Sunday, April 22, 2012

To engage or not?

Anyone interested in general questions about human knowledge, about the scope and nature of science and related matters, is faced with a dilemma: whether or not to engage with recent work done by professional philosophers. For a strong case can be made that something is seriously wrong in contemporary philosophy which seems in many respects to have become a self-perpetuating enterprise divorced from the concerns both of the educated public and of practising scientists.

Furthermore, it is undeniable that many philosophers are motivated by religious or political agendas which are not always easy to identify. Although it has always been the case that philosophers have had ideological motivations, the professionalization of philosophy has encouraged the view that ideological and religious motivations are irrelevant to, and should not be discussed in the context of, a philosopher's professional work. Consequently, work which appears on the surface to involve the disinterested pursuit of truth may all too often be, in effect, disguised apologetics.

If one engages, one runs the risk of becoming caught up in a futile new form of scholasticism (if that is what it is). If one keeps one's distance, one is excluded from the conversation (such as it is).

And throwing the occasional hand grenade is not particularly productive. (See, for example, comment #14 - not mine! - on this post plugging a new philosophy journal.)

I'll have more to say on science and scientism, on physicalism and the limits of human knowledge in due course. I have strong intuitions in these areas, but I want to spend a bit of time reading and thinking before I commit myself to specific positions.

For the present, here is an interesting response by H. Allen Orr to E.O. Wilson's book Consilience: the Unity of Knowledge. (Massimo Pigliucci, who is preparing for a conference on Wilson's ideas, recently recommended Orr's review.)

And here is a transcript of an interview with Patricia Churchland in which this controversial, scientifically-oriented philosopher outlines her basic views. (Hat tip to Pete Mandik.)