Outsider Test for Philosophy

Here is Thomas Crisp’s new “Evolutionary Objection to the Argument from Evil” [via ex-apologist]. It’s a clever argument, and has persuaded at least one of ex-apologist’s readers that the Problem of Evil (PoE) is not a good reason to be an atheist.

The objection goes roughly like this:

P1) PoE depends on the premise that there are probably no good reasons for the observed evil in the natural world
P2) Determining whether there are good reasons for natural evil is a “recondite”, extremely difficult, philosophical problem.
P3) If our intellectual capabilities evolved, they evolved to track mundane matters of reality that are necessary for survival.
P4) There is no obvious reason that evolution would select for ability to reliably solve recondite philosophical problems
C1) Therefore, given evolution, there is no reason to trust our philosophical musings about observed evil
C2) Given that we can’t trust the key premise of PoE, then PoE is not a good reason to be an atheist

There are some obvious ways to attack Crisp’s argument. For example, we could deny that the key premise of PoE is recondite. Or we could argue that generally evolved truth-tracking mechanisms actually do apply to recondite philosophical problems (Crisp acknowledges that we could have developed such an ability as a “spandrel”, and I think there are plausible arguments for this, but I think an even stronger argument could be made for our ability to tackle recondite problems).

Crisp seems to sense this weakness in his argument, and he tries to strengthen his claim that judgments on recondite matters are unreliable. I laughed out loud at this part:

I don’t experience any emotion of ridicule when I entertain the possibility that my cognitive faculties are unreliable with respect to abstruse philosophical matters far removed from the everyday concerns of life. That possibility doesn’t strike me as crazy or ridiculous. I don’t notice any powerful seeming or seeing to be true when I consider the proposition that my philosophical faculties are reliable; it doesn’t strike me as just obvious that they are. In fact, when I consider the multitude of crazy views philosophers have defended over the centuries and the rampant disagreement among philosophers over almost of everything of substance, I find it wholly unobvious that we humans, myself included, have reliable philosophical faculties.

This is like the “Outsider Test for Philosophy”. It’s like saying, “When you realize why you reject all of the other contentious philosophical positions, you’ll understand why I reject yours”. IOW, the fact that there are multiple competing positions is taken as evidence that nobody really knows — that everyone is just mistaken or making things up.

This is shockingly sloppy thinking, whether it’s done by a Christian philosopher at Biola or by an atheist shyster like John Loftus. In this case, though, it’s especially funny. Winning a philosophy argument by claiming that philosophy is unreliable, is quite bold. Well played, Mr. Crisp! Well played!

4 thoughts on “Outsider Test for Philosophy”

  1. I read Crisp’s work quite a while ago, now. I confess I didn’t really see the teeth: I think Crisp was trying to say “even if you don’t like the EAAN, you should like the EAAN when applied to complicated philosophical problems like the PoE”.

    I don’t think that’s true for ‘spandrel-esque’ reasons. If we accept our faculties are generally reliable ‘day-to-day’, we should think they at least can be reliable for abtruse philosophical matters. I think it might be a package deal: evolutionary biology delivers us skills that help for both, or, another way of putting it, that the skills needed for navigating daily life and sorting out philosophical problems are not too dissimilar.

    In fairness to Crisp, I think this sort of outsider concern is much better than Loftus, and is actually more like Lipton: the track record of philosophy is very poor on any sort of ‘progress to the truth’ metric. Yet I think that just underlines the need to try harder.

  2. I think it might be a package deal: evolutionary biology delivers us skills that help for both, or, another way of putting it, that the skills needed for navigating daily life and sorting out philosophical problems are not too dissimilar.

    Yes, exactly. At the very least, I would expect a principled explanation hypothesizing why the lower-level skills cannot extrapolate to ‘recondite’ matters. The most obvious way I can think of to do this (appealing to adaptive complexity) probably works against Crisp’s thesis.

    In fairness to Crisp, I think this sort of outsider concern is much better than Loftus, and is actually more like Lipton: the track record of philosophy is very poor on any sort of ‘progress to the truth’ metric. Yet I think that just underlines the need to try harder.

    Yes, I suppose the obvious conclusion is that we might place lower levels of confidence on conclusions that are more contentious. But Crisp is more bold than Loftus in the sense that he is sawing off the very branch that he is sitting on.

  3. Hello. Thanks for your comments on my paper.

    A small point in reply. I wasn’t arguing in the passage you quote that philosophy is unreliable.

    I was making a more modest claim in response to a Thomas-Reid-style objection to my argument. According to this objection, that our philosophical faculties are reliable is a deliverance of “common sense”: it’s one of those obvious truths whose denial strikes any sane person as crazy or ridiculous. I was arguing in the passage you quote that that’s not so: it is not just *obvious* that our philosophical faculties are reliable; the denial of this claim isn’t crazy or ridulous.

    I was *not* claiming that, in fact, our philosophical faculties are not reliable. I think they are. I was only claiming that it’s not *obvious* that they are; that it’s not crazy or ridiculous to suppose they’re not.

    That claim, I suggest, does not evince the sort of “shockingly sloppy” thinking you attribute to me!

    All good wishes in your work,

    Tom Crisp

  4. Hi Tom,

    I was *not* claiming that, in fact, our philosophical faculties are not reliable. I think they are. I was only claiming that it’s not *obvious* that they are; that it’s not crazy or ridiculous to suppose they’re not.

    OK, but your response to PoE relies entirely on the claim that we cannot rely on our philosophical faculties when assessing recondite problems.

    Either we can, or we can’t. And any argument that supports your thesis about unreliability would also be self-undermining. Or am I missing something?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *