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.

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Friday, December 27, 2013

The philosophy of suicide

by Massimo Pigliucci

In a forthcoming episode of the Rationally Speaking podcast, Julia and I discuss the philosophy and science of suicide, i.e. what empirical inquiry tells us about suicides (who commits them, how, what are the best strategies for prevention) and how philosophical reflection may lead us to think of suicide. In this post I will focus on the philosophical side of the discussion, for which an excellent summary source, with a number of additional references, is this article by Michael Cholbi in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, to which I will keep referring below.

Suicide is an important, even urgent, topic, as the number of suicides has increased over the past 50 years, with about 1 million people taking their lives annually. In the United States, that amounts to about one suicide every 14 minutes (i.e., on average, three during our podcast). And yet, at first sight even a concept  as seemingly obvious as suicide poses some significant problems right at the outset, when we consider a proper definition of the term. For instance, I think we would all agree that Hitler committed suicide in his bunker toward the end of World War II, but what about Socrates, or Jesus? They didn’t directly take their lives, but they very purposefully did not take any action that could have easily avoided their deaths either.

One might be tempted, then, to define suicide simply as self-caused death, but this won’t do either, unless one wishes to include smokers who die of lung cancer knowing full well the risks carried by their habit. Moreover, there are cases that are usually recognized as suicide where the individual is not the actual causal agent of death, as in instances of “suicide by cop.” Cholbi concludes that for an action to count as suicidal (even when it fails) it has to be non-accidental, the result of a conscious choice by the agent to terminate his life, even by indirect means.

What about the moral aspect of the issue? Is suicide moral, immoral, neither? Does that depend on circumstances? How, exactly? In order to evaluate the moral worth (positive or negative) of suicide one needs to look at the motivations and consequences of the act. After all, people don’t seek death for death’s sake, but rather for a wide variety of reasons, from relieving physical pain or psychological anguish to avoidance of judicial punishment, from martyrdom for a cause to (perceived) societal shame. Which is why the history of philosophical analyses of suicide is complex, and begins — naturally — with Plato.

In the Phaedo Socrates agrees with the idea that suicide is wrong because it releases us prematurely from a condition in which the gods put us (thus anticipating Christian objections as well). But in Laws, Plato manages to find no less than four exceptions to the idea that suicide is immoral: i) When the individual’s mind is morally corrupted; ii) When it is done because of a judicial order, as in the case of Socrates, and of course Jesus (though Plato didn’t mention the latter, obviously); iii) When it is compelled by extreme unavoidable misfortune; and iv) As a result of shame for having carried out immoral actions.

Aristotle, Plato’s student, disagreed with his master on this as well as a number of other matters. For him suicide is a wrong toward society or the state, but not toward oneself, for the simple reason that it is the ultimate consensual act. As for the Stoics — who were famously friendly to the concept of suicide — it is permissible when we are impeded from pursuing a eudaimonic life. As the Roman Stoic Seneca (who himself committed, ahem, emperor-compelled suicide), aptly put it: a wise person lives as long as he ought, not as long as he can.

Let’s jump to the Middle Ages, and therefore to Christian thought. Augustine of Hippo thought that prohibiting suicide is an extension of the Fifth commandment, and therefore out of the question, but it was Thomas Aquinas who articulated three reasons against suicide: a) It is contrary to natural self-love (we would put it in terms of instinct of preservation nowadays); b) It injures the community (notice the Aristotelian echo); and c) It is a rejection of god’s gift of life (and here the echo is Platonic).

Perhaps not surprisingly, we have to wait until David Hume, in his very modern (and posthumously published) essay on suicide to get a well articulated response to Aquinas. Hume made a number of points, and the full text is well worth reading (and very accessible to a non specialist audience) including the observation that since god does allow us to act counter to natural law in some cases (e.g., in fighting disease), on what grounds is it unacceptable to violate the dictum of self preservation in particular? Here is how he puts it in the essay: “It is impious, says the modern European superstition, to put a period to our own life, and thereby rebel against our creator: and why not impious, say I, to build houses, cultivate the ground, or sail upon the ocean? In all these actions we employ our powers of mind and body to produce some innovation in the course of nature; and in non of them do we any more. They are all of them therefore equally innocent, or equally criminal.”

In terms of our obligations to society, Hume argues that if our conditions are sufficiently dire we may be more of a burden than a benefit to society, so that suicide would actually be helpful to others. As for the duty to ourselves, again if our living conditions are bad enough then suicide actually helps us, and it is therefore the rational thing to do.

Of course one can’t mention Hume without also talking about Kant, who, predictably, disagreed. The sage of Koenigsberg, however, made a rather convoluted and altogether unconvincing counter-argument here (especially when compared to the clarity and force of Hume’s reasoning). He basically said that, since moral authority stems from inside ourselves (the famous “moral law within”) committing suicide is equivalent to unleashing an attack against morality itself, and it is, therefore, immoral. Make of that what you wish or can…

What about contemporary arguments about suicide? Here is where Cholbi’s essay becomes more surprising, since it casts doubt on both the most commonly heard defenses and criticisms of suicide from a moral standpoint. Let’s take a quick look at some to get a flavor of how answers about suicide are anything but obvious.

A modern deontological argument can be based on the idea of “sanctity” of life, even when the term is to be understood in a secular, nor religious sense. The problem is that, if applied consistently, the argument would prohibit also — for instance — capital punishment, or death caused by self defense (remember, deontological systems are prone to make broad generalizations and are not friendly to nuanced distinctions). And of course one can reasonably argue that there is nothing inherently valuable about life, since its value comes from it being of a certain quality, as the Stoics argued.

Perhaps the most common among skeptics and freethinkers is the so-called “libertarian” argument (which also connects all the way back up to Stoicism): individuals have a right to suicide, and any state or medical intervention amounts to coercion. This, in turn (like many libertarian arguments), is rooted in the idea that we own our bodies, in pretty much the same way as we own any other kind of thing. The problem is that claim to self-ownership is, shall we say, metaphysically dubious. We own other things (like a watch) precisely because they are distinct from us. Which means that we can’t really “sell” our bodies (at most, we can rent them). This in turns means that self-ownership in the libertarian argument is more like a metaphor, and therefore a somewhat shaky basis for an argument. And even if we somehow buy the ownership metaphor, not much follows from it, since we typically have limited rights of disposal of objects we own, for instance if the disposal causes harm to others (okay, that wouldn’t be true in a libertarian paradise, but that place would be hell for most people anyway).

Then there is the social utilitarian argument, that suicide is wrong because it violates our duty to others, for instance in the form of induced grief, long term psychological issues and in some cases practical (i.e., financial) problems for surviving friends and family. But of course even if one buys into the utilitarian framework, the harm done to others has to be weighed against the harm done to both self and others by continuing one’s life, and in several cases that balance sheet may come down squarely on the side of suicide, not to mention that some who commit suicide do not have friends or family, which drastically alters the utilitarian calculus. 

