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Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Philistines and epigones

In my previous post I referred to Colin McGinn's suggestion in an essay published last year by the New York Times that academic philosophers should be designated as 'onticists' and their discipline as 'ontics' or 'ontic science', linking this strange episode to my concerns about the status, viability and worthwhileness of philosophy.

Masochist that I am, I have reread both McGinn's original piece and his reply to his critics, and I'd like to make a few comments on my understanding of his point of view.

Essentially, McGinn helps me make my case that philosophy – however it is designated – is no longer a viable discipline.

The first point to make is that his view of philosophy (and its continuing relevance and value) derives from underlying assumptions, some of which are not made explicit.

I will leave aside his ideological (ethical and political) commitments, though they are arguably relevant (at least indirectly) to his view of philosophy. I may do a piece at Conservative Tendency some time on these matters. For now, I will just mention that, influenced by Peter Singer, McGinn appears to have radical views about vegetarianism and animal rights.

Although he is an atheist, McGinn is well-known for defending a mysterian position; that is, he believes that traditional philosophical problems like consciousness and free will are real problems which no scientific developments will solve. They are, and will remain, specifically philosophical problems (and probably unsolvable due to the limitations of our brains).

In the original piece, he describes philosophy (or ontics) as having as its primary concern "the general nature of being". He quotes a dictionary definition of philosophy as "the study of the fundamental nature of reality, knowledge and existence".

He continues, saying that we can simplify [hah!] this definition "by observing that all three cited areas are types of being: objective reality obviously is, but so is knowledge, and so also are meaning, consciousness, value and proof, for example. These are simply things that are."

"So," he concludes, "we study the fundamental nature of what is – being."

My response is to question the coherence and worthwhileness of this project. While reflective and speculative thinking which is tied closely to a specific discipline, and which grows naturally out of research findings in that discipline, is truly important and often vital for future epistemic progress, the vague and general and medieval-sounding notions put forward by McGinn are confused, unconvincing, hollow and self-serving.

I note also that, as part of his rhetorical pitch, McGinn is assuming the high cultural ground in accusing scientists who lack an interest in these matters of philistinism.

Which is rather ironical when you consider some of his name-change ruminations, which sound philistine or worse to me. 'Ontics' is his preferred choice, but McGinn also mentions some possible alternatives, including (can you believe it?) 'beology', 'beological science' and 'beotics' (all presumably based on the verb 'to be'). I find it hard to believe that a cultured, intelligent and highly educated man could even have half-suggested anything so utterly stupid and childish as this. No wonder philosophers are losing respect.

In his second essay on the topic – his reply to his critics – McGinn confirms that he is defending a more or less traditional view of philosophy, with metaphysics at its core. He writes: "My conception of philosophy is broadly Aristotelian: the subject consists of the search for the essences of things by means of a priori methods... The things whose essential nature is sought range from space, time and matter, to necessity, causation and laws, to consciousness, free will and perception, to truth, goodness and beauty."

McGinn may well be an anti-theist, but I perceive here an anti-scientific perspective also, and perhaps even, in some sense, a religious one. It is worth noting in this context that McGinn was influenced by the rationalist philosopher, Thomas Nagel, whose long-standing anti-physicalism seems to be evolving into an anti-scientific if not religious stance. [I may have a closer look at Nagel, and other philosophers who have moved in a similar direction (such as Saul Kripke, who also influenced McGinn), in a future post or posts.]

I have said in the past that I see philosophy as being essentially parasitic on religion – in the sense that it only thrives in an intellectual environment in which religious (or similar) views also thrive, whereas a physicalist outlook (which I would suggest most educated people take for granted these days) has no need – and no place – for philosophy.

I don't want to get involved here in defining exactly what I mean by physicalism, and certainly not in mounting a defense of the position. In fact, my argument here is not that physicalism is true; rather, I am arguing merely that a commitment to physicalism is not conducive to having a high regard for philosophy, whereas having a (in some sense) religious view of the world is.

For the purposes of my argument, physicalism might be understood simply as an updated version of good old-fashioned materialism – which is no longer viable because matter is no longer seen by physicists as the fundamental stuff the universe is made of.

Physicalists look to physics and the other sciences for our best understanding of the universe and ourselves (who constitute, of course, a small but possibly quite important part of that universe).

They reject (or see no reason to accept) religious ideas; likewise any notion of a spiritual realm.

And they generally defend their beliefs by referring to empirical evidence.

Mathematics is the only area, in my opinion, which has plausible claims to constitute an area of non-empirical knowledge.

But McGinn's talk about philosophy's a priori approach takes us far beyond the constrained and disciplined methods of mathematics; back, in fact, to a pre-modern view of the world. Indeed, as we have seen, he even compares his approach to Aristotle's.

Which, in my opinion, does Aristotle – who was a great thinker with naturalistic tendencies, a proto-scientist in fact – a grave injustice.

If Aristotle knew the science that we know, he would not be Aristotle. And if Aristotle were transported to our time, I have no doubt that he would be far more interested in talking to biologists and physicists than to philosophers.

In fact, I can readily imagine him, with his aristocratic background and passion for understanding living creatures, getting on rather well with the almost aristocratic Richard Dawkins.

On the other hand, he would be very likely to give short shrift to the putatively Aristotelian Colin McGinn and his unscientific philosophical friends.