In defense of the indefensible humanities

Università di Bologna

The University of Bologna, the most ancient in the world.

We keep hearing that the humanities — meaning things like literature, philosophy, history and so forth — are in crisis. Which is undeniably true, as measured in terms of dollars invested in them (including number of faculty positions, courses offered, etc.) in many contemporary universities, especially, but not only, in the United States and the UK. Many reasons have been adduced to explain this phenomenon, and there have been a number of calls to defend the humanistic disciplines on a variety of grounds.

I have my own take on this, which was crystallized in my mind several years ago, during a dinner with the Chair of the Philosophy Department at Notre Dame University. He was bragging that Notre Dame has the largest philosophy department in the country, possibly the world (I think the former statement is correct, the latter is doubtful, but still). I was then myself Chair of the Department of Philosophy at Lehman College in the Bronx, and I asked my host what accounted for their success. His response was simple and obvious: “we are a Catholic university. You simply don’t graduate from here unless you have taken a minimum of two philosophy courses.”

It is as simple as that, really. The “crisis” is an artifact of the fact that universities — especially public ones in the US — are increasingly run like businesses, where the “customer” (they used to be called students) get to pick what they want to study and how. The problem, of course, is that students, by definition, don’t know enough about what is good for them, and so should be institutionally limited in their choices. When I learned how to drive I patiently listened to my instructor and followed his lead, I didn’t design my own curriculum at driving school. The same when I learned Judo. Oh, and when I went to college, obviously. To run universities the way they are run now is purely and simply to abdicate the responsibility of teaching the next generation. Faculty and administrators, instead, become retail sellers, competing with each other to attract the highest number of customers in order to boost enrollment and bring in the tuition money that is increasingly needed because States have cut funding for “public” education, in many cases to ridiculously low levels.

I could end this post here, surely having pissed off or outraged countless students and administrators. Which is okay, since I’ve got tenure. But I recently read a refreshingly different essay on the subject, which I want to comment on. It’s titled “There is no case for the humanities,” published in American Affairs Journal, and authored by Justin Stover, a quondam fellow of All Souls College, Oxford University, and a lecturer at the University of Edinburgh. Stover provides a scholarly informed background about the history of the very concept of a university, makes excellent points, gets most of the facts right, and yet is — I maintain — spectacularly wrong in his conclusions. Or so I am going to argue.

Stover begins by arguing that there is deep conceptual confusion about what the humanities are and the reasons for studying them. He then immediately tells his readers that he will ignore the first part of the issue (what constitutes the humanities) and devote his piece to the second one (why studying them). Not necessarily a good move, in my opinion, because the reader is left — off the bat, so to speak — to having to guess what Stover means by “humanities.” Still, let’s assume that we all know what he is talking about, a la Justice Potter.

Stover’s first excellent point concerns the strange critique, and support, that both conservatives and leftists have for the humanities. The conservatives first. On the one hand, they attempt to use the coercive power of the state, and the financial muscle of private donors, in order to correct what they see as the ideological bias of the academy. On the other hand, in so doing, they are contributing to the destruction of the very professoriate that they claim to be defending. As Stover puts it:

“It is self-defeating to make common cause with corporate interests looking to co-opt the university and its public subsidy to outsource their job training and research, just for the sake of punishing the political sins of liberal professors.”

This without counting the fact that university professors tend to be liberal within the humanities, but certainly not in the social sciences, or even in the natural sciences — which are by far more powerful and influential on modern campuses.

The left doesn’t do much better, according to Stover. Progressives want to use the humanities as a force for social change and a training camp for citizen-activists, which right there is in flagrant contradiction with the mission of a university. Worse, they impose ideological litmus tests, despite their vocal protestations of being in favor of critical thinking and freedom of expression.

