Bill Nye the Philosophy Guy? A Call For Metaphilosophy

If you’re into philosophy or philosophy-esque topics, you may have seen Bill Nye’s recent videos on “Big Think”. Dan DeWitt’s recent blog post alerted me to a video (posted about a month ago) in which Nye seeks to answer the question “Does science have all the answers or should we do philosophy?” In the short video, Nye’s answer betrays a misunderstanding of what philosophy is and the types of questions philosophy seeks to answer. His examples and illustrations are but caricatures of philosophy as a discipline and actually hurt, rather than aid, his argument.  Olivia Goldhilll critiques Nye’s response over at Quartz in her post titled “Why are so many smart people such idiots about philosophy?” Goldhill provides a succinct response to every claim Nye makes in order to demonstrate that today’s intellectual superstars betray an inexplicable misconception of the very discipline that gave birth to modern science.

While it is understandable that the general public has misunderstandings of philosophy, it’s another matter when some of the public intellectuals of our time display the same misconceptions. Nye’s view of philosophy reflects that of other scientists like Neil DeGrasse Tyson and Stephen Hawking and of the New Atheists: Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, and Daniel Dennett. For these thinkers, only science provides the means by which we discover and know truth. That is, not only does science help us understand how the world works, it also informs us on ethical issues like abortion and explains why we exhibit empathy and love towards others (see Sam Harris’ The Moral Landscape). In short, science is built upon fact, while philosophy focuses upon mere speculative questions that cannot be empirically verified. Science alone can discover truth.

How did we get here? Though philosophy and science were inseparable for many centuries, modern science has (to borrow a phrase from Sam Harris) “flown the perch” built by philosophy. The reasons for philosophy’s precipitous fall from “the mother of all disciplines” are varied and too many to summarize here; let it suffice that as modern science progressed and out knowledge of the world expanded, philosophy (and theology) began to be viewed as unnecessary, as relics of a time gone by, or as incapable of discovering truth. Instead, confidence in the scientific method and its track record led many to jettison philosophy in favor of science as the bar of truth.

Philosophy is not an innocent victim in this seismic paradigm shift. Some of philosophy’s heavy hitters have fed the growing ambivalence toward their own discipline. Nietzsche declared philosophy as faulty to its core; philosophers’ assertions are just “assumptions” and “virtuous noise.”[1] William James, the great pragmatist, favorably quotes the old proverb “Philosophy bakes no break” in Lecture I of Pragmatism. Bertrand Russell asserted that philosophy does not bring about definite knowledge; instead, the “residue of science” is left to philosophy.[2] Karl Popper relegated professional philosophy to “idealistic naval gazing.”[3] Finally, Richard Rorty claimed that we are no longer in an age where philosophy is a constructive discipline aimed at determining truth.[4] Though not all philosophers have had a skeptical or negative view toward philosophy, what is illustrated in this paragraph is the shift away from the classical view of philosophy that was prevalent for centuries.

Phil DefSo, is philosophy useless? Has its usefulness and value been exhausted, only to be studied as a relic of intellectual history? Well, ironically, these questions are actually philosophical in nature. So, to declare philosophy as “valueless” is to make a philosophical claim, which in turn requires—if one is to support their assertion—an investigation into the nature of philosophy (in order to declare it valueless). This investigation is itself…as you’ve probably guessed already…a philosophical endeavor.  Those like Nye cannot escape that which they have declared dead. As such, merely asserting that philosophy is no longer useful does not make it so. It is intellectual laziness to make such a careless claim without recourse to an investigation in, reflection upon, and support of this all-too-common view.

The question of whether philosophy is still valuable is a question asked by not only scientists, but by higher education institutions, politicians,[5] religious institutions, and other disciplines as well. Further, the question of philosophy’s value is one that has been visited quite often throughout the centuries. And despite the questioning, philosophy has remained engrained in the fabric of life.

The act of questioning something’s work seems on the face of it a way of putting it down or silencing it. On the contrary, though, questioning philosophy’s utility is actually a one worth asking. My studies have led me to believe that most people will acknowledge that philosophy has some value today. The issue tends to be not if it has value, but how it has value. That is, how does philosophy apply to today’s day and age? One is then led to ask: What questions does philosophy answer, and what issues does it investigate? In answering these questions, one can then answer the why question: why do we study philosophy?[6] In short, philosophy has focused upon—and continues to do so—the very nature of its enterprise. To do so is to participate in the philosophy of philosophy (known as metaphilosophy).

