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Philosophers: Please Take a Stand

Brian

This is an open letter to the Philosophers out there who consider themselves to be involved in Skepticism (even if only in a tertiary fashion). The ones that I specifically have in mind as I write this are Dr. Massimo Pigliucci, Dr. Daniel Fincke, and Dr. Daniel Dennett*.

Let’s begin with my credentials: I am nobody of import. I am just a guy, whose friend has invited him to occasionally contribute a blog post. I have a Bachelor’s in Philosophy, which means that I have little more than a cursory grasp of the issues within Philosophy. I am not attached or affiliated in any way with any organisation. I’m just a guy with an opinion, who does his best to flesh that opinion out.

I have nothing but the deepest respect for the people who work professionally in Philosophy, and also take the step beyond that to engage with the public. Those I have listed above have specifically affected me and my approach to life. Dr. Pigliucci, in my mind, is an exemplar in how to be a public intellectual. Dr. Fincke’s 10 tips on reaching out to believers is something I return to every 4 to 6 months for review. And Dr. Dennett’s Freedom Evolved has, in my opinion, resolved the Determinism/Free Will problem. Frankly, you are the guys that I aspire to be (though with a little more de Beauvoir, perhaps).

I hope that the (sincere) ass-kissing above buys me some credit, because I want to ask you guys to do something. And it’s not a small thing. It’s, perhaps, something that some may consider a given, but given that you have relationships to maintain, and images to culture, it’s maybe something that can be hard to do.

I want you to stand up for Philosophy.

Please.

I can’t do it. No-one really gives a crap about what I write in my small bubble here. But you guys? People read you. Hell, people PAY to read you. Your opinions are listened to, and weighed, and people form their opinions based on the arguments that you make. You have power here, and Stan Lee made the rest clear.

 

When Dawkins released ‘The God Delusion’, I wasn’t reading you guys. When Harris released ‘The Moral Landscape’, I know that some of you had a few comments. And now Shermer has declared that he will be writing something on Morality and Science.

Here’s what I want: I want you to treat these books as if they were submitted in a third year Philosophy course. Not as theories from a Post-Doc (which would be overly burdensome), nor as a mere first-year effort (which seems too much of a pass, even though Harris would fail even that standard). If these people are going to seek gain prestige and compensation for writing on a topic that has had 2500 years of discussion prior to their involvement… Surely they should see what has gone before? And if they were to merely reiterate the last century of consequentialism without any credit to the writers who came before them (Harris), they should be held to the same standards as a mere undergraduate student. Should they not?

Dawkins and Harris and Shermer have cultivated a following by speaking on topics in which they have some expertise (I know, I know, I don’t want to talk about Harris any more, so let’s just pretend it’s true in his case too), and subsequently seek to expand into an area in which they do not. I do not have a problem with this.

But YOU have expertise in this area, and YOU are (rightly) seen as gatekeepers here (by me, at least). When I read things like “The problem is that no account of causality leaves room for free will” (Harris, The Moral Landscape, pg 100-1), I expect outrage. I expect Dr. Dennett to stand up and say “I have given an account of causality that leaves room for free will. It’s a shame that Harris is unread with regards to this topic”. I expect everyone else to stand up and say “Oi! Harris! You referenced the very book that Dennett wrote doing this!” This should be cause for Philosophers to stand united and denounce this lie.**

 

And now Shermer is writing a book “The Moral Arc of Science”. Of course, you cannot prevent this (nor should you try). But this book should not be given a pass. Dr. Pigliucci’s criticism of Harris’s drek “The Moral Landscape” was, I thought, tepid. Sure, Dr. Pigliucci “disagreed” with Harris, but it’s also very clear that 1) Harris was merely reinventing Bentham’s/Mill’s wheel, 2) acting as if (if not explicitly claiming) he wasn’t reinventing anything and 3) doing a piss-poor job of it (in academic contexts, we call this plagiarism, and you get kicked out of school for it). I would like to see it taken a step further: essentially I would like to see these books assigned a letter grade (Harris gets an F, if only for all his missing citations, nevermind the rest of the problems). And reach out to Shermer (and the rest). Let them know that this is coming. That if they choose to act as clueless, self-important, self-aggrandizing undergrads that their work will be treated as such.

