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Unbelievable comments about philosophy

November 25, 2016

The recent Unbelievable? debate between Tim Keller and Jeremy Rodell contained an almost unbelievable comment on the place of philosophy in the modern world.

Unbelievable? is a weekly podcast and radio show hosted by Justin Brierley. Justin invites a Christian and a non-Christian to discuss various aspects of faith and life (I’ve interviewed Justin about the show on my own podcast here). A couple of weeks ago Justin hosted American Christian and ‘pastor to the skeptics’ Tim Keller and atheist Jeremy Rodell (dialogue officer for the British Humanist Association).

They were discussing the question: Do humans make sense without God?

The discussion covered topics such as the definition of ‘secular’, reflection on the extent to which  (if at all) atheism is a ‘faith’ position, discussion on the origin and type of values (the moral argument), and discussion on identity and hope.

An unbelievable comment

I tended to enjoy the debate and it provided much food for thought and further discussion. Yet the debate took a surprising turn right at the end (around the 1 hour 8 minute to 1 hour 10 minute). Jeremy Rodell made a surprising and almost unbelievable comment.

When it came to sharing final thoughts Rodell asserted that a person should base what you believe on evidence and ‘I don’t see any evidence for Tim’s worldview’.

However the problem with Rodell’s statement is that whilst it is intuitively appealing, it is actually philosophically flawed. The claim that you should base what you believe on evidence is self defeating, because this assertion itself is not based on evidence. Where is the evidence for that statement? That claim cannot be demonstrated through ‘evidence’, it must be assumed.

This claim is similar to the assertion that science is the only form of legitimate knowledge. This is also a self-defeating statement because that statement is itself not a scientific claim, demonstrating that a form of ‘truth’ can be determined outside of science.

After Keller and Brierley responded to Rodell correctly outlining the inconsistency of his position, Rodell made an unbelievable comment in response. He dismissed the philosophical challenge of his statement by saying,

That’s where philosophy doesn’t help us live our lives.

I echoed Keller’s response at this point which was:


Did he really say that?

When the philosophy underlying his worldview was pointed out as flawed, his response is to propose that well, “that’s where philosophy doesn’t help us live our lives”.

The great philosopher (ironically) Socrates  states that the unexamined life isn’t worth living. Unfortunately for Rodell, it appears he hasn’t quite examined the livability nor philosophical robustness of his own philosophical assumptions.

I was genuinely surprised to hear that statement and attitude and it raises several questions:

What is the value of philosophy?

Philosophy is foundational to any attempt to gain knowledge, understand the world and discern truth. We all adopt a philosophical position (even if we’re unaware of it – or wish to ignore it). So what does Rodell think is the value of philosophy at all?

It would appear that Rodell thinks it’s value is low.

Is Rodell (and this type of atheist) truly rational? 

Surely robust philosophy is necessary to under-gird any attempt to be rational? It would hard to say one is ‘rational’ yet adopt a position which is philosophically confused. Surely a rationally consistent position would not incorporate a clear self-contradiction or self-defeating statement?

Indeed, it is hard to believe that Rodell’s position is rational and unfortunately Rodell’s dismissal of philosophy when it challenges his position, seems intellectually lazy and naive.

Is it really philosophy that has failed us? 

Rodell is certainly correct in asserting that something has failed us. Yet rather than asserting that this is philosophy doesn’t help us in our day to day lives, perhaps it’s Rodell’s naive evidentialism that fails us? Due to the inconsistencies and self-contradictions apparent in Rodell’s position, it would appear that his claim to live life only by evidence, is truly the thing that doesn’t help us.

In light of these thoughts and questions, it seems that Rodell’s comment about philosophy is truly unbelievable!

From → Comment, Philosophy

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