The problem with Internet atheists

I’ve long been interested in the philosophical problems apparent in much popular Christian apologetics, in particular presuppositional apologetics, but also various other philosophical arguments. Part of the reason for this is simply the presence of bad philosophical arguments, which given my formal philosophical training, I find tempting to expose. But there is also another factor, and that is the smugness, or utter lack of humility, displayed by the people making those bad arguments (Sye Ten, Matt Slick, I’m looking at you). It would be way less inviting to engage with if the proponents of these bad arguments were humble, just playing with an argument or concept to see where it goes, rather than using it like a club to try to hit people over the head with. So it is a mixture of weak arguments and arrogance which annoys me the most.

However, I am increasingly finding this sort of thing on the other side of the divide – on the atheist side of the camp – and this does my head in for precisely the same reasons. Being an atheist (either lacking a belief in a god, or positively believing that there are none) does *not* make you a philosopher, it doesn’t mean you have a good grasp of epistemology, and it does not mean you are correct about anything.  Being able to recite ‘what can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence’, does *not* make you a philosopher.  Saying that you don’t have a burden of proof just because you are an atheist, is not correct if you have made a claim of any kind. Atheists don’t get a pass. They have to learn the hard way, just like everyone else.

Philosophy, in particular epistemology and logic, are directly relevant to the great debate. It is absolutely fine to talk about these ideas in the absence of formal training. In fact, I think more people should be engaged in precisely these areas and encourage more people to do so. I’m certainly not saying that unless you have a PhD you shouldn’t try to do philosophy. All I’m saying is to remember that philosophy is hard. There is no shallow end of the pool; it’s all deep. Don’t think you are a master Jedi when you barely know one end of a light sabre from the other. Trying to use philosophy like a weapon just to win an argument is going to bite you in the ass if you don’t know what you are doing. Even if you do, it’s still a bad idea.

Philosophy is about exposing the folly of arrogance. Like a grenade, it can go off in your own hands.

There are three ways to avoid this happening: a) don’t bother trying, b) never make a mistake, c) be humble. Always, always, go for the last option.

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What is philosophy?

       0. Introduction

There is something strange about philosophy. It questions its own foundations. The nature of philosophy is something that philosophers address as part of their activities as philosophers. It is not something taken for granted as part of the discipline. This makes the question, ‘what is philosophy?’, somewhat paradoxical. One must have some idea of what it is in order to attempt the question (as the attempt to answer it will be an example of philosophical enquiry); yet the extent to which one already knows the answer is also the extent to which the question should be uninteresting, and the answer familiar. It seems like we have enough of an intuitive idea of what philosophy is to know how to go about answering the question, yet are sufficiently in the dark about what the answer will be to to make asking it an interesting and non-trivial exercise.

If one picked up an introduction to philosophy textbook, or walked into a philosophy department in a university and asked the people who worked there what philosophy was, it would not be uncommon to find philosophy characterised as addressing the following three questions:

  1. What is reality?  (Metaphysics)
  2. How should we live? (Ethics
  3. What can we know? (Epistemology) 

The idea behind this traditional view is that there are some special areas of intellectual activity that are reserved for philosophy; there are distinctly philosophical topics, to be addressed by philosophers first and foremost.

This is not an uncontroversial contention however. The idea that there is an area which should be the preserve of the philosopher is contested, from various sides, with some arguing that philosophy really has no right to lay claim to anything, that we don’t need philosophers to tell us about anything at all. Philosophy occupies contested territory. Can it justify its claims to the land it occupies? Or should it give up and hand over the rights to the land to someone else?

I am going to look at two challengers for philosophy in particular, because in seeing their claims to the territory in more detail, we will get a clearer understanding of what philosophy is. The two challengers I will look at are: religion, and science. Each of these disciplines in its own way makes challenges to the legitimacy of philosophy, and claims the territory it sees as philosophy occupying for itself.

