I linked to this article in my Weekend Links Roundup, but it’s worthy of its own post. Alva Noe, part of the team of bloggers responsible for the ever-excellent NPR 13.7 Cosmos and Culture Blog, wrote a wonderful post this past Friday entitled A little philosophy is a dangerous thing. The article is a response in part to Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow’s recent headline-grabbing book, The Grand Design, but it’s main premise could also be applied to a number of other books that have been written by some of the “New Atheists” (Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins, in particular, Daniel Dennett often excluded).
The opening paragraphs:
Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow do not succeed in murdering philosophy in their recent book The Grand Design. Nor do they even try. Perhaps this is because they believe, as they blandly announce on the first page, that philosophy is already dead.
But the joke’s on them. If philosophy were a big burlap bag, then these writers seem to have delivered us their book higgledy-piggledy from somewhere in the dark within.
Other commentators, on this blog (here and here), and elsewhere, have focused on what Hawking and Mlodinow have to say about physics, about God and about the relation between them. I begin, where the authors’ themselves begin, with a different issue: the apparent conflict between appearance and reality. (John Haldane anticipates my criticisms in his review.)
The issue that many have with some of the recent books out forth by prominent atheist scientists (especially the biologists) is that they do not take the time to fully engage with philosophy, theology, and the like prior to their dismissal of these disciplines at the throne of scientism. These authors and popular atheist bloggers have responded by saying that one does not have to have read or responded to every nuanced philosophical or theological position to speak out against these disciplines and that generalities can be made.
Hard problems sometimes have simple solutions. But no service is rendered when smart people pretend that hard problems are simple.
What’s your response? Mine (which is NOT to Hawking or Mlodinow because I haven’t read their book) is that anyone can write anything they want but it is arrogant, narrow-minded, and misguided to believe that because someone is an expert in one field that they can then speak authoritatively on another field. Humility is important in interdisciplinary offerings and a major reason why the “New Atheists” are loathed is not that they are espousing atheism (this has been done forever), but the intellectual and personal attitudes with which they are doing it.
That being said, a jerk can be right.
However, a jerk that feels competent to speak in areas outside of his expertise who oversimplifies and denigrates the life-long work of others is going to find a difficult road ahead if conversation and “conversion” is a true goal.
What do you think? Do you think it’s okay to dismiss disciplines out of hand without a fair treatment? Is the only fair treatment an exhaustive treatment? Am I missing the point because conversation isn’t something these authors really desire?