Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Philosophy and the Atheist Experience

Do you like philosophy? I don't, not really. And maybe this will demonstrate why.

This video clip is from the Atheist Experience TV show, episode #593, with hosts Matt Dillahunty and Tracie Harris. The whole show is available here, or you can watch it in nine 10-minute segments (the first of which is here).

It's all very interesting, but my purpose today is not to post the whole episode. So I'm starting with the above clip, segment #3, where their caller is Matt Slick of the Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry (CARM).

This particular clip is just the beginning of the discussion, which goes on for several more clips (here, here, here, and here). But if you like philosophy, you might find them interesting.

Heck, I don't like philosophy, and I still find it interesting. But it demonstrates, I think, my biggest problem with philosophy. Science is grounded in evidence, but philosophy seems to be just words. And although the intention is admirable, no doubt, I have to wonder if philosophy ever actually accomplishes anything.

Do philosophers ever come to a consensus, the way scientists do? Philosophers ask the questions, but do they ever get any answers - at least, answers they can all agree on? If not, what good is it?

Now, I thought this discussion was very interesting,... but not especially useful. They started off in complete disagreement, and that's how they ended up, too.

Make no mistake, I think Matt Slick was wrong and Matt Dillahunty was right. Well, that's not a big surprise, is it? But I understood the point Dillahunty was making. (Note that I really like Tracie Harris, and if you watch the whole show, you might see why, but she didn't have a part in this particular discussion.)

But again, I don't think any of this is actually useful. Slick was trying to prove the existence of God through philosophy,... and he still is. Dillahunty's objections had no effect. Well, you might not be surprised at that. But do philosophers ever come to a consensus?

Because scientists do. Science is based on evidence, and when the evidence is there, scientists generally accept it. Oh, they won't change their minds easily, and they'll certainly search for alternative explanations, but evidence grounds scientists in reality.

As far as I can see, philosophers don't seem to be grounded in anything. It's all words. And yes, it might be logical, but logic by itself isn't necessarily valid. Many things throughout history have seemed logical to intelligent people, but were still wrong. Well, science can be wrong, too, but the scientific consensus has a much greater chance of being right.

And that's why I just can't get on board with philosophy. I thought this was a very interesting discussion, even an entertaining one, but was it useful?

But maybe I'm wrong about this. Do philosophers ever come to a consensus the way scientists do? If not, then I'd say that philosophy is not a good way to try to determine the truth. If philosophers can stick with what they believe, despite what other philosophers say - and it's all just competing arguments, right? - then who can say what the truth really is?

Science works. Does philosophy?


Jim Harris said...

Yes, but can science explain logical absolutes? Can science even explain mathematics? I too agree with Matt the atheist, but both Matts are working within a philosophical system that does work. The trouble is Matt the theist tries to use logic to explain God by equating God with the existence of logical absolutes.

I have only listened to two of the segments, so this might come up later. Did they try to explain the differences between logical absolutes and memes? God is a meme. I can understand why Matt the theist wants God to be a logical absolute, but there's one problem with that. Logical absolutes have no real interaction with the physical world, and theists want to believe that God created the physical world and continues to interact with it.

What we're dealing with is two non-physical entities: logical absolutes and memes. Logical absolutes exist fine without humans, but memes are human creations.

WCG said...

Why does anyone need to explain logical absolutes, Jim? And why does mathematics need to be "explained" at all? Math is just a tool.

My point is that, if philosophers never come to a consensus like scientists do, then it's no better than religion at actually answering any questions.

Yeah, they may have fun debating how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, but does it really accomplish anything? It doesn't seem so to me, but I don't know much about philosophy.

Jim Harris said...

Bill, your problem is you are looking at the past of philosophy. Which is like looking at old scientific arguments from the 17th century.

Old philosophy does sound stupid and like religion, full of conjecture and speculation that sounds like counting angels on the head of a pin.

