January 7th, 2011

S.C. Hickman

Directory of Lost Sciences: A Canonical List of Defunct Arguments?

"In philosophy of science, perhaps we need a canonical list of these defunct arguments, so that when a new philosopher of religion arrives and reiterates a version of the cosmological or modal argument for God, we can all call out in unison “68!”
     - John Wilkins

John Wilkins of Evolving Thoughts fame reminds us of an old joke:

"There’s an old joke which goes something like this: A group of long term prisoners have been together so long they don’t tell each other jokes, they simply call out the numbers: “24″ <laughter>; “68″ <laughter>, and so on, a bit like a meeting of Monty Python enthusiasts. A newcomer upon finding out what they are doing tries his hand: “77″ <dull silence>. He turns to his cell mate and asks, “What am I doing wrong?” “You’re telling it wrong”, comes the reply."

But in all seriousness he makes some valid points about bad arguments in the philosophy of science saying, "perhaps we need a canonical list of these defunct arguments, so that when a new philosopher of religion arrives and reiterates a version of the cosmological or modal argument for God, we can all call out in unison “68!” And we would teach those canonical arguments to undergraduates; but nobody would research them unless something genuinely new came up. But we might research the epistemology and metaphysics that led people to think these numbers meant anything…"

What he is describing is how in different traditions of philosophy (i.e., metaphysics of theism, folk-psychology, etc.) a topic could stall do to lack of "interest": "That is, if it fails to make progress and people still insist on it being done, then the overall results will tend to become merely semantic, otiose and obfuscatory. In sum, it ends up being a self-sustaining tradition not unlike a religious commitment (think of Objectivism as an example), where your inclusion in the tradition is based largely upon your willingness to say the right things in the right words." He describes both the economics and the academic underpinnings of any philosophical program as needing to provide topical and interesting ideas that "can generate progressive research programs for their practitioners at a given time." As he states: "Most philosophical problems remain open questions, but so long as the field is generating interesting new work, and understanding is advanced, then the field is worth continuing. We may be seeing the decline of the philosophy of religion (which, as a separate subject in philosophy, is probably only around a century old anyway) as we exhaust all the interesting arguments."

 He tells us that many books are still being written on religion and its impact on both science and culture, as well as our preoccupations with the speculative realms, and that it is likely that a "philosophy of religion, even if not a philosophy of apologetics" might continue for some time. What seems to be finished is that "nothing much new has been said in favour of, for example, existence of deities for over a thousand years, and despite the many glosses and modifications, the research program is moribund. Likewise, divine command theory as the basis for morality is no longer mandated, given that we have perfectly good accounts of the origins and dynamics of morals, but that doesn’t mean we cannot investigate how such claims might work, if we were already committed to, or prepared to entertain as a hypothetical, the existence of God."

One thinks of Slavoj Žižek and John Milbank in their recent flirtations and dialogues in such works as The Monstrosity of Christ and Paul's New Moment with their ecumenical vision of open dialogue between orthodox and atheistic systems. Others such as Anthony Paul Smith and Daniel Whistler, editors of After the Postsecular and the Postmodern: New Essays in Continental Philosophy of Religion, seem to be moving toward alternative and peculiar manifestation of “speculative philosophy of religion” as a discipline that is eminently concerned with the “practice of philosophy which avoids dissolving into theology or becoming a tool of theological thought” (Speculations Journal).

As a teacher and educator, as well as evolutionary scientist John Wilkins tells us that "I think that religion remains an interesting project of discussion in philosophy. And of course we still have to teach undergraduates the Humean and Thomist and Kantian arguments, as they are part of the history of our field and culture. We just might not need to deal with these arguments as live options any more, despite the claims of believing philosophers."

We only hope Wilkins will add in to the mix some of the new trends within Speculative Realism and Materialism as well. As well as the philosophy of atheology, or even for that matter: nihilism and its many diverse branches within the hierarchy of the darker worlds of science.

Read his article at: http://evolvingthoughts.net/2011/01/06/can-one-do-philosophy-of-religion/