I’m a philosopher! I haz a paper with Maarten Boudry on religious belief

At long last Massimo Pigliucci—who (along with others) has criticized my lucubrations about philosophy on the grounds that I have no credentials in the field—can cease and desist. For, along with a genuinely credentialed philosopher, Maarten Boudry, I have a paper in press in a real peer-reviewed philosophy journal (Philosophical Psychology). It’s coauthored with Belgian philosopher Maarten Boudry. Street cred!

The paper is in fact a critique of a paper published last year in Cognition by philosopher Neil Van Leeuwen from Georgia State University (all references, links, and downloads below). That paper, “Religious credence is not factual belief” (also here on Academia), made the claim that religious beliefs were neither pure fantasy nor statements about reality, but rather “credences” that have only a quasi-factual character. I won’t summarize the exchange in detail, as you can read the papers for yourself, but here’s the abstract of Van Leeuwen’s paper setting out why he sees religious beliefs as different from factual beliefs:

I argue that psychology and epistemology should posit distinct cognitive attitudes of religious credence and factual belief, which have different etiologies and different cognitive and behavioral effects. I support this claim by presenting a range of empirical evidence that religious cognitive attitudes tend to lack properties characteristic of factual belief, just as attitudes like hypothesis, fictional imagining, and assumption for the sake of argument generally lack such properties. Furthermore, religious credences have distinctive properties of their own. To summarize: factual beliefs (i) are practical setting independent, (ii) cognitively govern other attitudes, and (iii) are evidentially vulnerable. By way of contrast, religious credences (a) have perceived normative orientation, (b) are susceptible to free elaboration, and (c) are vulnerable to special authority. This theory provides a framework for future research in the epistemology and psychology of religious credence.

This of course was welcomed by believers and accommodationists who, though they would delight in getting real evidence for God, at the same time try to insulate their God or their claims from any empirical testing by doubters. Van Leeuwen’s ideas were, for example, touted by Tonia Lombrozo at NPR.

However, Boudry and I thought that Van Leeuwen’s argument was flawed, and that all three points above (a, b, and c) were not always applicable to religionists, who in many circumstances act as if they really think their beliefs are true, and not just operative in special settings. So we wrote a response to his paper, and he’s responded to our response (this is how it goes in academia).

Since Van Leeuwen already put his response to our critique on Academia, even though our paper wasn’t yet out, Maarten just put our paper online, even though it remains in press. Ours is called  “Disbelief in belief: On the cognitive status of supernatural beliefs.” Maarten is first author, and here’s our abstract:

Religious people seem to believe things that range from the somewhat peculiar to the utterly bizarre. Or do they? According to a new paper by Neil Van Leeuwen, religious “credence” is nothing like mundane factual belief. It has, he claims, more in common with fictional imaginings. Religious folk do not really “believe” – in the ordinary sense of the word – what they profess to believe. Like fictional imaginings, but unlike factual beliefs, religious credences are activated only within specific settings. We argue that Van Leeuwen’s thesis contradicts a wealth of data on religiously-motivated behavior. By and large, the faithful genuinely believe what they profess to believe. Although many religions openly embraces a sense of mystery, in general this does not prevent the attribution of beliefs to religious people. Many of the features of religious belief that Van Leeuwen alludes to (e.g., invulnerability to refutation, incoherence) are characteristic of irrational beliefs in general, and actually betray their being held as factual. We conclude with some remarks about the common failure of secular people to face the fact that some religious people really do believe wildly implausible things. Such incredulity, as evinced by Van Leeuwen and others, could be termed “disbelief in belief”.

Van Leeuwen’s reply to this paper is called “Beyond fakers and fanatics: a reply to Maarten Boudry and Jerry Coyne“, which is also online. We’ll reply to his reply (we haven’t yet done that), and then the dust will settle.  There is no abstract to Van Leeuwen’s reply, but his argument is that religionists fall on a spectrum (as do the beliefs of a given religionist) between “fakers” (those who don’t believer a word of what they profess to believe), and “fanatics” (those who take all their religious beliefs as factual, just like they see the existence of airplanes as factual). That, however, isn’t what Maarten and I claim, as you can see from our paper. But you can read the exchange for yourself.

I’d welcome the thoughts of any readers, philosophers or not, who have the tenacity to plow through the entire exchange. But I maintain that I do have street cred in philosophy!


Van Leeuwen, N. 2014. Religious credence is not factual belief. Cognition 133: 698–715. (See also here for full paper.)

Boudry, M. and J. A. Coyne. 2015. On the cognitive status of supernatural beliefs. Philosophical Psychology: in press.

Van Leewen, N. 2015. Beyond fakers and fanatics: a reply to Maarten Boudry and Jerry Coyne. Philosophical Psychology: in press.


  1. Posted August 25, 2015 at 10:43 am | Permalink

    Sweet! Really looking forward to going through all of the above. One thing I continuously run into is confusion or denial as to what facts and evidence mean. And this is expected. Religionists know that if a fact is a fact – a repeatable and predictable observation that occurs everywhere regardless of the observer – then they are sunk. It’s to their advantage to muddy the waters with woo.

