Philosophical Occupational Hazard …

I’ll probably say more about it later, but Jerry Coyne is annoyed with Michael Ruse’s accommodationism and asks him this:

I’m not sure why atheist/agnostic philosophers want to spend their time harmonizing science with the very religious beliefs they reject. Sober, for example, doesn’t believe in God-guided mutations, but goes around telling the faithful that God could help Darwin along by occasionally tweaking the DNA. And Ruse is a nonbeliever as well. I’m not a psychologist, so I won’t suggest the motivations for this, but none of them seem savory to me. I could talk about “belief in belief,” or early religious belief that, once rejected, still lingers, but who knows?

Well, I’m going to let you all in on a secret: it’s an occupational hazard of being a philosopher.

Good philosophers understand in detail the positions they oppose. As such, they can recognize when arguments against that position don’t work, or misrepresent the actual position. And, as philosophers, they are compelled to point that out. And, as philosophers, they are compelled to point that out with precisely the same force as they would if that quality of argument had been made against the positions they favour. So if they’d ever qualify arguments against their position as “stupid”, they’ll do that for equally ridiculous arguments made against the opposing position. It’s just how it works.

For example, I strongly oppose Utilitarianism, and am a theist. And yet if someone made a bad argument against Utilitarianism or for theism, I’d point it out. What I — and, I believe, all good philosophers — want are good arguments. If the argument doesn’t work, then it doesn’t work. That it doesn’t work in favour of a position I favour doesn’t make it any better an argument.

A huge benefit of this is that in philosophy you generally can find counters to your own arguments before you make them. If you read my philosophical essays, you should find them peppered with “Well, you could reply with this, but …”. These are mostly the result of my generating objections to my own arguments, without (much) input from anyone else. As such, it’s easier for me to be seen to be taking the opposition seriously because, well, I do take it seriously. The most fanatical philosopher on this that I’ve ever read is Jesse Prinz; in “The Emotional Construction of Morals” he spends so much time dealing with opposing arguments that even _I_ wanted him to just get on with telling us what his position was.

If Coyne doesn’t get this, he will not be able to understand philosophy and, to the extent that it is philosophical, theology.


2 Responses to “Philosophical Occupational Hazard …”

  1. aanimo Says:

    Isn’t pre-emptively considering counterarguments a matter of good science as well as good philosophy? For example: Darwin’s now-famous statement about the eye, where he considers and then ultimately rejects that particularly counterargument against evolution. In that case it turned out to be flawed, but regardless, isn’t the general principle of considering counterarguments, and, when they have some validity, acknowledging that part of science?

  2. verbosestoic Says:

    Probably. In any field, I think, you really should do it at times. But more of my comment is that in philosophy the argument is what’s paramount, and so it’s common practice to defend positions you don’t hold against bad arguments against them. Working with this sort of mindset means that you not only note it about other peoples’ arguments, but also against yours. And so good philosophers just automatically start questionning their own arguments as they make them.

    Thus, philosophy obsesses over this sort of thing. Science and other fields, not so much. So for philosophy, this is part of your nature, while for science it’s something that you do when you’re simply trying to get everything together for a presentation or something.

    Which, then, is why Ruse spends so much time defending a position he does not hold, and why Coyne finds that so puzzling.

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