Jerry Coyne is still annoyed at Massimo Pigliucci:
Massimo, you’re a smart guy, and could be a real asset to atheism. But don’t you see how you look to many of us with your arrogance and your constant lectures on how we’re not as smart, insightful, or philosophically sophisticated as you? Many of your posts virtually drip with the overtones of “I AM SMARTER THAN YOU ARE.” I guess you really believe that (though, really, some of us actually do know philosophy), but perhaps you could refrain from saying it so often? It really does undercut your message.
This is a bit unfortunate to see, because a couple months ago Massimo apologized to Coyne for the tone of things he had said on his blog.
Has Pigliucci done anything recently to warrant this criticism? Well, one of the main (recent) comments that Jerry Coyne highlighted in the above-linked post is this:
Yet, several atheists I have encountered have no problem endorsing all sorts of woo-woo stuff, from quasi-new age creeds to “alternative” medicine, to fantapolitics. This is partly because many of them seem to be ignorant of the epistemic limits of science (in which they have almost unbounded faith) and reason (ditto). At the very least it seems that we ought to treat factual evidence with due respect, and claiming that religions are scams flies in the face of the available factual evidence. Hence, it is a bad idea that damages our reputation as an evidence-oriented community.
Certainly that sounds a bit abrasive, and for a moment I was going to title this post “Dear Massimo: please stop being a dick to non-philosophers.” Then I realized, though, that there’s a lot more at stake here.
The key line is “ignorant of the epistemic limits of science and reason.” In principle, this isn’t a crazy accusation to make. “Ignorant” just means “not knowing,” and if there are in fact epistemic limits of science and reason, surely not everyone knows about them.
What’s problematic is the implication: “I know this stuff, you really should to,” as if it were just a matter of looking up the epistemic limits of science and reason in the right reference work. As if knowing these epistemic limits were as simple as knowing about the transitional fossils from earlier primates to humans. If it weren’t that easy, such a tossed-off accusation of ignorance would make little sense.
And it isn’t that easy. In philosophy of science, as in all philosophy, there is almost never an expert consensus that can be appealed to. That means “you just don’t realize what the expert consensus is on this issue” is (almost?) never a legitimate criticism of anyone.
I think Pigliucci knows this in the abstract. Relevant anecdote: a couple months ago, I attended a talk that he gave on the Notre Dame campus (slides here). Among other things, he mentioned the issue of methodological naturalism, and a recent philosophical paper disputing the things he, Barbara Forrest, and Robert Pennock had said on the issue.
What was his response? Did he dismiss the authors of the paper as “ignorant of the epistemic limits of science”? Or snark that they might benefit from reading some philosophy? No. His response was essentially “oh well, that’s how philosophy goes.”
I also think he knows that this is what he should say about “philosophical” disputes between philosophers and scientists as well. In his apology to Coyne, he admitted that, “Whether Jerry has any formal training in philosophy or not is no reason for me to discount his philosophical opinions.” So what gives?
Here’s the best explanation I can think of. It’s obviously nice for philosophers if they can believe that they have an edge over non-philosophers just like the edge that scientists have over non-scientists. This means that that belief dies very hard, even for philosophers who know enough, intellectually, to see that it isn’t true.
Anyway, I can at least hope that these sorts of comments from Pigliucci will become more and more of an anomaly as time goes by.