Sometimes people become so bound up in their own career paths that they’ll defend anyone who’s walking a similar path, even if they’re doing it rong. Two philosophers have just done this, guarding their turf without realizing that some dog has deposited a large poop on that turf.
Remember last week when I singled out a California graduate student who was doing a Templeton-funded postdoctoral fellowship ($81,000 a year for two years, with $5500/year for travel)? The subject of study was ludicrous: it was an investigation of how an omniscient God could both know everything we’re going to do and yet still allow us free will to make new choices. That, of course, means that God couldn’t know anything in advance. And that’s a big problem! Time reversal! Process theology!
The student was, as you recall, going to investigate how to deal with this problem:
His postdoctoral research project, “Divine Foreknowledge, the Philosophy of Time, and the Metaphysics of Dependence: Some New Approaches to an Old Problem,” assesses a core Ockhamist thesis about foreknowledge. William of Ockham was a 13th century philosopher.
“The central contention of the Ockhamist concerns a point about the order of explanation. According to the Ockhamist, it is because of what we do that God long ago believed that we would do these things. That is, God’s past beliefs depend in an important sense on what we do, and thus, says the Ockhamist, we can sometimes have a choice about God’s past beliefs,” he explained. “The overarching goal of this project is to develop and assess this core Ockhamist thesis along two underexplored dimensions: the philosophy of time, and the metaphysics of dependence – both of which have seen an explosion of recent interest.”
Now I hate to pwn other freethinkers, but philosopher Daniel Fincke at the Freethought blog Camels with Hammers has decided to go after my dismissal of that Templeton-funded Travesty. His post is called “Jerry Coyne’s scientistic dismissiveness of philosophy,” and he defends that student’s proposal as being philosophically useful. Verbose Stoic does the same in a similar post called “Coyne (and his commenters) don’t know philosophy.”
One of my several objections to that stupid project was that we shouldn’t worry about how God would handle free will if there isn’t a God in the first place. Fincke takes issue with that:
In short, it does not matter whether there actually is a God. There is still philosophical illumination from exploring the implications of a hypothetical omniscient knower for our understanding of things like the connections between belief, causation, and time.
Verbose Stoic agrees:
So, that’s the translation of what Coyne calls “gobbledygook”. Now, does it depend on, as he puts it, “three completely unsupported premises”? Not if one understands philosophy, it doesn’t, because the question and the theory is philosophically interesting even if God does not exist. There’s a reason I talked about concepts above. If we have the concept of an omniscient being, we have the concept of something that clearly knows (okay, okay, that’s debatable, but grant it for now) everything that we will do before we do it. If it is conceptually consistent with our notions of time and dependence that any knowledge of that sort would involve the determination of a belief in the past by an action in the future, that would have very interesting consequences for the concepts of time and dependence, even if no such entity existed.
Well, these folks may be philosophers (I’m not sure about V.S), but they’re dead wrong here. The theory is NOT philosophically interesting in the absence of an omniscient being. If there isn’t one, as I presume both of these folks agree, then the project becomes an exercise in mental masturbation, musing about what something nonexistent would do if it existed. Why is that any more valid than wondering how an omnimalevolent God could allow good in the world, or why an omnibenevolent God allows evil? Or, for that matter, how fairies would keep their wings dry in the rain, or how Santa manages to deliver all those presents to billions of kids in only one evening. And what if you assume that God isn’t omniscient? Then the whole project is moot.
That exercise is not philosophy, it’s theology. And it’s a waste of money, for it accomplishes nothing.
Both Fincke and Verbose Stoic claims that I’m opposed to philosophy in general, and V.S. accuses me of—horrors!—scientism.
Fincke Verbose Stoic:
The first [reply to Coyne] is that he has no idea if these concepts will have applications in “the real world” anymore than he can say what portions of abstract mathematics will. The second is that while he may not care about concepts, philosophy does, and unless he wants to take away all funding to philosophy and give it to science — which, I’m afraid, would definitely be scientism — it seems odd to protest funding given for post-doc work that’s relevant to philosophy just because he doesn’t personally care about the results … or, rather, because it uses a concept that he doesn’t like.
Verbose Stoic Fincke:
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: atheists need to take philosophy seriously.
1. I do take philosophy seriously, but only serious philosophy. The kind of mushbrained lucubrations embodied in the Templeton proposal may be meant seriously, but they’re not to be taken seriously. They involve spinning out the consequences of a nonexistent omniscient being. What’s the point?
The kind of philosophy I do take seriously is ethical philosophy—or any kind of philosophy that gives us logical tools to think about our beliefs, getting us to examine them closely and pointing out their fallacies. In fact, one of my favorite colleges courses was a philosophy course in ethics, taught by a student of John Rawls. And I’ve read and appreciated a fair amount of philosophy. But I’ve studied philosophy, I know some philosophy, philosophy is a friend of mine, and, Dr. Fincke, that proposal is not philosophy. It’s addled theology.
2. I do indeed advocate scientism, if by scientism you mean “we accept no truths about the world that aren’t derived by logic, reason, and empirical observation.” That’s construing science broadly, but I think it encompasses what is meant by the term “scientism”. I’m proud to take that stand, though philosophers like Fincke and V.S. use it in a pejorative way. Philosophy alone cannot tell us what is true about the world. It gives us tools to help us find what is true about the world. But that Templeton-funded Travesty tells us nothing about the world. It’s a waste of money that could be used to do something constructive, like funding scientific research.
I don’t need to go on because, if you look at the comments on Fincke’s post (there’s none on Verbose Stoic’s), nearly all of them take him to task for defending that postdoctoral proposal. I find it very odd that a skeptic would defend a proposal to study what a nonexistent God would do if he existed. That defense can only be seen as a wider defense of the value of philosophy, and I don’t disagree that some philosophy has value.
Oh, and I’m not the only one taking flak from Verbose Stoic: so are many of you who commented. So, stooshie, Mattapult, Parick, 386sx, jer, sally, Dominic, Tulse, and Andrew B., go over to Verbose Stoic’s post and see which of your comments have make the Stoic want to ” tear out his hair in frustration”. (I’m guessing that V.S. is male because he says he implies that he doesn’t have much hair left, but since he’s pulling the cowardly trick of attacking people under a pseudonym, I can’t be sure.)