Stover tells us that most faculty are caught in the middle of this struggle, and that what they want to do, mostly, is to mind their business and carry out their research and scholarship on tiny, and often entirely irrelevant, domains of human knowledge. In other words, they want to do precisely what universities were originally designed to do, from the establishment of the first world university (in Bologna, Italy) back in 1088, onwards. This is an interesting — and insofar as I know correct — point:

“The critics, often well-meaning [well, I don’t know about that], think they are attacking the decadence and excess of contemporary humanities scholarship, when in fact they are striking at the very heart of the humanities as they have existed for centuries.”

One large caveat here, coming from my more extensive experience as someone who has worked in, and is familiar with the history of, not just the humanities, but the sciences as well. Everything that’s Stover has said so far, and that he says in the rest of the article, applies mutatis mutandis to the sciences. Which pretty much dispatches of his entire argument, since he is assuming from the beginning that the humanities are somehow different from the rest of academy. They are most certainly not, at least not by the light of the parameters he uses in his discussion.

The central part of the article is structured around a series of obviously provocative sections, boldly making entirely counterintuitive claims. The first one is “in praise of overspecialization,” addressing the criticism that today’s humanistic scholarship is too narrowly focused, and often concerned with minutiae that seem hardly worth bothering with. Here Stover is absolutely right that this is nothing new:

“No Scholastic ever argued how many angels could dance on the head of a pin — it takes the fevered imagination of a philosophe to come up with that question — but popular depictions of scholars in the Middle Ages indicate that their specialized pursuits were not always fully appreciated.”

Indeed, as Stover points out with dismay, it is the modern expectation that is new and way out of proportions. If you were to write, for instance, a paper or book on French clothing from 1650 to 1699, reviewers would demand that you situate your work within the broader area of literary theory, and moreover provide analyses of your material within the framework generated by the cultural milieu of the modern world. No Scholastic was ever asked to do anything like that at all.

This demand for broad context and up to date framing, according to Stover, simply results in bad scholarship:

“Take an important subject, say, democracy in classical Athens. If you ever want to go beyond a silly nursery story about Athens as the cradle of democracy … if you actually want to understand the political and social system of fifth-century Athens, you would have to delve into everything from epigraphy to the minor Attic orators, to comedy and tragedy, the Greek economy, trade relationships in Greece and the Mediterranean, coinage, ship construction, material supply chains, colonies, gender roles, even clothing and food.”

In other words, you would have to rely on a lot of narrow, “useless” scholarship.

The next section is “in defense of overproduction.” Here too, Stover’s strategy is to show that this isn’t a new problem, but a feature that has been with us from the dawn of (scholarly) time. He quotes an unspecified 13th century scholar who complained that “Aristotle offers the key to wisdom, but he hid that key in so many books.” Tens of thousands of commentaries on Peter Lombard exist, unread for hundreds of years, scattered across European universities, the reason being that this was once a standard exercise to go through to become a reputable (and licensed) teacher of theology. Overproduction doesn’t seem nearly like a sufficient term here!

Then we have “against teaching,” where Stover reminds us that scholars have always eschewed teaching, and that universities were never meant primarily as teaching (as opposed to scholarly) enterprises. I remember reading a biography of Galileo (not a humanist, but a scientist!) that commented about a letter that he wrote to a friend explaining why he was moving back to Florence from Padua: the wine is better, and the teaching load is smaller. I can relate. Stover puts it this way:

“These critiques, whether from the right or left, betray a rather limited horizon of imagination. They can only see the university as a fee-for-service corporation, a vendor hawking knowledge. … A school — be it a gymnasium or realschule, a college or a lycee, a grammar school or comprehensive, a preparatory academy or a public school — exists to teach. But the difference between a university and a school is not the mere difference of the age of the student or the level of instruction. The university is a different kind of thing.”

Indeed. Throughout its history the university has been a locus of scholarship, where the students benefit from the proximity with scholars, more a workshop than a school, at least ideally. That role has now shifted to graduate schools, in the process degrading colleges to glorified high schools, in part because actual high schools no longer do a proper job of teaching the next generation.