  1. Religion

As religion is such a huge and enormously varied area, I will focus on one particular manifestation of it here in order to make my points clear enough; the reformation. On this picture religion sometimes pitted against philosophy. Some say that philosophy requires religion in order to be able to answer the questions it raises, and that philosophy must be subordinate to religion (or theology). It is as if when philosophy tries to address those areas of epistemology, ethics and metaphysics it is trying to lay claim to an area which is properly owned by religion.

Of course, not everything in this example applies to all types of religion, but it conveys a general idea. I will then contrast this with the enlightenment, as this was in many ways a response to the reformation movement that precipitated it.

1.1. The reformation

The reformation marks a point in the history of Christianity where Europe was undergoing huge societal change. Developments in printing and the subsequent spread of Bibles in common vernaculars caused an awareness of the ‘real’ message contained in the text which was seen to have been distorted by the Catholic church. A new (although in many ways traditional) version of Christian religion emerged, which pitted itself against the Roman catholic church – Protestantism, spearheaded by people like Martin Luther and John Calvin. One, admittedly simplified, way of characterising this conflict was in terms of authority. The Catholic position is one in which the ultimate authority lies in the tradition of the church, whereas the Protestants threw this off and replaced it with the authority of the scripture.

This protestant revolution provided a tight combination of ways of addressing all three of the ‘philosophical’ questions from above (perhaps we could call this answer to all three questions together a ‘worldview’). The scriptures constituted first and foremost an epistemological foundation. One could come to know, more or less directly, God’s message as it was written in divinely inspired words. Once this has been granted, the answers to the other questions already seem to be given as well. One can know what to do, because the God’s instructions are found in the scriptures. One can know what reality is like, because the descriptions of the world, and the heavens, are found in the scriptures. Thus, if you wanted to know what you could know, how you should live, and what reality is really like, you would find answers to all of these in the same place; the scripture. What need is there for a philosopher to tell you about these areas, when you already have a hotline to the ultimate authority about all these things?

But things are not so simple. If we pause to look just a little more closely at the picture offered to us by reformation theologians, we may find the all-encompassing worldview set out above to be less than what it seemed. Here is a quote from John Calvin, from his magnum opus, the Institutes of Christian Religion:

“When Paul says that that which may be known of God is manifested by the creation of the world, he does not mean such a manifestation as may be comprehended by the wit of man; on the contrary, he shows that it has no further effect than to render us inexcusable” (Calvin, Institutes of Christian Religion, Chapter 5, Section 14, 1536)

What Calvin is saying here is about ‘general revelation’, where God communicates through his creation. It is indeed possible to find out about God through examination of the natural world, thinks Calvin – only don’t get your hopes up. What you can find out given this route is not much. All that you can really know is that he exists, and that you are therefore ‘inexcusable’. All you can know is that you are guilty. Thus, on this picture, the deepest knowledge to he had through examination of the external world is simply a moral lesson.

In the background here is an implicit recommendation not to try to find out about the world in what we would think of as a scientific manner (i.e. in such a way that can be ‘comprehended by the wit of man’). All you can really know about the world is that God made it, and that as his creature you are morally guilty, and deserving of punishment. Everything else is simply to be accepted as a divine mystery (i.e. something beyond the wit of man). Such a mystery is to be accepted despite lack of comprehension. This type of acceptance without rational foundation is characteristic of faith.

1.2 The enlightenment

The enlightenment is a name that marks a period which followed from the reformation. During this period, large advances were made in science, the americas were settled, and many challenges came to the old traditions in area such as constitutional governance, societal rights and religious tolerance. Key figures in this period include Thomas Jefferson, David Hume, Adam Smith, Thomas Paine, Edward Gibbon, Benjamin Franklin, Voltaire, and Immanuel Kant.

