Philosophy, Film, Politics, Etc.

Friday, December 28, 2012

Musical Interlude: Bells For Sandy Hook

Two days after the tragic shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, I found myself improvising a melancholic interpretation of Jingle Bells.  I recorded three takes before the moment passed.  The mood and style develop over the three pieces, making them seem like three unique elements of a set, and not simply three versions of the same thing.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Russell's Teapot

Peter van Inwagen has written a response to Bertrand Russell's teapot argument (H/T ex-apologist) in which he assures us that there are people who accept the following two propositions:

     (1) There is no reason to believe that God exists.

     (2) Any one who accepts (1) should conclude that the probability of the existence of God is essentially 0.

He offers Russell's teapot argument as an example.  However, while Russell clearly accepts (1), there's no discernible evidence that Russell ever endorsed anything like (2).  In the essay which van Inwagen cites ("Is There A God?", Russell, 1952), Russell argues that a divine purpose is improbable (on the scientific evidence) and thus that there is no reason to believe in a God.  He deduces the latter from the former, not the former from the latter.  Furthermore, his teapot argument is offered to a different purpose altogether.

Here is what Russell writes, and what van Inwagen quotes:

Many orthodox people speak as though it were the business of sceptics to disprove received dogmas rather than of dogmatists to prove them. This is, of course, a mistake. If I were to suggest that between the Earth and Mars there is a china teapot revolving about the sun in an elliptical orbit, nobody would be able to disprove my assertion provided I were careful to add that the teapot is too small to be revealed even by our most powerful telescopes. But if I were
to go on to say that, since my assertion cannot be disproved, it is intolerable presumption on the part of human reason to doubt it, I should rightly be thought to be talking nonsense.

Russell's teapot argument is that the burden of proof regarding the existence of God is on the people who claim that there is a God, and not on the skeptics.  There is no burden to disprove God, since there is no reason to believe in God in the first place.  The conclusion of the teapot argument is not that God's existence is highly improbable, but that theists are wrong to criticize non-theists for being skeptical.

Russell never assumes anything like (2).  In fact, it's not clear that any philosopher of note has ever endorsed (2).  So I am really not sure why van Inwagen has written a paper about it.

P.S. I've critiqued Russell's teapot argument, too, but on very different grounds:  Why I Am Not A Teapot Agnostic.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Violence, Mental Illness and Bad Arguments

A recent article in The New York Times by Professor Richard A. Friedman, M.D., entitled, "In Gun Debate, A Misguided Focus on Mental Illness," is a bit of a hot item.  I want to agree with Friedman.  I support the fight for gun control.  (If the Second Ammendment really means that all citizens have the right to privately own guns--and I don't think it does--then I think the Second Ammendment needs to be ammended.)  But Friedman's piece is a terribly flawed, confused and misleading piece of work.  Just from the point of view of argumentative integrity, it's bad.

Part of the problem is that I can't even be sure about Friedman's point of view.  I want to be charitable, and suppose that his main point is something like this:  Americans shouldn't let the discourse on mental illness distract us from the need for stricter gun control laws.  If that is his main point, then I completely agree.  Amen and all that.

I'll assume that was his motivating idea, but if so, then he lost his path somewhere between putting pen to paper and sending his article to press.  The point he explicitly advocates is more like this:  People who think we should try to keep guns out of the hands of the mentally ill are ignorant, lazy and unrealistic, and any attempt to focus on the role of mental illness in mass murder is a distraction. Then again, sometimes it's hard to tell just what he is arguing.

He sets up his argument here: "while no official diagnosis [of Adam Lanza] has been made public, armchair diagnosticians have been quick to assert that keeping guns from getting into the hands of people with mental illness would help solve the problem of gun homicides."

Notice, first, that he was talking about people's reactions to the mass shooting in Connecticut, and then he switches to a statement about gun homicides in general.  Homicide is an extremely broad category.  It's not even always illegal.  Instead of taking on the argument about mass murder, Friedman sets up a straw man.  It's relatively easy to downplay the role of mental illness in gun homicides in general.  It's not so easy when you're talking about people like Adam Lanza.

Not only does Friedman set up a straw man, he also belittles his opponents by calling them "armchair diagnosticians."  I guess anybody who thinks mental illness plays a significant role in mass shootings is too lazy to get up and do some research, or too ignorant of the evidence which is already readily available.

But there is evidence, and Friedman even suggests as much.  He refers to "large-scale epidemiologic studies" which have shown that "a young psychotic male who is intoxicated with alcohol and has a history of involuntary commitment is at a high risk of violence."  Indeed, alcohol and mental illness can be a very dangerous combination.  Yet, even on this point, Friedman seems confused.  He says that "most individuals who fit this profile are harmless."  How is that?  People with a certain profile are known to be high risk for violence, but most of them are harmless?  If they're harmless, whence the high risk of violence?

I haven't even begun to dig into the confused, misleading dimensions of Friedman's article.  He says, "there is overwhelming epidemiological evidence that the vast majority of people with psychiatric disorders do not commit violent acts.”  That may be true, but it is irrelevant enough to be considered a non-sequitor.  Now we're not even talking about homicides; we're talking about violence in general?  We were talking about mass shootings, weren't we?  In any case, let's assume that the vast majority of people with psychiatric disorders do not commit mass murder.  I'm sure that's true, but it doesn't mean that certain mental illnesses or psychological profiles are not strong indicators of the potential for mass murder.

He also gives us an irrelevant statistic:  "Only about 4 percent of violence in the United States can be attributed to people with mental illness.”  If you follow the link that Friedman gives us there, you won't find support for that statistic.  Instead, you'll find a study about people in Sweden.  In any case, even if the statistic is true, it's irrelevant, because it is about violence in general, and not mass murder.  Not even homicide.

By the way, there is some useful information in that link about Sweden.  It says, "the risk of an individual with psychosis committing a violent offense compared with a general population group of a similar age is between two and six times for men and two and eight times for women.”  So psychosis can increase the risk of violence considerably: up to six times as much for men and eight for women.  Yet, Friedman makes it seem like psychosis only doubles the risk of violent behavior.

He says, speaking of mental illness in general, and not just psychosis, that "the risk is actually small."  Furthermore, he never identifies which mental conditions are most strongly correlated with murder or even felonies in general.  He doesn't mention personality disorders, some of which are strongly correlated with violence and felony convictions.  Nor does he mention any of the neuroscientific evidence linking genetic, physiological and situational factors with murderous impulses.  Instead, he mentions the relatively low risk of violence associated with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.  This only distracts us from the relevant empirical data.

It's worth looking at the NIMH study he uses to support his statement about schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.  First of all, it relies on self-reported violent incidents.  That severely limits what conclusions we can draw from the study. Despite those limitations, the study says: "In a multivariate model of the predictors of violence, a significant interaction effect was found between major mental illness and substance abuse. The risk of violent behavior increased with the number of psychiatric diagnoses for which respondents met DSM-III criteria.”  Friedman's sources seem to be working against him.

Another irrelevant statement from Friedman:  "Alcohol and drug abuse are far more likely to result in violent behavior than mental illness by itself."  Yes . . . and?  In case you didn't know, we should be even less inclined to give guns to the mentally ill when they're drunk.  What argument is this supposed to be supporting again?

Friedman does make some relevant, even some cogent points.  It is hard to predict a lot of violent behavior. It is hard to control the mentally ill's access to guns without making gun regulations generally stricter.  Those are good points, and relevant.  But Friedman also makes several additional problematic claims.