There is also the act utilitarian argument that suicide may even be valuable, in terms of its consequences, so that it could be morally permissible, or even morally obligatory, under certain circumstances, as when a soldier jumps on a grenade to save his comrades (see the first Captain America movie), or — more controversially — in the case suicide for political reasons (which, needless to say, includes suicide bombings).

Finally, we have what can be termed a modern version of the social contractarian argument, reminiscent of Aristotle’s position, and already rejected, under certain circumstances, by Hume. The basic idea is that we have a social contract that binds us to contribute to society, and to deprive society of our talents and efforts violates that contract. True, as far as it goes, but contracts are of course always conditional: if society, for instance, is not providing us the means for living a fulfilling life (within reason) whatever duty we may have had toward that society has in turn been nullified.

Talk of suicide also naturally raises the issue of what are other people’s duties toward those who attempt to take their lives. At one end of the spectrum, it seems like simply trying to talk someone out of committing suicide is morally unproblematic, since after all there is no coercion involved in just presenting reasons for not doing something. There is more of an issue with so-called paternalistic approaches, such as medication, physical restraint, or institutionalization. Even so, according again to Cholbi, a very good argument can be made that if a person is depressed or otherwise not in full possession of his rational powers (but are we ever?), paternalism is justified given the very high (literally, terminal) stakes. And if you harbor some kind of libertarian-inspired principled objection to paternalism, keep in mind that the morality of assisted suicide is also grounded on a paternalistic approach, with the reasoning applied in reverse.

Making my way through Cholbi’s essay clearly brought home to me just how complex, philosophically speaking, the issue of suicide really is. (And I haven’t touched on the psychology, sociology, neurobiology or genetics of it!) It has also helped me clarify my own thinking on the matter, which of course is the entire point of engaging in philosophical reflection. It seems to me that people do have a moral right to commit suicide, and others have no right to interfere in a coercive (as opposed to a discursive way) if two conditions hold: i) The person is in a psychological and material state that allows her to make an informed decision about whether to terminate her life (e.g., she is not clinically depressed, or she is not under financial duress for which she could be helped by friends, family or society at large); and ii) The person has weighed the consequences of her act on other people, chiefly her friends and family. 

These conditions would apply most obviously to cases of (assisted, if necessary) suicide as a result of terminal illness, and broadly speaking I’m with the Stoics here, though Hume’s arguments apply as well: if the individual determines that her eudaimonic life would be better served by ending it, she has the moral right to do so (I am not at all concerned here with legal rights, which in this case ought to follow directly from moral considerations).

However, friends, family and even the state do have a compelling interest in intervening — in a compulsory manner if necessary — in all cases in which these two conditions do not hold, and the philosophical justification for such intervention can arch back to an extended and updated version of Aristotle’s position.

One thing I definitely don’t go for is any kind of “sanctity” argument in opposition to suicide. I do not even consider for a moment, of course, any religious version of it, since I reject religion as a source of either knowledge or wisdom. The secular version, however, owes us an explanation of why, exactly, life is sacred, and no, Kant’s bizarre argument about the source of the moral law just isn’t going to cut it. Again, both the Stoics and Hume, seems to me, got it exactly right: life is valuable to the individual who is alive if it can be pursued according to certain conditions (e.g., it yields sufficient pleasures, the possibility of pursuing one’s own goals, is characterized by meaningful relationships, and so forth). To quote Hume again, “The life of man is of no greater importance to the universe than that of an oyster.” Meaning and value are human concepts, and it is up to human beings — individually and societally — to make of them what they wish.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Massimo's Picks!

* The electron is far too round! And that spells trouble for post-Standard Model physics.

* Birds offer some insight into the evolution of extended families, but much mystery remains.

* The NSA is both fascist and tyrannical, Mussolini and John Locke agree.

* We need Adam Smith's moral philosophy more than his economics. (Ignore the final rant about misguided liberals...)

* Philosophy of novels and philosophy in novels.

* The "Francis effect" and the fundamental quandary of modern religions (except Islam).

* Is the (over) documented life worth living?

* Why human beings need to fail.

* The shameless selling of attention deficit disorder.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Rationally Speaking podcast: Judith Schlesinger Exposes the Myth of the Mad Genius

Creative geniuses are always a little bit cuckoo, right? At least, that's the impression you'd get from TV, movies, and plenty of common wisdom.

In this episode of Rationally Speaking, Massimo and Julia are joined by psychologist Judith Schlesinger, author of The Insanity Hoax: Exposing the Myth of the Mad Genius, who explains why she thinks the "mad genius" archetype is simply the result of folklore, misunderstanding, and bad research.

Judith's advice: Re-enjoy the geniuses that you have always loved, pull down a Beethoven Symphony and listen to it, go to the museum and look at Van Gogh's beautiful paintings, and if you focus more on the beauty and less on the rumor, we will all be better off.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Rationally Speaking cartoon: Free Will

(click on image for larger view)

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Rationally Speaking cartoon: Immortality

(click on image to see larger view)

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Rationally Speaking's book suggestions

Several readers have asked us for our suggestions for readings, with the upcoming holidays being the obvious excuse. Well, below are some entries from each of our writers, for your reading and thinking pleasure.

Ian's suggestions

At Home: A Short History of Private Life, by Bill Bryson. Bill Bryson and his family live in a Victorian parsonage in a part of England where nothing of any great significance has happened since the Romans decamped. Yet one day, he began to consider how very little he knew about the ordinary things of life as he found it in that comfortable home. To remedy this, he formed the idea of journeying about his house from room to room to “write a history of the world without leaving home.” The bathroom provides the occasion for a history of hygiene; the bedroom, sex, death, and sleep; the kitchen, nutrition and the spice trade; and so on, as Bryson shows how each has fig­ured in the evolution of private life. Whatever happens in the world, he demonstrates, ends up in our house, in the paint and the pipes and the pillows and every item of furniture. Bill Bryson has one of the liveliest, most inquisitive minds on the planet, and he is a master at turning the seemingly isolated or mundane fact into an occasion for the most diverting exposi­tion imaginable. His wit and sheer prose fluency make At Home one of the most entertaining books ever written about private life.

The 10,000 Year Explosion: How Civilization Accelerated Human Evolution, by Gregory Cochran and Henry Harpending. Resistance to malaria. Blue eyes. Lactose tolerance. What do all of these traits have in common? Every one of them has emerged in the last 10,000 years. Scientists have long believed that the “great leap forward” that occurred some 40,000 to 50,000 years ago in Europe marked end of significant biological evolution in humans. In this stunningly original account of our evolutionary history, top scholars Gregory Cochran and Henry Harpending reject this conventional wisdom and reveal that the human species has undergone a storm of genetic change much more recently. Human evolution in fact accelerated after civilization arose, they contend, and these ongoing changes have played a pivotal role in human history. They argue that biology explains the expansion of the Indo-Europeans, the European conquest of the Americas, and European Jews' rise to intellectual prominence. In each of these cases, the key was recent genetic change: adult milk tolerance in the early Indo-Europeans that allowed for a new way of life, increased disease resistance among the Europeans settling America, and new versions of neurological genes among European Jews. Ranging across subjects as diverse as human domestication, Neanderthal hybridization, and IQ tests, Cochran and Harpending's analysis demonstrates convincingly that human genetics have changed and can continue to change much more rapidly than scientists have previously believed. A provocative and fascinating new look at human evolution that turns conventional wisdom on its head, The 10,000 Year Explosion reveals the ongoing interplay between culture and biology in the making of the human race.