The driving idea that unites most of the work of these figures was that the use of reason was the final authority in all matters. Here is a quote from Kant, in his essay What is enlightenment?:

“This enlightenment requires nothing but freedom … freedom to make public use of one’s reason in all matters. Now I hear the cry from all sides: The officer says: “Do not argue–drill!” The tax collector: “Do not argue–pay!” The pastor: “Do not argue–believe!” … We find restrictions on freedom everywhere. But which restriction is harmful to enlightenment? Which restriction is innocent, and which advances enlightenment? I reply: the public use of one’s reason must be free at all times, and this alone can bring enlightenment to mankind.” (Kant, What is enlightenment?, 1784)

Kant’s point here is that there can be no restriction to the use of reason; no area in which reason is forbidden to go. Compare the use of reason to a weapons inspector, sent into a country to hunt for weapons of mass destruction. If there was an area in which they were not allowed to search, this would undermine every bit of effort they put into searching the remaining area. They could never declare that there were no weapons in the country, as they would likely be stored in the forbidden area. This (somewhat strained) analogy applies to the use of reason. If there is an area in which it is not allowed to go, to question and investigate, then we cannot be sure that the rest of our view on the world is correct, as it may be built on shaky foundations. Yet, there are many who would urge us not to use our reason in their specialist area – the taxman, the drill-seargent, and the pastor. They each want you to accept what they have to say without using your reason to investigate it for yourself. Yet, says Kant, we must resist all such restrictions.

Calvin essentially argued that there are areas, the understanding of the natural world, or the nature of God, to which we cannot hope to apply reason (it is beyond the wit of man). Kant replies that there can be no such injunction. Of course, you may try to use your reason to understand something and fail, but there is no subject where one is forbidden to use reason (nowhere the weapons inspector cannot go). Reason must be utterly free, to be reason at all.

One way of thinking about what philosophy is, is as the unrestrained use of reason. One approaches a topic, any topic, and uses reason to try to understand it. Thus, philosophy doesn’t have a specific subject matter, in the way that biology or history do; but instead, anything can be the subject matter of philosophy – even the nature of philosophy itself.

This means that the idea that religion and philosophy are in conflict is incorrect. Philosophy doesn’t lay claim to religion’s specific subject matter – the nature of God, or ethics, or metaphysics, or whatever. Philosophy lays claim to any and every subject matter, in that there cannot be a restriction on the use of reason.

     2. Science

Another area that is often claimed to be in conflict with philosophy – another area to which it is claimed philosophy should be subordinate and know its proper place – is science. Various popularisers of science, such as Bill Nye, Neil deGrasse Tyson, and Lawrence Krauss make similar points.  Krauss, in particular, voices the idea that philosophy and science compete for the same subject matter:

“…physics has encroached on philosophy. Philosophy used to be a field that had content, but then ‘natural philosophy’ became physics, and physics has only continued to make inroads. Every time there’s a leap in physics, it encroaches on these areas that philosophers have carefully sequestered away to themselves, and so then you have this natural resentment on the part of philosophers.” (Krauss, Has Physics Made Philosophy and Religion Obsolete?, in TheAtlantic.com, 2012).

Another influential proponent of this view is Stephen Hawking, who made the following comments in his 2011 book The Grand Design:

“How can we understand the world in which we find ourselves? How does the universe behave? What is the nature of reality? Where did all this come from? Did the universe need a creator? Most of us do not spend most of our time worrying about these questions, but almost all of us worry about them some of the time. Traditionally these are questions for philosophy, but philosophy is dead. Philosophy has not kept up with modern developments in science, particularly physics. Scientists have become the bearers of the torch of discovery in our quest for knowledge.” (Hawking, The Grand Design, 2011)

It seems that underlying Hawking’s (and by extension the other science populists above) claim is the following two points about philosophy:

  • Philosophy tries to do what science does
  • Philosophy fails to do what science does

What it is that science does, which philosophy apparently tries and fails to do, is discover truths about the world (“Scientists have become the bearers of the torch of discovery in our quest for knowledge”). The idea is that with science we have a tried and tested method which produces reliable models about the world – and this is the best way to find out what the world is like. Science is a tool for finding truths. As such it makes progress – it is cumulative – building on the progress of previous generations. Science is on a journey towards having a better and better understanding, on a journey closer to the truth.

