“An Omnibus of Definitions from Prominent Philosophers.” Very cool collection excerpted from the introduction of David Edmonds and Nigel Warburton, Philosophy Bites (Oxford, 2010). Were these solicited by the authors? If they were found in publications, I wish they had provided citations. I like A. W. Moore’s answer.
May 6, 2015
April 13, 2015
I explained why the answer is “no” last week at the Cornell philosophy dept. Workshop. But I admit that the title is a bait-and-switch. The presentation is an extension (of sorts) of the Workshop talk I gave almost exactly one year earlier.
My favorite moment of the presentation was when I was interrupted by a collective, horrified gasp after saying it wouldn’t be morally wrong of Luke Skywalker to scrap C-3PO for parts. Any sympathetic ears I had up to that point were promptly retracted. A draft can be found here. Feedback welcome!
March 5, 2015
Helen de Cruz is conducting a series of interviews with “academic philosophers about their religious practices.” Her first interviewee is Marcus Arvan. In response to the question “The majority of philosophers are atheists, and it’s not uncommon for philosophers to regard religion as quaint, epistemically defective or worse. What has been your experience in the philosophical community when you discuss these matters?” Arvan had this to say:
Truth be told, it doesn’t come up in conversation. I’ve rarely heard religion or philosophy of religion so much as mentioned by other philosophers, say, at conferences. It just doesn’t seem to be discussed—except by people who work in philosophy of religion. I’m guessing this is because—as you note—most philosophers seem to regard religion as quaint and epistemically defective.
In any case, I think this is unfortunate. One of the reasons I think it is unfortunate is substantive: I personally think the only epistemically defensible position is Agnosticism, not atheism. Related to this, I think it is unfortunate because, as a Hopeful Agnostic, I tend to think it’s precisely here—in the realm of uncertainty between Belief and Disbelief—where the really interesting questions are in philosophy of religion.
Allow me to explain. I’ve heard that a lot of non-philosophers of religion think contemporary philosophy of religion is little more than religious apologetics. Although I wouldn’t go that far, my personal experience is that it doesn’t seem too far from the truth. Most of the phil religion talks I’ve attended have basically assumed that God exists, and then addressed some problem of other (e.g. the Problem of Evil) against that background assumption. Although I guess this kind of argumentation might appeal to Believers, it’s not hard to imagine why it—and philosophy of religion in this vein more broadly—might be seen as hopelessly quaint (if not completely uninteresting) by outsiders.
What we have then is a small group of people (Believing philosophers) who think philosophy of religion is super-interesting, and a much larger group of people (Atheistic philosophers) who seem to consider it super-uninteresting. In my view, this is unfortunate, a lot of the most interesting questions in philosophy of religion arise for the person who falls into neither category: the person who is skeptical whether God exists, and whether there are any reasons to even presume God to be perfect (or even good) given our evidence, but who regards it a live-possibility not ruled out by our evidence and may even be willing to Hope it is a true hypothesis.
These, at any rate, are the questions that attract me to the philosophy of religion—and indeed, to religion itself (as I have said before, I do engage in religious practice as a Hoper but not a Believer). And I would be willing to bet philosophy of religion would be considered a whole lot less quaint/epistemically defective by the philosophical majority if it spent more time on them.
Think about Arvan’s response for a moment: on the question of God’s existence, Arvan thinks agnosticism is “the only epistemically defensible position.” Accordingly, he thinks the really interesting questions in PoR are about agnosticism, i.e., “in the realm of uncertainty between Belief and Disbelief.” Imagine that! But the Christian philosopher, who perhaps thinks Christian theism is the only epistemically defensible position, and so also thinks the really interesting questions in PoR are about, say, the coherence of Christian theism, is suspected of doing “little more than religious apologetics,” or at least something “epistemically defective.”
The double-standard operative here is exactly the kind of uncharitable and unjustified criticism of PoR I had in mind when I wrote this. That being said, I found most of what else Arvan said in the interview interesting.