I think he's generally overly confident in his understanding of human behaviour.  He says that "few" of the 120,000 gun-related homicides between 2001 and 2010 "were perpetrated by people with mental illness.”  How does he know that?  Because of the mysterious statistic that says only 4 percent of all violence in the US is associated with mental illness?  So "violence" and "gun homicides" are interchangable?  And anyway, I'm not so sure Friedman is correct that "people with mental illness contribute so little to overall violence."  Personality disorders are over-represented in prison populations, for example.

Towards the end, Friedman admits that we might be able to help prevent mass murders by focusing on the early diagnosis of mental illness.  So why all the attempts to make it seem like the people talking about mental illness were just full of hot air?  Oh yeah, because he still thinks they are.  He goes on to say, "All the focus on the small number of people with mental illness who are violent serves to make us feel safer by displacing and limiting the threat of violence to a small, well-defined group.”

That's not true.  Mental illness can be terrifying.  It is unpredictable, hard to control and poorly understood.  Focusing on the role of mental illness in mass murder does not make me feel safer.  It doesn't limit the threat of violence to a small, well-defined group.  Quite the contrary.  It rather opens the door to a discussion of just how prevalent mental illness might be, and what steps we can and should take to protect ourselves from it.

Friedman ends with these lines:  "But the sad and frightening truth is that the vast majority of homicides are carried out by outwardly normal people in the grip of all too ordinary human aggression to whom we provide nearly unfettered access to deadly force.”

I don't think Friedman knows as much as he thinks about the hearts and minds of the vast majority of people who commit homicide.  (Why homicide, by the way??)  More importantly, I think Friedman is too willing to accept a very high level of human aggression in society.  There is a great deal too much violence in America, and many other places.  Friedman wants to normalize violence and ignore the possibility that mental illness is widespread and endemic in America today.

Mental illness is not a distraction from the real issues.  It is part of the problem.  So are too-lax gun laws.  I hope the focus on both continues unfettered.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Why Are Philosophy Departments Important?

Amy Ferrer, the new Executive Director of The American Philosophical Association (APA), has just finished a week of guest-blogging at Brian Leiter's philosophy blog.  She ended with some words about the need to improve philosophy's public image, especially concerning the value and importance of university philosophy departments.  I agree with the need, but I think her argument for the value and importance of philosophy needs to be improved.

Her argument is:

For one thing, philosophy and the humanities give schools a lot of bang for their buck. Most philosophy departments do not require the large research funds and expensive equipment that other fields may need, so their budgets can reasonably be significantly smaller than departments needing such resources. And yet with those smaller budgets, philosophy departments make a sizeable impact. Philosophy teaches students the hallmarks of a quality education: critical thinking, problem solving, writing, analysis, and argument construction, to name a few. Philosophy considers the biggest questions there are—and what is the academy for if not for asking big questions? And philosophy students routinely outperform students of nearly all other disciplines on standardized tests for postgraduate education such as the GRE and LSAT.

The claims are:

1) Philosophy departments are cheaper than many other departments.
2) Philosophy departments make a sizable impact.
3) Philosophy classes teach many of the principal skills valued in our education system.
4) Philosophy classes deal with the biggest questions there are.
5) Philosophy students do better on standardized tests.

I'll address the points in reverse order.

5. The fact that philosophy students do better on standardized tests does not mean that philosophy departments (or even philosophy classes) help them do so.  It just means that people who tend to study philosophy also tend to do better on those tests.  Furthermore, if we are selling philosophy for its ability to improve test scores, then we're essentially saying that philosophy is of value because it helps people pursue other academic fields.  Then the question is, why do we need philosophy departments?  All we apparently need are philosophy classes--and not Kant studies or phenomenology, but just classes which focus on the skills needed to do better on the LSAT and GRE.  So point (5) is possibly irrelevant (because it is just a correlation) and actually hurts the argument that philosophy departments are important.

4. A lot of people have no faith that academic philosophers will ever find compelling answers to the Big Qestions.  It is hard for a lot of intelligent, informed people (including some professional philosophers) to distinguish between grappling with the Big Questions and self-indulgent, if cooperative, naval gazing.  So when philosophers (or their advocates) claim that philosophy deals with "the biggest questions there are," a lot of people think it's a load of self-aggrandizing hogwash.  Philosophers might do better to present themselves with a bit more humility, and also a bit more focus.  What "big questions" are we dealing with, and why should anybody think that it is important to have academic departments invested in their pursuit?

3. This is true, philosophy classes teach all kinds of important skills, especially involving communication and argumentation.  However, do we need philosophy departments for that?  See my response to point (5), above.

2. Impact on what?  On the rest of the university?  On the world at large?  What sort of impact?  Is the claim that philosophy departments improve the pursuit of other disciplines?  If so, then philosophy is being valued in terms of its ability to help people pursue subjects other than philosophy.  In that case, why do we need philosophy departments to do this?  The nature and scope of the impact is not clear, so it is impossible to address this claim in a more substantive way.

1. So far, we have no clear reason why philosophy departments are important.  Philosophy classes are being advocated for their ability to help people who are really interested in studying subjects other than philosophy.  There's no apparent need for philosophy departments at all, unless it is to pursue the Big Questions.  If that pursuit is just a waste of time, then it really doesn't matter how cheap the departments are.  They are still a waste of resources.

Philosophy departments need to be defended with stronger arguments than this.

The public image of philosophy will not improve unless there is a greater understanding and appreciation of its goals, practices and methodological principles.  The biggest obstacle might just be that there is no general consensus on that matter.

Musical Interlude: Marcin's Mix 2

I've finished the second, probably the last, mix CD for my wife's cousin, Marcin.  (See here for the story and the first installment.)  All the songs are available on YouTube, hence the playlist below.  Unfortunately, the video for "Kindling For The Master" cuts the song a little short.

Song list (with artist and album info):

1. Peek A Boo - Siouxsie & The Banshees (Peepshow, 1988)
2. Malambo No. 1 - Yma Sumac (Mambo!, 1954)
3. Dry The Rain - The Beta Band (The Three E.P.'s, 1998)
4. Windy Child - Gary Higgins (Red Hash, 1973)
5. Silent Shout - The Knife (Silent Shout, 2006)
6. I'm The One - Mick Ronson (Slaughter On 10th Avenue, 1974)
7. One Of These Things First - Nick Drake (Bryter Layter, 1970)
8. He Miss Road - Fela Kuti & Africa 70 (He Miss Road, 1975)
9. Two People In A Room - Wire (154, 1979)
10. Vitamin C - Can (Ege Bamyasi, 1972)
11. Come Down Softly To My Soul - Spacemen 3 (Playing With Fire, 1989)
12. Happy House - Shuggie Otis (Inspiration Information, 1974)
13. Kindling For The Master - Stephen Malkmus (Face The Truth, 2005)
14. Fight This Generation - Pavement (Wowee Zowee, 1995)
15. Stand Together - Beastie Boys (Check Your Head, 1992)
16. Space (I Believe In) - Pixies (Trompe Le Monde, 1991)
17. Colony - Joy Division (Closer, 1980)
18. Mass Production - Iggy Pop (The Idiot, 1977)

Friday, December 7, 2012

Musical Interlude: Marcin's Mix

One of my wife's cousins asked what punk and alternative rock music I had in my collection. I ended up playing lots of different things for him (not all of them punk or alt rock) and he asked for a CD mix of the best of my whole collection.  I think I'll make at least two CDs for him.  I just finished the first, and it's chock-full of songs I love.  [Update Dec 8, 2012: I just revised the mix/playlist.  I'd thought I'd push some boundaries and include Hank Williams Sr. and Phish at the end, but decided--okay, my wife convinced me--that it wasn't such a good idea.]