    • rickflick
      Posted August 25, 2015 at 11:43 am | Permalink


  2. Posted August 25, 2015 at 10:47 am | Permalink

    The first thing that jumps out at me is that it was work parsing out the meaning of Van Leeuwen’s abstract, but yours was clear and easy to understand. Something tells me the papers themselves will follow that pattern….


    • darrelle
      Posted August 25, 2015 at 11:05 am | Permalink

      I thought the exact same thing on reading the abstracts.

  3. Sciencefictionfan
    Posted August 25, 2015 at 10:48 am | Permalink

    Do you consider a new career and will you submit a thesis in philosophy?
    Just kidding.😉

  4. daniel bertini
    Posted August 25, 2015 at 10:50 am | Permalink

    Yes, that Is what i have thought for a long time. If you are a rational believer (Is that even possible?) do you really believe that the Virgin birth actually happened, that a human came back to life from the Dead, etc. Ask these same people for evidence, and they give you that confused cosmo kramer look! Do they even know what evidence means? As for the literal believers, they are just irrational!

  5. colnago80
    Posted August 25, 2015 at 10:52 am | Permalink

    Philosophy is as useful to physicists as ornithology is to birds.

    Richard Feynman

    • Posted August 25, 2015 at 11:23 am | Permalink

      Philosophy: questions that may never be answered

      Religion: answers that may never be questioned

      — somebody on Reddit

    • Ken Kukec
      Posted August 25, 2015 at 3:52 pm | Permalink

      I think that was “philosophy of science is as useful … ”

      As in “the love of money is the root of all evil” and “a foolish inconsistency is the hobgoblin of little minds,” a couple key words sometimes get left out of Feynman’s quote.

      • Tim Harris
        Posted August 25, 2015 at 10:07 pm | Permalink

        I recall that quip being used by William Carlos Williams (I think) some time before Feynman used it, but with respect to literary criticism and poets – it was something along the lines of ‘Criticism is to poets as ornithology is to birds.’

  6. Randy Schenck
    Posted August 25, 2015 at 11:09 am | Permalink

    My initial thoughts, before reading further is, where are the data to support this fictional imaginings that Van Leeuwen says is out there and really fills the minds of the religious.

    • Ken Kukec
      Posted August 25, 2015 at 3:57 pm | Permalink

      In the fictional imaginings that fill Van Leeuwen’s mind?

  7. darrelle
    Posted August 25, 2015 at 11:11 am | Permalink

    To me Van Leeuwen’s arguments are not favorable towards religion and religious believers, though I have little doubt that he intended them to be. Portraying religious belief as attempting to believe stuff that you can’t quite actually condition yourself to fully believe because it is just so ridiculous, just is not flattering from my perspective.

    • Posted August 25, 2015 at 1:53 pm | Permalink

      This is similar to my reaction to a book I bought used on a lark years ago. It is called _The Sciences and the Humanities_ and one of the theses of the book is that religion is just emotive poetry. This does *not* correspond to what most believers really believe, as far as we can tell, and would be insulting to suggest to them that they do not hold certain creeds after all.

      • Ken Kukec
        Posted August 25, 2015 at 4:11 pm | Permalink

        Religion is, indeed, “emotive poetry” — but it’s not “just emotive poetry.” Certainly not to the believers who act upon and structure their lives around it, anyway.

        If all they wanted was emotive poetry, they could have Wordsworth and Coleridge, Shelly and Keats, Blake and Byron, while skipping all the murder, mutilation, and mayhem.

        • Tim Harris
          Posted August 27, 2015 at 7:16 am | Permalink

          Have you actually read Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley, Keats, Blake & Byron? There is more murder, mayhem, etc there than I suspect you know. Or try Shakespeare or Marlowe or Thomas Middleton…, or Homer, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Dante, Celine, Junger, Kafka, David Jones, Conrad, Joseph Roth, Harold Pinter, C.H. Sisson… The arts are far from being vessels of mere sweetness and light.

          • Ken Kukec
            Posted August 28, 2015 at 2:32 am | Permalink

            Yes I’ve read the Romantics (and, yes, I find your insinuation to the contrary insulting). Did you actually read my comment or anything in the thread I was responding to? Keith Douglas cited an author who contended that religious folk read scripture not for its supernatural content, but solely as “emotive poetry.” My point was that, if that’s all want out of it, they would be better off with the Romantic poets. (Certainly, you’re not disputing that the Romantics produced “emotive poetry,” are you? Inasmuch as strong emotion was Romanticism’s raison d’être.)

            As to your suggestion that the murder, mutilation, and mayhem of Romantic poetry compares to that found in scripture, I confess some confusion. Sure the heroic epic narratives of Lord Byron have some battle scenes, and there is a possible rape (or was it a seduction?) in Don Juan. There is also no gainsaying the disturbing hallucinatory visions to be found in William Blake, especially for the faint of heart. And, of course, there is the matter of the dead albatross, the loss and revivification of the crew, and an appearance of a skeleton in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.

