About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Saturday, February 01, 2014

On the New Atheism & Philosophy

by Steve Neumann

There is an ongoing battle between some of the New Atheists and, well, I’m not sure what to call the rest of us; but the main point of contention has been that the New Atheists — most of whom are scientists of some sort — either don’t understand philosophy or intentionally ignore it. This has come to a head recently with Massimo’s Twitter War with Sam Harris, as well as Jerry Coyne’s critique of Massimo’s recent paper entitled, “New Atheism and the Scientistic Turn in the Atheism Movement.” Harris didn’t engage Massimo’s paper directly; he was just simply dismissive of Massimo’s relevance in general. But Twitter really isn’t the proper platform for thoughtful discourse anyway. Coyne, on the other hand, wrote at considerable length about what he believes is Massimo’s jealousy over the alleged usurpation of philosophy by science. 

I am a very sarcastic person, and one of the things I like about Massimo, which I’ve learned from reading his posts here as well as interacting with him socially, is his own sarcasm. However, the paper Coyne excoriates isn’t as full of Massimo’s sarcasm as he thinks it is. If you really want to read something that “just drips and seethes” with sarcasm, as Coyne characterizes Massimo’s paper, then read fellow New Atheist Dan Dennett’s review of Sam Harris’s book Free Will.

I reviewed Harris’s book when it first came out, and I was less harsh than both Massimo and Dennett. The worst thing I said was, “Harris admits as much toward the end of his book, which makes his mid-essay tangent all the more baffling,” in reference to his quibble with the free will compatibilists, most notably Dennett. But let me list a few of the sentences from Dennett’s review that one could argue “just drips and seethe” with sarcasm:

But I think we have made some progress in philosophy of late, and Harris and others need to do their homework if they want to engage with the best thought on the topic.

Harris has considered compatibilism, at least cursorily, and his opinion of it is breathtakingly dismissive.

There are more passages that exhibit this curious tactic of heaping scorn on daft doctrines of his own devising while ignoring reasonable compatibilist versions…

Harris...is not finding a “deep” problem with compatibilism but a shallow problem...he has taken on a straw man, and the straw man is beating him. 

These are just the ones that I think can be construed as having a sarcastic tone about them. The main thrust of Dennett’s review, which is quite long, is the failure of New Atheist scientists like Harris to either take seriously or to really engage with the vast philosophical literature on a topic such as free will. And that is precisely one of Massimo’s criticisms as well. Dennett repeatedly says that Harris underestimates and misinterprets the compatibilist position on free will; or that Harris “doesn’t even consider” some other possibilities; or that Harris should have noticed “that he contradicts” some of Dennett’s own examples and ideas; or that Harris “should take more seriously the various tensions he sets up” in some passages, etc.

In addition to the charge that the New Atheists who are scientists and not philosophers disparage philosophy, or don’t take the time to really engage with it, there are two other claims I’d like to address. One is that the New Atheist scientists are injurious to the atheism movement itself; and the other is that they are unjustifiably overreaching in their broadening of the definition or scope of science.

Massimo and I agree on many things, but I disagree with him about the impact of the New Atheists. Like Dennett, I believe the popular New Atheists (with a few notable exceptions) are important precisely because of their visibility: I suppose you could call this “any publicity is good publicity.” At a minimum, it raises awareness of the atheism movement. Additionally, it lets the opposition — in this case, Christianity — know that there is a vigorous and determined community of nonbelievers. And, finally, I think the discussion that is generated by the popular books put out by the New Atheists is really priceless. I mean, this is classic dialectic — at least when the ad hominem rhetoric of the likes of Coyne, et al., don’t muddy the waters. Positions, even extreme ones, need to be staked out and attacked; and the attacks need to be counterattacked, and the result of all this discursive fencing will be to get us closer to more clarified positions that more moderate others can present to the believing community. What are we, as atheists, trying to accomplish anyway? Is it not a reduction in the influence of Christianity in particular and religion in general? [1]

With regard to the scope or definition of science, I also disagree with Massimo somewhat. Jerry Coyne says that science is “any endeavor to find out truths about the universe using observation and reason.” Sam Harris says “When you are adhering to the highest standards of logic and evidence, you are thinking scientifically.” I don’t have a problem with these claims per se; as I think Massimo and others would agree, there is often a fine line between what counts as philosophy and what counts as science proper. Or, to put it another way, it’s like looking at a brand new metal alloy and trying to identify the individual metals that constitute it. 

And maybe that’s the best way to look at the problem: if we can no longer distinguish between science and philosophy in some areas, maybe it’s time to come up with a different way of talking about this new phenomenon. After all, what used to be called “natural philosophy” eventually evolved or split into the two distinct disciplines of “science” and “philosophy” at some point; maybe it’s time we acknowledged there is a third thing now, a third discipline that can’t properly be called science or philosophy — it’s a new alloy that is just too difficult to characterize using our old categories.

