I don't hate philosophy
First, I honor and value philosophy where it should be honored and valued. For a philosopher nearest to my own opinion about the role and value of philosophy, please see Daniel Dennett, whom I respect greatly. I agree with nearly everything I've read from him concerning the importance and role of philosophy (which isn't the same as saying I agree with everything he says more generally). His Intuition Pumps is a great resource in this regard. I also happen to think philosophy, aside from its value, is very interesting and thus a worthy endeavor to engage in for that reason as well.
Second, I recognize that there is "scientism" of various sorts going on. I could write a post about the many faces of scientism, I suppose, but that would be off my purpose here. I do not, however, think that it is the least bit productive to bring up, discuss, squabble about, or even use the word "scientism," particularly with regard to the "New Atheism movement."
Here's the bulk of why: there are a handful of philosophers and others who are likely to be using the term both carefully and correctly (whether or not Massimo Pigliucci is one of these, despite his frequent vocalizations of it, including in peer-reviewed philosophical papers, is debatable but not on the table at the moment). There are more philosophers--and others--who are not.
By far the most egregious abusers of the term are seeking to shield one of the following from proper criticism: theology, the supernatural, or pseudoscience (see Dennett on "scientism," incidentally; this, e.g.). Those people are bolstered profoundly by making it appear that there is a more legitimate debate about "scientism" than there actually is. Pretty much everyone needs to stop helping them!
Third, "New Atheism" and "New Atheism movement." Seriously? If there is such a movement, it is about helping people do better about demanding good reasons for their beliefs, ditching faith, and embracing rational, informed skepticism. That some people seem to translate this into a quasi-religion about science (with Neil deGrasse Tyson as a figurehead) is an issue but separate from the point. Atheism will typically follow from informed skepticism and breaking the reliance on faith as a justification to defend beliefs. There is no need for an "atheism movement" except in certain political regards (American Atheists is working on visibility and Constitutional issues, e.g.), and even there it's a bit shaky to call it an "atheism movement." To go to a "New Atheism movement" is even more bizarre.
Of course, much of my end of the present discussion arises from reactions to my reaction to Pigliucci's paper talking about the "scientistic turn in the New Atheism movement" (will he also write a paper about the the counter-turn to overbearing insistence on everyone becoming savvy at philosophy, including engaging theological sophism like it is serious philosophical material, lest otherwise they be branded anti-intellectual, sloppy, or whatever the going brand at the time is, as it develops? I wonder). Pigliucci insists that the key identifying feature of the "New Atheism movement" is its "scientistic turn."
This is pretty bogus. While there may be a "scientistic turn" going on, there are two key identifying features of what's passing as "New Atheism" with a sidecar that could perhaps be linked to that infamous "scientistic turn." These are, with sidecar listed as number three,
- An outright rejection of having to kowtow to religious institutionalized authority, particularly the whinging religious type that demands everyone respect their beliefs and shut up about anything like justifiable criticism of them;
- Enhanced attention on the harms of religion historically and today;
- (Sidecar) Notable scientists being many of the most vocal voices, bringing their scientific expertise in fields like cosmology and evolutionary biology primarily (no surprises about the reasons why...) to the table instead of lurking quietly and sticking to their peers, and this sometimes, but not always, includes attempts to say things like that "philosophy is dead" (Stephen Hawking, incidentally, not participating in this conversation at all). (PS: Philosophy isn't dead. It can't be. It's too busy trying to kill itself with all this nonsense to be dead.)
That is enough about the loose ends for now. Now to the point.
Theologians treat philosophy as part of their wheelhouse
We know that philosophy kicked theology out pretty much from the get-go (though, oh, how some philosophers feel the need to stick their toes in the dark arts anyway...). We also know that much of what the theologians try to pass off as philosophy is really sophistry (when one hears "sophisticated theology," sophistry is the proper word to use to understand what is being said). We also, also know that they, theologians and apologists, don't see it that way. Indeed, they treat philosophy as their "handmaid." How much sense does it make to indulge that situation?
The reason philosophy is part of the theological wheelhouse, in an important sense, is because all arguments for theism are of philosophical type. All of them. Pause for a moment to let the gravity of that sentence sink in.
Ask any believer enough questions about why she thinks her beliefs are rational or justified, and you're either going to get back to an honest, but unsophisticated, admission of faith or you're going to get into some kind of philosophical-type speculations (usually about metaphysics or ethics). "Show me why your beliefs are true" always returns either something of philosophical-type or something that depends upon it, unless an honest admission of faith, read: "I don't know that they're true, but I believe them anyway."
