My new book, Answers for Aristotle, is about to come out. It is an excursion, aimed at a general public, into what I call “sci-phi,” the practical conjunction of science and philosophy — a theme familiar to readers of this blog. If you wish, you can think of it as a self-help book for people who dislike self-help books. The basic idea is to explore “the big questions” (you know, the usual suspects: morality, relationships, politics) from the joint perspective of the best science and the most compelling philosophy available to date. After all, the standard answers to those questions come from either religion or folk wisdom, the first one being based on imaginary entities and their arbitrary pronouncements, and the second being, shall we say, somewhat more fallible than one would wish.
The first couple of pre-publication reviews were positive. Kirkus called it “a useful introduction to sources on both sides of the science-philosophy divide,” while Publishers Weekly said that it is a “careful examination of the surprising connections between science and philosophy ... a witty and insightful look at the relevance of philosophy today.” So far so good!
Then the review by Mark Blitz was published in The Weekly Standard (the neo-con magazine directed by Bill Kristol), and I knew there would be, ahem, misunderstandings. Blitz is the Fletcher Jones Professor of Political Philosophy and director of the Salvatori Center for the Study of Individual Freedom (of which Kristol is Chairman), at Claremont McKenna College, and is kind enough to say that Answers for Aristotle “is not a bad book,” but it’s clear that there isn’t much he likes about it.
Blitz begins by remarking that Answers joins “the current gaggle of semi-popular works meant to inform the eager, but ignorant, about what neuroscience and psychology say about this, that, or the other thing.” Well, no, actually, it is precisely that crowd that I don’t wish to join, hence my emphasis on both science and philosophy, an approach that Blitz blithely dismisses as a marketing ploy on my part. Besides, isn’t the point of popular books about topic X to inform those who are “ignorant” (literally, the ones who do not know) of X?
The first substantive issue raised by Blitz is that I am allegedly “a bit too beholden to academic authority” (hey, I’m a university professor!) on the odd ground that whenever I cite a source in the book I use the form “psychologist x, political scientist y, neurobiologist z.” I wondered what exactly is wrong with acknowledging the proper field of expertise of the people you mention, particularly in a book that deals with a multiplicity of disciplines. After all, you wouldn’t want me to cite psychologist x’s likely naive opinion of a philosophical argument, or neurobiologist z’s personal political opinion.
I didn’t need to wonder past the end of the same sentence: “and, most desperately, philosopher Peter Singer, as if his job title makes his views less, rather than more, ridiculous.” Ah! It shouldn’t surprise me that a writer for a neo-con magazine despises (not just disagrees with, but feels compelled to ridicule) one of the most influential (and, yes, controversial) contemporary professional philosophers. After all, Singer is known not just for his work in defense of animal welfare, but also for advocating pretty unpopular positions among the political Right, including euthanasia and infanticide (under very restricted conditions, but still). Unlike Blitz, however, I think it intellectually healthy to help oneself to good arguments regardless of who advanced them, which does not imply buying someone’s opinions wholesale. In fact, I disagree with much of what Singer says, largely because he is a utilitarian and I am a virtue ethicist, so I don’t find several of his conclusions compelling. But when he takes interesting positions, I cite him appropriately (professional affiliation and all).
“Pigliucci’s general point is that if we know more, we will choose better and be happier. Oddly, he never argues this point, and some of his own discussions call it into question. He does not analyze, let alone debunk, obvious ways in which ignorance can be bliss or its handmaiden.”
I always find it disconcerting when an intellectual seriously argues that people should be kept ignorant “for their own good.” Yes, there is indeed some research (mentioned in the book) showing that — to a small but measurable degree — ignorance and even superstition may ease our way through life (see, for instance, a RS podcast episode on the latter point, as well as a couple of posts we have published about it). But Answers for Aristotle is written from the point of view of virtue ethics, and ignorance is most definitely not a virtue, for Aristotle as well as for most of us, neo-con wishes to the contrary notwithstanding. If Blitz’s ideal society is one of ignoramuses who do not question authority and common wisdom, happy with the modern version of panem et circenses (what would that be, cheeseburgers and Netflix?), that is his prerogative, but my entire career as a public writer is informed by the exact opposite stance.
And then I read this stunner, mid-way through the review: “Locating, say, certain moral choices in this or that part of the brain, or uncovering hormones or chemicals involved in love, or seeing what brain scans show when someone makes a political judgment tells one about love, morality, politics, poetry, and philosophy only to the degree that one grasps these phenomena in the first place. Thoughts and feelings are directed toward what they are about, and are influenced by what they are about. They are mediated or structured by reason and what is general. Sight is not only about seeing, but about what is there to be seen. Mathematics is about what is true, not only about what happens in the brain. Politics is not only about my feelings and transitory opinions, but about ways of life and the common institutions that direct and help to form these opinions and passions. One needs to know the range and intricacy of love before one ascribes, locates, or reduces the experience to brain chemistry.”
