Sunday, September 20, 2015

Anti-naturalism in philosophy (III)

The role and raison d'être of academic philosophy in today's world is far from clear: there is certainly no consensus amongst philosophers regarding what philosophy is or is for. I personally would like to see the discipline become less insular and more engaged with the sciences, and there have been some encouraging moves in this direction. On the whole, however, I think that you would have to say that the discipline has become less rather than more science-friendly or science-oriented over the last fifty or sixty years.

What concerns me here is the general question of metaphysical or religious motivation. Generally the logical empiricists, who dominated analytic philosophy in the mid-20th century, were not well disposed towards traditional metaphysics or religion. But the general climate of opinion within academic philosophy has changed quite a bit since then.

There are (and always have been) overtly religious philosophers, of course. But I am not concerned with them so much as with apparently non-religious (or even atheistic) philosophers who nonetheless seem very uncomfortable with a straightforwardly naturalistic view of the world.

Take John McDowell. I am not aware that he has any particular religious affiliation, and yet there is something about his approach which seems almost hostile to science and I have trouble trying to figure out what on earth is driving it. It must be more than just a desire to defend his professional turf, I feel sure.

Starting about the 24 minute mark in this interview, McDowell defends himself against accusations by Tyler Burge (who is not featured here) that his approach betrays ignorance of the relevant science, but his defense is not entirely convincing.

Note his curiously unscientific discussion about recognizing Bill Clinton's face (43-45 min.): no reference at all is made to brain processes (and much is known about these sorts of processes). Note also some fairly dismissive remarks about science in general and cognitive science in particular. "What [cognitive science] does," he says (more than once), "is just fine" – but it has little to contribute to telling us about how we can know things, apparently! *

Though he concedes that in order for his views to be acceptable they must be compatible with the relevant science (of perception and cognition, etc.), McDowell's view of the world is clearly not driven by science (which he shows little interest in). He certainly does not have what the logical positivists dubbed a scientific worldview. In fact, he seems to espouse a form of Kantian idealism. He himself notes that he came over time to recognize the importance of Kant's transcendental perspective; and, though this topic is not raised here, McDowell is a defender of moral realism.

The only way I can make sense of an intelligent and obviously serious thinker going on at such length and in such detail about the distinction between the perceived and the seemingly perceived etc. is that something more than just an apparently trivial semantic point about the meaning of the word 'know' and its cognates is (perceived to be) at stake here. What is being obliquely presented and defended in all of this is a particular metaphysic, a fundamentally anti-physicalist, anti-empiricist and possibly anti-naturalist way of seeing the world.

Terms like physicalism and naturalism are awkward to define, but what this philosopher and many like him are claiming is that there is more to fundamental reality than what the various sciences and mathematics can describe or access – and that the philosopher (through pure thought, apparently) has access to it.

This sort of thinking strikes me as being very much in the same category as priestly mystification. And indeed many of today's philosophers, whose discipline in the Western tradition grew out of schools of divinity, could be seen to be competing to fill the same general intellectual, social and economic space as was once occupied (almost exclusively) by clerics.

One last point. When I talk of priestly mystification I don't mean to imply that it necessarily involved or involves deliberate deception or hypocrisy. In many (perhaps in most) cases, the perpetrators are 'true believers' in the doctrines they are promoting.

* In order to understand this discussion fully one would need to read certain texts, by Wilfred Sellars in particular. Sellars was a 20th-century philosopher who is often appealed to by those who seek to make a space for philosophy, a philosophy which is respectful of but distinct from science, in today's intellectual landscape. Daniel Kaufman, with whom I have had some dealings (at Scientia Salon, Apophenia and, more recently, at The Electric Agora), is a great promoter of Sellars' work. The interviewer on this video is also a Sellarsian. But not the interviewee, I would say. For McDowell, Sellars' view of the world is too reductionistic or scientistic apparently and, though he appeals to some of Sellars' ideas (like 'the Myth of the Given'), he "averts his gaze" (a strange – and revealing – phrase) from other aspects of Sellars' thought.