February 18, 2015
It’s hard for me to shake the impression that many professional philosophers aren’t satisfied with their four years of high school, and so view the profession of philosophy as an indefinite extension of that period of adolescence. There’s the popular crowd who fancy themselves gate-keeping trendsetters, as well as the characterless shadows who seek the vicarious thrill of riding the cool kids’ coat tails. And for some time the Mean Girls of philosophy have declared that philosophy of religion is for losers. It is passé, unworthy of the time and attention of more enlightened minds; philosophers of religion are just posers from the vacuous field of theology trying weasel some clout by rubbing shoulders with real philosophers. This is a common subtext at gossip blogs like NewApps and Leiter Reports, which act as playgrounds for the philosophoney showoffs and bullies.
They are wrong, of course. But convincing them of that would be pointless. Peer pressure is a stronger force than the weight of argument. One can only hope they’ll someday grow up to reminisce with embarrassment on their high school years like the rest of us. But until then, if you have received a suspicious eye (or more) because of your interest in philosophy of religion, as I have, then it might be prudent to have something ready to say lest your silence be interpreted as shame. In that spirit here are five reasons why philosophy of religion (hereafter PoR) is one of the choicest fields of philosophy.
February 1, 2015
The other day my wife confused McTaggart (the philosopher) with Mick Jagger (the singer). I thought that was too cute. In belated honor of the former’s death on January 18, 1925, here are some amusing anecdotes picked from the biographical sketch prefacing J. McT. Ellis McTaggart, Philosophical Studies (St. Augustine’s Press, 1934. Rep. 1996), including an ingenious way to protest the Super Bowl:
He was an avid reader of novels (good and bad) and poetry and is reputed to have read the whole of the Union Library collection by an early age (xii). By the age of seven he was well read, studying Kant closely (vi).
His head was unusually large; he suffered from a spinal curvature and walked crab-like, often with his back close against walls. He was very sensitive and cried easily, usually over poems or songs. He roamed the countryside, swinging a stick and carrying on philosophical conversation with himself. Because of his eccentricity children called him a ‘loonie’ (vi).
In January 1882, at the age of fifteen, he was sent to Clifton College in Bristol. His incompetence at games (he lay down on the games field refusing to take part), untidiness, absorption in philosophy and sensitivity, augured an unhappy life there. However, in his first year, he formed close loving relationships and won his victory over organized sport—he was allowed to walk on the Downs and philosophize instead (vii).
Eccentric as a child, now an adult he was a ‘character’ (xi). When lecturing, he spoke rapidly, illustrating his arguments with images of dragons and griffins (x). Often in his red gown, he rode a tricycle along Trumpington Street to Trinity at precisely the same time each day. He saluted cats whenever he met them and observed the conduct of College ceremonies in minute detail (xi). His own priorities became confused. He became upset by the selling of land and possessions at Trinity and with the same strength of feeling he mourned the death of a friend’s cat (xix).
He was fat, unfit, and disinclined to put his energy into argument and verbal combat. He was happier at home, writing letters, or in his rooms, reworking his manuscript of The Nature of Existence (xix). Throughout his last years he continued working strenuously on The Nature of Existence. His editorial practice was to complete five drafts before his work was ready for publication (xvii).
Because McTaggart is mostly known for his analytical work on the nature of time and existence, it is interesting to note that, despite being an atheist, McTaggart was a mystic of sorts committed to the belief that love is a fundamental binding relation and the necessity of immortality. He was fiercely loyal to his friends and loved ones throughout his life. The one exception seems to have been Bertrand Russell. McTaggart’s enthusiastic support for England’s war efforts against Germany couldn’t be reconciled with Bertie’s flat-footed pacifism.
January 12, 2015
December 31, 2014
Per the good idea of my pal Paul Gould, last year I inaugurated the posting of an annual book log: a log of all the books I manage to wade through from cover to cover over the year. Here is my 2014 book log:
- Michael Clark, Paradoxes from A to Z (Routledge, 3rd ed., 2012).
- Frederick Copleston, A History of Philosophy Vol. I: Greece and Rome – From the Pre-Socratics to Plotinus (Doubleday, 1993).
- Frederick Copleston, A History of Philosophy Vol. II: Medieval Philosophy – From Augustine to Duns Scotus (Doubleday, ed. 1993).
- Matthew Crawford, Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work (Penguin, 2010).
- Scott Davison, On the Intrinsic Value of Everything (Continuum, 2012).
