Addendum to “Ornithology”

My last post, “Ornithology for Birds,” was my contribution to a talk on Faith and Reason held locally at the Gnu’s Room in Auburn, Al. The whole panel was excellent, the presentations were deeply impressive, and the discussion was, at the very least, lively.

A short digression: Individuals who do not commonly engage in philosophy often comment on the fact that we philosophers work in a kind of cottage industry. I hold we have good reason to recede into the comfortable halls of the ivory tower: 

Have you ever tried doing this in public?

If I wanted the same experience I could just as easily jump out of an airplane without a parachute. At least that way I wouldn’t have to live with the decision afterwards.
(I know, I know. Too far. All for the sake of humor, though.) 

Anyway, I wanted to provide some follow-ups to questions and concerns that were raised during the discussion in response to “Ornithology.” So here goes nothing.

On Choices:

I was pressed on the use of the word choice at the end of the paper. I am still somewhat unclear whether or not the worry was intended to be a serious problem for the argument, but in any case, I am going to say that it is not.

The problem was posed in the following way: “You stated that we choose what we believe. What about those who never get the chance to choose?” Roderick Long tried to clear the statement with “I might believe in Zeus, but I might not ever actively choose that belief.” 

Fine with me. The statement that “Ultimately, you choose what to believe or not to believe,” is one made in view of the individuals reading the argument. I assumed that those who had come to philosophical introspection about their beliefs would need to choose one or the other. If this is a matter of what your bent on free will is, on whether or not you can make choices in the robust sense, then I am fine either way. If you’d like to, you can say “Ultimately, we act on belief systems which admit to assumptions about the universe. If we have free will and can make choices, then we will choose one system or the other when we introspect philosophically on our own beliefs. If we do not have free will, then we admit of the illusion of the choice between one or the other and still introspect on them.” It’s the case, though, that that is a bit of a mouthful.

The argument is just not so worried with what you take to be the precise referent of the term “choice.”

On History:

Keren mentioned after the panel that the historical sections of the talk aren’t all that necessary. I am inclined to agree. The history is intended as a way of getting us to the modern argument by way of the robust use of the term “Reason” in philosophy. This serves the twofold purpose of loosely defining the use of “reason” and of framing the images of Science and Faith by characterizing how they are responses to that use. In other words, the history is a means of removing the burden of defining and refining the philosophical problems of reason. (This was the essence of my response to Matt Bagger’s question concerning the panel’s use of the term.)

It would be more philosophically responsible to do the dirty work of defining the term and giving the arguments in order to show why it was necessary for both the faithful picture and the scientific image to give responses to what reason can and cannot do. Again, this seems like a fault created by lack of time more than anything else.

On Limits

Mike Watkins cornered a problem with the expression “limit” which was more directly addressed to Reshef Agam-Segal than to me, but it planted a concern in my head as well. In effect, the question was why we see it fit to move beyond the bounds of reason in order to give effective treatments of certain topics. I am fuzzy on the details here, however. A defense of the employment of limit-language isn’t so simple as one might think. I wish I could characterize more of the view.

What Mike’s question did for me, though, is put into contrast how loosely I use the language of limitation. The talk sounds like there is only one use of the term in play. This is not the case. On the Scientific image, the limit is the way the foundational assumptions determine the scope of the reasonable domain, i.e., what can and cannot be said. On the image of Faith, the limit is a determination of scope which is not based on assumption, but on inevitable contradiction. Thus, the image of Faith employs the language of “running-up-against” and of “coming to the edge.” None of this serves as any answer to Mike, but it does treat a problem with the talk that is involved in an answer to him. That clear distinction between the two uses is not given during the argument is, in itself, a problem.

Final Thoughts:

What wasn’t mentioned during the panel as a consequence of the view is the realization that once the argument between the believer and the non-believer turns normative, the air begins to turn much more noxious. “Oughts” and “Ought-nots” are notoriously the realm of the pissing contest. Moreover, the arguments of the discussion tend towards personal testimony and towards the misuse of either belief system. It is this tendency that characterizes the modern slugfest. Today’s argument treats more of apologetics than of philosophical discourse. The current positions are not simply matters of theism vs. atheism as they are evangelical vs. anti-theistic. I wanted to show why the positions tend that way.

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