:: Article

Life After Faith

Interview by Richard Marshall.


Philip Kitcher returns to 3:AM as part of the End Times series to discuss his thinking on ethics, Derek Parfit, on the use of stripped down thought experiments , on intuitions, on why we shouldn’t try for ethical peaks, on how he sees the ethical project, on what life after faith means for religion and science, on science and democracy, on Dewey and pragmatism, on science and values, on science education, on the point of philosophy, on Joyce’s Finnegans Wake and why life without literature and the arts is a mistake…


3:AM: You’ve written books on science in a democratic society, living with Darwin, the ethical project and an invitation to Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake. This is a broad field of interests and captures the flavour of your philosophical position where you argue for the importance of both science and humanities. How did your philosophical career begin? Were you always asking questions, reading and thinking?

Philip Kitcher: I rather stumbled into philosophy. When I began my undergraduate career at Cambridge, I studied mathematics (pure and applied, with a dash of theoretical physics). Under the British system, I’d had to specialize at age 15, and I found it very hard to decide between mathematics and literature (English, French, and German). After two years of undergraduate study, it was clear that I was bored by the regime of problem-solving required by the Cambridge mathematical tripos. A very sensitive mathematics don recommended that I talk to the historian of astronomy, Michael Hoskin, and the conversation led me to enroll in the History and Philosophy of Science for my final undergraduate year. I’d originally intended to concentrate in history of science, but reading Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions prompted me to switch to philosophy of science. Despite the fact that I hadn’t done any serious philosophy as Princeton understood it, I was accepted as a graduate student in the philosophy side of Princeton’s HPS program (now defunct). I struggled at first, but eventually managed to correct some of my initial ignorance.

But I think that, all along, I was occupied by a range of questions, often different from those fashionable in the professional philosophy of the past half century, that have sometimes troubled philosophers in the past. It’s taken me several decades to work out my own philosophical agenda, and it is, as your question suggests, wide. Some people would probably describe it as quite weird. Maybe this interview will dissolve some of that sense of weirdness.

3:AM: You wrote a review in The New RepublicThe Lure of the Peak’, of Derek Parfit’s ‘On What Matters’, his massive two volume book that ambitiously tries to reconcile three approaches to ethics that are usually seen as irreconcilable: consequentialists, Kantians and contractualists. You ultimately judge this to be a grand and brave failure. The problem in the final analysis seems to boil down to views about naturalism. Can you say something about how the rejection of Parfit’s vision of ethics sheds light on your own contrasting view?

PK: I have enormous respect for Derek Parfit, although he seems to me bound within an unfortunate philosophical tradition – rather like the extraordinarily brilliant exponents of Ptolemaic astronomy in the Middle Ages. Parfit believes that philosophers have a priori sources of knowledge that enable them to arrive at eternal truths. I don’t think that anything of any consequence is known a priori: all our knowledge is built up by modifying the lore passed on to us by our ancestors in light of our experiences, and the best a philosopher can do is to learn as much about what has been discovered in various empirical fields, and use it to try to craft an improved synthesis. That seems to me what the great philosophers of the past did, even when (like Kant) they were declaring that their proposed principles were known independently of experience. That’s part of my naturalism, which is more extreme than that of most philosophers (even Quine’s): Dewey and Mill are the only two figures I know who have been uncompromising in their naturalism. Moreover, in the case of ethics, my naturalism follows Dewey in thinking of ethics as an unfinished human project. So Parfit’s idea of a set of final principles from which all ethical truth flows strikes me as an illusion.

3:AM: Before moving on to look in detail at your own views, there are some things in the review that seem on the face of it rather strange. You don’t approve of his use of thought experiments in the book. You say, ‘Sensible conclusions cannot be reached by pitting imprecise principles against fanciful cases.’ Isn’t this a bit like criticizing philosophy itself? Aren’t the thought experiments Parfit uses standard. They are even the basis of experimental philosophy investigations into what folk think, as in Joshua Greene’s work. So aren’t you requiring standards that are themselves untypical and rigged to criticize Parfit’s approach? So the criticism is that your criticism, if allowed to go through, would end much typical philosophical investigation.