I made a YouTube playlist of it.  Some of the vids are great, but others are just pictures of album covers.  One song from the mix is missing from the playlist, though.  Pere Ubu's "Wasted" isn't on YouTube.  Maybe I'll make a vid for it one day, if nobody beats me to it.  [Edit:  I see that there is a video, but I'm not allowed to access it because I'm in Poland. Hmph! Enjoy it for me, if you can.)

The songs (with band and album info):

1. Metronomic Underground - Stereolab (Emperor Tomato Ketchup, 1996)
2. Drunken Butterfly - Sonic Youth (Dirty, 1992)
3. Your DJ Children - Hella (Total Bugs Bunny on Wild Bass, 2003)
4. Brave Captain - fIREHOSE (Ragin' Full On, 1986)
5. Political Song For Michael Jackson To Sing - Minutemen (Double Nickels On The Dime, 1984)
6. Come Out And Play - The Offspring (Smash, 1994)
7. He Was A Big Freak - Betty Davis (They Say I'm Different, 1974)
8. Cry - The Birthday Party (Prayers On Fire, 1981)
9. Poison In A Pretty Pill - Crass (Penis Envy, 1980)
10. Kansas - The Wolfgang Press (Bird Wood Cage, 1988)
11. Real Thing - Pearl Jam & Cypress Hill (Judgment Night Motion Picture Soundtrack, 1993)
12. Ease On Over - Erase Errata (At Crystal Palace, 2003)
13. Bed For The Scraping - Fugazi (Red Medicine, 1995)
14. T.V. Set - The Cramps (Songs The Lord Taught Us, 1980)
15. Twist Of Cain - Danzig (Danzig, 1988)
16. What We All Want - Gang Of Four (Solid Gold, 1981)
17. None Of Them Knew They Were Robots - Mr. Bungle (California, 1999)
18. Wasted - Pere Ubu (Story Of My Life, 1993)
19. Safe As Milk (Take 5) - Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band (CD bonus track from Safe As Milk, 1967)
20. Stay Hungry (Live) - Talking Heads (The Name Of This Band Is Talking Heads, 1980)
21. Stronger Through The Years - Roxy Music (Manifesto, 1979)

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

What is Russellian Monism?

That's the title of a recent paper I just read by Torin Alter and Yujin Nagasawa (Journal of Consciousness Studies 19, pp. 67-95; H/T ex-apologist).  It's an interesting and mostly very clear paper, at least for me, who has not read most of the source material they are discussing.  (They're primarily drawing on Chalmers, Stoljar and Pereboom.)

I was most surprised (and pleased) to see that Chalmers has made a significant qualification about the implications of the Knowledge and Conceivability Arguments.  I used to think he believed those arguments entailed the falsity of physicalism.  However, Chalmers now claims that they only entail the following disjunction:  Either physicalism is false or Russellian Monism is true.  Since there can be varieties of physicalism which are compatible with Russellian Monism, then Chalmers must be open to the possibility of physicalism.

Chalmers apparently accepts (or perhaps only strongly leans towards) a variety of Russellian Monism.  Specifically, one in which there are phenomenal or protophenomenal inscrutibles.  Inscrutibles are, by definition, elements which cannot be fully characterized in terms of structural/relational properties.  One of the theses of Russellian Monism is realism about inscrutibles.  Another is structuralism about physics.  That is the idea that physics is limited to structural/relational descriptions.  So Russellian Monism denies the thesis that physics can provide an exhaustive description of reality.

The third and final theses that distinguishes Russellian Monism is (proto)phenomenal foundationalism: the idea that "at least some inscrutables are either phenomenal or protophenomenal properties."

It might seem like these three theses constitute a rejection of physicalism, but Alter and Nagasawa identify good reasons why this is not the case.  They point to arguments that physics cannot describe all of the real physical properties, and they argue that phenomenal properties can be physical properties of a sort which cannot be described by physics.

I don't take issue with any of that.  I do wonder, though, why they claim (following Chalmers) that protophenomenal properties cannot be physical properties.  The idea of protophenomenal properties is just this:  that phenomenal properties result from certain sorts of combinations of other properties which themselves are not phenomenal.  I don't see any reason to think that physical properties cannot be protophenomenal properties.

Of the four candidates for inscrutables which Alter and Nagasawa discuss, the only one that is clearly incompatible with physicalism is neutral monism, as it says that inscrutables are neither physical nor phenomenal.  Whether or not phenomenal or protophenomenal properties can be physical properties depends, at least partly, on what we suppose it means for a property to be physical.  I'm not sure what Alter and Nagasawa have to say about that.

I'm curious about the arguments in favor of structuralism about physics.  The idea, I gather, is that physics gives us a kind of formula without telling us anything about the actual stuff that carries out the function.  I don't find that thesis compelling, let alone intuitive.

My more general point, building on the above, is this:  It is not clear what methodological principles are in play in this kind of philosophical argumentation.  I don't know what counts as a standard of reason or evidence when we are talking about what terms like "phenomenal property" and "physical property" entail.  It seems that Alter and Nagasawa are attempting to map out a logical space, but it is not clear that this space has any bearing on the real world.  That may be fine.  The logical space might be worth investigating in its own right.  However, since strong claims are being made about the nature of physics and the (possible) relationship between reality and consciousness, it is hard to know what to think.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Transcendental Freedom and Empiricism: Waller, Kant, Dennett and Ryle

I still haven't had a chance to look at Bruce Waller's book, Against Moral Responsibility (2011), but I've been reading about it and related topics in my spare time a bit over the past several days.  One reader, David Duffy, was kind enough to bring one of Waller's papers to my attention.  It's called "Empirical Free Will and the Ethics of Moral Responsibility"(2003).  In it, Waller claims that moral responsibility and free will are either conceptually wedded by definition (in which case, he says, we only get confusion) or there is some synthetic (empirical) connection between them.  He then argues that there is no such empirical connection.

I question the claim that there is any confusion resulting from regarding a logical (analytic) entailment between moral responsibility and free will.  Unfortunately, Waller does not support his assertion here, though perhaps he addresses the issue in his more recent book.  I think the only conceptual confusion comes from trying to treat free will and responsibility as objects of strictly empirical concern.  I will discuss this below and its relation to the Kantian notion of transcendental freedom, but first I want to point out another problem I have with Waller's paper.  It concerns his treatment of Dennett.

Waller accuses Dennett of including "mysterious elements" in his attempt to "accomodate" moral responsibility.  He says Dennett "ultimately appeals to choices that are difficult to square with a naturalistic framework," and he quotes Dennett as follows:

I am faced with an important decision to make, and after a certain amount of deliberation, I say to myself: "That's enough.  I've considered this matter enough and now I'm going to act," in the full knowledge that I could have considered further, in the full knowledge that the eventualities may prove that I decided in error, but with the acceptance of responsibility in any case.

Waller comments:  "If we really had full knowledge that in such circumstances, with the precise natural histories that shaped us, we actually could have considered further, then that would be knowledge of a choice inexplicable in the naturalistic framework."

I think Waller's point is this:  If we really could have considered further, then our natural histories did not determine the length of our consideration.  In that case, naturalism must be false.  It looks like Waller might be conflating determinism and naturalism here, a charge which has been made against him in a related context.  Still, there seems to be a problem with Waller's reading of Dennett.