Philosophy is also a tool for finding truths, on this view, only one which lacks the empirical method which is what makes science so reliable. In contrast, philosophy relies on a dubious a priori method, involving nothing but rational reflection, perhaps from the comfort of an armchair. The philosopher, like the palm-reader or astrologer, is making claims about the world, and thus jostling for space with the scientist, who claims to be the only person fit to make such claims. As evidence of how poor the philosophical method is, compare how badly philosophy has done at making progress. The same old issues get brought up again and again, generation after generation. This lack of cumulativity indicates the deficiency of philosophy when compared with science.

This view, which we could call ‘scientism’, is defined as something like the following:

Scientism = The only way to have knowledge about the world is through science

There are two main problems with this view. The first is that it makes the claim, that the only way to have knowledge about the world is through science, itself unknowable as it is not something that can be discovered by the scientific method  (it is not an empirical fact). Secondly, it is a distinctly philosophical claim; it is a non-empirical claim about epistemology, which is the sort of thing that philosophers do, according to this view. Thus, if a scientist endorses scientism, especially as a criticism of philosophy, then they are acting out the thing they are criticising.

In addition to the problems with this type of austere scientism,  I think that the view of philosophy as a truth-finding enterprise can also be questioned. In contrast to this view, I will spend the rest of this post explaining the vision of philosophy associated with Socrates.

      2.2 Socrates

Socrates is in many ways the father of western philosophy. Almost all that we know of him comes through dialogues written by his student Plato, in which Socrates plays the part of the protagonist. The early dialogues are the ones in which it is thought that Plato represented most faithfully Socrates’ actual views, in contrast to the later works in which he becomes a mouthpiece for Plato’s own views. It is on this early period that I want to draw out a view of philosophy which is in contrast to that assumed by the criticisms of Hawking, Krauss, et al. above.

Socrates was an unusual figure. He was a kind of drifter, with no secure income or position in society, who engages people in conversation on the street. He was eventually put to death by the courts of Athens after a trial on trumped up charges – of corrupting the youth, teaching that there are no gods and (my personal favourite) making the weaker argument appear stronger.

His back story, explained in the Apology is that one of his friends once asked the Oracle of Delphi if there was anyone wiser than Socrates. The reply was that there was nobody wiser than Socrates. This was not the answer that Socrates was expecting to hear however:

Socrates: When I heard the answer, I said to myself, What can the god mean? and what is the interpretation of this riddle? for I know that I have no wisdom, small or great.” (The Apology)

Socrates is puzzled because the Oracle cannot speak untruths, yet it seemed obvious to Socrates that he was nothing special. He decided that if he could find someone who had more wisdom than he did, then he could take them to the Oracle and present the refutation in person. The person he first thinks of is someone with a reputation for wisdom, a politician:

Socrates: Accordingly I went to one who had the reputation of wisdom, and observed him – his name I need not mention; he was a politician whom I selected for examination – and the result was as follows: When I began to talk with him, I could not help thinking that he was not really wise, although he was thought wise by many, and wiser still by himself; and I went and tried to explain to him that he thought himself wise, but was not really wise; and the consequence was that he hated me, and his enmity was shared by several who were present and heard me. So I left him, saying to myself, as I went away: Well, although I do not suppose that either of us knows anything really beautiful and good, I am better off than he is – for he knows nothing, and thinks that he knows. I neither know nor think that I know. In this latter particular, then, I seem to have slightly the advantage of him.” (The Apology, emphasis mine).

Finding this politician with a reputation for knowledge severely lacking, Socrates became determined to find someone else who could show that the Oracle was wrong. To this end, he went round Athens interrogating people who had other claims to knowledge and wisdom, such as judges, craftsmen, poets, soldiers and scientists. In each case he found that they could speak with authority on the area in which they specialised, but were unable to provide any insight into the foundations on which they rested. When pressed by Socrates to explain what they meant by, say, ‘honour’ or ‘truth’, they would quickly reveal their lack of understanding.