Back before natural philosophy split into science and philosophy, Nietzsche characterized “science” or “physics,” as he often referred to it, as any endeavor that involved serious, rigorous discipline and scholarship. One of the things Nietzsche thought we needed back then (and what I think we still need now) was a re-naturalization of the human being; and to do that, you need to have a passion for knowledge, and a courageous and honest assessment of the knowledge of the world and human nature that turns up in our “science.” In his The Gay Science, he wrote an aphorism that talks about obtaining the freedom (i.e., autonomy) to legislate values for ourselves and create ourselves; and the title of the aphorism is “Long Live Physics!” Again, “physics” for Nietzsche wasn’t what we think of as “physics” today. Interestingly, the physicist Sean Carroll wrote on his website that Nietzsche scholars are quick to point out that he

certainly wasn’t talking about what we ordinarily mean by “physics.” But I’m not so sure. The substance of physics (experimental results, theoretical understandings) is of no help whatsoever in leading a moral life. But the method of physics — open-minded hypothesis testing and scrupulous honesty in confronting what Nature has to tell us — is a pretty good model for other aspects of our lives.

Nietzsche believed that the philosopher’s main job, and main value to humanity, was as a value-creator, not as someone merely concerned with discovering the “facts,” or of providing descriptions or even explanations of the phenomena of the world. So I tend to take my cue from Nietzsche and say that scientists are those who are in the business of describing the physical world, of coming up with explanations of physical phenomena. Of course they must utilize and adhere to the “highest standards of logic and evidence,” but a scientist is still distinct from a philosopher, someone who traffics in “oughts” and not “is’s,” someone who is better positioned to speak about meaning and morals, even if they exploit the discoveries of science in order to inform and ground their reasoning about meaning and morals. 

I’ve said before that science involves description and diagnosis, whereas philosophy involves prescription and prognosis. That, to me, is where the line between our perhaps out of date categories of science and philosophy will forever reside. Let’s come up with a third term to denote the scientific-philosophical alloy that has emerged. 


[1] I have another post in the works that will deal more with the relationship between philosophy, science and atheism, and that will go into more detail about both the impact of the New Atheism and religious trends in general.


  1. Steve,


    What do you make of Daniel Meissler's response to Daniel Dennett?


    1. Meissler's right about how Dennett is wrong, but wrong in other ways himself. Since we're still in the Early Bronze Age, at best, on studying human consciousness, there's a lot of wrongness out there. Here's part 2 of my "Mu to free will vs. determinism" set: http://socraticgadfly.blogspot.com/2013/12/mu-to-free-will-vs-determinism-part-2.html

  2. None of the quotes you mentioned were sarcastic. There's nothing ironic about them, unless they're meant to be interpreted as *compliments* to Harris.

    Anyway, I don't think the issue here has anything to do with the distinction (or lack thereof) between "philosophy" and "science," which is a recurring theme in Massimo's posts. The issue in this case is simply that some people (who tend to be employed in "science" departments) are commenting on topics like religion, free will, morality, etc., without consulting the vast literature already developed on these topics (mostly written by people who happen to be working in "philosophy" departments). As a result, they end up publishing old ideas and arguments that have long been criticized and improved upon. It's simply bad scholarship, regardless of how you cut up the boundaries between disciplines.

    1. "None of the quotes you mentioned were sarcastic. There's nothing ironic about them, unless they're meant to be interpreted as *compliments* to Harris."

      OK; let's call them "unkind" then, or "harsh." At any rate, the overall tone of the review was rather harsh, or at least harsher than Massimo's critique of Harris, which Coyne took some serious umbrage with.

      "The issue in this case is simply that some people...are commenting on topics like religion, free will, morality, etc., without consulting the vast literature already developed on these topics…"

      Yes and no. Dennett's review definitely focuses on the lack of scientists to engage with the philosophical literature; but Harris and Coyne definitely want to broaden the definition/scope of science to include--usurp?--philosophy. And I don't see that as a bad thing *per se*

  3. Science unites with philosophy at a place called truth.
    I'll meet you there. =

  4. Sorry, Steve, but I'm still very much with Massimo. Gnus engage in ad hominems, and similar vitriol it's impossible to do a Husserl-like "bracketing" of talking about the Gnu movement without that, IMO.

    Basically, they're somewhat well-poisoners, when at their extreme, for advancing secularism without backlash. And, the backlash happens. And, both Gnus and fundamentalist Xns welcome it, as it gives both of them an easily caricatured enemy. US vs USSR. Brer Fox vs. Tar Baby is even better. The two sides are each other's Tar Babies.

    Beyond the "scientism" issue, most Gnus show little knowledge of, or interest in, philosophy of religion, psychology of religion, evolutionary development of religion, etc. That's part of why, but not the only reason why, they focus attacks on fundamentalists and seem to imply that that's a representative position of religion in general.