The Long Earth, by Terry Pratchett and  Stephen Baxter. An unmissable milestone for fans of Sir Terry Pratchett: the first SF novel in over three decades in which the visionary inventor of Discworld has created a new universe of tantalizing possibilities—a series of parallel “Earths” with doorways leading to adventure, intrigue, excitement, and an escape into the furthest reaches of the imagination. The Long Earth, written with award-winning novelist Stephen Baxter, author of Stone Spring, Ark, and Floodwill, captivate science fiction fans of all stripes, readers of Kurt Vonnegut, Douglas Adams, and Carl Hiaasen, and anyone who enjoyed the Terry Pratchett/Neil Gaiman collaboration Good Omens. The Long Earth is an adventure of the highest order—and an unforgettable read.

Leonard's suggestions

All Yesterdays: Unique and Speculative Views of Dinosaurs and Other Prehistoric Animals, by Darren Naish and others. All Yesterdays is a book about the way we see dinosaurs and other
prehistoric animals. Lavishly illustrated with over sixty original artworks, All Yesterdays aims to challenge our notions of how prehistoric animals looked and behaved. As an critical exploration of palaeontological art, All Yesterdays asks questions about what is probable, what is possible, and what is commonly ignored. Written by palaeozoologist Darren Naish, and palaeontological artists John Conway and C.M. Kosemen, All Yesterdays is scientifically rigorous and artistically imaginative in its approach to fossils of the past - and those of the future.

The Animal Man Omnibus, by Grant Morrison and others. From Grant Morrison, Eisner Award winning writer of ALL-STAR SUPERMAN and bestselling author of Supergods: What Masked Vigilantes, Miraculous Mutants, and a Sun God from Smallville Can Teach Us About Being Human, this new hardcover collects Morrison's entire groundbreaking run on ANIMAL MAN altogether for the first time. Buddy Baker is more than just a second-rate super hero--He's also a devoted family man and animal rights activist. Now, as he tries to jump-start his crimefighting career, he experiences visions of aliens, people transforming into strange pencil-like drawings, and hints of a terrible crisis lurking around the edges of reality. And as his odyssey of self-discovery gives way to spiritual enlightenment as well as the depths of despair, Buddy meets his maker: a writer named Grant Morrison.

The Accidental Species: Misunderstandings of Human Evolution, by Henry Gee. The idea of a missing link between humanity and our animal ancestors predates evolution and popular science and actually has religious roots in the deist concept of the Great Chain of Being. Yet, the metaphor has lodged itself in the contemporary imagination, and new fossil discoveries are often hailed in headlines as revealing the elusive transitional step, the moment when we stopped being “animal” and started being “human.” In The Accidental Species, Henry Gee, longtime paleontology editor at Nature, takes aim at this misleading notion, arguing that it reflects a profound misunderstanding of how evolution works and, when applied to the evolution of our own species, supports mistaken ideas about our own place in the universe. Gee presents a robust and stark challenge to our tendency to see ourselves as the acme of creation. Far from being a quirk of religious fundamentalism, human exceptionalism, Gee argues, is an error that also infects scientific thought. Touring the many features of human beings that have recurrently been used to distinguish us from the rest of the animal world, Gee shows that our evolutionary outcome is one possibility among many, one that owes more to chance than to an organized progression to supremacy. He starts with bipedality, which he shows could have arisen entirely by accident, as a by-product of sexual selection, moves on to technology, large brain size, intelligence, language, and, finally, sentience. He reveals each of these attributes to be alive and well throughout the animal world—they are not, indeed, unique to our species. The Accidental Species combines Gee’s firsthand experience on the editorial side of many incredible paleontological findings with healthy skepticism and humor to create a book that aims to overturn popular thinking on human evolution—the key is not what’s missing, but how we’re linked.

Massimo's suggestions

Farewell to Reality: How Modern Physics Has Betrayed the Search for Scientific Truth, by Jim Baggott. In this stunning new volume, Jim Baggott argues that there is no observational or experimental evidence for many of the ideas of modern theoretical physics: super-symmetric particles, super strings, the multiverse, the holographic principle, or the anthropic cosmological principle. These theories are not only untrue; they are not even science. They are fairy-tale physics: fantastical, bizarre and often outrageous, perhaps even confidence-trickery. This book provides a much-needed antidote. Informed, comprehensive, and balanced, it offers lay readers the latest ideas about the nature of physical reality while clearly distinguishing between fact and fantasy. With its engaging portraits of many central figures of modern physics, including Paul Davies, John Barrow, Brian Greene, Stephen Hawking, and Leonard Susskind, it promises to be essential reading for all readers interested in what we know and don’t know about the nature of the universe and reality itself.

Brainwashed: The Seductive Appeal of Mindless Neuroscience, by Sally Satel and Scott O. Lilienfeld. In recent years, the advent of MRI technology seems to have unlocked the secrets of the human mind, revealing the sources of our deepest desires, intentions, and fears. As renowned psychiatrist and scholar Sally Satel and psychologist Scott O. Lilienfeld demonstrate in Brainwashed, however, the explanatory power of brain scans in particular and neuroscience more generally has been vastly overestimated. Although acknowledging its tremendous potential, the authors argue that the overzealous application of the burgeoning field of brain science has put innocent people in jail, prevented addicts from healing themselves, and undermined notions of free will and responsibility. A provocative challenge to the use and abuse of a seductive science, Brainwashed offers an essential corrective to determinist explanations of human behavior.

Hitler's Philosophers, by Yvonne Sherratt. Hitler had a dream to rule the world, not only with the gun but also with his mind. He saw himself as a "philosopher-leader" and astonishingly gained the support of many intellectuals of his time. In this compelling book, Yvonne Sherratt explores Hitler's relationship with philosophers and uncovers cruelty, ambition, violence, and betrayal where least expected—at the heart of Germany's ivory tower. Sherratt investigates international archives, discovering evidence back to the 1920s of Hitler's vulgarization of noble thinkers of the past, including Kant, Nietzsche, and Darwin. She reveals how philosophers of the 1930s eagerly collaborated to lend the Nazi regime a cloak of respectability: Martin Heidegger, Carl Schmitt, and a host of others. And while these eminent men sanctioned slaughter, Semitic thinkers like Walter Benjamin and opponents like Kurt Huber were hunted down or murdered. Many others, such as Theodor Adorno and Hannah Arendt, were forced to flee as refugees. The book portrays their fates, to be dispersed across the world as the historic edifice of Jewish-German culture was destroyed by Hitler. Sherratt not only confronts the past; she also tracks down chilling evidence of continuing Nazi sympathy in Western Universities today.