So Stover is right that the modern critics of the university, if they had their way, would destroy the very concept of a university, turning it instead into a slightly refined high school. He sees the contemporary university as a bizarre chimaera, and he is not wrong in this:

“The contemporary university … has become an institution for teaching undergraduates, a lab for medical and technological development in partnership with industry, a hospital, a museum (or several), a performance hall, a radio station, a landowner, a big-money (or money-losing) sports club, a research center competing for government funding, often the biggest employer for a hundred miles around, and, for a few institutions, a hedge fund.”

Which brings him finally to what he sees as the misguided attempts of late to defend the humanities. He accuses his colleagues of uttering words in which they don’t, really, believe, such as “skills,” “relevance,” “changing economy,” “engagement,” and “values.” I think he is a bit too harsh here, but I have certainly experienced, both as a faculty and as an administrator (five years as a Chair) part of what he is talking about. I can’t tell you how many useless strategic and rebranding meetings I have participated to, realizing full well that they were going to be a waste of everyone’s time.

Stover tells us that, in the end, what academic humanists really value is that their scholarship gives them participation in a particular community that they appreciate, a community in which other scholars typically share their values and interests. He rejects what he sees — rightly, mostly — as conservative paranoia about sinister plots to brainwash students with liberal dogma. Which leads him to conclude that the only justification for the humanities is within a humanistic framework, and that outside of such framework there is no case to be made:

“The humanities do not need to make a case within the university because the humanities are the heart of the university. Golfers do not need to justify the rationale for hitting little white balls to their golf clubs; philatelists do not need to explain what makes them excited about vintage postage at their local stamp collecting society.”

This is utterly wrong, and quite obviously so. The analogies simply do not hold. Golfers pay for their club memberships, and philatelists buy their own stamps. Academics, by contrast, are paid, often with public funds. So justification is most definitely needed.

Stover is correct, however, when he says that what distinguishes universities from technical schools is precisely the presence of the humanities:

“The most prestigious universities in the West are still those defined by their humanities legacy, which surrounds them with an aura of cultural standing that their professional purpose no longer justifies. … That is why every technical institute with higher aspirations has added humanities programs: accounting or law or engineering can be learned in many places, but courtoisie is passed along only in the university, and only through the humanities — and everyone knows it. … It is the lingering presence of the humanities that allows the modern university to think better of itself, and to imagine itself to be above commercial or political vulgarity.”

In the end, Stover tells us that the current weak defense of the humanities will fail, and the crisis of the university will deepen. Luckily, he says, this is not the first time, and will probably not be the last one. The university, and the humanities, will survive to fight another day:

“The way to defend the arts [and humanities] is to practice them. … Scholarship has built institutions before, and will do so again.”

Perhaps, but I’m not willing to wait and see how history unfolds. And — contra Stover — I don’t find most (though not all) of the current defenses of the humanities to be weak at all. Of course the humanities teach valuable skills to students, and there is plenty of empirical evidence to substantiate that claim. No, the sciences don’t teach “critical thinking,” by and large, and they certainly don’t teach how to think broadly and write well. And those are much more crucial, and portable, skills than learning how to run a chemical reaction or dissect a frog.

Of course the humanities teach about values. You don’t learn much about the human polis by studying astronomy or biology (as important as those disciplines are), or even engineering and medicine. You learn that from reading Shakespeare, engaging with Aristotle and Kant, seeing (and even better acting in, or producing) a play by Aristophanes. (Feel free to substitute the examples above with equivalent ones from China, Japan, Africa, South America, and so forth.)

If we yield to the neo-liberal project for the university it will not only destroy the university, it will also destroy the hope to provide the kind of public education that helps to form the next generation of intelligent, informed, critical human beings and citizens. Again, this is not something the STEM disciplines are equipped to do, with all due respect to my colleagues in science, computer science, engineering, and mathematics. I know this not just because I read widely, but from personal experience: my philosophy classes are so much more important and impactful than the ones I used to teach in biology that the comparison is simply laughable.

