Sunday, March 31, 2013

Philosophy as (disguised) apologetics

While trying to find out more about David Albert's religious views, I have stumbled across something rather more interesting and more significant: an article by Nathan Schneider (written from a point of view sympathetic to religion) which seems to confirm much of what I have been saying about philosophy and religion.

It seems that the John Templeton Foundation which, under the guise of promoting a dialogue between science and religion, seeks to enhance the status and intellectual credibility of the latter, has been providing a lot of funding to academic philosophers of late. Albert, who has benefited from Templeton in the past, is currently co-directing a three-year project on the philosophy of cosmology which is funded by the foundation.

Strangely enough, there is a prominent link to Schneider's article, which discusses not only the great influence of Templeton money on the discipline of philosophy, but also the 'silent coup' conducted over recent decades by Christian philosophers, on the website of David Albert's Templeton project.

The article gives interesting general background information on the John Templeton Foundation, but the excerpts which follow are specifically concerned with the wooing of philosophers by the foundation, as well as with earlier activities by Christian philosophers which had the effect of reversing an early-to-mid-20th century trend within philosophy towards more rigorously scientific and secular perspectives.

Controversy ... always follows money, especially when it's Templeton money. Partisans of Richard Dawkins and his fellow New Atheists have long despised the foundation, interpreting its interest in dialogue between science and religion as an attempt to buy undeserved credibility for the latter at the cost of the former. Adds Brian Leiter, "It's clearly more of a windfall for philosophers who have some sort of vague religious angle to what they're doing." Yet he also points out that [Alfred R.] Mele is an exception. His foregoing work on free will expressed scant interest in the religious implications—which makes it all the more noticeable that his Templeton project has a component devoted to theology.

It's true that one tends to hear more Templeton-branded talk of "Big Questions"—spoken as if capitalized, and without irony—on the lips of philosophers with religious commitments, at religious institutions. When I met Christian Miller two years ago at a Society of Christian Philosophers conference at Wake Forest, the historically Baptist university where he teaches, he was still glowing from news of the three-year, $3.7-million Templeton grant he'd just received. Its purpose is "to promote significant progress in the scholarly investigation of character," and $2-million of it will go to empirical psychological research, alongside accompanying investigations in philosophy and theology...

[Barry] Loewer, a philosopher at Rutgers University at New Brunswick, isn't likely to turn up at a Society of Christian Philosophers meeting ... "I myself have no interest in philosophy of religion and am not a religious person," he says. For years, Loewer has been working with a group of philosophers, mathematicians, and physicists in the New York area, meeting and collaborating on papers—nothing very expensive. But about five years ago a colleague at Rutgers, Dean W. Zimmerman, told the group about the Templeton Foundation and suggested that they apply for a grant. Zimmerman, a top Christian philosopher, had ... served on Templeton's advisory board ...

The idea at first was to do a project about quantum mechanics and the foundations of physics, which was an interest of Loewer's group. Templeton had other ideas. The foundation pointed the group in the direction of cosmology, with the prospect of a much bigger grant, and the researchers jumped at the idea. They realized that cosmology encompassed the questions of time and physical laws that had concerned them all along.

"You know that story of Molière's where someone discovers that he has been speaking prose his whole life?" says Loewer. "It was a bit like that."

The nearly $1-million grant his team received from Templeton last year coincided with another, slightly larger one called "Establishing the Philosophy of Cosmology," which was awarded to scholars at the University of Oxford. Despite the change of plans at Templeton's behest, Loewer stresses, "They've been really helpful, and totally noncoercive in terms of any agenda that they might have. I had my eyes open for it."

Not that philosophers are especially well practiced in negotiating the terms of million-dollar grants, much less in thinking about how such money might sway them... But now that the money is coming into the field, it is being welcomed even by those who lack the foundation's spiritual proclivities. "Templeton picks some people whose Christian epistemology I might not share," Brian Leiter says, "but there's no quarreling that they're serious philosophers." Suspicions about some secret religious agenda tend to lessen the more widely the foundation's substantial sums begin to spread.

The phenomenon under consideration here can be traced to two others gradually converging over the past few decades: the rise of the John Templeton Foundation itself, and the quiet coup hatched by religious believers within analytic philosophy.