I think Waller and Dennett would agree on this:  What an account of free will does not need, and should not even want, is knowledge that we could have acted differently without any changes in our natural histories.  According to Dennett, our actions cannot have been different without the physical causes of those actions also being different.  Dennett's point is that any other variety of free will wouldn't be worth wanting.  We should not want free will, if it means that we can have the exact same causal factors--the same beliefs, desires and experiences--and still choose differently.  We should want a free will that allows us to choose based on who we are, and that includes all of the forces which have made us who we are.  If those forces are irrelevant, then so are our beliefs and desires.  In that case, free will would amount to a random generation of outcomes, none more likely to benefit us than any other.

Something odd is going on here.  Did Dennett really say that people can have "full knowledge" that they could have acted differently?  How could Dennett be so inconsistent on such a crucial point?

I don't think Dennett means what Waller takes him to mean. Perhaps Dennett was just being sloppy, though it is hard to say without seeing the context from which this passage has been taken.  (I don't have a copy of Dennett's Brainstorms handy, but the passage is on page 297, if you want to check.)  Contrary to Waller, I do not think Dennett "entangles his notion of free will with such remarkable choices."  I think Dennett is usually quite clear on this:  The idea that we could have acted otherwise does not entail that we could have done so against the causal nexus of our past.  According to Dennett, the idea that we could have acted differently means that our decision was in some robust sense up to us.  We are not passive in the decision-making process.  We have agency.

This does raise another important question against Dennett, though:  How can his compatibilistic conception of free will allow for real moral responsibility, and not merely the illusion of it?  After all, isn't it an illusion that I could have acted otherwise?  Isn't it an illusion that I am acting of my own, internal rational agency, without compulsion from external forces?  Doesn't this illusion sustain our conception of free will?

Waller is in a bind here, too, I think:  He wants to maintain the conception of free will and some minimal notions of responsibility and agency, but he wants to abandon the idea of moral responsibility that comes with robust rational agency.  It's not clear to me how he can justify any notion of responsibility and agency without moral responsibility.

Let's go back to Dennett for a moment.  He wants to keep the robust sense of agency without accepting some kind of transcendental freedom--that is, freedom to act independently of physical causes.  I ended my last post on this topic by suggesting that Dennett is (or at least should be) closer to Kant than he might realize.  Kant famously argued for a compatibilist position, allowing for both determinism in the realm of empirical causes and free will (and moral responsibility) in the realm of human action.  I'm not a Kant scholar, but I've been consulting a few secondary sources of late.  (I did read the Critique of Pure Reason when I was in grad school many moons ago, but I don't remember the relevant arguments so clearly.)  I am still getting a better picture of Kant's thinking, but I don't want to get into any of it yet.  However, I will point out one interesting paper I found which views Kant as a precursor to Davidson.  It's by Todd D. Janke, and it's called "A Freewheeling Defense of Kant's Resolution of the Third Antinomy" (2008).

Janke's basic idea is that Kant can be read in a very appealing, if unconventional, way.  I'm not sure Janke would agree with my interpretation, but here's how I currently see the situation:  We have a certain way of making sense of human actions, including the notions of intention, desire, belief and will.  This vocabulary does not reduce or unproblematically translate to a vocabulary of empirical observations.  Though Janke doesn't mention it, Ryle made a similar observation in The Concept of Mind (1949):  When we say that a person has succeeded in an action, we are not postulating an additional event on top of the events we could find in a purely mechanistic description.  As Ryle (1949, p. 152) puts it, in a passage connecting the supposed mysteries of intentionality with those of perception itself:

Epistemologists have sometimes confessed to finding the supposed cognitive activities of seeing, hearing and inferring oddly elusive. If I descry a hawk, I find the hawk but I do not find my seeing of the hawk. My seeing of the hawk seems to be a queerly transparent sort of process, transparent in that while a hawk is detected, nothing else is detected answering to the verb in 'see a hawk.' But the mystery dissolves when we realise that 'see', 'descry' and 'find' are not process words, experience words or activity words. They do not stand for perplexingly undetectable actions or reactions, any more than 'win' stands for a perplexingly undetectable bit of running, or 'unlock' for an unreported bit of key-turning. The reason why I cannot catch myself seeing or deducing is that these verbs are of the wrong type to complete the phrase 'catch myself. . . .' The questions 'What are you doing ?' and 'What was he undergoing?' cannot be answered by 'seeing', 'concluding', or 'checkmating'.
Ryle says a conceptual problem arises from confusing action verbs with success verbs.  A success verb, like "see" or "conclude," describes an intentional action but it does not denote a particular event in a sequence of physical causes and effects.  It therefore does not cash out in empirical terms.  Yet it does not thereby require a break in the laws of nature.  It does, however, seem to suggest a way of talking which does not neatly cash out in terms of causes and effects.  Ryle's argument is that the concept of mind itself, including the language of intentionality and intelligence, is not a language of causes and effects.  Yet, when people act, they are not thereby acting against the laws of cause and effect.  All human movements can be explained in physical, cause/effect terms, but we are not speaking directly in those terms when we talk about human action.

This seems to be how Janke wants us to read Kant.  The intelligibility of human action, including rational agency, does not make sense in empirical terms.  Kant wants us to have it both ways:  We can have talk of agency in non-empirical terms, which Kant calls "transcendental freedom", and we can have talk of determinism in the empirical world.  Whichever we prefer, Kant says, is a practical matter.  It cannot be decided by pure reason.

Dennett's view is similar.  We can regard some events as intentional, as the products of beliefs, desires and rationality, or we can regard them in purely physical terms.  This is a matter of practical, not theoretical, necessity.

So we can have practical reasons for believing in transcendental freedom.  These are the very same reasons, the very same arguments, that justify our belief in intentional behavior, rationality and human agency in general.  They do not require abandoning determinism.  Confusion arises when we try to understand one vocabulary in terms of another.  As Ryle put it, mental events do not happen alongside or in sequence with physical events.  They are not events at all, in the sense in which physical occurrences are events.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Moral Responsibility and Rational Agency: An exchange between Dennett, Waller and Clark

As I mentioned in a recent post, I'm not aware of any satisfactory arguments against Kant's demonstration that the freedom of the will can neither be proved nor disproved by pure reason.  Kant puts forward that argument in his Critique of Pure Reason.  Yet, in his Critique of Practical Reason, he makes a pragmatic argument for belief in free will: We need to believe in free will because it is a necessary condition for moral responsibility.

Kant's arguments are not just about free will.  They're also about the existence of God and the immortality of the soul.  Yet, these days, the latter two are not seen as practically required for morality.  We can have moral responsibility without eternal souls or Divine judgment.  But can we have it without free will?

Kant was a deontologist--he believed that morality requires duty and dignity, and not just behavior calculated to maximize some quantity of happiness, pleasure or goodness.  Yet, even those pursuing other approaches to ethics (e.g., consequentialism and virtue ethics) have generally stuck by Kant's guns:  Free will is necessary for moral responsibility.

Compatibilism is the attempt to rescue free will (and thus moral responsibility) from the jaws of determinism:  If human behavior is determined by the laws of nature, then what room can there be for freedom?  Compatibilists like Dan Dennett argue that even in a deterministic universe, we can have free will and therefore moral responsibility, and seemingly along consequentialist lines.

At this point, the definition of "free will" must be considered.  For the sake of this argument, and following Michael McKenna's SEP article, let's start with the following definition of "freewill":  the unique ability of persons to exercise control over their conduct in the fullest manner necessary for moral responsibility.  Given that definition, free will is clearly necessary for moral responsibility.  The question, then, is whether or not compatibilists can justify belief in this sort of free will.