Against teaching? The hell with that. Teaching is by far the most important thing we do (when we do it well, not as a glorified high school). And to argue that it is not so today because it was not so during the Middle Ages is a complete non sequitur. Plenty of things were different in the past, but we have learned to do them better, or not to do them at all, if they turned out to be useless. And we are better off for it.

In praise of over-specialization and over-production? My arse. My heart aches at the immense waste of human potential represented by those tens of thousands of commentaries on Peter Lombard. What a gigantic load of lost opportunities! No, please, let’s not use that as a model for modern scholarship. Again, just because it has always been so it doesn’t mean it is a good idea to continue doing it that way. Yes, specialization is the inevitable name of the scholarly game, and Stover’s example of what is needed to develop a deep understanding of ancient Athenian democracy is a very good one. But let’s go a little lighter on additional commentaries on the philosopher or dramatist du jour, please.

Unlike Stover — whom I thank for his cogent analysis, which really pushed me to reflect more carefully on all of this — I think that a defense of the humanities, right here and right now, is synonymous with a defense of the very idea of a liberal education. Which in turn is synonymous with a defense of the possibility and hope for a vibrant democracy. Or at least a democracy that doesn’t produce the sort of obscene politics and social policies that a number of Western countries, especially the US and UK, are currently producing. We can do better, we ought to do better, we will do better.


Categories: Public Philosophy, Social & Political Philosophy

115 replies

  1. To continue in this vein, one can also open a copy of the I Ching and throw the coins or the yarrow sticks. (And, no, I don’t view the I Ching as an “oracle,” but rather as something vaguely analogous to a Rorschach test.) One could best do this while listening to John Cage’s “Music of Changes,” one of several pieces of aleatoric music he wrote.


  2. Actually for Chinese Philosophy, I think this book called “Against Individualism” by Henry Rosemont looks be a good read, it’s still something I have to get to but it looks really interesting. I think I’m going to try reading it in the coming months.

    “The first part of Against Individualism: A Confucian Rethinking of the Foundations of Morality, Politics, Family, and Religion is devoted to showing how and why the vision of human beings as free, independent and autonomous individuals is and always was a mirage that has served liberatory functions in the past, but has now become pernicious for even thinking clearly about, much less achieving social and economic justice, maintaining democracy, or addressing the manifold environmental and other problems facing the world today.

    In the second and larger part of the book Rosemont proffers a different vision of being human gleaned from the texts of classical Confucianism, namely, that we are first and foremost interrelated and thus interdependent persons whose uniqueness lies in the multiplicity of roles we each live throughout our lives. This leads to an ethics based on those mutual roles in sharp contrast to individualist moralities, but which nevertheless reflect the facts of our everyday lives very well. The book concludes by exploring briefly a number of implications of this vision for thinking differently about politics, family life, justice, and the development of a human-centered authentic religiousness. This book will be of value to all students and scholars of philosophy, political theory, and Religious, Chinese, and Family Studies, as well as everyone interested in the intersection of morality with their everyday and public lives.”

    “In this book, renowned comparativist scholar Henry Rosemont Jr. takes aim at one of the central shibboleths of Western thought: that of the isolated individual, the autonomous ego, the “self-made man”. Drawing on his extensive familiarity with both Western and Confucian philosophy, Rosemont debunks this premise as untenable. All those who have suffered from the disastrous global effects of libertarian self-adulation will welcome his book as a breath of fresh air. Regardless of the pros and cons of the “role” conception of human life, Rosemont’s argument in favor of the ultimate “relationality” of all beings and things is persuasive and, to me, irrefutable.”
    (Fred R. Dallmayr, Packey J. Dee Professor Emeritus, University of Notre Dame)

    “This is a landmark work . Rosemont’s book presents us with a Confucian-inspired alternative to Western individualism. It transforms our vision of who and what we are. I like the way in which Rosemont blends theory with many examples, and shows the practical implications of his Confucian point of view. As an American philosopher and also one of the leading scholars of Confucius’ thought, Rosemont is just the man for this imaginative project.”
    (Herbert Fingarette, University of California, Santa Barbara; author of Confucius: The Secular as Sacred)

    “In this thoughtful and penetrating inquiry, Henry Rosemont undertakes the formidable challenge of confronting and rejecting the individualist doctrines that provide the foundation for the ethical theories that dominate western discourse and moral judgment, arguing instead for a “role-bearing” conception derived from Confucian thought and practice. A rewarding and thought-provoking study, reaching broadly to crucial issues of contemporary concern.” (Noam Chomsky, MIT)


  3. I did not say that pain is good. I just said that you can’t use it as a criterion for deciding if something is moral or not.

    And I did not mean that pain is ‘bad’. It’s not a category that applies to pain or the seeing red. Causing pain unnecessarily is ‘bad’ (immoral) and that’s about as close as we’ll get to an absolute or least-ways universal standard.

    Pain has it uses, though I would think learning could work w/o it, much less needing chronic pain. ‘God’ has his good excuse, so pain is what it is and our response to it that is relevant to defining good and bad. Preventing and not causing pain,

    Only people can be moral or immoral, bad or good.


  4. Socratic

    I looked into it and I still don’t know what the iChing is for other than for religious divination purposes, except that both Laozi and Confucius were influenced by it a lot.

    Anyways an interest of mine is looking into unfairly neglected thinkers. I found out that academic popularity isn’t necessarily the root of good ideas, there are just a lot of both underrated and overrated writers…


  5. It’s curious that in this thread on women in the ancient world there are no[a] women participating.

    [a] Well at least I haven’t seen any…I don’t look at every comment.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. >Massimo even gave this a like.

    Like ≠ agree

    Liked by 2 people

  7. saphsin: What are your suggested Chinese readings for those of us who are for Individualism?


  8. And I’m not quite sure Queen Elizabeth is the best parallel, it depends on how they all ended up in those positions.

    Protestant succession, right? And Mary lost her head…



    Mozi’s moral teachings emphasized self-reflection and authenticity rather than obedience to ritual. He observed that we often learn about the world through adversity (“Embracing Scholars” in Mozi). By reflecting on one’s own successes and failures, one attains true self-knowledge rather than mere conformity to ritual (“Refining Self” in Mozi). Mozi exhorted people to lead a life of asceticism and self-restraint, renouncing both material and spiritual extravagance.

    Like Confucius, Mozi idealized the Xia Dynasty and the ancients of Chinese mythology, but he criticized the Confucian belief that modern life should be patterned on the ways of the ancients. After all, he pointed out, what we think of as “ancient” was actually innovative in its time, and thus should not be used to hinder present-day innovation (“Against Confucianism, Part 3” in the Mozi). Though Mozi did not believe that history necessarily progresses, as did Han Fei Zi, he shared the latter’s critique of fate (命, mìng). Mozi believed that people were capable of changing their circumstances and directing their own lives. They could do this by applying their senses to observing the world, judging objects and events by their causes, their functions, and their historical bases. (“Against Fate, Part 3”) This was the “three-prong method” Mozi recommended for testing the truth or falsehood of statements. His students later expanded on this to form the School of Names.

