Monday, November 25, 2013

Talismanic Appeals to Philosophers

Michael Lopresto at "3 quarks daily":

Equally for the theological perspective, the arguments for the existence of god were refuted by the Scottish Enlightenment philosopher David Hume in his classic Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (1777), and it is time that we stop legitimating the theological perspective by engaging with it any more than superficially.

Lopresto can, of course, arrange his own research program according to his own tastes, but what interests me in particular here is the incantatory use of Hume. Anyone who has read Hume's Dialogues closely knows that Hume actually only considers two arguments for the existence of God, one of which is so thornily formulated that it's lucky we have for other reasons a fairly good idea who is in view -- Samuel Clarke -- since it would otherwise be difficult to figure out what's even going on; and, what is more, anyone who has read the Dialogues all the way through knows that the book itself denies that it refutes the other -- Cleanthes clearly doesn't think he's been refuted, Philo explicitly says he hasn't refuted him, Pamphilus obviously has sympathies with Cleanthes, and Demea, who thinks it obviously refuted, is not presented as a sympathetic, or very perceptive, character. Hume scholars have different interpretations of the denial, and one could indeed hold that the denial is rhetorical rather than to be taken straight (there is plenty of evidence that this is wrong and that Hume is, in fact, less interested in the question of whether he can refute the design argument at all, than in, what most of the work is devoted to arguing, whether the argument, good or bad, actually has the implications people tend to assume it does; but it's a possible interpretation that one finds ventured among respectable interpreters). But the limitations of the work as a general refutation of arguments for the existence of God are not very deep or difficult to find. The Dialogues are a truly excellent work, worthy of a close reading, but what you can get from them on the subject is not very extensive, for the obvious reason that Hume himself doesn't particularly care about theology but does care about the Newtonian approach to science, which in his day was often held to be inextricably linked to design arguments, and about rational civility in a society in which there are religious disagreements (as is made explicit in Part XII and by the close friendship of Philo and Cleanthes).

However, this sort of use of Hume as a talisman has become quite common. It's becoming common enough on this particular point to be displacing use of Kant as a talisman (which had its own problems, since Kant's reasons for saying that the arguments for God's existence fail are at least closely linked with things that Kant thinks are reasons for saying that theism is nonetheless still more rational than atheism). It also seems, however, to be increasing outside of this particular topic. The obvious implication, of course, is that Hume's fortunes continue to rise, which is a pretty good omen for people like myself who actually study him.

But what are these talismanic appeals really doing? They aren't serious looks at the actual arguments -- not uncommonly, as above, they are put forward as reasons why one no longer has to pay much attention to the dispute for which the arguments were framed; if you never pay any more attention to theological perspective than is required for superficial engagement, it follows fairly directly that you never pay any more attention to the arguments that refute it than is required for superficial engagement. Hume refutes the arguments for the existence of God so soundly nobody needs to pay much attention to his refutation anymore! So it's not the arguments themselves that are being waved around; since it is consistent with making arguments for self-induced ignorance about things required for understanding the arguments, it has to have a more ritualistic function.

One possible interpretation is that it's a big dog tactic. By bringing in Hume, or Kant, or whomever is in the ascendant at a given time, you can effectively say, "And if you want to say otherwise, it's not me you have to refute but such-and-such supergenius." Big dogs, of course, can afford to walk over rivals on the basis of their own strength; but so can little dogs who are allied to big dogs, on the assumption that the big dogs have their back.

Alternatively, it could be interpreted as a scarecrow tactic. Rather than being a form of facilitated aggression, it would then be a way of avoiding a conflict one finds annoying. Farmers put up scarecrows so that they don't have to fight them off. Put Hume up as your representative and you scare off opponents who don't want to have to refute Hume.

Both of these take the point of the invocation to be to fight or frighten off opponents. A third interpretation is possible: perhaps the point has nothing to do with opponents at all. For instance, it could be a mascot tactic, the name of the philosopher as a rallying point for likeminded people. People build communities around major names, and indeed it's quite natural for us to do so. In this sense, serious appeals to Hume and talismanic appeals to Hume would differ only by degree -- to wit, the degree to which one actually pays attention to Hume's arguments themselves.

A fourth interpretation is that it's not so much about opponents or allies as it is about the philosopher: genuine admiration or respect as a predecessor, but simply as a predecessor. One sees this quite often in the sciences, where there's lots of respect for people whose actual work and motivations are rarely if ever studied. The point is never the work and motivations, but that they made you possible. Why, then, would you bother with the philosopher's actual arguments? What makes the philosopher important is the purely historical fact (or legend) that they anticipated what you're interested in, or, even better, swept away things you don't want to be bothered with. One invokes them as one often invokes national heroes and founding fathers: it's a sort of filial piety, maintaining the honor of one's ancestors by keeping their names remembered.

There are probably many more functions that the talismanic appeal has. I'm far from thinking they are always unreasonable. But the thing about them, of course, is that used very widely they start looking more like spellcasting than philosophy: one does not need to engage with arguments, one just has to invoke the right names in the right contexts to banish unlucky things and draw down lucky ones.


  1. I think what you call the 'mascot tactic' is the right interpretation of most invocations of Hume by analytic philosophers who are not serious historians. I certainly think it captures how Hume is used by David Lewis and his followers. Hume is (mostly wrongly) taken to represent a certain kind of stance or perspective or ideology, and is used as a rallying point for those who start from that set of assumptions.

    On the other hand, the quote you posted sounds a lot more like one of the intimidation tactics!

  2. branemrys6:25 PM

    I think you're probably right; certainly this seems to be the case in discussions of naturalism.


Please understand that this weblog runs on a third-party comment system, not on Blogger's comment system. If you have come by way of a mobile device and can see this message, you may have landed on the Blogger comment page, or the third party commenting system has not yet completely loaded; your comments will only be shown on this page and not on the page most people will see, and it is much more likely that your comment will be missed.