            But, pray tell, what is it in the lyrical ballads and sonnets of the Lake Poets, in the odes of Keats, or in the lyrical epics of Shelley that you find compares with the sadism of The Passion, the deathly plagues visited upon the Egyptians, the recurrent genocide of the Israelites’ neighbors (and pillaging of their women), the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, or the drowning of every last living thing on the face of the planet, save what could be stowed aboard Noah’s Ark (to cite just a few of the relevant available examples)? Let me turn your snotty little question back at you: Have you even read the Romantic poets — or the Bible?

            Finally, what on earth does your string citation of other stalwarts of the Western literary canon have to do with anything in my comment or with any point you had hoped to make in yours?

          • Ken Kukec
            Posted August 28, 2015 at 3:24 am | Permalink

            Also, mingled in with the names of these writers you suggest I “try” are a pair who either lend no support to your assertion regarding the canon being rife with murder and mayhem (or whose work would not seem to warrant inclusion in the canon in the first place) and a pair whose identities I can only guess at.

            In the former category are British poets C.H. Sisson and David Jones (at least I assume that’s the “David Jones” you’re referring to). In the latter are “Junger” (are you referring to Sebastian Junger, the American author of The Perfect Storm and other non-fiction works? Certainly an odd choice to stick between Celine and Kafka) and “Joseph Roth” (the early 20th Century European journalist?).

            • Tim Harris
              Posted August 28, 2015 at 9:28 pm | Permalink

              Sorry, I was being too hair-trigger, as a result of rather too many dismissals of the arts in the past, and also because I find the idea that Romantic poets are concerned only with emotion a common and very inadequate prejudice about them (not that, in fact, you seem now to share it). As for the Bible, though there stretches of boredom, it is a fascinating collection (certainly not all murder and mayhem) and a fascinating description of a people’s history and how they thought of themselves and others, and I enjoy reading parts of it, just as I enjoy reading, say, Icelandic sagas, with all their murder, mayhem etc. I left out the ‘Ernst’ before ‘Junger’ or ‘Juenger’; he was the author of one of the most extraordinary books about the First World War (as well as the extraordinary allegory of Hitler’s rise to power ‘On the Marble Cliffs); David Jones was the author of the great poem on the First World War ‘In Parenthesis’; Sisson I put in because of his Swiftian savagery (quite opposed to any supposed Romantic emotivism); Joseph Roth was far more than a European journalist, but one of the great novelists of the last century and one of the great witnesses (he was Jewish) to the descent of Europe into Naziism and war. Anyway, my apologies for misconstruing what you said.

              • Ken Kukec
                Posted August 28, 2015 at 9:52 pm | Permalink

                No worries, Tim. Thanks for the response.

    • Sastra
      Posted August 25, 2015 at 4:11 pm | Permalink

      I see the same thing: atheists are actually doing the religious a favor by granting them the inherent intelligence and sincerity to believe what they insist they DO believe. This strange tendency to want to play coy games with faith beliefs sounds suspiciously like the famous letter to Virginia regarding the existence of Santa Claus. “Yes, God is real and found in the warmth of the sunshine and the smile of a child blah blah blah.”

      Not a lot of respect in that. It seems to me that they pay a damn high price for the ability to shut down criticism.

  8. jaxkayaker
    Posted August 25, 2015 at 11:17 am | Permalink

    Feynman was wrong.

    Congratulations and kudos. I have met Pigliucci and heard him give talks. Given his intelligence, it’s disappointing to see him commit an appeal to authority with regards to you. He should reserve his disdain for creationists.

    • Torbjörn Larsson
      Posted August 25, 2015 at 11:58 am | Permalink

      “Feynman was wrong.”

      Prove it. As far as I can see no scientific question has ever been settled by philosophy.
      (Of course scientists can be inspired by philosophers in the same way that bird behavior can be inspired by close by ornithologists. But is that “useful” or random noise?)

      • jaxkayaker
        Posted August 25, 2015 at 12:09 pm | Permalink

        The utility of philosophy to science would come in the form of distinguishing bad arguments from good, recognizing fallacious logic and clarifying poor semantics. Those things are applications of philosophy, whether or not the person performing them has a degree in philosophy.

        • Robert Seidel
          Posted August 25, 2015 at 12:34 pm | Permalink

          But aren’t birds applications of ornithology? 😉

        • Kevin
          Posted August 25, 2015 at 1:35 pm | Permalink

          We are teaching computers to parse through arguments, semantically and logically. It will not be long before they can make better arguments based on probabilities and assessments, like in the manner a doctor prescribes a remedy.

          I say that philosophy is not dead and it is useful. But I also claims that computers have (or at least will have) the ability to do philosophy better than we do it. What do you call it then? I think philosophy stops being philosophy at that point and simple becomes part of information theory, which is fundamentally restricted by physical laws, and thereby the purview of physics.

