Non-Story of the Year

Suppose Intelligent Design theorist Michael Behe announced that he was giving up biology. Or suppose the notorious catastrophist Immanuel Velikovsky had announced in the 1970s that he was “calling it quits” on astronomical research. Or suppose Einstein critic Petr Beckmann had announced before his death in the early 1990s that research in physics was no longer worth his time. Would academic blogs devoted to biology, astronomy, or physics have regarded these as “striking” developments, evidence that there might be something fishy about the disciplines in question? Obviously not. That someone whose views are radically at odds with those prevailing in his field decides to do something else instead is neither surprising nor noteworthy.

Somehow, though, the fact that middling atheist philosopher of religion Keith Parsons has decided to “hang up his hat” is being played up as what Joe Biden might call a Big F***in’ Deal, at least by those for whom philosophy is only ever politics by other means. The “story” first “broke” back in September – the lucky folks at The Secular Outpost were given the big “scoop” – and for some reason Religion Dispatches is now recycling it, complete with a photo of the great man himself staring off pensively toward the future, or at least toward the corner of his office. Parsons, it seems, has overnight become a Serious Thinker To Whom Attention Must Be Paid, his work suddenly worthy of the notice the press and profession had heretofore denied it, and precisely because he now says it isn’t worth anyone’s time. Funny old world!

All the same, others have been trying to stifle yawns, since Parsons’ retreat from the field is in fact about as objectively newsworthy as (say) my giving up libertarianism several years ago – the sort of thing that might be mildly interesting to those who are interested in that sort of thing, but hardly anything to stop the presses over.

In any event, I don’t mean to suggest that Parsons, Behe, Velikovsky, and Beckman are all on a par. That would be an insult to Behe, Velikovsky, and Beckman. For whatever one thinks of ID theory – and I have been very critical of it – it is evident that Behe knows far more about Darwinism than Parsons knows about philosophy of religion. Neither do I endorse the eccentric views of Velikovsky or Beckmann, but Beckmann knew more about relativity theory than Parsons does about philosophy of religion, and even Velikovsky probably knew more about astronomy. As I noted in an earlier post, Parsons’ work in philosophy of religion seems largely confined to answering recent analytic philosophers like Plantinga and Swinburne. That’s a start, I guess – not that he really does even Plantinga and Swinburne justice, but let’s grant it for the sake of argument – but it does leave the 2370 years worth of previous work in the field unanswered. In particular, it leaves out the great classical theistic tradition of Aristotle, Plotinus, Anselm, Augustine, Maimonides, Avicenna, Aquinas, Scotus, et al. – that is to say, the most important philosophers of religion – whose conceptions of God and of the arguments for His existence are very different from (and, many of us would say, far more powerful than) those of “theistic personalist” writers like Plantinga and Swinburne. And I would bet cash money that Parsons, who is evidently prone to the same myopic presentism that so many other contemporary philosophers exhibit, doesn’t know the difference any more than the average non-philosopher of religion does. (Not too much money, though, since Parsons might easily bone up on the subject just by reading earlier blog posts of mine, such as this one, or this one, or this one, or this one.)

In general, philosophers who tend to shoot off their mouths about how breathtakingly bad the traditional arguments for God’s existence are demonstrably do not know what they are talking about, as we have seen here, here, and here. And they are the sorts of people who rarely want to engage the actual arguments themselves in any depth anyway. They prefer to offer elaborate rationalizations for refusing to do so. Come on, theistic arguments are really all about rationalizing preconceived opinions!” – said without a trace of irony – “Besides, did this Thomist whose work you recommend ever publish an article in The Philosophical Review? Did he teach in a PGR-ranked department?” That kind of thing. Shameless ad hominems and straw men coupled with a snarky, careerist conformism, all served up as a kind of higher philosophical method. Or, to call it by its traditional name, sophism. And now they’ve got a new “argument” to bounce around their echo chamber. It goes like this: “Even Keith Parsons says so!”

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