The Role of Philosophy Within the Skeptical Movement

Steven sent me a link to this blog post, figuring it might pique my interest; as it turns out, it did. For those unwilling or uninterested in reading the original post (which I recommend doing, as it is a quick, well-written read), the synopsis is as follows: Brian Lynchehaun requests that professional, academic philosophers take the time to critique and comment on the works put forth by popular skeptical figures. Such figures include Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, whom Lynchehaun mentions more than once. The reason that he wants academic philosophers to take the time to respond to these popular skeptics is to keep them, and the public, honest and well-informed. For an example, someone like Harris presents an argument for a moral system grounded on objective scientific observations. The point of these observations is to figure out what does and does not lead to human well-being. Once we know what does and does not help people flourish, we can then step back from the precipice of moral relativism and speak of moral truths; things we know are good and which should guide our moral actions. This sounds like a reasonable enough proposition, so why does Lynchehaun think we need a  philosophical intervention here?

I’ll let him speak for himself: “If these people are going to seek gain prestige and compensation for writing on a topic that has had 2500 years of discussion prior to their involvement… Surely they should see what has gone before? And if they were to merely reiterate the last century of consequentialism without any credit to the writers who came before them (Harris), they should be held to the same standards as a mere undergraduate student. Should they not?”

Before I respond, I’d like to note that I seem to share much of the same background as Lynchehaun. I, too, hold a BA in Philosophy and am effectively a nobody (though I am surely more of a “nobody” than Lynchehaun) within the skeptical community. I consider myself fairly well read and have a background that has focused on morality, ethics and their relevant metaphysical topics (such as the free will debate). Given a similar pedigree, I find it interesting that I do not completely share his view on this topic.

"Lynchehaun requests that professional, academic philosophers take the time to critique and comment on the works put forth by popular skeptical figures."

I think it is important that philosophy has been a disorganized and generally individual effort throughout much of Western history. For the last 2,000 years, people were segregated by language, ethnic groups, nation-states, religion, physical distance, and a myriad of other obstacles. We lost a thousand years of productive thought from the fall of the Roman Empire and the rise of intellectualism during the Renaissance, and even then we were primarily engaged in rediscovering ancient philosophy being brought in from the Near East. Modern philosophy usually starts with Descartes, which means it spans a time of a mere 500 years. Much of this time was spent fumbling around, touching on topics covered in ages past, refining them, updating them and finally abandoning many of them in favor of something new.

My point is that much of philosophy has been the rehashing of old arguments, in one way or another. Lynchehaun is uncomfortable with popular writers who do not give heed to the philosophical traditions from which they come, but it has only been the last 200 years or so that universities became widespread institutions by which a substantial number of people could come into contact with philosophy and her many wonders. The average person would never have heard of Rousseau, Locke, Descartes, Kant, Bentham, Mill, or Hegel. Indeed, the average person still hasn’t heard of these men or their ideas, and it is for this reason I am inclined to let men like Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins write without focusing on their philosophical predecessors.

"We lost a thousand years of productive thought from the fall of the Roman Empire and the rise of intellectualism during the Renaissance..."

I am not saying that leading skeptics should willfully ignore their heritage. That would be tantamount to plagiarism, and it would be plagiarism of a sorry kind. Consider Sam Harris’s moral notions as described above: his formulation amounts to consequentialism. Consequentialism states that an act’s moral worth is to be determined by the outcome of that action. Thus an act is not inherently moral; it is only conditionally so, depending on the unique circumstance in which that act would take place. So, under Harris’s system, an act is moral if it leads to the maximization of human well-being.

Though he is not commenting directly on Harris's work, Lynchehaun’s problem appears to be that this mode of thought was famously brought into philosophy in its modern form by men like Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill during the 1700s and Harris’s modern formulation makes no mention of its ancestors. While it is couched in more scientific terminology than those of Bentham and Mill, it is structurally very similar. Given that these topics have been discussed for a good 300 years within philosophy, shouldn’t Harris have noted the heritage to which he is contributing, giving credit where credit is due?

In the case of Harris, he does comment on this lack of engagement with the relevant literature in his first endnote to Chapter One of The Moral Landscape. While within that endnote he acknowledges he is fairly well read in these areas, he gives two reasons for not referencing those materials:

(1)    He arrived at his system by reflecting on the logical consequences of continued scientific study of the human mind, not “by reading the work of moral philosophers”;

(2)    Writing a work meant for the public in standard philosophical terminology “directly increases the amount of boredom in the universe.”

Simply put, I agree with reason (2), and I think Harris was smart to stay away from the traditional literature for a work of the kind of which The Moral Landscape is.

I have said many times before that I chose not to continue on the track of academic philosophy because I felt that contemporary philosophy is entirely too cloistered. We do battle with one another within the hallowed grounds of educational institutions, but those battles rarely become visible to the public at large. I am a firm believer that philosophy is meaningless if it does not help people become better in some way, and any work that brings a reasoned argument to the public at large is, I believe, providing the world a tangible benefit.

This is not to say that I advocate all popular writers should ignore the literature that is out there on topics they might discuss. I just think that there is value to those who bring important issues to light without dredging up hundreds of years of prior thought on the matter. Most people are not interested in reading hardcore philosophical treatises, and I cannot say that I blame them. "Exciting" and "openly engaging to the general public" is not how I would describe most academic writing. I would have been up in arms had Harris claimed to have invented consequentialism or utilitarianism, but he does not claim to do so and he consistently references and credits his sources. I think that so long as writers in this vein continue a practice similar to this, there is no issue to be had.

This brings us to the second part of Lynchehaun’s request to the philosophers of the world. He wants the professionals to take the time to review these works and call them out on their inadequacies, inaccuracies and other intellectual sins. I wholeheartedly agree with this, and hope that the tag-team of popularizers and academics can help bring the wonders of philosophy to the world at large. I think this alliance would be to the benefit of everyone involved. The greater the number of people who are engaged in the discussion, the better, and I think that men like Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens are a great gateway to a rich philosophical narrative to which everyone should be privy.

"I just think that there is value to those who bring important issues to light without dredging up hundreds of years of prior thought on the matter."

To close, I think that Lynchehaun is right to want the engagement of professional philosophers with respect to popular skeptical works. These people are the experts in these areas, and as such anything that meets their standards should be deemed worthy of consumption. This is not, however, the same as saying that popular writers must write as those professional philosophers do. It is here that I part ways with Lynchehaun. I think that these more simplified, popular arguments are a great way to avoid turning people off of the subject by becoming bogged down by the historical literature. I’m not advocating for plagiarism, but rather a way of distilling some of the important, foundational topics in such a way as to make them more palatable to the general public. A constructive, positive alliance between these forces can only lead to the betterment of everyone involved and I sincerely hope we see such a harmonious union in the future.


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