'Plato at the Googleplex' author Rebecca Goldstein.

‘Plato at the Googleplex’ author Rebecca Goldstein. Photo courtesy Goldstein.

Recent comments from science communicator and Cosmos host Neil deGrasse Tyson dismissing philosophy as “useless” have stirred an ongoing controversy among atheists, agnostics, and others.

He’s not the first in the nontheist community to raise the issue—Lawrence Krauss, for example, has been criticized for making dismissive statements about philosophy. More recently, Massimo Pigliucci published a paper critiquing some atheist views on philosophy, eliciting responses from Jerry Coyne and PZ Myers.

As nontheists continue to debate the merits of philosophy, why should atheists take it seriously? I asked Rebecca Goldstein, author of the acclaimed new book Plato at the Googleplex: Why Philosophy Won’t Go Away. A MacArthur “Genius” Fellow, Goldstein was named Humanist of the Year by the American Humanist Association in 2011 and has written numerous award-winning books, including 36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction.

Below, we discuss Goldstein’s new book, why philosophy isn’t in competition with science, morality without religion, and why atheists shouldn’t dismiss philosophy.

Chris Stedman: Your new book, Plato at the Googleplex: Why Philosophy Won’t Go Away, places Plato in our time. Why did you write the book in this way?

Rebecca Goldstein: I wanted, first of all, to write about Plato using the dialogue form—because that’s how he wrote and he had excellent reasons for writing philosophy in this way, trying to embed abstract thinking into the dramas of real life. And I wanted, by bringing Plato forward into our day, to demonstrate not only the persistence of his questions but also how much progress we’ve made with them.

The Plato of my dialogues is constantly being surprised by how much more than he we know—not only scientifically but also philosophically, ethically. And this is not knowledge that’s confined to professional philosophers, but has disseminated outward into generally shared perspectives.

CS: Why is philosophy important? Why should people today be concerned about the work of ancient philosophers?

RG: I wouldn’t recommend that everyone devote themselves to ancient philosophers, unless they’re interested—as I am, at least in my current book—in the genesis of this discipline and in why it was that one people, the ancient Greeks, developed a technique for exploring in a secular and rational fashion many of the same questions that religion considers. So let’s forget about ancient philosophy for the moment and just speak of philosophy.

Philosophy is important because it’s unavoidable if you want to live a coherent life. To live such a life is to use standards to justify your beliefs and actions; it’s to try to bring as much internal consistency into your various beliefs as possible; it’s to consider which of our seemingly intuitive views about the nature of the world and our place within it are compatible with what science has to tell us, which are incompatible, and which are absolutely necessary.

Now whether one likes it or not, such coherence-making thinking involves one in issues of philosophy. Secularists, in particular, who want to counter the false claim that without God to ground morality there can only be nihilism, should be particularly interested in moral philosophy, since that’s where they’ll find the counter-arguments.

CS: You’ve challenged other atheists who dismiss philosophy. Why do you think some dismiss it, and what’s your response to that position? 

RG: I think there’s often a misunderstanding about the nature of philosophy. Some seem to think philosophy to be in competition with science in the project of describing reality—in other words, ontology. But that’s not really the proper job of philosophy at all. It can’t, and shouldn’t, compete with science in this domain.

And how does one know this? From good philosophical arguments, that’s how. Science, even in making out its case for ontological superiority, has to rely on philosophy in order to make it coherently. It has to step outside of itself and offer a clear criterion for what makes some description scientific and others not, and offer a defense that its methodology actually gets us closer to knowing reality. It relies on philosophy to render its own claims coherent.

More generally, if you want to know what the role of philosophy is you should think of it more in terms of maximizing our overall coherence—including our internal moral coherence—than in terms of describing reality, as science does.

CS: I was struck by a statement you made at a recent event at the Humanist Community at Harvard: That what philosophy tries to do is make us as coherent as possible, and we can’t live coherently without thinking we matter—thus, if I am committed to my own mattering, I must be committed to other people’s. How does this idea speak to empathy and morality without religion?

