Opinionated Philosophy
March 19, 2014 — 16:32

Author: Michael Almeida  Category: Uncategorized  Tags: , ,   Comments: 21

I’ve been thinking about the metaphilosophical issue of the value of opinionated philosophy and the value of (maybe highly) opinionated philosophers. Maybe philosophers with strong Socratic sympathies expect all good philosophy to end somewhere in aporia, but a good deal of philosophy doesn’t. There is in any case a common criticism of philosophy of religion that it often borders on Christian apologetics, though the criticism is really more general than that. I think I can make sense of this criticism as charging that philosophy of religion is often highly opinionated. And by ‘opinionated’ here I simply mean that the philosophical work includes settled views on points that are really worth controverting or that really ought to be held with less confidence. Maybe the notion of ‘opinionated’ I’m after is reflected in the ratio of the confidence with which p reasonably ought to be held to the confidence with which p is held by the author. Maybe it’s reflected in the degree to which one is mainly interested in speaking to the like-minded. There really is something unphilosophical about that, but it’s hard to pin down.

I don’t think the criticism can be deflected simply by pointing out that all philosophical work makes some assumptions (for the sake of argument). Of course that’s true, but the criticism does not make that mistake. I don’t think the criticism can be avoided by noting that many philosophers bring to discussion strong philosophical views. We can likely name, for instance, the committed invariantists, contextualists, relativists in epistemology, and the committed three-dimensionalists, four-dimensionalists, essentialists, and monists in metaphysics. But (many of) these philosophers spend a lot of time in defense of these views. They have not simply stopped arguing for them, given their deep conviction that they’re true. And I don’t think the criticism can be deflected by pointing out that certain philosophical problems require a lot of assumptions (e.g. think of philosophical problems in cosmology, where the discussion is high up in physical theory or philosophical problems in the neurobiology of free will). It’s true again that many interesting and controvertible assumptions are made in discussions here, but that is most often not a problem. The criticism is not making this mistake. I don’t think the problem can be deflected by noting that all good philosophy includes some strong opinion(s). Of course that’s true; I don’t think anyone is confused about that. Finally, I don’t think the (not-so-uncommon) mark-my-bravery response deflects the criticism. Here the idea, I assume, is to take standing firm without reply as some sort of virtue. I admire philosophical bravery (not bluster or bravado, but the real thing) by which I have in mind not backing away from a defensible philosophical position or research program for reasons of (even formidable) discipline pressure or social pressure or psychological pressure. But I take philosophical bravery to include a willingness to address at least the good/powerful objections to the contrary.

I raised the issue of opinionated philosophers because it might illuminate what some find wrong with opinionated philosophy. It is really hard (for me anyway) to get much from philosophical discussion with (even excellent) philosophers who have come to lots of settled opinions on frankly controvertible philosophical issues. All one can do (weirdly, what I feel like I’m expected to do) is just note what I’m told. What does that have to do with philosophy? I don’t have a lot of interest in doing that. What I want to do is take up the controversial issues in the expectation that they will be discussed fairly, and that is what invariably fails to happen in these cases. When I read an opinionated philosophical paper I get a similar impression. Maybe that’s the problem, but I’m not sure. I do know that highly opinionated philosophy is disproportionately boring. Maybe that’s the problem.

  • Tom

    So far as I can tell, I am with you, but perhaps you can clarify whether you’re more worries about tone in philosophical writing or the fact that (many) philosophers really are overly confident about (controversial) matters, presumably even in their private thought life? Or perhaps you’re equally worried about both of these things? I recall PVI making the claim in his 2006 book on the problem of evil that most of us speak and write with too much confidence but he didn’t have any suggestions for have to rectify this. I wonder if you could give some examples of what opinionated philosophers you have in mind and what they should be doing differently?