Steve's suggestions

Thinking: The New Science of Decision-Making, Problem-Solving, and Prediction in Life and Markets, by John Brockman. From the bestselling authors of Thinking, Fast and Slow; The Black Swan; and Stumbling on Happiness comes a cutting-edge exploration of the mysteries of rational thought, decision-making, intuition, morality, willpower, problem-solving, prediction, forecasting, unconscious behavior, and beyond. Edited by John Brockman, publisher of Edge.org ("The world's smartest website"—The Guardian), Thinking presents original ideas by today's leading psychologists, neuroscientists, and philosophers who are radically expanding our understanding of human thought. Daniel Kahneman on the power (and pitfalls) of human intuition and "unconscious" thinking • Daniel Gilbert on desire, prediction, and why getting what we want doesn't always make us happy • Nassim Nicholas Taleb on the limitations of statistics in guiding decision-making • Vilayanur Ramachandran on the scientific underpinnings of human nature • Simon Baron-Cohen on the startling effects of testosterone on the brain • Daniel C. Dennett on decoding the architecture of the "normal" human mind • Sarah-Jayne Blakemore on mental disorders and the crucial developmental phase of adolescence • Jonathan Haidt, Sam Harris, and Roy Baumeister on the science of morality, ethics, and the emerging synthesis of evolutionary and biological thinking • Gerd Gigerenzer on rationality and what informs our choices.

The Ego Trick, by Julian Baggini. Are you still the person who lived fifteen, ten or five years ago? Fifteen, ten or five minutes ago? Can you plan for your retirement if the you of thirty years hence is in some sense a different person? What and who is the real you? Does it remain constant over time and place, or is it something much more fragmented and fluid? Is it known to you, or are you as much a mystery to yourself as others are to you?With his usual wit, infectious curiosity and bracing scepticism, Julian Baggini sets out to answer these fundamental and unsettling questions. His fascinating quest draws on the history of philosophy, but also anthropology, sociology, psychology and neurology; he talks to theologians, priests, allegedly reincarnated Lamas, and delves into real-life cases of lost memory, personality disorders and personal transformation; and, candidly and engagingly, he describes his own experiences. After reading The Ego Trick, you will never see yourself in the same way again.

Zen and the Art of Consciousness, by Susan Blackmore. Who are you? When are you? What were you conscious of a moment ago? This groundbreaking book sees acclaimed psychologist Susan Blackmore combining the latest scientific theories about mind, self, and consciousness with a lifetime’s practice of Zen. Framed by ten critical questions derived from Zen teachings and designed to expand your understanding and experience of consciousness, Ten Zen Questions doesn’t offer final - or easy - answers, but instead provides an inspiring exploration of how intellectual enquiry and meditation can tackle some of today’s greatest scientific mysteries.

Bonus suggestion (c'mon, surely we can get away with suggesting one of our own books, yes?)

Answers for Aristotle: How Science and Philosophy Can Lead Us to A More Meaningful Life, by Yours Truly. How should we live? According to philosopher and biologist Massimo Pigliucci, the greatest guidance to this essential question lies in combining the wisdom of 24 centuries of philosophy with the latest research from 21st century science. In Answers for Aristotle, Pigliucci argues that the combination of science and philosophy first pioneered by Aristotle offers us the best possible tool for understanding the world and ourselves. As Aristotle knew, each mode of thought has the power to clarify the other: science provides facts, and philosophy helps us reflect on the values with which to assess them. But over the centuries, the two have become uncoupled, leaving us with questions—about morality, love, friendship, justice, and politics—that neither field could fully answer on its own. Pigliucci argues that only by rejoining each other can modern science and philosophy reach their full potential, while we harness them to help us reach ours. Pigliucci discusses such essential issues as how to tell right from wrong, the nature of love and friendship, and whether we can really ever know ourselves—all in service of helping us find our path to the best possible life. Combining the two most powerful intellectual traditions in history, Answers for Aristotle is a remarkable guide to discovering what really matters and why.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

The Undergraduate Atheists’ Thesis

by Massimo Pigliucci

I am not particularly friendly to the so-called New Atheism. While I respect (and often respectfully disagree with) Dan Dennett, I have been a fairly strong critic of Dawkins, Harris, and the late Hitchens (not to mention other NA’s, such as Jerry Coyne). I have even written a technical paper analyzing the NA movement from a philosophical perspective. 

So it was with some interest that I recently read a piece by David V. Johnson at 3QuarksDaily, entitled “A refutation of the undergraduate atheists,” which promised to deliver some guilty pleasure for my weekend readings. It did deliver, but only in part. In the following I will outline Johnson’s arguments and where, I think, he goes astray. I have also invited him to respond here at Rationally Speaking, and he has graciously agreed, so stay tuned for a follow up.

Johnson adopts the (obviously derisive) language of philosopher Mark Johnston, referring to the NA as “undergraduate atheists” (notice that while Johnson seems to be some kind of deist, Johnson is an atheist). Since the NA’s themselves are notorious for their, shall we say, aggressive sarcasm, I think that’s a fair enough shot.

More substantively, here is the summary of the Undergraduate Atheists’ Thesis (UAT): “Humanity would be better off without religious belief.”

Before anyone cries “simplistic!” let me add that that’s also my own understanding of at the least a prominent position endorsed by the NA and their followers. So, let’s proceed to examine Johnson’s arguments against the UAT.

He unpacks the notion in the following way: “[the UAT] asks us to compare two different lines of human history, one in which the vast majority of human beings have held and continue to hold religious beliefs, and one in which they haven’t and don’t. Their argument is that the world will be better off in the latter scenario.”

Johnson’s first (and indeed, chief) objection is that to demonstrate the UAT is impossible, because it would require endlessly complex (and highly subjective) calculations, comparing the actual historical time line of humanity to the alternative world imagined by the NA. He therefore accuses the New Atheists of making a statement that is impossible to substantiate with empirical evidence, and that amounts to nothing but faith (ouch!).

This strikes me as entirely correct, as far as it goes, and it exposes the kind of simplistic, scientistic, anti-intellectual streak of self-professed “rational” thinking that too many atheists quickly and shamelessly engage in. Even though I don’t agree with Johnson’s judgment that endorsing the UAT is just as bad as “the ranting of any superstitious windbag,” it’s still pretty darn bad. We talk a lot about supporting critical thinking in the skeptic/atheist community(es), but we aren’t necessarily that good at cleaning up our own sloppy reasoning.

Johnson — again, rightly — accuses the NA of thinking that their alternative time line would have obviously been better for humanity, supporting this bold conclusion with (mostly cherry picked) examples of the evils allegedly caused by religions throughout the ages.

