Thursday, January 13, 2011

A philosopher of religion calls it quits

From Jerry A. Coyne:
Philosopher Keith Parsons, from the University of Houston, has given up doing philosophy of religion.  According to Julia Galef, writing at Religious Dispatches, Parsons found the case for God to be insupportable.  As Parsons wrote on the website The Secular Outpost:
I have to confess that I now regard “the case for theism” as a fraud and I can no longer take it seriously enough to present it to a class as a respectable philosophical position—no more than I could present intelligent design as a legitimate biological theory. BTW, in saying that I now consider the case for theism to be a fraud, I do not mean to charge that the people making that case are frauds who aim to fool us with claims they know to be empty. No, theistic philosophers and apologists are almost painfully earnest and honest… I just cannot take their arguments seriously any more, and if you cannot take something seriously, you should not try to devote serious academic attention to it.
Parsons later said he regretted using the word “fraud,” but of course the case for God is a fraud. He just can’t say that publicly.  But, as Galef reports:
Parsons’ background in the sciences (he obtained his doctorate in the history and philosophy of science at University of Pittsburgh) made him wary of unfettered reasoning. “There’s so little empirical grounding and constraint in philosophy. Even in paleontology, a so-called soft science, the bones are there,” Parsons says. “You can go measure them, look at them. You can’t say anything the bones won’t let you say.”

This is my problem with philosophy in general. "Unfettered reasoning" - thinking which isn't grounded in and constrained by evidence - is just too unreliable. Many things may make sense, without being true. And likewise, many true things don't make sense, not at first.

Does it really make sense that we're all living on the surface of a rapidly-spinning ball? We know it's true because of the evidence, and that evidence induced us to come up with an explanation - gravity - that now seems reasonable. Well, it does seem reasonable if you've been taught it all your life, doesn't it? But could you have thought your way to that conclusion, which seems to violate common sense, without any evidence at all?

On the other side of this, you can think your way to elaborate arguments about the number of angels that can fit on the head of a pin. But without good evidence that angels exist at all, you're constructing your elaborate edifice on sand. Evidence is the solid foundation of real knowledge. Evidence-based thinking can be wrong, true. But such errors won't last long.

And apparently, the philosophy of religion has even bigger problems than the rest of philosophy. From Julia Galef:
His word choice ["fraud"] may have been the spark, but it landed on some particularly dry kindling: a general tension over the legitimacy of philosophy of religion in philosophy as a whole. Against the very nonreligious field of philosophy (73% of philosophers identify as atheist, according to one recent survey), the Christian-dominated subfield of philosophy of religion stands out.

“I think most philosophers basically agree with a book John Mackie wrote many years ago called The Miracle of Theism, the idea being that it was a miracle anybody could believe that,” Leiter says. To philosophers who feel like the case against God was settled hundreds of years ago, philosophy of religion often seems like apologetics, an effort to rationalize preexisting beliefs. ...

Compared to more esoteric subfields like philosophy of language or metaphysics, philosophy of religion is much more likely to attract people with deep-seated, lifelong beliefs about the topic. Because viewpoints in philosophy of religion are so emotionally fraught and bound up with a person’s lifestyle, values, and relationships, changing one’s mind is a daunting prospect. The central point of contention—the existence of God—is most fraught of all, not to mention starkly binary. “In philosophy of religion you do have this gap—either God exists or not. There’s no middle ground,” Parsons says.

It's very easy to believe what you want to believe. And in a society so overwhelmingly Christian, it's also easy for universities to give the philosophy of religion more respect than it deserves. Sometimes, wealthy Christians fund the entire program. And either way, it's usually popular with donors and with politicians.

But I'm sure it's not easy for a 58-year-old professor, highly respected in his field, to give up that field entirely. How many people could do that? How many people would do that? Last year, I posted about non-believing clergy - ministers and priests who'd lost their faith, but kept preaching, because giving up not just their job but their entire profession was just too hard to do. I sympathize, I really do.

But Parsons himself explained it this way:
Chiefly, though, I am motivated by a sense of ennui on the one hand and urgency on the other. A couple of years ago I was teaching a course in the philosophy of religion. We were using, among other works, C. Stephen Layman’s Letters to a Doubting Thomas: A Case for the Existence of God. In teaching class I try to present material that I find antithetical to my own views as fairly and in as unbiased a manner as possible. With the Layman book I was having a real struggle to do so. I found myself literally dreading having to go over this material in class—NOT, let me emphasize, because I was intimidated by the cogency of the arguments. On the contrary, I found the arguments so execrably awful and pointless that they bored and disgusted me (Layman is not a kook or an ignoramus; he is the author of a very useful logic textbook).

I have, myself, noticed this sort of thing. I enjoy debating with people who disagree with me. But many arguments for religion are so bad it's embarrassing. I find it's just not worth my time to bother with them, especially when I've heard them a million times.

Let me assure you that I don't mean all religious belief or all believers. Many believers simply rely on faith. And while I can certainly explain why I think faith-based thinking is a bad idea, it's hard to argue with someone who simply wants to believe what he wants to believe. And I can disagree with other arguments without being embarrassed at the level of the discussion.

But the people who promote so-called "intelligent design," for example, or "young earth" creationists, the people who try to pretend that their faith-based beliefs have evidence or reason behind them, their arguments tend to be just hopelessly bad, bringing up points that have been discredited over and over again.

So what would it be like if I actually had to teach those claims - not as fact, but even just as rational arguments due our respectful attention. Yes, this would be like having to teach "intelligent design" in a biology class. I can certainly understand the difficulty.

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