Saturday, July 5, 2014

Am I a gnu?

This is something of a parting note to the folks at Victor Reppert's DI, as well as a new beginning for my efforts at expressing my ideas on my own terms.  I had the mistaken impression that public blogs are open forums for the exchange of ideas.  I was urged to leave Victor's blog, I think, for the crime of being a 'gnu', as they call it.

What is a gnu?  I achieved this label almost immediately upon my entry into the discussions there, about two years ago.  I asked the question repeatedly, but never got a satisfactory answer.  Over time, I have arrived at the answer by observing who gets labelled this way, and discerning the common characteristics of those people.  So here's what I think it means:

The term 'gnu' is a derisive epithet (at least among Victor's crowd).   It applies only to atheists.  But it doesn't apply to all atheists.  It seems to refer to those who express their non-theistic ideas firmly or vigorously, so atheists who are accommodationist or who remain deferential or sympathetic to theistic beliefs generally don't get this label applied to them.  They are known as "the good atheists".  But there's more to it than that.  Even firmly expressed atheistic beliefs are tolerated by these people if they are expressed in the manner of one who is knowledgeable in the field of philosophy.  In summary, if you wish to avoid the 'gnu' epithet, you should be one of the following: a theist; a philosopher (or one who sounds like a philosopher);  an accommodationist (or one who refrains from stating atheistic beliefs with any degree of conviction).

It is worth noting here that behavior does not seem to factor into the equation.  I have observed many instances of name-calling, ridiculing, ad hominem attacks, swearing, bullying, and other kinds of abusive behavior, without anyone raising an eyebrow.  Apparently, if you're a theist or a philosopher, these things are acceptable.

Victor's most recent post is a good example of what he sees as the kind of exchange that should occur between theists and atheists.  It is a debate between Ed Feser and Keith Parsons.  It started out as a snarky combox exchange between the two, and then turned into a formal debate.  Victor should take note that even these two philosophers, as long as they were simply making comments on internet blogs, didn't exactly live up to the ideal of Socratic debate.  What struck me about it was that early on, they both agreed that 'gnus' bring nothing of value to the table, and from that point on, it was a cordial (and rather formal) exchange between theist and atheist philosophers.  (But at least Parsons admits that these 'gnus' might have a point to make: "I think some of their arguments, with a bit of work, can be made strong.")

This is what I call philosophical elitism.  It is the belief that philosophers, and only philosophers, are able to understand or discuss the important questions in a meaningful way.  But I beg to differ.  There is something that is often severely lacking in exchanges like this - something that adds an important dimension to the discussion.  It is science.  And if someone who is not a philosopher tries to tries to inject some scientific understanding into the discussion, he may be accused of 'scientism', or called ignorant and boorish.  Let me just say that while there is some merit to those claims, it can just as well be said that philosophical elitists can be just as ignorant and boorish on matters in which they are not educated.  Often, they are just plain jerks.  They can raise the eyebrows of any ordinary thinking person.  As this blogger so aptly put it:
For in the final analysis, wasn’t this where Socrates went wrong? He famously went from one end of Athens to the other, asking the bakers "What is the essence of bread making?", and asking the masons "What is the secret of cutting stone?" Then, when these working-class individuals had patiently distilled their career into words, Socrates twisted those words and threw them back in their faces, maintaining that he knew more about their professions than they did. Irony indeed, for a Socrates who had never cracked an egg or held a chisel to claim that he understood it better than people who did it for a living. Socrates had no skill but talking, and Lord, could he talk. As his fellow citizen Aristophanes discovered, he could prove that up was down, that left was right … and that right was wrong. No wonder they sentenced him to death. Had I been among his jurors, I would not only have voted to convict — I would have volunteered to feed him the hemlock myself.
But don't get me wrong.  There are plenty of down-to-earth philosophers.  As for myself, I believe that philosophy and science should go hand-in-hand.  Discussions that bar one or the other from the table are apt to miss important aspects of understanding that could have significant bearing on the issue at hand.  I am definitely more educated in science than philosophy, and I bring a scientific perspective to the discussion, but I don't think it's fair to call me a scientific elitist, or a 'scientismist'.  I am willing to learn.

I hope to post my thoughts here from time to time, and I invite everyone to join the discussion.  Feel free to criticize, to disagree, to engage in heated exchanges, and to strongly assert your perspective.  Also, you should expect, as I do, that nobody is immune from criticism, or that your ideas and beliefs are sacrosanct.  Let's just try to keep it civil.

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