The three faces of philosophy

[Adapted from a post initially published at Talking Philosophy Magazine blog in 2014.]

Philosophy is a big tent kind of thing. There is a world of difference between being philosophical,  being a proper philosopher, and being a professional philosopher. The first is an action; the second, a kind of vocation; and the third, a description of an academic job.

As far as I can tell, the practice of doing philosophy is intimately related to the state of being philosophical.  To do philosophy is to engage in the rational study of some characteristically general subjects (e.g., morality, existence, art, reasoning), for the purpose of increasing understanding and reducing confusion. In the ideal case, being philosophical involves manifesting certain virtues: you must have the right intentions (insightful belief, humble commitments), and you must proceed using a reflective skill-set (rationality in thought, cooperation in conversation). The bare requirement for being philosophical – even when you do it badly – is that you should be able to manifest at least some of right intentions and at least some of the right ways.

It is possible to do philosophy without being a proper philosopher or a professional philosopher. This is unusual, as these things go; to see that, compare with engineering. The requirements for doing actual philosophy are quite a bit lower than the requirements for doing actual engineering. To do philosophy you have to approach some of the general questions while behaving philosophically; to do engineering, you have to be a proper engineer. So, it is seldom claimed that Meno was a proper philosopher, but we won’t hesitate to say that Meno was seriously doing philosophy with Socrates. In contrast, professional engineers would probably not say that a child playing with Lego has really seriously done some engineering. (Not that there’s anything wrong with Lego. If it came to that, I’d be more inclined to say there’s something wrong with engineers.)

And yet, in the vocation of philosophy, there are unusually high barriers to success. A person who does philosophy in a middling way is not a proper philosopher; if you can describe her philosophizing in a cheap metaphor, it is a sign that things may have fallen short of the mark. Proper philosophers do productive work that is worthy of attention, however you would like to cash that out.

Moreover, I would argue that the merits of a work in professional philosophy are only obliquely defined in terms of their vocational traits. Professional philosophers are judged according to various things, including their scholarly competence, their intelligence, their papers, peers, prudence, and pedigree. By and large, professional philosophers are not directly tested on whether or not they have philosophical acumen. Indeed, it is rarely stated outright what ‘being philosophical’ amounts to, uneasily marked by opaque approbative terms (which, following Amy Olberding, we might dub ‘top-notchitude’). When you ask professional philosophers to articulate their conceptions of good philosophy, it is sometimes asserted that the professional desiderata overlap substantially with the philosophical traits. And I think there is something to that. But at their worst, professionals will float blissfully along from one encounter to the next operating on the assumption that whatever they are up to is all aces, and good riddance to the rest of the profession. (Consider that in certain areas, professional citation practices are remarkably ad hoc; and consider that most articles are cited only once or less even when published). Beneath the wandering skies of top-notchitude, we have the shifting sands of the documentary record which ostensibly makes up the bulk of this field’s productive output. So there is at least some room for someone who is committed to philosophy as a vocation to look at the profession with a skeptical eye.

But despite the fact that philosophy can be discussed in any of these modes – as proper (the vocation), as professional (the job description), and as philosophizing (the act) – it is instructive to notice that they share certain commonalities. At one end of the spectrum, proper philosophers should be seen to hold the four virtues; and at the other end, the worst professional philosophy is evaluated in terms of tropes that imply some one or more of these virtues are out of sync. Whatever else we think about philosophy and its fate, we should not be lulled into an identity crisis. I say, again, that philosophy is best understood as the kind of projects and habits it encourages and cultivates in us, and which makes us better directed towards making sense of things. This is something to hold onto, something worth protecting, come what may.

Do academic strikes undermine collegial governance? Three ways of saying ‘no’

Academic freedom comes hand in hand with collegial governance. Take one away and you lose the other. Here, as shown in recent blogging by Shannon Dea, collegial governance presumes the condition of scholarly autonomy — as an institutional fact, it is the scholars who get to decide how to manage job postings, candidate searches, hiring, tenure review, and so on. In contrast, when collegial governance dries up, you end up with institutions that are governed adversarially, where as an institutional fact, scholars have to fight and negotiate to maintain their legitimate institutional powers.