PK: Thought experiments work when, and only when, they call into action cognitive capacities that might reliably deliver the conclusions drawn. When the question posed is imprecise, your thought experiment is typically useless. But even more crucial is the fact that the stripped-down scenarios many philosophers love simply don’t mesh with our intellectual skills. The story rules out by fiat the kinds of reactions we naturally have in the situation described. Think of the trolley problem in which you are asked to decide whether to push the fat man off the bridge. If you imagine yourself – seriously imagine yourself – in the situation, you’d look around for alternatives, you’d consider talking to the fat man, volunteering to jump with him, etc. etc. None of that is allowed. So you’re offered a forced choice about which most people I know are profoundly uneasy. The “data” delivered are just the poor quality evidence any reputable investigator would worry about using. (I like Joshua Greene’s fundamental idea of investigating people’s reactions; but I do wish he’d present them with better questions.)

Philosophers love to appeal to their “intuitions” about these puzzle cases. They seem to think they have access to little nuggets of wisdom. We’d all be much better off if the phrase “My intuition is …” were replaced by “Given my evolved psychological adaptations and my distinctive enculturation, when faced by this perplexing scenario, I find myself, more or less tentatively, inclined to say …” Maybe there are occasions in which the cases bring out some previously unnoticed facet of the meaning of a word. But, for a pragmatist like me, the important issues concern the words we might deploy to achieve our purposes, rather than the language we actually use.

If the intuition-mongering were abandoned, would that be the end of philosophy? It would be the end of a certain style of philosophy – a style that has cut philosophy off, not only from the humanities but from every other branch of inquiry and culture. (In my view, most of current Anglophone philosophy is quite reasonably seen as an ingrown conversation pursued by very intelligent people with very strange interests.) But it would hardly stop the kinds of investigation that the giants of the past engaged in. In my view, we ought to replace the notion of analytic philosophy by that of synthetic philosophy. Philosophers ought to aspire to know lots of different things and to forge useful synthetic perspectives.

3:AM: You also dislike the idea of there being a peak in the sense that Parfit uses it. For you this is an ideal that cuts away the point of the moral enterprise itself, and is something that I think Susan Wolf also wonders about in the book itself. Why do you object to there being a formula, or set of rules which, once known, we could thenceforth apply? Isn’t this what ethics has always been about? In rejecting it, aren’t you changing the subject?

PK: Ethical inquiry has always been motivated by the aim of improving human conduct. It doesn’t follow from that that the goal is to produce a complete rule book that would be applicable to all cases. I’m very suspicious of the idea of a “final theory” in natural science, and the thought of a complete system of ethical rules seems even more dubious. You might even worry about whether, even if we could acquire the complete rule book, it would be ethically advantageous for people to defer to it.

A different vision of ethics is that of a collection of resources people can use to act better. The resources might be firm rules that could always be relied on. Or they might be ideals that could often be followed without thinking but that sometimes conflicted with one another. One goal of ethical inquiry might be to uncover strategies available for use when values conflict or when rules are incomplete. This different vision is Dewey’s, and it’s plainly visible in Aristotle; I’d argue that it’s even present in Kant and Mill, in some of their writings.


3:AM: Ethical naturalism for you is facing the predicament of being alive and trying to work out , ‘by looking, as carefully and as comprehensively as we can, at the details of ethical practice and ethical change’ what is to be done. From this you dispute the need for experts and suggest a much more democratic approach to ethical discourse? Again, haven’t we always had ethical experts – the priests, the gurus, the philosophers and saints? Aren’t you just tearing up the book and starting from some other place? To some, this might look like defeatism. The questions are too hard, so let’s stop asking them and ask something else instead. And isn’t then there a danger that the conjecture/refutation routine of scientific methodology that leads to discovery is lost. Is this where the influence of Kuhn is important in understanding your approach? Even Feyerabend? How do you respond to that sort of worry?

PK: My ethical naturalism sees us as facing the predicament of being social animals without evolved adaptations that make social life easy. The fundamental problem that sparks the ethical project lies in our limited responsiveness to one another. The only way we have to address that problem is through a representative, informed, and engaged conversation. Ethics, on this account, is a collective construction, constrained by the need to tackle the fundamental problem. We make ethical progress by obtaining – partial – solutions to that problem. Following Peirce and James, I take the ethical truths to be the stable elements that emerge out of ethical progress and that are retained under further ethical progress.

Although the conversation should represent all, and should thus be fully democratic, there’s a role for experts. They should facilitate the conversation, helping people to see alternative points of view, and to understand the limitations and advantages of various proposals. The expert is a midwife. The expert is not someone who has the authority to pronounce the last word on the subject.

Feyerabend seems to have wanted to throw away objectivity altogether. Kuhn was different. He clearly accepted the progressiveness of natural science, but refused to adopt a teleological account in terms of the acquisition of some prior truth. I’m articulating a similar type of account. In ethics, we don’t make progress by discovering pre-existent truths; we do so by solving problems. Truth is what we get by making progress. Because the problems are objective features of the human situation – social animals without the capacities for making social life come easily – ethics is objectively constrained. It’s not the case that “anything goes”.

I suspect that this approach will still trouble many people. It’s elaborated at much greater length in The Ethical Project, and in a more compressed (and, in some ways, improved) version in the second chapter of my most recent book, Life After Faith.


3:AM: One thing that surprised me in the article was that in your description of how ethical practices had developed you tell a kind of just-so story of the sort typically found in the cruder Darwinian-ethicist stories a la Pinker and Wilson. You have written against this sort of evolutionary psychology because it tends to be fanciful, dogmatic and over-elaborate in its purported explanations. Aren’t you making the same kind of error?

PK: A reasonable challenge – especially since my Vaulting Ambition was very harsh on evolutionary story-telling. When I try to outline the history of ethical life, it’s sometimes possible to find evidence for a hypothesis about how important transitions actually went. Often, however, that isn’t so. There are many facts about human life in the Paleolithic we’re never likely to know. But if I hypothesize that ethical life underwent a particular transition, I do owe the reader some account of how that transition could have occurred. So, in my historical narrative, I’m at some pains to distinguish “how-actually” explanations from “how-possibly” explanations. In this way, I avoid the questionable practice I have criticized elsewhere.

3:AM: Now you’ve taken an interesting position in the rather bad tempered discussions about the relationship between science and religion. You don’t deny that religion’s ontological claims (ie existence of Gods and spooks etc) are bogus but you still think there is something valuable in religion. And you don’t deny that scientific knowledge is genuine but you argue that bias in transmission, lack of transparency and undemocratic ownership of its knowledge makes science less than the highest good its apologists make for it. Is this right? Can you say something about this subtle and nuanced position that seems much more good natured than that of the belligerent Darwin wars backdrop?

PK: Life After Faith provides the best account of my views about religion. In that book, I argue against literal interpretation of religious doctrines. Religions make progress when they emancipate themselves from literalism, and take their doctrinal statements to be metaphors or allegories. Refined religion is aimed at realizing ethical values, including the fostering of human lives and human communities. At the present moment, many approximations to fully refined religion play a valuable role in sustaining the lives of disadvantaged people, in offering them genuine community, and in campaigning for social justice. Secular humanists should recognize those forms of religion as allies in the struggle for human advancement. They should also learn from them, as they try to build a fully secular world in which people can have the opportunity to live rich and fulfilling lives.

When we think about science, we tend to view its progress in terms of the accumulation of answers to questions. I’ve argued that we ought to go on to ask whether the questions are significant, to investigate what makes a question significant, and to consider whether the answers to significant questions are accessible to people who might benefit from them. My books Science, Truth, and Democracy and Science in a Democratic Society elaborate this socially-embedded approach to science and to scientific progress. As you point out, I don’t deny that scientific investigation is capable of delivering important truths about nature, but that doesn’t stop questions about whether, as it is practiced, science today lives up to its potential for benefiting humanity.


3:AM: Your intellectual hero is Dewey, and you go back to Milton and Mill to root your view that public democratic access to knowledge is a kind of ultimate requirement. You are arguing that science values and democratic values need to be put together. This strikes many as being wise and timely: many ask who gains from this great scientific knowledge being produced and there’s a suspicion that any social benefits are merely lucky side-products of science. You have thought extensively about these symptoms of alienation from science. Can you say something about your Deweyian views on this and your perspective on the requirement of a better ordered science than we have now?

PK: I’m enormously grateful to the late Sidney Morgenbesser, who realized that many of the themes I was developing in the 1990s were akin to ideas in Dewey. Conversations with Sidney were immensely valuable (and delightful). Dewey is my ideal of the synthetic philosopher. He focuses very clearly on issues about values as they arise in his times. He develops philosophical tools to tackle them – his metaphysics and epistemology isn’t an arid intellectual exercise but the prelude to investigation of concrete urgent problems.

