Friday, August 05, 2011

Flippancy and Argument

A redated post.

This is C. S. Lewis's description of Flippancy in the Screwtape Letters:

But flippancy is the best of all. In the first place it is very economical. Only a clever human can make a real Joke about virtue, or indeed about anything else; any of them can be trained to talk as if virtue were funny. Among flippant people the Joke is always assumed to have been made. No one actually makes it; but every serious subject is discussed in a manner which implies that they have already found a ridiculous side to it. If prolonged, the habit of Flippancy builds up around a man the finest armour plating against the Enemy that I know, and it is quite free from the dangers inherent in the other sources of laughter. It is a thousand miles away from joy; it deadens, instead of sharpening, the intellect; and it excites no affection between those who practise it.

This passage helps me explain the atmosphere that I found in secular philosophy departments when I was in graduate school. It never seemed to me as if people actually had arguments against theism, or dualism, etc. Everyone acted as if the Argument had been made, maybe on the day I was absent. But no one actually made it. "Everyone is a materialist." "Determinism is obviously true." "No one believes that anymore." "God??? How quaint." Etc. Etc. Etc. Oh yes, and my favorite. "We've grown up."

Is it the same way nowadays?


exapologist said...

Wow. I can't relate to your experience at all. I could imagine philosophy departments like that before I majored in philosophy, because that was what I was repeatedly told it would be like from apologists. But when I actually majored in philosophy, I spent endless hours discussing the arguments for and against theism with faculty. In class and out. In papers, during office hours, and in email discussions (my god, I should go back and pay the faculty double just for the time we spent in email exchanges). I should mention that they did it with patience, seriousness, and liberal doses of grace.

I should also mention that it wasn't uncommon to hear the most devastating arguments, and criticisms of arguments, during informal discussions with faculty. I remember Plantinga saying similar things about his discussions with fellow faculty when he was at Wayne State in his autobiographical pieces (i.e., the "Self-Profile" piece in the Tomberlin volume, and in the modified and condensed version in Philosophers Who Believe.

Anonymous said...

I think the light-hearted casting aside of positions is a legitimate concern in some cases. Looking at the history of philosophy, we see that it's common for a new argument to lead people to call into question the reigning orthodox position. As a current student, I've noticed that recent attention focused on arguments in favor of "mysterianism," the view in philosophy of mind that consciousness is a genuine mystery that doesn't admit of a reductive explanation, has led people to think a bit more seriously about positions like reductivism and eliminitavism than has been done in the past.

On the other hand, there are some positions that have been refuted so many times over that they're hardly worth refuting one more time. After examining a position and learning that it has been refuted 1,000 times over, why should a young philosopher take the time to come up with the 1,001st refutation rather than moving on to new projects?

In any event, I'd like to second exapologist's claim about the generosity/open mindedness of faculty when discussing philosophical arguments for God's existence. Calling my own experience to mind, (at non-religiously affiliated institutions, mind you), professors have been fair about theistic arguments.

Staircaseghost said...

I'd have to say "thirded"; nothing could be farther from my own experience with the grad students in my department, which included at least 2 outspoken Aquinas-buffs.

But may I float a speculation about a suggestion about a possible hypothesis? Maybe -- just maybe, perhaps, hypothetically -- most educated people without an a priori emotional commitment to theism and dualism dismiss them as risible because they are risible? JAQ.

Anonymous said...

Indeed, some beliefs are indeed risable and should be treated as such.

The problem is that two examples are atheism and materialism. ;)

Steve Lovell said...

Well, I've seen things a little more like VR has suggested. Staff were probably not as bad in that regard as my fellow grad students. Probably the best illustration of this came in a comment I overheard following the delivery of a paper on metaphysics (not by me), when one person's main criticism was (and these are the actual words) "you sound like Aquinas".


Unknown said...

It must vary from department to department. This last term a professor in a philosophy of language seminar in my (linguistics) department referred to dualism, in passing, as "ridiculous". But that's just an anecdote.

Ilíon said...

This is really off-topic, but I see no better thread to post it in. You (VR) sometimes claim to want to understand "suply-side" economics.

Here's a start (and only that, so no one's eyes ought to glaze over) - David Limhaugh: Recapturing Supply-Side Coherence

This is perhaps the key part:
"Instead of arguing, as did such vintage supply-siders as Ronald Reagan and Jack Kemp in the early '80s, that reductions in marginal income tax rates would spur economic growth because they would provide incentives to produce and invest (supply-side), he [G.W.Bush] said the growth would be (and was) a result of people having more to spend and spending it (demand-side). He compounded the confusion when he attempted to sell his tax rebate plan with the same rationale."

