Irony: A philosopher who cannot detect nonsense

By | January 27, 2011

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.

5 thoughts on “Irony: A philosopher who cannot detect nonsense

  1. Firooz R. Oskooi

    My problem with JBernal's comment is this; Does he presume that science has reached it's zenith and everything is under it's dome and there is nothing that we don't know? Or, we know very little indeed and there is infinite knowledge, even sciences that we haven't discovered yet? If this second statement is true, why not call it metaphysics without imbuing it with voodoism and vain imaginings? To me that is the essence of science, hence progress and change is a real word and need no explanation.

  2. philosophylnge

    No, I don't presume that science is done and has reached "its zenith," whatever this might mean. The type of speculation that you propose ("there is infinite knowledge"), when it makes any sense, is just idle speculation which "does not carry much water" for many of us who look to the sciences and rational inquiry as the basis for any justifiable claim to knowledge. "Metaphysics" is not at all the "essence of science." Which of the various scientific disciplines are you talking about? The rise of scientific thought and scientific procedure were a strong rejection of the speculative metaphysics in much of traditional, Western philosophy.

  3. Firooz R. Oskooi

    That is exactly why that kind of interpretation of philosophy is at fault and materialistic with devastating results and crass materialism. Also see my answer to your previous comment.

    1. philosophylnge

      Simply put, Firooz, I disagree completely with your assessment as do many others who have heard you or read any of your scribblings. You have never presented anything resembling a rational argument in support of your views. All you di do is offer quotations from you religious heros and religious literature. But that's ok, I appreciate your participation in these blog conversation.

  4. Firooz R. Oskooi

    Here is something else to ponder upon:
    Still more ideal than this life is the life of the bird. A bird, on the summit of a mountain, on the high, waving branches, has built for itself a nest more beautiful than the palaces of the kings! The air is in the utmost purity, the water cool and clear as crystal, the panorama charming and enchanting. In such glorious surroundings, he expends his numbered days. All the harvests of the plain are his possessions, having earned all this wealth without the least labor. Hence, no matter how much man may advance in this world, he shall not attain to the station of this bird! Thus it becomes evident that in the matters of this world, however much man may strive and work to the point of death, he will be unable to earn the abundance, the freedom and the independent life of a small bird. This proves and establishes the fact that man is not created for the life of this ephemeral world — nay, rather, is he created for the acquirement of infinite perfections, for the attainment to the sublimity of the world of humanity, to be drawn nigh unto the divine threshold, and to sit on the throne of everlasting sovereignty!

    Abdu'l-Baha, Tablets of the Divine Plan


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