Seduced by sophistication (follow up to “Philosophy is dysfunctional”)

Below is the post I was talking about when I talked about doing a follow up to “Philosophy is dysfunctional.” It may not be quite what you expected though, since it’s more personal, and not really about academic philosophy (at least not specifically).

If you want more comments on academic philosophy specifically, you should probably read this comment of mine if you haven’t already. It talks about possible solutions to philosophy’s problems, David Lewis, Alvin Plantinga, and compatibilism.

Anyway, where I left off, I had argued that academic philosophers put too much effort into being clever and too little into being right, because that’s what they’re given incentives to do.

This, though, treats philosophers as black boxes, things you can give incentives to and magically get behaviors out of. But what’s going on from their perspective? What, you might ask, is it like to be an academic philosopher?

In many cases, I actually think academic philosophers are at least partly aware of what they’re doing. When I was at Notre Dame, I heard some of my fellow grad students joke about just writing whatever they thought their professors wanted to hear in their term papers.

This was always said in a (semi-) joking way, but I’d bet there was a lot of truth to it, and I’d further bet that people don’t become magically more virtuous when they make the jump from “grad student worrying about making professors happy” to “young professor worrying about making hypothetical future tenure committee happy.”

Other things reinforce this. An adjunct professor (who had just gotten his Ph.D.) giving me tips on who you shouldn’t cite because they’d lost status lately. Rumors that so-and-so had privately admitted to not believing what he said in that one book. Rumors that some entire departments had a culture of just “playing around” in your academic work, and not necessarily saying what you really think.

So I’m fairly sure that academic philosophers sometimes do consciously focus on impressing other academics at the expense of other things. But I don’t think the tendencies I complained about in “Philosophy is dysfunctional” are always conscious. Rather, I think there’s often another explanation: being clever, being sophisticated, and thinking about how much more clever and sophisticated you are than other people, feel good.

I’m embarrassed to say that this fact about humans is something I’m intimately familiar with.* Though I never intended to specialize in philosophy of religion, my examples will come from there, because I’m still fairly sure I have something interesting to say about the subject.

First (specific) confession: I’ve long thought about writing my own “atheist book.” This is something I may actually finish doing, but when I used to think about doing it, I would imagine writing a book a good deal like the God Delusion, except that I would do this once I had gotten a ways into my career as an academic philosopher.

The goal would be to write a philosophical version of a popular science book. And as long as I could avoid being boring like J. L. Mackie, then obviously the book would be better than The God Delusion because it would have been written by a philosopher.

Now, that’s sounds like a pretty silly thing to believe. And like many things I used to believe, I’m no longer sure why I believed it. But I seem to remember thinking, “if what I believe about the benefits of studying philosophy is true, then some philosopher somewhere ought to be able to write a better version of The God Delusion, and I’m going to try to do that.”

In retrospect, I should have worried more about whether the “if” clause of that “if-then” was really true. I think the reason I didn’t is that believing that philosophers are more rational and sophisticated than ordinary people felt good.

To give a more minor, but possibly more embarrassing example, I have a handful of memories of hearing some atheist say how terrible William Lane Craig’s arguments are, and feeling superior to said atheist. I don’t think my inner monologue ever spelled things out so carefully, but on some level I think I was thinking, “Craig’s arguments may not work, but a sophisticated person, one who really understood them, would give them more credit before refuting them, so I must be superior to this atheist who’s dismissing them.”

Funny thing is, even when I thought this, I thought an awful lot of Craig’s arguments were terrible. And now I’ve gone on to thinking they’re pretty much all terrible. Worse, when I re-read criticisms of Craig by the sort of atheists I used to go around feeling superior to, say this piece by Dan Barker (president of the FFRF, but also a college dropout), I find their objections are actually pretty similar to the ones I’ve had all along.

I’ve had a similar experience with Plantinga. When I first saw Luke Muehlhauser’s rather dismissive attitude towards Plantinga’s epistemology, part of my reaction–even if I never said so in a blog post–was to think “even though I think Plantinga is wrong about his ultimate conclusions, a sophisticated person would acknowledge that he makes some legitimate points along the way.”

When this first happened, I blogged criticizing Luke, Luke responded, and then I was forced to pause, spend some time re-reading Plantinga, and try to figure out what those legitimate points made along the way were. And I honestly couldn’t find them, I had just sort of assumed they were there.

Um, I feel like I should draw some sort of lesson from this. And since I’m in a confessional mood, I’ll admit I’m not 100% sure what the lesson is. But I’ll give it a go: Beware feeling good about how much more sophisticated you are than the other guy. Beware noticing reasons why you are so much more sophisticated than people whose views are basically the same as yours. Beware just assuming that subtle differences between your views and other people’s views are proof of your sophistication.

And… I’m not sure this is so much something I’ve fallen victim to, as much as something I’ve noticed in other people, but I’d also recommend watching yourself to make sure your criticisms of others’ views actually have something to do with being right or reasonable. The fact that something is an old point, or an unoriginal point, or an obvious point, or a banal point, doesn’t make it wrong or unreasonable. Even if making those other criticisms feels good.

