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.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Massimo's Picks

* The apparent "fine tuning" of the universe is something that will puzzle physicists for a long while yet.

* An extremely depressing, and yet likely very realistic, take on the end of our civilization. (Hint: it's already happened.)

* Malcolm Gladwell visits Glenn Beck (not a joke).

* And speaking of headaches for physicists: these are some of those originating from the discovery of the Higgs.

* Why is it that no actresses over 40 seem to believe in science? And why the hell do so many people listen to them?

* Yet another neuroscientist has something interesting to say, yet philosophically naive, about morality.

* Economics: a moral science?

* Speaking of neuroscience: here is why it isn't the answer to everything.

* The Eros of Philosophy.

32 comments:

  1. the idea that there are values embeeded in economic theories is a fallacy. Economics is a science, as a student of austrian economics myself, I understand that economics is a study of human action. This is completely value-free. If someone makes a policy decision based on information he learns from an economic theory, then of course values are now at play.
    But to say values are embedded in economic theories themselves is to say that ecomonics is not even a science. which is just plain silly.
    If i come up with an economic theory such as price theory, and say that the price of any particular commodity is where the supply curve and the demand curve intersect, this is a sceintific theory and is compeltely value free or moral free. Its just explaining what a price is.
    The article you referenced is complete bunk

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. So the Pareto Principle (which is obviously a value statement, not an empirical one) is not part of economic theory?

      Delete
    2. The pareto principle is just an observation, that 80% of effects come from 20% of causes. This indeed is a value free statement. If your going on to say that the pareto principle means we should redistribute by force from A to B becuase the pareto principle teaches you that A gains and B does not loose, then you are using economics to make a policy decision, which indeed has values.
      Either economics is a science or it isnt. I say it is. Science cannot have values or it is not science.
      So no the pareto principle is not a value statement, and if it is a value statement (becuase you say it is different than what I am saying) then it is not economics.

      Delete
    3. Jim, sorry, I was hasty - I meant Pareto Efficiency, of course. (You are right, the Pareto Principle aka 80-20 rule is just a rule of thumb w/o normative content.) OTOH, the statement that a situation is Pareto efficient is implicitly a value judgement. (You have to decide what "better off" means before you can measure it.)
      Or consider your example of price theory. "Price = intersection of demand and supply" is a mathematical equivalence and completely uniteresting because it does not tell you anything at all about the mechanism how it gets there. That's what micro theories try to explain. But if you think back to Micro 101, one of the first things you do there is to derive the standard form of the demand curve from assumptions. Standard micro assumes utility theory; choosing it is normative, not empirical. (Real world humans are not homines oeconomici.)
      The discussion about whether something is a science or not continutes to amaze me. Who cares? Economics is scientia ("Wissenschaft", i.e. pursuit of knowledge) and has something useful to say about the real world. It is based on observation ("if the price of gas rises, people drive less - if the price of bread rises, nothing much happens"), and value judgement (e.g. the definitions of "efficiency")
      On a side note: if economics really were non-normative, we wouldn't be seeing this very high correlation of school of economic thought to political orientation.

      Delete
    4. Paredo efficentcy is still non-normative. It is just saying that per the values of the particular consumers in a group there is an optimum distribution that will satisfy the most values.
      If one implies that "we should" distrubute wealth until we have reached the paredo efficentcy, then that is a policy decision done by force and obviously has values. But the paredo efficentcy by itself is still value free. Just because someone has calculated an means for efficency per the values of a group of people, does not mean the statement itself has values. Economics is constantly considering peoples values. But economics itself still remains value free while doing so (or it is not economics). In Austrian economics, part of the definition is that the statements, axioms etc.. are value free. This certainly doesnt mean one must not consider values of market participants, that would just be absurd

      Delete
    5. I like your statement of who cares if something is science and agree. I make this statement often about economics to point out to people that it is indeed value free dicipline. I do believe economics is non-normative though. you correct that there is an obvious correlation between economic schools and ideology (and im no different and have a strong ideology) but that still does not mean economics is not non-normative. If someone sees the paredo efficentcy rule and it makes him want to force rich to give to poor, this still does not mean the paredo efficentcy is normative because it is not). Paredo effiecentcy is not part of the Austrian school. We just look at it as two (or more) people exchange and both increase utility or the exchange would not take place. If someone was implimenting the paredo efficentcy in practice, we would just say one party is having property removed from them by force and then the 3rd party takes that property and gives it to another party. We look at economics strictly as a study of human action. so that it (economics) is defined.