Is this going too far? Too pompous/self-important? When dealing with undergrads, they are typically in a position of ignorance, and are (to a greater or lesser extent) trying to dig themselves out of that position. They have access to resources, but a limited knowledge of how to use them. Their personal networks are small. They are attempting to learn, and to express that learning in their essays. They get graded, sometimes harshly.

Dawkins, Harris and Shermer are not undergrads. They are people who have completed several years of academic study. Their personal networks are large. They are (ostensibly) not in a position of ignorance. Frankly, I think holding them to the same standards as undergrads is quite charitable.

Why this open letter?

Because 1) I’m tired of reading their garbage, and 2) I’m tired of having to re-explain 500 years of Philosophy to my skeptic buddies who have just read Harris/Dawkins and think that they have read something ‘new’ and ‘well-written’, when it’s neither of the above.

And so, Philosophers who are also involved in Skepticism, I ask you to reach out to one another, to talk to one another, and to form some kind of weak consensus: as per Frankfurt, the bullshit cannot be allowed to stand un(re)marked.

 

[Update: For those interested in the specific case of Shermer, Pigliucci posted a response a little before my post went live. I sincerely hope that Shermer takes the criticism seriously (and maybe sits down with someone who can explain his problem slowly. Perhaps with sock puppets.]

 

*I do not know of any women in Philosophy who are also involved in Skepticism (other than the fantastic Julia Galef), and I would be more than happy to have this ignorance eliminated should any readers know of any. 

**Whether an account of causality successfully allows for free will is an entirely different thing to whether or not an account of causality attempts to leave room for free will.

 

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Comments

  1. machintelligence says

    Dan Dennett , at least has been speaking on these topics, especially free will. Since links don’t seem to be allowed, look for ” Free will as moral competence” on YouTube. The meat of the talk starts at 4:30.

  2. says

    You’re right – it’s wince-inducing to see some of the poor philosophical arguments that are coming out from folks like Harris and Shermer. It’s almost as if what gives them the courage to publish is that they don’t understand that their arguments arrive on the scene pre-shredded by some Greek or Roman who published thousands of years ago.* It’s one thing to say that you’re deliberately going to ignore Sextus Empiricus or Hume because you think they’re trivial to refute** it’s another to show that you don’t even understand the import of their work.

    The problem with philosophy, however, is that the epistemological devastation left by extreme skeptics such as Sextus and Hume presents a great unresolved challenge to the claims of knowledge of right/wrong that are necessary to advance an argument on morality. So when someone who is philosophically literate takes on some of these problems, they wind up unable to honestly proceed without first winning a battle of endless trench warfare that has been found unresolved for thousands of years. For example Pigliucci points out (rightly) that Shermer’s early salvo essentially begs the question – full stop. From there on, what’s the sense of reading further into Shermer’s piece? It’s like someone in a chess game checkmating themself and then asking their opponent why they don’t want to keep playing: pointless.

    The readership needs to be more philosophically sophisticated and willing to say so. Because the philosophical problems are both subtle and important, it’s not possible to sit back and let Pigliucci explain the tricky bits because they only make sense if you understand them already and the only way to achieve that understanding is to have done your homework. The problem is not that philosophers are not speaking up, as much as it’s that the educational system is letting students down. Too much emphasis on rote learning and not enough emphasis on teaching people how to think (i.e.: philosophy) yields the results you see.

    (* not to ignore the contribution of enlightenment skeptics and philosophers, or modern political philosophers
    either)
    (** that’s a joke, get it?)

  3. Leum says

    Speaking as an undergrad in religious studies, I feel similarly about a lot of the attacks made on the Bible. They assume an incredibly face-value (“literal” should never be used to refer to a reading of the Bible as the idea is incoherent) reading is the appropriate one. There are legitimate criticisms of the Bible to be made, and people like Bart Ehrman are making them, but just noting that the Bible contradicts itself or enumerating the atrocities commanded in the Hebrew scriptures without paying any attention to their historical accuracy or context (e.g. the command to stone disobedient children was probably never obeyed) is the sort of thing discussed on the first day of Intro to Bible classes at almost all colleges, religious and secular, that aren’t Evangelical or Fundamentalist.

  4. says

    I rather enjoyed Massimo Pigliucci’s latest response to Shermer.

    But I agree with the above — many of the major figures of the New Atheism ™ have extended their justifiable disinterest in becoming familiar with high-level theological arguments to an unjustifiable disinterest in being familiar with philosophical arguments. Which just ends in embarrassment all around.

  5. says

    (e.g. the command to stone disobedient children was probably never obeyed)

    I don’t see how that changes anything, really.

    The majority of criticisms I have seen from atheists about the Bible (caveat: one man’s biased experience, etc.) have not focussed much attention on specific absurdities, except as a refutation of the claim that the Bible is a sublime and inerrant document. There are plenty of criticisms leveled at the so-called “sophisticated” defences of that particular scripture. The problem I’ve seen is that believers make claims about the usefulness of the Bible when it comes to justifying specific beliefs, and then an immediate abandoning of those positions into a cloud of “it’s a metaphor” as soon as someone raises a specific objection.

  6. Nathair says

    Is this going too far? Too pompous/self-important?

    Yes, actually. Largely in the dozen+ viciously denigrating comments about Harris and TML ultimately culminating in your rearing up on your hind legs and actually accusing him of plagiarism. (Which you, in a brilliant moment of facepalm, can’t even spell correctly.)

    Pigliucci, Blackford, Dennett et al. have commented in detail, with much insight (and with far more respect) on Harris’ work. Without doubt they will do so again for Shermer’s effort even without your spittle-flecked fanboism.

    P.S. Thanks for asking!

  7. says

    @Leum – the problem is that if we assume that the bible is intended to be interpreted, then how is one left to determine which parts are intended to be literal truth and which parts are to be interpreted? And, what is the correct interpretation? Furthermore, the “bible is not intended to be literal” argument reduces it to a mere book of philosophy, in which case it is vastly inferior to many of other classics in that field since it depends on an assumption for the core of its claims to truth.

  8. Leum says

    @Marcus:

    It’s impossible to read the Bible–it’s impossible to read any text–without some level of interpretation. Interpretation is what we do. There are passages in the Bible that no one takes literally (e.g. when Jesus refers to himself as a gate in John). Context matters. History matters. No one who’s familiar with the Enuma Elish (Babylonian creation myth) can miss the parallels between it and Genesis 1. A reading that ignores those parallels is necessarily a wrong one. And that knowledge can help make it clearer that Gen 1 is probably not intended to be read at a face-value level.

    And why does there have to be one correct interpretation? We’re talking about a text that has passages as old as four thousand years, written by multiple authors who didn’t share a common theology (Paul and James could have had a shouting match for days). The idea of trying to read the text as though it has one consistent view of God and humanity makes no sense to me at all.

    People in the atheist community often condemn “sophisticated readings” of the Bible, but there is no way that the Bible can be used as a religious text that does not require a sophisticated reading. The Christian who wants to use it will have to choose a hermeneutic through which to interpret it. Fundamentalists pretty much choose the “take everything at face value and ignore what we don’t like” hermeneutic, which is a pretty piss-poor one to take. But there are others. Fred Clark of Slacktivist chooses to interpret the Bible through the lens of the Sermon on the Mount and freely admits that there are atrocities in the Bible, but he believes these should be read as an earlier people trying–and failing–to understand God.

  9. Brian Lynchehaun says

    Leum:

    I’m slightly confused here. You seem to be condemning atheists for taking theological-claims-that-are-not-yours seriously, and showing that they are bullshit.

    I’m glad that you’re on the same page as us, i.e. that literalist claims are complete bullshit. You’re not in that particular camp. Well done.

    Sidenote: prior to the 1950’s, this view would have put you in the *extreme* minority position. One church changing their mind (the Catholic church) flipped that, as they are the majority. It is not a problem for atheists that a) a significant number of Christians believe literalist nonsense or b) that Christian churches change their position. We will continue to address the arguments that are presented by Christians. You want us to stop dealing with literalist bullshit? Get the literalists to stop. It’s really that simple.

    People in the atheist community often condemn “sophisticated readings” of the Bible, but there is no way that the Bible can be used as a religious text that does not require a sophisticated reading.

    I’m sorry, but I think that you’re spelling that word wrong: the issue we have is with a *sophistic* reading, which is pretty much anything that implies that there is truth in the bible.

    You’re making a different claim about the bible? That, perhaps, there is some good ethics buried in there? I call bullshit: there is so much crap in there that it’s completely unreliable.

    Hell, I even debated on this topic: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kAmun3MAXVs

    If you have an interpretation of the bible that a) isn’t porridge, and b) somehow takes account of all of the dross (rather than simply sweeping it under the carpet, as Fred Clark’s interpretation appears to), then I’m prepared to discuss it.

    But assuming the existence of god? That falls under “is porridge”, so please don’t waste my time if that’s the starting point.

  10. Leum says

    It’s more that I object to talking to the fundamentalists on their own terms. Their method of reading the Bible is ludicrous, and I feel like when people respond to their reading as though it were the correct way of reading it they’re encouraging fundamentalists to keep looking at the Bible uncritically. I think you can do more damage to a fundamentalist reading of the Bible by discussing the history of the document itself rather than by pointing out the internal contradictions within the text and the external contradictions with reality. IOW, I think reading Richard Friedman’s “Who Wrote the Bible?” is a more convincing case against a “literal” reading of the Bible than presenting the fossil record.

    But I admit that my goal is more to encourage Christians to read the Bible in a way that helps them to be more moral than to convince them not to be Christians at all. I don’t much care if someone is a Christian or an atheist, I do care that they act morally, and if they want to use the Bible as a moral guide, I’m all for finding ways to do that.

  11. Ozzy says

    @Leum. If I may quote you:

    “The idea of trying to read the text as though it has one consistent view of God and humanity makes no sense to me at all.”

    (Sorry, I know nothing of HTML)
    I can speak only of myself, but may I say; THIS. This sentence sums up exactly what I, personally, am trying to get across when I talk to theists. So, how do I go about it? Well, if I just started by saying that flat out, I could expect to get yelled at or brushed off immediately. Most Christians that I have known just aren’t willing to accept that straight away… and, by the way, I know very, very few fundamentalists or literalists! Indeed, many are almost as knowedgealble about the Bible’s contradictions as I am, yet they continue to treat it as if it were one monolithic text with a single viewpoint, MOST of the time. So, what to do? Well, starting with factual errors and internal contradictions is a great place! We both already know them, so it gives common ground, and dispels the air of solemnity that is often drawn around the Bible from the start. I can gauge their reactions, see which perspectives in the book they lean to… and THEN start showing just HOW uncomfortably their viewpoint rests with other, quite major, aspects of the whole shebang. If I can just get them to understand how uncomfortable Paul and James are, to use your example, I come away feeling that I have done some good.

    I know, of course, that we have different ultimate aims. I see these different perspectives as proof positive that the thing can NOT be taken as the Divine WORD of God, and that it should therefore be given no more (and no less!) consideration than any other human work of literature. I suspect this is not the case for you.

    I am curious, however. As I hope you can tell from the above, I don’t find knowledgeable Christians who never-the-less believe the Bible to be a synoptic document to be uncommon. I’m sure you must encounter them with some regularity. Do you attempt to disabuse them of that notion? If so, how?

  12. Brian Lynchehaun says

    Ulysses:

    Thanks for the correction. I managed to ignore both my browser’s spellcheck, but also Google telling me that it had redirected me to the correct spelling. Epic…

  13. Brian Lynchehaun says

    Nathair:

    For people, like yourself, who are unfamiliar with the concept of plagiarism, I linked to a definition in the original post. As you appear to be new to the internet: blue words typically indicate a link to another web page.

    The Moral Landscape is a nothing more than a consequentialist argument. This idea is not new, nor is it Harris’s. Harris credits no-one else (and takes pains to disparage Philosophers, generally, the very people he’s taking the ideas from). So yes: plagiarism.

    Also, I refer you to the concept of ‘a rhetorical question’. (this blue text is also a link)

  14. Leum says

    I know, of course, that we have different ultimate aims. I see these different perspectives as proof positive that the thing can NOT be taken as the Divine WORD of God, and that it should therefore be given no more (and no less!) consideration than any other human work of literature. I suspect this is not the case for you.

    I am curious, however. As I hope you can tell from the above, I don’t find knowledgeable Christians who never-the-less believe the Bible to be a synoptic document to be uncommon. I’m sure you must encounter them with some regularity. Do you attempt to disabuse them of that notion? If so, how?

    I don’t see the Bible as divinely inspired, but I do see it as an insight into both ancient Israelite/Judahite culture and into First Century Jewish and Christian culture. Which are things I care about. It’s also a book that a lot of people use for spiritual practice, and that’s something I find inherently interesting.