These ideals make sense in the abstract. But when we think about how collegial governance relates to academic unions, the reality can be complicated. To probe the question, I will imagine three ways that someone might claim that academic strikes are threats to collegial governance. I will then provide some replies. Each time, the upshot is that the act of striking can be consistent with collegial governance (for this post, “collegiality” for short).


Some people – call them Strike-Skeptics — believe that the threat of an academic strike inherently undermines collegial governance. On this view, the ‘fight-and-negotiate’ stance of the academic union is necessarily non-scholarly. To threaten to strike just is to transform the whole institution into an adversarial contest, because it involves a political and economic act, which means taking a stand in a place that isn’t fitting for an academic union concerned with scholarly and pedagogical affairs. Hence, the Strike-skeptics may conclude: if you are turning adversariality into an institutional fact, then you can’t be contributing to a system of collegial governance.

Let’s accept that all strikes are political and economic acts. Does that support the conclusion that strikes are necessarily non-collegial (or that academic labor-relations are inherently adversarial)?

Certainly not. To see why, all you need to see that is a bit of charity. So, for the sake of argument, assume the best of everyone in a strike position. That is, assume that everyone is just trying to fulfill their institutional role. If that is so, and you look at the intentions of the strikers, then you will find that academic unions represent scholars that ostensibly hope to continue to manage affairs that are properly under their remit: hiring, tenure, and teaching. Insofar as they make financial demands on management, it is for the sake of maintaining what is required for academic self-governance. The same, presumably, can be said of the intentions of administrators – but, again, only on the assumption that they play their appropriate role as managers of finances of the institution in conformity to its mandate. So, it is false to say that the act of going out on an academic strike is necessarily anti-collegial.

On the other hand, there is a sense that the governance structure considered as a whole cannot be antecedently ‘collegial’ in such cases. If it were, there’d be no need to strike to perform those functions. Even on the charitable interpretation, if an academic union needs to strike, it is acting like the canary in the coal-mine. So even if both managers and strikers intend to govern collegially, the institutional fact is that it is not being governed collegially. And that’s a bit of a puzzle. It says that, even in a best-case scenario, two parties can each intend to govern together — yet, in fact, jointly end up governing adversarially (at least for the duration of a work stoppage). But that is not the fault of the strike. It is something you have to say about the whole package.

Upshot: you can’t infer the worst from individual parties just from the fact that they don’t succeed in coordinated governance. Your pessimism – or optimism — has to be established through argument.


A Strike-skeptic might insist that the ideal of collegial governance antecedently assumes that a scholarly body only manages scholarly affairs, not fiduciary ones. Nobody ever said that the academics had the right to manage the University’s pocketbooks. The Strike-Skeptic could then say that to extend your ambitions, in this way, would be to fly in the face of collegial governance. For, by parity of reasoning, just nobody ever said that management has the right to manage scholarly affairs. So, if you turn the tables on that argument, it looks as though the strikers must be adversarial, because they are making claims about finances. Right?

Well, I’ll grant the premise. For, it sure does seem to me that insofar as the Board of Governors’ decisions over financial matters undermine and underwrite the academic decisions of the Senate (and affiliated bodies, committees, etc.), we should have the critical resources at hand to be able to say that collegial governance has been compromised. So, e.g., if funding for a faculty position were to disappear when it turned out the leading candidate chosen by the search committee is politically controversial, or if Senate-side offices were strong-armed into accepting departmental restructuring which resulted in layoff of tenured positions, then we should say that institutional fact of the matter is that the governance structure is non-collegial. And the adversariality owes to the fact of obvious intentional overreach on the side of the Governors.

I won’t grant the Strike-skeptic’s conclusion, though. Because there is an important difference, which is that we are talking about institutions with an academic mandate. The task of the Board is to act as steward over the finances of the institution insofar as it is a place of learning, research, and teaching – that is, to protect academic freedom in its many stripes and guises. That means they have a definite positive obligation to respect the sovereignty of the academics. So, through these cases of overreach, the Governors neglect their own duties as stewards. In contrast, the task of an academic union is to function as a steward over their academic functions, first and foremost. That does not imply anything at all about what they are able to demand on the financial side. It only implies that their fiduciary concerns must be a function of their academic ones.


