It's been a little while since I've formally studied philosophy, so please forgive me if I get some of this wrong (and of course, please correct me).
The other day in my blog, I wrote an excoriation of the idea that the question of God's existence "should require further exploration." The essence of my excoriation: How, exactly, does this theologian propose that this exploration take place? What research does he propose doing? Does he plan to "explore" this question by doing anything at all other than sitting around in his living room thinking about it?
In response, Paul Crowley made a very fair point:
I think that there are ways in which the study of philosophy can be said to make progress, and in many ways there's not much more to philosophy than the activities you set out here.
A valid point, and one that deserves to be addressed. Especially since I have philosophers in my family, and to some extent consider myself one (albeit something of the armchair variety). And yes, I do think philosophy is a valid and important practice, one which can yield truth and insight. At least sometimes.
I had to think about this question for a bit, and this is definitely one of my "thinking out loud" pieces. But my initial, probably oversimplified response is this:
I think philosophers do have a responsibility to do more than just sit around and think.
I think philosophers have a responsibility, among other things, to keep up on the current science, and research in other fields of non- just- thinking- about- stuff investigation, that relates to their field.
If they're philosophers of epistemology or ethics, they should be keeping up with research in psychology, and sociology, and history. If they're philosophers of the mind and consciousness, they should be keeping up with research in psychology and biology. Philosophers of language need to stay current in the latest research and current thinking in linguistics. Political philosophers need to stay current in psychology and sociology (as well as history, of course). Etc.
And I think every philosopher, in just about every field of philosophy, needs to be paying attention to neuropsychology. Especially epistemologists, and ethicists, and philosophers of the mind and consciousness. But everybody, really. Aestheticians, logicians, political philosophers, philosophers of language -- everybody.
Because I think one of the main differences between philosophy and theology -- ideally, anyway -- is that philosophy deals with this world. The real world. The one we all live in and share. The one that we -- how shall I put this? -- know exists. (Or at least, the one that we know exists as well as we know anything.) It often deals with the real world in some rather abstract and arcane ways; it can often seem inaccessible and irrelevant (hell, it can often be inaccessible and irrelevant). But the basic idea is that it's meant to shed light on reality: human reality, and the reality of the world around us, and the relationship between the two.
Philosophy cares about the real world. And science is the best tool we've come up with so far for yielding accurate data and useful working theories about the real world. So philosophy should care about science. At the very least, it should be sure that it's not flatly contradicting the scientific consensus. And at the very best, it should be staying on top of the science, helping translate it to the layperson, putting it in context, and pointing to possible new fields of exploration and inquiry.
In other words: I think it's fine that philosophers largely just sit around and think... when what they're doing is thinking about reality as it's currently best perceived, informed by the best tools we have for perceiving it.
Which -- to bring it back to the main point -- is exactly what theologians don't do.
You can argue that theologians don't just sit around and think, either: they read, they study. But what do they read and study? Religious texts? Other theologians? History written by people who share their religious beliefs? Look at the theologians cited in my original piece on the weakness of modern theology. Their theologies reveal a blithe ignorance of (a) basic science that contradicts their theology, and (b) the lack of reliable historical support for their view of history. An ignorance that I frankly found shocking.
I'm sure that's not universal. I'm sure there are theologians who are reasonably well- versed in history and science and such. But again, I have to ask the question I asked yesterday, the question that I and every other atheist I know keeps asking again and again:
Is there anybody at all doing any sort of "exploration" into the field of theology, other than just sitting around thinking about it?
Is there any basic research being done to fuel the theologian's sedentary musings? Are there even any proposals on the table for how such basic research might be done? Is there any careful and rigorous observation of reality going on here at all? Or is it all simply a thoughtful, extensive, beautifully- worded exegesis on the state of one's navel?
And on the rare occasions that such reseach is being done -- such as the study on the efficacy of medical prayer, showing that prayer not only doesn't work but can be detrimental -- does any of it at all ever come out on the theologians' side?
Which brings me to another difference between philosophy and theology. Correct me if I'm wrong, but it seems to me that honest non-theological philosophers don't cheat in their arguments by inserting "Then a miracle occurs" at a crucial point. They don't cheat in their arguments by devoting paragraphs, or chapters, or indeed entire books, to justifying why they can legitimately argue for the objective truth of a statement by saying, "I feel it in my heart."
Reality matters to philosophy... and therefore science matters to philosophy. And I think philosophy matters to science, too. Or sometimes it does. The philosophy of science has been a tremendous force in shaping and improving the scientific method. The idea that a theory has to be falsifiable to be useful; the idea that the scientific community is a culture with cultural biases that need to be acknowledged; the idea that scientists work with assumptions that they hold onto until the evidence against them becomes overwhelming... these come from philosophy. (I once read an old piece by Martin Gardner, a review of Thomas Kuhn's "The Structure of Scientific Revolutions," seething with righteous outrage at the notion that the practice of science was anything less than perfectly objective and open- minded, and that scientists had any bias at all for old ideas over new ones. Kuhn's ideas are now not only not particularly controversial -- they've been folded into the scientific method.)
Yes, the activities of philosophy often don't amount to much more than sitting around thinking. But -- when it's done right -- it involves sitting around thinking about reality. Not just about stuff people have made up, but about the real world we live in. About things that we know, with a fair degree of certainty, to be true... and that we are willing to let go of if they later prove not to be true.
Which makes it very different from theology indeed.
(Note: The exception to this, I think, is the branches of philosophy that are less concerned with reality and more concerned with meaning, how we interpret the world and our experience of it. But (a) I think even those philosophers should probably be staying current with psychology and neuropsychology, and (2) unlike theology, those philosophies don't pretend to be about external reality while actually just being about the inside of the philosopher's head.)