    March 19, 2014 — 22:10
  • Michael Almeida

    Hi Tom,

    I think the main point of the post is to determine just what the problem of opinionated philosophy is supposed to be. I took the example of philosophy of religion generally, since it is often charged with being opinionated (as I am using that term). Maybe philosophy of religion should not be so charged, maybe what we find is that philosophy of religion is no more at fault than any other area of philosophy in this respect. This is why I listed several non-problems after the charge. On the other hand, I’m certainly not going to list names of possible violators.

    March 20, 2014 — 7:56
  • John Alexander

    Hi Michael
    I am not that familiar with the issue you are addressing, but from what I can gleam from your comment I am wondering if the issue is not similar to the one where people hold that a belief is true simply because they hold it (mere belief) as opposed to people who hold beliefs to be true because of some argument and/or evidence that supports the belief independently of the person holding it (JTB for want of a better term). It seems to me that when doing philosophy we often start with a belief that we hold and analyze what would follow from that belief if it were demonstratively true. I think that we all do this, but at times it appears as if we sometimes use what follows from ‘if p being true’ as evidence that p being true without getting rid of the ‘if.’ When this is discovered in others we tend to think of them as being opinionated; that somehow merely having an opinion is not as epistemically robust as having a justified belief. (When we catch it in ourselves, we try to cover it up:-))

    I think that this might also tie into the basic assumptions that are being made. It seems that we have to assume something to get a conversation going, but as long as we are agreed on the assumptions we are not viewed as being opinionated. When we disagree with another person’s assumptions (or starting points), we tend to view those assumptions as unwarranted. This places them in the category of being a mere opinion.

    Anyway it is an interesting topic. I am glad I check back on Prosblogion just after you posted it.

    March 20, 2014 — 13:44
  • Michael Almeida

    Hi John,

    I think the charge against some work (some says ‘lots’) in philosophy of religion is that, because it is insufficiently reflective on points of faith or negligent or indifferent (on those points) to otherwise shared philosophical (epistemological) standards (which are quite high), certain propositions are given a credibility they should not enjoy. And those propositions figure prominently in the arguments advanced. Here’s a hypothetical example: many theists and philosophers of religion take the Magisterium to include important and incontrovertible truths. But using those truths in an argument for further claims about moral or social issues is not generally regarded as good philosophy. I want to add quickly, as above, that I’m not claiming the charges stick or, if they do, that philosophers of religion are more frequent violators than other philosophers. That is more or less what I’m asking about.

    March 20, 2014 — 14:07
    • John Alexander

      If I understand you correctly you are stating that there are (may be) times where philosophers use a proposition p as if they are established ‘facts that appear to some other philosophers as not being adequately argued for. They then draw inferences q, r, and s, from p that they treat as being true because they comport with p.’ But because some think that p is not established, q, r and s are unwarranted inferences. Being opinionated is to treat p as settled when it is not and where others believe that the person doing so should know better. This has certainly bee a charge against some philosophers of religion. While it may be true of POR ,it seems to me that the issue of ‘being opinionated’ applies to other areas of philosophy. For example, in political philosophy and environmental ethics, I find that some philosophers/economists take the notion of Lockean or Nozickian property rights as a given; an unargued for starting point to use in understanding our moral obligations to others. Is this what you have in mind?

      March 21, 2014 — 11:45
      • Michael Almeida

        Hi John,

        The example from political philosophy seems importantly different. A Lockean theory of rights, while not established as the received or broadly accepted account of rights, is regarded as a view one could reasonably take. So, it is in the ballpark of reasonably endorsed views, let’s say. Now compare that with Peter van Inwagen’s defense* of how there could be the vast amount, distribution and duration of evil we actually find in a world sustained by God. He gives what we might call a traditional Christian account that he says is, “for all we know, true”. But is such a view in the ballpark of reasonably endorsed views? Keep in mind, this is what I call a defense*, not a Plantingan defense. It is an account that is supposed to be, for all we actually know, true, so the evidence for the view must make it sufficiently credible to work as an explanation of why there is so much evil. Plantinga never offered a defense*. Is there sufficient evidence to make van Inwagen’s just so story credible enough that it is among the reasonably endorsed views? I think many philosphers would say that it isn’t. Many of us have faith that such just so stories are approximately true, but that is another question altogether.