        • josh
          Posted August 25, 2015 at 2:03 pm | Permalink

          But scientists will distinguish good arguments for bad and clarify poor terminology without any input from philosophers. In fact, the ones I know are rather better at it than philosophers. So… You can call that philosophy or you can call that science or you can call that reasoning in general.

          The point to realize is that people who call themselves scientists, doing what they call science, are fully competent by themselves to explore our reality without artificial restrictions on what they can ask or artificial authorities to whom they must defer. By the same token, a philosopher doing philosophy, as she sees it, may indeed make a useful contribution to science just as a farmer or poet might. (But it doesn’t happen very often given the specialization required to make progress in modern science.) I only have a problem when people draw artificial distinctions or claim special competency which has never been demonstrated.

          • Posted August 25, 2015 at 3:57 pm | Permalink

            Well said.

          • strongforce
            Posted August 25, 2015 at 10:00 pm | Permalink

            spot on

        • Posted August 25, 2015 at 4:22 pm | Permalink

          The problem with that analysis…is that the way we know which arguments are good and which are bad comes from…wait for it!…empirical observation.

          You can come up with any variety of methodology imaginable. But the only way you’ll know if it’s any good or not is to submit it to a scientific (broadly construed) analysis.

          Thus, we see that all true and justifiable knowledge is empirical in nature and origins.

          It’s the same old skyhook / escalator problem. Just as religion is a top-down enterprise, so is philosophy — and both fail similarly and for the same reasons. But when you build from the ground up, you can create the most amazing and useful things.


      • Posted August 25, 2015 at 4:17 pm | Permalink

        …or dreams about snakes eating their tails….


        • Diana MacPherson
          Posted August 25, 2015 at 6:53 pm | Permalink

          That made me think of the Heinlein story, All You Zombies (recently made into a movie, Predestination).

          • Posted August 25, 2015 at 7:32 pm | Permalink

            A wonderful gem of an Heinlein story.


      • Tim Harris
        Posted August 26, 2015 at 7:24 pm | Permalink

        No doubt specific scientific questions have not been settled by philosophy, but scientists have certainly taken from philosophy. One might consider Whewell’s influence on Darwin; or the respect that Peter Medawar had for Karl Popper with whom he wrote a book, which I had once; or the long reach of logical positivism that one sees in arguments over what is objective and what is subjective and what constitutes knowledge on this very website. I should like to add (this is not directed at you, Torbjorn, though I think your remark about ‘noise’ unwarranted), but it does seem extraordinarily discourteous, when Jerry has joined with a philosopher – who, Jerry says, is ‘first author’ – to write a philosophical paper with which most commenters are in agreement and which they find cogent and clearly written, to devote so many of the comments to cocking snooks at philosophy.

        • Tim Harris
          Posted August 26, 2015 at 10:01 pm | Permalink

          And, of course, the distinction between knowledge and opinion goes back to Plato.

          • Posted August 28, 2015 at 10:42 am | Permalink

            Plato is the single biggest example of why philosophy is worse than useless — a bane to all serious attempts at understanding the world. All popular misconceptions about science, especially religiously-inspired ones such as opposition to Evolution or the value of faith, can be traced straight back to Plato and his cohorts.

            That Plato can still be treated with respect in this day and age…absolutely boggles the mind.

            Sure, study him for his historical impact and anthropological significance, maybe even draw on him for poetic inspiration.

            But for you to cite him and his incoherent primitive superstition as an authority on the subject of information, as you just did, in the actual Information age and after the work of people like Claude Shannon and Alan Turing and Grace Hopper…why, it’s every bit as absurd as citing Aristotle as an authority in a discussion of physics, or Galen in a discussion of biology, or Jesus in a discussion of sociology.

            It’s not just you, of course. It’s basically every philosopher out there — which is exactly why philosophy is intellectually kaput. Atheistic theology, as I like to describe it.

            Until Plato’s ideas are regarded as the same sort of primitive superstitions as, for example, Ptolemy’s geocentric astrology is, there’s really no hope for philosophy.


            • Tim Harris
              Posted August 28, 2015 at 8:47 pm | Permalink

              Warmly agree with you, Ben! That was of course my point. I have grown rather fed up with the rigid distinction between true-blue knowledge and mere opinion that has come down to us from Plato and is trotted out by many people, including scientists, even now. I had spoken of the long reach of logical positivism and this brought to mind the even longer reach of Platonism. But I stuck the remark in as an afterthought, and so the connexion with what I said about logical positivism wasn’t clear.

              • Tim Harris
                Posted August 28, 2015 at 11:01 pm | Permalink

                Incidentally, in case you didn’t get it, the point is that it is not only philosophers (though most philosophers I have read don’t seem very interested in the distinction), but scientists who are uncritically reproducing Plato’s ideas with talk of ‘knowledge’ (proper) and ‘opinion’.