RG: [Ludwig] Wittgenstein persuasively argued that there can’t be any private languages. I’d argue that there also can’t be any private mattering. If a person is committed to her own life mattering—and just about everybody is, it’s implicit in our very actions—then, on pains of incoherence, she has to be prepared to extend that mattering to others. This kind of reasoning—and obviously I’ve only given you the bare-bones version of it—provides the rational grounds for morality without religion.

Now I don’t think that this purely abstract grounding of morality is necessarily going to move people all on its own to act morally, which means taking the interests of others into account. For that we also need emotions, including empathy. But, historically, we’ve often needed arguments even to get the empathy flowing in the direction of those who seem so different from us that we don’t naturally think they could possibly matter in the same ways we do.

Arguments clear the blocked moral arteries so that empathy can flow. Paraphrasing Kant, I’d say rational arguments without moral emotions are empty; but moral emotions without rational arguments are blind.

35 Comments

  1. I’m not buying her argument that Atheists “need” help from philosophers to argue against Nihilism or to make a case for Morality. Philosophy is peripheral and not as persuasive as science on these matters.

    We know where a sense of morality comes from in social animals such as us primates. It is biological – inherited from evolution like the five toes on each foot. This is conclusive.

    Atheists may not know where their keen sense of morality comes from or why they have five toes on each foot, but that does not negate the evidence that it is there thanks to evolution and provable with a few google links.

    Morality is no longer the venue of philosophy. These matters appear to be better explained with evolutionary biology and neurology.

    That being said, we couldn’t live without The Socratic Method, the Dialectic and other ideas of epistemology – the study of what we can know and what we can hope to know.

    • David Hume is a great philosopher to read for an atheist POV. He is straight, to the point, and takes the wind out of the sails of the elaborate assumptions made by religious believers.

      Societies are built upon philosophical lines. Politics is philosophy incarnate.

      As for making a case for “morality”, that has more to do with fictions, assumptions and outright insults by believers than anything which can be defended through good faith debate and philosophical study. People argue for morality derived from religious belief because they do not understand morality or seek shortcuts from making moral decisions.

    • Max, you are taking a restricted view of what ‘morality’ means. Morality means more than altruism and cooperation (activities humans do share with animals.) The second half of morality involves ones relationship with oneself: one’s moral duty, for example, to ‘know thyself’, ‘to thine own self be true’, etc.; there is no evidence, conclusive or otherwise, that other animals do this.

      So — and I don’t mean this as an accusation — your argument is begging the premise by asserting a limited, and historically inaccurate definition of morality. For example, consult Cicero’s ‘On Moral Duties’ or Aristotle’s ‘Nicomachean Ethics’ to demonstrate the fuller meaning of morality.

      • @John Uebersax,

        I admit that I am not fully versed in the nuances of Moral arguments.
        But as a practical matter some things can be known:

        “It is immoral to cause needless harm”
        “It is moral to avoid needless harm whenever possible”

        This is not a recipe for a perfect morality but it is vastly superior to religion’s myopic ‘morality’ based on obedience and fear:

        “Kill them” – Yahweh (in about 700 different circumstances in the Bible)

        “Execute them” – Jesus
        “Drown them” – Jesus
        “Cut them to pieces” – Jesus
        “Hate them” – Jesus
        “Abandon them” – Jesus

        Where in any of this is “The Golden Rule”??

        One can easily see, and explain, the relentless daily disaster of immorality coming from Christians who delusionally try to be ‘Christ-like.’

        • Kaylen Groberg

          I think that the trouble with your claim that certain practical moral statements can be known is that it takes philosophy to know that they in fact are true. It is not enough to simply assert that they are self-evident. It takes some ethical framework to infer that those statements are in fact true. To say that biological descriptions fix the problem is to misunderstand the nature of morality, as even colloquially conceived of. Science can tell us, roughly speaking, that we in fact have moral impulses, but that doesn’t say that they are the best or correct ones.

          • @Kaylen,

            The ‘best’ morality may not be possible no matter what we do.
            But the worst morality comes from a reliance on religion.