*Note: when I went to look up old blog posts in the course of writing this one, I noticed that I said plenty of harsh things about Craig and Plantinga around my junior year of undergrad. That was when I was also thinking, “this philosophy stuff is really interesting, but I’m not sure I want to make a career out of it.” I didn’t really decide to go to graduate school in philosophy until summer or fall of ’08, and the thoughts I’m fessing up to here probably mainly date from there onwards.

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  1. Hey Chris,

    I’ve been following your blog for a bit now, and was very curious to hear your thoughts about philosophy graduate programs as I intend on pursuing it myself. (Sorry if you have posted this elsewhere, are you done with going to grad school for philosophy now?)

    I would agree that sometimes philosophers can be snooty and have this “well, at least someone who has a background in philosophy realizes how sophisticated those arguments are”, and I’ve seen it at work before. But I think that sometimes behavior like this can be a result of not wanting to dismiss an argument just because of how it sounds prima facie. It’s not always a bad instinct, IMO.

    You also mentioned the lack of philosophical agreement: I think that although there is still a great deal of disagreement among the philosophy community (and the weird ideas to boot), we can also see general trends to naturalism/physicalism in ethics, epistemology, and metaphysics.

    Anyways, interesting post!

  2. Chris,

    I’m very glad to have read this it resonates with an idea that I’ve had for some time.
    Philosophy, despite the many accusations of ‘time wasting’, ‘game playing’ or ‘uselessness’, is quite a complex and difficult subject to master. To successfully or properly engage in it requires knowledge that is both broad and deep along with keen analytical and logical reasoning skills. It is generally understood to be complex, obscure and difficult and this means that those who study it are generally understood to be well above average in intelligence. Those engaged in philosophy are accustomed to being among the smartest people they know and they probably always have been all the way back through school. Add to this history of intellectual achievement, the further intellectual and scholarly kudos earned through postgradute and postdoctoral work, and what you have is an almost guaranteed delusion of grandeur explosion; i.e., “I was the cleverest in my highschool classes, then I succeeded in the ‘cleverest’ and ‘hardest’ subject in University, then I became a ‘master’ and then a ‘Doctor’. In fact, what I do is so darned clever that 99% of people on earth have absolutely no idea what I am talking about!”
    Since philosophy also teaches one how to argue more effectively than most, there is the further problem that a philosopher’s self-important ‘wiser-than-thou’ stance is compounded by the realisation that very few people can ‘beat’ them in an argument. Indeed, I think that base argumental point scoring is all too often what lies behind academic debate when it should be the idea, the truth, the wisdom we’re all supposed to love so much!
    Sadly, very few of the philosophers I have ever met (or read) have the self-awareness or humilty necessary to identify the supercilious within themselves – they go about their business blythely unaware of the fatality of their own shortcomings. I am of the opinion that the certainty and intellectual self-confidence that analytical philosophy demands, actually kills the impulse behind true philosophical thought – namely, curiosty and the desire to know. This desire to know which starts us looking at, and thinking about the world is sparked, at least in part, by ignorance. Who, in their right mind explores something they already understand; who bothers to engage in an argument when, to them, the answer is obvious? In order to learn we need our ignorance and uncertainty, we need to be able to abandon old ideas and sometimes we need to go into uncharted territory to explore what is new – but analytical philosophy wont allow it. Wittgenstein and Kant, for example, both abandoned some of their earlier ideas and they were both considered to have lost the plot as a result.
    I think that in the cut-throat competition of ‘publish or die’ academic philosophy, the egoes behind the argument have taken centre stage without anyone noticing. No one is interested in the truth unveiled by the clever idea; they are only interested in being the person who came up with the clever idea. Thus the idea becomes personalised and associated with a sense of pride so that challenges to the idea are about as welcome as personal insults.
    I think that what we really have in contemporary analytic philosophy is a battle of egos masquerading as substantive intellectual debate and, due to the expertise and precision of those involved, it is a battle that could go on forever without any resolution or fruitful outcome. Which raises two questions; what is the point in engaging in such a philosophical debate, and where else, outside academia, can a philosophical soul like me go to learn and share?

  3. Chris Hallquist

    Matt–I officially left Notre Dame with my masters degree in philosophy two months ago. And am now realizing that I need to get better at keeping my bio up to date.

  4. I sense that you’re bitter about academia and frustrated with the popularity of crap philosophical arguments that are “sophisticated”. But I think you should separate those legitimate gripes from the institution of philosophy in general.

    In general, I find that philosophy students/professors have higher IQs and are capable of forming far more concise and cogent arguments than the average person. Philosophy papers tend to do a much better job of summarizing the opposing arguments and considering possibilities, and are far less likely to spew emotional nonsense. It’s hard for me to believe that the level of discourse would be elevated if we excluded philosophers.