              • Tim Harris
                Posted August 29, 2015 at 6:44 am | Permalink

                And also it is worth saying that the influence of philosophy, as is true of any kind of influence, can be for the good, as it was in the case of Whewell and Darwin (not only of course because of the nature of Whewell’s thought but because Darwin was perceptive and saw its relevance to what he was doing), and for the bad, as when people without thinking very much about them recite ideas or distinctions whose provenance they are not really aware of but are sort of in the air about them. (Was it Russell who said that so much of what passes for thought is really the repetition of what some thinker thought centuries ago?)

              • Posted August 29, 2015 at 10:01 am | Permalink

                And also it is worth saying that the influence of philosophy, as is true of any kind of influence, can be for the good, as it was in the case of Whewell and Darwin (not only of course because of the nature of Whewell’s thought but because Darwin was perceptive and saw its relevance to what he was doing), and for the bad, as when people without thinking very much about them recite ideas or distinctions whose provenance they are not really aware of but are sort of in the air about them. (Was it Russell who said that so much of what passes for thought is really the repetition of what some thinker thought centuries ago?)

                And you know what the distinction is between those two cases?

                The first class is science broadly construed (and see Jerry’s definition). The second is faith, of the form of revealed authority and scriptural tradition.

                And my entire complaint about philosophy is that, as an academic discipline, it fails to use scientific principles to weed out faith from fact.

                You yourself are making this complaint! Yet your answer is that these people are bad philosophers doing bad philosophy — but that still means they’re doing philosophy, even according to your own definition. It’s just your own opinion that some philosophy is better or worse than others, and, obviously, those whose philosophy you disdain will similarly disdain your own philosophy.

                In stark contrast, there is universal agreement that pseudoscience is fraud, not science, no matter if the pseudoscientists wear lab coats.

                I’ve written this countless times before, but you’ve yet to get it. There are certainly people who have done good work whilst wearing hats with “philosopher” written on the brim. But the reason their work has been good is because they’ve been doing science, broadly construed, not philosophy. And the stuff those same people do that can’t fairly be considered scientific still gets labeled “philosophy” and is pure shit.

                “Philosophy” is a meaningless term that can be and liberally is applied to anything and everything somebody wants people to think they’re thinking seriously about. And one that the priests of philosophy like to use to claim science as their own — after all, the people at the NASA obviously think hard about their work, so they must be philosophers so score yet another one for philosophy! And, of course, they watch the stars, making them astrologers, so yay astrology! And those stars turn base metals into gold, so they’re alchemists as well! And the heavens are where the gods live, meaning they’re also theologians!

                The ship has sailed, centuries ago. Philosophy is bunk, along with all the other pseudosciences that science grew out of. Any ancient contributions made by philosophers are of no more import in the modern world than, at best, Eratosthenes’s measurement of the Earth’s size — historically interesting, sure, but you’d be batshit crazy to plot a circumnavigation assuming the equator is 252,000 stadia. Any modern contributions made by philosophers are only the scientific ones, such as those that a priest in the Vatican observatory might make.


              • Tim Harris
                Posted August 29, 2015 at 6:24 pm | Permalink

                Yes, Ben, you have written ad nauseam, and from the tone of weary self-importance with which you write (‘I have written this countless times before..’, etc), I realise you think that what you say is of desperate importance, but, I am sorry, I find what you say of small interest. My point was not that certain people are bad philosophers doing bad philosophy, it was that scientists are often influenced by philosophical ideas without their realising it (as Darwin was not in the case of Whewell), and it would be better for science and for thinking in general if they were more aware of it.

              • Posted August 29, 2015 at 7:52 pm | Permalink

                Scientists are often influenced by philosophical ideas without their realising it (as Darwin was not in the case of Whewell), and it would be better for science and for thinking in general if they were more aware of it.

                Erm…you do realize, do you not, that that’s the #1 complaint of all pseudoscientist cranks, and one of the definitive hallmarks of a pseudoscience?

                If these philosophical superstitions actually have even the slightest merit, there are any number of journals that would be delighted to publish well-researched findings. Provided, of course, the research is up to the usual scientific standards.

                Until then…well, until then, these “philosophical ideas” are no more useful nor worthy of consideration than zero-point energy, dowsing, astrology, or any other scam.



              • Tim Harris
                Posted August 29, 2015 at 8:07 pm | Permalink

                I’m sorry, Ben. I really do not see the relevance of what you are saying. What I am talking about is the rehearsal, on this website, of distinctions such as that between knowledge and opinion (with the suggestion that all discussion of the arts is the expression of arbitrary tastes) and that between objective and subjective (with the suggestion that the subjective is not much different from the arbitrary)- distinctions which have their importance, but which need to be thought about rather more carefully than they often seem to be. I think we should call it a day.

              • rickflick
                Posted August 29, 2015 at 9:42 pm | Permalink

                “If these philosophical superstitions actually have even the slightest merit, there are any number of journals”

                Funding? Try Templeton.