In my work on science and democracy I’m both emulating Dewey’s method and reaching conclusions similar to his. I also view The Ethical Project as elaborating further the kind of approach to ethics that is scattered throughout many of his writings. My current work, aimed at developing a Deweyan pragmatism for our times, attempts to synthesize ideas on a broader scale.

3:AM: Isn’t there an inherent problem with a democratic science ideal in that science needs experts who do know better than the folk wisdom on matters of science? So how could there be democratic science in these circumstances? Isn’t this an in built feature of scaled up social reality and its division of intellectual labour? The threat is that we can’t all have expertise to understand what constraints we need to place on science?

PK: Of course expertise has a role. If there are to be appropriate judgments about what questions are significant, you need both the informed views of scientists who know what has been achieved and what future developments are promising and the reflective judgments of representatives of different groups who can identify what kinds of information are most urgently needed. My ideal of conversation that includes wide representation of perspectives, informed by the consensus view of current experts, pursued with an attempt to find a position with which all can live, brings the expert and the public dimensions together.

We can’t realize that ideal. But we can certainly do better at approximating it. To cite just one possibility, we might consider how biomedical research would be different if the needs of people in the poorer parts of the world were fully taken into consideration. In trying to develop a more inclusive conversation, we might learn from the work of James Fishkin and Bruce Ackermann on democratic polling.

3:AM: Another challenge is the ownership of science. Much of it is privately owned. Copyright laws and so on mean that individuals (or corporations) own the products of science, not democratic communities. So like in science fiction stories like the tv series ‘Fringe’ show a super smart scientific billionaire running amok in secret and there’s a paranoia about that Frankenstein ownes a plutocratic corporation . The issue of the plutocracy, and the secret state of a military industrial complex make science and technology out of democratic hands. So the argument that you put forward is really about politics, and this is a dimension that is left out of debates about science at our peril. Is this what you are arguing? Can you say something about this?

PK: I’m very concerned about the increasing distortion of research by the intrusion of the market. Universities, including my own, are beginning to see science as a means of attracting funds. Not only does that threaten types of investigation that might bring important future dividends, but it also intensifies the trend to orient research toward the felt needs of the wealthy. If the research agenda reflects “market forces”, the problems of the poor are likely to be even more neglected than they already are.

3:AM: You link many of your views to an argument linking values and science. Science is supposed to be value free, and the suspicion is that it isn’t. But doesn’t placing democratic value on science distort science just as much as the anti-democratic values many suspect are driving it at the moment?

It’s a very bad idea for scientific conclusions to be accepted because they fit with the political values of a group of researchers. It’s not at all a bad idea for scientific questions to be chosen because a democratic deliberation would identify them as important for people’s lives. Nor is it a bad idea for scientists who have partial evidence for a hypothesis to consider the value of the consequences that would ensue if that hypothesis were adopted and applied. There are many ways in which value judgments might enter into, or be absent from, decisions within the sciences. Some are problematic, others are welcome.

3:AM: Global warming, genetic engineering, bio-ethics are all issues that people are aware of and so what is at stake when you argue is pretty clear. But the impact of your ideas would bring about a pretty enormous social change wouldn’t it? We need a new kind of politics, new ways of educating ourselves, a new kind of ethics? If religion survives, even that needs renewing? Is this right? What do you propose are the mechanisms for this? After all, I might be completely convinced by your arguments, but then wonder what I’m supposed to do about it?

PK: The point of philosophy, as I see it, is to change thinking, and thereby to change the conversation. In my current work on global warming, I argue that the only apparent solution to the deep problem of climate change would require very large transfers of wealth from rich nations to poor nations, so that the entire world can make the transition to renewable forms of energy as fast as possible. Of course, that is politically unacceptable, and to propose it initially seems absurd.

Yet an important part of my position is that this solution is not only just and feasible, but deeply in our interests. The supposed absurdity of proposing wealth transfers stems from blindness on the part of the citizens of the affluent world. Those citizens are distracted by the toys technology has supplied, and fail to recognize the ways in which what they most deeply want is made vulnerable by the coming disruptions of human relations on an over-heated planet. Making this clear is an urgent philosophical task. It requires going back, seriously and straightforwardly, to Socrates’ old question: “How to live?”