      • @John Uebersax,

        You said, “The second half of morality involves one’s relationship with oneself: one’s moral duty, for example, to ‘know thyself’ ”

        I’m not afraid of internal moral arguments which STAY internal.
        But it is one of the marks of religion that it be authoritative – forever pushing its unfounded claims onto everyone else whether they agree or not.

    • Knowing where morality “comes from” in the biological sense does not give us any information on whether or not we should exert ourselves to persist with being moral.

      Also, don’t underestimate the contribution and and overlap of philosophy with science on these matters, especially when it comes to the brain and mind sciences.

      • Anyone who attributes the origin of morality to religion is either a sociopath or has taken leave of their senses. I have always found political and social philosophy is of greater value than scientific/cosmological forms. Of course this also reflects a personal bias towards studies which lead to application as opposed to spinning one’s wheels for sheer joy.

    • How would a self-defined Atheist have any coherent sense of identity without that-which-he-must-destroy? Atheism is a parasitic and dialectical position which feeds off an obsession with the metaphysical presuppositions of modern humanism and science, namely, the being of selfhood, self-consciousness, subjectivity, freedom, logic itself, reason itself, all of which largely come to modern thought — including that of the ‘skeptics’ — with residues of their religious past. Ultimately, destruction of these metaphysical questions amounts to the self-destruction of self-consciousness, devolving into thoughtless technoscientific behaviorism.

      • @TOM,
        Atheism means only one thing, “Lack of Belief in a God.”
        That is all it means.

        You already lack a belief in Aphrodite.
        “Aphrodite, the Goddess of Love and Beauty” was irrefutably known to exist in the days of Julius Caesar for a very specific reason; Love and Beauty existed, therefore Aphrodite HAD to exist for there could be no Love or Beauty without Her.

        Your argument is just as specious. Athiests are very often the most spectacular, most generous people in society.

        What harm has come to you for your lack of belief in Zeus? None.
        And there is no logic in your argument.

      • Tom,

        you put too much credit on religion to connect those dots.

        Besides, what argument are you making? God tinkers with humanity and capriciously lets us run through our lives already knowing (as he would) whether we are going to Heaven or Hell?
        Why bother living?

        According to you we our fate is already known and we are just robots for God’s amusement.
        I can’t prove that you are wrong – but surely you don’t expect modern people to believe that.

      • “Atheist have any coherent sense of identity without that-which-he-must-destroy?”

        So you define religion as intentionally tribalistic, discriminatory and predatious. I think you are doing more harm to the notion of religious belief than you are to atheism. Religion contributes nothing from philosophy except assumptions, rigidity, and attacks on reason and logic.

        Metaphysics contributes little to society in a practical sense and is a self-perpetuating form of study. Its absence is not something missed by society or personal existence.

    • Toastinggoodness

      Interesting point, however, I would argue that dismissing it would be a bad idea. Regardless if you believe in it or not, it is very important to the way our world functions and our history as human beings. It would be like trying to study American history without studying slavery simply because you don’t “believe” in it. (I hope nobody believes in slavery) I feel that dismissing philosophy and believing in it are not exact opposites. A religious person and someone who studies religions would be two distinct people. Either way it is important to humanity and therefore should not ever be dismissed.

  2. Perhaps humanists don’t like philosophy because philosophers (Kant, Hume, and scientist Thomas Kuhn) have proven that frameworks built on materialism are just as faith based as any other religion or philosophy because they start with a fundamental assumption that all that exists is material and present in some way to the senses to be experienced and measured either directly or through instrumentation. But of course that thesis cannot be proven, only believed. Hume has already demonstrated the central role the belief plays in every aspect of human life religious or not.

    • There is nothing sillier than the “materialism is based on faith, therefore any bullcrap is perfectly acceptable” argument.

      “Otto, apes read philosophy. They just don’t understand it.”

      You only got it half-right, and somewhat dishonestly. Hume demonstrated belief plays an aspect in human life, but is unreliable and unfounded. Empirical observation of the external world being the most reliable basis for belief.

