Monday, January 31, 2011

Bühler? Bühler?

Psychologist Karl Bühler distinguished three main functions of language, to which his student, the philosopher Karl Popper, added a fourth.  Popper discusses this distinction in several places, most notably in The Self and Its Brain, and at greater length in Knowledge and the Body-Mind Problem: A Defense of Interaction.  I think it is very useful.  (I am no Popperian, but I find that Popper’s work is always interesting.  The Self and Its Brain – a gigantic volume co-written with John Eccles – is unjustly neglected by contemporary philosophers of mind, and a great book to dip into now and again when one is looking for something different from the same old same old.) 

The four functions are as follows:

Friday, January 28, 2011

The competition

Let’s celebrate this Feast of St. Thomas Aquinas the American way – by spending money!  To that end I thought I might call attention to some recent general works on the Angelic Doctor other than my own: John Peterson, Aquinas: A New Introduction; Fergus Kerr, Thomas Aquinas: A Very Short Introduction; Stephen Loughlin, Aquinas’s Summa Theologiae: A Reader’s Guide; and Peter Eardley and Carl Still, Aquinas: A Guide for the Perplexed.  And on the horizon is Brian Davies and Eleonore Stump, eds., The Oxford Handbook of Aquinas.  The latter has a price tag worthy of the Dumb Ox, so start hoarding those pennies now.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

No laughing matter

My bedtime reading of late has included several biographies of significant comic book artists.  Two of the most interesting have been Blake Bell’s Strange and Stranger: The World of Steve Ditko and Steve Starger and J. David Spurlock’s Wally’s World: The Brilliant Life and Tragic Death of Wally Wood, the World’s Second Best Comic Book Artist.  Unless you’re a comics fan, you won’t know the names.  But you do know some of the work: Ditko was (among many other things) the co-creator of Spider-Man; Wood was (among many other things) one of the founding contributors to Mad magazine.  From that much you might suppose them to be at least rich if not world-famous, but you’d be wrong.  Ditko, now in his eighties, never attained anything like the material success of Spider-Man co-creator Stan Lee.  Wood died in 1981, impoverished and under sordid circumstances. 

Ditko’s later work was, notoriously, dominated by his single-minded devotion to the cause of Ayn Rand’s Objectivist philosophy.  And therein lies its philosophical interest – not because of the Randian content , but because Ditko’s obsession with promoting it effectively ruined his career.  Wood’s troubles were also largely self-inflicted, though in a very different way.  The lives of men like Ditko and Wood illustrate the complexities involved in questions about moral responsibility and the problem of evil.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Against “neurobabble”

Every written token of the English word “soup” is made up of marks which look at least vaguely like “s,” “o,” “u,” and “p.”  Of course, it doesn’t follow that the word “soup” is identical to any collection of such marks, or that its properties supervene on the material properties of such marks, or that it can be explained entirely in terms of the material properties of such marks.  Everyone who considers the matter knows this.

To borrow an example from psychologist Jerome Kagan, “as a viewer slowly approaches Claude Monet's painting of the Seine at dawn there comes a moment when the scene dissolves into tiny patches of color.”  But it doesn’t follow that its status and qualities as a painting reduce to, supervene upon, or can be explained entirely in terms of the material properties of the color patches.  Everyone who considers the matter knows this too.

Somehow, though, when neuroscientists discover some neural correlate of this or that mental event or process, a certain kind of materialist concludes that the mind’s identity with, or supervenience upon, or reducibility to, or complete explanation in terms of neural processes is all but a done deal, and that the reservations of non-materialists are just so much intellectually dishonest bad faith.  In a recent online op-ed piece for The New York Times, and in an apt phrase, philosopher of mind Tyler Burge criticizes this tendency as “neurobabble,” which produces only “the illusion of understanding.”  For it is as fallacious as any parallel argument about words or paintings would be.

Friday, January 14, 2011

The brutal facts about Keith Parsons

At The Secular Outpost, Keith Parsons comments on all the commentary about him.  (HT: Bill Vallicella)  If you check out his combox, you’ll see that he there accuses me of “Parsons-bashing.”  I think a fair-minded reader of my recent post about him would agree that I wasn’t really criticizing him so much as those who’ve made a big deal out of his “calling it quits” on philosophy of religion.  All the same, I did have a few good-natured yucks at his expense, so I don’t blame him for being a little sore at me.

I do blame him, though, for providing further evidence that he doesn’t know what he’s talking about, as he does in another one of his comments.  So, this time let’s really do a little Parsons-bashing, shall we?

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Please stand by

More problems with Blogger – as you can see, only this week’s posts are showing up on the main page, and I can’t seem to change it. (Naturally, you can still access all older posts by just clicking on “Older Posts” at the bottom of the page, or via the Blog Archive at lower right.) Evidently it has something to do with the dreaded Auto Pagination “feature” that Blogger added last year, though for some reason it’s only affecting me now. Anyway, please stand by while I work on the problem.

Readers respond

Some reader combox comments on the Keith Parsons pseudo-event that shouldn’t get lost in the ether – edited by me for typos, and followed by my clever rejoinders:

Ryan writes:

I think I know whom you primarily have in mind when you speak of "those for whom philosophy is only ever politics by other means." I don't wish to mention him by name, though, for he is a notorious self-Googler.

Yes. And he’s so vain, he probably thinks this post is about him.

