Saturday, October 29, 2011

Intellectual privilege

One of the most important ideas the New Atheists are fighting is the notion of intellectual privilege. Intellectual privilege is the idea that because a person has done this, that or the other, such as becoming ordained or elected Pope, his ideas are, at least to some degree, immune from criticism. Asserting intellectual privilege is different from defending one's ideas from criticism. The back-and-forth of intellectual criticism goes, well, back and forth; it's not an assertion of intellectual privilege to argue that a criticism of one's ideas is itself mistaken or misguided. This intellectual vice is endemic to religion; "knowledge" about God being notoriously privileged. The New Atheists are often called "arrogant", "militant" or "shrill" simply for making the argument that the idea of God is utter nonsense. Criticism of religion is seen as attacking not just people's ideas but their identity. Although endemic to religion, the intellectual vice of asserting intellectual privilege is also seen in secular and atheistic circles, especially in professional philosophy.

Daniel Fincke, an academic philosopher who publishes the blog Camels with Hammers, epitomizes intellectual privilege in his diatribe against Jerry Coyne's criticism of what Coyne believes is an egregiously stupid Templeton Foundation Grant. We're three levels deep already (and this post is the fourth level), so let me briefly sum up.

The John Templeton Foundation's mission is to seek out "new spiritual information" while maintaining a "commitment to rigorous scientific research and related scholarship." Many scientists and New Atheists, including Coyne and P. Z. Myers, have often criticized the Templeton Foundation for its accommodationist tendency to sacrifice scientific integrity to flatter the religious. The grant in question is to Patrick Todd to research "a core Ockhamist thesis about [God's] foreknowledge... God’s past beliefs depend in an important sense on what we do, and thus... we can sometimes have a choice about God’s past beliefs." Todd intends to address "the philosophy of time, and the metaphysics of dependence." Coyne believes that this project is "a godawful cesspool of theological lucubration." More importantly, Coyne's problem is that the Templeton Foundation, which whom the New Atheists are fighting a running battle, is funding this "theological lucubration", which would seem to undermine their mission of, as Coyne puts it, "funding research only at the nexus of science and theology." I tend to agree with Coyne: this project looks to me like nothing but pure theology, with zero scientific or philosophical relevance. But I (and Coyne) could be wrong.

Daniel Finke, an atheist, appears to believe that we are indeed wrong, that Todd's planned work has real secular philosophical relevance. I would definitely be interested in reading an actual argument that Coyne is mistaken in his evaluation of Todd's work. But Finke fails to actually argue for the value of Todd's work. Instead he does nothing but assert intellectual privilege: Finke is outraged that Coyne would even dare to criticize the work of a privileged academic philosopher.

Finke titles his post, "Jerry Coyne’s Scientistic Dismissiveness Of Philosophy," is telling. I've read Coyne's post a half dozen times now, and he does not at all appear to be dismissive of philosophy. Coyne believes Todd is pursuing "pure theology." When Coyne says, "So much money for so much 'sophisticated' philosophy!" it seems crystal clear that Coyne is speaking ironically: he does not consider Todd's work to really be "sophisticated" philosophy. If Coyne is dismissive of philosophy as a genre and not just Todd's "godawful cesspool of theological lucubration," we simply cannot tell it from this post. Finke is essentially making a "collective security" argument: an attack on one philosophical idea is an attack on philosophy. But this approach is nothing but intellectual privilege: an idea deserves consideration not on its own merits, but on its inclusion in the philosophical field of study, a field (quite properly) controlled by socially privileged academic philosophers.

Finke says that Coyne "arrogantly and unjustifiably treat[s] Ockham like a moron not worth studying." But Coyne does no such thing. Coyne treats a specific idea, that the premise of God's foreknowledge has interesting implications for our conceptions of time, causality and the "metaphysics of dependence" (whatever that is), as nonsensical. It would be surprising indeed if a skeptical, scientific atheist such as Coyne actually believes that William of Ockham, of Ockham's Razor, was himself a moron who offered nothing of intellectual value. But even the greatest genius can say stupid stuff. No one's intellectual reputation, however well-deserved, grants all of his or her ideas automatic importance or profundity. Finke again asserts intellectual privilege: because Ockham did indeed say some important and profound things, everything he said is important and profound; it is essentially an ad hominem — to treat him "like a moron" — to criticize any of his ideas.

