July 18, 2014

Philosophy Matters

Filed under: Life,Philosophy — camcintosh @ 3:35 pm

I became interested in philosophy because, at an early age, I found myself interested in questions that matter. I wanted to know if my life, and life in general, had meaning. I wanted to know not just what the meaning of life is, but why it has the meaning it does. I was curious about why, if life didn’t have meaning, one shouldn’t commit suicide. I remember being frustrated at knowing what the right thing to do was, but never doing it. I wanted to know whether God really existed. I distinctively recall one day in the winter of second or third grade being curled up in a blanket over a heating vent, slowly working out in my mind what I later learned was Pascal’s Wager. I also distinctively recall thinking, around the same time, that if God existed, he wouldn’t let innocent people suffer. And for that reason, I remember being afraid to tell anyone that I didn’t believe in God.

Philosophy that doesn’t wrestle with questions like these isn’t worth the name. That is what philosophy is. That doesn’t mean technical, austere, “academic” disputes in philosophy aren’t properly philosophical. They matter because they inform questions that matter. If doing philosophy didn’t affect who I am or what I believe about what matters, I wouldn’t do it. Because it wouldn’t matter. In this way, philosophy provides its own justification. It matters to think about things that matter, and it matters to think about things that inform things that matter.

I recently acquired a copy of Nathan Salmon’s Metaphysics, Mathematics, and Meaning (Oxford, 2005). For whatever reason, Salmon prefaces that volume by taking some cheap jabs at theists—the kind of jabs typical of professional philosophers sublimely ignorant of philosophy of religion. He begins by relaying a childhood episode where he questioned his mom’s pious declaration that “God can do anything.” His objection, at six years old, was that God can’t stop time. Salmon’s objection was dismissed by his father, whose “tone implied that my attempt to find something God cannot do was heretical and therefore immoral.” Salmon recalls, “My father’s reaction made me feel depressed, though I knew even at that age that it was not an intellectually worthy rebuttal.” He continues with several lessons the incident impressed upon him:

I was certain that any belief, even a religious belief, is rationally legitimate only if it can be subjected to critical assessment and only if it can withstand that sort of scrutiny. I also learned that theists typically do not share this attitude, at least not when it comes to their own religious beliefs. I also discovered that human beings (including myself) display a curious tendency to believe something not because they have good reason to think it true but because they need it to be true. …

Later experiences seemed to confirm that theists resist all attempts to subject their faith to critical evaluation. It was not until I went to college that I encountered religious people who seemed to welcome the challenge of rational criticism. However, it still seemed to me that even those few philosophical theists are unwilling, maybe even unable, to look at religious belief in a completely detached and unbiased way. …

It doesn’t take a psychologist like Paul Vitz to hypothesize that to Salmon, all theists are more or less shadows of his father, whose brilliance we can assume is comparable to, say, Alvin Plantinga’s. No need to look any further than ol’ unsurpassable dad, for anything Plantinga can do Salmon’s dad can do better—which, it turns out, isn’t anything six-year-old Salmon couldn’t confute. Having learned these lessons, Salmon the wiser reports:

Today I religiously avoid discussing religious matters with religious people. Besides, I have become so thoroughly convinced that there are no gods that I find the issue completely uninteresting. Instead, I turned my attention to contemporary academic issues that are too abstract for anyone to take very personally.

One must wonder, by Salmon’s own epistemological lights, about the rational legitimacy of his belief that there are no gods, given that he “religiously avoids” discussions with the people most capable of subjecting it to critical assessment. Could that curious tendency to believe something not because one has good reason to think it true but because one needs it to be true be on display here? No, for in the next paragraph Salmon reminds his readers:

I do philosophy. I investigate issues form a philosophical point of view, and try to achieve a deeper understanding using philosophical methods. My primary tool is reason, my primary criterion for success truth.

Philosophy, for Salmon, is the attempt to achieve a deeper understanding of things too abstract for anyone to take very personally. What kind of philosophy is this? It certainly is not the kind whose practice is continuous with father Plato. It is instead a distinctively modern way of doing philosophy that is actually anti-philosophical in spirit, premised as it is on the blithe dismissal of questions that matter. Salmon’s attitude toward philosophy is a perfect contrast to Wittgenstein’s, expressed in the quote below.


1 Comment »

  1. I wonder: why should someone think that God can not stop time? Or annihilate our world if it is essentially temporal?

    It is very puzzling for me how non-theistic thinkers can be so sure about religious matters? If I am right, there are no some compelling argument for atheism, and there is no compelling argument for theism either. As a theist, I am not afraid to say that my views about religious matter can be deeply flawed or completely wrong (and this is probably true for any broadly philosophical position). I must clarify that there are non-theistic thinkers, I have read several such writers, who are very careful when they write about epistemological status of their atheistic beliefs.

    Comment by Milos — July 18, 2014 @ 5:17 pm | Reply

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