        March 21, 2014 — 14:05
  • Philip

    I’m not sure if this will be addressing what your post is asking to be addressed, but I feel like this phenomenon is very understandable from a psychological perspective. If a philosopher is a good one, he’ll investigate his assumptions starting with the very first one. To do this he might have a conversation with a colleague about it, or read up on any articles on the matter. Then once he’s become acquainted with the relevant points to be made, he’ll come to a position on the matter, and begin to integrate it into a bigger schematic view. Now suppose someone comes along *years* later and starts to argue with the philosopher about that much-earlier-formed assumption. If that philosopher spent a good while investigating that assumption, this conversation might strike him as boring, and if he is ambitious and ultimately wants his overall schematic view to be making a difference in the field, it will also be frustrating. Being opinionated ends up being a way of saying ‘I spent a long time on this, I know all the moves to be made, and I’m not interested in doing a scene in my life this many times over.’

    The point about knowing all the moves to be made is an important one – often times in avoiding a conversation, it is done on the premise ‘Well I know if I say X, he’s going to say Z, and I don’t think Z is a good reply.’ And it just doesn’t seem worth it to even say X at that point.

    So I think the phenomenon comes from a frustrated sense of urgency in philosophers – aren’t we ever going to get anywhere? I’m only going to be alive so long, and I don’t want to go to my grave having had so many conversations about assumption 3a, section IV, subpoint B, line 4, clause 2, word 8. If people really want to know the truth on that issue, the arguments are out there!

    But yes, very frustrating to someone who thinks that assumption is a key crack in an overall schematic.

    March 24, 2014 — 0:54
  • It could also turn out that certain forms of opinionation are epistemically good for the discipline even if epistemically bad for the opinionators. 😐

    March 25, 2014 — 10:56
    • Michael Almeida

      I’m sure that’s true, Alex. But the example above (PvI’s use of what I’ve called a defense*) does not seem like such a case.

      March 25, 2014 — 11:41
  • Heath White

    1) To follow up on remarks by Philip and Alex: I think it’s useful here to reflect on Kuhn’s distinction between “normal science” and “revolutionary science.” Briefly, when doing normal science there is a well-understood paradigm in place and scientists are working on relatively minor anomalies. When doing revolutionary science, the paradigm is in question and very fundamental matters are at stake. The demand that there be no “opinionated philosophy” seems to be the demand that philosophers always be doing revolutionary science, i.e. questioning their most fundamental assumptions, so long as those are controverted. Realistically, philosophy of religion is always going to be fundamentally controverted. But this will mean that no philosophical paradigm/worldview/synthetic vision will get well worked out. I think it’s okay to just bracket fundamental questions sometimes, in the interests of working out further details of a view that not everyone agrees with fundamentally. And it’s okay if we divide the labor so that some philosophers never ask the fundamental questions in their own work—maybe they don’t have anything interesting to say!

    2) A lot of people hold that a necessary condition to be doing “philosophy” proper is that one not rely on arguments from authority. (Or at least, controversial authorities, e.g. the Magisterium.) But many philosophers do believe some important things basically on authority. There is a legitimate intellectual project of working out the consequences (e.g. for social and political philosophy) of those beliefs. We might want to call it “theology” since it relies on authority. But the skills involved are philosophical and it won’t be surprising if philosophers do some of it, and then publish in their journals. This may not be interesting to those who do not accept the deliverances of the Magisterium (for example). But who said everything had to be interesting to everyone? (A lot of people publish on projects I have no use for whatsoever. So what?)

    3) A lot of different attitudes toward fundamental assumptions can result in the practical upshot of not defending them. “I’m bracketing them,” “These are justified without further propositional evidence,” “These require no justification,” “I’m not in the business of defending them,” “I believe them on authority [which I take to be justified],” “I’m telling a just-so story,” “I’m offering a mere defense,” incredulous stares, and so on. Some of these attitudes are perhaps more justified/useful/less obnoxious than others. I’ve given some reasons above why I think it might be fine to fail to defend one’s fundamental assumptions in certain contexts. But one critique of “opinionated philosophy” might be that certain of the less-justified of these attitudes are too-frequently adopted. Maybe that is a way to sharpen your point.