      There is nothing faith based about materialist philosophy. It is simply the idea that we should trust what is observed over what is assumed. People who rail against “material naturalism” are usually looking for a way equate superstitious nonsense with objective credible scientific study. Its utter nonsense.

      Objective observation (what you would decry as materialism) requires no faith for belief. It is what it is. The evidence and interpretations presented speak for themselves. Faith is the absence of evidence. The very opposite. This is why religion, faith-based belief is never objective. It has no inherent credibility. One religion is as good as the next. All “truths” being subjective.

      • Larry: How do you *know* that what seems like material reality isn’t a vast dream?

        You suggested that materialism is a more ‘reliable’ worldview. Perhaps so. But then is our criterion for belief truth, or expedience?

        I myself reserve the option of being a Pyrhonnian skeptic. Therefore I can look at both materialists and nonmaterialists as both taking ‘leaps of faith.’

        • I think, therefore I am.

          I exist to type this message (or at least I am being simulated by a very advanced message board writing algorithm) :)

          Anything else is just spinning wheels for its own sake. Can neither be proven nor ever really necessary. What if material reality is just a dream? I will never know. So I don’t ever have to take it into consideration.

          Materialism is the most objectively credible worldview. It does not ask for faith as you and John suggested. The idea that it requires a “leap of faith” is more a wishful notion to equate the supernatural (warmed over voodoo) with the scientific and observable in terms of credibility. Its fiction for people who look for excuses not to accept objectively established ideas.

          Materialism demands nothing more than evidence and observation. No leaps of faith are ever required. We know something is true to the best of our accumulated knowledge and observation. Anything beyond that is either assumption or subjective conjecture with no chance of ever being “proven”.

          Is it subject to change and revision? Of course. Does that make it less credible, no. In fact the ability to revise ideas with newly acquired observation makes something even more credible.

          We don’t have to come up with excuses to shoehorn previous beliefs. One cannot say we are right unless we are willing to admit when we are wrong or mistaken.

          Spiritual based beliefs give no room to revise. When bases a belief on faith, no evidence was ever necessary so no way to ever evaluate beliefs in an objective fashion. Non-materialist philosophical notions can never be considered credible. They can be believed but they are never capable of presenting themselves in a way which demands belief.

          Materialism, basing our knowledge on what we observe and what we can prove, is always credible. If the evidence presents itself to be believed as such, it demands belief as such. One tests its credibility by examining it closely and evaluating methods used. Such things are impossible with any other forms of belief.

    • @JOHN,
      “…frameworks built on materialism are just as faith based as any other religion…”

      I think this is wrong twice:
      Materialism can be argued to exist whereas the supernatural can only be asserted.
      Second, unlike materialism, religious ideas are not open to speculation and conversation. They just kill you for doubting it.

  3. As Socrates said, the unexamined life is not worth living. This is so regardless of whether one is a theist or an nontheist.

    I also agree with Rebecca that a main purpose of philosophy relates to ‘ethical coherence.’ Virtually everything that human beings do is at some level motivated by morality — a basic sense that ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ have meaning, and that we ‘ought’ to act in accord with right. Tyson’s remarks presuppose that he himself accepts these premisses, or he would not bother to make them; he is, in essence, saying that it is right and just to ignore philosophy.

    What this shows is that human beings are innately moral creatures. Morality and justice are, to put it simply, Kantian categories, without which human beings cannot operate.

    While on the subject of Kant, this quote seems applicable: “Two things fill my mind with ever-renewed wonder and awe the more often and deeper I dwell on them — the starry vault above me, and the moral law within me.”

  4. As someone whose personal philosophy is much closer to Groucho Marx than Karl Marx let me leave you with this little ditty by Mr. Eric Idle
    www.youtube.com/watch?v=m_WRFJwGsbY

    Emmanuel Kant was a real pissant
    Who was very rarely stable.
    Heidegger, Heidegger was a boozy beggar
    Who could think you under the table.
    David Hume could out-consume
    Schopenhauer and Hegel,
    And Wittgenstein was a beery swine
    Who was just as schloshed as Schlegel.