        • Tim Harris
          Posted August 27, 2015 at 7:18 am | Permalink

          Not only snooks, but ignorant snooks.

        • couchloc
          Posted August 27, 2015 at 12:01 pm | Permalink

          Not to mention the important role of philosophy in debates about new atheism of late. Dawkins himself says that everything he claims was already said by Bertrand Russell, and his book cites philosophers J.L. Mackie and Peter Singer. Sam Harris has a degree in philosophy and writes about philosophical issues. Dennett is a philosopher and widely cited in the literature. And Christopher Hitchens book on “Essential” readings for atheists contains probably 60% philosophy readings. Since Coyne himself says that he has learned a lot from philosophers, the comments here seem out of place I agree.

        • Posted August 28, 2015 at 10:25 am | Permalink

          I should like to add (this is not directed at you, Torbjorn, though I think your remark about ‘noise’ unwarranted), but it does seem extraordinarily discourteous, when Jerry has joined with a philosopher – who, Jerry says, is ‘first author’ – to write a philosophical paper with which most commenters are in agreement and which they find cogent and clearly written, to devote so many of the comments to cocking snooks at philosophy.

          I’m sure that’s directed at me, if not Torbjorn. And Jerry knows full well that I only find value in activities conducted under the Philosophy brand name insofar as they can be classified as scientific (broadly construed).

          Not only have I as much as identified Jerry’s paper with Maarten as an example of such, I think Jerry would especially take offense were I to attempt to appease him through an accommodationist-style lie.

          If philosophy is to have any hope of a future, it will come from real scientists like Jerry cleaning up the house: for it’s clear that philosophy itself is woefully inadequate to the task — as we’ll see in a moment….


          • Tim Harris
            Posted August 28, 2015 at 8:54 pm | Permalink

            Well, Ben, you really are being rather thin-skinned. The remark was not in fact directly particularly at you, but at the number of people on this thread who used the opportunity provided by the post to cock snooks at philosophy. I think you have construed my remarks too narrowly. Anyway, I appreciate the heroic tone!

            • Tim Harris
              Posted August 28, 2015 at 9:06 pm | Permalink


      • Posted August 26, 2015 at 7:54 pm | Permalink

        The proof is in this pudding: Judea Pearl, Causality. Social scientists gained especially from it, but it has informed a wide swath of scientific practice.

  9. mormovies
    Posted August 25, 2015 at 11:24 am | Permalink

    The majority of hack philosophers should have their titles stripped from them.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted August 25, 2015 at 6:55 pm | Permalink

      In a symbolic way like when Klingons disown other Klingons.

      • Posted August 25, 2015 at 7:34 pm | Permalink

        Now, if only philosophers avenged their honor with fights to the death involving funky swords….


        • Posted August 27, 2015 at 3:00 pm | Permalink

          They fight with Occam’s razors …


          • Posted August 28, 2015 at 11:21 am | Permalink

            That would explain why Gordian knots kick their asses all the time….


    • Tim Harris
      Posted August 25, 2015 at 10:11 pm | Permalink

      If the philosophers you are talking about are all hacks, they should all be regarded with contempt. But which specific philosophers are you thinking about? The question may spoil the feeding frenzy, but…

  10. Dominic
    Posted August 25, 2015 at 11:26 am | Permalink

    All excited but cannot access it on the link – ‘stack overflow’ – & I cannot find the early online on the Taylor Francis website!

  11. Steve Gerrard
    Posted August 25, 2015 at 11:39 am | Permalink

    Redefining the word belief to make it work with religion is the sort of nonsense up with which Neil DeGrasse Tyson shall not put.

    There is a perfectly good word for belief that is not really belief – it is called pretending.

    The problem is that the word belief is used by most people in its ordinary sense, not in this special sense. I propose that any use of belief in this special sense proposed by Van Leeuwen be written between asterisks, as in “I *believe* in transubstantiation.” Or at least in scare quotes.

  12. Paulo Augusto Franke
    Posted August 25, 2015 at 11:48 am | Permalink

    Wow, here it comes, bioevolutionary philosophy, how about that?
    Better comment quickly, before taking the necessary time to review all the papers many times over, in order to fully understand them.
    Boudry & Coyne win against Van Leeuwen by a large score margin. VL seems to concede defeat in his reply, coming up with his ‘spectrum defense’, believers ranging from fakers to fanatics. Come on VL, most samples fall into a continuous spectrum, but believers concentrate 99.9% at the fanatic end.

  13. John Harshman
    Posted August 25, 2015 at 12:03 pm | Permalink

    I think there might be something to van Leeuwen after all. Everyone clearly believes in gravity as a fact, because we never jump off high places as if gravity didn’t exist. But religionists frequently do things that their god says you shouldn’t do, as if that prohibition — or the person behind it –didn’t exist. If they really believed, wouldn’t they be following all the rules, caring less for material possessions, being excellent to everyone, and so on? Clearly the depth of belief in gravity is greater than the depth of belief in gods for most people who claim to be Christians.

