Sunday, 19 July 2015

Philosophy is fair game

I’m a bit tired of the pontifications of Dawkins, Harris, Krauss and Chomsky. Whilst they are all PhDs or professors, their area of specialisation is not philosophy. Their comments seem to show a lack of understanding of the large body of research that stands behind the respective areas that they comment on so glibly. 

This is not to say that I disagree with them. It seems to me, prima facie, that what they say is correct. My point of objection is that they think that it’s ok to just talk informally about an area of specialisation that is not their area. Dawkins is a biologist. Yet he writes books about the existence of God without demonstrating any understanding or knowledge of the philosophical literature. Harris is a neuroscientist. Yet he writes on free-will. Krauss is a physicist, yet he’s dismissive of philosophy of science without any charity. And Chomsky is a linguist, yet he waxes lyrical about politics.

Philosophy is not just an arbitrary set of ideas that nonspecialists are entitled to pontificate about. If I went round, saying I was an emperor, just because some moistened… oh wait, that’s something else. If I went around saying stuff about biology, neuroscience, physics or linguistics and pretended to be some authority or expert in that area, I’m pretty damn sure these guys would call me on it and say, "hang on, you don’t actually have a higher degree in that area and your opinion doesn’t count”. I mean, can you imagine what Dawkins would say if I said that actually Lamarckism is right? I don’t think it is, but imagine the look of contempt on his face? 

Just because something makes sense to you or you think you have a novel philosophical idea, it doesn’t mean it is either novel or that your idea is worth mentioning - because believe it or not, there are professional philosophers who have churned every single idea around to death, and found that most of them don’t work. So whatever you’re saying philosophically has probably been said before, in much more detail, but by actual philosophers. I’d like to suggest that before you give an opinion, take a look at I’m pretty sure you’ll find that your idea has been exhaustively discussed already.

As a simple example, Dawkins mentions Bayes’ Theorem in his God Delusion, in one sentence. It takes me five chapters in my PhD to adequately dismiss the argument he presents in one sentence. This shows how little seriousness he accords the theistic position, and, that he is therefore guilty of a major, major straw man fallacy. Please, non-philosophers, stop acting as if you have something novel or useful to say to add to the debate. At most you’re demonstrating a disrespect for the discipline and your contempt for it by failing to do the most rudimentary research. Please look at the website given above and learn what experts have discussed, agreed on, said, and also what is unsaid. If you have something useful to contribute, please submit it to a philosophy journal, see if you get published, and then you will be entitled to an opinion on it. Note that I’m not saying you have to have a PhD. Just do your homework first. You can talk casually on facebook about ideas, but please do not assume you are saying something new.

Just as I do not qualify, or have the right to, an opinion on Lamarckism, because I have not researched evolutionary biology, so does Dawkins not have a right to comment on theism without doing his homework and demonstrating the appropriate level of academic discipline. He should know better, after all, he is a prof.

The point is that even the ancient greeks were winging it and didn't have 2500 years of argument to back up their views. Anyone on facebook who writes what they think is more or less using hearsay and ignoring 2500 years of thought.

So, yes, Plato and friends were amateurs like anyone else on facebook, and were very often wrong or simplistic, which is why the disciplines still exist.

The same for science. Aristotle made many pronouncements about science but he was mostly wrong. We can respect him as an original but not really use him nowadays. The same goes for anyone else who just wings it. You need to see what has been said before you just assume your view is legit. However, whilst people are prepared to grant that respect to the sciences, they are not prepared to grant it to philosophy, and trot out the tired old canard "I am entitled to my opinion". No, no you aren't. I've spent over 20 years on this and I can tell you that I still make major errors and do not understand the nuances of some of the debates.

Imagine the outrage if I went on facebook and pronounced that set theory was nonsense, or that I had refuted quantum mechanics? Everyone would point at me and laugh and say that I was a crank, a hack, and an amateur. So why do people think they can get away with doing precisely the same to philosophy?

A useful distinction given to me by Rodger Wilkie: Opinion versus Position. An opinion is just your view. A position is an opinion that you’ve done research on and that you can defend with an argument. I am not interested in your opinions. I am interested in your positions.

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