The problem, of course, is that some of those evils were justified using religious grounds, but more likely perpetrated because of the usual suspects: greed, political power, and the like. And similar evils — pace Dawkins’ convenient denial — have demonstrably been carried out by “atheist” governments, as recently as, well, now. Just think of Stalin’s Russia or the recent and current China. Ah, but those are not really the fault of atheism, the NA’s loudly complain, they are cases of political ideology taking up the cover of atheism. Sure, and what, exactly, makes anyone think that the same argument cannot be applied to the Inquisition, or to the various Christian massacres (often aimed at other Christians)? It’s called the no true Scotsman fallacy, you know.

There is, however, an important assumption behind Johnson’s reasoning (as well as, ironically, that of his targets), which one need not buy into. The two-timelines comparison is an exercise in consequentialist ethics, but if one is inclined to adopt either a deontological or a virtue ethical framework the whole idea of criticizing (or defending) religion on this basis crumbles into logical dust. Both Kantians and virtue ethicists, for instance, could object to religion on the grounds that they are based on untruths, as within both frameworks it is not acceptable to believe in things that are not true just because they make us feel better.

It is also a bit naive, I think, of both Johnson and the NA’s, to set up the problem as the comparison of two alternate time-lines. As Johnson says, this comparison is actually impossible to carry out, so either side can easily claim victory based on the “obvious” fact that their time-line is overall better for humanity. But if that were the only way to compare alternative scenarios affecting human wellbeing, then the same exact problem would apply to, say, political ideologies, with neither conservatives nor liberals ever being able to rationally make a case in favor of their programs. Instead, as any serious consequentialist would argue, these kinds of complex problems need to be broken down into smaller bits for which we can actually claim sufficient epistemic access to make at the least a reasonable guess as to the most likely outcome.

For instance, we can measure the effects of superstitious beliefs on people’s decision making and life quality, though the outcome of such analyses may not come down in clear favor of the New Atheist position. Indeed, it may very well turn out to be the case that atheists are better off staking their claims using deontology or virtue ethics (which is ironic, given that many of them seem to be consequentialists).

In a similar vein, Johnson points out that there are well documented cases of positive emotional effects from religion. Even though from an atheist perspective these are akin to placebo effects (and, the atheist would argue, unlike medical placebos they likely have ill “side” effects), Johnson’s argument remains valid. Remember, he is not defending the existence of gods, he is just trying to undermine the UAT.

Still exploring the alternative timelines argument, Johnson writes: “in this alternate universe, there would be no religious wars — but I suspect there would be wars. There would be no superstition — but I suspect there would be nonsense and folly all the same. But what this universe would lack is the ability of human beings to have religious faith and reap its subjective psychological benefits.” My hunch is that he is correct, but the crucial point is that we don’t know. That is, Johnson doesn’t have to show that the alternate universe would still suffer from huge problems, or even that the actual timeline is better all things considered. All he has to do is to show that the positive claim at the core of the UAT cannot be empirically substantiated, and that, a fortiori, it is far from obviously true.

In the second section of his essay Johnson takes on studies showing that religious belief comes naturally to human beings, that we are somehow hardwired for it. This is likely true (though I tend to be somewhat suspicious of any neuroscience- or evopsych-based claims to hard-wirededness), and needs to be addressed by the New Atheists. Indeed, the most astute of them, Dan Dennett, has devoted a whole book to “breaking [that particular] spell,” so to speak. (See also this technical paper of mine on the merits of various scientific hypotheses for the origin of religious belief.)

However, even if we buy Johnson’s premise of hard-wired beliefs in the transcendent, it doesn’t follow that people wouldn’t be better off without them, nor that this cannot be accomplished (you’d be surprised by how much genetically-influenced behavior turns out to be plastic, i.e. alterable by environmental influences). For instance, we are also naturally bad at reasoning about probabilities, and yet we can be taught how to avoid been duped by casinos.

But Johnson goes further and presents a thought experiment of his own, inviting us to imagine what an alternate world where people where incapable of religious faith would look like. After a brief nod of regret that such world would be unlikely to be populated by the likes of David Hume (I’m in complete agreement with that regretful sentiment!), he calls our twin-earth equivalents “Dawkinsians,” named after you-know-who: “Would Dawkinsians dread their own deaths? Would they have any capacity for mystical feeling? Would they suffer existential angst? Would they worry about the ultimate grounds of good and evil? If they did, then they would likely be worse off, I submit, than a world of human beings with religion. If they didn’t, then Dawkinsians are a species that is so unlike ours that it’s not a fair comparison.”

But wait a minute. To begin with, now Johnson seems to be making the exact same sort of unsubstantiated statements that he accuses the New Atheists of so carelessly engaging in (after all, the Dawkinsians are imaginary creatures). Moreover, we know that real human beings can and do cope with those problems, at least in part. Plenty of people in the world are non religious and yet do not seem to suffer more existential angst than their religious counterparts — for instance many within the so-called Buddhist “religion,” not to mention of course most atheists and agnostics. And religion is demonstrably not the only way to deal with these sort of problems, as plenty of philosophers and philosophical schools — from Epicureanism to Existentialism — have amply demonstrated. These aren’t hypotheticals about Dawkinsians, they are statements of fact concerning real human beings, statements that can be scrutinized and whose evidentiary weight can be assessed. Except, of course, that many atheists don’t care too much to study either comparative religion or philosophy.

In sum, I think Johnson’s main point is essentially correct: too many (new) atheists make bold claims without evidence, and they ought to be rebuked for that. However, the UAT can be refined and improved at the least to the level of a Graduate Atheists’ Thesis, if not better, by pursuing some of the lines of argument and inquiry I have outlined above.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Rationally Speaking cartoon: Evidence & Reason

(click on image for larger view)

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Massimo's Picks!

* Soft paternalism, the future of citizen-government interactions?

* (Old but good one) How not to Feyerabend.

* Who needs a gun? Good question.

* A feminist Kant? Seriously?? And yet...

* Jerry Coyne builds a straw man to defend the metaphor of selfish genes. (Check out the original criticism here.)

* Historical redress: who must pay for the past, and how?

* Listening to your inner voice, unless you are crazy.

* Former RS podcast guest Cordelia Fine has a problem or two with the latest neuro-gender study.

* The importance of philosophy of medicine.

* The ways of lust.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Mathematical Universe? I ain’t convinced

by Massimo Pigliucci

So the other day Julia Galef and I had the pleasure of interviewing mathematical cosmologist Max Tegmark for the Rationally Speaking podcast. The episode will come out in late January, close to the release of Max’s book, presenting his Mathematical Universe Hypothesis (MUH). We had a lively and interesting conversation, but in the end, I’m not convinced (and I doubt Julia was either).

The basic idea is that the ultimate structure of reality is, well, a mathematical one. Please understand this well, because it is the crux of the discussion: Tegmark isn’t saying anything as mundane as that the world is best described by mathematics; he is saying that the ultimate nature of reality is mathematics.