- Pedro Ferreira, The Perfect Theory: A Century of Geniuses Battle over General Relativity (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014).
- William Hasker, Metaphysics and the Tri-Personal God (Oxford, 2013).
- James Humes, Churchill: The Prophetic Statesman (Regnery History, 2012).
- Robert Kurson, Shadow Divers: The True Adventure of Two Americans Who Risked Everything to Solve One of the Last Mysteries of World War II (Random House, 2005).
- Brian Leftow, God and Necessity (Oxford, 2012).
- C. S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man (Macmillan, 1960).
- Oliver North, War Stories: Operation Iraqi Freedom (Regnery History, 2003).
- Graham Oppy, The Best Argument Against God (Palgrave, 2013).
- N. T. Wight, The Resurrection of the Son of God (Fortress, 2003).
- William Golding, Lord of the Flies
- Jack London, The Call of the Wild
- Gary Paulsen, Hatchet
- Michael Shaara, The Killer Angels
By count alone, this year’s showing is ostensibly less productive than last year’s; but there were more marathons than sprints (e.g., Leftow, Wright, Copleston). At first I thought it would be a good resolution each year to read more (non-fiction) books than I did the previous year, but that now seems naive.
Quantity of pages almost never corresponds to quality of content, and the amount of time one spends with a book should be an indication of its quality. It’s perfectly possible and reasonable to spend an entire year absorbing just one book. How much more would you learn from Plato or Augustine if you disappeared for six months with just a copy of, say, The Republic or The City of God (respectively) rather than reading syllabus-sized snippets of each alongside dozens of other course commitments for three months?
This brings me to two long-term book resolutions I have. The first is to finish Copleston’s 9-volume History of Philosophy by the time I leave graduate school. The other is coming up with a reliable method for tempering my book lust. In my first attempt I said I would not buy any new books until I finished reading at least the preface and introduction to any other newly acquired books. Unable to resist good deals, that morphed into the more modest commitment to read at least the preface and introduction to all newly acquired books before shelving them. Shelving a book gives it glory, as it then sits to the right or left of another saint. This rule has unwittingly spawned a kind of book purgatory between my desk and bookshelf where an increasing multitude patiently awaits glory (pictured left). My resolution is therefore to sift the wheat from the chaff and keep book purgatory at a more manageable population. I am a righteous deity and will not unlawfully grant amnesty. My grace does not outweigh my justice. I will carefully examine each, call some home and declare to others “Depart from me I never knew you.”
Philosophy in Review‘s final issue for 2014 includes my review of William Hasker’s Metaphysics and the Tri-Personal God.
December 2, 2014
At some point, philosophy became boring. I don’t know when or how, exactly, but I suspect it was around the time when people starting writing as if simple, meaningful questions couldn’t be answered without appealing to ZF-set theory, or perhaps when there was a silent but collective acceptance that philosophy isn’t really about ascending from the cave of shadow watchers if only to see how much one doesn’t know, but rather about CVs and smarts and politicking to the top of a Leiter list. One day, I think, philosophy will be fun again. There’s good reason to think the best questions will outlive the worst times. Until then, I’d rather have blisters on my hands.
November 12, 2014
Ballade of a Poor Book-Lover
Though in its stern vagaries Fate
A poor book-lover me decreed,
Perchance mine is a happy state —
The books I buy I like to read:
To me dear friends they are indeed,
But, hoew’er enviously I sigh,
Of other take I little heed —
The books I read I like to buy.
My depth of purse is not so great
Nor yet my bibliophilic greed,
That merely buying doth elate:
The books I buy I like to read:
Still e’en when dawdling in a mead,
Beneath a cloudless summer sky,
By bank of Thames, or Tyne, or Tweed,
The books I read — I like to buy.
Some books tho’ tooled in style ornate,
Yet worms upon their contents feed,
Some men about their bindings prate —
The books I buy I like to read:
Yet some day may my fancy breed
My ruin — it may now be nigh —
They reap, we know, who sow the seed:
The books I read I like to buy
Tho’ frequently to stall I speed,
The books I buy I like to read;
Yet wealth to me will never hie —
The books I read I like to buy.
―A. Edward Newton, The Amenities of Book Collecting and Kindred Affections (Atlantic Monthly Press, 1918), pp. 69-70.