    And I rarely encounter Christians of any stripe in my day-to-day life (I go to a college where almost everyone is atheist or agnostic), and the ones I meet on the internet usually don’t go in for synoptic readings (I avoid the sort of places where they hang out), so I can’t really help you with that. I’d say present them with Bart Ehrman’s books, he’s probably the most accessible biblical scholar out there.

  15. Brian Lynchehaun says

    Leum @ 14:

    It’s more that I object to talking to the fundamentalists on their own terms.

    I take it that you haven’t had many conversations with people who read the bible differently than you? Or even had conversations generally?

    As a fairly solid rule of thumb: if you reject the basic terms of a conversation, and these terms are considered indispensible by the person to whom you are speaking, then the conversation ends.

    Now if you don’t want to have conversations with fundamentalists: bully for you. However, that is not really an option for people whose lives are currently (or going to be) legislated against on account of being gay/muslim/whatever. The only way to deal with this is to engage with the terms as presented, and demonstrate that they lead to gibberish.

    Again: it’s wonderful that you don’t subscribe to this *particular* strain of gibberish, but this gibberish is having a legislative effect on the world as we speak.

    I think you can do more damage to a fundamentalist reading of the Bible by discussing the history of the document itself rather than by pointing out the internal contradictions within the text and the external contradictions with reality.

    In my case, I tailor my approach according to the person to whom I am speaking. In your case, as you are emphasising the ethical aspect, I’m stating quite clearly that: the bible is absolutely not an ethical system, nor is it a reasonable basis for any kind of ethics.

    IOW, I think reading Richard Friedman’s “Who Wrote the Bible?” is a more convincing case against a “literal” reading of the Bible than presenting the fossil record.

    Me too. Do you find it ironic that you’re here arguing against something that I’ve never done? While you are complaining about how Unnamed Atheists are arguing against Christianity incorrectly?

    if they want to use the Bible as a moral guide, I’m all for finding ways to do that.

    1) Donate it to a homeless shelter as fuel for heat.
    2) Recycle the paper for [insert anything else here].
    3) Deink the book, and print a copy of Mill’s Utilitarianism, plus a primer on a bunch of other Ethical theories in place of the nonsense.

    These would all seem to me to be necessary steps in order for the bible to be “a moral guide”, given how far short of that it currently falls.

  16. Brian Lynchehaun says

    And I rarely encounter Christians of any stripe in my day-to-day life

    Well I, for one, am shocked by this revelation…

    So to clarify: you have little to no experience in this area, but you have decided that Unnamed Atheists are doing it wrong, and that you believe that you have a better way? And that we should try it out?

    Reaaaaaalllllllllllyyy? Do go on. I’ll totally be taking you seriously from here on out.

    [Apologies to everyone else for the ramp up of sarcasm. But seriously…]

  17. Duke Eligor says

    I have no interest in Christian theology, so I am not going to become well-read in the subject. However, if I were required to specifically comment on a certain point, I would probably do my homework. But that being the case, I don’t need to read Thomas Aquinas in order to take on the claims of your average modern creationist fundie. I would only need to read Thomas Aquinas in order to understand and take on the arguments of, well, Thomas Aquinas. There’s a difference between doing one’s necessary homework and the Courtier’s reply. Anyone, regardless of expertise, has full authority to raise an objection to or analyze an argument as it is presented, by virtue of their own reasoning mind. We only need to have done our homework in order to make positive or generalized assertions about a particular topic. And that’s why I don’t think Dennet or the others really need to comment on Shermer’s work (unless they want to). Shermer makes assertions from a position of ignorance, and rational non-experts have as much authority as anoyone to poke holes in his assertions.

  18. says

    Thanks for including me, Bryan. I don’t directly address the popular books because, frankly, I am too busy teaching and writing to spend much time on books I am not going to learn something new from. I made it through about 70 pages of The Moral Landscape before I just gave up on it as not worth the time. My own views on free will and the value of philosophy and the nature of morality are spelled out in detail in my own posts on the subjects, even if they’re not phrased as replies to Harris or Shermer or whomever directly. Perhaps in the summer I could find the time to read certain books to critique them. In the meantime, if you need guidance through my archives on topics you’d like to see directly addressed and write posts showing their contrast with points from others that you reject, then write me and I can tell you where I’ve written about what you most want to see addressed and contrasted with others.

    Let me know and thanks again. If I had more time, I would surely be doing what you’re requesting already. But time is short, at least for now.