But what about cases of bad intentions during a strike? Surely they do occur — and they matter when they occur, don’t they? Yes, fine. But at this point, I want to stress that I am talking about collegial governance full stop, and that I have a certain idea about what that amounts to.

To get at that idea, we have to observe a difference between two ways of undermining collegial governance. In one sense of collegiality has got to do with following procedures, e.g., the rule of deferring to committees in hiring; the other, to do with substantial cooperation, e.g., making all and only those demands that are consistent in spirit with the reasons that grant these powers to committees. This is worth noting because, during times of crisis, when confronted with the question, “is this contributing to collegial governance?”, I default to asking whether the parties are being substantially collegial, while in times of normalcy, I default to asking whether they are procedurally collegial. Let me explain.

Procedural collegiality. You can undermine academic sovereignty by brute force, by interfering with the ordinary processes of governance. So, e.g., if the Board at Miskatonic University were to ignore the recommendations of the Tenure & Promotions committee in the Department of Cthulhu Studies and instead convinced the Dean to choose their drinking buddy, they would be violating the procedural sovereignty of the academics. This may be commonplace at Miskatonic, but thankfully in the real world this is less common. Presumably, violations of this kind are rare because they are so egregious that you’d never be able to get away with it, normally.

Substantial collegiality. As we have seen, it is possible to undermine academic sovereignty by respecting the process but not the substance, i.e., by making strategic reallocations of funding to avoid substantial outcomes: say, the hiring of a controversial professor, or the firing of tenured professors through departmental collapse. In such cases, there is a thin procedural sense in which collegial governance has been maintained, because when questioned everyone can apparently say that they are fulfilling their institutional roles. But in substance, that cannot be said, as their claims to fulfill their institutional roles seem like cloak-and-dagger tactics, better fit for a Cold War novel. And this sense of adversarial governance certainly can occur when an academic union is on a legal strike, due to the wrong intentions of one or both parties.

We can use the words however we like. But when our task is to make sense of the idea of ‘collegiality’, full stop, in contentious cases like strike situations, my view is that we should care quite a bit about the substantial requirements of collegial governance. So, it is perverse to refer to bad faith participation in a process as ‘collegial’ as such; if either employer or union were to negotiate in bad faith during a bargaining year, we wouldn’t want to call that collegial governance full stop, even if it turned out to be procedurally collegial in some sense. Then the task is to figure out what counts as ‘bad faith’, as an intellectual community. But in this case, there is no excuse for ignoring the burden of argument. If an informed observer cannot make a competent appeal to some objective standards of fair cooperation during legitimate bargaining, then they have no business referring to the relations as inherently adversarial.

(As an aside, in less contentious cases – during the ordinary day-to-day business of governance — I think the procedural aspect is the more important default issue. But I have to insist that the procedural aspect can’t be a necessary and sufficient condition in the discussion. If it were the whole story, it would pre-empt an important kind of conversation that is required in order to protect the institutional promise of the colleges.)

Women in philosophy in Canada

It is worth asking whether academic philosophy has made any progress in hiring women and non-binary gendered persons. While answers have to be cautious (since CPA data that has been collected on this matter since 1991 is incomplete), the trend seems to be movement in the right direction:

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This data was collected by asking Departmental Chairs to report the gender breakdown of their faculty. For various reasons, our surveys ended in 2011, so the data comes to a halt at that point.

That led me to be curious as to how things are turning out in 2017. So, I went to every Canadian philosophy department website I know of, and found the demographic information using the totally non-scientific and fully unreliable method known as “counting heads”. The results can be found here. The result is that 72% of those on the tenure-track present as male, and 28% as female. Notably, the asymmetry is even more pronounced for lecturers and contract faculty, who are mostly male (80:20%).


