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05/23/2014

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Phil H

I sympathise with the thought, but isn't this to some extent a confusion between philosophy the professionalised academic discipline and philosophy the way-of-looking-at-the-world?
That bit that Leiter quotes from the Dawes interview is good on this point: "...the task of reason is to find arguments in support of the faith...Nor can rational reflection be permitted to undermine that faith...It follows that while the arguments put forward by many Christian philosophers are serious arguments, there is something less than serious about the spirit in which they are being offered."
Philosophers are precisely those people who follow the argument where it takes them. There is a sense in which the identification of a philosopher's professional philosophy with their personal "philosophy" is slightly unprofessional: a professional philosopher should be at least able to argue for views which are not their own, and may well at times find themselves professionally obliged to. (I accept that this shouldn't be pushed too far - we do professionally what we are inclined towards personally.)
So to keep harking back to faith or experience or intuition or whatever is as much a betrayal as to argue away faith or experience or intuition.

I once wrote a rant to a bunch of philosophy lecturers about how they shouldn't believe they are going to change the lives of their students, and I still believe that. The more philosophy professionalises and abstracts away from "worldviews," the more progress it will make. Though I do realise that this means giving up another old and important sense of the word "philosophy."

gradjunct

Marcus,
A wonderful and wonderfully vulnerable post. Well done. I have also wrestled quite a bit with the problem of evil. One of my first graduate seminars when I was an MA student at University of Missouri St. Louis was on the problem of evil with Eleonore Stump at SLU. Unfortunately I was too wet behind the ears and in over my head to get the best of that seminar (at the time I remembering wondering what the hell people were talking about when they kept talking about 'counterfactuals'), but it has been a topic I have read extensively about over the years.

Like you, I am often overcome by what seems to me to be the tragedy of human existence. Especially in times of personal loss (I've lost my dad, one of my uncles, both of my grandfathers, and both of my grandmothers). I look at the lives of my family, struggling to get by, filled with doubt and pain, and I think, how can it be like this? How would a god let this be? At other times I am struck by what the filmmaker (and philosopher...look it up) Terrence Malik refers to as 'the glory,' the fleeting experience of beauty and value even in the midst of all the tragedy. In those moments the world seems like a diamond in a dungheap.

My own view, and it is admittedly idiosyncratic, is to endorse a form of axiarchism, or the view according to which the universe we inhabit exists because it instantiates valuable properties. There is goodness in the world. The good might not outweigh the bad, but it need not. It only needs to be sufficient good that it ought to exist. John Leslie, most recently in his book "Infinite Minds" defends this view. I think it gets one around the problem of evil inasmuch as it does not require that this is the best possible world. It is weaker. It only requires there be value in the world. And i think there is value.

I am not a traditional theist, but rather a pantheist (more exactly a sort of panentheist), so I do not believe that there is necessarily a morally perfect God would only create the best world(s). I think once a person jettisons the desire for a morally perfect creator, one's options open up a bit. But I know that practically no one will agree with my views.

Anyway, thanks for a wonderful post. i really enjoyed it.

Marcus Arvan

Hi gradjunct: thanks for your kind and thoughtful comment. I love Terence Malick's work for roughly the same reason. It has a way of capturing the world's beauty and brutality, all at once, in a way that is honest. I also think you and I are not far apart on the philosophy of religion issues. It occurred to me that day that the real question -- for me, at least -- is not whether God is perfect, but whether the creation of this world (if indeed it had a creator) is *forgivable*. And it seemed to me, at least, that if this beautiful, horrific, imperfect were the best world I could create, the decision whether to make it or nothing at all would be an awful moral dilemma -- the sort of dilemma a potential parent has when considering whether to bring a child into the world. Any honest parent knows their child will suffer. It is inevitable. We cannot give our children perfect lives, and cannot guarantee their happiness. And so, just as I can empathize with a parent who brings a child into a harsh world, I found I could empathize with a putative creator. "What would I do", I asked myself, "if I could either create this world or nothing?" The answer was: I don't know. It would be a hard choice. But I would want to be forgiven, and have my creations forgive me, for such an impossible choice if I went through with it. Just another case of Stockholm Syndrome? Maybe...and yet there is so much beauty in the world...

Justin Caouette

Excellent post, Marcus. The way you described your experience with your mom reminded me of a discussion I recently had about transformative experience. We were debating/discussing what such an experience would be and I took the sort of experience that you described as one such instance.

Marcus Arvan

Phil H: Thanks for your comment.

You write, "I sympathise with the thought, but isn't this to some extent a confusion between philosophy the professionalised academic discipline and philosophy the way-of-looking-at-the-world?"