In a recent book, Against Moral ResponsibilityBruce Waller tries to undermine this whole approach.  He argues that compatibilism successfully justifies belief in free will, but that it fails to justify belief in moral responsibility.  I have not read the book yet, but I've read his exchange with Dennett and Tom Clark at, as well as his, Tom's and other people's comments about it in a discussion thread at Russell Blackford's blog.

I've tried to contribute to that discussion, too, but I need to flesh out my point of view in a little more detail.

There are a number of issues to untangle.  First, it's not clear what Waller means by "free will," if it does not entail moral responsibility.  Waller's idea is that the sort of free will worth wanting--the compatibilist notion of free will that Dennett espouses--does not entail moral responsibility.  I think Dennett disagrees, sticking to a definition of "free will" more or less in line with McKenna's suggestion.  I'm not sure what definition of "free will" Waller is advocating.  What he has to show is that the compatibilist view of free will is not what Dennett thinks it is.  I'm not sure if he has done that, so I'll leave the point aside for now.

Second, according to Neil Levy (in a comment at Russell's blog), Waller's claim is that moral responsibility is incompatible with naturalism.  Neil says naturalism is a red herring.  Compatibilists try to reconcile free will and determinism, and naturalism does not entail determinism.  (Neil says that most physicists actually reject determinism, but I'm not so sure about that.  Bell's Theorem, though commonly thought to put the last nail in the coffin of determinism, is perhaps more commonly accepted as a refutation of the locality thesis.  Determinism is still alive and well in physics, I think.  But that's not essential here.)  However, even a non-deterministic view of nature would not obviously make any more room for moral responsibility than that offered by a deterministic one.  Even if quantum indeterminacy scales up in the neurological process of generating choices, the making of the choice itself must have natural causes, or else naturalism is false.  So it's not clear to me that naturalism is a red herring.  Compatibilists argue that free will (the kind that is necessary for moral responsibility) is possible in the natural world, be that world deterministic or not.  The fact that there might be some indeterminacy involved in the exercise of will does not open the door for more moral responsibility, so far as I can see.  That is the point that compatibilists like Dennett insist on, anyway.

Another issue to untangle involves the role of consequentialism in this debate.  Dennett is arguing for a strictly consequentialist justification for moral responsibility, including the notion of 'just deserts.'  Clark responds by accusing Dennett of being inconsistent.  He says Dennett cannot stick to his consequentialist guns and still adopt the deontological notion of 'just deserts.'  I'm not sure if that is true, though there does seem to be something inconsistent about Dennett's position. 

I think Dennett's approach is generally cogent, and Waller's and Clark's is fatally flawed.  Before explaining my thoughts on Dennett, I'll point out the weaknesses in his opposition.  Besides the fact that it's not clear (to me, not having read his book) what sort of free will Waller believes in, Waller's argument seems to be self-defeating.  He appeals to fairness in his argument against moral responsibility:  We are not libertarian agents, he says; therefore, we are not "truly responsible" for our actions; therefore, we cannot truly deserve punishment.  Of course, punishment can be justified on consequentialist grounds, Waller says; but if we are aware that people are not truly responsible for their actions, we will (hopefully) do a better job of curbing our retributive impulses.  It's just not fair, he says, to make somebody pay for their crimes, unless you're doing it to create a better future.

By appealing to fairness, Waller is assuming some moral responsibility to be fair.  He might defend this by saying that fairness is justifiable on consequentialist grounds.  But then there is the assumption that we have a moral responsibility to be consequentialists.  If there is no moral responsibility, then we are not accountable for our lack of fairness.  This seems like an undesirable outcome.  

What is perhaps more devastating to Waller's argument is this:  the notion of fairness implies that all people deserve equal treatment.  But how can one person deserve more, less or the same as anyone else, if there is no such thing as accountability in the first place?  Without accountability, there is no dignity.  Without dignity, no justice.  Without justice, no fairness.

In Neil Levy's comment, he says that Waller does not treat the issue of fairness at all in his book.  If that is true, then it is disappointing.  It is hard to see how Waller's argument can stand on these feet.

Of course, the fact that Waller's argument has weaknesses does not mean that Dennett is correct.  While Waller's position looks potentially incoherent and without clear support, Dennett's position is also problematic. As Clark pointed out, Dennett seems to be inconsistent, though I'm not sure it is for the reason Clark suggests.

Dennett's argument against Waller goes like this:

Moral responsibility is justified by appealing to social contract theory.  To say that we are rational agents (persons with free will, capable of making rational choices for which we are accountable) is to say that we are competent to enter into contracts.  Moral responsibility is tacitly accepted by anyone who actively participates in society as a rational agent.  If we break a contract, we are accountable.  Thus, we deserve the punishment stipulated by the contract.  Thus, we can punish people just for breaking a contract, and not because we think that punishing them will increase the overall good in the world.  Dennett says this is ultimately consequentialist, because the entire system of moral responsibility is justifiable on consequentialist grounds.  We are increasing the overall good, Dennett says, even though we are acting on our retributivist impulses.  We have found a way to "direct [our retributivist desires] down justifiable channels," he says (with his own italics).

It seems that Dennett is justifying a non-consequentialist (or perhaps semi-consequentialist) approach to ethics on consequentialist grounds.  It is okay to be a deontologist to some extent, Dennett says, because doing so increases the overall good.  So Dennett has (perhaps) found a pragmatic justification for limited deontology: moral responsibility and retributive justice are justifiable as necessary aspects of social contracts.  

The question I raised over at Russell's blog is:  If Dennett's argument works, and he has successfully offered a pragmatic justification for belief in moral responsibility, then why hasn't he also offered a pragmatic justification for belief in contra-causal free will?  

Dennett wants us to believe in rational agency, but not in the ability to act contra-causally--that is, the ability to act independently of those forces which caused us to act in the first place.  But if we not acting in some way independently of those causes, then how could we be accountable?  Doesn't the notion of accountability entail some kind of independence from other causes?  I think it might.

It's important here to recall Waller's objection to the idea that people really are libertarian agents.  Waller says that we do not have agency of the sort that justifies moral responsibility.  Dennett says we do.  Does that mean Dennett thinks we are libertarian agents?  He says no, but I'm not convinced.  I don't see why his appeal to contracts can justify moral accountability, but not contra-causal free will.

Some people might say that contra-causal free will is just going too far.  Like the ideas of God and the soul, contra-causal free will has no place in a rational discussion of natural phenomena.  Okay, true, but we are not talking about natural phenomena, exactly.  What we are talking about supervenes on natural phenomena, but this is social phenomena, and therefore deserving of a unique language.  Dennett has argued for this at length, of course.

Dennett says that rational agency is not a physical fact.  It does not cash out in natural kind terms.  It is the product of what he calls taking the intentional stance.  We regard ourselves as agents capable of acting intentionally in the world, and this sustains our ability to make and respond to contracts.  If we take a nature's-eye-view of the situation (adopting what Dennett calls "the physical stance"), there is no moral responsibility.  But, Dennett would continue (or should continue, I think, if he wants to be consistent), we still act as if there were moral responsibility--and in so doing, we create it.  We are not living a lie.  The fact is that, by acting as if we have it, we (tacitly) grant it to each other and ourselves.  And by virtue of that act, we actually do have it.  It is real, not an illusion, but not reducible to physical terms.   This is why I suggested, in my first comment at Russell's blog, that Dennett might see Waller's rejection of moral responsibility as a rejection of intentionality itself.

Yet, if this works as a justification for moral responsibility, then it seems our social creation of moral responsibility rests on the belief that we can act independently of natural causes.  We do, Dennett could argue, act as if we act responsibly--as not merely the playing out of natural causes.  But acting as if we are somehow independent of nature does not make us actually independent of nature, does it?