What we need, then, is not a haphazard dismissal of philosophy, but an investigation into the nature of philosophy. Such investigations have been done in the past by various thinkers, but today most people operate from an assumed understanding of philosophy as opposed to a well-formed and well-informed view of what philosophy is and its value to life (and all it entails) today.[7] If we are to accept the claim that philosophy is dead, then we can only do so after the philosophical investigation into that question, thereby breathing life back into a supposedly lifeless discipline.

I have already gone too long in this post, but allow me to wrap it up by extending a call to Christians to investigate the question of philosophy’s value. Christian thinkers like Alvin Plantinga, Nicholas Wolterstorff, William Lane Craig, J. P. Moreland, Richard Swinburne, Eleonore Stump, Paul Moser, Paul Copan, and so many more have revived philosophy, particularly in Christian circles. While Analytic philosophers had once discarded philosophy of religion and metaphysical questions as unnecessary, these thinkers (among others) have demonstrated that not only are religious and metaphysical beliefs an integral and necessary aspect of life and study, they have established that philosophy can be a vibrant area of study and a valuable partner in the quest to understand the world in which we live.

One Christian who has done much in the area of Christian metaphilosophy is Paul K. Moser. Check out the online symposium that began with his article titled “Christ-Shaped Philosophy: Wisdom and Spirit United”; the symposium is housed at the website for the Evangelical Philosophical Society. The online symposium was begun in 2012 and flourished for about two years, but little has been done since. Further, little seemed was accomplished apart from academic wall-building between those of differing views regarding Moser’s claim. Moser’s work began a conversation that–in my opinion—should be continued if we as Christians are to develop a well-grounded understanding of the nature of philosophy and its value for the believer. Finally, Christian thinkers can also carry the torch into the broader intellectual arena, redeeming a discipline that was once known as “the handmaiden to theology.”


 

[1] This section is adapted from the first chapter of my dissertation, Toward a Baptist View of Metaphilosophy: An Analysis of E. Y. Mullins, John Newport, Richard Cunningham, and L. Russ Bush (2014). The quote is from Nietzshe, “On the Prejudices of Philosophers” I.5.

[2] Russell, The Problems of Philosophy, 155; quoted in McDonald, Toward a Baptist View of Metaphilosophy, 31.

[3] Popper, “How I See Philosophy,” in The Owl of Minerva: Philosophers on Philosophy, 42; quoted in McDonald, Toward a Baptist View of Metaphilosophy, 34.

[4] Baldwin, Contemporary Philosophy, 272; referenced in McDonald, Toward a Baptist View of Philosophy, 36.

[5] One only has to recall Marco Rubio’s “We need more welders and less (sic) philosophers” quote in the early stages of his presidential campaign.

[6] A very helpful book that discusses these questions is the 2013 book titled An Introduction to Metaphilosophy by Overgaard, Gilbert, and Burwood. This book served as the impetus behind my dissertation and continuing studies.

[7] This view is affirmed in Overgaard, Gilbert, and Burwood, An Introduction to Metaphilosophy, 8.

An Interview with Dan DeWitt: The Influence of the Inklings

Front Cover - The Owlings Book II

Front Cover – The Owlings Book II

In the first installment of a three-part series, Dan DeWitt shares with me what writers have influenced his work on The Owlings – both in his style and in his approach.

What drew you to the Inklings as an influence on your work with The Owlings?

During the early stages of my doctoral studies I signed up for a community reading group on The Screwtape Letters. I read The Screwtape Letters (rather, I re-read it as I had read it in my younger days) and thought about it, and showed up at the study, but nobody else was there. It was just me. I had the Signature Series of C. S. Lewis, so I read some of his other works. I realized while sitting there that I didn’t really know C. S. Lewis. I had loved the idea of C. S. Lewis, and I loved that everybody around me loved C. S. Lewis – it’s like you saying that you love John Calvin but may have never read his writings.