    ==>Sounds kind of Stoic


  10. Of course he was; and so was Homer, and heaps more.  But Shakespeare and the rest have to walk behind a common tailor from Tennessee, by the name of Billings; and behind a horse-doctor named Sakka, from Afghanistan.  Jeremiah, and Billings and Buddha walk together, side by side, right behind a crowd from planets not in our astronomy; next come a dozen or two from Jupiter and other worlds; next come Daniel, and Sakka and Confucius; next a lot from systems outside of ours; next come Ezekiel, and Mahomet, Zoroaster, and a knife-grinder from ancient Egypt; then there is a long string, and after them, away down toward the bottom, come Shakespeare and Homer, and a shoemaker named Marais, from the back settlements of France.”
    “Have they really rung in Mahomet and all those other heathens?”
    “Yes—they all had their message, and they all get their reward.  The man who don’t get his reward on earth, needn’t bother—he will get it here, sure.”
    “But why did they throw off on Shakespeare, that way, and put him away down there below those shoe-makers and horse-doctors and knife-grinders—a lot of people nobody ever heard of?”
    “That is the heavenly justice of it—they warn’t rewarded according to their deserts, on earth, but here they get their rightful rank.  That tailor Billings, from Tennessee, wrote poetry that Homer and Shakespeare couldn’t begin to come up to; but nobody would print it, nobody read it but his neighbors, an ignorant lot, and they laughed at it.  Whenever the village had a drunken frolic and a dance, they would drag him in and crown him with cabbage leaves, and pretend to bow down to him; and one night when he was sick and nearly starved to death, they had him out and crowned him, and then they rode him on a rail about the village, and everybody followed along, beating tin pans and yelling.  Well, he died before morning.  He wasn’t ever expecting to go to heaven, much less that there was going to be any fuss made over him, so I reckon he was a good deal surprised when the reception broke on him.”

    Now with the web the shoemaker can get is poetry out there, but instead of being unpublished, it can’t be found in the mountains of crap.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Saphsin: That is one possible take on the I Ching. That said, any modern English translation will say that, in general, it should not be approached such a way and definitely not used for yes/no questions.

    Alan Watts, well-known for his writing on Zen, actually wrote his last book on Daoism. “Tao: The Watercourse Way.” In it, he distinguishes between what I will call “metaphysical Daoism” and “existential Daoism.” The metaphysical version includes the search for the elixir of life, etc., which probably came from the farther west in ancient China, i.e., Tibet, and its pre-Buddhist religion. In turn, as the Islamic world expanded 1,000-plus years later, it probably influenced the Arab world (the root of the word “elixir”) and from there, medieval European alchemy. (Both India and the Hellenistic West had versions of the philosopher’s stone.)

    The flip side is “existential Daoism,” the quasi-Stoic philosophy about learning to live with the flow of life, with a bit of quasi-Cynic spitting in the Confucian soup. Tis true that the “Dao,” the “Way,” is usually understood metaphysically. But, to the degree that anchorage is real, I think it’s easier to slip than demythologizing Buddhism.


  12. Dan

    It depends on what you mean by individualism, but I don’t think there is anything I can think of, and that’s probably the problem with Asian Ethical Philosophy. The Asian societies have been extremely authoritarian and repressive and there’s a dire need for more emphasis on individual cultivation and exercising of one’s creative capacities. But that’s been recognized by many and things are changing. My personal opinion has always been that there’s no actual dichotomy between individualism & communitarianism, and it’s exercising the best of both that matters (sometimes necessarily complementary). In America, we need a lot of the other side, and there’s just been some amazing achievements of Asian Role Ethics and community based ethics in other societies around the world that we should emulate. There’s just too much fending for yourself here and lack of connection with the wider community, among both conservatives and liberals. Just stay in NYC for a while and then look around Tokyo and you can just see the difference.


  13. synred

    Why do you say Mozi’s teachings are like Stoicism?


  14. Dan,

    The problem with individualism is taking it to extremes and making a religion out of it. What is a node without its network? Conversely there are no networks without nodes. There are two sides to the coin.

    What gets overlooked is that in a supposedly autonomous society, the network necessarily operates at a meta level, rather than the communal level and the vast majority of individuals are at its mercy. Think global currencies.

    Be careful what you wish for, you might get it.


  15. I did some searching and IEP has an article on individualism in Chinese thought. It mentions some stuff about Mencius, and that the way that individualism as understood in Western Thought doesn’t apply neatly as a category in Chinese thought. Which is for the better I think, because individualism is contentious here too (There’s a world difference between Ayn Rand & Emma Goldman for sure, but they both talked about the freedom of the individual)


  16. I found this reference in the IEP article, might be worth a read:

    “Conventional wisdom has it that the concept of individualism was absent in early China. In this uncommon study of the self and human agency in ancient China, Erica Fox Brindley provides an important corrective to this view and persuasively argues that an idea of individualism can be applied to the study of early Chinese thought and politics with intriguing results. She introduces the development of ideological and religious beliefs that link universal, cosmic authority to the individual in ways that may be referred to as individualistic and illustrates how these evolved alongside and potentially helped contribute to larger sociopolitical changes of the time, such as the centralization of political authority and the growth in the social mobility of the educated elite class.”


