This is an open letter to the Philosophers out there who consider themselves to be involved in Skepticism (even if only in a tertiary fashion). The ones that I specifically have in mind as I write this are Dr. Massimo Pigliucci, Dr. Daniel Fincke, and Dr. Daniel Dennett*.
Let’s begin with my credentials: I am nobody of import. I am just a guy, whose friend has invited him to occasionally contribute a blog post. I have a Bachelor’s in Philosophy, which means that I have little more than a cursory grasp of the issues within Philosophy. I am not attached or affiliated in any way with any organisation. I’m just a guy with an opinion, who does his best to flesh that opinion out.
I have nothing but the deepest respect for the people who work professionally in Philosophy, and also take the step beyond that to engage with the public. Those I have listed above have specifically affected me and my approach to life. Dr. Pigliucci, in my mind, is an exemplar in how to be a public intellectual. Dr. Fincke’s 10 tips on reaching out to believers is something I return to every 4 to 6 months for review. And Dr. Dennett’s Freedom Evolved has, in my opinion, resolved the Determinism/Free Will problem. Frankly, you are the guys that I aspire to be (though with a little more de Beauvoir, perhaps).
I hope that the (sincere) ass-kissing above buys me some credit, because I want to ask you guys to do something. And it’s not a small thing. It’s, perhaps, something that some may consider a given, but given that you have relationships to maintain, and images to culture, it’s maybe something that can be hard to do.
I want you to stand up for Philosophy.
I can’t do it. No-one really gives a crap about what I write in my small bubble here. But you guys? People read you. Hell, people PAY to read you. Your opinions are listened to, and weighed, and people form their opinions based on the arguments that you make. You have power here, and Stan Lee made the rest clear.
When Dawkins released ‘The God Delusion’, I wasn’t reading you guys. When Harris released ‘The Moral Landscape’, I know that some of you had a few comments. And now Shermer has declared that he will be writing something on Morality and Science.
Here’s what I want: I want you to treat these books as if they were submitted in a third year Philosophy course. Not as theories from a Post-Doc (which would be overly burdensome), nor as a mere first-year effort (which seems too much of a pass, even though Harris would fail even that standard). If these people are going to seek gain prestige and compensation for writing on a topic that has had 2500 years of discussion prior to their involvement… Surely they should see what has gone before? And if they were to merely reiterate the last century of consequentialism without any credit to the writers who came before them (Harris), they should be held to the same standards as a mere undergraduate student. Should they not?
Dawkins and Harris and Shermer have cultivated a following by speaking on topics in which they have some expertise (I know, I know, I don’t want to talk about Harris any more, so let’s just pretend it’s true in his case too), and subsequently seek to expand into an area in which they do not. I do not have a problem with this.
But YOU have expertise in this area, and YOU are (rightly) seen as gatekeepers here (by me, at least). When I read things like “The problem is that no account of causality leaves room for free will” (Harris, The Moral Landscape, pg 100-1), I expect outrage. I expect Dr. Dennett to stand up and say “I have given an account of causality that leaves room for free will. It’s a shame that Harris is unread with regards to this topic”. I expect everyone else to stand up and say “Oi! Harris! You referenced the very book that Dennett wrote doing this!” This should be cause for Philosophers to stand united and denounce this lie.**
And now Shermer is writing a book “The Moral Arc of Science”. Of course, you cannot prevent this (nor should you try). But this book should not be given a pass. Dr. Pigliucci’s criticism of Harris’s drek “The Moral Landscape” was, I thought, tepid. Sure, Dr. Pigliucci “disagreed” with Harris, but it’s also very clear that 1) Harris was merely reinventing Bentham’s/Mill’s wheel, 2) acting as if (if not explicitly claiming) he wasn’t reinventing anything and 3) doing a piss-poor job of it (in academic contexts, we call this plagiarism, and you get kicked out of school for it). I would like to see it taken a step further: essentially I would like to see these books assigned a letter grade (Harris gets an F, if only for all his missing citations, nevermind the rest of the problems). And reach out to Shermer (and the rest). Let them know that this is coming. That if they choose to act as clueless, self-important, self-aggrandizing undergrads that their work will be treated as such.
Is this going too far? Too pompous/self-important? When dealing with undergrads, they are typically in a position of ignorance, and are (to a greater or lesser extent) trying to dig themselves out of that position. They have access to resources, but a limited knowledge of how to use them. Their personal networks are small. They are attempting to learn, and to express that learning in their essays. They get graded, sometimes harshly.
Dawkins, Harris and Shermer are not undergrads. They are people who have completed several years of academic study. Their personal networks are large. They are (ostensibly) not in a position of ignorance. Frankly, I think holding them to the same standards as undergrads is quite charitable.
Why this open letter?
Because 1) I’m tired of reading their garbage, and 2) I’m tired of having to re-explain 500 years of Philosophy to my skeptic buddies who have just read Harris/Dawkins and think that they have read something ‘new’ and ‘well-written’, when it’s neither of the above.
And so, Philosophers who are also involved in Skepticism, I ask you to reach out to one another, to talk to one another, and to form some kind of weak consensus: as per Frankfurt, the bullshit cannot be allowed to stand un(re)marked.
[Update: For those interested in the specific case of Shermer, Pigliucci posted a response a little before my post went live. I sincerely hope that Shermer takes the criticism seriously (and maybe sits down with someone who can explain his problem slowly. Perhaps with sock puppets).]
*I do not know of any women in Philosophy who are also involved in Skepticism (other than the fantastic Julia Galef), and I would be more than happy to have this ignorance eliminated should any readers know of any.
**Whether an account of causality successfully allows for free will is an entirely different thing to whether or not an account of causality attempts to leave room for free will.
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[This was originally posted on The Crommunist Manifesto]