  19. Thomas Hobbes says

    I enjoyed the original post and I sympathize with its aims. But I think that the sarcasm @20 is a bit uncalled for. Leum’s posts present a (slightly) different point of view, but have been quite conciliatory overall.

  20. says

    My philosopher skeptic friend Dr Patrick Stokes wrote the following short piece in The Conversation (blog for Australian academia) here, which is well worth reading, and I look forward to a longer piece by Patrick.

  21. Brian Lynchehaun says

    Daniel: Thanks for the reply, I really appreciate it.

    To be honest, in my head I’m not really thinking of an organised critiquing of books. My feeling is that there is a sense that topics like Morality are open season, and that there are no social costs to writing about them, regardless of how vapid one’s writing may be.

    Contrast that with writing a book on Evolution: if I attempted to do so, given my complete lack of knowledge of the topic, I would expect to be leapt upon from on high by the members of Internet Skepticism (and rightly so).

    While I don’t wish to see people rabidly attacked for putting their heart and soul into a book, I sorta wish that there was the same sense of social cost, of “I will be judged by my peers, and harshly”, attached to writing on these topics.

    I have to admit that I don’t follow your blog regularly (or any blog, even this one (don’t tell Ian!)), so I may have missed it if you wrote anything at all about The Moral Landscape, but I think even something as brief as “I made it through about 70 pages of The Moral Landscape before I just gave up on it as not worth the time” would be a pebble in the pond of your readership.

    Regardless, I appreciate you taking the time. :)

  22. Tyrant says

    I’m not sure why you include Dawkins in the list with Harris and Shermer. I don’t recall TGD to contain so many philosophical claims, and the only philosophy “bashing” that I can recall Dawkins doing is against what he considers postmodernist frauds.

  23. says

    Leum:
    It’s impossible to read the Bible–it’s impossible to read any text–without some level of interpretation. Interpretation is what we do. There are passages in the Bible that no one takes literally (e.g. when Jesus refers to himself as a gate in John). Context matters. History matters.

    That’s fine if you’re reading a spider-man comic book, but you seem to be awfully casual in accepting that people will adopt different interpretations of an attempted communication from the supreme being that they think created the universe and is the source of morality, etc. If I believed any of that stuff in the slightest, I wouldn’t be as casual about it as you appear to be willing to be.

  24. says

    I sorta wish that there was the same sense of social cost, of “I will be judged by my peers, and harshly”, attached to writing on these topics.

    I think there is. A lot of people appear to be working out their eye-rolling muscles in anticipation of Shermer’s efforts, and Harris’ arguments about torture and feeble attempts at moral philosophy have opened great holes below his waterline. Isn’t Harris getting dangerously close to a Bill Maher or Scott Adams level of credibility? Do you think Shermer’s sally isn’t going to trail him around leaving a faint fecal reek?

  25. Dunc says

    We need to start recognising that people who think they can revolutionise the world of moral philosophy without even having an undergraduate knowledge of the existing literature on the subject are cranks, just like people who think they can revolutionise physics without understanding relativity. “Here’s my revolutionary, entirely objective ethics” should be just as much of a red flag as “here’s my revolutionary mapping of the reals to the integers”.

  26. Kylie Sturgess says

    Hi. I’ve been doing this for 2013:

    http://www.365daysofphilosophy.com.

    I teach Philosophy. For the past two years at college level; previously at high-school level for two years, and since 2006 I’ve been creating resources.

    I help this group: http://www.waapis.com – writing exams, with teacher training and outreach. We’ve been around since 2005 or so. There’s also number of other ones as a part of the Philosophy and Ethics course in this state.

    “I do not know of any women in Philosophy who are also involved in Skepticism” – well, now you know!

    My site is http://www.freethoughtblogs.com/tokenskeptic.

    Most people don’t notice it, but hey – I’m here. And have been for some time. Thanks.

    K.

  27. Nathair says

    For people, like yourself, who are unfamiliar with the concept of plagiarism

    Also, I refer you to the concept of ‘a rhetorical question’. (this blue text is also a link)

    Yeah, that’s the same kind of classy response I was talking about. I see now that the plagiarism accusation was just how you roll. Have it your way; I disagree with you therefore I don’t have any idea what I’m talking about, Harris wasn’t just wrong, he was intentionally dishonest and wicked and his work not just flawed but completely worthless. Nuance is for the weak, right?