My reply is: I don't think it is a confusion at all. Socrates, Aristotle, Epictetus, Epicurus, etc. These were real philosophers reflecting carefully about *life*. In the modern era, "serious" philosophy seems to have become ever-more-divorced from real life. I don't think that makes it serious, or more worth taking seriously. Far from it, I think it is why people (perhaps rightly in many cases) take professional philosophers *less* seriously. I want to say that we can do serious philosophy -- and indeed *should* do serious philosophy -- in a way that engages with human experience, including emotional experience; and that the more that philosophy abstracts away from these things, the more *unhelpfully* arcane, and less deep, it too often becomes. I want philosophy -- professional philosophy -- to return to its roots. And its roots were not answering abstract questions in the philosophy room. Its roots were answering *human* questions that human beings face, not just questions that professional philosophers raise amongst themselves.

Marcus Arvan

Phil H: I might also add that I agree with you that simply *deferring* to faith or experience is philosophically bad -- but that is not what I see myself doing, or advising for that matter. The book I'm writing, for instance, deals with *really* abstract stuff on practical reason -- it is philosophically serious stuff, doing "academic" philosophy -- but I also do find that it helps to hook up the abstract arguments with lived experience. This is what I think philosophers in the empiricist trend dating back to Aristotle were doing, and it is, I believe, a way to do philosophy well.

Marcus Arvan

Hi Justin: Thanks for your kind comment. Yes, I think transformative is the right way to describe it. As I tried to convey/imply in my reply to Phil H, I found the experience both personally and philosophically transformative, and not just in a "touchy-feely" way, but in a way that altered how I thought about a serious philosophical problem.

Phil H

Thanks, Marcus. On this point, as on many, I'm sure that we wouldn't disagree (much!) about how to *practice* philosophy. As you say, making reference to experience is a valuable philosophical practice. The argument is about the theory behind the practice.

But some of the things you say don't resonate with me at all: "...I think it is why people...take professional philosophers *less* seriously." "I want to say that we...*should* do serious philosophy -- in a way that engages with human experience, including emotional experience" "I want philosophy...to return to its roots."

I don't think you should care what "people" think. There's a universities pay you to do philosophy rather than just letting everyone make their own up: you're better at it (through long practice and inclination). I don't think any other discipline would make these demands of its practitioners. Obviously not the sciences, but not history either, nor geography, nor literature. English professors shouldn't have to stop and think, but what would the man in the street say about Woolf's use of metaphor? Use experience as material for philosophy, sure, but not to guide the doing of philosophy; and as for the call to go backwards... that's just... backwards!

There are counters to all the above. I understand that philosophy is a subject slightly unlike all the others. But I think of it in terms of your ultimate objective. If it's to help people feel better, then you're doing self-help or religion. If your commitment is to be right then it's surely necessary to accept that sometimes it won't feel good.

Having said all that, I don't expect philosophers to be soulless. Clearly affective factors are important in how we do philosophy, but they can't pull you away from the real goal of working things out.

Marcus Arvan

Hi Phil H: Thanks for your reply!

I agree and I disagree (big surprise there!). I agree with your point that we shouldn't let affective factors, etc., pull us away from the real goal of working things out, as well as with your point that sometimes (oftentimes?) philosophical answers might not feel good. The latter is part of my point in the original post, by the way. In my view, too many philosophers of religion seem to be guided by a "feel-good" goal of explaining how all of this world's evils can be justified. The answer to the Problem of Evil I settled on (for now, at any rate) is not a feel-good idea. I think any philosophically honest person has to grapple with the fact that this world is a truly awful place (though a place with great beauty as well), and that there is just no way such an awful place could be the creation of a truly perfect Deity. The answer I arrived at was not feel-good at all. It involved the (partly affective) realization that this world is in large part a vast tragedy...with sprinkles of beauty contained within -- and that it was only by way of empathy that I could even begin to understand its possible creation as a kind of moral dilemma, and forgiveness (an affective, reactive attitude) a kind of solution.

What I disagree with you on is that we shouldn't care what the masses think, and that other fields shouldn't as well. The great physicist Richard Feynmann was fond of saying (and I paraphrase) that if you can't explain something in a clear and compelling way to a bright undergrad, you don't understand it. Einstein said similar things. So has my one-time undergraduate mentor, Daniel Dennett (he even explicitly says it in the introduction to his latest book). I wholeheartedly agree with these people, *particularly* in philosophy -- since, again, philosophy concerns issues of general interest (ethics, politics, mind, personal identity, etc). Indeed, I think ordinary people can and should serve -- as they served in Plato's dialogues! -- to keep us philosophically honest.

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