About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Philosophy & Science: Overlapping Magisteria

by Steve Neumann

Recently Massimo posted about Michael Shermer’s misguided attempt to claim for science what traditionally — and rightfully — belongs to philosophy. It is another episode in a recently growing trend, as exemplified by Sam Harris’ book-length treatment of the same matter in The Moral Landscape. For anyone convinced that ethics is ultimately the proper domain of philosophical inquiry (though philosophical reasoning can and should be informed by our best science), it can be a very frustrating experience to have to continually combat this rising tide of incipient scientism.

But, of course, that doesn’t mean we stand back and assume that the opposing viewpoint will ultimately exhaust itself. On the contrary, we should be more inclined to criticize positions that are becoming successful (i.e., popular); at the vey least responding to others sharpens our own way of thinking. In this sense, I must admit to a love/hate relationship with people like Sam Harris. Although I disagree with many of his positions, I have to admit that I admire his tenacity and his courage to stand alone and be criticized. And his popularity (or at least his controversial public persona) helps create the necessary conditions for a vigorous dialectic — and that is a good thing.

Harris’ central premise, which is essentially the same premise shared by Shermer and others in that camp, is that questions of value can at least in principle be reduced to facts about the well-being of conscious creatures, and that these facts and their interpretations fall within the purview of science. Harris further maintains that the most relevant discipline here is neuroscience. 

Back in August, 2012, Philosophy Now published an essay by philosophers Julian Savulescu and Ingmar Persson entitled “Moral Enhancement”, where they essentially argue for a nascent program of eugenics, what they call the “biomedical means of moral enhancement,” or “moral bioenhancement.” Their reasoning is that the evolutionary course of the human species has left us ill-equipped to deal with specifically modern existential challenges like global climate change or warfare that may involve weapons of mass destruction, thus threatening to eradicate all sentient life on the planet. This echoes Sam Harris’ motivation for writing The Moral Landscape: “changing people’s ethical commitments ... is the most important task facing humanity in the twenty-first century.”

But, just as with Harris’ book, where he admits that concepts like “well-being” and “flourishing” are notoriously difficult to measure, Savulescu and Persson also acknowledge that “it is too early to predict how, or even if, any moral bioenhancement scheme will be achieved.” What these authors do have in common is an unflagging confidence that science will be able to figure it out. I understand this feeling of confidence. In fact, I share this confidence concerning many if not most things science tackles. But ethics isn’t one of them.

I think that moral reasoning and the related dialectical activity is the most important thing we can do in life. I believe this not only because of obvious existential threats we face, but because knowing “how to live and what to do,” to paraphrase the late poet Wallace Stevens, seems to be the most indispensable and perhaps even the oldest need of our species — going back possibly to the earliest emergence of self-consciousness in our evolutionary lineage. I mean, so far as we know, other animals don’t experience ethics (broadly conceived) as a problem; every aspect of their existence is determined or ordered by instinctual behavioral patterns. Obtaining sustenance, finding mates, avoiding dangers: these aren’t problems for them in the way ethics is a problem for us. We still face the same issues, of course, but our nature as social creatures and more critically our capacity for knowing that we know (and knowing we have the ability to choose between alternatives based on reflection), creates the possibility for doubt about which course of action is best, whether it’s deciding which personality type would ensure the best marriage or which hobby or career would give the most satisfaction in life. We humans do more than wonder which action is the most utilitarian (lowercase “u”); it’s also about which action is the most rewarding.

Despite Harris’ confidence in his moral realism, there is a streak of relativisn in his own approach as articulated in The Moral Landscape. In my own annotated copy of his book, I’ve marked six significant concessions to the variability of the concept of “well-being.” Most tellingly, when comparing moral well-being to the notion of physical well-being (i.e., health), he says that science “cannot tell us why, scientifically, we should value health.” Of course, Harris doesn’t see this as a knock-down punch to his general project; he goes on to say that “once we admit that health is the proper concern of medicine, we can then study and promote it through science.” Yes, that’s true; but the key words here are “study” and “promote.” Just think about the voluminous yet conflicting scientific pronouncements on health from sites like Medical Xpress: one week there’s a report that “coffee will make you live forever!”, and the next week they report that “coffee kills you faster!” (Full disclosure: I truly believe coffee will allow me to live forever. Of course, my cognitive apparatus may be compromised by addiction in this case.) Reading any of these medical news aggregation sites illustrates perfectly the amorphous nature of “well-being,” whether physiological or psychological.

And as a professional dog trainer, I have to ask: whatever happened to good old operant conditioning, the discovery that a system of naturally-occurring rewards and punishments determine and shape behavior? The principles of operant conditioning apply to all animals, humans included. There are four basic “quadrants” delineated by this concept: 1) positive reinforcement; 2) negative reinforcement; 3) positive punishment; and 4) negative punishment. 

Positive reinforcement is the idea that when a subject receives a reward for doing a particular action, then that subject is likely to perform that action with more frequency and more vigor in the future, and it results in lasting behavior modification in most cases. A classic example of this is the pigeon in the lab pressing a lever and receiving a pellet of food every time it does; the bird will peck the crap out of that thing!

Negative reinforcement, on the other hand, is the idea that removing an aversive stimulus will increase the frequency and vigor of a desired response. As an example, think of that godawful buzzing noise you hear if you don’t buckle your seatbelt when driving.

Positive punishment is by far humanity’s favorite method of behavior modification (despite its inadequacy), and it entails introducing an aversive stimulus in order to decrease the frequency of an undesirable behavior. I hardly need to cite an example, but think of smacking someone’s hand when they reach for the cookie jar.

Negative punishment, on the other hand, is the removal of a desired stimulus or reward in order to decrease an undesirable behavior. Think of taking away your teenager’s video game privileges because he’s been bullying his sister.