Finally, Finke poorly argues the merits of Todd's proposed work. Finke asserts its value, but fails to give any compelling reason why it is indeed important. He quotes The Verbose Stoic's defense of Todd's work, but only so far as the claim that even if no God existed,
Ockham likely argued that if we have an omniscient being — God — then that God would know what we’re doing right now. But that could mean that God knows that and can know that because He determined it, which would violate free will. So, then, if it is not pre-determined then God’s belief about what we will do must be formed as we do it right now. But God has always known it, which would mean that our decisions now have an impact on beliefs formed in the past. If conceptually coherent, this has major implications for the conceptions of time and of dependence — ie [sic] what it means for one fact or truth or action to depend on another — both of which are currently of interest in philosophical circles. [emphasis original]
But this defense raises more questions than it answers. Why would the "conceptual coherence" have "major implications for the conceptions of time and dependence? Conceptual coherence is not a particularly high bar. Most importantly, if these ideas are interesting even if no God exists, then why assume a God to explore them? It is Coyne's explicit criticism that Todd's work is meaningless because it depends on the unsupported theological premises. If the work is valuable without these premises, then why make them? If these premises are truly unnecessary, then it seems that Coyne has found a truly substantive criticism of Todd's work, a criticism that Finke ought to reinforce, not undermine. But no, a non-philosopher has encroached on the intellectual privilege of academic philosophy, which must be resisted regardless of the merits of the work.

Finke asserts that "atheists need to take philosophy seriously." Perhaps so. But Finke has offered no evidence whatsoever, besides an oblique reference to Coyne's commenters (and any idiot can comment on a blog post) that atheists do not in fact take philosophy seriously. Instead, Finke appears to be complaining that we do not give academic philosophers the same intellectual privilege that theologians assert, that we do not treat each and every idea pursued by the academic philosophical community as profound or important. No discipline deserves this sort of privilege. Every argument must stand or fall not the reputation or status of a community or discipline but on its own merits. If Finke wants to talk about why the Ockham's conceptual coherence is important, not just to philosophers but to people in general, I'd be interested in hearing it. But if he just wants to whine that it is arrogant and unjustified for a non-philosopher to comment on the merits of a philosophical idea, he can kiss my hairy white ass.


  1. While I agree with your commentary as regards intellectual privilege, on the issue of the value of the student's study of how our choices now might influence things earlier in time, I thought you might find this interesting.
    The proposed topic of the student’s research reminded me of an article I read recently, found here:
    This philopsopher’s idea, arising from his view of quantum mechanics, is about how our decisions now could change the prior history of the universe. Without invoking any deity he seems to be studying a similar question. A quote from the article illustrates:
    “This is where we get into the second big point that Aaronson made in his talk, about just how creative an act it was. Even if the influences producing a free choice have never interacted before, they can all be traced to the initial state of the universe. There is always some uncertainty about what that state was; a huge range of possibilities would have led to the universe we see today. But the decision you make resolves some of that uncertainty. It acts as a measurement of those countless influences.
    Yet in a deterministic universe, those is no justification for saying that the initial state caused the decision; it is equally valid to say that the decision caused the initial state. After all, physics is reversible. What determinism means is that the state at one time implies the state at all other times. It does not privilege one state over another. Thus your decision, in a very real sense, creates the initial conditions of the universe.”

  2. Indeed, Gregg. Coyne's point, which I read as that all of Todd's (and Ockham's) assumptions about a deity seem a completely nonsensical place to start, is especially trenchant because, as you point out, we already know that quantum mechanics challenges our notions of time and causality perhaps even more deeply than does relativity.


Please pick a handle or moniker for your comment. It's much easier to address someone by a name or pseudonym than simply "hey you". I have the option of requiring a "hard" identity, but I don't want to turn that on... yet.

With few exceptions, I will not respond or reply to anonymous comments, and I may delete them. I keep a copy of all comments; if you want the text of your comment to repost with something vaguely resembling an identity, email me.

No spam, pr0n, commercial advertising, insanity, lies, repetition or off-topic comments. Creationists, Global Warming deniers, anti-vaxers, Randians, and Libertarians are automatically presumed to be idiots; Christians and Muslims might get the benefit of the doubt, if I'm in a good mood.

See the Debate Flowchart for some basic rules.

Sourced factual corrections are always published and acknowledged.

I will respond or not respond to comments as the mood takes me. See my latest comment policy for details. I am not a pseudonomous-American: my real name is Larry.

Comments may be moderated from time to time. When I do moderate comments, anonymous comments are far more likely to be rejected.

I've already answered some typical comments.

I have jqMath enabled for the blog. If you have a dollar sign (\$) in your comment, put a \\ in front of it: \\\$, unless you want to include a formula in your comment.