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Michael Robbins

Letter to a Friend

On epistemic charity.

Dear John,

You write of holocausts. I know. How could I not know? "Nature, red in tooth and claw / With ravine, shriek'd against his creed." I will never not understand why someone cannot bring himself to believe.

But let's put belief to one side for a moment. Whether theism is true or false, I can't look away from the conceptual thinness of what the philosopher John McDowell calls "bald naturalism," which simply affirms that natural-scientific knowledge is the only kind of knowledge there is, without addressing (or, rather, while refusing even to admit) the obvious epistemological tensions that confront the relationship of empirical content to experience.

There is another kind of intelligibility, one those sympathetic to bald naturalism (Daniel Dennett, for instance) attempt feebly to explain away by, as McDowell puts it, giving "perspicuous descriptions of the material constitution of, say, perceivers, in such a way as to make it intelligible that things composed of mere matter can possess the relevant complex of capacities." This intelligibility is what McDowell refers to as "a 'How possible?' question," which "expresses a distinctive kind of puzzlement, issuing from an inexplicit awareness of a background to one's reflection that, if made explicit, would yield an argument that the topic of the question is not possible at all." It is this kind of question that has been asked by the Pre-Socratics, Leibniz, and Heidegger—why does anything exist at all, rather than nothing? "To respond to a 'How possible?' question of this kind in, so to speak, engineering terms, with a perspicuous description of the requisite material constitution, would be plainly unhelpful; it would be like responding to Zeno by walking across a room."

In a slapdash reply to an article I published at Slate, the evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne provides just such a response. First, he pretends ...

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