  • It is worth keeping in mind that the data collection techniques are incommensurable with previous ones; not all Chairs participated in previous iterations of the survey.
  • Also worth noting that I canvassed a larger pool of universities and colleges than was done in the past.
  • I did it quickly and gendered each person based on my judgment of how they presented. My French is also not as good as it was as a child, which possibly led to errors. If you see mistakes, let me know in the comments and I’ll update this post accordingly.

So, the face-value decline of women in the ranks may not necessarily reflect an actual decline. But if there is any progress, I would need to see evidence of it. From these numbers, I have to infer that the best case scenario is that things are stagnating.

Is philosophy self-indulgent?

Thinking about the accusation that recent professional philosophy suffers from self-indulgence. Anyone who pays attention to the cycles of colorful meta-opinions about philosophy will know by now that “X is self-indulgent” is maybe one of a handful of favorite insults that gets tossed around on a pretty regular basis (alongside “X is just logic-chopping”, “Only crazy people would worry about X” and “People who do X are sycophants”). Sometimes with justification, sometimes not, and usually asserted as generic broadside complaints that are conspicuously difficult to refute.

So let’s ask: suppose recent philosophy is self-indulgent. So how can we tell?

Well, since [for the moment] we care about self-indulgence, not sycophancy or whatever other insult, let’s assume that, if something has been published in a prestigious professional journal of philosophy, it contains rational, non-crazy, non credulous argumentation. (Falsely, perhaps.) To do lip-service to those assumptions, let’s consider journal offerings that score quite highly on every impact measure, are generalist (e.g., unlike Bioethics), and are dedicated to original research (unlike, e.g., Philosophical Review). And for the purposes of seeing if things are any better or worse than in the past, let’s find a journal of long-standing. For those purposes, I chose Nous.

Now, for fun, let’s imagine a test, analogous to the Bechdel test, which we use to assess individual works; though, like the Bechdel test it is meant to say something illustrative about the self-indulgence of works *in the aggregate* without necessarily proving anything about individual works. We might call it the Null Test (or, if you prefer, Navel test).

For every article in an issue of a journal, there might be three questions we might ask:
1. Can someone with an education in philosophy state the philosophical problem this article is trying to solve without the use of proper names?
2. Whose problem is it?
3. Did it get solved (by the author’s own lights)?

And now let’s say that the Null Test is failed if, even after charitable reading, one of the following conditions obtains: the answer to (1) is a null answer or cannot be briefly stated (e.g., in one or two English sentences); OR the answer to (2) is “Mine alone”; OR the answer to (3) is “Not at all”.

What do we find, if we try to run the Null Test? Are the results at all illuminating? Or are are they fully unfair? You’ll see my findings below.

The result, amusingly, supports the idea that philosophy is more self-indulgent in the 2016 sample than the others, though it seems like a return to the same pattern as the 1976 sample.


Nous 1976 (September): 3/6 PASSSES

TITLE: Reference of Theoretical Terms
PROBLEM: Is semantic externalism suitable to examine theoretical terms in science?
WHOSE: Kripke-Putnam
SOLVED: Yes (No, because some terms are non-ostensible)

TITLE: Sentence, Utterance, and Samesayer
PROBLEM: Does Davidson’s account of indirect discourse mesh with a Tarskian theory of language, and do its part in characterizing the truth-conditions of every sentence in indirect discourse?
WHOSE: Davidson
SOLVED: Yes (No)

TITLE: Truth, Meaning, and Paradox
PROBLEM: Is Davidsonian semantics defeated by the Liar’s Paradox?
WHOSE: Davidson
SOLVED: Yes (No)

TITLE: What Could Have Happened
PROBLEM: Is the freedom to act properly captured by sentences that express possibilities about the conjunction of events?
WHOSE: White
SOLVED: Yes (Yes)

TITLE: When Rational Disagreement is Impossible
PROBLEM: Is it rational to remain steadfast when everyone is searching for truth shares the same information?
WHOSE: Social epistemologists
SOLVED: Yes (No)

TITLE: Identities and Reduction: A Reply
PROBLEM: Have Ager et al. succeeded in creating a model for reductionism in science?
WHOSE: Ager et al.
SOLVED: Yes (No)