    After the likes of Coyne read Scott Atran and/or Pascal Boyer on the development of religion, and has something positive to take away and discuss, I might consider you right. (This is part of why I'm willing to call Dennett a quasi-Gnu, rather than full blown. But, other stances of his means he still has one foot in that camp, at least.)

    Until then? Nope.

    1. Gadfly, I will buy your argument as soon as people like you stop attacking fundamentalists (and new atheists, for that matter). And when the anti-new-atheist atheists stop condescending to religious believers by saying "I personally don't need belief and think it is all bollocks, but some people do and we can't take away their security blanket."

      And by the way, Coyne was citing Pascal Boyer way back in 2011.....

    2. Gadfly, I will buy your argument as soon as people like you stop attacking fundamentalists (and new atheists, for that matter). And when the anti-new-atheist atheists stop condescending to religious believers by saying "I personally don't need belief and think it is all bollocks, but some people do and we can't take away their security blanket."

      And by the way, Coyne was citing Pascal Boyer way back in 2011.....

    3. Puhleeze.

      First, I have never said anything close to what you have in quote marks. Neither has Massimo, but I'm speaking just for myself.

      So, I'll buy anything you sell once you stop setting up straw men.

      Second, I don't attack fundamentalists any more than Gnus, if that much.

      So, I'll buy anything you sell once you stop claiming people like me are worse than Gnus in our take on fundamentalists.

      To be blunt, I see less and less insight from you the more and more you write.

    4. As for Coyne? OK, he's read Boyer. Has he read Atran? On both of them, there's more to them than the idea that "religion evolved."

  5. What nagged me about the discussion was that there seemed to be a lot of turf-defending in terms of what we call it, but what I would have liked to see is how different the case would be if the "new atheists" had taken into account philosophy. For example, in The God Delusion, the majority section dedicated to the arguments for and against God were almost exclusively philosophical in nature, complete with appeals to philosophers like Russell, Mackie, Dennett, and Hume. Perhaps his arguments may have been sharper if he had more philosophical training, but it's hard to see scientism in the substance of the book.

  6. That alloy has not just emerged.

    Vienna Circle anybody?

  7. I would suggest that those who are saying that science can take up the torch from the philosophers end up doing neither and in some cases lowering the authority of both.

  8. This is a refreshingly thoughtful, levelheaded post about the new atheists. I think we can criticize strains of thought in the new atheist movement without painting them all as naive, arrogant scientific realists. I agree that the new atheist movement has significantly increased the visibility of atheism in America and that this fact is an important achievement. New Atheists come in all different stripes so I don't think it's fair to use the term to only refer to the fatuous kinds. I would contend that all of the current discussion about atheism and belief scrutability should be subsumed in the dialectic of the new atheist movement. New Atheism to me refers to this highly visible surge of thought in mainstream discourse about the necessity for beliefs to be subjected to rigorous ratiocination. It's just as counterproductive to label all new atheists as blowhards as it is to label all theists as dimwits.

  9. Isn't it a bit oversimplistic to simply proclaim that philosophy has only to do with the "ought" and science with the "is"? That leaves out important branches of philosophy altogether: metaphysics (which studies being--obviously well within the realm of the "is"), and aesthetics, among other things

  10. Most gnus do not dislike philosophy and believe it has worth (off course there are always exceptions), they dislike the parts of theology that try to rationalize the world with a God since these must , by necessity, be imagination driven , rather than anything to do with logic, reason or evidence. And we are even more irritated by Sophisticated Theology™ . The only thing I see is some gnus make the claim that philosophy too must be informed by evidence and that some areas that are traditionally the domain of philosophy might (or a stronger will) come under the domain of science. Fairly obvious but Massimo etc seem to bristle when you say that might include "free will" or "morality" - the rest of the arguments seem to be around pointing hypocrisies.

    Though I'll also add that I find it amusing that lets say some anti gnu commenter (e.g. gadfly) will jump at some random gnu making a too broad , unjustified generalization and then use that to make a too broad,unjustified generalization about gnus.

  11. Would I be wrong in believing science itself involves in it's process a measure of philosophical activity?

  12. The flaw in science is measure Louis, and the solution or truth is immeasurable. =

  13. I think you're being more than a bit melodramatic here and overstating the case that some atheists are making against philosophy.

    I'd hazard an informed guess that most of these gnus would wholeheartedly agree with George Lakoff in Philosophy of the Flesh: that attaining knowledge about either the mind or the external world purely through rational introspection is a farce.

    This idea that gnus dismiss philosophy entirely is a straw man, especially since many of them are philosophers. And judging by Massimo and Dennett's exchanges with Lawrence Krauss, I think most of the disagreement is semantic and, ultimately, trite.

  14. Where's the Tegmark podcast you promised in January?


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