Well, if rational agency itself is the product of taking the intentional stance, and if it thereby cannot be reduced to the physical stance, then doesn't rational agency exist in some way independently of physical causes and effects?  Aren't rational acts, therefore, contra-causal?

If adopting the intentional stance is enough to make rational agency real, then why isn't contra-causal free will also real?

I'm not sure what Dennett would say to this question.  Perhaps what he should say is that agency is part of a causal order which supervenes on, but which is not reducible to, natural law.  Contra-causal free will does not contradict any laws of nature.  It does not require abandoning determinism.  It just entails a sort of causality which supervenes on, but which is not definable in terms of, physical causality.

In sum, Dennett may have motivated (1) a consequentialist justification for (limited) deontological ethics and (2) a practical belief in (a compatibilistic conception of) contra-causal free will.  Dennett might be a lot closer to Kant than he thought.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Sex, Skyfall and Sociopathy

I caught Skyfall last weekend and posted this mini-review on my Facebook wall:

In some ways, it's excellent. Javier Bardem is unsurprisingly phenomenal. The music is very good, sometimes excellent. In other ways, it's predictably silly (the dialogue and action sequences are often well-crafted, but sometimes ridiculous). The plot is very sophisticated and convincing, and it works as an exploration of Bond himself, even though there are some pretty big holes. Nothing devastating, though. What bothers me, surprisingly, is Bond's relationship with women. Bond has always been promiscuous, but in this one he seems capable of very sincere and passionate intimacy, but without any emotional attachment at all. Maybe I'm just getting old, but I was seriously offended by the way the film depicted his relationship with women. Again, I know he's always slept around, but was it always this bad? (Maybe you need to see the film to answer that question.) Anyway, that point aside, it's probably one of the best Bond films ever, with well-handled nods to the past as well as bridges to the future.
My thoughts and opinion haven't changed, though it might help if I put my review into perspective: I went into the film with low expectations.  If you go in expecting the best Bond ever--and some reviews I've seen are setting it up as such--you might be disappointed.  Still, if you are even a mild Bond fan, you should definitely see it.  And do yourself a favor:  don't read the reviews.  I don't know why, but so many reviewers think that film reviews are competitions to see who can cleverly reference, or outright spoil, as many plot points as possible without looking like a total jerk.  Skyfall does not bank on its ability to surprise you.  There are no great secrets hiding inside.  However, it is the kind of movie that benefits from a relative lack of audience expectations, as far as plot goes, anyway.  With that in mind, you might want to stop reading this post until after you've seen the movie.  I won't give away any plot points, but what I say can affect your plot expectations.

So about the sex . . . Maybe it's because previous Bonds have been rather two-dimensional, so the rampant promiscuity did not so much define a character as adorn the iconic Bond persona.  In retrospect, James Bond wasn't a character at all before the Daniel Craig movies.  Craig's Bond has depth, which is one reason why the recent movies have been so refreshing.  Yet, after giving him romantic complexities in Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace, the Bond of Skyfall shows no inclinations of romantic involvement with or emotional investment in any of the women he beds.  At one point in the film, Bond's lack of caring is startlingly disturbing.

Bond films have always objectified women, but this is worse.  I think it's because Bond has depth now.  His relationships with women therefore have to make sense as personal relationships, and I'm not sure that they do--unless we are to think of Bond as suffering from a form of sociopathy.  If that is the case, it is something that I hope gets worked out in the next Bond film.  I doubt it will, though, because it would be very hard, if not impossible, to rescue Bond from this dilemma without abandoning the casually promiscuous Bond image that producers think audiences want.  Unfortunately, if they don't work this out, the franchise might have to face very serious accusations of normalizing sociopathic attitudes towards women and sexuality.

Upon reflection, it occurs to me that my observations here might seem silly.  Of course James Bond films are open to such accusations.  They always have been.  Of course James Bond is a sociopath.  He always has been.  Okay.  But, again, it seems worse now.  Maybe I'm just more sensitive to it--perhaps because now I'm a dad with two daughters--but I don't think it's just me.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Egginton on Choice, and Pharyngula's Ill-Begotten Ways

A little while ago William Egginton published a piece about neuroscience and abortion at The Stone.  He criticizes the "Pain-Capable Unborn Child Act" (PUCA), which attempts to limit women's freedom to abort by appeal to the fetus' capacity to feel pain.  Egginton's argument is that the Act is philosophically and scientifically fraudulent.  He says that it relies on the false assumption that the mere capacity to perceive pain entails the sort of self-awareness we associate with personhood.  The PUCA argument is that fetuses can respond to pain, and therefore deserve to be regarded as persons under the law.  Egginton cogently argues that pain perception is not enough, scientifically speaking, to indicate the higher levels of consciousness we normally require for personhood.

Egginton also makes the much broader claim that neuroscience (or any other science) is not capable of defining the limits of personhood, period.  This a controversial topic, and I would expect some people to be put off by it.  Egginton's argument is well-constructed and reasoned, if not fully fleshed out.  It pretty much begins and ends with an appeal to Kant, who famously argued that three things can neither be proved nor disproved: the existence of God, the immortality of the soul and the freedom of the will.  If you don't like Kant, fine; but to my knowledge, his argument has never been satisfactorily refuted.  Still, a lot of people don't like appeals to dead philosophers, so this might be seen as a shortcoming of Egginton's argument.  It's not a devastating one, though, as I'm about to argue.

The notions of God and soul aren't taken seriously by most philosophers and scientists these days, and Egginton doesn't seem to be an exception.  He's not making any arguments about God or souls here.  The notion of will is a bit trickier, though. There's a large contingent that says that if something can't be studied with science, then it doesn't exist.  Egginton's claim is therefore controversial:  He says that we do have freedom of the sort Kant was talking about, and that Kant was right: science can't demonstrate its limits.

Now, before you go accusing Egginton of spiritualism or pseudo-scientific mysticism or something, consider what sort of position he might really have here.  For Kant (and for many today), free will is intimately tied up with the issue of moral responsibility.  Egginton might regard freedom as a socio-political construction which sustains our notion of moral responsibility, existing merely by virtue of the fact that we act as if it did.  On this view, there is no fact of the matter about freedom apart from what people believe, because it exists only by virtue of our belief in it.  That doesn't make it an illusion or a delusion, exactly, though some cognitive illusions might be associated with it.  But it does seem to mean that you can't prove or disprove it, at least not scientifically.  All you can do is believe in it or not.  You might say that it therefore doesn't exist in some important sense, but that seems to be a philosophical issue, and it's not so clear why anyone should feel compelled to deny it.

Freedom of will rides on the waves of socially salient dispositions. We can study the dispositions, so we can get a scientific sense of when people are (or are not) likely to grant personhood to people.  However, whether or not we should grant personhood in any given situation is not something that science can demonstrate.  Personhood is a value-laden property.  When we grant personhood, we are granting an organism a certain moral status.  It thus comes down to values, not facts.  To grant personhood or not is as beyond science as any other moral question.  Science can inform such decisions, of course--and Egginton says as much.  But science does not draw the line for us.

That's all worth thinking about, but I wasn't going to write about it at all until I read what PZ Myers had to say about Egginton's article.  It had been many months since I'd visited Pharyngula.  I've never been a regular follower, but I enjoy many of his posts.  I am also put off by a lot of them.  Unfortunately, his post on Egginton reminded me how careless he can be, and how he can let his aggressive instincts get the better of him.  In this case, it seems he had very little idea about what Egginton was talking about, but that didn't stop him from going into attack mode.