This is actually not at all a new thesis, though Max is advancing it in new form and based on different reasoning then before. Indeed, the idea has a long philosophical history, and can fruitfully be thought of as based on two distinct philosophical positions: Pythagoreanism, or mathematical Platonism; and Mathematical monism.

Mathematical Platonism is the idea that mathematical structures are real in a mind-independent fashion. They are not “real” in the same sense as, say, chairs and electrons, but they do have an ontological status independent of the human (or any other) mind. As readers of this blog know, I’m actually sympathetic to (though not necessarily completely on board with) mathematical Platonism. The best point in its favor is the so-called “no miracles” argument, the idea that mathematics is too unreasonably effective (at predicting things about the world) for it to be just a human invention, rather than somehow part of the inherent fabric of the world. (Interestingly, this argument is equivalent to one by the same name advanced by scientific realists to claim that science really does describe — approximately — how the world is, as opposed to the antirealist position that the only thing we can say about science is that it is empirically adequate.)

Mathematical monism is the stronger doctrine that not only are mathematical structures real, but they are the only real thing out there (or, more precisely, everywhere).

The combination of Platonism and monism yields a class of theories about the ultimate nature of reality, of which Tegmark’s MUH is one example. We have seen another one several times in the past, in the form of Ladyman and Ross’ ontic structural realism, the notion that there are no “objects” or “things” at the bottom, just (mathematical) relations.

While I have commented positively on ontic structural realism (again, without necessarily buying into it), and more generally on the idea of a “naturalistic” metaphysics (i.e., a metaphysics that takes seriously the best known physics), my conversation with Max Tegmark actually generated more doubts than illumination.
One obvious problem is posed by what it would mean for the world to be “made of” mathematical structures. The notion of mathematical structure is well developed, so that’s not the issue. A structure, strictly speaking, is a property or a group of mathematical objects that attach themselves to a given set. For instance, the set of real numbers has a number of structures, including an order (with any given number being either less or more than another number), a metric (measuring the distance between points in the set), an algebraic structure (the operations of addition and multiplication), and so on.

The problem is in what sense, if any, can a mathematical structure, so defined, actually be the fundamental constituent of the physical world, i.e. being the substance of which chairs, electrons, and so on, are made.

Of course, both Julia and I asked Max that very question, and we were both very unconvinced by his answer. When Tegmark said that fundamental particles, like electrons, are, ultimately mathematical in nature, Julia suggested that perhaps what he meant was that their properties are described by mathematical quantities. But Max was adamant, mentioning, for instance, the spin (which in the case of the electron has magnitude 1/2). Now, the spin of a particle, although normally described as its angular momentum, is an exquisitely quantum mechanical property (i.e., with no counterpart in classical mechanics), and it is highly misleading to think of it as anything like the angular momentum of a macroscopic object. Nevertheless, Julia and I insisted, it is a physical property described by a mathematical quantity, the latter is not the same as the former.

Could it be that theories like MUH are actually based on a category mistake? Obviously, I’m not suggesting that people like Tegmark make the elementary mistake of confusing the normal meaning of words like “objects” and “properties,” or of “physical” and “mathematical.” But perhaps they are making precisely that mistake in a metaphysical sense?

There are other problems with MUH. For one, several critics of Tegmark’s ideas have pointed out that they run afoul of the seemingly omnipresent (and much misunderstood) Gödel’s incompleteness theorems. Mark Alford, specifically, during a debate with Tegmark and Piet Hut has suggested that the idea that mathematics is “out there” is incompatible with the idea that it consists of formal systems. To which Tegmark replied that perhaps only Gödel-complete mathematical structures have physical existence (something referred to as the Computable Universe Hypothesis, CUH).

This, apparently, results in serious problems for Max’s theory, since it excludes much of the landscape of mathematical structures, not to mention that pretty much every successful physical theory so far would violate CUH. Oops.

Prompted by the above, I also asked Max about Gödel, and his response was that Gödel-related problems appear only in the case of infinite quantities, and he professed himself to be an infinity-skeptic. That took me by surprise, what do you mean you don’t believe in infinity? I thought this was a pretty darn well established concept in mathematics, at least since the work of Georg Cantor in the 19th century! But of course Tegmark was referring to the existence of physical, not mathematical, infinities. As is well known, there are certain calculations in physics that do generate infinities, for instance the singularity that shows up in the description of black holes, or the infinite quantities that are postulated in standard descriptions of phase transitions. The question of whether there really are infinities in physical systems is open, so surely Max is entitled to his skepticism. But it did seem a bit too convenient a position, in light of the above mentioned Gödel-related problems.

Another issue that didn’t convince either Julia or me during our conversation with Max is a crucial one: testability. I’m okay with philosophical speculations (and I use the term in a positive fashion!) about modal realism or the principle of plenitude, but if we are claiming to be doing science (as Tegmark surely is), then our speculations better make contact with empirical reality. Jim Baggott, in his Farewell to Reality: How Modern Physics Has Betrayed the Search for Scientific Truth, is already accusing physicists of losing touch with what it means to do science. Is Tegmark the latest example of the trend?

When we asked, he claimed that the MUH does make empirical predictions, but when pressed on the details the answer becomes far less satisfying than one would hope. For instance, Max said that one prediction is that physics will continue to uncover mathematical regularities in nature. Well, probably, but one surely doesn’t need to postulate MUH to account for that. He also has stated in the past that — assuming we live in an average universe (within the multiverse of mathematical structures) — then we “start testing multiverse predictions by assessing how typical our universe is.” But how would we carry out such tests, if we have no access to the other parts of the multiverse?

Max went on to say that his hypothesis has “zero free parameters” and is therefore favored by Occam’s razor. But if you check his paper at arxiv.org he says: “If this theory is correct, then since it has no free parameters, all properties of all parallel universes … could in principle be derived by an infinitely intelligent mathematician. … Finally, the ultimate ensemble of the Level IV multiverse would require 0 bits to specify, since it has no free parameters.” There are a couple of obvious problems here. One is the dearth of infinitely intelligent mathematicians, the second the fact that the above mentioned Level IV multiverse is precisely what gets dramatically (and unrealistically) shrunk as a result of Gödel-imposed limitations. And let’s not forget that Occam’s razor is just a useful heuristic, it should never be used as the final arbiter to decide which theory is to be favored, especially when we are talking about such highly speculative and empirically next to impossible (or even downright impossible) ideas to test.

In Many Worlds in One: The Search for Other Universes, critic Alex Vilenkin says that “the number of mathematical structures [in the multiverse] increases with increasing complexity, suggesting that ‘typical’ structures should be horrendously large and cumbersome. This seems to be in conflict with the beauty and simplicity of the theories describing our world.” In order to get around that problem, Tegmark assigns lower weights to more complex structures, but since this is done without a priori justification, it is an ad hoc move, which of course violates Occam’s razor. So, as much as I enjoyed our conversation with Max, for the time being I remain skeptical of the MUH and related hypotheses. Maybe we just need to wait for the appearance of an infinitely intelligent mathematician.


[This just in from Max Tegmark himself!]