    March 25, 2014 — 12:04
    • Alexander Pruss

      Consider two seriously metaphysical papers.

      Paper 1 argues that because transsubstantiation occurs, space is substantival.
      Paper 2 argues that if transsubstantiation occurs, space is substantival.

      Both papers use exactly the same arguments to go from transsubstantiation to substantivalism. In fact, the papers are identical except that Paper 1 starts with the sentence: “Transsubstantiation occurs” and ends with “Thus, space is substantival”, while Paper 2 starts with the sentence: “Suppose transsubstantiation occurs” and ends with “Thus, if transsubstantiation occurs, space is substantival.”

      Paper 1 is opinionated about transsubstantiation, a controversial doctrine that most philosophers deny. Paper 2 is not opinionated about it.

      Paper 1 asserts claims that Paper 2 does not. But in terms of contribution to the philosophical enterprise, does it matter much which kind of paper someone who accepts transsubstantiation writes? After all, any competent philosopher who accepts transsubstantiation can see if that Paper 2 is successful, then the conclusion of Paper 1 is true, and any competent philosopher who does not accept transsubstantiation who reads Paper 1 can see that if the metaphysics in the middle of the paper is successful, then the paper establishes the conclusion of Paper 2. So it seems that both papers make the same contribution to our philosophical enterprise.

      But that was too quick. If, for instance, Catholicism has a privileged position among philosophers, as it once did but no longer does, then Paper 1 involves a kind of silencing of non-Catholic philosophers, while Paper 2 contains no such silencing. Thus in cases Catholicism has a privileged position among philosophers, Paper 2 may be preferable. But when Catholicism does not have such a privileged position–as indeed it currently does not–the silencing issue tends not to be a big deal.

      But the silencing issue does come up in other cases. Naturalism has the privileged position that Catholicism once had among Western philosophers, and a paper that takes naturalism for granted does engage in a silencing of those philosophers who are not naturalists. Thus, for reasons of power, it would be better if naturalists wrote in a conditional mode. At the same time, there may be defeaters to this.

      There is another advantage of Paper 2 that applies independently of the power cases. If you just look at the beginning and end of Paper 1, you don’t know how much of Catholicism was relied on in getting to the conclusions. In Paper 2, this is much clearer. And making the inferential structure clearer is always a merit. But of course Paper 1 can remedy this by saying explicitly at the beginning that transsubstantiation will be the only controversial unargued-for premise.

      March 26, 2014 — 13:58
      • Michael Almeida


        I think the papers make importantly different contributions to the philosophical literature. If successful, P! shows something really important, viz. substantivalism about space is true. P2 does not make any attempt to establish this. But I agree that it can be very important too to establish the conditional claims, since no one might have noticed the connection between these theses. The silencing issue is really interesting and I think it is exactly right to say that dominant approaches to philosophical issues do tend to silence non-naturalistic approaches. That just didn’t occur to me.

