Saturday, April 24, 2010

More Fishy Sophistry About Religion and Secularism

[Sorry, wrote in haste, accidentally re-reading an old Fish thing and conflating it with this new piece. This new one seems to be largely reporting on Habermas's views...though apparently also endorsing them...and much of what Habermas seems to be saying here is on the psychological side rather than the logical/philosophical side. As for whether anything about religion can help explain the rationality of non-self-interested action, or secure the logical foundations of science: no. As for whether it might have some kind of psychological effect on us in some way...well, maybe...but who cares?]
Props to Stanley Fish for actually talking about philosophy in a public forum. He's not especially good at it, but it's still great to see some philosophy rather than no philosophy going on in a popular publication.

Sadly, when philosophy does get public attention, it's usually bad...and this is no exception.

Fish here makes the same mistake he made in the last column I commented on (you can look it up if you want...I'm too lazy). No time and no patience to dive into the details now, but the general form of Fish's argument is:

Position 1 faces a bunch of problems!
So you should instead accept position 2!

More specifically:

"Secularism" faces a certain type of problem
So religious views are superior in this regard

Problem is, of course: such arguments can't work unless the latter such views either (a) do not face the problem in question or (b) have resources that make it easier for them to solve the problem in question.

However, religion has no such resources. It faces all the same problems that Fish's so-called "secularism" faces, and it has no resources that mitigate the problems.

(Note: except, perhaps, if he really just means to be talking about psychology. Mere psychological claims are woven throughout this piece, so I'm a little unsure to what extent he's interested in those.)


(a) Non-religious views do, in fact, have a problem rationally defending the logical (broadly construed) foundations of science; religious views have exactly the same problem, and no resources that make the problem easier to solve.

(b) Non-religious view do, in fact, have a problem making sense of obligations that are not merely prudential; religious views have exactly the same problem, and no resources that make it any easier to solve. (And, note: making sense of prudential "obligations" is no walk in the park...)

Here's the thing:

God never helps solve philosophical problems (unless some of the weirder stuff in Kant's second Critique turns out to be right...). Take the problem of non-prudential, moral obligations. Even if God exists, we still face the whole range of moral questions--What acts are right? What makes right acts right? Why be moral, and so on. And nothing God can do can help. If the Divine Command Theory were true, then he could help--but the DCT is false. God simply saying that x is right cannot make x right--cannot constitute the rightness of x.

God might, of course, infallibly send bad people to hell...that would help in a way...but only if you think that moral obligations are grounded in prudence. So that doesn't help make sense of moral obligations conceived of as non-prudential obligations; it just makes the mistake of conflating the moral with the prudential. Be bad and pay the price. And, of course, we can do something similar without God around--we can make people pay for their transgressions.

All these matters deserve more space than this, but there's the gist of it.

[h/t Lewis Carroll]


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Philosoraptor: I appreciate your brand of humor, but it can't cloak a bad philosophical argument. I'm no fan of a lot of what passes for religion (or philosophy) these days, but it seems to me that your argument against religion here is a straw-man. For example, to simply dismiss divine command theory as false is to beg the question, since this is a core premise of all "religions of the book." Secondly, this premise is inextricably bound up with the traditional religious conception of God as formulated by the classical, medieval, and early modern philosophers (e.g. Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas, Descartes). To make the sort of distinctions you're making about the relationship between prudence and morality is to assume a view of God that no philosopher prior to the Enlightenment would accept. It seems to me that based purely on what you say here, you are faced with a dilemma: either simply continue to accept the assumptions that underpin secularity and thus beg a few important and legitimate philosophical questions, or actually question those assumptions which would entail examining as a genuine alternative more cogent philosophies of God and religion as articulated in the tradition of Western philosophy.

10:05 AM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

I appreciate the thoughts, A, but the central question here (as I noted above) remains:

How can adding God to the picture help?

If the DCT could fly, then it would help b/c God could secure the foundations of morality by fiat. But it doesn't fly. But if the DCT doesn't fly, then God only responds to moral truths, he doesn't make them up. So the problem of making sense of the of the foundations of morality (an science, for that matter...) must still be solved, in a way that makes no essential reference to God. Ergo God does not help.

Again, you can't argue for the God hypothesis on the basis of some problem faced by "secularism" if the God hypothesis doesn't help solve that problem.

10:16 AM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

Oh, and as for the DCT:

No, to dismiss it is not to beg the question, it is simply to report on the conclusion of the vast majority of philosophical reflection on the theory. (And: I've discussed that at length before on this blog.)

Is the DCT the view of most Abrahamic theists? I doubt it...I think most such folk believe some incoherent mish-mash, failing to even recognize the crucial Euthyphro contrast that sinks the DCT. They're way better off rejecting the DCT in favor of some version of realism that doesn't depend on divine fiat.