Thanks Massimo for the fun conversation during the interview and for raising these important questions! They are excellent ones, and a key reason why I spent three years writing this book is because I wanted to make sure to finally answer them all properly. Needless to say, I couldn't do justice to them in our short interview, so I'm very much look forward to hear what you think about my detailed answers in chapters 6, 10, 11 and 12. I think you'll find that our viewpoints are closer than your post suggest - for example, your statement "Tegmark assigns lower weights to more complex structures" is not something you'll find in the book. Rather, I describe how the measure problem is a terrible embarrassment for modern cosmology (regardless of whether the MUH is true or not) that we need to solve, and that our untested assumption that truly infinite things exist in nature are my prime suspect: we've never measured anything to better than 17 decimal places, have only 10^89 particles in our universe, and manage to do all our publishable physics simulations with computers that have finite resources, so even though my physics courses at MIT use infinity as a convenient tool, I respectfully object to your "OPS" argument that we somehow have experimental evidence for infinity in physics. Without infinity, there are, as you say, no Gödel issues in our physics.

I look forward to continuing this interesting conversation! ;-)

Monday, December 09, 2013

Rationally Speaking podcast: Jerome Wakefield on Psychiatric Diagnoses: Science or Pseudoscience?

What qualifies someone as mentally ill? The standard for diagnosis is the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), which just released a 5th edition in 2013 - but how objective is it, exactly?

This episode of Rationally Speaking features Dr. Jerome Wakefield, psychiatrist, PhD in philosophy, and author of "The Loss of Sadness: How Psychiatry Transformed Normal Sorrow into Depressive Disorder." Julia, Massimo and Jerome talk about the arbitrariness of the DSM and the controversies around the boundaries of various mental disorders, including depression and sexual fetishes.

Jerome's pick: Bertrand Russells's Autobiography

Saturday, December 07, 2013

Thoughts About Thinking - A Review

by Steve Neumann

In one of his Tavistock Lectures in London in 1935, C.G. Jung said:

Thinking, if you ask a philosopher, is something very difficult, so never ask a philosopher about it because he is the only man who does not know what thinking is. Everybody else knows what thinking is. When you say to a man, “Now think properly,” he knows exactly what you mean, but a philosopher never knows.

In other words, there’s thinking, and then there’s thinking. But Jung’s philosophobia aside, his remarks encapsulate the subject matter of John Brockman’s book Thinking while at the same time providing a nice segue into yet another discussion on the relationship between science and philosophy.

Brockman is the curator of Edge.org, a self-proclaimed online science salon. Thinking is a collection of unedited talks and conversations from “today’s leading psychologists, neuroscientists, and philosophers” at various conferences, and it carries the subtitle of “The New Science of Decision-Making, Problem-Solving, and Prediction.” There are sixteen relatively short chapters in the book, with topics ranging from the predictions of political pundits to cognitive development in adolescence to moral judgment and reasoning. There’s a fair amount of redundancy in the book, because many of the chapters focus on decision-making processes explicitly, and necessarily discuss the impact of various cognitive biases.

Many of the chapters do focus on the difference between two conceptions of thinking that Jung differentiates, between what we might call common sense thinking and philosophical thinking. Our common sense, everyday thinking is closer to what George Santayana called “animal faith,” where we act on pragmatic beliefs that aren’t really the result of reasoning proper. Philosophical thinking, on the other hand, is much more involved, intentional, and rigorous. Jung was right on that count. Compare the “reasoning” of the contestants in your average competition-based reality TV show and that exhibited by Socrates in one of Plato’s dialogues.

The implicit intention of the book is to help us live better lives by showing us how science is engaged in understanding the human mind. I say “science” because the book explicitly claims to be a report of the “new science” of decision-making and problem-solving. There is even a chapter entitled “The New Science of Morality,” which of course includes writer Sam Harris as well as philosophers Joshua Greene and Joshua Knobe (of XPhi fame), among others. Here’s an excerpt from Brockman’s introduction to this chapter:

Scientists engaged in the scientific study of human nature are gaining sway over the scientists and others in disciplines that rely on studying social actions and human cultures independent from their biological foundation… Nowhere is this more apparent than in the field of moral psychology.

I don’t know who Brockman means by those who study human nature without reference to its biological foundation because he doesn’t elaborate. And if he’s including philosophy in the other disciplines he mentions, I have to say I don’t know of any (naturalistic) philosophers who fail to take into account the biological history of the human being when attempting to understand it. Is it telling that, of the twenty-two authors represented, only four are philosophers? 

Of the sixteen chapters in the book, the six I enjoyed the most were: “Smart Heuristics”; “Affective Forecasting…”; “The Social Psychological Narrative…”; “Insight”; “A Sense of Cleanliness”; and “The New Science of Morality.” Interestingly, the only chapter that doesn’t seem to fit is Daniel Dennett’s contribution entitled “The Normal Well-Tempered Mind.” I like and respect Dennett, and enjoy his books even when I don’t agree with him, but this one didn’t seem worthy enough to include in the book. I expected something more profound or insightful from him. His chapter reads more like a series of notebook jottings.

“Smart Heuristics” by psychologist Gerd Gigerenzer focuses on how we're able to make decisions in ordinary life in the face of limited time and incomplete information. His research looks into just how much information we have to ignore in order to make those decisions. The key is knowing what information is essential and what information we can afford to discard. How information is represented is equally important, and another issue he addresses is that of innumeracy. One of the hypothetical examples he gives is the case of a 40 year-old woman receiving a diagnosis about breast cancer. After her mammogram screening, she learns that it comes out positive. Gigerenzer tells us that, in his experience, about a third of physicians will tell the woman that her chance of having breast cancer is 90%. However, only 10% who test positive turn out to actually have cancer. Why the huge discrepancy? 

Gigerenzer believes we humans have trouble wrapping our heads around probabilities. But when we’re given information in natural frequencies, this confusion dissipates like morning fog along the freeway. He has us imagine 100 women, one of which has breast cancer — and she likely tests positive on the mammogram. But out of the 99 who do not have breast cancer, another 9 or 10 will have a false positive result nonetheless. So out of the 9 or 10 who test positive, only one will end up actually having cancer. Obviously, the patient would much rather hear that her chances of having cancer after testing positive are only 10% and not 90% percent — now she doesn’t have to get her affairs in order and make peace with her Maker.

Work like Gigerenzer’s promotes effective heuristics that facilitate better and more reasonable decisions. Traditional decision theory says we humans diligently consider all consequences of a prospective decision, choosing the course of action that will lead to the highest expected value. The problem is, studies show that we don’t really behave that way. Of course, we don’t need studies to tell us that. But like others in this book, Gigerenzer’s work confirms that humans make decisions on a “bounded rationality,” not the omniscience of the traditional economist’s god. He says that “neither the extreme of hyper-rationality or irrationality captures the essence of human reasoning,” by which he means how humans really reason in everyday life.