Let’s look in a bit more detail at a particular case in hand. In the Euthyphro Socrates is in line waiting to hear the details of the charges which were being brought against him from the courts. While there, he strikes up a conversation with Euthyphro, who is also waiting in line. Euthyphro is there, not to face charges like Socrates, but to bring charges – against his own father for murder. When he hears this, Socrates becomes excited, believing himself to be in the presence of someone with great wisdom – reasoning that he would not even  contemplate such an action, against their own father, unless he were possessed with a great understanding. Euthyphro even agrees that he is, and that he possesses “exact knowledge of all such matters”.

This leads into a discussion of ‘piety’, and what offends the gods, which is a sort of ancient Greek way of talking about the notions of legally and socially acceptable behaviour – the sort of thing that would be relevant in a court. Socrates asks Euthyphro what piety is, and receives various answers, each of which Socrates points out cannot be correct.

The first answer that Euthyphro offers is basically that piety is what he is doing, i.e. prosecuting religious offenders (such as his father). Socrates points out that while this may be an example of a pious act, it is not the definition, or measure, of piety, because there are other pious acts which do not involve prosecuting people (i.e. Socrates shows that it is sufficient but not necessary for piety).

The second answer Euthyphro offers is that the pious is doing what the gods approve of. Yet, points out Socrates, the gods often quarrel with one another, and so the same thing can be both approved of and disapproved of by the gods. This would mean that something can be both pious and impious.

The third answer Euthyphro offers is that the pious is what all the gods love, and the impious is what all the gods hate. The response to this is the famous dilemma which takes its name from the dialogue (all subsequent quotes are from Euthyphro):

Socrates: The point which I should first wish to understand is whether the pious or holy is beloved by the gods because it is holy, or holy because it is beloved of the gods.”

Euthyphro is unsure about this, but takes the first horn, and affirms that the gods love what they do because it is holy, which reduces his claim that what is holy is what is loved by all the gods to circularity.

In his final attempt, Euthyphro gives a rather difficult to understand idea, which is as follows:

Euthyphro: Piety or holiness, Socrates, appears to me to be that part of justice which attends to the gods, as there is the other part of justice which attends to men.”

The idea is something like that piety benefits the gods in the way that justice benefits people. Socrates is quick to point out that the gods need no help from people, so it should make no difference to them if we are pious or not. In the end Socrates has more staying power for the discussion than Euthyphro, who begs off, saying:

“Another time, Socrates; for I am in a hurry, and must go now”

As with many of the dialogues, Euthyphro ends inconclusively. The nature of piety (or justice) is under investigation, and many definitions are interrogated rationally, but we are left at the end no closer to the truth. In some sense then, the exercise seems pointless. We have failed to discover new truths. Just like Hawking complained, philosophy fails to do what science is so good at.

What has happened however, is that Socrates has exposed the folly and arrogance of Euthyphro, who was so cock-sure at the start. Once we scratched beneath the surface, we found that he didn’t really know very much about piety at all. So rather than seeing philosophy as a failed truth-seeking mechanism, we can see it as a sort of successful fallacy-seeking mechanism. We are no closer to knowing what piety is, but we do know something about what it isn’t, and the sorts of mistakes we should avoid when reasoning about things like that. At the foremost of the lessons we should learn from Socrates is humility – intellectual humility. It is easy to over-estimate your own abilities to know things, or to have wisdom. The wise man knows his own limits.

And this is where I see philosophy as being quite different to how Hawking, Krauss, et al. seem to be characterising it. Philosophy is not an enterprise like science, which has a method designed to find out truths about the world. Rather, it is a way of detecting bad arguments, faulty reasoning, and unjustified pretensions. It provides humility by reinforcing our own limitations, and preventing us from thinking that we are more than we really are.

     3. Conclusion

In conclusion then, I see philosophy as a subject with no particular subject matter; it is the use of reason, applied to any area. It is not a method for finding out truths, but a method for finding out falsities and fallacies. This is good when it comes to protecting ourselves from being deceived by others (such as politicians, and dogmatists, etc) It may be that all it really helps us to do is discover our own limitations when it comes to understanding the world.