11:06 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

As always, our initial problem is one of definition. I agree with many of your premises (and sorry, was too lazy to look up other references to DCT on your blog), but I think the Euthyphro problem assumes a certain definition of God that disqualifies theological monotheism a priori simply by disallowing that God might be inseparable from morality (the Euthyphro dilemma itself could even be read as pointing this way since Socrates/Plato is unable to rationally separate morality and divinity). I think another aspect of this discussion where we are talking past each other has to do with the limits of reason: Kant and virtually all of his successors (with the notable exception of Hegel) have sensed some sort of limitation with reason and have thus attempted to outline those limits and yet use reason to "see" beyond the purely rational. You are right about DCT, but in the wrong direction: DCT is not the strongest religious theory of morality out there, although some aspect of DCT is evident in every monotheism. Monotheistic morality is most cogently described as some combination of DCT and virtue ethics (although I certainly agree with you that most monotheists have little to no rational conception of their own morality). So you ask a good question ("What can God contribute to morality?") which is nonetheless best answered by taking the most cogent forms of the opposing arguments. I certainly don't think the God hypothesis is going to answer all our questions, but it can answer a lot more than most philosophers are willing to give it credit for. At its essence, philosophy is a matter of asking good questions and then not allowing them to be answered too easily.

9:50 AM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

Well, I don't see how this is a problem of definitions--though I may, of course, just be missing something.

As for the inseparability of God from morality--that's roughly exactly what's at issue. The two are certainly separable in thought. If there's some sound proof of inseparability, I'd be all ears--but there isn't, to the best of my knowledge.

I don't see why monotheism must be committed to the DCT--Leibniz seems to reject it, arguing (correctly, IMHO) that such a view misunderstands and denigrates the goodness of God.

I like your line about philosophy asking good questions and allowing them to be answered too easily--but I'd say that's exactly what goes on in theories that try to make God necessary for morality. "Because God said so" is not a sensible/acceptable/defensible/ answer to the question "why should we not commit murder?" God may be magic, but he's not *that* magic.

What am I missing?

2:27 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Let's go back to your original claim for a minute: Adding God to the picture doesn't help. What you essentially seem to mean is that no rational explanation of God, or no rationally-conceived God can help. But a premise of this claim is that God is explainable by reason. A God explainable in rational terms does not fit the traditional definition of God as given in the ontological argument (e.g. Anselm: a being greater than which nothing can be conceived) since a being greater than reason is greater than a being equal to reason (however paradoxical this is). Your concept of God is better explained as a product of reason rather than a product of revelation or divine fiat. Again, I'm not trying to say that the God hypothesis doesn't leave us with other philosophical problems; I'm merely trying to point out that/how your argument is indeed missing something central or at least potential in the hypothesis. Does that help?

9:45 AM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...


Very interesting, and thanks for that.

My initial reactions:

1. I believe I *was* presupposing that we were talking only about (roughly) "rationalist" versions of theism--I think that presupposition was reasonable (though not unquestionable) given that we were talking (or so I thought) about *making sense* of logic and morality. I don't see how invoking something like a non-rational/inscrutable version of God can help *explain* or *make sense* of things.

2. Incidentally, I've (currently) got no problem with some kind of rational faith--something like Kant defends in the second Critique.

3. I don't follow you re: the Ontological Arg. and what you identify as the traditional conception. The OA invokes God as the greatest *conceivable* being--the being "than which none greater can be conceived". So that idea of God is still conceivable, still in the realm of reason. He's just defined there in a negative way--he's the being such that, were you to try to conceive of anything greater, you would fail. But that doesn't rule out conceiving of him.

4. Anyway, if we start talking about blind faith, then there's a sense in which all bets are off...but (per 2 (above)) I don't see how that can help with understanding/justification.

5. Though the more I think about it, the more I think you might be making a second Critique kind of point...

10:27 AM  
Blogger The Mystic said...

Anonymous, I'm having a hard time following what you're saying. The quote you provide from Anselm doesn't mean God is inexplicable, rationally (whatever that even means) unless you somehow think that a rationally explicable being (again, whatever that means) is less great than a being whose explanation (...) doesn't require rationality.

You seem to indicate that this is, in fact, the case. You provide the argument that "a being greater than reason is greater than a being equal to reason". However, this is all based around your weird claim about God being explainable by reason. I don't know what that claim means, but whatever it means, I doubt we can infer that something which lends itself to rational explanation would be greater if it didn't.

I don't know why you would think that.

So, in the end, you conclude that God must be "greater than reason" (I have no idea what that means) because he can't be rationally explainable (I have no idea what that means) because that would make him equal to reason (weird, probably false).

So I'm going to jump in here and say "no, that doesn't help".

WS's claim is fairly standard and accepted by every philosopher I know. The claim is that adding God to our moral theories doesn't seem to help us solve important problems in any way.

It's that simple. If you disagree, you could demonstrate how God helps to solve a significant moral dilemma, though.

10:33 AM  

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