        March 26, 2014 — 15:08
  • Michael Almeida

    Thanks Heath! I do want to admit that the post is exploratory to some degree–trying to determine just what the charge of opinionated philosophy (usually as leveled against philosophy of religion) comes to. But I’m trying to be fair about it. So, for instance, I don’t think the objection is that PR is not always engaging in the analogue of revolutionary science. Of course PR is not doing that, but that is no serious objection. But then he fact that PR brackets a lot of important questions does not amount to much of a charge either. And it is not a big deal, as you note, that PR takes other sorts of legitimate attitudes toward assumptions that permit authors not to address them epistemically. So, then, what is the problem? It has to involve using assumptions in a way that is not legitimate, and it has to be a use that is common (not just an idiosyncratic problem). John Alexander (above) notes that political philosophers will sometimes write as though the Lockean rights is correct, without some much as defending that account (or bracketing or whatnot). I think that move is legitimate and I tried to explain why. The Lockean account of rights is one among many that (lots of ) philosophers regard as genuine contenders for the correct account. It’s regarded as one that a philosopher might reasonably endorse. So there typically isn’t much need for moving the argument up a level and request a defense of the Lockean account (though there could be occasion for this in some discussions). But what happens in PR is that assumptions are made as though they were among those that are genuine contenders for the correct account of x when in fact they are objects of faith (not objects of knowledge or even much justification). To illustrate this, I took van Inwagen’s unusual use of philosophical defense (defense*, to distinguish it from what Plantinga calls defense). van Inwagen does offer what he expressly calls a ‘just so’ story, but he urges that the story has a certain epistemological status. It is a story that, for all we know (he says, if I recall correctly) is true. Now the story told is a traditional Christian story about the source of evil, it’s distribution and duration. Here I think we’d not be very scrupulous epistemically if we did not object to the claim that it is, for all we know, true. Is that detailed, traditional Christian story a genuine contender for the truth about actual evil? Is it, for all I know, the truth about actual evil? I take it the story would have to be, on the facts that we have, as epistemically good as any other story we might have about the source, distribution and duration of evil. That claim, I’d suggest, needs a lot of argument; it is not something that philosophers (not even philosophers of religion generally) would grant. I speculated that the problem is that things that many of us believe (even believe strongly) on faith are being conflated with things that are, for all we know, true.

    March 25, 2014 — 12:52
    • Heath White

      My definition of “P is true, for all we know” is “We don’t know that P is false”. It does not mean “P has at least as good an epistemic status as any competing Q.” I take it that we don’t know van Inwagen’s story is false, but you think it does not have as good an epistemic status as competing Q’s.

      Maybe your objection is that PVI does a bait-and-switch. He presents a story with the status “true for all we know” and then asks us to take some more positive epistemic attitude, as if (e.g.) it had as good an epistemic status as any alternative. That’s not legit, one might think.

      I tend to think this happens with Plantinga’s FWD. He presents a story as epistemically possible. But many Christian philosophers then run with it, and defend it, as if it were true and ought to be believed. My diagnosis is this: they think the FWD is the only contender for refuting the logical problem of evil, they are antecedently committed to that problem having a refutation, and so the FWD must be true. Maybe Van Inwagen is reasoning in the same vein (a bit of mind-reading follows). He is antecedently committed to the (wider) problem of evil having a solution, the traditional Christian story is the only live contender or perhaps the best one, so he winds up sliding from a just-so story to presenting it as worthy of some higher epistemic status.

      If this is an illegitimate move, it results from the undefended antecedent commitment to (say) the problem of evil having a solution. You can’t get a higher epistemic status for the conclusion than you start with in the premises, so if this commitment is not a justified belief then the respective conclusions won’t be either, and shouldn’t be treated as such.

      I think this sort of thing ought to be cleared up, but I tend to think that’s all it is—clearing up. It is a little tricky to describe the epistemic status of “best contender for specification of a more general belief which may or may not be held on faith” or some such, but it can be done, and it would help if folks were clearer about it.

      March 25, 2014 — 14:16
      • Michael Almeida


        I’m about to run, but a quick word on PvI’s ‘for all we know, true’. Your reading of this is tempting, but it can’t be right I think. You read it this way ‘for all I know p is true’ just is ‘I do not know that p is false’. But the latter is compatible with ‘there are much better atheistic accounts of evil’. I’m certain that PvI’s account of the origin, duration, distribution of evil would fail if he conceded that his account was not as good as the atheistic accounts of evil (say, the biological utility of pain, etc. account). What would he have succeeded in doing, were he to grant the preferability of the atheistic account (or, for that matter, of another, distinct, theistic account). So, I think he is going to have to urge that his account is at least as good (epistemically) as any of these).

        More on Plantinga’s defense later. Thanks for the thoughts on this.