First, Myers accuses Egginton of ignoring the fact that abortion is fundamentally an issue about women and their bodies.  That is blatantly false.  In fact, Egginton frames the entire issue as follows: "neuroscience is being used to expand the rights of fetuses by contracting the rights of women to choose whether to continue or terminate their pregnancies. In other words, a biological fact about women is being used by the state to force women to accept one societal role rather than another."  That is why he is against PUCA--because it attempts to use neuroscience to limit women's freedom.   How did Myers miss that?  Perhaps because he wasn't paying very close attention.

Next, Myers misinterprets a rhetorical question Egginton asks:  "So why not call an actual neuroscientist as an expert witness instead of a scholar of the humanities?"

Egginton was expressing bemusement, because he had been asked to act as a witness in a trial concerning PUCA.  He thought it was strange that they would ask him, since he's not a neuroscientist.  But then, as he explains, he understood why they had asked him:  He was approached because of arguments he had published which "criticize the hubris of scientific claims to knowledge that exceeds the boundaries of what the science in fact demonstrates."  Myers interprets this as follows:  "[Egginton] thinks neuroscientists aren't actually good witnesses on subjects of neuroscience."

How does Myers get that?  It's ridiculous.  Egginton hasn't said anything against the competence of neuroscientists in general.  In fact, he appeals to neuroscientists in his argument against PUCA.

Finally, Myers flat rejects the appeal to Kant.  Myers says that science can tell us whether or not God exists, the soul is immortal, and the will is free.  Myers shows no interest in taking on Kant's arguments, though.  I guess the fact that Kant has been dead for over a couple centuries is enough to discredit him.  Or maybe Myers thinks that there's just no way Kant could be right, so there's no need to even look at the arguments.  Anyway, Myers apparently thinks that God, the soul and the freedom of the will really are suitable topics of scientific investigation.  Actually, I wouldn't assume that Myers really thinks that.  He says it, but I doubt he knows what he is saying, because he also says the idea of the soul is "ridiculous," which suggests it might not a suitable topic of scientific investigation.  Perhaps he'd say the same thing about the idea of God.  He might agree with me in saying that both soul and God are not defined coherently enough to be subjects of scientific inquiry (or to be proper objects of belief).

That leaves the idea of the freedom of the will, which is what Egginton is on about, anyway.  Myers says it is "an interesting cognitive illusion and political idea."  This suggests Myers takes it a lot more seriously than those other ideas.  He might even accept the analysis of freedom that I outlined above.  In that case, he shouldn't be so against Egginton.  Like Myers, I think free will is a political (or, as I said, socio-political) construction. I also think that the ideas of God and soul are not coherent enough to take seriously.  And yet, unlike Myers, I think Egginton has a good argument.  The reason Myers and I disagree about Egginton, I imagine, is because only one of us actually understands what Egginton is saying.

Myers closes by suggesting that people like Egginton be excluded from future deliberations about such matters.  It's disappointing, considering how smart Myers can be when he's really trying.

The saddest part is that Myers is encouraging an ignorant, arrogant and confused rejection of philosophy itself.  That's what motivated me to write this post.  When philosophers like Egginton take the time to write eloquently, cogently and clearly for a popular audience, drawing important connections between philosophy and neuroscience with relevant and compelling political observations, it is utterly depressing to see them get the response that Myers offers.  Some people just don't like philosophy, yet can't be bothered to understand it.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

"Answers For Aristotle" Review (Part 2)

Massimo Pigliucci's Answers For Aristotle is a very frustrating read--at least for me, though maybe not for his intended audience.  If you haven't noticed, I've written a critical review of the first part of the book, in which Pigliucci frames his "sci-phi" approach and argues for the treatment of normative ethics as a "morality menu" in which all should be encouraged to construct a personal morality to their own liking.  I'm now over halfway through the book, so I can comment in more detail on Parts 2, 3 and 4, titled "How Do We Know What We Think We Know?", "Who Am I?" and "Love and Friendship," respectively.

Part 2 is broken up into three chapters.  The first deals with the difference between rationality and rationalization, arguing that we are rational animals, but that it takes effort to overcome our rationalizing tendencies.  The second deals with intuition and the development of expertise.  These two chapters are perhaps the best in the book.  They are mostly very clear and enjoyable to read, and I don't recall being perturbed by any conceptual difficulties or factual errors.  This might be because Pigliucci does not make any overt attempts to sustain his main thesis in these chapters.  He is here sticking to the science, and not trying to make connections to philosophy.

The third chapter in Part 2 is a bit frustrating, not surprisingly because it deals a lot with philosophy.  In this chapter, Pigliucci attempts to offer a more refined understanding of science than what was presented in the first part of the book.  He gives a brief overview of some important developments in the philosophy of science. Unfortunately, it is not really adequate for a beginner, in my opinion.  His discussions of induction and Popper are highly questionable, and his own conception of science remains a little hard to pin down.  Pigliucci seems to think that science really is in the business of verification through inductive reasoning.  That is a rather uncommon (I'd guess practically non-existent) view in the philosophy of science.

In addition, his discussion of realism and anti-realism is wanting.  He takes "anti-realism" to refer to the position that scientific theories are simply wrong, where "realism" is the position that science presents a truthful description of reality.  A better discussion would identify pragmatism as a more sustainable form of anti-realism.  According to at least some of the more robust varieties of pragmatism, scientific theories do not describe really, but are of instrumental value in making predictions about reality.  The idea of scientific truth just is this instrumental value.  So anti-realists should not be generally regarded as thinking that science is wrong or untruthful.

Pigliucci attempts to overcome the realism/anti-realism issue by offering another alternative, which he calls "perspectivism."  It's hard to make sense of what he says about this, though.  His argument seems to be that scientific truth is subjective in the same way that, say, color perception is subjective.  Our scientific theories are based on our subjective points of view, and so should not be expected to make sense (or be "true") from other perspectives.  This is a deeply problematic argument which probably deserves a more detailed treatment.  I'll briefly sketch my concern:  First of all, who says that color perception is irreducibly subjective?  Those who believe in qualia, of course.  But that is a minority of academic philosophers.  Furthermore, if there is some inherently subjective knowledge of color perception, then it is not the sort of thing that can be shared with others.  That's what "subjective knowledge" means: It cannot be studied scientifically, because science is a communal effort.  So, when Pigliucci says that science is perspectival, he seems to be saying that science in general deals with knowledge that cannot be shared.  That would mean that science itself was impossible.  I'm sure that's not what Pigliucci wants to say.  He wants to encourage a trust in science informed by a reasonable skepticism.  However, his argument seems to undermine the possibility of science completely.

Like Part 2, Part 3 is a mix of nice, clear exposition and confused philosophizing.  This part has only two chapters.  The first deals with the notions of will and willpower.  This is also one of the clearer and more compelling chapters in the book.  The next chapter (chapter 10) is mostly cogent, though not free of error.  Pigliucci mistakenly refers to Freud's 1920 work, Beyond The Pleasure Principle, as introducing Freud's famous, tripartite view of the mind (comprising the id, ego and superego.)  However, that development did not appear until a few years later, with Freud's The Ego and the Id.  This is not an essential point, of course.  Yet, Pigliucci's entire mention of Freud seems unnecessary.  The point of it is only to force a parallel between Freud and Plato, since both advocated a tripartite view of the mind.  But the comparison is quite forced (a point which Pigliucci seems to shrug off) and, anyway, why should we care what Plato or Freud thought about the mind?  Neither view has been substantiated through scientific research.  Finally, Pigliucci makes a curious prediction in Part 3.  He says that that "my brain made me do it" is likely to emerge as "a very strange" legal defense.  In fact, it already has occured as a legal defense in I think around 200 cases.

