Right Answers And What Makes For A Good Philosopher


Just going to put this on the table:

Question: You work in the field of the philosophy of religion. Are you a religious person and do you think philosophy of religion can be done by people who aren’t?

Answer: Let me take your questions in order. I am a Christian; I was brought up in a Christian family; and I’ve never really wavered from that worldview. I definitely think that Philosophy of Religion can be done (and done well) by people who aren’t religious; but I do think that there are several things that make for a good philosopher—getting the right answers; getting them to important questions; and getting to the answers in the right way. And if I’m right in my Theism (as of course I can’t but help think that I am; otherwise, I’d swap horse), then atheistic philosophers of religion, say, won’t be as good by some of these criteria as theistic ones, though of course they may be—sometimes are—very good by reference to the last, having very clever arguments.

That’s Tim Mawson (Oxford University) in an interview by Richard Marshall at 3:AM Magazine.

(Roy Lichtenstein, Bull I-VI)

(Roy Lichtenstein, Bull I-VI)

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E. K.
E. K.
5 years ago

“And if I’m right in my Theism (as of course I can’t but help think that I am; otherwise, I’d swap horse) … ” Well, that’s the key, isn’t it? The claim is that atheists can’t be as good at philosophy of religion because they aren’t arriving at the right answers – which includes, “of course,” that God exists … But even he frames that as a pretty big “if,” so he’s not really saying much.
Another way to put it – the exact same argument could be made from the atheist perspective: “Well, religious people can’t be as good at philosophy of religion because they aren’t arriving at the right answer (that God doesn’t exist).”
All sorts of question-begging going on here – which doesn’t seem like very good philosophy …Report

ABCDEFGodthåb
ABCDEFGodthåb
Reply to  E. K.
5 years ago

I think you’re misunderstanding Mawson. I take it that he would be perfectly happy to grant that the same argument can be made from the atheist perspective. Mawson is not giving an argument to convince atheist philosophers of religion that they are worse at it. He is giving an explanation as to why it seems to him, as a theist, that theist philosophers of religion are better at it by appealing to the criterion of truth in evaluating philosophy.

That arriving at true conclusions is an advantage in terms of being good at philosophy is also argued for by David Lewis here (http://www.andrewmbailey.com/dkl/Academic_Appointments.pdf), though in the context of consider why it might not be a good idea to take that particular qualification into account when making hiring decisions. So Mawson is not alone in holding that criterion. I’m inclined to think it’s a weird criterion, but it’s a bit uncharitable to characterize Mawson as engaged in egregious question-begging. Report

Clayton
Reply to  E. K.
5 years ago

“I do think that there are several things that make for a good philosopher—getting the right answers; getting them to important questions; and getting to the answers in the right way. And if I’m right in my Theism (as of course I can’t but help think that I am; otherwise, I’d swap horse), then atheistic philosophers of religion, say, won’t be as good by some of these criteria as theistic ones, though of course they may be—sometimes are—very good by reference to the last, having very clever arguments.”

I think there’s something in the neighborhood of this that’s probably right, but I’m worried about the conception of ‘right answer’ that’s operative here. It seems that Mawson’s conception of right answer is one that says that x has the right answer iff x has a true belief where the belief’s content counts as an answer to the question. On the mere truth account if God exists, the atheist and agnostic automatically does worse than the theist because all the theist needs to do is get the true belief in his/her head and it doesn’t matter so much how it got there or what sustains it. It seems to me, though, that there are lots of bad ways to get truths into your head and keep them there. Philosophy of religion might just be one of those ways. Some of my colleagues insist that we know or should know that our philosophical beliefs don’t constitute knowledge. If so, there might be theists who have the true belief that God exists who should also realize that they don’t know this. I don’t think it’s a healthy state to be in, taking God to exist while taking it that nobody could know that or taking it that God exists and keeping this belief in place only be suppressing the negative epistemic evaluation of your situation.

If, on the other hand, we thought that it mattered whether you -knew- the answer to philosophical questions, you really would have a harder time arguing that the atheist was worse off than the theist just given the assumption that theism is true. Sure, the atheist would get things wrong but perhaps the theist gets a correct belief they have no right to and that’s irrational to hold. (And if they believe -that- (i.e., p and it’s irrational for me to think this), that belief might be -another- true belief, but one that you’re better off for having!?! No.) I think that once we get Plato’s point right (true belief by itself isn’t worth all that much), it’s harder to see what’s so great about sustaining a belief on these matters that just happens to be true if it’s not formed in such a way that the believer is in touch with the relevant realities. If our pessimistic friends who are skeptical of philosophical knowledge are right, maybe the theist and the atheist are both doing badly regardless of whether theism or atheism are true because they should have known better than to abandon agnosticism.