The unique and most fantastic consequence of discovering these principles is that we are in a position to intentionally manipulate and exploit them, whether with other animals (consider the history of animal domestication for human benefit) or with our fellow human beings. We don’t have to simply rely on naturally-occurring environmental circumstances to trigger a behavior that we hope will happen. We all use these four quadrants in varying degrees every day, without really being aware of what we’re doing (or why), and without the sense that if we apply a little sophistication to our approach, we may be able to make more effective use of them. 

Of course, I think there is a bit of difference between changing behavior and changing beliefs; but if behavior flows from belief, then the principles of operant conditioning should be able to accomplish what we desire from moral philosophy, assuming we’re assiduous enough and creative enough to apply them properly. If we can succeed in changing behavior for the better, do we need to change beliefs? If we can succeed in indefinitely deterring Iran from using nuclear weapons against Israel or us, do we need to change their belief that we’re the Devil Incarnate? 

I think those in Harris’ camp believe that “science” — particularly neuroscience, but possibly even evolutionary psychology and the like — is a powerful shortcut to the type of behavior modification we’re all seeking. Harris contrasts the type of “science of morality” that psychologists like Jonathan Haidt and Joshua Greene do with the kind Harris envisions. He believes that theirs is important but ultimately insufficient. I also believe that the work of those like Haidt and Greene is important; but I think that it’s up to philosophers to be aware of and utilize the findings from this science of morality in their moral reasoning.

Interestingly, there was an article entitled “The Folly of Scientism” in The New Atlantis by biologist Austin L. Hughes, who takes Harris and others to task. Hughes blames in part the discipline of philosophy for abdicating its prerogative with regard to some intellectual matters, allowing the louder voices of the hard sciences to take over discourse on things like “values” and such. I’m not a part of academia, but based on published books, essays and blogs by philosophers, I don’t think Hughes is correct here. It seems more likely that scientists have simply become emboldened by and enamored of the success of their respective disciplines, and are thus riding that wave onto the shores of philosophical discourse, where they come crashing impudently down.

Unlike the dispute between religion and science, where most people believe the two approaches have nothing to say to each other, and where Stephen J. Gould famously sought to establish an ideological Switzerland with his notion of N.O.M.A. (Non-Overlapping MagisteriA), philosophy and science do overlap; and I believe the best course forward is to maintain and enhance the dialogue currently taking place between philosophers and scientists. Having prominent (or at least popular) thinkers like Shermer and Harris and others stake out their positions with verve, and having others muster an equally vigorous critique of their positions carries on the ancient Greek tradition of the agon, a good way of getting clear on how to solve the problems of our age.

Harris and others seem to be desperately seeking a way out of this intellectual morass we call moral philosophy. But why should we expect it to be anything but a morass? Why should we expect definitive or clear-cut answers to ethical questions? Instead of trying to settle once and for all the questions upon which humankind has meditated since time immemorial, we should strive for the best approximation to sensible answers, which will of necessity be moving targets (at a minimum, insuring job security for philosophers!).

A “science of morality” should result from the best efforts of philosophers, psychologists, neuroscientists, sociologists — and even economists — working in the most open, mutually-beneficial manner possible. I think that is what is actually shaping now, despite a growing tidal swell of scientistic sentiment coming from some skeptical quarters. And scientism needs to be countered both because it’s intellectually misguided and because it engenders endless misconceptions about science in the public at large.

Shermer’s piece was a response to John Brockman’s annual question, “What should we be worried about?” In my opinion, we should be worried about the usurpation of philosophy by scientists.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Rationally Speaking podcast: Chris Mooney on the Republican brain

Can science denialism be blamed on a "Republican brain"? In other words: is there something about the psychology of Republicans that makes them inclined to reject the scientific consensus on topics like evolution and climate change?

Special guest Chris Mooney argues there is, elaborating on the thesis in his popular book, "The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Deny Science and Reality." Massimo and Julia debate whether the evidence support Chris's thesis.

Chris's pick: "How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes."

Monday, January 28, 2013

When false dichotomies are neither false, nor dichotomous

by Massimo Pigliucci

For a while now I have noticed that a number of skeptics and philosophers have indulged in a questionable logical game. They begin by noticing that there is no sharp, absolute distinction between two concepts, and they proceed as if there were no distinctions at all to be made. This is a serious mistake, and it’s time to redress it.

We have seen several examples of this phenomenon recently even on this blog. Michael Shermer (not to mention, of course, Sam Harris) want to do away with any distinction between facts and values, so that moral philosophy collapses into science (presumably, biology). Some of my other recurring targets (Coyne, Dawkins, Hawking, Krauss) want to declare philosophy dead because they don’t see any difference between what philosophy and science do, and since science does it better, then...

Ironically, much of this goes back to the highly influential work of one of the 20th century's most prominent philosophers: Willard van Orman Quine. Quine was a (successful) critic of the then dominant school of logical positivism (or, in the US, logical empiricism). In his landmark paper on “Two Dogmas of Empiricism” (a true example of progress in philosophy, despite later criticism of it), Quine set out to rescue empiricism from the grips of positivism. One of the two “dogmas” he attacked [1] was formulated thus: “belief in some fundamental cleavage between truths that are analytic, or grounded in meanings independently of matters of fact, and truths that are synthetic, or grounded in fact.”

So there goes the first “false” dichotomy: Quine rejected the widely accepted (particularly by the positivists) distinction between analytic and synthetic truths in philosophy. He had good reasons to do that, and yet he ended up throwing the baby out with the bath water, so to speak. Traditionally, a synthetic truth is a statement about empirical matters. “There are eight planets (Pluto! Give me back Pluto!!) in the solar system” is a synthetic truth, as it is not logically necessary, and it requires telescopes and other instruments to be established. An analytic truth, instead, refers to something that is correct regardless of empirical evidence, like “Bachelors are unmarried men” (which is true by definition: if you bring me a married bachelor I will simply retort that he is either not married or not a bachelor).

On what grounds did Quine reject such an intuitively obvious, and widely accepted, distinction? What’s empirical evidence got to do with the concept of bachelorhood? Nothing, as it turns out, as Quine himself readily agreed, but he thought that analytical truths like that one are “epistemologically insignificant.” Quine was rather interested in analytic statements like: Force = mass multiplied by acceleration, because those cannot so easily be decoupled from a background theory of a particular type (say, Newtonian mechanics), and that theory in turn cannot be decoupled from the relevant empirical evidence necessary to validate it. If this is correct, then, F = ma looks like an analytic truth, but in fact depends on empirical input, thus breaking down the analytic / synthetic dichotomy.

We need to understand Quine’s point in a broader perspective before we can get to other popular (and, in my opinion, misguided) rejections of apparent dichotomies. Quine was trying to nudge philosophy toward what has since become known as a “naturalistic turn,” in which the distinction between philosophy and science was a matter of degree, not kind. He did that by attacking the very idea of “foundationalist” programs in philosophy, like the assumption that there are logical foundations for math, say, or epistemological foundations for science. For Quine knowledge is best thought of as a “web,” not an edifice (indeed, the most popular database of peer scientific journals is called The Web of Knowledge, though I don’t know if that was intended as an homage to Quine — I doubt it).

This “holistic” take on knowledge meant that there are no sharp boundaries to be found anywhere. Natural science, philosophy, logic, math, and anything else that augments human understanding of the world is part of the web, so that one cannot isolate a particular piece — say F = ma — and call it an analytic (i.e., empirically independent) truth, for the simple reason that in a holistic system of knowledge nothing is independent from anything else.

That’s nice, as far as it goes, and I have been arguing for a broader conception of knowledge that includes contributions from the disciplines mentioned above, a conception that sometimes goes under the name of scientia. The problem is that Quine reacted to what he perceived as the positivists’ “reductionism” [again, see footnote 1] with a bit too much of a holistic overcompensation. It may very well be true that everything is connected to everything else in a general sense, but a lot of these connections are simply irrelevant to any particular task at hand, and can be treated simply as background conditions. I think of this as analogous to the many-body problem in cosmology: yes, theoretically speaking every object with mass in the universe gravitationally affects the behavior of any other object with mass. But when it comes to, say, calculating the orbit of the Moon to a very high degree of accuracy, a lot of local small masses (yours and mine, for instance) don’t matter, nor do a lot of very large but very distant bodies (pretty much everything outside of the Sun, really). The same with the web of knowledge, I submit, which leads us to a more moderate and reasonable view of the problematic dichotomies we are talking about.

Consider, for instance, one of the most prominent thorns in Quine’s side, of which he was very much aware: mathematics. Mathematical theorems have always been considered the quintessential example of analytic truths, as they do not depend (at all) on empirical evidence, regardless of the fact that math may (and does) have implications for science. When you prove, say, the Pythagorean theorem, you don’t go around measuring a bunch of triangles, you begin with certain axioms and background conditions (e.g., declaring that you are working within Euclidean geometry), and then logically deduce the theorem. What’s empiricism got to do with it?

Here Quine, to put it boldly, just cheated his way out of the problem. He began by saying that math was really a type of science, after which he argued that he was primarily concerned with applied math, which clearly makes contact with science and the empirical world. Yes, but most math is not applied, and even the part that is, isn’t derived from science, it applies to science. Then he argued that math as a whole is justified by the fact that a part of it makes contact with the empirical world. That would surprise the hell out of mathematicians and philosophers of mathematics, and frankly, amounts to a lot of handwaving to save an extreme form of holism about knowledge that is ultimately untenable. Mathematics remains a very good example of analytic truth, pace Quine. And so does logic, by the way.

To recap, what we have so far is that there are pretty clearly synthetic truths (the number of planets in the solar system), though they do depend on a given theoretical background; there are also clearly analytic truths (math, logic, definitions of bachelorhood, etc.); and then there are truths that are somewhere in the middle (Quine’s famous example of F = ma). Knowledge is indeed better thought of as a web of connections that meld together empirical and logical components, but the resulting alloy can sometimes be regarded as an almost pure example of one or the other ingredient.

We can now proceed with reconsidering two other “false dichotomies” that some skeptics and philosophers indulge in denying these days: the one between facts and theories and the one between facts and values.

Postmodernist philosophers (I’m using the term broadly here) are fond of pointing out what in philosophy of science is known as the “theory-ladenness” of scientific facts, and rightly so. As Darwin himself famously acknowledged in a letter to a friend, “How odd it is that anyone should not see that all observation must be for or against some view if it is to be of any service!” That is, there is no such thing as “just the facts,” even in science. Quine would be pleased. But that does not license the further conclusion that therefore there is no distinction at all between facts and theories. That there are 8 (or 9) planets in the solar system is a fact, within the background of accepted theories in planetology and celestial mechanics. If you’d like to argue that there is a 9th (or 10th) planet somewhere outside the orbit of Pluto your most direct route is to do so via careful observations of the planet itself or of the gravitational consequences of its presence on the orbits of the other planets (that’s how we discovered Uranus, Neptune and Pluto). It would be foolish to begin by arguing about the soundness of astronomical theory.

So, yes, scientific theories are based on empirical facts, and conversely, “facts” are meaningful precisely because they have a place within a given theory of the world. But that doesn’t mean it’s all a mushy holistic structure where astronomers can’t tell the difference between an observation and a theoretical statement.

Finally, the third “false” dichotomy, of which I have written recently here (see links above to the posts about Shermer and Harris): the fact / value one. By now the reader should recognize that the same general approach applies: true, there is no sharp line in the sand to be drawn, because values can be thought of as the ethical equivalent of theories in science. Just as there's no sharp separation there, there isn't gonna be one here either. But it is perverse to therefore argue that it’s all facts (i.e., science can determine values based solely on empirical evidence). And that’s because theory-ladenness applies here too: what counts as a “fact” (the GDP is increasing) becomes the object of ethical judgment (it is good that the GDP is increasing) only within a certain theoretical (ethical) framework, and that framework needs to be argued for, it doesn’t just pop out of brute facts like a Minerva emerging fully formed from the head of Jupiter.