As I work in this area, I’m often quite gloomy about the prospects for the human future. But, although I have no competence to intervene directly in a political movement, I hope that what I write may, in combination with the suggestions of others, cause a shift in perspective that will inspire a world-wide movement to accept the only solution to climate change. And before it’s too late.


3:AM: A particularly interesting argument you have is about education. You talk about ‘scientific literacy’. This has been dismissed in some circles as not real science but you are fierce in your defence of it, seeing it as the way of ensuring that there is science education for those who are not going to specialize. Can you say what science literacy is for you and why you think it is so very important?

PK: Current education in science treats all students as if they were going to have scientific careers. They are required to solve problems and memorize lists. For many of them, this kills interest very quickly. In my view, all students should be given an initial opportunity to pursue the science track as far as it goes. But for those who quickly decide that track isn’t for them, a different style of teaching is in order. That should acquaint them with important concepts, give them a sense of the character of scientific work, present some of the wonderful surprises of scientific discovery, and, above all, show how important scientific research continues to be to human life. Science literacy consists in the ability and the desire to follow reports of new scientific advances, throughout your whole life.

3:AM: As someone engaged in the very frontline of science, philosophy and politics, are you optimistic or pessimistic about the situation at the moment. Are there examples that you can give to give us a sense of where you think we are heading?

PK: As I said in answering an earlier question, I’m quite pessimistic about climate change. This is an urgent problem, and much of the world is only now waking up to the easiest part of solving – the realization that anthropogenic global warming is real. Beyond that lie the problems of understanding how serious the issues are (how deep the waters are going to be, to make a bad pun), and of seeing that it requires concerted efforts by all nations. Finally, the hardest problem of all is to appreciate the facts that the poor nations are – quite reasonably – not going to forgo their development, and that they can only afford to develop by consuming fossil fuels.

3:AM: There’s no doubt that this is philosophy very much engaged with the big issues of the day. So for the worried readers at 3:AM, are there five books you could recommend (other than yours which they’ll already be dashing out to get) to help illuminate the deep issues at stake in this?

PK: Samuel Scheffler Death and the Afterlife
Helen Longino Science as Social Knowledge
Nancy Cartwright The Dappled World
Joshua Landy How to do things with fictions
John Dupre The Disorder of Things


3:AM: And finally, your interest in Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, does this connect with your belief that to engage fully with the existential issues of the day we need to be able to work in diverse fields of intellectual enquiry and not think science is ultimate? Your approach is governed by the same question that governs all your philosophical enquiries it seems: ‘ What makes a life worth living?’ Can you say more about how you think reading FW can help us answer this fundamental question. And why this particular book is so life enhancing?

PK: I’ve already expressed my concerns about the stripped-down thought experiments many philosophers love. Those experiments should be contrasted with the detailed scenarios that literature often presents. I think we can learn an immense amount about how to live from reflectively engaging with literary works. (My book Deaths in Venice discusses this in some detail.) Like Joshua Landy (see recommendation above) I believe that the arts make indispensable contributions to our understanding.

Finnegans Wake is of philosophical importance because it deals so resolutely with the predicament of how to come to terms with the flaws and blotches on a human life at a stage when it’s no longer possible to alter that life’s fundamental pattern. In its probing of the retrospective view from old age, in which the same mistakes and failures are worked through, again and again, it invites readers to undergo an exercise of thorough self-examination.

I want to emphasize that this is only one way to read this remarkable book. It’s a novel that prompts us to write the central narrative ourselves. People can do that in many moods and in many ways. My interpretation starts from a particular philosophical problem, one I think that jumps out from FW’s most elegiac passages. But we should also remember that there’s “lots of fun at Finnegan’s wake”.

3:AM: So finally, finally, other than Joyce, which other literature have you found enlightening as you wrestle with these big philosophical themes?

All Joyce’s works are valuable in this regard. So are the major writings of other modernists – Proust, Thomas Mann, Musil. Above all, perhaps, are many of Shakespeare’s plays – including some of the comedies and histories. But I’m not yet ready to write about them.

Richard Marshall is still biding his time.

Buy his book here to keep him biding!

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Sunday, August 2nd, 2015.