(Not my view, for what it’s worth. I don’t get the skepticism about philosophical knowledge in general and I tend to think David Lewis got this stuff just right (the arguments from evil are pretty damn good), but it seems to me that the move from saying that someone has a true belief to the conclusion that someone is thereby doing better than those who don’t is a really, really bad one.) Report

UG
UG
Reply to  E. K.
5 years ago

It’s really bizarre that you would accuse him of begging the question since he made a conditional claim. Report

E.K.
E.K.
Reply to  UG
5 years ago

Right, but he strongly implies the affirmation of the antecedent (“If I’m right – and I think I am … “), without which it’s not clear to me what he’s saying at all. Again, I’ll give it some more thought.Report

Clement
Clement
5 years ago

Some historians of medieval philosophy (including Gilson) have argued that philosophy flourished in a theistic context, or more specifically: Christianity provides a kind of biosphere for philosophy. Certain topics in metaphysics and ethics, like the immortality of the soul, divine attributes, or free will, become pressing issues in light of Christian religious beliefs. Religious motivations occasion the investigation of certain topics, without necessarily providing evidence for the truth that must be demonstrated philosophically.Report

Jayarava
Reply to  Clement
5 years ago

“Certain topics in metaphysics and ethics, like the immortality of the soul, divine attributes, or free will, become pressing issues in light of Christian religious beliefs.”

This is far from convincing. These topics are only interesting *at all* if we stipulate Christian beliefs. If we don’t the the problems don’t arise. For example the issue of “free will” is absent from Classical Indian philosophy. Though they do discuss problems to do with agency, they are never bothered by the Christian problem of having disobeyed God. The problem of evil become localised, even in theistic forms of Hinduism, whereas for Christians it is global. Had we never been Christians before we became neuroscientists then I doubt the question of freewill would ever have arisen. It’s a silly way to characterise the phenomenology of agency. In fact I’d go so far as to say that legacy of Medieval philosophy continues to hold back progress in philosophy generally, by diverting us to irrelevant or poorly stated problems.

In my field, Buddhist Studies, the religious beliefs of the scholars in our field, or at least their deep sympathies with those religious beliefs, continue to hold back progress in assessing the contribution of Buddhist thought to the modern world. All too many scholars tacitly assent to the Medieval Buddhist Worldview before setting out to study it.Report

E.K.
E.K.
5 years ago

Thanks for the thoughtful responses. I’ll ponder a bit …Report

Hey Nonny Mouse
Hey Nonny Mouse
5 years ago

I don’t think that having the right answer makes you a better philosopher per se. Plenty of people believe something true for awful reasons, whereas plenty of the best philosophers arrive at false conclusions.Report

Tom
Tom
Reply to  Hey Nonny Mouse
5 years ago

Yes, if only Mawson had also claimed that “getting to the answers in the right way” was part of it. Oh wait…Report

C
C
Reply to  Tom
5 years ago

In fairness to HNM, Mawson spoke as if getting it right was all by itself a good making feature (quite apart from whether in getting it right it was arrived at in the right way) and I think HNM is right to question that.Report

Jayarava
5 years ago

I think this shows exactly why religious people are bad at philosophy—they hold too strongly to beliefs that distort the intellectual landscape. Every philosophical question has to be viewed in the light of belief that forces axioms on the religious philosopher. They never really do philosophy at all, only theology. For example Tim Mawson cannot rationally approach the question of the existence of God because he thinks a priori that this problem has been solved. He’s committed to an ontology for which there is no valid epistemology. And this is just bad philosophy. Report

Jayarava
Reply to  Justin Weinberg
5 years ago

I really don’t think you’ve read what I wrote. The argument is quite simple. If one believes in a omniscient, omnipotent, supernatural being who created the universe (and all of the other counter-intuitive properties such a being has by definition) then one cannot think rationally about that issue. A believer is necessarily irrational with respect to the existence of God because one has a settled belief on a subject that cannot be settled by rational means. One doesn’t need any more than Mawson’s confession of being a Theist to come to this conclusion, though the ridiculous nature of his answer does support my conclusion that he is a bad philosopher, because it is an example of bad philosophy. This reflection opens a door, because of the nature of *this particular* belief, i.e. the belief in an omnipotent and omniscient supernatural being.