  17. Socratic

    I don’t fully trust Alan Watts to be honest (I’ve tried reading two of his books, one personally for seeking therapeutical ailments to my mental illness, and it just appeared to be of horrible practical use) There seems to be much better Western philosophers who study Chinese thought out there. Hans-Georg Moeller wrote a book on Zhuangzi that I heard was good, have you heard of it?


  18. Mozi and stoicism — nothing deep: just a few phrases in the wiki description of his teachings remind me of some stoics sayings. Didn’t I say “kind of” or something like that…


  19. Saph: Oh, I know Watts is sometimes to be taken with as big a grain of salt as, say, Joseph Campbell. (The two were semi-bosom buddies, which is why I specifically reference Campbell.) That said, I think the division is still reasonably valid and workable.

    I’ve heard Moeller’s name, not read the book.

    And, the re-reading of Zhuangzi, in selection, that I’m doing, is a collation by Thomas Merton, working off existing translations.


  20. On abandoning individualism, I’m reminded of some old advice about acid trips: “merge with the universe if you like, but don’t throw the car keys in the ocean.” I’m persuaded that sanity lies somewhere on the spectrum between Gordon Gekko/Ayn Rand and Buddha/Mother Teresa.

    Liked by 1 person

  21. wtc48

    One objection, Mother Teresa was nothing like Buddha, or any communitarian. She was a hypocritical sociopath who only cared about extending the prestige and attendance of the Catholic Religion. (Christopher Hitchens popularized the criticism, but he took off from Aroup Chatterjee, who was a much more extensive journalist)


  22. Glad to hear it. I suggest you seek those “modern scientists” immediately. See what they say.

    Oh Daniel, I’ve just thought of the most delicious irony. What if you, the distinguished philosopher fighting to protect his field from those who seek effective answers, had to rely upon scientists to dismiss my ideas, while you continually abstain!


  23. Well spotted Couvent. No I’m not “really certain” that scientists today are in desperate need of more effective principles of metaphysics. This is simply a strong belief that I hold. I’m not actually certain of anything, beyond that I think itself. I try to speak accurately when feasible, but slip now and then. Of course you might instead have been wondering why I believe that modern science needs metaphysical help. If so, let me explain.

    My single principle of metaphysics supposes the ontological totality of causality, or more simply “naturalism”. It may be false in the end of course, but in support of this position I can at least offer a sort of “antitheses of Pascal’s wager”. Observe that to the extent that causality fails, it’s impossible for us to figure out how reality functions anyway. Thus if we want to figure things out, naturalism is our only option.

    This is a very standard position today of course, but is it standard enough? Given all of the “spooky” ideas that come up in our mental/behavioral sciences, and certainly in philosophy, I don’t think so. Thus I’d like for naturalists in general to come together and take our position more seriously. Thus when someone presents an idea that’s less than naturalistic, our response might be something like, “Well you may be right about that, but unfortunately it conflicts with the defining metaphysics of our society. Given the impossibility of figuring out how non causal things function anyway, we simply do not entertain such notions.”. Note that even modern physicists seem to need help in this regard, since apparently most today interpret Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle to mean that causality ultimately fails…

    Wait a minute… Aren’t you a physicist? Hey I’d really like your opinions there. If you would, please shoot me an email: As a kicker, maybe you could even do Daniel a huge favor and tear my position apart? He’s been quipping at me for years, though inevitably abstains from any actual challenge — generally with smug implicatur of “I’m a credentialed philosopher, while you’re a nobody”. (No joke though, I’d love to hear from you.)


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