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What Philosophy Can Do

by Gary Gutting, WW Norton, 2015

Professor Gutting teaches at Notre Dame, and he writes a regular philosophy blog for the New York Times.

What can philosophy do? Relatively little as an isolated discipline, he writes. But engaged with "all modes of knowing" it is a resource for "understanding, defending, and even revising our basic convictions."

He adds:

In our pluralistic society, there is a considerable variety of basic convictions, especially about religion, science, ethics politics and art. In a world of such intellectual diversity we encounter constant challenges to clarify, develop, and defend our convictions – hence the need for intellectual maintenance.

Gutting asks for discourse that tries to absorb and understand what the other is saying, which includes rendering in neutral language the main elements of the other's position – the Principle of Charity.

Gutting writes of the "cognitive authority of science in our society." If we want people to pay attention, we "need to present what at least looks like scientific evidence." We have trustworthy sciences such as physics, chemistry, and biology, and untrustworthy sciences, for example astrology, phrenology, and homeopathy. But we should be cautious regarding correlational studies. We have, he writes, something called Decision Theory (identifying values, uncertainties and other issues relevant to making the best decision), but what may be presented to us a science might be philosophical assumptions instead.

Gutting describes the theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking proclaiming that 'philosophy is dead'. Gutting writes:

In a return of sorts to their origin, the sciences have in recent years tried to use empirical research to answer questions previously considered the exclusive domain of philosophy. Physicists like Hawking are not hesitant to claim that their work supplants philosophy.

Gutting writes of neuroscientists who think they are "at least close to providing an entirely physical account of consciousness and proving that there no such thing as free will." Gutting warns against their assumptions (apparently believing as I do that they, and Hawking, are philosophically naive – as does the able philosopher I've mentioned elsewhere on this site, John Searle). Gutting mentions someone who apparently agrees with him and with Searle: the theoretical physicist David Albert, a "distinguished philosopher of science."

Gutting gets into the complexities of the theist-atheist arguments.Chapter 4 is titled "The New Atheists."This includes what I call the effect argument regarding the acceptance of a religious life. Gutting separates arguments for a religious way of life from claims of knowledge of a supreme being. He credits agnosticism and writes that he suspects that many professed Christians are not at all sure about Christianity's doctrines, and he writes that they "are, quite properly, religious agnostics."

In Chapter 6, "Happiness, Work, and Capitalism," he explores the philosophical nature of what some have passed off as questions for science. The chapter refers to liberals, including John Stuart Mill, use of the word "freedom" and Milton Friedman.

Gutting sees philosophy in the abortion question, the question whether the fetus is a person and what is a person. Holding to philosophy as a tool rather than a source, he favors a consensus position in concert with democracy and rejects the "demonizing rancor of true believers."

Gary Gutting writes that philosophy other than as a tool is useless. He faults Descartes for claiming that properly done philosophy can establish its own distinctive body of knowledge – the foundationalism. He holds that we have, and should have, preferences that are not legitimated by philosophical reflection, and writes:

If philosophy is supposed to be a way of proving what doesn't need any proof, then it is indeed useless.

Gotting says he does not believe in God, and also he writes (in the New York Times) that "In all honesty, I will admit that I don't have a definitive argument that God doesn't exist."

He writes:

I refuse to make the judgment that some make that it is positively irrational to believe in God in an objective sense. But without convincing affirmative reasons to believe, I'm stuck. If others find reasons that convince them, I'm willing to discuss them and consider them... I see people around me – often very smart and thoughtful people – who get great comfort from believing that God exists. Why wouldn't I want to be like them? It's just that I can't.

Born in 1962, Gary Gutting died on January 18, 2019.

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