This chink of irrationality infects all of the Theist’s reasoning. It cannot help but do so. if there is an omnipotent, omniscient supernatural being, then it is relevant to *all* philosophical questions of whatever kind. One cannot avoid an omnipresent God precisely because it is *omnipresent*. For a Theist, God is necessarily relevant to all questions of philosophy. So philosophy always becomes theology in the end. God is always the bottom line in any unsettled matter one wishes to discuss with a theist. The whole endeavour of intellectual inquiry is distorted by this one over-arching belief. God is the axiom that is present in all syllogisms. It’s just unavoidable for a convinced theist. Why would anyone but another believe even be interested in anything they had to say? I only came here because someone tweeted the clickbait headline.

I really do not think there are religious people who are good philosophers. Christianity is not my field, but in my field of Buddhism there are no good religious philosophers because they all irrationally accept certain axioms of Buddhism and cannot think past them. I mean this quite literally. There are *no* good religious philosophers in my field. There are plenty that are *acknowledged* as good by others who accept the same fundamental axioms as indisputable, but as someone who does not accept those axioms, I can *always* find the flawed reasoning, because fundamental axioms always come up. I would require a great deal of convincing that Christian theists were any different. My intuition and limited experience of discussing theology with Christians suggests that they would be worse, if anything. God is a mighty cognitive bias to have.

Having a massive and persistent cognitive bias is the definition of irrational. And most of us a far less rational than we like to think, to start with. We’re much worse than random at solo reasoning tasks (see for example work by Huge Mercier and Dan Sperber on reasoning). So my expectations of a person reasoning are pretty low to start with, but when you *consciously admit* to having a major cognitive bias then that is hardly likely to raise expectations. I know everything I need to know about Mawson from his answer. Enough to know that his work could never be relevant to me.

And I *am* religious, after a fashion. And yes, that makes me a bad philosopher too, though I count myself as an historian of ideas rather than a philosopher, so I’m happy to admit being bad at it. Report

zain
zain
Reply to  Jayarava
5 years ago

Why is there no valid epistemology for believing in God? I am not acquainted with Mawson’s work either but why are we assuming he has no valid reasons for the ontology he accepts?
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Jayarava
Reply to  zain
5 years ago

The is no evidence for God. The best surviving arguments are either interpretation of subjective experience or God-in-the-gaps arguments, neither of which are sound. So there is no way to *know* that God exists. One can only *believe* this. This is not an epistemology that can substantiate anything. Report

UG
UG
Reply to  Jayarava
5 years ago

You’re right, Jayarava! Bas van Fraassen, Alvin Plantinga, Richard Swinburne, Mark Murphy, John Hawthorne, Dean Zimmerman, Peter van Inwagen….etc. are just a bunch of silly religious people who suck at philosophy! They are all total jokes – does anyone even read their work or take it seriously?

More seriously: you say “X cannot rationally approach the question of Y, because he already thinks that the problem has been solved” (I didn’t know the existence of God was “a problem”?), but why should we think that one cannot rationally think about questions that they know (or think they know) the answer to? Suppose that I think that I think proper functionalism is correct, and suppose that someone presents to me a “problem” for proper functionalism that I think there is an answer for. On your view, I cannot rationally respond to this question, but why should we think that? This would mean that only extreme agnostics who don’t believe anything can “rationally” approach questions in philosophy. Anyway, it just looks like you’re using a silly definition of rational.Report

Jayarava
Reply to  UG
5 years ago

Sarcasm is also bad philosophy. It doesn’t progress the argument at all and is apt to be misunderstood. I know there are millions of people who believe in God, and no doubt many thousands of philosophers who write about the issue. But yes they are *all* silly and bad at philosophy. They cannot help but be bad at it, precisely because they believe in God. A settled belief wrt metaphysical speculation is silly and it does distort the intellectual landscape and the resulting cognitive bias makes reasoning flawed. In all cases. Once the door into settling matters of metaphysical speculation is open then all sort of other kinds of speculation also come into focus: life after death, and a moral universes for example.

The existence of God is absolutely a philosophical problem. Any time we speculate about metaphysics, that is exactly a philosophical problem. Usually speculation about the supernatural is bad philosophy.

