Spotting Bullshit: A conversation with Stephen Law – (Free Inquiry, Feb/March 2011)
In the latest issue (Feb/Mar. 2011) of one of our better publications for the secular community, the periodical Free Inquiry, features an interview with philosopher Stephen Law, of Heythorp College, University of London. Law describes himself as a “liberal, a secularist, an atheist, and a humanist” and replied to a series of questions regarding his views on a variety of subjects including secularism, humanism, and atheism. But the questions which caught my attention related to his view of philosophy. The first one asked: What is Philosophy?
Law’s reply: “Philosophy is about applying our powers of reason so far as we are able to certain big questions, the answers to which at least appear to lie beyond the reach of science. For example: the metaphysical question “Why is there anything at all?” the ethical question: “What is right or wrong?” the epistemological question “How do I know that other people have minds?” or another metaphysical question: “Does time travel even make sense?” (Free Inquiry, Feb/March 2011, page 46)
With the exception of the metaphysical question, this is fair enough as an attempt to say what some of philosophy engages. But we should understand that these question are mostly conceptual questions and – in the case of the ethical question – a question regarding value judgments. These are not questions which “lie beyond the reach of science” in the sense that they attempt to probe a reality beyond the reach of science. To understand the role of philosophy in this way would be to revert to the delusion that somehow the philosopher’s thinking or reasoning can achieve a deeper knowledge of reality than the sciences. This is the delusion of traditional, metaphysical philosophy; it is not one which we should associate with the work of philosophy today.
Another question that I found surprising for an interview in a respectable publication was the question: What is the biggest problem in philosophy? — Law gave the following: “I’m not sure. Maybe the mind/body problem, or the question “Why is there anything at all?” (Free Inquiry, Feb/March 2011, page 46)
Trying to specify “the biggest problem in philosophy” can be an interesting exercise for undergraduate students of philosophy; but I’m inclined to classify it with such questionable, idle exercises as trying to say who the greatest philosopher is; or whether Shakespeare or Cervantes was the greater writer. The big problems in philosophy will vary depending on the philosopher and the area of philosophy in which he/she works. A philosopher of science will not list either one of Law’s candidates as the “greatest problem”: and someone specializing in social-political philosophy will surely not specify the metaphysical ‘problem’ of trying to say why there is anything at all instead of nothing.
So both the question and Law’s attempted answer surprised me. I was surprised that the interviewer — a philosopher himself (Floris Van Den Berg) and Law would seriously engage in such a dialogue. (After all, the interview is titled “Spotting Bullshit”) Furthermore, although the mind/body issue is an important problem for the philosophy of mind and for metaphysics meriting much attention and discussion, the second “great problem” – namely the deep question: Why is there anything at all? — mentioned by Law is surely a pseudo-problem, unless you happen to engage a certain type of metaphysics or theology. The question, insofar as it is one for modern thought, is one that is engaged by scientific cosmology and theoretical physics. Philosophy and theology, despite their pretense, are not in position to advance any significant theories (i.e., scientifically based theories) about deep reality, as would be required were we to take any proposed ‘answer’ to this somewhat vague question seriously. For the most part philosophers’ and theologians’ answers to the deep question fall into the category of the excreta of bulls. Neither the philosopher Stephen Law nor the publication Free Inquiry shows me that they are adept at spotting such product of the bull.