Some time ago I was taken aback when I heard Richard Dawkins say, without any apparent discomfort, that he had thought philosophy a waste of time until he met Dan Dennett. The trouble is that his approval of Dan Dennett was closely allied to his agreement with him. This, it seems to me, is a deeply troubling trend. While I understand that scholarship tends to be a full contact sport, and that not a little blood is spilt in the prosecuting of it, the condemnation of something that you do not understand, without any attempt to understand it, is, in general, to be deplored. I have sometimes made an exception in the case of theology, defending Dawkins against Terry Eagleton’s criticism that he had not studied Duns Scotus and Aquinas on epistemology, but Eagleton’s warning is not something that should be simply dismissed. Here is what he said:
What, one wonders, are Dawkins’s views on the epistemological differences between Aquinas and Duns Scotus? Has he read Eriugena on subjectivity, Rahner on grace or Moltmann on hope? Has he even heard of them? Or does he imagine like a bumptious young barrister that you can defeat the opposition while being complacently ignorant of its toughest case?
As it happens, I don’t think anything in Eagleton’s specific suggestions in his review would really have helped Dawkins come to terms with the debate between faith and unfaith. If Eagleton thought there was something worthwhile that would really have challenged Dawkins’ criticisms, then he needed to become much more specific than simply to show off his learning.
But this does not diminish the importance of knowing something of your opponent’s strongest case before crowing too loudly about having consigned him to the dustheap. I am reminded of this by two blog posts that were published today or late yesterday, one by Massimo Pigliucci, the other by Bart Ehrman. Professor Pigliucci dismembers Lawrence Krauss’s dismissal of philosophy in an interview in the Atlantic Monthly, whereas Professor Ehrman takes Richard Carrier to task for his rather over the top dismissal of the former’s book, Did Jesus Exist? The Sophists of ancient Greek, perhaps the first self-help gurus known to history, promised to teach their acolytes how to make the weaker argument appear the stronger. Scholarship, however, is supposed to lead to the truth, and sort out the criteria by which the truth in various fields is established, and — while I have indulged in it myself from time to time — brash dismissals of one’s opponents is not the best way through the maze of question and counter-question that can be put on practically any topic you care to name.
To start with Bart Ehrman, I have to say that he was his own worst enemy here. By making the standing of historical views depend on the qualifications of those holding them, especially in the context of the free-for-all of the internet blogosphere, Ehrman, unfortunately, was simply asking for trouble — and he got it! Richard Carrier’s response is largely taken up with swordplay on this point in particular: who is an expert in this field and who is not. And Ehrman’s response (linked above) not only takes some umbrage at Carrier’s double-barrelled attack on his Jesus book, but indicates points at which, indeed, he had been mistaken or unclear, and he corrects the impression that some of these left in Carrier’s mind, acknowledging mistakes where made, or providing the larger context which is not always clear in his book, but also finding fault with some of Carrier’s positions argued in response to Ehrman’s book. It is only fair to say that Ehrman’s response is, by and large, marked by scholarly politeness and dignity, and shows an earnest desire to reach the truth.
One of the places where I think Ehrman goes seriously wrong is in his estimation of the importance of the quest for the historical Jesus. He first points out that his Jesus book is written
for lay people who are interested in a broad, interesting, and very important question. Did Jesus really exist? I was not arguing the case for scholars, because scholars already know the answer to that question.
This strikes me, in the context where he is arguing the point, a bit of special pleading. He can’t use that “scholars already know the answer to that question” as an excuse for writing a book that does not present the scholarly evidence, for that is what is in dispute by those who disagree with him, and to claim that this is something that scholars already know, without saying precisely what it is they think they know, is worryingly misleading. It is as though all he has to do is to show, in particular, that the most egregiously amateurish of the mythicists are wrong, and lump more scholarly astute mythicists in with them, to dismiss the whole lot. And this simply won’t do. While I haven’t read the whole of Ehrman’s book, it is not clear to me that he makes any clear distinctions between the credibility of the various people who support a mythicist understanding of the Jesus stories. Nor does he seem to ask himself some elementary questions about philosophy of history here, problems that are raised with some pointedness by Stephen Law in his argument about how to sort out history from non-history in narratives deeply influenced by the myth-making imagination, as the gospels are.
As Hermann Detering says in his review of Ehrman’s book, rather pointedly entitled, “Prof. “Errorman” und die nichtchrislichen Quellen” (“Prof. “Errorman” and non-Christian sources”), Ehrman’s arguments are basically religionist, and the importance he attaches to there actually having been an historical Jesus is to a large degree religiously motivated, whatever his status as a believer or nonbeliever. As he says, Ehrman claims not to be an apologist:
Und doch kein Apologet! Ehrman will als reiner Historiker verstanden werden, der sich ausschließlich für historische Evidenzen interessiert.
“And yet not an apologist! Ehrman wants to be understood as a pure historian, who is interested exclusively in historical evidence.” Yet in an interview (not linked or identified), says Detering, Ehrman said the following:
Jesus’ teachings of love, and mercy and forgiveness, I think, really should dominate our lives, on the personal level, I agree with many of the ethical teachings of Jesus and I try to model my life on them, even though I don’t agree with the apocalyptic framework in which they were put. [italics in original article]
– which, surely, is an astonishing point for an historian to make! But, never mind, says Detering:
wir wollen es Ehrman vorerst abnehmen, dass er vorurteilslos an die Sache herangeht, auch wenn der Ton, den er in seinem Buch und in vorangegangenen Interviews gegen die Mythizisten, die er mit Holocaustleugnern vergleicht (S. 5), anschlägt, für akademische Verhältnisse etwas zu gereizt und ungehobelt klingt.
which, in my translation, goes as follows:
for now [for the time being] we will assume that Ehrman approaches the facts without prejudice, even when, in his book, and in previous interviews against the mythicists, by comparing them with Holocaust deniers, the tone struck is a bit too edgy and vulgar for academic contexts.