So, I began reading as much of C. S. Lewis as I had time in my doctoral studies. It was my leisurely escape. And so, I was exposed to his powerful ability to teach you without feeling like you’re necessarily being taught. That’s what first drew me to C. S. Lewis. And then I learned about G. K. Chesterton’s influence on him, and so I began reading Chesterton. I read a little bit of George MacDonald because of MacDonald’s influence on Lewis. Then I was introduced to Dorothy Sayers, and through that Tolkien. I was familiar with The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, but I didn’t know about his children’s stories that he wrote for his children – his Father Christmas Letters that he wrote every year for his kids. And so I stepped into this world.

What I hope I did, and what I encourage my students to do, is – say you hear a great sermon. Don’t just listen to the content of the sermon, but to think about the method – to learn from the methodology of the preacher. What is he doing besides his content? I learned from the Inklings’ content, but I slowly adopted their methodology, although far from where they were with it. That, though, is what drew me to the Inklings.

I have small children, and I thought, “How do I expose them to the authors that I love?” And not just these authors, but also a way of looking at the world that I think is rich in truth and also in imagination. So, I got the idea to write a children’s story, specifically after I watched a video with Richard Dawkins where he talked about writing a children’s story himself – The Magic of Reality – a book for pre-teens and early teens. In this book he calls people who teach their children about the Bible “those stupid people.” This kind of made me mad. So I thought, “What if I wrote a children’s book? How do I present these dead British authors to my children?” So, that’s where an idea of an owl as the symbol of wisdom, and then I thought, “What if I have talking owls?” And that’s how the Inklings became The Owlings.

In my review of The Owlings: A Worldview Novella, I noted the evident influence of C. S. Lewis on DeWitt’s writing:

As I stated in my previous post, The Owlings is reminiscent of C. S. Lewis, particularly his Chronicles of Narnia, in that throughout the book, Josiah encounters talking owls. Where this book departs from Lewis’ Narnia series is that it lacks the adventure and action of battles, travel between worlds, and mysterious lands and castles. But such aspects would not fit with the dilemma in which Josiah finds himself. Rather than facing evil cronies of the White Witch, our young friend encounters reality of a harsh world (losing his home to eminent domain) and of competing worldviews. It is the seemingly mundane, every-day life issues where one finds the greatest tension and the impetus behind Josiah’s transformation.

What DeWitt finds in the classic works of Lewis is the use of imagination and creativity to convey significant truths that impact everyone’s life. In the second installment of this three-part series, Dan DeWitt shares with us the role fiction plays in teaching. In the meantime, visit Dan’s website at Theolatte.com, and order The Owlings Book II!

An Interview With Dan DeWitt – Author of “The Owlings”

Front Cover - The Owlings Book II

Front Cover – The Owlings Book II

In early 2015, I reviewed Dan DeWitt’s novella titled The Owlings. DeWitt’s novella is a foray into children’s fiction, but with a special twist. Here is what I said a year ago:

DeWitt, Dean of Boyce College, approaches the philosophical and theological concept of worldview in a manner reminiscent of C. S. Lewis – through the medium of narrative. The primary way to communicate philosophical ideas in Western philosophy is through monographs, treatises, journal articles, and other forms generally preserved for academic and professional realms. Such avenues, though effective for the student and professional philosopher, have inevitably isolated philosophy from the general public. If one seeks to communicate philosophical concepts beyond the walls of academia, narrative literature has the potential to make philosophy more palatable and easier to understand for those uninterested in or unable to pursue philosophical study.

DeWitt has followed up his first novella with Book Two of The Owlings series. The story picks up with Matt and his sister Megan, leading to their eventual encounter with the beloved owls from Book 1.

To mark the recent release of The Owlings: Book 2, I had the opportunity to interview the author, Dan DeWitt back in December. The focus of our interview was threefold: 1) the writers that influenced his work on The Owlings, 2) the role of fiction in teaching, and 3) the value of fiction in teaching. The interview ends with some advice from DeWitt for aspiring writers.

In addition to marking the release of Book 2, my interview with DeWitt also serves to add to my work into the value of fiction (in particular) and literature (in general) in teaching. To gain some background on what I’ve written so far, you can check out the following posts. This can give you some context into why I asked the questions I did.