But there are some things that science can't explore. There's far more to math than just a tool for science. Someday we will come to the end of science. We will know pretty much what there is to know about reality that science can tell us - but it won't be everything. We will want new worlds to explore, art, aesthetics, philosophy, math, logic, etc. will offer us new territory if they don't get all used up too. But I imagine we'll find even newer mental pursuits.

However, I do think there are limits for mankind.

WCG said...

Jim, there's no doubt that not all questions are scientific questions. I agree with you about that. But what you haven't shown me is that philosophy is a valid way to answer those questions.

You can argue that science is not a useful way to answer a particular question, but that doesn't imply that philosophy is. You see what I mean? It's sort of like the "god of the gaps" fallacy. Philosophy doesn't win by default.

And it's true that I may be thinking of ancient philosophy. I admit not knowing much about this subject. But you haven't answered my question. Do philosophers come to a consensus in the same way scientists do? If not, how do you decide which philosopher is actually right?

Chimeradave said...

We've been debating this multiple times and never getting anywhere, but maybe I can put a few more logs on the fire. Science, Math, Philosophy, Aesthetics, they are all concepts and they can begin to blur.

The Golden Triangles are a math concept, but science discovered that on "beautiful" faces the proportions form golden triangles. but, beauty is an aesthetic concept, an interpretation.

The idea of Id, Ego, and Super Ego, it's practically taught as scientific fact in psychology classes, but it's just an idea a philosophy.

Democracy, Justice, Society, none of these are scientific, they're philosophical ideas.

WCG said...

John, I freely admit that not everything is a question of science. But that doesn't mean any other method gets a free pass.

You already know what I think about faith, that it's not a valid way to determine the truth. Well, is philosophy? You can't just say that science doesn't answer some questions. You must show me how some other method does.

We know that science works, and we know how it works. Can you say the same thing about philosophy? That's all I'm asking.

Admittedly, I'm firmly on top of Mount Stupid when it comes to philosophy. But that doesn't mean I'll give it a free pass. I still need some evidence that it works.

Do philosophers come to a consensus on their conclusions, like scientists do? I really don't know. But if not, then I'd say it's not useful in determining the truth.

In questions of science, I can confidently accept the scientific consensus - not as definitely true, but as the best bet, the best answer we currently have. I don't have to be an expert on the question myself, I just have to understand the scientific method.

How does philosophy compare? Is there a consensus? Is there a reason to choose one answer over another? With faith, for example, there isn't. Faith never comes to a consensus, and there's never a good reason to choose one answer over another.

But is philosophy the same way?

Jim Harris said...

Well Bill, you use philosophy every day. Rhetoric and logic are the tools of philosophy like math is the handmaiden of science. Philosophy is only a system of arguing about ideas. Most people confuse the history of philosophy with philosophy, but it's not the same. The history of philosophy is about the evolution of ideas and arguments.

The video above gives a good example. Both Matts know their rhetoric - that's why they agree so much as first. It's only when Matt the theist starts making rhetorical mistakes do they get into disagreeing.

One of the great arguments of philosophy is whether or not God can be proven to exist by logic. Zillions have tried, but modern philosophers discount this. Every mental discipline reaches a limit - even science.

If God exists he (or she, or it) is well hidden from both science and philosophy. Interestingly, religion has no validity in detecting or defining God because it has no intellectual consistency at all. Religion has tried to incorporate science and philosophy but it always fails. This is what Matt the theist is doing, and he is failing.

If God exists, he, she or it is beyond the scope of our minds to detect or comprehend. So far religion has only created a long series of varying memes. Science, philosophy and logic tell us they are all imaginary, but they can't disprove that something like a God might exist.

Modern philosophy is more concerned with ethics, art and aesthetics and stays out of religion.

Chimeradave said...

You're thinking about philosophy wrong Bill. Not everything is just black and white. You can't say "is philosophy scientific?" No, of course not. If Philosophy was scientific, it would be science.

Sometimes I wonder if you're Mr. Spock or a super-computer Bill.

