a sign of second-rate philosophy

April 3, 2012

In graduate school there was a fairly annoying student who acted as a general lackey for a powerful professor, up to and including providing personal services– such as being tasked with finding the professor an apartment at an unrealistically low price for the required neighborhood, and in the middle of winter when it was physically very unpleasant to make such searches.

For some reason, the following statement was the most annoying thing I ever heard from him. The name of Pascal came up. And this student made a sort of lemon-sucking smirk and said that he “has problems” with Pascal. Why?, I asked. Because, he said, he “has problems” with “philosophers who talk about God.”

Disbelief in God was cutting-edge in the 1600’s and is still cutting edge at age 15. I’m not saying you should believe in God after those two landmarks; I’ll leave that up to you. I’m just saying, it seems a bit absurd to use the question of someone’s belief or disbelief in God as one of the chef pillars of your judgment about that person’s intellectual caliber.

To some extent, the parochialism of presumed atheism among Western intellectuals (i.e., everyone enters every conversation simply assuming that they can dump on religion from the first minute and everyone else will automatically agree with them) really bothers me. Once I talked about winning two slot machine jackpots of $1,000 and $700 (it really happened) and the person I told this too said: “It probably made you question your atheism.” But I never told this person I was an atheist. He simply assumed that I must be, since all non-idiots are atheists, just like him. Such provincialism, masquerading as remorseless enlightenment.

In Egypt, I happen to be surrounded by quite a number of extremely intelligent and very religious people. Not all very religious people are extremely intelligent, of course, but some of them are, and you’d better come to the table with something better than a lemon-sucking, condescending smirk about Pascal when you deal with these people.

The reason this topic is on my mind is because of some really lame-o critiques of Meillassoux’s The Divine Existence that are in the air lately.

Meillassoux makes an argument for the divine inexistence, after all, and that argument hinges on: (1) the non-existence for Meillassoux of probability at the level of the laws of nature as a whole, and (2) the view that the sudden appearance of God and justice would be no more astonishing than the previous contingent appearance of matter, then life, then thought.

What bothers me about some of the critiques of this argument (which I by no means accept, since I do not accept contingency and the rejection of sufficient reason in the first place) is the depressing reminder that some atheists would prefer an idiot atheist to a brilliant theist. There really are people out there, apparently, who think that any run-of-the-mill bad boy eliminator is truly a better thinker than Thomas Aquinas. They would “have problems” with Aquinas, after all, simply because of the God question.

To go back to the title of this post, I would say that one sign of second-rate philosophy is philosophy that is able to judge other philosophy only according to whether it agrees or disagrees with the explicit propositional content of that philosophy. It would be like me hating Tristan Garcia simply because I’m a vegetarian but Garcia criticizes vegetarianism in Forme et objet.

It’s intellectually very important to be able to admire and utilize authors whose world-views are nothing like your own. Rejecting all theists as idiots on an a priori basis is not a promising sign of intellectual health. If that’s what you’re doing, then you need to get out a bit more and see more of the world. There really are some smart people out there who believe in God, and some of them might be able to crush you in an argument from time to time.

On a related topic, have you ever noticed that the people who insist most that arguments are all that count are generally the first to resort to argument-free, hyper-emotional dismissals whenever the chips are down?

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