Three critical notices omitted

Nous 1986 (September) 4/6 PASSES

TITLE: Revealing Designators and Acquaintance with Universals
PROBLEM: Are universals meaning-like entities?
WHOSE: Quine
SOLVED: Yes (Yes)

TITLE: The Ways of Holism
PROBLEM: What is holism, as far as the philosophy of science is concerned?
WHOSE: Quine, Hegel, Duhem
SOLVED: Yes (Holism is a feature of those theories which occur in specific contexts, insofar as the theories presuppose and are consistent with the existence of other more general theories in those contexts)

TITLE: Persons and Their Micro-Particles
PROBLEM: How can new objects (e.g., persons, basic-level objects) be made up of old objects without destroying the old objects (e.g., particles)?
WHOSE: Aristotle
SOLVED: Yes (By re-engineering Davidson’s anomalous monism)

TITLE: Metaphorese
PROBLEM: What is figurative meaning?
WHOSE: Searle, Black
SOLVED: Yes (Figurative meaning is not semantic meaning belonging to a vernacular, but rather is a kind of passing dialect that emerges from cooperative engagement)

TITLE: Nietzsche’s Perspectivism and the Autonomy of the Master Type
PROBLEM: Is Nietzsche able to reconcile the demand for moral autonomy of the ‘master’ with an account of how the master might come into being?
SOLVED: Not really (Exploratory)

TITLE: Questioning the Basis of Hume’s Empiricism: “Perceptions”, What are They?
PROBLEM: What does Hume mean when he talks about perceptions?

Eight reviews omitted

Nous 1996 (September) 5/6 PASSES

TITLE: The Function of Consciousness
PROBLEM: Is there any point in arguing about the evolutionary function of consciousness?
WHOSE: Various
SOLVED: Yes (Yes)

TITLE: The Limited Unity of Virtue
PROBLEM: Is there anything we can salvage from the unity of virtue thesis?
WHOSE: Walker, Foot, Flanagan
SOLVED: Yes (Yes)

TITLE: ‘Ought’ and Extensionality
PROBLEM: Are deontic operators (in deontic logic) referentially transparent with respect to singular terms?
WHOSE: Kanger
SOLVED: Yes (Yes)

TITLE: A New Argument from Actualism to Serious Actualism
PROBLEM: Does actualism entail serious actualism?
WHOSE: Fine, Hinchliff, Pollock
SOLVED: Yes (Yes, plus new argument to that effect)

TITLE: Analyticity Reconsidered
PROBLEM: Is there an analytic (a priori)/synthetic distinction?
WHOSE: Quine
SOLVED: Yes (Yes; the epistemic analytic apriori)

TITLE: Analyticity Regained?
PROBLEM: Was Boghossian correct in his reading of Quine?
WHOSE: Boghossian
SOLVED: Yes (No)

1 critical study omitted

Nous 2006 (September) 5/7 PASSES

TITLE: Multiple-Act Consequentialism
PROBLEM: Is act-consequentialism false?
WHOSE: Scheffler
SOLVED: Yes (No — there is an unexplored version of act-consequentialism that meets standard objections)

TITLE: Is Mental Content Prior to Linguistic Meaning?
PROBLEM: See the title
WHOSE: Lewis, Fodor
SOLVED: Not really / it’s complicated

TITLE: Realism and the Meaning of ‘Real’
PROBLEM: What is the meaning of ‘real’ and its cognates?
WHOSE: Various
SOLVED: Yes (It signals a transition between meta-discourse to discourse)

TITLE: Appearance Properties?
PROBLEM: Is there any such thing as appearance properties?
WHOSE: Shoemaker
SOLVED: No (Shoemaker’s appearance properties might exist, but they’re not properties)

TITLE: Does Informational Semantics Commit Euthyphro’s Dilemma?
PROBLEM: See title
WHOSE: Dretske, Fodor
SOLVED: Yes (Yes)

TITLE: The Determinable-Determinate Relation
PROBLEM: What is the nature of the determinables / determinate relationship (e.g., color is determinable related to red, and red determinate related to color)?
WHOSE: Prior, Yablo
SOLVED: Yes (Eight desiderata)

