Dear Massimo: please stop assuming non-philosophers are inferior

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.

Leave a comment


  1. Chris, really? You think that a generic call for more knowledge of philosophy of science qualifies as a direct insult to Coyne, or anyone else? And yes, there is disagreement within the philosophy community on *some* issues, but not the very basic ones I was referring to in that post. And do you think there is no disagreement on important issues within the scientific community? Take string theory, for instance.


  2. Chris Hallquist

    >You think that a generic call for more knowledge of philosophy of science qualifies as a direct insult to Coyne, or anyone else?

    I never said that. I said the quoted paragraph “sounds a bit abrasive,” but I tried to make clear that I thought the real issue was not about “tone.”

    >And yes, there is disagreement within the philosophy community on *some* issues, but not the very basic ones I was referring to in that post.

    What “basic issues” are you talking about? If you know of any issues in philosophy of science where there is no disagreement amongst philosophers, I would sincerely like to hear about it–though I doubt such an example really exists.

    After 5 1/2 years of studying philosophy, I struggle to think of a single philosophical issue on which there is no disagreement amongst philosophers. Probably “logical fatalism is false.” I can think of a couple other arguable cases besides that, but nothing in philosophy of science relevant to your beef with your fellow atheists.

    I should warn you in advance that I’d want to see fairly clear evidence of any claimed consensus. I’ve seen too bogus examples. Are you aware, for example, that you have been called ignorant on the grounds that you think Mackie’s “Evil and Omnipotence” paper made a strong case against theism, contra the supposed “consensus”?

  3. Chris,

    In regards to things philosophers basically all agree upon, what about the falsity of substance dualism?

    I was talking with a philosopher of mind recently, Mark Moyer, and he said that he didn’t even know anyone who thought dualism was true. Dan Dennett told me the same thing.

    Also, what about solipsism? –I don’t know much about it, but it seems like it wouldn’t be an idea that is very popular.

  4. Chris Hallquist

    “Solipsism” was one of the things I had in mind as an “arguable case.” PhilPapers survey, though, says about 5% of philosophers align with skepticism about the external world.

    Substance dualism I hadn’t thought of. However, while substance dualists are pretty scarce, I’m surprised Moyer and Dennett couldn’t think of any examples. I think Swinburne is the best-known advocate of substance dualism. Plantinga has written in defense of it as well.

  5. Ah, I didn’t even think to look at that Phil Paper survey. Good call.

    Dennett and Moyer might have been able to think of a philosopher of religion (or some other area) who was an advocate of dualism, but in the context of the convos I had with them, I had asked if there were any philosophers of mind who were dualists.

  6. Careful there – there are dualists who aren’t substance dualists: Chalmers, Jaegwon Kim, etc.

    My first thought is that I wonder why Swinburne isn’t considered part of the mainstream philosophy of mind discussion. Is there any reason substance dualists should be scarcer among philosophers of mind than they are around, say, neuroscientists?

    But on reflection, I’m really not sure why any educated person believes in “souls” anymore. Some sophisticated Christians–yes, even sophisticated Evangelicals!–seem to get by without them. I suspect the ones who’ve thought about it end up watering down their conception of the “soul” quite a bit, but I’m not really sure.