This more nuanced (post-Quineian?) view, of course, cuts both ways: philosophers can’t dismiss the relevance of empirical input into ethics on the ground that is and ought are forever unbridgeable, just in the same way as scientists can’t simplistically reduce the latter to the former and dispense with philosophical reasoning. Equally, postmodernists can’t base their social critique of science on the theory-ladenness of observations, but scientists don’t get away with saying that “evolution is a fact.” It isn’t, or at least not only. It’s also a set of theoretical statements, and even whether something counts as a fossil (a pretty basic fact) or not does depend on a number of background theoretical assumptions.

So, next time you hear someone either invoking or rejecting a dichotomy as a knockdown argument, smile and tell them about Quine (in the first instance) or that philosophy has progressed past the necessary Quinenian way station (in the second instance). Then proceed to an actual discussion of the interconnectedness of facts, theories, values, synthetic statements and analytic ones. Have fun!


[1] If you must know, the second dogma is this: “reductionism: the belief that each meaningful statement is equivalent to some logical construction upon terms which refer to immediate experience.” Here the term reductionism is used by Quine in a very specific, positivism-derived sense. It does not refer to the more common usage in ontology or epistemology, as in “everything that happens in the universe can be reduced to or be understood through the workings of the fundamental laws of physics.”

Friday, January 25, 2013

Let Cold Monsters Lie: thoughts on nihilism, part II

by Steve Neumann

[part I of this essay can be found here]

I have a strong affinity for Nietzsche because I have experienced firsthand the nihilism and subsequent problem of values he so presciently described in his 1872 book The Gay Science. Whatever else his failings as a philosopher and a human being (e.g., his attitudes toward women), he gave voice to precisely the existential predicament I was in.

Having been raised in a born-again Christian household and church, I took for granted that God was the source and sustainer of all values and meaning. Since my family was not what you would call scholarly or intellectually-inclined, there was never even any thought to question or doubt this most basic fact of existence. And, it wasn’t until college that I was forced to confront the startling naivete with which I had lived my faith.

But a basic introductory course to philosophical thought and history, combined with a comparative religion course that included exposure to the Eastern religions of Hinduism, Buddhism and Taoism, as well as actually getting to know people who fervently practiced some of these doctrines, all led me to my first real crisis of faith. Unfortunately, at the prompting of a fellow congregant, I subsequently fell for the specious reasoning of C.S. Lewis in Mere Christianity, and doubled-down on my faith until after graduation.

Beginning a demanding career as a CPA after college and starting a life on my own didn’t give me much time to reflect on how sound the underpinnings of my newly-revived faith were. However, at age twenty-nine, a confluence of life events, which included the terrorist attacks of 9/11, forced me yet again to confront the conditions of my preservation, as Nietzsche might put it. Long story short: the bottom fell out, and I was every bit a mastless barque adrift on an open sea with no sight of land anywhere, surrounded on all sides by ominously threatening squalls. A poem of mine tries to express this:

Treading Water

When treading water, fatigue
and foaming spatter can
make you falter. And this
undulating plane is all
that separates you from
two worlds: one where some
hope is clung to like
barnacles to a hull; the other
we could call surrender,
the willful slackening of all
long-taut muscles, beginning
with a cascade of chemicals
from deep inside your brain.
And no one may ever know
about the throes of anguish
in your little pixel of ocean,
once you've slipped seamlessly
beneath the plane with
barely a blip or detectable ripple.

Though it would take another five years or so after that to turn to Nietzsche’s writings, to which I had had only the most superficial exposure in college, I eventually came to see my own life mirrored, albeit in a much less histrionically hyperbolic fashion, in the sentiments of Nietzsche’s “madman” which he described in section 125 of The Gay Science:

“Where is God gone?”  he called out. ... “We have killed him you and I! What did we do when we loosened this earth from its sun? Whither does it now move? Whither do we move? Away from all suns? Do we not dash on unceasingly? Backwards, sideways, forwards, in all directions? Is there still an above and below? Do we not stray, as through infinite nothingness? Does not empty space breathe upon us? Has it not become colder? Does not night come on continually, darker and darker?”

That feeling of frigid desolation and terminal abandonment in the image of a planet without its sun, and the sense of chaos evoked by his cadences here, give a good example of the gravity of the experience of nihilism. To be clear, though, let’s get Nietzsche’s ideas about what he means by nihilism, from his posthumously-published notes (i.e., The Will to Power):

Nihilism as a psychological state will have to be reached, first, when we have sought a “meaning” in all events that is not there: so the seeker eventually becomes discouraged. ... One interpretation has collapsed; but because it was considered the interpretation, it now seems as if there were no meaning at all in existence, as if everything were in vain. ... Underneath all becoming there is no grand unity in which the individual could immerse himself completely as in an element of supreme value.

Whatever the vagaries and vicissitudes of life, the individual religious believer retains a certain sense of comfort and security in the “knowledge” that there is a moral world order, and that this order was created and is indefatigably sustained by a Master of the Universe who is looking out for them. But what is left for the apostate to cling to? He could become a hedonist of a certain sort; or he could, as the poet Rilke observed, throw himself into any one of an array of endless societal diversions and conventions: a demanding career, lifelong military service, raising a family, political gerrymandering — all the trappings of Nature, not Culture. As Nietzsche puts it elsewhere in his notes:

It was morality that protected life against despair and the leap into nothing. ... Morality guarded against nihilism by assigning to each an infinite value, a metaphysical value.

If one possesses enough of a tendency toward near-morbid introspection and self-reflection, one may ultimately see that even these pursuits don’t necessarily satisfy or replace that gaping, sucking hole left by the untethering of absolute and ultimate value and meaning from a belief in God. Our apostate is thus tempted to plunge into the opposite valuation of life; namely, the fatalistic notion that nothing matters, so why bother? This attitude is echoed in a Led Zeppelin lyric (That’s the Way, Led Zeppelin III) from 1970:

Yesterday I saw you kissing tiny flowers;
but all that lives is born to die.
And so I say to you that nothing really matters,
and all you do is stand and cry.

