Sunday, January 29, 2012

An intellectual arms race

From time to time I do some reading in the more technical areas of philosophy (like epistemology or the philosophy of logic) where topics like truth and objectivity are dealt with in what appears to be an intellectually rigorous way. It all looks and feels very scientific, and of course various formal logical and mathematical systems are employed.

I am attracted to this sort of thing, but I keep pulling back from committing myself to it mainly because I keep finding apologists for religion amongst the ranks of philosophers and logicians. (The latest one I stumbled upon was Bas van Fraassen, a distinguished philosophical logician and a Roman Catholic.)

Of course not all logicians and philosophers have a religious or metaphysical agenda, but I tend to think that the whole structure of the discipline is dependent on these people, not because without them there would be fewer philosophers (that's another issue), but because they - the religious ones - are actually setting the agenda.

My suggestion is that if a group of intelligent secularists set out to deal with questions of truth and objectivity they would not feel compelled to elaborate the daunting intellectual theories which fill the bookshelves and the scholarly journals and which help to justify the continued existence of a profession devoted exclusively to these matters.

But, when you have a significant number of religiously-inclined thinkers involved, a kind of intellectual arms race ensues, with the sad, and ultimately truth-obscuring, results we have before us.

Of course, I am making the assumption that religious doctrines are false, but that's an assumption the truth of which I see no reason to doubt.


  1. I think your assumption is not merely that religion is false but that it is a form of insanity. Otherwise, how could it be so corrupting?

    My experience is different: that people with religious commitments are commonly not much different from the rest of us. Neither better nor worse.

  2. Alan, I really don't see how you can get that from what I am saying here! Of course religion is not a form of insanity, and I personally tend to find religious people particularly congenial.

    The religious influence on philosophy is not corrupting, but my point is that philosophy as a discipline is in a sense dependent on religion (or at least on a certain kind of more-than-scientific view of the world). If one has such a view, philosophy is fine, worthwhile, important, etc. But if one lacks such a view (if one is a physicalist, say) then one may not see the discipline as it exists as one which is - how shall I put it? - necessary.

  3. I really thought you would reply that of course religion is a form of insanity -- how could I doubt it?

    Seems I am misreading you badly!

  4. The vast majority of philosophers are naturalists. I'm not sure where you're getting the idea that 'Philosophy as a discipline is dependent on religion'.

    From the survey @

    Accept or lean toward: theism 136 / 931 (14.6%)

    Philosophers who are theist are, unlike the rest of the public, vastly outnumbered by their naturalist brethren.

    1. I wasn't claiming there are more religiously-inclined philosophers than non-religious ones, just that there is a significant number of religiously-inclined philosophers and they (through the cultural and intellectual traditions they represent) in effect set much of the philosophical agenda. I see it as an historical thing. Academic philosophy grew, in effect, out of medieval divinity schools and modern science grew out of philosophy. I don't see philosophy as a (single) discipline anyway. To me it lacks a center, a core. Metaphysics used to be that core.

      The survey is interesting. I think you can see evidence there of certain moral and metaphysical tendencies which, while not specifically religious, are quite compatible with religious views.