...The archtect of projects like Mele's and Loewer's is a philosopher named Michael J. Murray, who before joining the foundation taught at his alma mater, Franklin & Marshall College. He did a short stint directing philosophy and theology programs, and then was elevated, in February 2011, to the job of overseeing Templeton's entire portfolio of grant programs. Murray is a product of what has often been called the "renaissance" of Christianity in analytic philosophy. So is Dean Zimmerman, the one who connected Murray with Loewer. And so was the Wake Forest conference... This renaissance helped till academic philosophy for Templeton then to sow.

In the 1960s and 70s, while the atheistic straitjacket of logical positivism was loosening, smart, young Christian philosophers like Alvin Plantinga and Nicholas Wolterstorff began crafting new ways of defending Christian faith from the deliverances of the latest epistemology and modal logic. They formed the Society of Christian Philosophers to help coddle their conversations and cultivate successors, and they ascended to chairs in eminent departments—Plantinga at Notre Dame, Wolterstorff at Yale. Soon, thanks to them, the world of analytic philosophy that was once decidedly hostile to religious believers became significantly less so. More science-savvy students soon followed suit, crafting their own sophisticated defenses of faith in terms of physics, neuroscience, and biology. Michael Murray, who earned his Ph.D. at Notre Dame, has played a part in this, including as editor of a 1998 book, Reason for the Hope Within, which triumphantly summarizes the fruits of the renaissance so as to equip lay Christians to defend their faith. Follow these contours, and Templeton's recent projects—even those led by people outside the Christian-philosophy fold—seem to follow a certain apologetic logic. Free will, for instance, is a critical feature of Plantinga's celebrated defense against the problem of evil; although Al Mele does not partake in religious speculation himself, he is a respected opponent of the brazen neuroscientists, like Michael S. Gazzaniga, who announce free will's nonexistence. Cosmology, too, is considered one of the most promising avenues lately in arguments for God's existence, particularly thanks to evidence that basic features of the universe may be "fine-tuned" to provide for the possibility of life. Barry Loewer isn't particularly interested in arguing for a divine fine-tuner, but his efforts might indirectly lend aid to someone who is. The recent $5-million grant to study immortality went to a philosopher who doesn't believe in the afterlife, but the very fact that so much money is going to study it might give more credence to those who do.

It is clear that Templeton money is not just supporting respected, mainstream academics and institutions.

Much as Notre Dame served as the headquarters of the Christian-philosophy renaissance ushered in by Alvin Plantinga, a 104-year-old evangelical institution on the outskirts of Los Angeles called Biola University has cleared the way for one of the ren­ aissance's most spirited and ambitious outgrowths. Biola supports the Evangelical Philosophical Society, a more doctrinally austere cousin of the Society of Christian Philosophers, and it houses the country's largest philosophy graduate program, which is devoted to sending Christian students with its master's degrees to leading Ph.D. programs. For a few weeks each year, Biola is graced by an intensive by William Lane Craig, the master of public "God debates," who famously trounced Christopher Hitchens in 2009.

This summer Biola received the largest foundation grant in its history—a $3-million Templeton award to support a new Center for Christian Thought, an interdisciplinary forum led by three philosophy professors. One of them, Thomas Crisp, was a star student of Plantinga's at Notre Dame, and he first met Michael Murray during a 2010 Society of Christian Philosophers good-will expedition to a symposium in Iran. A year later, Crisp and the others in the center's "leadership triumvirate" were hard at work on a proposal for the foundation, and he sees Templeton and Biola as an ideal match.


Saturday, March 23, 2013

Physicists and philosophers fight it out

I have lately spent rather too much time and effort catching up on a controversy concerning reactions to a book by physicist Lawrence Krauss (A Universe from Nothing, published last year), and, in particular, concerning a muscularly negative review of the book by philosopher David Albert.

The controversy has been recently reignited by the withdrawal of Albert's invitation to join a prestigious panel (including Krauss) for a public discussion at The American Museum of Natural History.

As Jason Streitfeld makes clear, one of the underlying issues relates to the status of philosophers vis à vis scientists (in this case physicists).

The demarcation lines and motivational factors in this disinvitation dispute are not all that clear, however. It should be noted, for instance, that David Albert, as well as being a philosopher, also has a PhD in physics, and that attitudes to religion are playing a key role.

Albert's main contention is that Krauss's 'nothing' (relativistic-quantum-field-theoretical vacuum states) are particular arrangements of elementary physical stuff, and therefore far from nothing as generally understood.

