Embarrassingly bad philosophy on public show

Posted on February 25, 2010


There is a lot of bad philosophy out there. Every philosophical tradition also has its typical bad philosophy, with bad continental philosophy tending to use obscure language to make trivial points and bad analytic philosophy tending to split conceptual hairs in a way that has nothing to do with reality. Very often philosophers do lack that robust sense of reality that Bertrand Russell thought was essential for good philosophising. Thankfully, most bad philosophy never goes further than philosophical journals, only serving to confuse and waste the time of other professional philosophers. At times, this is bad enough in itself, i.e. when a bad philosopher becomes influential enough to force others to engage with their inane position.

Of course, it is important to distinguish between bad philosophy and simply those positions that one disagrees with. This makes it extremely difficult to identify examples of bad philosophy. Thus, even though I have a whole list of well-known philosophers I consider to have had a significantly detrimental effect upon philosophy due to what I see as the low quality of their work, I will not mention them by name. It would in general be nonsensical of me to spend time arguing about their quality if I consider it meretricious.

The situation changes, however, when the bad philosophy spills out into the broader public forum. This is the case with Fodor’s most recent book What Darwin got Wrong, written together with Massimo Piatelli-Palmarini. I’d read both Fodor and Piatelli-Palmarini and, quite frankly, considered their work to be examples of bad philosophy. In the case of Fodor, his work on the language of thought seemed to be typical bad analytic philosophy, utterly blind to the world and willing to follow a bad argument whereever it took his, much as a bad driver might follow his GPS straight into a bog. Philosophers are, of course, meant to follow arguments without fear or favour but they should also be constantly aware of their own fallibility. There would otherwise be no such thing as reductio ad absurdum. In the case of Piatelli-Palmarini, his earlier book on cognitive biases was something of a bodice ripper, taking an extreme, poorly argued and poorly informed position on the significance of the cognitive biases that humans are subject to. Since both Fodor and Piatelli-Palmarini were arguing for positions I do not agree with, I used to feel some unease in simply writing off what they had done. In What Darwin got Wrong, however, it is evident that Fodor’s cloth-eared argumentation has met with Piatelli-Palmarini’s schlock sensibilities to result in what is likely to be a book that will be very detrimental both to the way many sensible people will perceive philosophers and, much more importantly, to popular discussions of evolution.

Thankfully, I do not need to expend any effort on the content of this book, instead being able to direct anyone who wants to know more to the very thorough critique published by Ned Block and Philip Kitcher in the Boston Review. Block and Kitcher take on the thankless task of examining the arguments in the book both from the philosophical and the biological side and are able to show just how bad they are in both those respects. Unfortunately, once a book like this is in the public forum, the actual quality of the arguments presented is very much secondary. Already, creationists have picked up on the book and are trumpeting it as evidence for their position. The exact content of the book does not matter much to them and, certainly, the arguments are of little real concern. What is significant to them is that they are able to wield the book in an argument from authority – here is a respected philosopher saying that the theory of selection is fundamentally flawed. The fact that, even if Fodor was right, their conclusion that creationism is correct would not follow appears to be of no import to them. Even so, none of this is likely to matter to the creationists’ intended audience, i.e. people whose  normal lives make it difficult for them to spend any time becoming familiar with the issues.

I can not help but think that the most apt response to the creationist argument is actually to deny the premise. Fodor, a respected philosopher? Nay, an embarrassingly bad philosopher.