        March 25, 2014 — 14:28
      • Michael Almeida

        I tend to think this happens with Plantinga’s FWD. He presents a story as epistemically possible. But many Christian philosophers then run with it, and defend it, as if it were true and ought to be believed. My diagnosis is this: they think the FWD is the only contender for refuting the logical problem of evil, they are antecedently committed to that problem having a refutation, and so the FWD must be true.

        I have heard philosophers offer the free will defense (and then criticize it) as an account of the evil we actually find. van Inwagen is talking about actual evil, Plantinga is not (though he does have something to say about it in NN). Plantinga’s FWD is nothing more or less than a consistency proof. And it’s success depends on nothing more than the broad logical possibility that God and evil are compossible. This is all he needs to show that Mackie’s strong claim of inconsistency is false. I think Plantinga comes close to succeeding (I’ve argued that, finally, he underestimates what God can do), but he does not fail for reasons having to do with a bait and switch. At least, I don’t see it. I’ve seen others misuse the argument, overestimate what AP is doing with it, criticize him for failing to do things with FWD that he did not attempt to do, etc. But I don’t think Plantinga’s defense has the problems van Inwagen’s defense* does.

        March 25, 2014 — 16:38
      • Alexander R Pruss


        “My definition of ‘P is true, for all we know’ is ‘We don’t know that P is false’.”

        I think that may be a little too weak. Suppose you have a justified Gettiered true belief that P is false. It doesn’t seem correct to say: “For all Heath knows, P is true”.

        Maybe “P is true for all x knows” is something like “x does not have very strong evidence against P”?

        March 27, 2014 — 10:35
        • Heath White

          I’m going to stick with my original definition. Because I take “For all Heath knows, p is true” to be equivalent to “For all Heath knows, p is not false.” And if I have a gettiered justified true belief that p is false, I don’t know it is false (that being the whole point of Gettier examples). So it would be incorrect to say “Heath knows p is false” and that, I think, suffices for “For all Heath knows, p is true.”

          But suppose I am wrong about that. Still, “For all Heath knows, p is true” is quite different—however we slice it—from “Given Heath’s information, p has at least as good epistemic status for him as any competing q.”

          March 28, 2014 — 8:57
          • Michael Almeida

            It won’t help PvI to read ‘for all I know p’ in the way you do. So I don’t think this can be what he has in mind. That aside, asserting ‘for all I know, you, Smith, passed the test’, when in fact you know that the evidence is good that Smith did not pass, is really misleading. It’s true that you do not know that Smith failed, but you know he probably did. It seems at least strained to me to say for all I know p when I do know probably not-p.

            March 28, 2014 — 9:25
  • One might get the impression that PoR is inordinately “opinionated” because much of what is in the magisteria is passé to the wider naturalistic profession. They take the content of the theistic magisteria to be eminently controvertible; I doubt they think the same is true of the content of the naturalistic magisteria. The situation might be reversed if 75% of practicing philosophers today were theists. It might be naturalists, then, who appear inordinately opinionated, carrying on with a program that takes at least 75% of their colleagues work to be misguided in the essentials.

    The difference, though, is that theists have no shortage of arguments for their stock essentials, whether theists make up 10% or 75% of the profession. But the fact that 75% of currently practicing philosophers are naturalists somehow makes it OK for them to take their stock essentials for granted without need for much (if any) argument.

    March 26, 2014 — 9:49
    • Michael Almeida

      Hi Chad,

      You have a reductive explanation of a common criticism of theistic responses to POR. By a reductive explanation I simply mean one that “explains away” the alleged error in these theistic responses. On your view, at least as I read it, the criticism is due to some sociological bias among naturalistic philosophers. Since their views are dominant among philosophers and incompatible with typical theistic assumptions in replies to POR, the naturalists are inclined to find the latter opinionated. I’m sure there’s something to this, but I’m anxious to determine whether there is a genuine error occurring (an error of the sort described above) in theistic responses to, among other things, POR.

      March 26, 2014 — 11:37
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