    Thanks for showing us all how ethics should properly be approached.

  28. logicpriest says

    I doubt the works in question are actual plagiarism. Much of what they say are aspects of culture, now. Good ideas stand on their own, regardless of their origin, while bad ideas die just the same.

    I do agree that they should probably bone up on philosophy, however. It would help them form their arguments more… um… precisely I suppose. I also agree criticism from philosophers could be beneficial, to a certain point, but not criticism for simply failing to account that someone, somewhere, sometime said something like it before.

    And from a legal standpoint, it isn’t plagiarism if the copyright expired. That is why they expire, so that we can build on the past. It becomes unfeasible to find the origin of every though and cite it, especially when – as noted above – they become part of the culture. We have grown far to comfortable with the idea that we own ideas, but that is an issue for another day.

  29. Brian Lynchehaun says

    Nathair 31:

    Yeah, that’s the same kind of classy response I was talking about.

    How dare I respond in the same tone as which I was addressed…

    I disagree with you therefore I don’t have any idea what I’m talking about

    You didn’t indicate any kind of disagreement, just sarcastic denigration. If you have a substantive disagreement with me, you’re welcome to share it. You have not yet done so.

    Harris wasn’t just wrong, he was intentionally dishonest and wicked and his work not just flawed but completely worthless. Nuance is for the weak, right?

    You don’t appear to be familiar with The Moral Landscape. My issue with The Moral Landscape is not that it is “completely worthless”, but that it is little more than a badly written Ethics 101 primer, with zero indication that it is not Harris’s original work.

  30. says

    @logicpriest – You’re thinking of copyright infringement, not plagiarism. Plagiarism is an ethical concept, not a legal one. It doesn’t matter if it’s public domain, if you get your ideas from a work and don’t cite that fact, that’s unethical.

    Of course, if you arrive at your ideas independently, then it’s not plagiaristic, but it’s still intellectually lazy not to bother with any research if you’re going to write a book about them.

  31. Brian Lynchehaun says

    Kylie: Thank you for that! I’ll add you to my bookmark list of blogs… that I don’t… check… very.. oft.. Hmmm….

    I’ll take a look for sure. :)

  32. logicpriest says

    Copyright infringement and plagiarism are on the same coin. (different sides etc) And imply the same thing. The issue is that at what point does it stop being plagiarism? Even if not arrived at independently, ideas are often integrated into the cultural landscape. While copyright runs out at a specific point (in theory at least,) when does it stop being plagiarism?

    I agree they should do research, but not out of concern for plagiarism. If the work is not relatively recent it begins to become impossible to really find the origin, despite what a given philosophy class in the west may teach. Most philosophical works will, at best, give only a passing mention of those before them unless they are criticizing the work, but all ideas have some origin. Again, that is exactly what a culture is: a set of evolving ideas attached to a particular group of people through generations.

  33. logicpriest says

    @Brian

    No I wasn’t aware, I am not fond of his work and know little beyond that. But the point stands. If he was taking ideas wholesale from modern philosophers, then he should have referenced them somewhere. If he was espousing established concepts in the field of philosophy or in culture, then the references are not necessary.

    Really my only nitpick here is the use of “plagiarism.” That word implies a lot that I didn’t see in the works you mentioned, nor in the others I have read similar to them. The modern idea of plagiarism is far too broad and based on the idea that we own ideas for eternity. To my mind, at least, it shouldn’t be thrown around too easily. Plagiarism has very specific implications, at least until the more modern push of ideas as property started.

  34. says

    Thanks for showing us all how ethics should properly be approached.

    I love people who start with abuse and then get SCANDALIZED when they are met with abuse. Nathair – go fuck yourself.

  35. logicpriest says

    I will chime in and say that while Nathair says it in one of the stupidest ways possible, plagiarism is not a simple concept. It is not simply the reuse or expansion/meld of existing ideas. There is some amount of intent and it depends on the idea’s integration into a given field or culture. As such, accusations of philosophical plagiarism should not be thrown around lightly, and simple definitions are almost entirely useless. In fact, plagiarism is an evolving and relatively modern concept which with a lot of argument about it.

  36. says

    @logicpriest

    And imply the same thing.

    Maybe I’m out of my depth here among philosophers, but to me the two are wrong for different reasons. Plagiarism, to me, is just a specific case of lying: saying that your ideas are original if they are not. There doesn’t have to be an identifiable party whose idea was appropriated. Copyright infringement, however, does necessarily have a specific party who’s the victim; they’ve been deprived of their right to control the manner in which their intellectual property is published. I see a pretty bright line between the two.

