It all started with my Wittgenstein tweet. That prompted a reply from philosopher and atheist, Stephen Law and in a moment we were off discussing philosophy vs. magic. I divided our flurry of tweets into two tracks dealing with the two issues I raised. Blessedly, we ended on some point of agreement. Score one for civil discourse! Indeed, given the reasoning evidenced by both parties, I’d say we even did some philosophy!
Randal Rauser: Ludwig Wittgenstein: “We feel that even if all possible scientific questions be answered, the problems of life have still not been touched at all. ” (Tractatus, 6.52)
Stephen Law: That’s why we have 1. philosophy, and 2. magic books.
RR: What’s a “magic book”?
SL: Well a sufficient condition would be a book that is supposed to provide answers to ‘Big Questions’ not by applying science and/or reason but by the operation of some sort of supernatural and/or otherwise mysterious revelatory mechanism, e.g. a sensus divinitatis.
RR: 1. If a person appeals to moral intuitions or rational intuitions in their argument, are they appealing to a “mysterious revelatory mechanism”? If not, why not? 2. What makes something “supernatural”? Does David Lewis’ account of possible worlds apply? If not, why not?
Point 1: Magic
SL: 1. Thought you’d raise that. A book that develops a reasoned case based on what is admitted to be e.g. a strong moral intuition is IMO a work of philosophy, whereas a book that just makes a series of claims supposedly grounded in such a mechanism is not (e.g. Nostradamus).
RR: You identify 2 criteria: (i) a reasoned case, (ii) appeal to a strong intuition. Does (ii) depend on *you* recognizing that intuition as strong? Or could that reasoned case be philosophy even if you don’t recognize that intuition?
SL: not sure I understand the question.
RR: You referenced the “Sensus Divinitatis” as an example of a source of properly basic belief (i.e. intuition) that you don’t share. Thus, you deem that a “magical” source of belief that negates the philosophical value of all reasoning that depends on it. Not so for moral intuition?
SL: If a book makes a sophisticated argument drawing on premise that is claimed to be some divinely (thus magically) provided truth, I’d class that as a work of philosophy. A ‘magical’ book is one is primarily in business of making magically revealed claims (e.g. Nostradamus).
RR: Ah, okay, so a would-be prophet like Nostradamus produces a “magic” book, but a philosopher like Alvin Plantinga who explicitly reasons in accord with his worldview (including intuitions he believes derive from a sensus divinitatis) is doing philosophy. We agree!
SL: Yeh, that sounds right. But now we’ll probably disagree about The Bible, The Quran, etc. Magic books.
RR: We might indeed disagree re. the Bible. Yoram Hazony makes an excellent case that the Hebrew Bible is full of philosophy: e.g. political philosophy in the Deuteronomic history, epistemology in Jeremiah etc.
But we can agree to disagree on that. Cheers!
Point 2: The Supernatural … and Magical
SL: re 2. I guess by a ‘supernatural’ mechanism I mean a mechanism that transcends the laws governing our spatio-temporal universe. i.e. they can’t explain its operation.
RR: So by your criterion, David Lewis’s account of possible worlds is magic? By that definition, what in metaphysics isn’t magic?
SL: See other answers. You’re assuming I suppose if there’s any magic in a book, it’s a magical book. I am allowing philosophy books can include bit of magical thinking. They often do.
Note a book that makes a reasoned case for supposing there’s more than our spatio-temporal universe – as metaphysics sometimes does – is not a ‘magical’ book.
RR: Okay, so the book is not magical if it engages in reasoning, but it nonetheless appeals to the “supernatural” insofar as it appeals to entities/facts beyond our spatio-temporal universe. Is that right?
SL: If Nostradamus includes (perhaps he does?) a few well-reasoned arguments based on his prophecies, it still ain’t a philosophy book. It’s a matter of degree, and overall rational architecture. There needs to be a very significant quota of reasoning.
Since our exchange, I’ve had the America song “You Can Do Magic” running through my head on a continuous feedback loop.