      Delete
  2. As an addendum to the Higgs article, here's one with bad news for supersymmetry: http://www.nature.com/news/electron-appears-spherical-squashing-hopes-for-new-physics-theories-1.14163

    ReplyDelete
  3. "Why is it that no actresses over 40 seem to believe in science? And why the hell do so many people listen to them?"

    FWIW, actress Amanda Peet is publicly pro-vaccination, and wikipedia tells me she is (just) over 40.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Are you sure that's not the physicist Amanda Peet? There are two Amandi Peetius

      Delete
    2. http://www.forbes.com/sites/matthewherper/2012/05/23/how-hollywoods-amanda-peet-became-the-celebrity-spokeswoman-for-the-power-of-vaccines/

      Delete
    3. He's right - it's THAT Amanda Peet:

      http://www.sciencebasedmedicine.org/amanda-peet-is-my-hero1/

      Delete
  4. Human values are critical in any economic theory as applied to policy:

    "Markets are not provided by nature. They are constructed -- by laws, rules, and institutions. All of these have moral bases of one sort or another. Hence, all markets are moral, according to someone's sense of morality. The only question is, Whose morality? In contemporary America, it is conservative versus progressive morality that governs forms of economic policy. The systems of morality behind economic policies need to be discussed."

    huffingtonpost.com/george-lakoff/economics-and-morality-pa_b_1596181.html

    ReplyDelete
  5. Eros
    Philosophy is truth and a philosopher a lover of truth. It takes love to find truth. So if you are still searching, allow me to point the Way: follow your heart, the heart rings true. And once found the work is not over, it only just begins. Truth found must be practiced and shared. Love found is love shared. True love is so equitably beautiful this Way. Truth is love,
    =

    ReplyDelete
  6. Eros
    Philosophy is truth and a philosopher a lover of truth. It takes love to find truth. So if you are still searching, allow me to point the Way: follow your heart, the heart rings true. And once found the work is not over, it only just begins. Truth found must be practiced and shared. Love found is love shared. True love is so equitably beautiful this Way. Truth is love,
    =

    ReplyDelete
  7. That climate change column, which I read on the day it came out, was great, in a stark sense. The "learning how to die" end was simply well-put.

    And, on the neuroscience piece, I totally agree. More than once here, I've mentioned how matters of aesthetics as well as ethics undermine the scientism quest to be a be-all and end-all. That said, I do agree with Churchland and others, as Massimo knows I do and as I know he doesn't, on the idea that lack of a Cartesian meaner also means there's no Cartesian free willer, or anything similar.

    ReplyDelete
  8. Meanwhile, Christof Koch has jumped deep in the pool of panpsychism: http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/2013/11/christof-koch-panpsychism-consciousness/

    ReplyDelete
  9. And, one other link — is there such a thing as fake culture? Roger Scruton has a very interesting essay in which he discusses these issues in depth. As somewhat an appreciator of modern art, and a huge one of modern classical music, I can appreciate just where he's coming from. http://www.aeonmagazine.com/world-views/roger-scruton-fake-culture/

    ReplyDelete
  10. Excellent article by Maudlin on fine tuning of the Universe. I like this quote a lot:

    "The details of these sorts of calculations should be taken with a grain of salt. It might seem like a straightforward mathematical question to work out what the consequences of twiddling a ‘constant’ of nature would be, but think of the tremendous intellectual effort that has had to go into figuring out the physical consequences of the actual values of these constants. No one could sit down and rigorously work out an entirely new physics in a weekend."

    ReplyDelete
  11. Yeah, the climate change article caught my attention the other day, a real downer but well done. Here's another good one that leaves one more pissed off than depressed: http://www.aeonmagazine.com/living-together/the-rise-of-biotechnology-and-the-loss-of-scientific-neutrality/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+AeonMagazineEssays+%28Aeon+Magazine+Essays%29

    ReplyDelete
  12. I have to disagree with Gadfly about that climate piece.

    What Scranton writes is not science or philosophy (though it appears on a philosophy blog) but literary polemics. The basic conceit – comparing facing one's personal mortality with facing the death of our civilization – is forced and unconvincing on a number of levels.