Yes, indeed, all of the above! But at this point I have to question whether Blitz has actually read the book. Seriously, I know authors always throw that sort of line to their critics, but the above paragraph is a very good summary of what the book is about, because of my basic thesis that wisdom results from the best knowledge of facts (science) and the best reflections about those facts (philosophy). Blitz ought to have been very happy with a book like Answers, but he isn’t. I suspect this is simply because my reflections aren’t to his liking, not because I reduce love, politics and math to fMRI scans (since I most certainly do not).
Or perhaps Blitz just didn’t understand what I was after, despite my careful and (I thought) accessible treatment of the subject matter: “Pigliucci’s project seems precisely to be finding guidance for values in the facts that science (apparently) discovers.” That’s exactly what I don’t do! I don’t expect Blitz to have read my critical review of Harris’ nonsense about science answering moral questions. But surely science (or, more broadly, facts) aren’t irrelevant to ethical reasoning. If, for instance, we are debating abortion, and one of the salient points of our argument is that it is an acceptable procedure, say, before the point in development at which the fetus is capable of feeling pain, then obviously we need science to give us its best estimate of when that point factually occurs. But notice that science isn’t in the business of telling us why pain is an ethically relevant consideration, or how it is to be balanced against, say, the interests of the mother.
The chief problem Blitz seems to have with Answers for Aristotle is ideological in nature. He complains of me: “He honestly confesses his standard left-of-center political preferences, but also tendentiously skews things in this political direction.” Well, if I am honest about my political preferences (unlike, say, Blitz, who doesn’t say what his are anywhere in the review, even though they are clearly pertinent) it is hard to imagine how I can then dishonestly skew things for the reader, unless the latter simply wasn’t paying attention.
Here is an example of what Blitz is complaining about: “He acts as if John Rawls’s views have never been seriously challenged,” a fair criticism if I had set out to write a book about political philosophy, or a book pretending to have a “view from nowhere.” But I didn’t. I set out to advise readers interested in reflecting about the big questions in life, and I did so from a clearly stated progressive perspective. In my mind (and that of most political philosophers, from what I get from the primary literature) Rawls is the defining figure in the field in the latter part of the 20th century. Yes, he has had his critics, chief amongst them Robert Nozick, but even Nozick by the end of his life had serious doubts about libertarianism and embraced a type of collectivism, and at any rate his criticism of Rawls was far too nuanced to be of much comfort to the neo-con agenda.
And then we come to the other big issue from the perspective of the political Right, religion: “One place Pigliucci shows intellectual energy is in his discussion of religion. He thinks that religious belief is rooted in superstition, and argues that Plato has proved in the Euthyphro that we do not need gods to be moral. Although his discussions raise important questions, he ignores the place of belief in securing obedience to law, in advancing ethical action, and in elevating our understanding of ourselves and others.” [I take it as a point in my favor, by the way, that Blitz, who has written professionally about Plato does not substantially object to my take on the import of the Euthyphro.]
Ah, but the point of those three chapters in Answers is precisely that the intelligent and educated person (clearly, not Blitz’s ideal audience) does not need the crutch of religion in order to follow the law (as well as questioning it when called for), to work one’s way through ethical dilemmas for which the Big Ten are woefully inadequate, or to arrive at a fact-based, rather than myth-based “understanding of ourselves and others.”
Finally, Blitz — perhaps feeling that his case wasn’t strong enough — resorted to the weapon of last resort available to the critical reviewer, questioning the author’s competence, or at least his intellectual depth: “The examination [of a better book] would discuss studies in enough detail that we would know on whom they were conducted, how they understood the phenomena that compose their research question, how reliable and long-lasting their results are, and whether they have been replicated. ... Such a book would be a tall order, but anything less distorts understanding.”
But that sort of book, which Blitz is of course more than welcome to write himself (or he could check the abundant references in the “Digging Deeper” section at the end of mine), would have been a long technical tome, while Answers for Aristotle is expressly designed for the (intelligent, educated) general public. It would be like complaining that Stephen Hawking should have engaged in a lot of quantum mathematics to make his case in The Grand Design. It simply doesn’t work that way, and Blitz ought to know better. Perhaps the Weekly Standard’s readers will.