TITLE: The 3D/4D Controversy
PROBLEM: Is there anything of substance to the controversy between three and four-dimensionalists?
WHOSE: Sider
SOLVED: Yes (No)

1 review omitted

Nous 2016 (September): 5/9 PASSES

TITLE: Leibniz on the Modal Status of Absolute Space and Time
PROBLEM: Are absolute space and time impossible?
WHOSE? Leibniz
SOLVED: No (Exploratory, not Leibniz’s view)

TITLE: Causes and Categories
PROBLEM: Must a theory of causation presuppose a specifiable ontology, and especially an ontology that is shared in common by both cause and effect?
WHOSE? Various (too many to list)
SOLVED: Yes (Answer: no)

TITLE: Why Every Theory of Luck Is Wrong
PROBLEM: Do we have any adequate account of luck at all?
WHOSE? Various
SOLVED: Yes (Answer: no)

TITLE: Endurantism vs. Perdurantism? A Debate Reconsidered
PROBLEM: Do objects persist because their parts do, or because their wholes do?
WHOSE? Contemporary metaphysicians
SOLVED: No (Answer: clarification)

TITLE: Triviality for Restrictor Conditionals
PROBLEM: Might restrictor conditionals be trivial?
WHOSE: Kratzer, among others
SOLVED: Yes (Answer: there is some reason to think so)

TITLE: On the Innocence and Determinacy of Plural Quantification
PROBLEM: Does (higher-order) plural logic inherit the ontology established in first-order claims? And is it susceptible to Henkin interpretations?
WHOSE: Plural logicians
SOLVED: Yes (Answer: no to both)
STATUS: Fail (Proper name is essential to problem)

TITLE: Conciliation, Uniqueness, and Rational Toxicity
PROBLEM: Can conciliation be upheld even when our standards for rationality are highly permissible?
WHOSE: Social epistemologists
SOLVED: Yes (Answer: yes, depending on the kind of peer)

TITLE: Self-Reinforcing and Self-Frustrating Decisions
PROBLEM: Is there ever any sense in which ‘shall’ implies ‘ought’?
WHOSE: Unclear; nobody really believes it does
SOLVED: Yes (it doesn’t)

TITLE: Attitude, Inference, Association: On the Propositional Structure of Implicit Bias
PROBLEM: Are implicit biases associative or propositional?
SOLVED: Yes (Not associative, therefore propositional)

Journal rankings and prestige bias

If you want to know about the prestige of a journal or school, there is no substitute for subjective rankings. If prestige is something you value, then the (perhaps limited) importance of these evaluations should be pretty clear. For one thing, if all other metrics of philosophical productivity are unavailable, then prestige will matter quite a lot. For another thing, the pursuit of alternative measures can be emotionally exhausting.

As it happens, I do not consider prestige to be a particularly effective sales pitch when selling the value of philosophy. It seems relatively clear to me that evaluating philosophy in terms of prestige is effectively conceding that it is a boutique discipline; as self-images go, it reeks of undignified desperation. And they are not a great reason to keep doing philosophy so long as you think philosophy is a productive activity.

Instead of prestige, people might instead look at citation rates, or ‘impact’. Presumably, those who attend to impact factors believe this idea, embedded in the notion of peer review, that the attention of experts in a discipline towards content ought to be some kind of indication that it is productive.

Impact of a journal can be measured in at least three ways: average citation, average weighted by network centrality, or h-index. Average citation is, importantly, indifferent to the volume of output; so, a journal that publishes a small amount but gets a lot of citations might have an equivalent average to one that publishes a lot but which has a lot more variability. Average weighted by network centrality means (very roughly) if two journals have the same average of citations, but one journal gets cited by a whole variety of different journals, then that journal will be ranked higher — it is more central to the network. The explanation of h-index is unintuitive enough that it resists being expressed in a parenthetical, but maybe we could think of it roughly as a journal’s ‘highest floor’. Which metric do you choose? It depends, really, on what it is that you value about impact: what it is about impact that makes it interesting, philosophically.