But Albert is particularly scathing about what he sees as Krauss's facile rejection of religion. He writes:

"When I was growing up, where I was growing up, there was a critique of religion according to which religion was cruel, and a lie, and a mechanism of enslavement, and something full of loathing and contempt for everything essentially human. Maybe that was true and maybe it wasn’t, but it had to do with important things — it had to do, that is, with history, and with suffering, and with the hope of a better world — and it seems like a pity, and more than a pity, and worse than a pity, with all that in the back of one’s head, to think that all that gets offered to us now, by guys like these, in books like this, is the pale, small, silly, nerdy accusation that religion is, I don't know, dumb."

Krauss called Albert's review "moronic", by the way.

Physicists have a history of disparaging philosophers. Some months ago, one of the most reflective of contemporary physicists, the (then) 88-year-old Freeman Dyson ruffled a few feathers by disparaging contemporary philosphers in an essay published in The New York Review of Books.

I read it at the time, and intended to do a piece on it, but didn't get around to it. Strangely, the expression "the fading of philosophy" – used by Dyson – must have lodged in my subconscious, and I used it as the title for a post last month without realizing its source.

I am in sympathy with much – though not all – of what Dyson says, and I am attracted by his somewhat world-weary tone and contrarian instincts.

There is something of the amateur and the dabbler about him, and he has (or had) one of those almost freakishly clever mathematical minds which can sometimes lead to a certain kind of hubris about one's own abilities and judgements as well as to an overestimation of the power of technologies to solve problems.

Dyson balances these tendencies with a genuine sort of wisdom, however. His little anecdote about a disappointing encounter with Wittgenstein, and then the story of his accidentally coming across Wittgenstein's grave in the course of a winter walk fifty years later, is quite moving.

Dyson's essay is a series of reflections on (rather than a review of) a book by Jim Holt based on interviews with various thinkers (philosophers, physicists and cosmologists) on why there is something rather than nothing. (In fact, Holt has been invited to join the panel from which Albert was disinvited. The world of public scientific intellectuals is a very small one. Even our old friend Massimo Pigliucci plays a part in the controversy.)

Dyson was not impressed with the calibre of Holt's philosopher interviewees. Dwarfs, he calls them, in stark contrast to the philosophical giants of the past. Only one, John Leslie (retired and living on Canada's west coast), gets a favorable mention.

"Philosophers became insignificant," Dyson wrote, "when philosophy became a separate academic discipline, distinct from science and history and literature and religion. The great philosophers of the past covered all these disciplines."

I too have been arguing against philosophy as a stand-alone discipline, and see philosophical thinking as being something which arises naturally in the context of the pursuit of the various sciences.

But I have to say that I find Dyson's way of expressing himself at times vague and imprecise. The last sentence quoted above, for example, could be read as suggesting that all of the great philosophers of the past covered all of these disciplines, or, alternatively, that some covered one or some disciplines and some covered other disciplines. Also, religion is not a discipline. This is just poor writing.

I have some reservations also about Dyson's view of philosophy as a literary phenomenon, and I tend to see, for example, the Book of Job more as literature with a religio-philosophical slant than as philosophy as such. But this is perhaps little more than a semantic – or definitional – question.

My more serious disagreement with Dyson relates to his obviously religious tendencies, which I don't share. But I will concede that, of all the possible religious outlooks I have considered (and rejected), Dyson's Platonic and mystical approach ranks amongst the least unappealing.

Dyson's key point about philosophers having become insignificant relates directly to the disinvitation controversy, and, though Dyson and Krauss are about as different from one another as two physicists could be, it is interesting that they are both dismissive – albeit for different reasons – of contemporary philosophy.

Perhaps the best thing I read in all the pretty wild and woolly discussion associated with the Krauss/Albert dispute was – apart from Albert's original review – a little joke in the comment thread of a blog post I didn't make a note of.

It was a brief mock-warning to scientists about the dangers of being rude to philosophers of science. They had better be careful because the philosophers might go on strike, and where would the scientists be then?

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Xi Jinping brushes up on his Russian

Apparently, the new Chinese President, Xi Jinping, has been brushing up on his Russian grammar and reciting Russian poetry before a small circle of associates as part of his preparations to visit Moscow.

