Saturday, March 30, 2013

Pale, small, silly and nerdy

Thomas Nagel, whose atheistic rationalism has transmuted itself into a view of the world which is looking increasingly religious, is one of quite a number of prominent secular thinkers who have moved in this general direction in recent years. What's going on here, I wonder?

Well, I'm not optimistic about coming up with an answer, or even throwing much light on individual instances (I was going to write 'cases', but I don't want to imply a pathological cause!). This apparent trend puzzles me, and I intend to do a post or two on this general topic and/or on individual thinkers like Nagel or Hilary Putnam (who celebrated his Bar Mitzvah at age 68) in the future.

David Albert is another figure I intend to look at. Albert has very interesting views on quantum mechanics, but I haven't yet ascertained where he stands on religious or broadly metaphysical questions.

As I have pointed out elsewhere, Albert's dismissive review of Lawrence Krauss's book, A Universe from Nothing, was the catalyst which sparked a series of accusations and counter-accusations culminating in Albert's longstanding invitation to join a discussion panel for a high-profile event at The American Museum of Natural History being withdrawn.

Having argued that Krauss's idea of nothing (relativistic-quantum-field-theoretical vacuum states) was not nothing but arrangements of elemental physical stuff, Albert demonstrated his deep frustration with what he sees as Krauss's facile dismissal of religion in these two (rhetorically effective, at least) final sentences:

"When I was growing up, where I was growing up, there was a critique of religion according to which religion was cruel, and a lie, and a mechanism of enslavement, and something full of loathing and contempt for everything essentially human. Maybe that was true and maybe it wasn’t, but it had to do with important things – it had to do, that is, with history, and with suffering, and with the hope of a better world – and it seems like a pity, and more than a pity, and worse than a pity, with all that in the back of one’s head, to think that all that gets offered to us now, by guys like these, in books like this, is the pale, small, silly, nerdy accusation that religion is, I don't know, dumb."

I feel the force of what Albert is saying here. Religion has played a major role in our social, cultural and political history, and has in many ways been the matrix out of which the hopes and dreams and expectations of all civilizations have developed.

He is implying that people like Krauss lack both a knowledge and an appreciation of this dimension of human life and experience.

And maybe they do.

But the question still remains concerning the plausibility of religious claims in the light of our current scientific knowledge.

Even if many great and important elements of our civilization arose directly from religious traditions or in a religious context, it can still be asked whether religion is in any real sense still credible.

And for religion to be credible, its doctrines (or assumptions) must be credible.

The doctrines of Christianity are simply not credible, in my opinion. Nor the Jewish notion that an all-powerful, universal God favored and guided and protected a particular human population. Nor do Plato's mythic speculations stand up to modern scrutiny.

There is much more to be said on these issues, of course, but, if I had to say here and now where I stand after a good deal of thought and consideration over the years, I would have to come down on the side of those who feel that religion is, frankly, of the past; that it no longer has anything of value to offer.*

David Albert may well have been justified in criticizing Krauss for claiming that modern physics has satisfactorily explained why there is something rather than nothing, but those (now notorious) final two sentences, if anything, weaken his critique by suggesting that his outlook may have been unduly motivated by pre-existing attachments, by emotional factors in effect.

As I indicated above, I am currently in the process of trying to figure out where David Albert stands on questions of religion.

* I am aware that the words 'religion' and 'religious' can be used in a broader sense to encompass, not just more or less clearly defined traditions, but ways of feeling and thinking which might pick up on certain religious themes or attitudes or points of view – a general sense of providence, for example, along the lines of Julian of Norwich's "all shall be well" but without the trappings of specifically Christian belief. Religious thinking in this sense cannot be so readily dismissed.

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.