In my private journal, I’ve reduced my own experience of nihilism and its subsequent overcoming to a little formula: liberation => disorientation => despair => nihilism => affirmation. In other words, having been liberated from a fundamentalist Christian worldview, I didn’t know how to make sense of life anymore; so I fell into despair after being frustrated trying to put the pieces back together, which ultimately led to a feeling of the complete meaninglessness of life. Achieving an affirmation of life is still possible, though, and Nietzsche has his own ideas and suggestions about that. I have my own as well; and in Nietzschean fashion I imagine that each one of us must blaze his own trail.

It seems to me that the Humanimal is and has been in a phase of arrested development. Despite all of our frenetic political activity, we seem to have been lulled to sleep by the cold monster; or perhaps we should say that it has convinced us that this somnambulistic state through which we daily move is the ultimate existential pinnacle attainable by us. Nietzsche seemed to feel that the State alternately bullies and seduces the individual into conformity and relative passivity; and it’s true that the State takes a mile when we allow it an inch; but for millennia, the State has made Culture possible. Yet we still need to move beyond the moral and institutional confines of the State in order to move Culture forward. And when I say that we need to move beyond the moral confines of the State, I don’t mean that we should abrogate the equal rights of others and do whatever we please; I simply mean that we would do well to set up a Base Camp in what Sam Harris called the moral landscape, and then allow and encourage each individual to scale the peaks and summits in her own way.

Ultimately, achieving the transfiguration from Humanimal to transhuman involves the alchemy of transmuting the lead of events and the detritus of accidents into a coherent whole, in order to create a piece of gold, the spark, that flicker of the central fire that the ancients claimed to be perceiving inside each mortal frame. The poet, or one whose attitude and approach to existence is that of a poet, redeems life and existence not only for himself but also for everyone else, for anyone “tuned in” to what he is doing:

And this is all my creating and striving, that I create and carry together into One what is fragment and riddle and dreadful accident. And how could I bear to be a man if man were not also a creator and guesser of riddles and redeemer of accidents?
Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra

So the title of my post has a double meaning. Let Cold Monsters Lie is the imperative to not destroy the State (i.e., anarchy), since it is the condition of our individual and collective preservation. And, it is the realization that the State lies, but also that the Humanimal possesses the capacity, the Talent, to overcome the State’s lies and move from the all-too-human to the transhuman. All it needs is the Opportunity to Practice its artistic approach to life best exemplified, in my opinion, by the work and life of the poet, properly understood.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Let Cold Monsters Lie: thoughts on nihilism, part I

by Steve Neumann

State is the name of the coldest of cold monsters.
Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra

How should a political innovation be sufficient to make men once and for all into happy inhabitants of the earth?
Nietzsche, Schopenhauer as Educator

We moderns still seek our salvation in the State. Hasn’t society increasingly, even within the brief span of our own lifetimes, turned to government not only to solve our practical problems and material needs, but to solve the problem of life — which is, arguably, essentially the problem of values? Do we not continually ask government, however inchoately, to be the redeemer of life for us? And not only for our collective life together, but for our individual lives, too? We still seek, primarily, collective sources of redemption, herd animal sources, as Nietzsche would put it, instead of trying to create for ourselves transhuman (with a lowercase “t”) solutions. We still seek what I call “Humanimal” and, in many cases, just animal solutions for Humanimal ends only. [1]

Don’t get me wrong: working with and within the political system is still important and essential. And as a “secular liberal,” I value and work in my own modest way toward goods like marriage equality and women’s reproductive rights.

But the political system is also important because creating conditions that allow, or even encourage, otherwise disadvantaged or underprivileged individuals to engage in life-redeeming activities not only enables them to work on transforming the Humanimal into the transhuman, but establishes favorable conditions for the elevation of the species as a whole. To put it in supply-side economics-speak: a rising (spiritual) tide can lift all boats. Nietzsche certainly wasn’t an optimist; his ethos was decidedly individualistic, and infamously anti-democratic. And I’m not saying that having individuals here and there actually succeed in this type of self-realization will automatically or necessarily lift the general culture; but they can certainly serve as exemplars; their lives constitute a sort of proof of principle from which others can derive hope and maybe even the necessary motivation.

Whether one has a naturalistic worldview or a religious worldview, one still eventually confronts the problem of values. The religious believer turns primarily to scripture and tradition, but she still has to divine for herself, so to speak, whatever meaning might apply to her life. We all share some general values, of course: e.g., being alive is better than being dead; do as you would be done by; etc. But both the believer and the nonbeliever must discover and choose values that apply to their unique temperament and circumstances.

Am I just confusing politics and spirituality? No. The history of the State has been viewed at times as an arena where the opposing, but certainly not mutually-exclusive, forces of Nature and Culture clash. So what is the difference between Nature and Culture? Money-making, career-climbing, progeny-producing, political-plotting — all are still Nature and not Culture. But it is through the pursuit of values that we create Culture; or rather, it is through the pursuit of values that we can create an intentional Culture. That is, we can approach the creation of Culture the way an artist approaches his subject, adopting an intentional perspective, picking and choosing the various elements (i.e., “values”) that ultimately represent and incarnate his vision — as opposed to Culture simply being whatever happens. My own paradigm for the type of artist that best exemplifies the approach to life that is needed is the poet. Not just any poet, of course, but a specific kind of poet and poetry.

It goes without saying that poetry, and art in general, is a means of self-expression. But poetry tends to be more intimate, or at least more specific, in this regard than other modes of artistic expression. A painter can certainly convey somewhat discrete moods through his choice of pigments, and a musician more so through the choice of his notes, but a poet possesses the precision of language — at least as precise as language can be. And though I don’t have space to discuss it here, language may even be necessary for thought itself. A poet not only communicates distinct feelings through a combination of evocative imagery and the “music” of the poem (i.e., accent, duration, meter, rhyme, assonance, etc.), but can utilize words that are able to capture an experience in a way that more abstract media like color and sound cannot. Therefore, his expression exhibits more of an explicit intellectual component — a cognitive scaffolding, if you will.