"Supply-side" economics is about economic growth via increased efficiency and productivity. "Supply-side" economics is about increasing the suppy side of the supply-demand economic equation.

Other economic theories, Keynesian for instance, are generally about "stimulating" the demand side of the equation. As such, these approaches are far more likely to merely increase inflation than to increase the economy.

"Supply-side" economics is about making more pies. The sort of ecomonic theory you "liberals" favor (and demand) is about changing how the pie we already have is sliced.

It is though you "liberals" simply cannot grasp the fundamental concept of simply making more pies!

Ilíon said...

VR: "Is it the same way nowadays?"

I (of course) have no idea about philosophy departments (*), but it is alive and well in popular culture ... and even amongst many commenters on your blog.

(*) - Shoot! I can't even quite remember the name of my philosophy/logic prof. I wish now, in my old age, that I could have taken more classes from him, for I knew, even then, that he was a wise and humane man. But, of course, time was short and I was not a philosophy major.

Victor Reppert said...

I should point out that my experience was not uniformly as I described by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, surely no dissertation could have been written if I had not been able to find a dissertation advisor (Hugh Chandler) and two other committee members who were sufficiently sympathetic to my enterprise to engage my arguments.

But I did see a good deal of what I thought were dismissive attitudes. In fact, when I arrived at my doctoral institution, I had a conversation with a fellow Christian grad student who told me the list of teachers I could discuss theism with, a list I could discuss it some with, and a list of teachers with whom I ought simply to avoid the issue entirely.

Gordon Knight said...

This is nmy pet pony Dualism is not absurd--materialism is. I am perpetually amazed at those who think this or that view is absurd, and then go on to deny the evident introspective data of consciousness.

this is not to say that there might be good, intelligent materialist theories (look at Feigle, for example, doesnot mean to deny such data.

The rejection of stupid materialism does not have anything to do with theism, however.

In my experience, theism was a minority view, but nto treated with downright disrespect.

But there is such a thing as conventional wisdom in philosophy. jus try getting someone to take arguments for idealism seriousl..

Ilíon said...

Anonymous: "Indeed, some beliefs are indeed risable and should be treated as such."

True enough. But, at the same time, sometimes it is morally incombant to explain why the idea/belief is risible.

But, on the other hand, one pretty much cannot explain why the false idea/belief is risible if the one holding or asserting it is not listening and it is impossible if he will not listen.

Ilíon said...

GK: "... But there is such a thing as conventional wisdom in philosophy. jus try getting someone to take arguments for idealism seriously."

Perhaps this is just my ignorance speaking, but might that not be because most (or all?) forms of idealism are just woo-woo materialism?

By "woo-woo materialism" I mean that idealism(s) seem to me to posit that these 'ideas' exist independently of any minds. And that is just plain absurd.

Ilíon said...

The *only* philosophies/metaphysics which have any chance at not being absurd are those take 'mind' seriously, which understand that 'mind' is fundamental to reality.

'Mind' is not an after-thought, as it were.

Joe said...

I didn't go to grad school in philosophy but I did major in philosophy and really loved it. It was a hard choice not to go on to grad school.

I think the flippancy will depend on the time and place.

I used to occasionally talk with my philosophy teachers about God. But they just did not seem very interested. I wouldn't say they were flip, but uninterested. One teacher didn't believe in God because he said "anytime anyone argues for God their belief boils down to some 'personal feeling.'" I can understand how that might get wearisome especially when your dealing with undergrads who may not have any training in critical thinking.

It’s interesting that you say arguments may have been refuted 1000 times so why make the 1001st refutation?

It may highlight a difference in approach to philosophy that we have. I do not think one approach is better or worse.

I generally only learn one or two good arguments for a conclusion. If I have a good argument to get to that conclusion I would not be as interested in other arguments. Yes some views appear to be so faulty its hard for the many problems not to immediately spring to mind but that’s rare. More arguments would be redundant so I would never take the time to see if they really work.

I would of course be interested in attacks on the argument I subscribe to, or counter arguments against the same conclusion. But one advantage of studying philosophy as a hobby, instead of a job, is I can pick and choose what is of importance to me and my own noetic structure. With so much being written that isn’t of interest I tend to be very picky

Anonymous said...

