotent, then he doesn’t have to accept things as true, he would know they are true. Looking at it that way, Templeton is funding the undermining of god’s omnipotence.
Just like you don’t go to the dictionary for definitions of technical scientific terms, you don’t go to the dictionary for definitions of technical philosophical terms like “belief”, and you also don’t do that while not even bothering to look up any definition of “know”. See, in philosophy knowledge is “justified true belief”, so to know means to believe, and so this whole analysis falls apart at that point (we can ignore that it’s omniscience that’s relevant here, not omnipotentence as that’s likely just a simple error). And right after this, stooshie is back for another round:
And further, if god knows the truth rather than believes it then our actions, by definition, cannot change god’s mind.
We have just disproved his whole argument.
As long as the actual argument isn’t that that belief in the past was not determined by the actions in the present, which since this is linked to philosophy of time and metaphysics of dependence is not likely to be the case. Interesting how they claim to have disproved a complex philosophical argument based only on a small quote and quick summary of it. That’s like saying that man could not have evolved from apes because apes still exist is a devastating rebuttal to evolution; it works against some quick summations of it, but not against the actual theory.
Philosophy of Time means, “Given that physicists overwhelmingly endorse the B theory of time, which negates the Kalam argument by interfering with our notions of cause and effect at the boundary conditions of the universe, how can we make the Kalam argument work anyway?”
Because, obviously the philosophy of time is a) based on theology and not on independent considerations of time and b) is based on an attempt to justify the Kalam Cosmological Argument despite the fact that purely secular philosophers have talked about issues with time and things like time travel for a long time now, and before the Kalam argument came into vogue in Western philosophy.
Philosophy of time is, indeed, philosophy of time, no more, no less. Lumping it in with theology is a categorical error of the worst possible kind.
The fellowship is part of a larger Templeton project to bring the resources of analytical philosophy to theology and philosophy of religion,
Yes, by all means, let’s bring the quite formidable resources of analytical philosophy to bear upon all that stuff. Lol.
Well, why not? Analytic philosophy has given us science (the philosophical debate between empiricism and rationalism made science what it is), Ockham’s Razor (and thus parsimony), and the Problem of Evil, things that all atheists rely heavily on. Coyne’s discussions about science and faith being incompatible are, in fact, analytic philosophy. So, in fact, is the question over whether science can study morality. Sam Harris is doing analytic philosophy when he talks about morality. Hume did it, especially when discussing God. Russell’s Teapot is analytic philosophy, and he’s absolutely an analytic philosopher. So not only has analytic philosophy done good things, it’s also something that almost all atheists do and that many great minds have done in promoting atheism.
Now, 386sx may protest that I’ve misinterpreted the point, and that 386sx really wants analytic philosophy brought to bear on it so that it can refute those things. But the claim that analytic philosophy — and philosophy in general — is useless is common enough in these contexts that I’ll make a pre-apology to 386sx if I’ve misinterpreted the view in order to address this common and commonly mistaken viewpoint.
Except that, as every well-read reader of Science Fiction knows, there are a few fundamental things that could happen here. It could be a Predestination Loop – we can’t change God’s beliefs because whatever we do is what we were supposed to do to give him the beliefs that he already has, and if we try to do something different we’ll fail. Or it could be that our meddling with God’s beliefs manifests as a Many Worlds Scenario where the Trousers of Time branch off and some other universe has the God created by our meddling with his beliefs. I suggest that the post-doctoral student working on this brush up on his Heinlen, Piper, Bradbury, Anderson and Gerrold – among others – before embarking on this research.
Or, you know, he could just make sure he links it to philosophy of time, which has almost certainly discussed all of those concepts and more besides. Oh, wait, he has. Never mind, then …
This could have a place in a study of medieval history and thought, but it is a grotesque idea to take it seriously now–just as you might make a legitimate study of Osiris or Marduk in the context of ancient history, but you would hardly try to apply it to modern science.
I’m actually not sure what the point is here. Since philosophy is still harkening back to problems raised by Plato, “old” is not an issue here, not is its historical context. And she seems to be linking it to myths, but conceptual examinations can work quite well and get interesting progress even when dealing with things that are not real. There just doesn’t seem to be an actual point here, unless it’s terribly mistaken.
stooshie again (glutton for punishment, it seems):
To put it another way:
GOD: [crossing fingers] He’s gonna choose the strawberry jam, strawberry, strawberry, strawberry I tell you!
ME: That looks tasty. [Leans over, picks up blackurrant jam]
[WHOOSH! – some sound effects here, suggesting magical stuff going on]
GOD: [fingers still crossed] See?! I always said you were a blackurrant jam type of guy!
Which still presumes that God didn’t always have the belief that it would be blackcurrant jam. Which by definition He would, of course, which is what raises the whole problem in the first place.
Surely the idea of a god, a supreme being having such a human/animal thing as a mind, is crazy? What is god supposed to believe IN? Can this god have doubts? That makes it a very ungodly god.
Why would you think that a mind is a human/animal thing? Philosophy of mind certainly doesn’t think of it that way. And whether God has doubts or not means nothing about whether God has a mind, surely.
Tulse, in reply to the above comment:
I wouldn’t think that an omniscient and omnipotent god could have “beliefs”, just “knowledge”. The standard philosophical definition of knowledge is “justified true belief”, and certainly any belief that an omniscient and omnipotent being has will be justified and true. “Belief” implies uncertainty, and surely the Christian god can never be uncertain, right?
Tulse gets the philosophical definition of knowledge right, but sadly doesn’t know what it actually means. His argument here seems to be based on a parsing of that phrase itself — again, just like “Humans evolved from apes” — to conclude that once you justify a belief and that belief is true, it’s knowledge and no longer belief. The actual definition of the term is:
S knows that p iff:
S believes that p.
S is justified in believing that p.
p is true.
Thus, to know means to believe, as stated earlier. So God would have beliefs in the philosophical sense, but they’d all also be justified and true and so all of His beliefs would be knowledge. Belief without the other two criteria is doubtful or doubted, but it’s still belief even if you don’t doubt.
But, you know, I guess I should cut him some slack, since it’s too much to ask that he know the basic definition of knowledge in epistemology — you know, the field that actually studies it — before arguing based on that simple phrase, just like creationists don’t need to know what is meant by “Humans evolved from apes” before arguing that evolution is false.
“(What makes me laugh about these “Big Questions” is that they’re always being “addressed,” but never answered.)”
Oh yes, and it’s very important that they are NEVER ANSWERED. If they were, they would lose their MYSTERY, and we can’t have that.
Of course, philosophy tries very hard to answer the Big Questions, and the value for actually solving one is the same as it would be for any revolutionary scientific theory or result. The problem is that in philosophy all of the solutions so far have turned out to have actual rational problems with them. Thus, philosophers would love to solve the mysteries but are unable to actually do it. Which is the opposite of what Andrew B. actually asserted.
I’ll stop here, but I think I’ve proven my point that there’s a lot of talk here about philosophy, but not much actual philosophy either understood or being done. They’d protest — and do — if people from other fields did that to scientific ones, so why is it okay to exhibit such ignorance — and be proud of it, as Coyne is — about fields other than scientific ones?