That said, the gulf between impact and productivity is wide. Much depends on your choice of scales, which depends on your values. So, some might think that the quality of a journal depends on whether it is willing to take risks on very good content, while others might prefer a relatively conservative approach which only publishes content for which it has absolute faith. And some might want to produce work that is relevant to non-philosophers; others might want to keep philosophy pure.* It makes an enormous difference to how we come up with rankings, and not all systems of rank are a good fit for measures of prestige. And if you don’t believe me, try looking at the h- indices for philosophy journals, and see how they relate to subjective rankings.

*[These values strike me as being about as philosophically significant as musical tastes. So, whether you prefer “alternative rock” as opposed to “classic rock” (high vs. low risk), or “genre music” vs. “pop music” (endogenous vs. exogenous uptake). And of course even the choice to pay attention to impact factors betrays an aesthetic disposition for “radio-friendly” music as opposed to the punk or indie view, but I’ve always been a pop sort of guy.]

The value of doing philosophy

Abstract. There are four different views you might have about progress in philosophy. First, you can deny that philosophy makes progress, but say it is intrinsically valuable. Second, you can assert that it is valuable because it makes progress in knowledge production. Third, you can say it is valuable because it makes progress in molding our practices in dealing with the world. Fourth, you can deny that it makes progress, but say instead that it is valuable or productive insofar as it helps make sense of the world. I advocate the fourth view.

Continue reading “The value of doing philosophy”

The unquiet scientist [tpm]

[Originally posted at Talking Philosophy Magazine blog]

Science communication is not easy, for a lot of reasons. For one thing, reasonable people disagree about what science communicators ought to try to achieve. Should communicators just try to keep people up-to-date on the latest cool things happening in the world of science… or should they try to foster a critical way of thinking about the world? For another thing, it isn’t clear how you would go about science communication if you tried — since, as any grade school teacher could tell you, it is hard to figure out how to get your audience to care. And for another another thing, if the aim is to foster a scientific mindset, then it’s not clear that mass media will be of any use whatsoever. (Presumably, one does not learn chemistry by repeated viewings of Gil Grissom working ponderously over test-tubes.)

These are all important and interesting topics, well deserving of thoughtful and passionate dialogue.

Enter Chris Mooney. Mooney is an activist for communicating science. He is the author of The Republican War on Science, and is the co-author of the controversial book Unscientific America (with Sheril Kirshenbaum). Mooney holds a degree from Yale, a fellowship with the Templeton Foundation, and is a member of the board of the American Geophysical Union. He blogs at the Intersection. Mooney/Kirshenbaum’s ultimate legacy appears to be that they succeeded in starting a passionate conversation about the subjects listed above.

Which brings us to the topic of the present post. In addition to being in the science communication business, Mooney and Kirshenbaum are both critics of atheist activism. Mooney and Kirshenbaum have argued that activist atheism is detrimental peripheral to science communication, and that activist atheists are often uncivil. Their critical remarks have created a tumultuous debate in both online and national print publications. Not incidentally, Coyne, Dawkins, and many others have publicly argued that there is an intimate connection between science and atheism. (Full disclosure: although it shouldn’t make any difference to this post, on this issue — as on most things — I’m in the “Jason Rosenhouse camp“.)

On first blush, it seems as though there are two major issues here: civility, and the role of the naturalist worldview in science. But a little over a year ago, I had the opportunity to speak with Mooney about the role of passion and conflict might have in getting people to think about science. And from that conversation, I learned that Mooney acknowledges a third sticking point.

BN: I was glad to see that you didn’t focus on the deficit model in explaining scientific illiteracy — that’s really good. [Edit 2010: Roughly, the “deficit model” is the idea that science communicators should presume that citizens that are not scientifically literate are responsible for their own illiteracy.] And the alternative is to look at what people do know. So for example the mechanic has a body of knowledge that I can only dream of — I just don’t know how a car works. We ask ourselves how people have all this impressive statistical knowledge about baseball and things (without knowing about science), and the reason is: baseball is useful in some way. People are embedded in a social group and they know that this knowledge will be useful to talk about.

This can also help us understand how misinformation works. For example, the George Will episode. People will say “Atta boy” and pat him on the back for acting like an idiot.