I think that's true in some cases. My public speaking prof. said "God can't possibly be our designer, I have back pain.. if God designed us, what the hell did he give males nipples for?" It was for laughs and to divert attention from clear logical reasoning. It's ironic, because that class lesson was about logical fallacies.

Ilíon said...

Legodesi, ironic ... and very common.

It often seems as though 'atheists' and 'agnostics' come equipped with a special LogicShunt (TM) Module which automatically turns down (or off) their ability to reason clearly and properly anytime the word 'God' is in the room.

Blue Devil Knight said...

Undergrad in philosophy I didn't experience such flippant attitude at all. Grad school in philosophy at UCSD, it was clearly more dismissive of religious ideas.

Note it isn't just atheist flippancy. I see tons of it in the other direction here in North Carolina. No need to go far: simply take a look at most comments by Ilion when he attempts to interact with an atheist on this blog.

This flippant attitude is infectious and harmful and ultimately rooted in ignorance.

I come here partly to root it out of myself, as I definitely have it toward Christian philosophers. I tend to assume they are somehow intellectually damaged and driven too strongly by psychological factors when it comes to thinking about religion.

THis is a good blog to combat that bias in myself.

Ilíon said...

"That's just being honest (sorry I know it is very harsh, but deep in my heart, that is what I often believe)."

Yes, I've always known that.

Blue Devil Knight said...

Ilion: you are the single exception to my claim that reading this blog serves to counter that bias.

Congratulations. You are special.

Ilíon said...

Foolish man, you are dishonest even in that assertion.

abcde234324 said...

I only got my BA in philosophy, so of course undergrad, but I did see a lot of the dismissive attitude.

It was very interesting, actually. There was one explicitly Christian professor with whom you could discuss theistic and atheistic arguments very seriously with. On the other hand, some of the students were dismissive to the point that one girl made a very troubled comment to me and got up and left because said professor even mentioned Jesus as being wholly human and divine. In my philosophy of evil class, the more vocal atheists made snide comments about how the class literally split via seating between religious and atheist (I disagreed on this observation), and how the religious didn't make any logically compelling arguments because their faith was emotional.

Yet there were a significant amount of theistic and/or Christian/Muslim/Jewish students, and atheists, who would grant a force to their opponents arguments yet deny their conclusions and offer their own arguments.

On the side of dismissive professors, I found this case very ironic: a popular new professor was 'Spinozan' and if the subject of theistic arguments was brought up, he would make a comment to effect that those arguments for God are a thing of the very dead past and in this modern, present day their artifacts to be brought up only to show their logical absurdities. Of course, this last part was never attempted, only implied.

Another, female, professor talked about Alvin Plantinga once, and rather quizzically stated how well respected and highly regarded his theistic epistemology was, yet seemed to have NO idea of what is consisted of. I believe this was in the context of stating, also, how natural theology died with Hume.

Anonymous said...

"This passage helps me explain the atmosphere that I found in secular philosophy departments when I was in graduate school. It never seemed to me as if people actually had arguments against theism, or dualism, etc. "

That, unfortunately, says a great deal about you.
It is rather amazing that a graduate student in philosophy would not have encountered some serious arguments regarding those subjects.
What did you do with your time while you were in school? Were you simply expecting everything to be spoon-fed to you?

Seriously, a person interested enough in philosophy to pursue a graduate degree in it should not care a rip about what the "atmosphere" in the school was but rather researching and seeking to learn more about everything that had to do with the philosophical issues he was interested in.

Blue Devil Knight said...

Anon you make an interesting point. The problem is the attitude I expressed earlier. Literally my bar goes up for Christians. I typically assume people are reasonable, intelligent, highly critical, etc.. When I find out they are Christian, I take it to mean I was wrong in assuming this, a default "Oh there's someone who hasn't grown up yet, grown out of their silly superstitions" is evoked in me.

This is very common, is not an argument, and it would be naive to think it is a trivial thing to risk evoking this very real bias against Christiains in secular philosophy departments. In a sense, I agree with your attitude, 'Suck it up and argue!' Right on, I say. On the other hand, it really isn't that easy, and it could hurt your reputation, job prospects, and people's judgment of you.

So while I like your attitude, I think you may underestimate the current of dismissiveness of Christianity at some of these departments.

Victor Reppert said...

As I believe I pointed out in earlier, there were plenty of exceptions. But atmospheres influence.

Daniel said...

"Is it the same way nowadays?"

In English and "Critical Theory" departments, it is most certainly this way. Flippancy rules over inquiry.