Why Do Atheists Denigrate Philosophy?

So, in response to the latest case of a scientist talking smack about philosophy — in this case, Bill Nye — P.Z. Myers and others are trying to defend why these people are willing to spout off like that wrt philosophy. Myers focuses on atheists:

It’s because so many smart people are idiots about psychology. I deal with a lot of atheists, and one of the many flaws in that group that have been coming to the fore lately is the obliviousness they have to their own motivations.

So, despite the fact that Myers is a biologist and not a psychologist, he’s going to feel free to opine about what their motivations really are. How do you get that much irony into a short paragraph?

Anyway, he opines this:

Atheists are all about the scienceyness. Good people are rational, objective, and unemotional, which whether they are aware of it or not, is a value judgment built on emotion. There is a lot of self-esteem-building going on, centered around who is smarter than who, who can build the most logical argument, and who is best at being aloofly superior. It’s all very annoying.

But, unfortunately for the atheists, philosophers tend to be better at the logical argument dealio than most of them are.

Um, except that the main objection of scientists and scientific atheists to philosophy has always been that their arguments don’t work, and don’t apply to the real world. Thus, the main counter is that philosophers only do logical argument, not empirical investigation. That might be a reaction to being outargued, but that’s hardly likely.

The other psychological gambit I’ve been seeing a great deal of is the herd mentality. Big name nerd disses philosophy; then swarms of followers agree, “Philosophy is a joke!”, and they all laugh and slap each others’ backs and cheer on more jeering at the stupid discipline.

This assumes that there wasn’t already an attitude that philosophy is a joke rampant in scientific and atheistic communities, which is, in fact, absolutely false. It isn’t a big name expressing their opinion and everyone following along, but the big name expressing an opinion that is common and getting the chorus back for doing it.

It’s especially irritating when groups of atheists fall into this trap, because their usual mantra is “show me the evidence,” and most of the ones playing this game have never studied philosophy at all.

So, if you read Myers’ article … where is the evidence, there, for his conclusions about their motivations?

Anyway, I’m going to tell you why atheists in general and even why scientists disparage philosophy. For atheists, it all starts from theology.

What we’ve seen in the atheistic movement is a general disparagement of theology, and that disparagement has taken on a particular form: theology is derided, mostly, for ignoring science and reality and empirical data in making its conclusions. These are the main objections to arguments like the Ontological Argument and the Cosmological Argument, and any number of theological claims. The problem is that these are, in fact, philosophical arguments, and the dismissal of those arguments has been that they simply can’t work to prove the existence of God, and just aren’t the right sort of arguments to generate any kind of truth. In order to find out truths, you have to use empirical methods, and the king of empirical methods is, in fact, science.

Myers’ “Courtier’s Reply” itself only adds to this problem, as when people are told that they need to read the relevant philosophy and theology to understand what the argument really is, they can invoke the “Courtier’s Reply” to, essentially, insist that they don’t need to read that sort of arguing to know what the obvious answers are. But for the Ontological Argument, a philosopher as august — and empirical — as Bertrand Russell said that it clearly isn’t obvious what’s wrong with the argument (even as he was convinced there was). So atheists were taught and taught methods to simply ignore philosophical arguments like the Ontological Argument, and to dismiss them without consideration. But since philosophy will, of course, not support that move, it would get involved and show that there’s more to the argument that a shallow examination will reveal. And so atheists will start to regard philosophy with suspicion, as an enabler of theology.

This only, then, gets worse when scientists and atheistic scientists start wading into areas that were traditionally philosophical. As they focus on empirical and scientific answers to these questions, they get philosophers pointing out that those answers don’t work, and are often far too shallow. And then, like Krauss, they get upset at philosophy, and insist that their empirical and scientific examinations are right. This leads them to insist that empirical methods are the only ones that can lead to truth, and that the problem with philosophy is that they don’t use empirical methods. They also see what they see as quibbling over definitions, and thus say that philosophers are only good at arguing because they play word and semantic games, not because they find truth. They also find the fact that good philosophers are well aware of the weaknesses of most philosophical positions and are comfortable with the fact that we, at least currently, don’t have proven answers for most of the important questions disturbing, because their justification for the effectiveness of science is that it has come up with great and testable answers. Philosophy hasn’t. How can it be a great system for generating truths if it hasn’t come up with some answers?

Thus, they suggest that philosophy needs to be more empirical. That philosophy constantly resists this for some of its biggest questions is taken as a sign that it is anti-empirical and anti-science. The problem is that philosophy doesn’t reject empirical and scientific answers a priori. Most atheistic critics of philosophy ignore the long standing naturalistic movement in philosophy, of which Dan Dennett is a member (and is one of the few philosophers they tend to like). The problem with these answers is not that they aren’t properly “philosophical”, but instead that they don’t work. And the reasons that they don’t work have been documented in philosophy for a long, long time now.

Ultimately, at the end of the day, scientists and particularly atheistic scientists fall into scientism because science answers the questions that they really want answered and gives shallow answers to the important philosophical questions that they want answered. Given that, they don’t understand and don’t see the need for a particularly philosophical approach, and feel that the philosophical approach provides cover for bad arguments and bad ideas, and at best only introduces doubt into the picture for a lot of other questions. Science’s approach works, and they can’t see how philosophy’s works, so what good is philosophy? No good, they conclude.

It comes down to them not understanding the field and the scope of the questions that philosophy is chasing, mixed in with being stuck in a mindset where the philosophical approach is foreign to them. Add in that philosophy often tells them that they ought not be so fast in rejecting conclusions that they think obvious and that it casts doubt on their most successful epistemic approaches, and they end up simply dismissing it as being out of touch. And thus, end up dismissing it entirely.


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