    • Sastra
      Posted August 25, 2015 at 4:20 pm | Permalink

      The response I’ve heard the most often to that argument is that doubt of God’s existence needs to be coupled inextricably into the willfully rebellious nature of the small child for their parent’s authority. When your mommy told you she’d send you to bed if you didn’t eat your vegetables and you refused to eat them anyway, that’s supposed to be analogous to the seeming lack of conviction coming from the religious.

      I know. I’m just the reporter.

      • John Harshman
        Posted August 25, 2015 at 4:52 pm | Permalink

        Is there a response you’ve heard less often that works any better?

        • Sastra
          Posted August 25, 2015 at 5:58 pm | Permalink

          No; they’re pretty much all variations of Original Sin — including spiritualities which don’t technically believe in Original Sin and instead make fuss over how we fall prey to the weakness of believing in the illusion of physical reality. If faith is a virtue then lack of faith simply feeds into the plot line of their noble “struggle.”

  14. @eightyc
    Posted August 25, 2015 at 12:05 pm | Permalink


    Ah but do you have a double PhD?!?!?

    • jaxkayaker
      Posted August 25, 2015 at 12:21 pm | Permalink

      Pigliucci actually has three Ph.D.s.

      • @eightyc
        Posted August 25, 2015 at 12:40 pm | Permalink


        Is he like the Candyman? If you say Doctor three times, will Massimo suddenly appear?


        • Diana MacPherson
          Posted August 25, 2015 at 6:56 pm | Permalink


  15. Posted August 25, 2015 at 12:12 pm | Permalink

    I don’t see a problem with trying to describe different kinds of belief, and observing that these different kinds of belief are arrived at, maintained, and/or discarded for different kinds of reasons.

    The problem, it seems to me, would be claiming that because religious beliefs have some characteristics that distinguish them from “factual” (I’d prefer the term “rational) beliefs, that theists aren’t as committed to their religious beliefs as they are to their “factual” beliefs. I’m not sure whether VL makes this claim. His abstract doesn’t make the claim, nor did I see the claim being made after a cursory glance at his paper. I may have missed it.

  16. SA Gould
    Posted August 25, 2015 at 1:31 pm | Permalink

    Well, well! Congratulations, Dr. DR. Coyne!

  17. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted August 25, 2015 at 1:38 pm | Permalink

    The only important credential is to understand the history of philosophy well so you don’t put words in the mouth of someone that they did not in fact actually say.

    It can also be important to understand the historical context of certain ideas.

    But a lot of credentialed philosophers makes some fairly foolish arguments.

  18. Kurt Helf
    Posted August 25, 2015 at 2:04 pm | Permalink

    I’m glad the opening abstract in your paper summarizes Van Leeuwen’s because his prose is nearly opaque!

  19. Posted August 25, 2015 at 2:16 pm | Permalink

    I think there is a lot to be said for the idea that beliefs fall on a spectrum of how much they are actually believed. Thus, some religious believers will genuinely and really believe some of their beliefs, but only semi-believe other beliefs.

    For example, suppose a teenager is killed in a road accident. Everyone is shocked and saddened and mourns for the long life that the teenager will no longer have.

    Now, they many console themselves that the teenager is then in heaven enjoying paradise, but I don’t think they’re totally convinced by that, because if they were they would be less unhappy.

    I disagree, though, with VF’s claim that *people* are somewhere on that continuum, rather the *beliefs* are somewhere on he continuum, and any given individual will have a range of beliefs in a range of places on the continuum.

    I also don’t see that religious beliefs are any different in such ways from non-religious beliefs.

  20. Vaal
    Posted August 25, 2015 at 2:29 pm | Permalink

    Congrats Prof Coyne.

    But now you’ve made yourself a target for your colleagues who disparage philosophy. 😉

    I agree with other comments that your abstract seemed clearer than Van Leeuwen’s.

  21. Aldo Matteucci
    Posted August 25, 2015 at 3:33 pm | Permalink


    “credence” is a new world for what John Searle has called twenty years ago a “social fact:” a fact by common consent (as contrasted with “brute fact” which refers to sticks and stones). See his: Creation of Social Reality and other of his books.

    • Posted August 25, 2015 at 10:28 pm | Permalink

      And “Creedence” is a band from San Fransisco, led by John Fogerty.

  22. gstally
    Posted August 25, 2015 at 4:03 pm | Permalink

    Wow, this old yarn again? The “progress” of the philosophy of “religion” over the past 100 years seems to me to suspiciously resemble a dog chasing its tail. This whole conversation needs to be thrown out, the baby be damned; fraudulent from start to finish. The terms used are no longer useful for genuine scientific discourse. They are employed consistently, not to genuinely understand reality or comprehend the truth, but to simply reaffirm preconceived notions of reality. The entire exercise is a pathetic and paltry attempt at keeping your security blanket close by. All the terms you have been using are, to quote the the most (in)famous atheist of all time:

    “[a] mobile army of metaphors, metonyms, and anthropomorphisms — in short, a sum of human relations, which have been enhanced, transposed, and embellished poetically and rhetorically, and which after long use seem firm, canonical, and obligatory to a people: truths are illusions about which one has forgotten that is what they are; metaphors which are worn out and without sensuous power; coins which have lost their pictures and now matter only as metal, no longer as coins.”