    There is, I think, something adolescent and self-indulgent about his whole approach.

    At any rate, what we need on this important issue is dispassionate and measured analysis and not this kind of literary moralizing bolstered by hyperbole and flights of pseudo-mystical fancy.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Mark, I suppose that's why it appeared in the "Opinionator." Unless you happen to discount his war experiences and the numerous links throughout the article, your characterization of it as "adolescent and self-indulgent" seems rather one-dimensional to me. And the notion of "learning how to die" is hardly new and has in fact been a recurrent theme in both western and eastern thought and literature for centuries. So you are perhaps entitled to your opinion, but others may find it both glib and facile.

      Delete
    2. I was giving my personal reaction in calling Scranton's approach adolescent and self-indulgent, but I think I could – if pressed – make a convincing case.

      "... the notion of 'learning how to die' is hardly new and has in fact been a recurrent theme in both western and eastern thought and literature for centuries."

      You miss my point. I do know about these traditions, and respect them. It is Scranton who is disrespecting them by using them as he does and trying to apply them to social values and climate change. Dealing with one's own mortality is a very different thing from dealing with social changes.

      Delete
    3. Mark, of course you were giving your personal reaction. Look, there are at least 430 comments on that article and perhaps yours is one. Perhaps I miss your point, but my point is that you miss his. We are simply making value judgments. I honestly don't understand the point about "disrespecting." Scranton intends for his piece to be emotionally charged, but it is not only that. You are essentially taking issue with the style. You could disagree with the apocalyptic scenario he describes, but it's not like he's pulling the data on climate change out of a hat. Sure he's taking what might be described as rhetorical license (you prefer hyperbole), but it's in the interest of emphasizing the urgency of our situation. Anyway, that's my take on it.

      Delete
    4. I think I generally agree Mark about the climate piece, but I think it seems a bit hasty to describe Scranton's as "self-indulgent" and "adolescent". Scranton seems to have genuine concern for his species and the world they inhabit, it would be inappropriate to describe it as 'self-indulgent" or 'adolescent" since those descriptions seem to downplay and patronize his concern.

      I think what Mark is trying to say is that for someone who writes in a philosophy section (or whose commentary happens to be published in a philosophy section), Scranton doesn't seem to know very much about philosophy. If this is what Mark is trying to say, then I think I agree with him, although probably for different reasons.

      Scranton's article just comes across as quasi-continental (or semi-continental) philosophy article that attempts to pose deep questions or make insightful connection between our present crisis and philosophical questions, but fails to explain and clarify those questions. For example, he asks "what does it mean to be human" and suggests that somehow it is relevant to our global warming crisis. Perhaps it is relevant, but in what way? Obviously, it is not our biology, it has to be about some normative expectations about being a flourishing human being, but it is unclear which normative expectation he has in mind.

      Scranton also seems to conflate philosophy with history of philosophy. He points out that academic philosophers are not well equipped to address problems of global warming, his reasons are that philosophers like Kant cannot really tell us what to do with global warming. This (implicitly) suggests that somehow academic philosophy is not only esoteric study of history of philosophy but also an obsolete discipline. My problem with this is at least twofold. First, it is plainly fallacious to (implicitly) conclude that present day philosophers cannot say anything about the problem because some philosophers of the past can't. It's basically like saying that present scientist cannot answer questions about the origin of species because Galileo didn't say anything about it.

      Second, Scranton seems ignorant that present day philosophers do talk about global warming, specifically those who study environmental ethics.* One example would be Deep Ecology presented by Naess (who was influenced by Spinoza). Peter Singer, the utilitarian philosopher, does seem to have something to say about Global Warming.** Another philosopher Martha Nussbaum wrote about Global Warming as well, she talks about other philosophers who try to extend some theories of justice to global warming. So I don't think Scranton's claim about present day philosophers is warranted.

      What I don't like about Scranton's article is that for someone whose commentary is published in philosophy, he doesn't know very much about philosophy. The fact that his commentary is published in a philosophy section of NY Times gives people the wrong impression that he is familiar with philosophy, but on the contrary his familiarity is quite superficial. I'm OK if Scranton just published his piece in some non-philosophical blog or section of NY Times, I think its a decent article in its own right. However, I get deeply annoyed when someone like Scranton is dismissive of present-day professional philosophers without ever reading the professional literature, especially ones that relate to environmental ethics.



