Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Scientism and philosophy

As I wrote a little earlier, the charge in commentary to this Existential Comics cartoon (the cartoon itself is fucking hilarious) that New Atheists (who have, as far as I can tell, been defunct as a movement for nearly a decade) are leading the charge against philosophy is without merit. The assertion that scientism "is closely tied to movements like the so-called 'New Atheists'," is so patently false that I would be very much surprised to find that the author has read a single book published by or often referenced by New Atheists, much less Googled the social discussion that comprised the meat of New Atheism as a political movement to erode religion's social privilege. The charge of New Atheists' "scientism" was a canard foisted by religious fundamentalists, and I spent the better part of my decade as a New Atheist activist refuting the charge. But as the saying goes, a lie travels halfway around the world while the truth is still putting on its pants, and the author finds it easier believe the lie than to dig for the truth. But there are deeper flaws in the author's argument that have nothing to with New Atheism.

The author deftly couples a straw man with the fallacy of the excluded middle. The straw man is "scientism", and the author seems to know it's a straw man:
Rhetorically, [proponents of scientism] tend to say that non-empirical ideas have no way to guarantee they are true, so are pointless to talk about. This is a rather ridiculous point to make, since their entire movement is based around spreading a certain set of non-empirical, philosophical norms, which they apparently don't feel it necessary to open up to criticism. [emphasis added]
Of course it's a ridiculous point to make. If you're going to attribute a ridiculous point to someone, I think it's at least intellectually negligent if not actually dishonest to not actually, you know, support the attribution with sources and quotations. To be honest, I haven't seen anyone propose this point of view since the logical positivists themselves dismissed the idea as obviously untenable in the 1920s.

(And in what sense does anyone refuse to open up anything to criticism? What does that even mean? As best I can tell, if you publish something, then you're opening it up to criticism right there. The author him- or herself is, you know, actually criticizing... well... something. I'm not sure what the author is criticizing, other than Christopher Hitchens', Sam Harris's and Richard Dawkins' outrageous sexism, a criticism roundly shared by no small few New Atheists, myself included. Ironically, the author states, "Please send your hatemail to idontgiveashit@existentialcomics.com." I suppose this is the epitome of opening up to criticism.)

The author seems to propose that "scientism" is the only alternative to somehow embracing philosophy, which is nonsense. First, I don't even know what either the author or the critics he cites actually means by philosophy. Does the author mean some Platonic Ideal of philosophy? What academic philosophers actually do? The philosophical canon? Regardless, there are a lot of ways to criticize philosophy in any sense without committing to scientism: one could believe there is more than just empirical science, but whatever that is, philosophy isn't it, or philosophy is not an effective way of investigating it.

But the most serious charge the author lays is that opponents of philosophy use their opposition to preserve existing power structures: "The real goal is often just to draw a border around what we should or shouldn't question, because they don't want any of the fundamental aspects of society to change." Certainly the real goal of all people everywhere who have privilege is to exempt their privilege from criticism. And certainly atheism is no cure for the protection of privilege, as Hitchens, Harris, and Dawkins obviously show.

But it is odd to single out a movement — not just a few clueless, albeit famous, jerks — that had the intention of taking religion, something substantial, perhaps even fundamental, inside the border around what we shouldn't question and spending a decade trying to move it outside that border as people who "don't want any of the fundamental aspects of society to change. [emphasis added]" And it seems odd to single out a movement that included professional philosophers, not only Daniel Dennett but also (just off the top of my head) Stephen Law and Nigel Warburton, as being somehow fundamentally anti-philosophical.

I like philosophy. I haven't read as much as the author, but I have read more than my fair share, and I've taken a few philosophy classes in college. I'm obviously not an expert, but neither am I entire ignorant, and I'm certainly not at all hostile to philosophy. But, with perhaps the exception of Marx, philosophy is while not the last thing that defenders of the status quo need to worry about, it's pretty far down the page. I decided not to study philosophy in college precisely because while I find it enjoyable, I did not see any way to contribute anything at all I found valuable. I did not see any room in academic philosophy, not even the tiny room I've carved out for myself as a college economics instructor, to affect society, to fight oppression, or even discover the truth, whatever that may be.

I'm not saying that philosophers have any more obligation to fight oppression — or even discover the truth — than anyone else. I don't think classical music will fight oppression, but I have nothing against professional classical musicians. And I don't think I'm absolutely correct when I fail to see anything in philosophy that socially useful; I say only that after at least a non-trivial search, as a person of ordinary intelligence, I didn't find it. So when I see someone saying that the only reason, or at least the primary reason, to criticize philosophy is to adopt an obviously ridiculous position to preserve the status quo, I ain't buyin' it.


  1. Yeah, Existential Comics appears to be making the error of only addressing prominent thinkers rather than the movements they're part of. This may work for philosophies (e.g. the best representative of Kantian philosophy is Kant), but not for social movements.

    Although, I can forgive the omission of Daniel Dennett, because Dennett was never very influential (his title as one of the horsemen notwithstanding). When it comes to Dennett's philosophy, the main thing I'm aware of is his position on the problem of consciousness, which does not seem to bring much to bear on atheism, nor did it strongly influence New Atheism. I only just now learned, from looking it up, that Dennett was also a compatibilist and strong adaptationist.

    In fact, Dennett's underwhelming influence is an illustration of your point that (academic) philosophy does not at present appear to be a force for social change.

  2. This may work for philosophies (e.g. the best representative of Kantian philosophy is Kant), but not for social movements.

    I'm not sure I would even agree here, at least not always. Obviously (vacuously), what Kant wrote is the final authority on what Kant wrote, but how his thought been incorporated into the intellectual and social culture goes beyond the man and his work.

    I can forgive the omission of Daniel Dennett, because Dennett was never very influential...

    I take your point. Still, the author charges that the New Atheist movement is implacably hostile to philosophy, so I think it's incumbent upon them to at least mention a prominent philosopher connected to the movement.

  3. Agreed on both points. Daniel Dennett illustrates that the movement was not entirely hostile to philosophy, while also showing how philosophy, given a chance, did not contribute much to the movement.

    If you haven't seen it, you might also be interested in Existential Comics' unofficial comics archive which has a few comics on Sam Harris, Powerful Philosopher.

    1. I've seen those. Hilarious. I think Harris is a doofus.

  4. I enjoyed the irony of the Philosophy Force beating up old men for the crime of criticizing philosophy while lecturing them on the importance of critical philosophy.


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