    There’s nothing Nietzsche couldn’t teach ya’
    ‘Bout the raising of the wrist.
    SOCRATES, HIMSELF, WAS PERMANENTLY PISSED…

    John Stuart Mill, of his own free will,
    On half a pint of shandy was particularly ill.
    Plato, they say, could stick it away;
    Half a crate of whiskey every day.
    Aristotle, Aristotle was a bugger for the bottle,
    Hobbes was fond of his dram,
    And Rene Descartes was a drunken fart: “I drink, therefore I am”
    Yes, Socrates, himself, is particularly missed;
    A lovely little thinker but a bugger when he’s pissed!

    • Did you hear the one about
      the Christian, the Jew and the Muslim
      who all became atheists?

      They walked into a bar, sat down,
      realized they had nothing to fight about and had a very good time.

  5. IMO, philosophy of cognitive science and neuroscience, especially when it focuses on issues such as free will, existence/non-existence of self, and consciousness, is much more of a problem for theists than cosmology or even evolution.

  6. Have you ever thought about adding a little bit more than just your
    articles? I mean, what you say is fundamental and all.
    However just imagine if you added some great pictures or videos to give
    your posts more, “pop”! Your content is excellent but with pics and videos,
    this site could certainly be one of the most beneficial in its niche.
    Superb blog!

  7. “The Plato of my dialogues is constantly being surprised by how much more than he we know—not only scientifically but also philosophically, ethically.”

    Irony of ironies: Plato’s problem here, in the 21st century, is precisely philosophy’s problem in general now, as pointed out by NDT: scientists know SO MUCH MORE that philosophers do: “not only scientifically but also philosophically, ethically”. Goldstein answers her own question, but somehow fails to notice (due to bias towards here field and subject, I suppose…?).

    Because science is true, or it’s not science. Whereas philosophy is philosophy whether its Aristotle and Plato or Alvin Plantinga(!). Surely, it’s not too difficult to understand that, to a scientist, such a broad array of truism and nonsense and everything in between offers little of use to them. And, it seems, subconsciously, at least, Goldstein already gets that, too.

    “Secularists, in particular, who want to counter the false claim that without God to ground morality there can only be nihilism, should be particularly interested in moral philosophy, since that’s where they’ll find the counter-arguments.”

    No, objective observation of the world is all you need to dismiss that unsupported religious philosophy… see, the argument that God is the ground of morality is a PHILOSOPHICAL proposition, but the fact that neither God nor Nihilism reigns here on Earth is a scientific observation. If philosophy is even posing a coherent question here (which is debatable), then it is science that has the answer, not philosophy.

    I’m an artist by trade. I think art is lovely. Obviously, I don’t think art “competes” with science, and any scientist who dismissed the value of art, I would point out that they are merely ignorant of its value. But, the reality is, scientists don’t need art. Nobody does. We can get along without it.

    Perhaps the philosophers should view their chosen field with a similar level of humility. Lots of people love philosophy, so if you love it, then stick with it, but don’t whine that Neil Degrasse Tyson doesn’t! He doesn’t have to!

    As for me, some of my favourite atheists are philosophers, but then again, some of my favourite philosophers are scientists.

  8. @Autonomoton,

    you said – “philosophers should view their chosen field with a similar level of humility.”

    Well said.
    As an artist myself I can appreciate the study of philosophy as an aesthetic.
    And also like you said, it is fun but unnecessary.

  9. Here is what Ayn Rand had to say why you need philosophy in her book “Philosophy: Who Needs It”: “In order to deal with concrete, particular real-life problems—i.e., in order to be able to live on earth.”

  10. I know this if off topic but I’m looking into starting my own blog and was curious what all is required to
    get set up? I’m assuming having a blog like yours would
    cost a pretty penny? I’m not very web savvy so I’m not 100% sure.
    Any tips or advice would be greatly appreciated.
    Many thanks

Leave a Reply

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

Comments with many links may be automatically held for moderation.