"You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd." ~Flannery O'Connor

Sunday, June 01, 2008

Beware of scientists who philosophize

I just came across this letter, written by Albert Einstein a year before his death, because it recently sold at auction for $404, 000. Therein, Einstein "dismissed the idea of God as the product of human weakness and the Bible as pretty childish." One sees that Freud and Spinoza had their effect on him; I'm pretty sure he read both authors who, like him, were Jews, and preceded him in a grand Jewish sub-tradition of intellectual non-religiosity. Of course he didn't give much evidence of having followed the numerous rebuttals of their arguments. But the sad thing is that nobody much cares whether he followed all that or not.

Neither I nor any other philosopher should have to warn people away from philosophizing scientists. Nobody hearkens much to the scientific opinions of philosophers, and for good reason: philosophers are not scientists. So why isn't the converse courtesy extended? Why is it that the philosophical views of scientists are so widely entertained and discussed, as the so-called "new atheism" illustrates, by people who are neither philosophers nor scientists?

The only explanation I can think of is that natural science has earned so much prestige in modern Western culture that people, including scientists, tend to assume that being good at science ensures being good at philosophy. A moment's critical thought would show that to be false. But then again, as a trained philosopher I often encounter people who assume something even more obviously false, to wit, that one person's philosophical thoughts are as useful, or useless, as any other's. That philosophy is a valid discipline that is hard to practice well, and that therefore one person's opinion is not as good as another's, often goes umarked among people who have not undergone, or at least been exposed to, the discipline. Even those who have some vague exposure thereto seem to believe that the only way to earn a living as a philosopher is to switch sides of the desk and teach to similarly beguiled souls what one once only studied. Who else but they would pay to listen?

For a while in the blogosphere, people spoke of "the Dopeler Effect," meaning "the tendency of stupid ideas to seem smarter when they come at you rapidly." Such is the effect of the new atheism, which is much older than Einstein and influenced him, on college underclassmen. They don't seem to realize that denizens of the dorms have been tossing about the same ideas for at least two centuries now. The best reaction is to seek comic relief. Try Mary Eberstadt's series "The Loser Letters" at National Review.

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