So, stay tuned! In the meantime, take the time to visit Dan DeWitt’s website – you’ll get a glimpse of his God-given creativity!

Review: “The Owlings: A Worldview Novella” Part I

Dan DeWitt, "The Owlings: A Worldview Novella" (Theolatte Press, 2014)

Dan DeWitt, “The Owlings: A Worldview Novella” (Theolatte Press, 2014)

 

In a day and age where more pragmatic and results-oriented careers drive universities to offer degrees in the hard sciences, institutions of higher education offer fewer and fewer degrees in humanities and liberal arts. In particular, philosophy is a discipline that has seen its better days when it comes to its perception and reception by not only academicians, but by the public as well. Over the last half-century, philosophy has been relegated more and more to a peripheral area of study – one that serves to merely fulfill an elective or to satisfy the philosophical itch some may have. As a result, our society is increasingly populated by those who lack any basic knowledge of philosophy (or, at the least, have a very minimal working knowledge) and how it under-girds various aspects of human life, including disciplines of study, public policy, economic policy, among other areas.

However, the blame for contemporary attitudes toward philosophy ought not to be placed only on universities – the reasons for the malaise in which philosophy finds itself are numerous and varied (something that’s been written about in many a book and article). Philosophers themselves shoulder some of the blame because of the obtuse, dense, and technical nature of many modern philosophical works.

One of the few things that I remember from my writing courses in high school and college is the maxim to write clearly – write so that your point comes across to your audience.  Unfortunately, this basic maxim is forgotten or neglected by some philosophers with their works requiring specialists to decode their meaning. But, this situation is not as prevalent as some may think; rather, the dense, obtuse,  and/or technical nature of philosophical works is due to the dense, obtuse, and/or technical nature of many philosophical subjects. Thus, without a sufficient background in the basics of philosophy, the non-philosopher finds philosophy uninteresting and difficult, to be ready only by those who are “super-smart.”

So, how does this apply to Dan DeWitt’s new book, The Owlings: A Worldview Novella? DeWitt, Dean of Boyce College, approaches the philosophical and theological concept of worldview in a manner reminiscent of C. S. Lewis – through the medium of narrative. The primary way to communicate philosophical ideas in Western philosophy is through monographs, treatises, journal articles, and other forms generally preserved for academic and professional realms. Such avenues, though effective for the student and professional philosopher, have inevitably isolated philosophy from the general public.[1] If one seeks to communicate philosophical concepts beyond the walls of academia, narrative literature has the potential to make philosophy more palatable and easier to understand for those uninterested in or unable to pursue philosophical study.

The use of narrative is not unique to DeWitt, and not even to Lewis for that matter. One can go back as far as Plato, who presented his philosophy in the form of dialogues between Socrates and misguided or unsuspecting individuals. Jumping forward one millennium and several centuries, Hume, Nietzsche, and Kierkegaard employed dialogue in some of their writings, while Sartre, Rand, Camus, and C. S. Lewis utilized fiction.[2] The benefit of writing philosophy in narrative form is that it appeals to our proclivity to connect with stories, it lowers philosophical concepts from the ivory tower into the nitty-gritty of everyday life, and it has the potential of appealing to the whole person – heart and mind.

In The Owlings, DeWitt illustrates in story-form the life-impacting value of worldview thinking as he takes the reader into the life of young Josiah who, in a matter of days, faces the reality of leaving the only home he knows and of the weightiness of life’s ultimate questions. More to come in Part II…. in the meantime, visit Dan’s blog Theolatte to get to know him more.


 

[1] This is a rather loaded claim here that can be misleading. What I intend to communicate here is that while various philosophers have decried the apathy toward philosophy exhibited by many non-philosophers, they have not helped out the situation by making difficult philosophical issues more accessible to the non-philosopher (whether it be through popular works and other non-technical avenues). This is changing, though, in some ways through sites like 8-bit Philosophy and philosophy presented in comic book form (http://www.actionphilosophers.com/). Nevertheless, such efforts appeal to a very narrow demographic and do not have the mass appeal needed if philosophy were to gain a wider audience.

[2] This list is by no means exhaustive; rather, it lists the names of those who have transcended academic circles and therefore recognizable by the general public.