Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Basic beliefs

Philosophy professor Gary Gutting believes that
In these popular debates about God’s existence, the winners are neither theists nor atheists, but agnostics — the neglected step-children of religious controversy, who rightly point out that neither side in the debate has made its case. This is the position supported by the consensus of expert philosophical opinion.
He notes that
In various ways, [philosophers such as Hume, Wittgenstein and Plantinga] have shown that everyday life is based on “basic” beliefs for which we have no good arguments. There are, for example, no more basic truths from which we can prove that the past is often a good guide to the future, that our memories are reliable, or that other people have a conscious inner life. Such beliefs simply — and quite properly — arise from our experience in the world.
The crux of the biscuit here is "'basic' beliefs for which we have no good arguments." Gutting neglects to properly qualify this statement: these "basic" beliefs have no arguments that professional philosophers consider good. But why should we restrict our evaluation of arguments to the standards of professional philosophers? Indeed, it is not necessarily a given that philosophers have any actual expertise at all in arguments.

Just because a bunch of people do something all the time doesn't necessarily mean they're good at it. Physicians before the germ theory of disease practiced medicine — if by "practice medicine" you mean they did what physicians typically did — all the time, and yet they not only did not employ effective treatment, they actively resisted even such obviously and scientifically demonstrable measures such as washing their hands before treating or even operating on patients.

Gutting gives us a clue as to what he considers a good argument: one that "logically derive[s its conclusion] from uncontroversial premises."

Gutting is absolutely correct: we cannot logically derive either atheism or theism from uncontroversial premises. What Gutting fails to mention is But Gutting himself admits that we can't logically derive anything at all from uncontroversial premises. We can derive quite a lot from controversial premises (there is no axiom in mathematics, for example, that cannot be controverted to make a new and interesting branch of mathematics), but there is no such thing as an uncontroversial premise.

Indeed if you ask any question at all of professional philosophers, you will find that, as in the debate between theism and atheism, the winners are "agnostics ...who rightly point out that neither side in the debate has made its case." Gutting admits to this "dirty secret" in so many words: "philosophers have never been able to find arguments that settle the question of God’s existence or any of the other “big questions” we’ve been discussing for 2500 years."

This admission bears not just repeating but shouting out loud:

Philosophers have never been able to find arguments that settle the question of God’s existence or any of the other “big questions” we’ve been discussing for 2500 years.

Without exception, every philosopher I have written or spoken to directly has been at best an expert in saying "Fuck if I know" in complicated, hard-to-understand language and at worst a complete bullshit artist who asserted that he did know while desperately trying to obscure the hideous errors in his reasoning. (There are a few philosophers who are not a complete waste of intellectual space — Dan Dennett springs immediately to mind — but even these philosophers seem intelligent and perspicacious despite and not because of their philosophical education.)

Will someone please tell me why a man who admits in so many words to being a useless bullshit artist has a nice middle-class life while person such as myself who has been a useful, productive member of society for thirty years can't find a job? And can someone tell me why I should treat philosophers not just as irrelevant doofuses but with contempt tinged with a bit of envious hostility? If you can't come up with a single answer in 2,500 years, what excuse do you have for even pretending you're doing anything more intellectually meaningful than a circle jerk?


  1. [not-entirely-sarcasm]

    Why? Because they are the only non-hard science discipline which purports to deal with fact which admits it doesn't know anything. Can you imagine what would happen to an economist who came out and said "we don't understand how money works to the point of being able to make accurate predictions"? They'd be drummed out of the field. Same goes for psychologists who came out and said "we don't really understand which mental illnesses are caused by biology and which are traceable only to experience, nor do we understand the degree to which the two interact". Or for a historian who said "our understanding of the past is rendered almost laughably inaccurate by our reliance on the artifacts and descriptions given to us by people with bias and ignorance, even in the modern period". There has to be a place in academics for people who are as useless as the other soft sciences but still honest.

    Besides, you could have a cushy academic job as a computer scientist, too! All you would have had to have done would have been to specialize in artificial intelligence, a portion of the field which has produced bubkes over the past four decades, despite being the focus of nearly all academic interest in computer science. Hardware design, user interface design, graphics... everything else has made significant progress since 1970, despite being absent or being an afterthought in academia. If you can simply learn Lisp (or some derivative) and convince yourself that it is superior to C++ and Java despite being a failure in the real world, you will automatically become useless enough that you can probably get a job teaching at a university, although you won't be on the tenure track until you give up writing real software and start doing endless dead-end research into AI, where you say at length that you don't know anything more than you did when you started.


  2. Perhaps because every now and again philosophers break some new ground that changes the way we see the universe. Copernicus was one. Here's another:


  3. Philosophy doesn't come up with definite answers because to do that you need empirical evidence, and anything that involves philosophising with empirical evidence tends to get relabelled as science. Actually more broadly once philosophy gets some results it gets labelled as something else.

    Take Adam Smith, the moment this philosopher came up with something useful it got broken off in to a separate subject and designated as Economics. Same goes for psychology, linguistics, and probably a dozen other fields. Even mathematics and the natural sciences had their origins in philosophy way back in the day.

    You could say philosophy acts as a nest for subjects that can't fly yet. As soon as they learn how they piss off and start sneering from a distance. Doesn't make having the nest any less valuable though.


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