Self-expression in poetry has come in many flavors throughout history, too. Subjective poetry gives priority to the thoughts and feelings relating to the inner experiences of the poet as a person, whereas the objective mode reveals a concern with things external to the poet. But even here there is an element of the personal: we still get a sense of the poet’s values because of the objects he chooses to honor with his attention and care. The archetype for this latter style of poetry might be Rainer Maria Rilke in his 1907 collection Neue Gedichte.

Poetry is more than just self-expression, it is also a means to self-knowledge. For as long as human beings have been reflecting on their inner world, some have realized that we don’t know what we’re going to think next until the thought itself arises in our consciousness. The human mind sometimes seems more like a Magic 8-Ball than a searchable database. As Nietzsche succinctly puts it:

I shall never tire of emphasizing a small terse fact, which these superstitious minds hate to concede — namely, that a thought comes when “it” wishes, and not when “I” wish...
— Beyond Good and Evil

The act of writing, and of writing poetry in particular, can be one of the most effective means to self-knowledge because writing, whether sitting down with pen in hand or finger tips on keys, is an exercise in preparation and concentration; and because poetry has an air of ancient sacredness throughout the history of our species. As the late Mexican poet Octavio Paz observed, wherever there has been a group of humans, there has been poetry — i.e., song, myth-making, etc. And consider the following thoughts from the late poet Denise Levertov:

But the condition of being a poet is that periodically such a cross section, or constellation, of experiences demands, or wakes in him this demand: the poem. The beginning of the fulfillment of this demand is to contemplate, to meditate. ... To contemplate comes from ‘templum, temple, a place, a space for observation, marked out by the augur.’ It means, not simply to observe, to regard, but to do these things in the presence of a god.
The Poet in the World

I doubt that most modern writers have this sense of the divine when they write, of course. I hold to a naturalistic worldview myself, so I don’t believe in anything supernatural — no ghosts, gremlins or gods — yet I still share her fundamental appreciation of mystery and the pressure of a certain gravitas, as well as a sense of puzzlement at the whole process. But what we need to realize, and what we all too often fail to, is that everything we think comes to us without any conscious control. In fact, the whole concept of “conscious control” is essentially an oxymoron. This doesn’t mean that what we have come to believe simply comes to us ready-made, as it were, a gift from a god or some mystical inner homunculus. But when we sit down to write, we can compose ourselves in such a way as to make more efficient or effective use of this means to self-knowledge. And the poet, by working on his experiences in such a way, serves as a lighthouse for others who are embryonically yet doggedly groping their way out of the ocean of existential chaos. As Levertov says in her notes:

Years ago, I copied out this statement by Ibsen in a letter: “The task of the poet is to make clear to himself, and thereby to others, the temporal and eternal questions.”

It’s obvious not every working poet is engaged, even subconsciously, in this task. But those who have the talent and inclination to write poetry should be encouraged to do so; and even those poets who aren’t cognizant of this aspect of their vocation can be beneficial if we read them correctly. Though I believe that the poet, or at least the poet’s approach to his experience and existence, is the best paradigm for what I’m after (for myself and for society), I also believe it is necessary to create the requisite conditions for the emergence of individuals so inclined; and it is to this extent that I wholeheartedly endorse (some of) the actions of the cold monster of the State.  

In the 2008 book, Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell argues that those most successful in life didn’t get that way through skill and willpower alone. On the contrary, if you look at their lives closely you realize that they had some key “helpers” and serendipitous events along the way. One here recalls Obama’s whole “you didn’t build that” hullabaloo leading up to the 2011 election. But Gladwell’s claim is irrefutable: one can’t reach the top unless one has T.O.P.; that is, unless one possesses a Talent and has the Opportunity to Practice it, and the opportunity to “make it” after one has practiced sufficiently. Again, it is in this sense that I see the cold monster of the State as a valuable monster.


[1] Those familiar with Nietzsche will recognize that I’m talking about a certain interpretation of his concept of the √úbermensch, or the “Overhuman”; which, in turn, echoes Emerson’s “Oversoul.” My use of this concept could be considered roughly an amalgam of the two; and, for lack of a better term, I’m employing the word “transhuman.” And what I mean by “Humanimal” is simply a certain species of exceptionally intelligent primate with the capacity for language, technology, and myth-making. That is, we modern humans, H. sapiens.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Michael Shermer on morality

by Massimo Pigliucci

Oh my, I thought I was done for a while chastising skeptics like Sam Harris on the relationship between philosophy, science and morality, and I just found out that my friend Michael Shermer has incurred a similar (though not quite as egregious as Harris’) bit of questionable thinking. As I explained in my review of Harris’ book for Skeptic, one learns precisely nothing about morality by reading The Moral Landscape. Indeed, one’s time on that topic is much better spent by leafing through Michael Sandel’s On Justice, for example. Anyway, apologies for the repetition, but here we go again. (For a fuller explanation of how I think moral philosophy works, see here; on science and philosophy here and here. For how the whole philosophy-science-morality shebang hangs in, take a look at chapters 2, 3, 4 and 5 of Answers for Aristotle.)

Michael begins his piece by complaining that scientists have “conceded the high ground of determining human values, morals, and ethics to philosophers,” and arguing that this was a mistake. Indeed, Shermer says that such concession (when did it happen, by the way? Did the National Academy of Science pass a resolution under pressure from the American Philosophical Association?) comes at the worst time because new scientific tools and discoveries are gonna finally tell us from where we ought to get our values.