CM: I think you’re right. These things have utility, is what you’re saying.

BN: Exactly. And this leads me to the atheism thing. So you’ve gotten into a bit of trouble with some folks online, because atheism has utility for them. And I’ve found that I’ve learned quite a bit on these atheist forums.

I’d like to hear your thoughts on this. Because you’ve been interpreted as saying to folks like Jerry Coyne: “Don’t make atheistic arguments, because you’re putting atheism in the same truck as science, and people are not going to take science seriously because they’re religious.”

But atheism is a way of getting people interested in science. So Dawkins writes “The God Delusion” and he presents this panoply of interesting bits of information leading up to an argument.

CM: I understand exactly what you’re saying. People say all of these different kinds of things serves a purpose for them — I think that’s absolutely true. And I really like how you framed it, because I haven’t put it in quite that way, but it’s totally right, and it’s one of the reasons why it’s so hard to talk about bad information.

But that doesn’t change my particular view on atheism to point that out. I guess what I’m saying is that a lot of people in what we call the New Atheist movement have formed a community around a set of information, and it has utility for them, in your terms. There’s no doubt about that. You see them doing it so much, so fired up about it.

My argument is that almost in direct proportion to how it’s useful to them, it’s not useful for something else. And that can happen — a community can form around a shared body of information and another community can think it’s awful. That would totally work in your model. And my point is that even as they’re agreeing, scratching each other on the back, creating a dialogue that’s mainly amongst themselves, if you look at how that affects the broader dialogue in the country, it’s a different dynamic entirely.

So I think what I’m saying is: be aware that the way you talk about atheism works for you, and yet it also isn’t working in a different world. I think both those things can be true.

BN: A counter-argument is that you have religious folks who want to defend their views. The Ray Comforts of the world. And to the extent that they want to defend their views in any interesting way, they have to engage with the explicit arguments that are put forward by the atheist community. So that way it becomes something like a dialogue, so that at least it appears as though there’s something defensible going on [on Ray Comfort’s end].

So I have this underlying feeling that conflict isn’t necessarily a bad thing. We can’t ever put ourselves in a place where we say, “Oh, no conflict, that’s no good”. And that seems to be what you’re doing — you call yourselves “accommodationists”, or at least that’s the label that’s been put on you. Conflict, to the extent that we want to have a debate, is okay. It’s just a certain kind of unproductive dialogue that sometimes goes on.

CM: Yeah. I think there’s all different kinds of conflicts. And there’s many things you can spend your time debating. We all pick and choose. My point on the general conflict between science and religion in the United States is that I don’t think it’s an incredibly fruitful one, and I don’t think it does the public understanding of science a lot of good to be hitched to the religion-bashing way. I think there are many ways to talk about science in religion in American society that would work better, and I think there’s a lot of evidence to support that, in terms of the way people react.

I’m sure that some people are getting engaged because of New Atheism — I’m sure some people are learning, some people are thinking about science — but I think it’s also clear that a lot of people are not getting engaged or are being negatively polarized. So it’s a difference of goals, in part, that explains the debate I think.

I think it is fair to say that, by far, Mooney and Kirshenbaum sparked the most outrage with their comments over civility. But the ensuing drama has drawn attention away from some of the most interesting questions. How does Mooney think people ought to communicate science? What does “science communication” involve, for him?

One thing is pretty clear. Mooney wants to offer strategic advice about communicating science. Both in person and in his written works, he aims to communicate the art of publicity to scientists, under the auspices of teaching them the art of communicating science to the public. This work is predicated upon the assumption that everyone has the same priorities, in the minimal sense that at least that everyone is on board with the “science communication” project.

But the most important point that I’m going to emphasize here is that his stance is self-consciously political. At least to some extent, there is a “difference in goals” between Mooney and the activist atheists — by which, I think, he means a difference in priorities. Mooney does not think that speaking out against religion is a priority, and that it is on the whole detrimental to science education; while others think it is a priority, and that it supports science education in some respect.

What’s interesting that the one thing that Mooney and the rest agree on is this: that activism over atheism really does have some utility in communicating science. It gives us something to talk about.