Untenured writes:

Compare the reception that Parsons received to the one Antony Flew got. Parsons is a nobody; a two-bit net skeptic who writes a lot of so-so replies to Plantinga and Co. Flew, on the other hand, is a fairly prominent philosopher who has a number of well-known articles and books to his credit. When Parsons says that the case for God is a fraud: "Devastating! Maybe the case for Theism IS a fraud!" When Flew abandons Atheism: "He's soft in the head! Doesn't know enough ‘science’!”

Good point. But since Religion Dispatches didn’t mind reheating the months-old Parsons “story,” perhaps they’ll be serving up the years-old Flew story next. (Apparently their “dispatches” aren’t posted with dispatch.) On the other hand, in fairness to Parsons, Eric writes:

When this "news" first came to my attention, I wondered, "What if [insert prominent theistic philosopher of religion] announced that he was no longer going to do any work in philosophy of religion because the arguments for atheism were mind numbingly bad – fraudulent, even (to use Parson's term, which he concedes was hyperbolic)? Would we ever see a post on Leiter Reports like this: "This is Striking: Peter Kreeft Quits Philosophy of Religion, Claims the Case for Atheism is a Fraud," followed by serious analysis of Kreeft's claims about the overall weakness of the case for atheism? Not likely. (In Parson's defense, I asked him this question, and he said that he thinks his decision vis-a-vis philosophy of religion has "zero epistemic significance," and that he was surprised by all the attention it got in the blogosphere.)

Interesting. Glad to hear that Parsons himself, unlike certain people who have been pushing this “story,” isn’t as full of it as the diaper I just changed.

Finally, some fun from MMcCue, who writes:

A poem relating to "professional philosophers"

I am a Prestigious Professor of Philosophy,
At a quite Elite University.

I get generous grants,
To sit on my pants,

And write books that nobody reads

Yup. And to bitch and moan about his "workload," too.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Non-Story of the Year

Suppose Intelligent Design theorist Michael Behe announced that he was giving up biology. Or suppose the notorious catastrophist Immanuel Velikovsky had announced in the 1970s that he was “calling it quits” on astronomical research. Or suppose Einstein critic Petr Beckmann had announced before his death in the early 1990s that research in physics was no longer worth his time. Would academic blogs devoted to biology, astronomy, or physics have regarded these as “striking” developments, evidence that there might be something fishy about the disciplines in question? Obviously not. That someone whose views are radically at odds with those prevailing in his field decides to do something else instead is neither surprising nor noteworthy.

Somehow, though, the fact that middling atheist philosopher of religion Keith Parsons has decided to “hang up his hat” is being played up as what Joe Biden might call a Big F***in’ Deal, at least by those for whom philosophy is only ever politics by other means. The “story” first “broke” back in September – the lucky folks at The Secular Outpost were given the big “scoop” – and for some reason Religion Dispatches is now recycling it, complete with a photo of the great man himself staring off pensively toward the future, or at least toward the corner of his office. Parsons, it seems, has overnight become a Serious Thinker To Whom Attention Must Be Paid, his work suddenly worthy of the notice the press and profession had heretofore denied it, and precisely because he now says it isn’t worth anyone’s time. Funny old world!

All the same, others have been trying to stifle yawns, since Parsons’ retreat from the field is in fact about as objectively newsworthy as (say) my giving up libertarianism several years ago – the sort of thing that might be mildly interesting to those who are interested in that sort of thing, but hardly anything to stop the presses over.

In any event, I don’t mean to suggest that Parsons, Behe, Velikovsky, and Beckman are all on a par. That would be an insult to Behe, Velikovsky, and Beckman. For whatever one thinks of ID theory – and I have been very critical of it – it is evident that Behe knows far more about Darwinism than Parsons knows about philosophy of religion. Neither do I endorse the eccentric views of Velikovsky or Beckmann, but Beckmann knew more about relativity theory than Parsons does about philosophy of religion, and even Velikovsky probably knew more about astronomy. As I noted in an earlier post, Parsons’ work in philosophy of religion seems largely confined to answering recent analytic philosophers like Plantinga and Swinburne. That’s a start, I guess – not that he really does even Plantinga and Swinburne justice, but let’s grant it for the sake of argument – but it does leave the 2370 years worth of previous work in the field unanswered. In particular, it leaves out the great classical theistic tradition of Aristotle, Plotinus, Anselm, Augustine, Maimonides, Avicenna, Aquinas, Scotus, et al. – that is to say, the most important philosophers of religion – whose conceptions of God and of the arguments for His existence are very different from (and, many of us would say, far more powerful than) those of “theistic personalist” writers like Plantinga and Swinburne. And I would bet cash money that Parsons, who is evidently prone to the same myopic presentism that so many other contemporary philosophers exhibit, doesn’t know the difference any more than the average non-philosopher of religion does. (Not too much money, though, since Parsons might easily bone up on the subject just by reading earlier blog posts of mine, such as this one, or this one, or this one, or this one.)

In general, philosophers who tend to shoot off their mouths about how breathtakingly bad the traditional arguments for God’s existence are demonstrably do not know what they are talking about, as we have seen here, here, and here. And they are the sorts of people who rarely want to engage the actual arguments themselves in any depth anyway. They prefer to offer elaborate rationalizations for refusing to do so. Come on, theistic arguments are really all about rationalizing preconceived opinions!” – said without a trace of irony – “Besides, did this Thomist whose work you recommend ever publish an article in The Philosophical Review? Did he teach in a PGR-ranked department?” That kind of thing. Shameless ad hominems and straw men coupled with a snarky, careerist conformism, all served up as a kind of higher philosophical method. Or, to call it by its traditional name, sophism. And now they’ve got a new “argument” to bounce around their echo chamber. It goes like this: “Even Keith Parsons says so!”