The point here is that, popular book or no, Ehrman still has a scholarly responsibility to maintain some kind of proportionality of language; and the kinds of emphasis he places on academic qualifications and honours, and the out-and-out affirmation of the importance of Jesus’ message for the shaping of one’s life, seems to be in conflict with his claim to be working as a dispassionate historian. He still seems, in other words, whatever his belief status, to be working in accordance with believers’ presuppositions about why it is important to establish that there is a real historical Jesus. But what Ehrman fails to note is that most scholars working in the field approach it with religionist presuppositions, so when he speaks of a scholarly consensus here, the religious background against which he speaks, constitutes a problem for his historical claims. As Detering says:
Was letztlich zählt, sind ohnehin nicht nur die guten Absichten oder der jeweilige weltanschauliche Hintergrund, sondern die besseren historischen Argumente.
Or, in English:
Anyway, what counts in the end is not only good intentions or the prevailing ideological background, but the best historical arguments.
And there are good reasons for supposing that Ehrman’s religionist prejudices are still playing a role in dictating his historical conclusions.
In answering some of these questions, it seems to me, philosophy of history is essential, whatever R. Joseph Hoffmann might think. There are too many assumptions being made as to what constitutes reliable historical evidence, especially in contexts where supernatural or other wondrous events are deeply embedded in narrative sources upon which most of our historical information on particular subjects, like the existence and character of Jesus, are based. And this brings me, not unnaturally, to my second concern in this post: namely, Lawrence Krauss’s seriously uninformed comments about philosophy.
I have already, some time ago, mentioned Stephen Hawking’s announcement of the death of philosophy which he goes on immediately, a few pages later (in The Grand Design), to contradict by doing some philosophy himself. Indeed, the importance of philosophy for science should be abundantly evident to anyone — even an outsider — who considers what the status of the hypotheses of string theory ought to be, or how it is that science progresses, and on what scientific theories are based, and how they are confirmed. It is all very well to say that science works, as it does; it is quite another thing to defend the more comprehensive account of reality that the success of science underwrites. Not only how do we know what we know, but in more comprehensive terms, what does knowing this say about the nature of the reality of the universe that we know in this way: these are questions in need of answers. We are still left, whether we like it or not, with a dichotomy between the view from nowhere, that is, the view of the universe within which each person’s point of view is an objective fact about things, and the perspective of the individual knower whose view is, in the view from nowhere, simply one amongst many viewpoints, and yet, in some sense, ineliminable — since it is through such single viewpoints that our larger scientific understanding of the universe is known.
These are questions that, for instance, Susan Haack addresses with such precision and insight in her book Evidence and Inquiry. Where do we draw the line between subjectivity and objectivity? When can we say that a scientific theory has been proved, and moves into place as something of a touchstone for the truth of other things we discover about the world? And how do scientific theories become orthodoxies against which new discoveries have to strive mightily for acceptance in the face of the guild’s tendency to protect its turf? As Pigliucci points out in the blog post linked earlier:
Indeed, as physicist Max Plank famously put it, “Science progresses funeral by funeral,” because often the old generation has to retire and die before new ideas really take hold.
The isolation of science as the ultimate arbiter of what can be said is simply to make such progress impossible, for progress happens when science is seen as one part of the quest for knowledge and understanding. To dismiss philosophy because it makes no progress in the scientific sense — but it does progress — is merely to confuse apples with oranges, as Pigliucci points out. Indeed, the question of how science progresses is itself an historical or philosophical question, not a scientific one, as a look at studies like Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions or Philip Kitchers, The Advancement of Science, should be enough to show. Kitcher’s essay, “Seeing is Unbelieving“, is a helpful discussion of the role that other disciplines play in providing the more comprehensive resources for creating our understanding of the world and of ourselves, with science as only one thread in a complex critical endeavour, using inferential rigour, of understanding ourselves and the world. As Kitcher says: “After all, the natural sciences have no monopoly on inferential rigour.”
Indeed, Richard Dawkins’ hyperbolic praise for Lawrence Krauss’s new book, by suggesting that it will play a role in our generation not unlike that played by Darwin’s Origin is simply to misunderstand why the Origin changed the way we think, and why Krauss’s book won’t. And it should be remembered that philosophy plays its role even when those who disparage it pay it no attention. These are cultural pursuits. Science is not above culture in some almost magical sense, but it is part and parcel of the culture in which it plays its role, and in which that role needs to be justified again and again. Playing the scientistic game — using that word in a sense that I had thought never applied — though I am coming to think differently — is peculiarly unproductive in the task of trying to show how and why science is important, and providing reasons for supposing this to be true. Science may win because it works. That is a plausible thesis to argue. But it could lose its high profile role because it believes itself to be the only game in town, and unwilling to participate in the cultural process in terms of which ideas and beliefs are assimilated and become influential. It simply will not do to suppose that only science counts.