  5. Chris Hallquist


    Read this post for a better sense of my overall perspective. In retrospect, I consider it the beginning of the end of my career in academic philosophy.

    (1) The claim about IQs is probably true. At the very least, I understand that philosophers have been shown to have some of the highest standardized test scores in academia.

    (2) I’m not sure what you mean by separating the problem of crap arguments from “the institution of philosophy in general.” Crap arguments permeate the institution of philosophy.

    (3) Concise is not something I really associate with academic philosophy.

    (4) The kinds of bad you see in the arguments of ordinary people are less common in academic philosophy. But academic philosophy has its own special brands of bad. See above link.

    (5) Excluding philosophers from the discourse would save us from having to deal with a lot of the private dogmas many philosophers carry around in their heads. Beyond that, I’ve known many wonderful individuals who’ve been philosophers, and wouldn’t want to loose their contributions, but I’m not sure their wonderfulness can be attributed to philosophy. I suspect that philosophy attracts, but does little to produce, smart people.

  6. I learned a great deal from undergraduate philosophy, but very little of it had to do with explaining anything. Most of it had to do with picking up fallacies, finding flaws in arguments, and discovering that even really smart people tend to start with preconceptions and develop arguments to support them, rather than vice versa.

    As I said in my earlier post, I don’t think philosophy itself has changed much in the last century or so, but there are many more areas of research where bright people can learn something practical and actually make a difference, rather than spending decades on vacuous arguments over what X meant when he said Y.

  7. “I suspect that philosophy attracts, but does little to produce, smart people.”

    Right, IQ is a fixed quantity. As Jon says, philosophy trains people in certain types of mental hygiene. I would prefer to discuss complex topics with people who have high IQ and good mental hygiene.

    “But academic philosophy has its own special brands of bad.”

    Yeah, I’m aware of some pretty terrible crap. But why not just ignore those people? Every institution will have a lot of dead weight and morons; it’s the same in math and science departments. As in any other field, it’s a matter of finding the gems.

    “Excluding philosophers from the discourse would save us from having to deal with a lot of the private dogmas many philosophers carry around in their heads.”

    This is the part that really puzzles me. Are you saying that non-philosophers are less dogmatic? In my experience, the non-philosophers are even more dogmatic, and they advocate for their positions with what can best be described as sustained outbursts of Tourette’s.

    Also, FWIW, I think some level of dogma can be good. As an example, I don’t believe in libertarian free will. I think the concept is utterly incoherent nonsense, so you could say I’m dogmatic. But there are philosophers who say that determinism is inconceivable to them, and so they spend a lot of time trying to find compelling arguments for libertarian free will. That’s a good thing, because what if it turns out that I’m wrong? Same with Hume’s definition of miracles. I think it’s utterly retarded nonsense, but there are several smart people who can’t possibly conceive of an alternate definition. That’s a good thing, because what if I’m wrong? I’ll never know it without people being dogmatic on the other side.

    I know you don’t like WLC, but what about a guy like Peter Van Inwagen? He is dogmatic about libertarian free will, and I disagree with him. But I cannot think of any non-philosopher who would do a better job of discourse on the topic. Or how about Daniel Dennett? Are you really going to say that PZ Meyers is a better person to be discussing religion? I’m sorry, but the proportion of ass-clowns in the non-philosophers seems to be much higher.

  8. JustSomeTheist

    I really enjoy/appreciate these personal reflections — thanks! It’s helpful to hear you articulate these problems because I see them in myself too (I’m a grad student in philosophy).

  9. Chris wrote:
    > The claim about IQs is probably true. At the very least, I understand that philosophers have been shown to have some of the highest standardized test scores in academia.

    But, we need to remember that what IQ tests, and related tests such as the SAT, tend to test for is the ability to manipulate symbols in a way that meets the preconceptions of those who created the test.

    I say this as someone who, in my test-taking days forty years ago, was stunningly successful at getting scores way beyond my ability simply because I am awfully good at BSing. I even won money for myself, and my high-school chem teacher, in a chemistry competition sponsored by the Monsanto corporation: I had no idea what most of the questions were talking about, but BS triumphed over adversity. Let me tell ya’, when you can BS your way through a tough chem exam and actually win some bucks, you have mastered the art of BS!

    Needless to say, I aced the philosophy classes I took as an undergrad.

    Of course, IQ tests, the SAT, philosophy classes, etc. do not test one’s ability to get answers that actually correspond to external reality. How well do SAT/IQ scores correlate with one’s ability to fix plumbing, repair an automobile, debug an integrated circuit, etc.? I’m sure there is some correlation, but the skill sets are rather different. Having debugged some integrated circuits, I can tell you that the ability to BS is irrelevant: no matter how sophisticated your arguments are, the darn circuit just sits there, failing to work!

    It’s amazing how angry most philosophers get when anyone makes such points. After all, philosophy just is more valuable than plumbing, and everyone who is anyone knows that!

    John Gardner said that a society in which the philosophers despise the plumbers will end up with neither good philosophy nor good plumbing.


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