Proper functionalism doesn’t seem like metaphysical speculation to me. The reasoning involved is about whether one requires functioning senses in order to have valid beliefs. It makes predictions that can be easily tested and the results of such tests will make it clear whether it is reasonable or not. Theism is a belief system which proposes that an omnipotent, omniscient, supernatural being exists. I think to try to generalise my observation about theism to all kinds of problems is simply a category mistake. It’s not an interesting response.

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Andrew Sepielli
Andrew Sepielli
Reply to  Jayarava
5 years ago

Coulter (2006) has persuasively argued that liberalism is a religion. Does that mean that all liberals are bad at philosophy?Report

Tom
Tom
Reply to  Andrew Sepielli
5 years ago

Unfortunately, I can’t google this without running into Ann Coulter. Do you have a link to the paper?Report

Andrew Sepielli
Andrew Sepielli
Reply to  Tom
4 years ago

Yes, that’s the author’s name: Ann Coulter. Her book is called Godless: The Church of Liberalism. I think it’s her Locke Lectures from a couple years ago, but don’t quote me on that.Report

Matt Weiner
Matt Weiner
Reply to  Tom
4 years ago

I believe the reference is in fact to Ann Coulter’s 2006 book (and is tongue in cheek, at least I hope so).Report

Mark Murphy
Mark Murphy
Reply to  Jayarava
5 years ago

I am just relieved to see my being silly and bad at philosophy chalked up to my theism, and not to my myriad actual philosophical shortcomings. Report

UG
UG
Reply to  Jayarava
5 years ago

Jayarava, what argument are you trying to “progress”? All I saw was your ignorant and dogmatic comment about philosophers of religion, who you clearly know nothing about. Or are you trying to make progress towards ignorance and dogmatism? If so, well done.Report

Furry Boots
Furry Boots
5 years ago

I’m finding it slightly hard to believe that this is at all controversial: “I do think that there are several things that make for a good philosopher—getting the right answers; getting them to important questions; and getting to the answers in the right way.” Getting the right answers is arguably less important than the other criteria, and perhaps other criteria should be added to this list, but surely being right cannot be irrelevant to the quality of one’s philosophical work. Report

Furry Boots
Furry Boots
Reply to  Furry Boots
5 years ago

I think I’ve already changed my mind about this. Getting the right answers is important, but doesn’t make one a good philosopher. Report

G
G
5 years ago

I would think the best philosophers of religion (everything else being equal) are people who are genuine agnostics for whom the the truth or falsity of various religious tenets and the existence or nonexistence of God is a truly open questions Report

UG
UG
Reply to  G
5 years ago

I think there’s quite a bit of empirical evidence to the contrary. Also, would you say that the best moral Philosophers are the ones who are agnostic about whether or not moral realism is true?Report

YesYesItIsMe
YesYesItIsMe
Reply to  UG
5 years ago

I think what G is pointing at is that the more open and flexible philosophers of religion, without being tied down to personal beliefs or thoughts on religion and God, the better they are at exploring the issues within and contributing to the overall debate. While coming to a definite answer, whether right or wrong, is praiseworthy, it stops the philosopher from going deeper and exploring further. Religious philosophers CAN ( but not necessarily WILL) come to definite conclusions because religion (or theology) fills that gap in the debate and makes it appear that an answer has been reached. Therefore, compared to genuinely agnostic philosophers, religious philosophers can be philosophers of religion, but they may not be the best philosophers of religion in so far as contributing to the overall debate and expanding the field.Report

UG
UG
Reply to  YesYesItIsMe
5 years ago

Again, there is quite a bit of empirical evidence to the contrary that agnostic philosophers of religion are better than theist philosophers of religion. Moreover, do you think that philosophers who are genuinely agnostic about moral realism and its counterpart are better than those who are e.g. realists? Furthermore, why think that philosophers who are theists (or atheists) do not go deeper than agnostics? What reason is there for thinking that? Seems to me that many theists go quite “deep.” Report

G
G
5 years ago

I should have specified I meant when coming into the field. Of course after investigation one can be a theist atheist or whatever and that is no strike against you. I also do think this is true for moral realism, even though the best argument for it is our unreflective, everyday, moral lives. Our ordinary experience is the data for moral philosophy, but it is not a theory, and it was theoretical commitment that I meant.Report

UG
UG
Reply to  G
5 years ago

How many philosophers of religion who are theists do you know that treat theism as a hypothesis or theory? I know there are some (e.g. (at times) Swinburne), but they seem to me to be few and far between.Report