    Here the starting point was the end all along: to show how stupid, worthless, and “dangerous” religious thinkers and their beliefs really are and how naturally superior the “secular” is in relation to them. People proposing them have petty minds and are shallow thinkers, getting some religion in their lives would actually be quite healthy for those stale and parochial processes they call their thoughts.

    “An honest religious thinker is like a tightrope walker. He almost looks as though he were walking on nothing but air. His support is the slenderest imaginable. And yet it really is possible to walk on it.” -Wittgenstein

  23. Ken Kukec
    Posted August 25, 2015 at 4:30 pm | Permalink

    Damn, Jerry, those are some pellucid prose for an academic article; sounds almost like one of your New Republic pieces. Way to rock it!

  24. Diana MacPherson
    Posted August 25, 2015 at 6:57 pm | Permalink

    Now you can make all those philosophical arguments from authority like all the *cool philosophers!

    *cool = awful.


    • Tim Harris
      Posted August 25, 2015 at 10:59 pm | Permalink

      Does ‘cool’, meaning, as you say, awful, refer to all philosophers or only to some? Your syntax is ambiguous. One might remark, also, that the paper was written jointly with Martin Boudry, who is, as Jerry is at pains to point out, a philosopher.

      • Tim Harris
        Posted August 25, 2015 at 11:00 pm | Permalink


  25. Tim Harris
    Posted August 25, 2015 at 10:18 pm | Permalink

    Michael Oakeshott in the Introduction to ‘Experience & its Modes’: ‘Thinking, however, is not a professional matter; if it were it would be something much less important than I take it to be. It is something we may engage in without putting ourselves in competition; it is something independent of the futile effort to convince or persuade. Philosophy, the effort to begin at the beginning and to press to the end, stands more to lose by professionalism and its impedimenta than any other study.’

    • Posted August 26, 2015 at 12:12 am | Permalink

      Only a philosopher would think to suggest that unprofessionalism is a good thing.

      And this:

      Philosophy, the effort to begin at the beginning and to press to the end

      …well, first it’s insulting to suggest that only philosophers see things through all the way.

      And, at the same time, it demonstrates what philosophy has in common with theology: the path must be trod, and thou shalt not deviate from it. Start at the beginning, press on, and you’ll get to the end.

      That’s not how we gain knowledge. In reality, it’s full of twists and turns and starts and stops and backtracking and everything else. Often, you come to a dead end or a cliff or discover you’ve been chasing your own tail, leaving you nothing productive to do but start fresh somewhere entirely elsewhere.

      The only examples of philosophy I’ve ever encountered that have even the slightest bearing on reality have been the ones — like Jerry’s piece here with Maarten — which are scientific, broadly construed. The value in philosophy is directly proportional to the science it contains. In stark contrast, science is only diminished by philosophy; the more philosophical the “research,” the more likely it’ll turn out to be useless.


      • Tim Harris
        Posted August 26, 2015 at 1:00 am | Permalink

        Ah, Ben to the bait! And the usual list of things, stated in the usual dogmatic manner. As a matter of fact, I quoted this, because Oakeshott’s words struck me as being relevant to the attitudes of such as Pigliucci and an implicit criticism of the charge levelled at non-professional philosophers like Jerry (though now, perhaps, he may be regarded as one) that unless you are a member of the profession in good standing you can’t properly understand or ‘do’ philosophy.

        • Posted August 26, 2015 at 9:03 am | Permalink

          Or, in other words, when a philosopher wants to make a trivial point such as, “amateurs can make meaningful contributions to the field,” he’ll couch it in language so obscure that nobody can make sense of but other philosophers.

          I’m sure I could Sokal this response into something adequately opaque for philosophy, but I have better things to do with my life….


  26. Tim Harris
    Posted August 26, 2015 at 9:15 am | Permalink

    That, of course, is not what Oakeshott is saying. But then I, too, have better things to do with my life than to waste my time trying to respond to a person who, though capable of making some interesting points, all too often assumes that a tone of excited certitude means that he must be right.

    • Posted August 27, 2015 at 3:16 pm | Permalink

      Especially when he’s making philosophical points! 😁


      • Tim Harris
        Posted August 27, 2015 at 6:38 pm | Permalink


    • winewithcats
      Posted August 30, 2015 at 9:54 pm | Permalink

      Why would he bother to assume any differently, when you’ve clearly already volunteered to disprove his every error?

  27. Posted August 28, 2015 at 9:27 am | Permalink

    JAC, your awesomeness blows me away! Really!

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