Philosophy, Film, Politics, Etc.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Philosophy and Religion

A lot of people conflate philosophy and religion.  In their devotion to science and rationality, they criticize both philosophy and religion as useless nonsense.  One of the most common criticisms of philosophy is that virtually no substantial progress has ever been made on any issue of philosophical importance.  Another common criticism is that philosophical problems have no discernible consequences for our lives:  It doesn't matter how you respond to them, whether you ignore them or whatever, because they are figments of our imagination and of no practical importance.  On these grounds, it is believed that philosophy and religion are more or less the same.  Sure, philosophers might sometimes give us important tools or insights, just as religious leaders might sometimes give us important moral insights or works of art.  But these came despite the philosophical or religious devotion, and not because of it.  At least, that's what a lot of people believe.

I'm not going to say anything about religion in this post.  Whether or not religion is nonsense and impractical is not at issue.  My belief is that the meaning and value of philosophy is entirely independent of the meaning and value of religion.

The association between philosophy and religion does not just occur in some obscure corners of the blogosphere.  On the contrary, it is manifest in the organization of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (AAAS).  The AAAS currently has close to 6,000 members (including almost a thousand foreign honorary members).  They list their members according to area of specialization.  It is very hard to determine how many members are professional philosophers, however, because they do not have their own section.  Instead, they are listed under "Philosophy and Religious Studies."  If you want to know how many professional philosophers are members of the AAAS, you cannot tell by looking at their list of members or their statistics.  You have to go through the list of "Philosophy and Religious Studies" members and Google each one to find their area of expertise.

With 189 members, Philosophy and Religious Studies is one of the smallest sections of the AAAS.  The only smaller sections are Literature (158 members), Computer Science (143), Social and Developmental Psychology and Education (120) and Public Affairs, Journalism and Communications (158).   In contrast, there are over one thousand members representing the Biological Sciences alone.  I'm not primarily concerned with the relatively small number of Philosophy Professors in the AAAS, however.  (I don't even know how small that number is, since I haven't tried to count them.)  I'm more concerned with the fact that the AAAS does not make a practical distinction between religion and philosophy.  

The AAAS is not alone.  Many accredited universities do not have a Philosophy Department.  They have a Philosophy and Religious Studies Department.  It seems that many professionals in the field believe that Philosophy and Religious Studies should be linked.  We can assume, however, that most philosophers would disagree.  While there are presumably a good number of philosophers out there who enjoy the association between philosophy and religion, it is safe to assume that most (perhaps all) of them are philosophers of religion.

This means that the harshest critics of philosophy share something in common with philosophers of religion and other theologically-minded professionals:  They all think philosophy deserves to be intimately associated with religion.  Theologically-minded defenders of philosophy think so because they value philosophy as a way of exploring, promoting and defending religious thought and practice.  Scientifically-minded critics of philosophy do so because they see philosophy as a way of exploring, promoting and defending nonsense.  Of course, they see religious thought and practice as nonsense, so their reasoning is not all that different from the theologically-minded.

Philosophers (especially those of us who are not theologically-minded, which is the large majority) are confronted with a problem.  We feel a lot of pressure to defend philosophy against the two criticisms I mentioned at the outset (i.e., that philosophy does not make progress and that philosophy is impractical and disconnected from reality).  Most recently, David Chalmers, one of the newest members of AAAS and a Philosophy Professor at New York University (as well as Australian National University), has recently given a talk about the discipline--specifically, about whether we should be optimistic or pessimistic about progress in philosophy.  He says that philosophers have made a great deal of progress, and there has been significant convergence towards the truth over the years, but that it is not as much as we might like.  He is optimistic about the future of the discipline, at least, but asks us to consider reasons why progress in philosophy is so slow.

I wonder if Professor Chalmers is optimistic enough.  Research can and should be done documenting the degree of progress and convergence that has occurred in philosophy.  I think there might be more convergence than we commonly assume.  When we look at the intellectual landscape without rigor or method, we might focus more on our particular interests, and these are generally defined by their opposition to competing views.  We may thus tend to notice our differences more than our commonalities.  This could create a bias in our perception, so that we fail to notice all the fundamental ways our philosophical thinking has converged.  A rigorous, systematic study of developments in philosophy over the centuries could help fight such a bias and therefore be of great value.  A comparative analysis of developments in Philosophy and Religious Studies would also be useful, to fight the tendency to conflate the two disciplines.  Perhaps such research could help overcome the prejudices against philosophy and its practitioners.

Edit: It occurs to me that convergence may not be a necessary criterion for progress in philosophy. While a lack of convergence may warrant attention in its own right, I would question the assumption that convergence has anything to do with philosophical progress.  Unlike in the physical sciences, whose various fields are united by shared methodologies, philosophy is methodologically opaque.  You can be in a philosophical field without feeling clearly bound by all of the basic methodological principles shared by others in that field.  It's not that philosophers don't share any methodological principles.  They share many, and rigorously so.  But many aren't shared, and those that are might be less determinate than those in the physical sciences.