Think about Democracy. We have one system here, Britain has another, France has another. Are any of them right, are any of them wrong. They each have strengths and weaknesses. But it's not cut and dry. That's how philosophy is.

Think about Art what's great art now may not be appreciated 100 years from now.

Think about Beauty. Helen of Troy had the face that launched a thousand ships. Who knows what we'd think of her today?

These aren't bad things, not to me anyway. I don't see why everything has to be scientifically provable.

WCG said...

Well, guys, if philosophy is just about having a good time debating ideas, that's OK. But if it's actually supposed to be a way to determine which ideas are right, that's something else entirely.

If philosophy is a means to an end, then we have to ask if it's useful for that purpose. Does it have a clear mechanism for discerning the truth, such that philosophers are able to come to a consensus on what's true and what isn't?

Maybe philosophy doesn't even try to do that. I really don't know. As I noted, I don't know much about it. John says that I'm thinking about philosophy wrong, and that wouldn't surprise me in the slightest. But what's the right way?

Certainly, it doesn't have to "be science." That's not what I'm saying. I'm just asking if philosophy is effective in doing whatever it is that it attempts to do. If there's a reason for philosophy, then we should be able to ask about results.

Jim says that it's a system of arguing about ideas. Great. But is it an effective system, then? Do those arguments tend to come to any conclusions? Do we actually find out which of those ideas are right and which aren't?

In this particular debate, I didn't think it was effective at all. It was clever, and even entertaining. But it didn't seem to be any more than that, did it?

Anonymous said...

Apparently you haven't heard of the term "wissenschaft."

Philosophy involves careful reflection, logic, interpretation, discussion & debate, refinement of concepts and interpretation - all things used in science and mathematics, and other disciples. In fact, it is not only the mother of all academic disciplines, it is *still* generating ideas that science later investigates (always has, still does).

When you say it's "just words" - are you claiming that science has no words? Indeed, could there even be mathematics without words? Or any *useful* human communication? And what is that *you* are using? Non-words?

And can you absolutely define where philosophy begins and science ends?

Lastly, don't you think it's ironic (and thus, bad philosophy on your part) to make a philosophical argument about why philosophy is useless?

Indeed, your entire blog (from political arguments, to attacks on theology, to other issues) is basically philosophy.

Perhaps you could learn a little about it before critiquing it.

WCG said...

Thanks for the comment, Anonymous. You're right that I hadn't heard of the word "wissenschaft." But, um, what's your point? Now I know what that word means, but... how does that get me anywhere?

And if you're claiming all language for philosophy, isn't that so broad as to be useless? I mean, I'll freely admit that language is useful, if that's all it takes to appreciate "philosophy."

I'll also admit that science developed out of natural philosophy, as the ancients started using evidence and experimental research to ground their arguments in the real world. But that doesn't say much about philosophy today, does it?

And you haven't answered my question. Do modern philosophers come to a consensus on what's true and what isn't? Do they agree with each other, in anything other than just trivialities? Is there a body of philosophical knowledge, widely accepted as true, upon which modern philosophers continue to build?

Scientists do come to a consensus, because they use evidence and independently verifiable research. Being grounded in the real world lets them build science one brick at a time, so to speak.

Is philosophy the same? Or do philosophers each build their own philosophical structures? Is there, perhaps, a separate structure for each school of philosophy? You see, if philosophers in general don't come to a consensus about their own field of knowledge, how can you say they've learned anything?

Maybe they have, I don't know. I've freely admitted that I don't know much about philosophy. I couldn't have been clearer about that, could I? But this is why I'm posting these questions, to learn. So, do philosophers come to a consensus?

PS. You say that philosophy "is *still* generating ideas that science later investigates." Could you give me some examples? That would be useful, no doubt, although science does seem able to generate ideas on its own.

But if philosophy uses science to investigate its own ideas, philosophers must come to a consensus when they get the results, I'd think. I keep coming back to that question, because it seems to be critical. Can we consider anything to be "knowledge" if we don't come to a consensus about it?