What are these tools? They include evolutionary ethics and neuroethics, among other fields. Now imagine that Michael had been talking about math instead of ethics. The idea would run something like this: “Scientists have conceded the high ground of resolving mathematical problems to mathematicians, just when the new disciplines of evolutionary mathematics and neuro-mathematics are coming on line.” My point is, I hasten to say, not that ethics is like math, but rather that evolutionary math and neuro-math would be giving us answers to different questions. An evolutionary approach to understanding our ability to reason mathematically could give us clues as to why we are capable of abstract thinking to begin with, which is interesting. “Neuro-mathematics” could then provide answers to the question of how the brain works when it engages in mathematical (and other types of abstract) thinking. But if you want to know how to prove Pythagoras' theorem, neither evolutionary biologists nor neurobiologists are the right kind of experts. You need a mathematician. 

Similarly with ethics: we need an evolutionary understanding of where a strong sense of right and wrong comes from as an instinct, and a neurobiological account of how our brains function (or malfunction) when they engage in ethical reasoning. But it is the moral philosopher, not the evolutionary biologist or the neurobiologist, we should check with if we want to know whether a particular piece of ethical reasoning is logically sound or not.

This is not at all to say that science is irrelevant to ethical reasoning. No philosopher I know of holds to that absurd position (except perhaps a dwindling band of stubborn theologians). But more on that point later.

Shermer proceeds immediately by blaming the is/ought problem as the main culprit for scientists’ misguided concession to philosophers (even though I bet dollars to donuts that the overwhelming majority of scientists has never heard of the is/ought problem). Indeed, Michael claims that the problem is a fallacy (I take it he is using the term colloquially, since I don’t see that entry listed in the vast catalogue of fallacies that professional philosophers and logicians have accumulated.)

Why is the is/ought problem a fallacy, according to Shermer? Because “morals and values must be based on the way things are in order to establish the best conditions for human flourishing.” Let’s unpack (as philosophers are fond of saying) that loaded phrase. First off, there is a prescriptive claim (“must”) that is not actually argued for. Sounds like Michael is engaging in some a priori philosophizing of his own. Why exactly must we base morals and values on the way things are (as opposed to, say, they way we would like them to be)?

Second, “the way things are” has, of course, changed dramatically across centuries and cultures (science tells us this!). Which point in the space-time continuum are we going to pick as our reference to ground our scientific study of morality? We better not just assume that the our own current time and place represent the best of all possible worlds.

Third, “human flourishing” is a surprisingly slippery (and philosophically loaded!) concept, not at all easy to handle by straightforward quantitative analyses. (If you want an idea of the sort of complications I have in mind, take a look here and here.) And of course it should go without mention that the goal of increasing human flourishing is itself the result of a value choice that cannot possibly be grounded in empirical evidence. Nothing wrong with that, unless you insist on a scientistic take on the study of morality.

Shermer then gives his readers a list of things that science can help us understand (presumably, as opposed to philosophy): these are facts about the amount of variation in psychological traits that is genetically determined, basic information about reciprocal altruism, facts about punishment in human societies, something about behavioral game theory, and the conclusion from behavioral economics that trade establishes trust.

I will not pick on any of these specific claims (we could start with the bit about 40-50% heritability of human behavioral traits, just for fun, but that would be a whole different post), because I simply do not see Michael’s point. Nobody has argued, to my knowledge, that philosophy can do a better job than science at finding out facts about the world, at least not since Descartes (who thought of himself as a scientist, by the way). That would be like arguing that chemistry is better than history at figuring out things about the Roman empire. Moreover, the list seems aimed at establishing the idea that morality better be built on an understanding of human nature. Indeed. Aristotle was certainly convinced of that, the utilitarians better agree too, and even a stern rationalist moralist like Kant had to concede that “ought implies can,” which means that in order to talk about morality we need at least to see what is actually possible for us to do (i.e., facts about human affairs matter). So Shermer’s list is entirely irrelevant to the question at hand, quite apart from the fact that some of the “facts” he lists are questionable on scientific grounds.

Next we are treated to the following q&a exercise: Shermer poses us the question “What is the best form of governance for large modern human societies?” To which he immediately answers: “a liberal democracy with a market economy.” What is the evidence for such an answer? “Liberal democracies with market economies are more prosperous, more peaceful, and fairer than any other form of governance tried.”

Again, let’s stop and unpack. Assuming once more that the facts are correct, one could begin by inquiring about the concept of prosperity. How is this measured? Economically? By degree of access to health care and education? By measuring subjective happiness? Because all these criteria yield different answers and rank societies differently. And are we extending this analysis back in time? How far, and based on what data?

Liberal democracies (which, incidentally, is a term that has very different meanings when applied to, say, the United States or Sweden) very likely are more peaceful than countries with different systems of government. But “fairness” is a complicated — philosophical! — idea, which requires a sophisticated conceptual analysis before we can even begin to measure anything at all. And incidentally, why is (presumably, across the board) fairness a better criterion for human flourishing than, say, a guarantee to universal health care and education that comes out of a very skewed system of distribution of other goods? There are many subtle discussions to be had about fairness (for recent examples on this blog see here and here), and it is hard to see how those discussions could be carried out without philosophical engagement. More broadly, no philosopher since Heidegger has indulged in writings aimed at showing that tyranny is better than democracy (and even Heidegger was not exactly a representative sample). The interesting debate is about how to deal with contrasting values within the context of a liberal, multi-ethnic, democratic society. Again, it is not clear who exactly is the target of Michael’s criticism.

Shermer then goes on to add a market economy to the mix of his favorite ideologies, claiming that “it decreases violence and increases peace significantly” (hardly surprising, coming from a well known libertarian). Once more, without even going to question the empirical assertion, shouldn’t we at least admit that “market economy” is a highly heterogeneous category (think US vs China), and that some market economies decrease fairness, do not provide universal access to health care and education, lower workers’ wages, and overall negatively affect human flourishing? How should we rank our values in order to make sense of the data? How do the data by themselves establish a guide to which values we should hold? And why should we follow whatever the current science says, as opposed to having discussions about where we would like science and technology (and economics) themselves to go?