According to John Garnaut, one of the leader's close associates happens to be an aide to a childhood friend, Li Xiaolin, who runs a quasi-official diplomatic organization. The aide has been shuttling back and forth between Beijing and Moscow to help clear the way for a huge new oil and gas supply deal.

As Garnaut points out, Li Xiaolin's father was the revolutionary leader, Li Xiannian, who worked closely with Xi's father when they were both vice-premiers in the 1950s, a time of close links between China and the then Soviet Union. And Li Xiannian helped the young Xi Jinping and his family in the turbulent times that followed.

Such family links clearly play a very important part in contemporary Chinese politics, and Xi's network of contacts enables him to circumvent the often sclerotic Communist Party bureaucracy in order to get things done.

Garnaut talks about a 'red aristocracy', and the signs are that its influence is increasing. Last year (drawing on another Garnaut article) I alluded to the ideologically and culturally influential – though largely oppositional – role played by children of former prominent Communist Party members. One organization, the Children of Yan'an Fellowship, has a history of railing against an erosion of moral values which they see as being strongly associated with China's shift towards Western-style capitalism.

In a surprise move, this group recently threw its support behind the new Chinese leader. Not surprisingly, there are concerns in the West that Chinese conservatives – whose views are more in line with the style of authoritarian state capitalism developing in Russia than with a Western open markets model – are gaining the ascendency.

Recent initiatives from both Moscow and Beijing seem to point to the prospect of the two giant neighbours becoming closer politically and increasingly interdependent from an economic point of view.

Clearly, if these initiatives prove successful, they could have significant geo-political and ideological implications.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Political philosophers

Elsewhere, I have been questioning the viability of philosophy as a discipline, emphasizing its curious dependence on a basically religious – or at least pre-modern – view of the world.

But I have also noted another side of the issue, the way some academics may use their professional status as a means of promoting a favored ideology.

This may be done, as the linguist Noam Chomsky does it, in such a way as to keep separate the scholarship and the ideology; or, more questionably, as many humanities academics do it, injecting partisan politics into their teaching and research. It is not hard to find evidence that many philosophers follow the latter course.

Not only do these players have a vested personal interest in protecting and promoting 'the profession', they also have an ideological interest in doing so. Not surprisingly, skeptics about philosophy, from Wittgenstein to present-day critics, are very unpopular in professional philosophical circles.

Nonetheless, it seems pretty clear that – at least for those who reject a religious perspective – academic philosophy as an area of research is very problematic, and not many people apart from academic philosophers (and by no means all of those) take it seriously anymore.

Paul Horwich, writing at The Stone (the New York Times philosophy blog) has recently defended a scaled-down, Wittgensteinian vision of philosophy as purely descriptive and clarificatory. Whether such a limited and unambitious style of philosophy could form the basis of a viable academic discipline or profession I very much doubt, but I am sympathetic to Horwich's general – deflationary – approach.

He notes the propensity of academic philosophers to build rather dubious theoretical constructs: theories of meaning or theories of truth, for example, when there is simply no need for such things.

Take the words 'true' and 'truth'. They do not add anything substantial to a direct assertion which does not use these words. They do allow us, however, to make certain general statements in concise and convenient ways. But to ask, "What is truth?" is to ask an effectively meaningless – and certainly futile – question.

As Horwich puts it, "Truth emerges as exceptionally unprofound and as exceptionally unmysterious."

Interestingly, the inevitable reply defending the philosophical status quo published by The Stone a few days later was more concerned about the non-political – or politically quietistic – nature of Horwich's view of philosophy than anything else.

Michael P. Lynch unequivocally rejects a merely descriptive philosophy which leaves the world as it is.

"I think philosophy can play a more radical role," he writes. For example, his normative version of philosophy would seek to attack the idea of authority "which has been used over the centuries to stifle dissent and change."

And, sounding rather authoritarian himself, he insists that the philosopher must also take "conceptual leaps".

"She [note the irritating choice of pronoun as a badge of the author's progressive credentials] must aim at revision as much as description, and sketch new metaphysical theories, replacing old explanations with new."

On one level (the level of literal content) such empty rhetoric says very little. On another level, however, it provides yet another indication of the politicization and decline of the humanities.

Sadly, Lynch's reply to Horwich only serves to underscore the fact that a great many academics working in the humanities, philosophers amongst them, see their role not so much in terms of contributing to the stock of human knowledge, as of promoting progressive causes and social change.