A brief aside about staying out of the wheelhouse
Take a moment to realize what a disaster of an endeavor it is to engage an apologist in exegesis of any religious text or scripture. It is these people's jobs to twist those documents to mean whatever they need it to mean. Even an expert counter-apologist with profoundly deep knowledge of scripture and doctrine cannot often win an exegetical battle with a theologian because they have had centuries to practice twisting it all to their purposes. Exegesis of religious texts is in the center of the wheelhouse for apologists.
Treading into exegetical analysis of religious texts is a mistake for a few reasons. First of all, as many of us have experienced, theologians will turn the passages on their heads to make their cases--and how can it be stopped (their bar for success is merely "a possible reading is this," which is always obtainable)? Second, they are very practiced at this very art. Third, it gives up more than needs to be conceded: namely that the texts under examination deserve this kind of attention in the first place. To get into an exegetical analysis with an apologist is to start out losing and with weapons made by Nerf.
Stay out of the wheelhouse. That's where they are strongest, or in this case, that's where they can keep arguing their case with a veneer of respectability. (It's worth noting that most people who will be listening are not going to be philosophically adept and are likely to be taken in by the argument that sounds the best in the sense of agreeing with them already.)
And back to it
Philosophy is very nearly the same.
It doesn't matter that many of the best anti-religious arguments are philosophical--maybe the best ones are. It also doesn't matter that all science depends upon philosophy to mean anything or get going with its business (pardon this, but duh! Move on!).
Philosophy (or arguments of the philosophical type) is how theologians and apologists justify everything, including their exegesis. My recent Faith Discussion with Tom Gilson, in fact, pushed him into starting a series to analyze in detail the reasons "justifying" his faith--the evidence for why he believes. Look at the list of his proposed topics (Link--follow the first two provided to see that they are not actually evidence but preliminary materials he wrote--also, parenthetical annotations in bold are mine):
Despite some real eye-crossers on there, Gilson's entire list of evidences is either philosophical or directly riding upon a particular philosophical interpretation of metaphysics combined with theology. The whole list, except maybe "Christianity down through the ages," which is, I'm guessing, an appeal to the fact that Christianity has worked for lots of people and done lots of good things throughout the ages and therefore is still a philosophical-type argument. Note also that Gilson is going to somehow either beat or usurp Hume!
- Philosophical (PHILOSOPHICAL IS LISTED FIRST!)
- Free Will
- The Human Condition
- Meaning, Purpose
- Failure and Recovery
- Personal Experience in Christ
- Resurrection (Requires Christian metaphysics, philosophy)
- Biblical (Requires Christian metaphysics, philosophy)
- Too Good Not To Be True (Philosophy--solipsism?)
- Christianity Down Through History
- Theological (Philosophical-type)
- Uniqueness of Christ
- Uniqueness of Christianity Among Religions
- Response to Objections (Philosophical)
- Legend Theory
- Anti-exclusivism/Truth Relativism
- Christianity’s Moral Record
All religious arguments for the justification of their beliefs depend entirely upon philosophy (or sophistry so disguised) at every level. All of them. Again: "Philosophy is rightly the handmaid of theology." (William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith, 3rd ed., 2008, p. 48).
If philosophy is the best counter-argument to any or all of these arguments, using it comes at a cost: going into their wheelhouse. (That they are wrong doesn't matter--to them, which is all that matters here.) I'm utterly convinced at this point that theologians will philosophy away good philosophy forever (Hume is on Gilson's list!), and dealing with their philosophical arguments just keeps the conversation going and pushes them to ever slipperier ones (sort of--they still trot out old favorites that are centuries old too).
Let me make this abundantly plain: all theologians and apologists can do to defend their belief in God is to make philosophical-type arguments, so engaging in those carries an element of going into their wheelhouse.
Indulge a ridiculous thought experiment (that I don't suggest at all) for a moment. What would happen if pure philosophical-style arguments were taken off the table? How much of a case could an apologist make?
When they counter "what about you? Without philosophy you can't prove evidence matters!" throw a glass of water in their face to wake them up to the fact that evidence matters to everyone willing to be honest. That tactic is bullshit and they know it as well as you know it, and so should philosophers that try to trot it out while complaining about "scientism."
Philosophy is taken by theologians and apologists to be the central tool in their wheelhouse, and so a "scientistic turn" is justified if we want to be effective at working outside of their wheelhouse. Thus, any "scientistic turn" that has cropped up within the "New Atheism movement" is not only not surprising but probably wise.
This isn't a condemnation of philosophy or a statement that it isn't important, valuable, or awesome in its own ways. This is a statement that philosophy doesn't change the conversation the way that other tactics might, and in particular, cries of "scientism" from philosophers (which are usurped and wielded by those with a desire to protect theology, supernaturalism, or pseudoscience) aren't helping matters much and might be hurting them.