But in fact Michael and I very likely don’t disagree that much about this whole thing after all. At the end of his essay he says: “in addition to philosophical arguments, we can make a scientific case for liberal democracy and market economies ... in addition to philosophers, scientists should have a voice in determining human values and morals” [my italics]. Well, if the contribution of science to human well being is in addition to that of philosophy, how exactly is the current state of affairs problematic? As an idea it goes back to Aristotle’s inquires into human nature, and very few professional philosophers would argue that science (or “facts”) is irrelevant to what they do.

The problem when scientists and skeptics write about philosophy is that quite often they are simply not familiar with the pertinent literature. Somehow philosophy — probably because it is a broad “meta-discipline” whose purpose is to reflect on what other disciplines do — encourages this idea that one doesn’t need to read it before dismissing it (I’m looking at you, Sam Harris, Lawrence Krauss and Stephen Hawking). [1]

Let’s start with Shermer’s allegation that the is/ought is a “fallacy.” To begin with, here is exactly what Hume wrote about it, in the aptly entitled A Treatise of Human Nature (1739):
In every system of morality, which I have hitherto met with, I have always remarked, that the author proceeds for some time in the ordinary ways of reasoning, and establishes the being of a God, or makes observations concerning human affairs; when all of a sudden I am surprised to find, that instead of the usual copulations of propositions, is, and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought, or an ought not. This change is imperceptible; but is however, of the last consequence. For as this ought, or ought not, expresses some new relation or affirmation, 'tis necessary that it should be observed and explained; and at the same time that a reason should be given; for what seems altogether inconceivable, how this new relation can be a deduction from others, which are entirely different from it. But as authors do not commonly use this precaution, I shall presume to recommend it to the readers; and am persuaded, that this small attention would subvert all the vulgar systems of morality, and let us see, that the distinction of vice and virtue is not founded merely on the relations of objects, nor is perceived by reason.
Nowhere does Hume say that there is an in principle unbridgeable gap between is and ought. He is simply, very reasonably, pointing out that one cannot “imperceptibly” slide from one type of consideration to the other without providing explanations and reasons.

Second, Willard van Orman Quine, one of the most prominent philosophers of the 20th century, has done much work to argue that there cannot be a sharp distinction between matters of fact (what philosophers call synthetic truths) and statements that are independent of empirical findings (so-called analytical truths, like those of math and logic). Which implies that many modern philosophers wholeheartedly agree that of course science has something to say about values.

However, it also follows from Quine’s work that making the fact/value distinction permeable can result in a surprisingly uncomfortable outcome for scientistically minded individuals, biting them in the ass, so to speak. You see, negating a sharp distinction between facts and values does not mean that the latter reduce to the former, it means that there is a complex interplay between the two. From there it’s only a short step to realizing that facts themselves are not immune from value judgments and filtering, which in turn means that a “just the fact, ‘madam” sort of attitude is naive. It appears that science needs philosophy just as much as philosophy needs science, especially when it comes to clearly non-value neutral issues such as justice, fairness, and human well being.

Finally, Quine also pointed out a reason why science by itself is never going to be enough. All theories about the world are going to be underdetermined by the available data, meaning that there will always be more than one way to understand the meaning of “facts.” If this is the case, then we need extra-empirical considerations to make sense of those very facts (i.e., they don’t “speak for themselves”). Which is why careful reflection on meaning and logical implications (i.e., good philosophizing) will always be required.

Quine advocated for a strong “naturalistic” turn in philosophy, a stronger one than I would recommend, in fact (I'm writing a book about this...). But even his embracing of empiricism (and therefore science) still yielded a view of human knowledge as a complex web where facts and interpretations, provided by physical science, natural science, and social science, are going to be in reflective equilibrium with contributions from non-empirical investigations, be they from math, logic or, yes, philosophy.

The emerging picture, then, is much more nuanced and interesting than any simplistic dismissal of philosophy a la Harris-Krauss-Hawking. Shermer, to his credit, comes closer to this nuanced call for an inclusion of science — together with philosophy — in our quest to make sense of the world and to make it a better place for ourselves. But there is no reason to be worried about scientists conceding any high (or low) ground to philosophers. It has never happened, it never will, and it isn’t what philosophers are asking for anyway.


[1] Fortunately, there are skeptics out there who take a more nuanced approach to the philosophy-science-morality issue. A good example is represented by two essays keyboarded by Steve Novella at the NeuroLogica blog.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Ian’s Picks

by Ian Pollock

* Richard Chappel (channeling Derek Parfit) clarifies issues of personal identity, “one case where common-sense is utterly senseless.”

* RS readers may be interested to know that many of the topics we love to discuss, such as probability updating and cognitive biases, are also discussed a lot in the poker community. For example, here is Barbara Connors on the Texas sharpshooter fallacy and the sunk cost fallacy. I can confirm that poker is excellent practice for really “getting” concepts like calibration and expected utility. Too bad the culture is so irritatingly macho.

* Brian Earp of Practical Ethics argues that the recent push for adult male circumcision to prevent HIV transmission is based on bad science, compounded by misleading statistical trickery.

* The Ford Pinto case is known for Ford’s infamous use of cost/benefit calculations that “put a dollar value on human life.” It is even referenced in Michael Sandel’s lectures on ethics, as a reductio of heartless utilitarian calculus. But like many pop-culture legends, the details are more complicated. Key points, which can be gleaned from this interesting article: (1) the Pinto was a severely flawed vehicle; (2) the famous cost-benefit calculation had nothing directly to do with the Pinto; (3) the dollar figure on human life ($200,000) was specified as a target by auto regulators, not Ford; (4) it is not clear how regulators or corporations are supposed to make any coherent safety decisions without using cost/benefit analysis.

* Finally, since time immemorial, January has provided an opportunity to reflect on our predictions for the future — will the crops be good, will the earth be wiped out by a meteor, et cetera. Here are some interesting variations on that theme:

The Calibration Game (great for queues)
PredictionBook (group calibration practice)

RS readers: now’s your chance to record your longshot predictions (along with your credences, of course), so you can legitimately crow about them later!