      *http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/ethics-environmental/
      *http://www.iep.utm.edu/envi-eth/
      **http://www.utilitarianism.net/singer/by/200608--.htm

      Delete
    5. Sir, you basically took six paragraphs, to criticize Scranton of turf toe in a venue that doesn't pretend its audience is professional philosophers or scientists. Why not add your comments to the article. The author is working on a doctorate in English, not in science or philosophy. This apparent inability to understand the author's POV is to suggest that peer reviewed articles in the sciences have had the impact Scranton's approach has. He is addressing lay people, and some might contend this is just the sort of approach needed to reach those who elect public officials. Or do you have empirical evidence that the viewpoints of scientific and philosophic journals have done much to correct the public perception?

      Delete
    6. Thomas has already basically covered all my responses. I would add one, to Mark's first response to me.

      Is there something wrong with extrapolating from individuals learning how to die qua individuals to a species of us learning how to die qua species? I say no; this is a good example of philosophizing at work.

      Delete
    7. Gadfly

      Scranton wrote: "In the epoch of the Anthropocene, the question of individual mortality – “What does my life mean in the face of death?” – is universalized and framed in scales that boggle the imagination. What does human existence mean against 100,000 years of climate change? What does one life mean in the face of species death or the collapse of global civilization? How do we make meaningful choices in the shadow of our inevitable end? These questions have no logical or empirical answers. They are philosophical problems par excellence."

      He mentions species death here, but he is really talking about the death of our civilization – by which he seems to mean at some points complete social collapse and at others merely the end of a business-as-usual, never-ending economic growth mentality. I get frustrated with this kind of imprecision and ambiguity. It's just sloppy writing (and muddled thinking) in my view.

      "Many thinkers, including Cicero, Montaigne, Karl Jaspers, and The Stone’s own Simon Critchley [this is very weak, amateurish stuff, don't you think?] have argued that studying philosophy is learning how to die. If that’s true, then we have entered humanity’s most philosophical age – for this is precisely the problem of the Anthropocene. The rub is that now we have to learn how to die not as individuals, but as a civilization...

      "The biggest problem we face is a philosophical one: understanding that this civilization is already dead. The sooner we confront this problem, and the sooner we realize there’s nothing we can do to save ourselves, the sooner we can get down to the hard work of adapting, with mortal humility, to our new reality."

      This just doesn't work. The basic metaphor about 'learning how to die' is stretched too thin, and his line of argument is confused and vague. The prospect of one's own individual death is being compared to the prospect of the death of our species and to having to make changes to our economic theories and to the prospect of social and economic and political trouble ahead.

      This piece is ideological, not philosophical. It is moralizing (or preachy, as someone else said). As well as being muddled and confused.

      Delete
  13. As a sort of companion piece to Scranton's piece on climate change and this notion of learning to live by first learning to die, consider the following link. Some will no doubt find it rather sentimental, maybe even self-indulgent, but it can hardly be described as self-indulgent.

    http://aeon.co/film/a-dying-man-embraces-the-joy-of-living/

    ReplyDelete
  14. Massimo what is with you and preachy articles?

    ReplyDelete
  15. Hi Massimo,

    I know you're deliberately being facetious, but I don't think it's particularly cool to generalise and say that all actresses over forty are anti-science. I'm just calling you out on it because I think generalisations are bad (in general!), even when meant in fun.

    I imagine it's possible to make more noise by being publicly anti-science than pro-science. Science doesn't particuarly need activists. It's doing just fine. The noise we get from the likes of Jenny McCarthy is because they're on the wrong side of history.

    As for 40+ female actresses who are pro-science, as far as I know Jodie Foster and Janeane Garofalo could serve as examples, although certainly neither are science activists.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. DM,

      you (and others) have apparently missed the fact that my phrase is simply the subtitle of the article linked to it. *Of course* one cannot make generalizations of that sort. Do I really get no credit at all around here? ;-)

      Delete
    2. Hi Massimo,

      >Do I really get no credit at all around here?<

      Well, sorry about that, but the byline when I looked didn't make the generalisation (although it you might say it implies it). Potentially they changed it a bit due to similar complaints.

      I never thought you were being ignorant. Just thought you might have been a little bit careless. And by posting the byline literally, that's still arguably true.

      Delete

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.