Interview at RationalHub

For anyone who might be interested, I’ve done a long (it comes to over 6000 words) interview at RationalHub. It was quite a searching interview – I was asked questions about the New Atheism, free will, metaethics, science-religion accommodationism, arguments for the existence of God, the relationship between science and philosophy, and the spectre of “scientism”.

Come to think of it, the interview could have been even longer … as most of these questions are worth a book each.

[Pssst, my Amazon author page]

  1. Thanks, Russell, I very much appreciated your interview, even though I’m already pretty familiar with your views.

    Russell: Come to think of it, the interview could have been even longer … as most of these questions are worth a book each.

    Well, one book covering all the questions would be a welcome start. Seriously, I wish there was a book I could recommend to non-philosophers, laying out a broad set of philosophical views that I think are mostly in the right ballpark, as I think yours are. I don’t know of any such book at present, and for me you’re the philosopher to write one. In the meantime, I’ll bookmark that interview.

    Ordinary language is full of ambiguity, metaphor, and approximation, and often the problems of what is really going are resistant to the methods of, say, lexicographers. So philosophers are trained to clarify concepts, tease apart their components, make careful distinctions, etc., with natural language.

    It seems to me that most philosophers pay rather little attention to such language issues, making me wonder whether it actually is a standard part of philosophical training, or at least whether it gets enough emphasis. Having arrived at something like an “ordinary language” view of philosophy myself (not having had a philosophical training) I was disappointed to discover that such views apparently were once more widely held than they are today. That seems like a retrograde development.

    Of course philosophers generally do see themselves as being in the business of clarifying concepts. But many don’t seem to feel the need to get at concepts by looking at language use. Many seem to see concepts as having an almost Platonic or essential nature which is independent of how people actually use the corresponding words. On that view, perhaps, it’s not the concepts that are vague but our use of them.

    I believe my thinking about philosophy has been much helped (though some might say biased) by an interest in language and linguistics that long predates my interest in philosophy.

    Interviewer: Would not subscribing to moral realism, by any means, imply ‘anything goes’?

    There’s an easy answer to that question. “Anything goes” is itself a moral claim (as it’s reasonably interpreted in this context), so it’s consistent for those who reject the truth of moral claims to reject that one too. Of course they should equally reject the claim “not everything goes”.

  2. P.S. Oops, my “not everything goes” was ambiguous. I meant it to have the sense that “some things don’t go”. But I think it could be taken as meaning “it’s not the case that everything goes”, which a moral error theorist could assent to. Such are the problems of ordinary language.

  3. On another point…

    Russell: Part of the problem here is that there are many different conceptions of philosophy and science. As I understand them, I don’t think there’s any clear dividing line between the two.

    Agreed. I’ll take the liberty of reposting something I recently wrote on this subject elsewhere…

    In my view [the problem under discussion] (like many in philosophy) arises from semantic (linguistic) confusion. I broadly agree with Wittgenstein, when he said that philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intellect by our language. (I would say “successful philosophy is mostly a battle…”)

    So in my view one major thing that distinguishes effective philosophy from science is an emphasis on studying language and meaning. This is not an absolute distinction. Scientists sometimes need to think about language and meaning too, as do people in other fields of enquiry and everyday life. But it’s of much greater importance in philosophy, so philosophers should be (and sometimes are) more skilled in it.

    It helps if we stop seeing the distinction between science and philosophy as an absolute one. There are many criteria that reasonably contribute to our labelling something as “science” or “philosophy” and these are mostly matters of degree, not absolute dichotomies. Hence, science and philosophy are fuzzy categories that overlap. Once we recognise this we can waste less time arguing whether a question should be labelled “scientific” or “philosophical” and instead concentrate on thinking about how to answer the question.

  4. Richard,

    “I broadly agree with Wittgenstein, when he said that philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intellect by our language.”

    I agree too, though from a different perspective. For me there is too much analysis of language – doing linguistics and thinking it’s doing philosophy. A necessary process, but it seems to me that this often results in the linguistics being mistaken for the philosophy. For me the philosophy is independent of the language. We just happen to require language to express our philosophy, to ourselves introspectively when working it out, and to each other.

    It seems that much philosophy spends a lot of time in language looking out to some uncertain reality beyond. And this in turn stems from the concept of ‘mind’, and the consequential primacy of thought – the importance given to pure rationalism, even when considering its alternatives.

    Basically this primacy of thought is that philosophers see consciousness as the starting point. Historically it was. As individuals and as a species we start to think with reason when the development of thinking is already under way. We have no personal or species memory of how our thinking started or of what came before, so we tend to see it as the main line to knowledge. What we forget and what science now shows is that as a species (our non-brained ancestors) and as individuals (a zygote) we start as experiencing physical entities. Most of what philosophers have wondered about innate knowledge is related to that history.

    We are primarily experiencing sensory beings that happen to have a sensory organ, the brain, that senses itself to a degree that we experience as self-awareness. And because the brain cannot sense itself physically, to the same extent it can sense touch and pain elsewhere, there seems to be a physical disconnect. This introspective perspective has traditionally been mistaken for an independent mind, and from their flows all the big mistakes: theism that imagines a similar but super consciousness; idealisms that suppose consciousness creates the physical experience instead of simply observing the physical experience; rationalism that sees the mind as the primary tool; free-will; the hard problem of consciousness.

    This is no logical refutation of idealism, rationalism, solipsism or any other mind based philosophy. But if we take science seriously, then we need to rethink this perspective. I can’t see how we can reject the implications of the apparent physical nature of the brain, and the evidence from evolution and neuroscience, that we are physical experiential beings with an emerged behaviour that is thinking, without rejecting all of science and going balls out for solipsism.

    Instead, the tradition of philosophy lingers on with many philosophers (and theologians disguised as philosophers) and the discussion get stuck in language games and speculations about entirely imagined realities that are often presented as if they are actual realities. We get to gods made in our image, and mistake that for us being in a god’s image; we observe our consciousness, and mistake that for a hint at an underlying panpsychism; we imagine minimalist representations of real triangles and think that this approximation is the real pure form.

    I don’t see a drastic difference between science and philosophy when both are done well together. The one thing that this combination has going for it is that it is the only route to knowledge that has complementary means of verification, falsification, consistent repeatability, etc. If we can think about it and physically test it and those two routes agree, then we are getting closer to any reality that is out there. At least the productivity of science and philosophy, in the senses and reason that is modern empiricism, is in itself evidence of that. And it dispels easily all the other contradictory philosophies as figments of our imagination. Or, if it doesn’t dispel them categorically it at least demonstrates that they are so ineffectual in the testable world that they might as well be fantasies.

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