    And I don’t think intent matters, either. There is nothing new under the sun*, so ignorance of old ideas is no absolution. It takes zero extra effort to at least say “I’m sure I’m not the first person to think of this, but…” if you don’t wish to bother researching it.

    * phrase copyright © 2013 Radke Enterprises, LLC

  37. logicpriest says

    @Johnradke

    For me it seems that there is always a point where an idea doesn’t belong to someone anymore. Copyright was the institutionalization of the ownership of ideas, but even at its creation there was the recognition that you could claim an idea for only so long. Everything eventually either melds into the culture or disappears. I don’t mean to conflate the two, but accusations of plagiarism are always closely tied to copyright, since those claims are the easiest to sort out.

    In our everyday conversations we rarely source things, nor could we. Most of the “great artists” throughout history fail to source their ideas, despite the fact that everything must be based on pre-existing ideas. Intent does matter as far as any moral discussion. Perhaps someone accidentally violated copyright and therefore some institution’s particular policy on plagiarism, but in the public sphere it becomes far more complex.

    As I said, it gets complicated. As individuals and as societies we absorb and muddle ideas both consciously and unconsciously, and sourcing the origin of every idea can become far too time consuming.

    I will concede that it is probably not a good idea to present cultural memes as your own original work, but I wouldn’t classify it as plagiarism. Plagiarism is a serious moral crime.

  38. says

    One of the reasons philosophers are so tediously heavy on the references is because it saves time. If I intend to point out to someone that they’re doing a bad job of moral induction, I might refer to Hume’s is/ought chasm – it’s not an appeal to authority, it’s more like a subroutine call invoking an argument that is generally considered to demolish another class of arguments, or to defend them. I’m not sure plagiarism is the best description for what Harris does – it’s more like “sloppiness” to me – since, if he said “this book is a paraphrase of a form of Bentham’s consequentialist arguments” it saves us a great deal of time because we already have studied Bentham and/or understand the arguments against consequentialism. One of the nastiest brickbats that a philosopher can get hit with is that they omitted some well-known line of reasoning and the best way to throw that kind of brickbat is refer to the source. That’s why a philosopher who, for example, was writing about morality and ignored Plato’s Euthyphro dilemma would be vulnerable to being dismissed for doing so: clearly they hadn’t studied the problem carefully enough if they overlooked such an important problem. Unfortunately, this puts some philosophers on the defensive, rendering their work a mass that truly resembles “footnotes to Plato” or a list of dozens of philosophers. But it’s important to walk that balance between showing that you have considered the philosophical antecedents and adding your own work. If you fail to tip your hat to all the greats on whose shoulders you’re climbing, you risk appearing to not know what you’re climbing on. I haven’t read Harris but now I suppose I will have to – which I now dread doing, because if all Harris has done is trot out consequentialist arguments I don’t expect a very exciting performance; that’s one hell of a spoiler.

  39. logicpriest says

    @Marcus

    This is along mine line of thought. I definitely don’t think they should ignore the work done before, though I can understand the quick rehash for books meant for a wide audience, but it isn’t plagiarism.

    I, personally, like when they point me towards other works – especially ones in the public domain – but not everyone has the time or knowledge to do additional research. Most of the books listed are mass market, not academic, which is where the call on academic philosophers kinda seems silly. Just like pop science books you may leave out some things, some references, and even some arguments in order to reach a broader audience.

    I suppose ideally they would do the pop version but put in some references just to good resources to get to the meatier version of the arguments. That way the casual readers may get a good idea of the arguments while those wanting more can see where they are coming from.

  40. says

    @logicpriest
    but it isn’t plagiarism

    I agree. Especially since when one is popularizing an idea it may be appropriate to omit detailed references. Though I certainly would prefer if someone was basically putting forth Bentham, or Mill that they’d say somewhere that that’s what they were doing. I also consider that acceptable; it’s not out of the question to imagine that one might be able to do a better job of explaining some philosophers’ ideas in modern language (“consequentialism for dummies”?) than they could.

    Now I’m going to have to read Harris, which I’ve been avoiding doing because I fear I’ll lose whatever shreds of respect I have left for him after his self-inflicted airport security quagmire.

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