Over the last few days I’ve had some exchanges with “Mike D” who, it turns out, moonlights as “The A-Unicornist.” Mike summarizes the exchanges in a couple blog posts here and here.
Things have not gone well, and it is not hard to see why. Consider this opening of Mike’s first article-summary. He notes that some of his readers encouraged him to check out my blog and so he took a quick look, but was immediately concerned:
The fact that [Randal] seemed to be defending the most profoundly stupid apologetic argument ever devised – the ontological argument – in several exchanges he’s had with my blogging comrade Jonathan Pearce, coupled with his background in philosophy (I’ve generally found philosophers to be better at bullshitting than imparting any meaningful knowledge) raised some red flags.
Let me make a few observations here. First, I wasn’t defending the ontological argument with Jonathan Pearce. Second, the reaction people have to the ontological argument provides a great barometer to their aptitude for philosophical analysis. If you want to talk about “red flags”, anybody without formal philosophical training who dismisses as “profoundly stupid” a nine hundred year old family of philosophical arguments that are still defended and discussed with great seriousness by professionally trained analytic philosophers today, says more about their own ignorance and (sorry, but I have to say this) arrogance, than they do about the alleged collective stupidity of all those philosophers. (My apologies for the length of that last sentence.) Third, the root of the problem emerges when Mike D basically dismisses the entire discipline of philosophy as “bullshit”.
I have bad news for Mike D. Analytic philosophers are the ones who have clarified what the word “bullshit” means and how it actually refers to at least two distinct attitudes toward truth. Harry Frankfurt, in his famous essay “On Bullshit”, argued that bullshit is distinct from lying. While the liar sets out to deceive (he wants you to believe what is false) but the bullshitter doesn’t really care about the truth either way and will simply say whatever needs to be said to get a certain result. For example, the politician may freely mix in untruth and half-truth to his campaign speeches not so that you will come to believe untruths and half-truths, but simply so you will vote for him. That’s why we say he is bullshitting rather than lying. (I talk about Frankfurt’s views here.)
Philosophers generally (and certainly analytic philosophers specifically) are not bullshitters in the Frankfurtean sense, and anybody who has spent any time reading or interacting with professional philosophers would surely know this. Philosophers are terribly serious about the topics they discuss — free will, the nature of knowledge, identity through time, the nature of moral virtue, and so on — and really care about getting at the truth of the matter. (Not surprisingly, there is also a rich literature seeking to get at the truth about truth, be it correspondence, deflationary, coherence, pragmatic, or something else.)
The second main kind of bullshit is that which is analyzed by G.A. Cohen as unclarifiable unclarity. In this case a person may be desperately serious about what they say or write, and so in this sense they are sharply divergent from the loose Frankfurtean attitude toward truth. The problem, however, is that their assertion remains unclear and cannot be rendered clear. It is this kind of bullshit that Alan Sokal sought to expose in his farcical submission to the journal Social Text.
Philosophers generally (and certainly analytic philosophers specifically) are not bullshitters in the Cohenian sense and once again anybody who has spent any time reading or interacting with professional philosophers would surely know this. Analytic philosophers are concerned to the point of obsession with clear and concise definitions and the articulation of valid logical form in argument. (Admittedly, if one reads continental philosophy as an analytic philosopher one may be predisposed to start broadbrushing the continental approach as bullshit. But that fails to recognize the shift in style and approach. Continental philosophy tends to be more expansive in scope and therapeutic in delivery in contrast to the tightly constrained focus on specific argument characteristic of analytic philosophy. It is a different kind of philosophy.)
So Mike’s assertion that he has”generally found philosophers to be better at bullshitting than imparting any meaningful knowledge” reflects not on philosophy but rather on Mike’s own philosophical illiteracy coupled with a lack of charity about modes of discourse with which he is unfamiliar.
On his website Mike identifies himself as a fan of heavy metal. Good for him. Over the last few weeks I’ve been enjoying the new Killswitch Engage album (alas, only in my car; my wife won’t allow it on the home stereo). But imagine how foolish I’d look if I said I have “generally found jazz guitarists to be better at bullshitting than playing real guitar”. Adam D is a great heavy metal guitarist but that doesn’t mean he is a better or more legitimate guitarist than jazz virtuoso Jim Hall. They’re different and each is excellent in his particular genre.
I can’t help but think of the fifteen year old metal head with posters of KSE and FFDP on his walls who is dragged by his father to a Jim Hall concert. The boy can choose to dismiss Jim Hall and jazz guitar as crap, and he probably will. But if he recognizes there are other ways to play a guitar he will open up new horizons for personal development.
Perhaps the biggest tragedy here is that Mike doesn’t realize he is engaged in philosophy. For example, in the second article summarizing our engagement he asserts:
I think that if there were a moral law, then it would be objectively accessible to us – that is, it could be understood using the tools of science.
This is a philosophical assertion. More specifically, it is an epistemological assertion about what it takes to know something. And it asserts that knowability is tied to “objective accessibility” which is itself dependent on “the tools of science”. In other words, Mike has asserted a commitment to scientism here of the form: “To know p, p must be objectively accessible through the tools of science.” So let’s apply Mike’s view to itself. “To know Mike’s view, Mike’s view must be objectively accessible through the tools of science.”
So how’s that work? How does Mike know Mike’s view through the tools of science? He doesn’t, of course. It is a stipulative philosophical demand borne of an unexamined philosophical commitment to a protean scientism.
You see, when you start becoming conversant with the topics and methods of philosophy it doesn’t just mean that you can start doing good philosophy: it also means that you finally stop doing bad philosophy.