Chances are probably quite high that you've heard the following: "What has philosophy ever done for everyone? Everyone has their own opinions and philosophy has really never accomplished anything practical. When you really look at philosophy, it's simply just some sort of intellectual masturbation." Are these sentiments accurate?
While I would perhaps expect 'persons on the street' to think like this, even though it is quite unfortunate, I would not expect academics to make comments like this. Nevertheless, PhD biologist Jerry Coyne, well-known for his book "Why Evolution is True" and the blog of the same name, said that research regarding what would happen if certain factors were true is "moot" and "an exercise in "mental masturbation" when commenting on the problem of free will and divine foreknowledge. Is Coyne right?
While using public transportation a few weeks ago, a man sitting near me told me that I should have been on the bus yesterday because there was "conversation about everything." I asked him if there was conversation about science, religion, and philosophy because I typically distrust those who use the word 'everything' or 'all' in various settings and he started a conversation with the 'wrong person.' He said philosophy is just a waste of time because no one can know what is really true and the truth varies from person to person. Unbeknownst to him, he just contradicted himself because and his reasoning would lead to contradictions. If the truth varied from person to person, and this man believes that no one can know what is true, couldn't I say that truth doesn't vary from person to person. Ironically, or not, philosophy would have helped him.
When considering what fruits philosophical thinking can bear, I first think of the intrinsic value of knowledge and the pursuit of knowledge. I find conversation, learning new information, argument, publishing my own views, and so much more to be absolutely enthralling and very beneficial for myself and hopefully those who read my work. Putting our ideas 'on the table' for criticism and reading ideas from those who happen to disagree with us or may take another perspective can be a great thing.
I doubt that Coyne would write off all philosophical discourse, but it seems quite apparent that he believes thought experiments of at least some sorts, particularly those involving a god, are a waste of time and effort. I would also find it hard to believe, for instance, that Coyne believes that thinking about alternate/parallel universes and time travel is a waste of time. Why, then, should some thought experiments be "moot," as Coyne says, while others are not?
Interestingly, I've previous written on free will and divine foreknowledge. I have argued that free will and an omniscient being are incompatible. Regardless of whether an omniscient being exists, I have learned a good deal of valuable information from this deliberation particularly on matters of time, truth, logical first principles, problems for many kinds of theistic belief, and causation. If one can argue effectively and understands the problems surrounding the incompatibility of free will and divine foreknowledge, one can levy a powerful objection against various forms of theistic belief and much more.
Coyne, in a post on his blog, objects to a research project regarding free will and divine foreknowledge simply because he believes that there is no God in the first place. Shall we then apply this same reasoning to any other given thought experiment? If not, why not? Why draw the line at God? What is the reasoning for not dismissing other thought experiments?
In the realm of free will, a popular and valuable thought experiment of sorts involves Frankfurt Counter-Examples. Suppose, for instance, unbeknownst to you, that a device was lodged in your brain that would trigger if you happened to refrain from partaking in a specific action such as eating pizza for lunch tomorrow. When the device triggered, would would feel compelled to eat pizza. At lunch tomorrow, the device never triggered and you ate the pizza. In this situation, you did not have the ability to refrain from eating pizza, but some would say that such an action was a free choice even though you lacked the ability to 'do otherwise.' Shall this example be "moot" and "intellectual masturbation" because such a device does not exist? I think not.
Responding to some criticism on his blog, Coyne further notes that research involving free will and divine foreknowledge "is not philosophically interesting in the absence of an omniscient being [...] That exercise is not philosophy, it's theology. And it's a waste of money, for it accomplishes nothing." Again, Coyne misses the mark and makes a very silly error. We can 'do philosophy' considering any sort of god and this would not consider the work to be theology. After all, one crucial difference between theology and philosophy [of religion] is that theology 'takes God for granted' while philosophy holds God as a contention - a debatable topic that isn't simply assumed to be true.*
Coyne further compares research on free will and divine foreknowledge to be similar to musing about "how fairies would keep their wings dry in the rain" among other things such as "how Santa manages to deliver all those presents to billions of kids in only one evening." Coyne also writes, "Why is that any more valid that wondering how an omnimalevolent God could allow good in the world, or why an omnibenevolent God allows evil." All of these topics are clearly not in the same category. Questions regarding the problem of evil have been tremendously fruitful and have led theists to atheism (!). The problem of evil, as Coyne should know, is one of the biggest threats to theistic belief. Questions of how an omnimalevolent god would allow good in the world were recently presented in the Craig/Law debate and I was greatly inspired to use such reasoning in a written debate of mine.
Ironically, Coyne tries to defend himself saying "I do take philosophy seriously, but only serious philosophy. [...] The kind of philosophy I do take seriously is ethical philosophy -- or any kind of philosophy that gives us logical tools to think about our beliefs, getting us to examine them closely and pointing out their fallacies." Thinking about free will and divine foreknowledge (especially for theists) will allow persons to think about their beliefs and point out fallacies.
Coyne and many others would do well to learn about the value of some philosophical discourse before they are so hasty to dismiss it.
*When I use the phrases 'takes for granted' and 'assumed to be true,' I'm not saying that persons simply 'pull God out of the sky,' but rather pre-suppose that God exists though whatever method and do not contend this point. Please, though, point me to theology which debates the existence of God and doesn't assume God if I am wrong. This would be a perfect opportunity for theistic readers to tell me I'm wrong even though they unfortunately hardly comment on my posts