Daniel Gilbert’s “Affective Forecasting...” picks up almost where Gigerenzer left off. Gilbert, another psychologist, conducts research into the nature of our ability to accurately predict our emotional reactions to future events — what he and others call “affective forecasting.” He says we’re pretty terrible at it; we make a lot of errors in this regard. But he distinguishes between one-time errors and more systematic errors. If you’re at your local pub, and you’ve had a few pints of plain while you’re playing darts with your mates, you’re going to miss the bull’s-eye fairly often. But your misses will likely be relatively close to the center of the board (unless you’ve been dropping shots of Jameson in your pints), and they’ll also be pretty randomly dispersed around it. But if all or at least most of your misses are in one spot every time, then that’s probably a good reason to see your local physician — you are making systematic errors, and that’s indicative of a real problem.

Likewise, if we humans — the only animal on the planet that can imagine possible futures — regularly make a certain mistake when judging the outcomes of potential future events, then that’s worth investigating. We don’t like to have our expectations messed around with — it’s unsettling. Gilbert and others say we tend to overestimate the impact of future events. We anticipate that they’ll be more intense and more durable than they actually turn out to be. He calls this idiosyncrasy “impact bias.” The studies his lab has done consistently show this effect, whether they studied something negative like the breakup of a romantic relationship or something positive like a professor getting tenure. And while participants regularly predicted they’d feel extremely unhappy or happy for a very long time after the event, the fact of the matter is they went back to their baseline emotional states much quicker than they predicted.

Gilbert thinks the culprit in this type of error is the fact that, when pondering a future event, our mind generates an affect-laden mental image that is capturing only one moment in time, and we become fixated on it. He says we become “slaves to the focus of our own attention.” But instead of shutting your eyes and imaging the future event and your reaction to it, Gilbert recommends finding someone else “who’s already experiencing that future and observe how they actually feel.” He believes that investigating how an actual, fairly similar human being to yourself reacts to the same experience you’re contemplating having avoids the kinds of errors that are endemic to imaginary experiences.

Sounds reasonable to me. But you might also want to think about taking up mindfulness meditation, where you cultivate a judgment-free attitude toward all thoughts that enter your consciousness. So if the thought of, say, your first child going off to college arises in your mind, and if this thought would normally cause you some emotional distress, you can calmly acknowledge that you had the thought without trying to imagine how it will make you feel when that day comes. Of course, I suppose we’d be susceptible to overestimating the power of mindfulness meditation as well!

Timothy Wilson, a long-time collaborator of Gilbert, sums up the current state of social psychology in “The Social Psychological Narrative...” Although this chapter is very similar to the previous one, it gives a general idea of what contemporary social psychology is all about (as well as a few other interesting tidbits). It gives its history as emerging in the 1950s as an alternative to the behaviorism of B.F. Skinner and others, and was focused on what was going on inside peoples’ heads as opposed to the reinforcement environment in which they existed and acted (i.e., behaved). They thought that to fail to take into consideration the internal umwelt of individual organisms was a serious mistake.

Wilson says economists today still tend to think that human behavior is solely governed by a system of external incentives. But Wilson notes that recent social psychological research suggests that incentives can backfire, depending on the individual you’re considering. External incentives can sometimes undermine the intrinsic interest in an activity because “people begin to think that the only reason they’re doing it is for the money.” Think about Daniel Pink’s book Drive, where he reports that “autonomy,” “mastery” and “purpose” are the Holy Trinity when it comes to finding meaning in one’s work. Autonomy is about having the opportunity to choose which tasks to focus on; mastery is the process of, well, mastering a chosen activity; and purpose relates to the desire to improve the world in some way.

Wilson also mentions the role of evolutionary theory in psychology, noting that it can be a useful heuristic as an explanation for some current social behavior, generating hypotheses that might not have been conceived otherwise. But he wisely concludes that the plausibility of a just-so evo-psych story isn’t really a good way of settle a question scientifically.

In “A Sense of Cleanliness,” social psychologist Simone Schnall provides what I think is a pretty good summary of the whole science-vs.-philosophy issue. She studies “judgments and decisions from the perspective that emotions, and all kinds of feelings, including physical sensations play a really important role.” She notes that, traditionally, it had been thought that people think rigorously and systematically about problems and potential decisions, that they contemplated all the rational reasons pro and con, etc.; but both everyday experience and more rigorous social science studies have put the lie to this narrative. Of course, Nietzsche (among others) claimed this long ago: people don’t really think that much; many if not most of our thoughts are “created” subconsciously and arise in consciousness of their own accord, and our ego simply assumes ownership of them. Instead of a sophisticated calculus of reasoning, all sorts of accidental or serendipitous factors are in play, including feelings and intuition.

But social science hasn’t discovered this phenomenon, it has simply confirmed it. Social science hasn’t superseded philosophy, it’s bolstered it. So even if social science confirms that all sorts of things happen outside of consciousness, and that rational thought isn’t really happening that much in our lives, then can’t we still say that it’s the job of philosophy to change that state of affairs, to increase the employment of rational thought — in a word, to think? Social science and philosophy go hand-in-hand; you can’t really engage in social science without philosophizing. To my mind, first-order philosophy is essentially the art of dialectic: engaging in argumentation within the confines of logical reasoning.

This brings us to the final chapter from Thinking worth mentioning: “The New Science of Morality,” which includes brief conversations from Jonathan Haidt, Joshua Greene, Sam Harris, Roy Baumeister, Paul Bloom, David Pizarro and Joshua Knobe.

As you can imagine, Harris’s portion reiterates his framing of the question of morality into three distinct projects: to describe what people do in the name of “morality”; to get clear about what we actually mean by the term “morality”; and to persuade people to change their moral commitments in light of the first two projects. He says that the second project is about “understanding right and wrong in universal terms,” and that “there are right and wrong answers to the question of how to maximize human flourishing in any moment.” Harris has been taken to task on this issue by all and sundry. 

But what I do like about his contribution here, and which he elaborated on in The Moral Landscape, is the way he frames the problem of morality. His first project, that of describing what people do in the name of morality, is by far the bulk of work that most social psychologists are engaged in — and this is especially true of Haidt, Greene, Bloom, and even Knobe. The second and third projects, which are about providing a foundation for morality and persuading others to change their moral commitments, respectively, are pure philosophy. They’re about dialectic and rhetoric (second-order philosophy): arguing about what morality is, and then trying to convince others to agree with one’s position and to follow it. 

Harris’s framing of the problem of morality as a list of projects is actually a convenient heuristic for solving the problem of science versus philosophy. And Brockman’s book showcases this difference. The work of social science, of social psychology and neuroscience especially, is dominated by description (for example, “This is what’s going on in our minds when we reason about moral dilemmas”). But as we develop better and better descriptions of how we do what we do, in the name of morality or otherwise, philosophy can work on more cultivated and compelling prescriptions of what we should do. 

So I’m happy to think of the work of social psychologists as Moral Science. Moral Science is description and diagnosis. Moral Philosophy is prescription and prognosis.