Part 4 is also divided into two chapters.  In the first, Pigliucci offers a sometimes cogent, sometimes curious discussion of the science and philosophy of love.  He claims, without clear justification, that the "natural state for primates like us is one of serial monogamy or limited polygamy."  He warns us against the possible "perils and difficulties" that come with resisting this natural tendency.  I can't help but suspect a fair amount of personal bias in that assessment.  In the second, he offers a very lucid discussion of the science of friendship.  I was enjoying this part of the book very much.  He was talking about the phenomenon of "trading-up":  that's basically when you give up a relationship because you find somebody else who satisfies you better.  Then, all of a sudden, things start to go wrong.

First, there's a short paragraph claiming that friendship, as a category, does not seem to have any uniquely identifying features.  That might be true, but it's not clear why Pigliucci is mentioning it.  Pigliucci doesn't give much of an argument for it, either.  He just mentions it in passing, without any apparent reason.  The paragraph seems out of place, perhaps the result of sloppy editing.  A minor flaw, but what comes next is profoundly disappointing.

Pigliucci raises the question, why is friendship important?  He likes Aristotle's idea that friends hold up mirrors to each other:  "through that mirror they can see each other in ways that would not otherwise be accessible to them, and it is this (reciprocal) mirroring that helps them improve themselves as persons."  This comes not so far after Pigliucci explained how scientists have discovered that our behavior can be contagious, that how we live and act is significantly likely to be replicated by our friends (and their friends, too).  What we might gather, putting two and two together, is that friends serve both as models and mirrors.  Their instrumental value is therefore complex.  Yet, what Pigliucci concludes from Aristotle's insight is the opposite.  He says that, from Aristotle's insight, we should conclude that friends are not only of instrumental value, but that having friends is "an integral part" of what it means to "live the good life."  Perhaps Aristotle did think that, but it does not follow logically from what Pigliucci has told us.  We seem to have gone from sloppy editing to sloppy thinking.  That is not a thoroughly damning objection, but it's not good.  In any case, matters soon get much worse.

Pigliucci next claims that friendship itself cannot be justified by the likes of Mill or Kant.  He says that friendship, "by definition," includes moral preferences, whereas consequentialism and deontology demand that we treat all individuals equally.  His implication is that consequentalists and deontologists have all been ignoring the fact that people have emotional and practical ties to other people which influence their moral judgments.  He says only virtue ethics is equipped to justify our tendency to value some people more than others.  Pigliucci is sorely (and embarrassingly) mistaken.  One can have a duty to one's family and friends.  There, that vindicates Kant.  Also, one might improve overall wellbeing by being loyal to friends.  A society in which people were loyal to their friends and family might flourish more than one in which people had no emotional preferences.

I am sure Pigliucci is smart enough to recognize these simple points.  I think he was just too quick to print and didn't take the time to think through some of this book carefully enough.  And that is hard to forgive, considering that Pigliucci claims that his book offers "the best" that science and philosophy have to offer.

It's worth noting that Pigliucci's discussion of Plato is nicely done.  The only problem is, why should we care what Plato had to say?  The assumption may be that Plato had some wisdom to offer and so it is worth taking into consideration.  That may be, but Pigliucci also makes the following implication:  Such views of the mind can be verified or refuted through scientific research.  This issue comes up repeatedly.  Pigliucci turns to philosophers, especially Aristotle, Plato and Hume, for insights into human personality and emotion, and all the while he implies that science is in a position to vindicate them.  Philosophy is thus a source of inspiration and guidance, but science is left to find the truth of the matter.

Pigliucci's book gives us three distinct views on the relationship between philosophy and science.  First, philosophy is unque in its ability to help us understand values and how to think about them, whereas science is unique in its ability to draw conclusions of empirical fact.  Second, philosophy is uniquely able to help us overcome conceptual confusion, allowing us to better understand our arguments and their implications, whereas science just deals with . . . well, empirical verification, I guess.  Third, philosophy is a sort of creative, speculative play of ideas, and science is the, of course, the testing of those ideas through empirical methods.

Those who think philosophy is mostly a lot of hot air, no better than tarot reading or religion, might thus respond:  First, philosophy has nothing uniquely valuable to add to our understanding of values.  Second, scientists are most qualified to deal with the conceptual confusions that arise in science (and the rest is just politics and propaganda.)  Third, if science alone can verify these ideas, then we should not put any faith in the philosophical arguments.  I don't see Pigliucci coming to terms with these objections, which is a major failing of his book.

Where the book is most successful is in giving a tour of some of the many areas of scientific investigation currently shaping our understanding of humanity.  Like a popular tour, the journey is spotted with occasional (and often unsuccessful) attempts at humor, personal anecdotes, roughshod summaries and confabulations.  The view itself is often interesting and attractive, but at times grotesque, and the tourist might find herself occasionally wondering where she is going, why, and how she got there.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Review of Pigliucci's "Answers For Aristotle" (Part 1)

I have some pointed criticisms to make of Massimo Pigliucci's new book,  Answers For Aristotle: How Science And Philosophy Can Lead Us To A More Meaningful Life.  I've only read about 30 percent of the book so far. (I'm using the Kindle edition, so please excuse the lack of page numbers in my references.)  If I have time, I'll post a "Part 2," taking in the latter seventy percent of the book.  I have a lot to say about the first part of the book, though, and I've got some free time today to put it into words.

As I wrote in my preview of the book, Pigliucci wants to overcome a tendency to dismiss philosophy as irrelevant to our attempts to understand ourselves and the world.  I am entirely sympathetic to Pigliucci's project and I want to support it as much as possible.  One way I can support the project is by criticizing the book, which is a very ambitious attempt to mount a sustained argument concerning the relationship between science and philosophy by consolidating research and insights from many disciplines in a light, friendly and engaging prose.

At times it is a breeze and a pleasure to read, though the style is not consistent.  The friendly, conversational tone occasionally verges on the patronizing.  The book is written for beginners, but difficult vocabulary is not always clearly explained and the prose becomes rather formal and difficult at times.  Also, some of the arguments are not as solid, cautious or clear as they could be, making it difficult to highly recommend the book to beginners.  (As a result, I have not found a chapter that I would consider using for my Theory of Knowledge students, which is a real disappointment.)  On the othe rhand, Pigliucci's arguments are not sophisticated or penetrating enough to be recommended to advanced students, either.  The result is that I'm not quite sure who will find this book most appealing or useful.  I will have to finish the book before I can say more about that.

What I want to comment on more pointedly is the framework Pigliucci is advancing.  The book attempts to provide a way of thinking about science and philosophy as complementary but distinct enterprises, each with their own unique areas of knowledge.  I do not think Pigliucci is successful in this.  While his book might do a decent job of consolidating insights from various fields (and I'll have to finish reading before I can comment on that), his attempt at framing the project is deeply flawed.

Pigliucci separates philosophy and science along the fact/value divide.  He takes up Aristotle's conception of life as a project and argues that we need both science and philosophy to figure out how to pursue it.  Philosophy deals with values, science deals with facts.  Early in the first chapter, he even says that the very expression of values--the making of moral and aesthetic judgments--is philosophy itself.  His argument seems to be this: When we make aesthetic or moral judgments about obesity, for example, we are employing an aesthetic or moral theory to make judgments about how people should look or how people ought to act. We are making value judgments. Thus, he says, we are “doing philosophy without realizing it.”

This is bizarre. True, aesthetic and moral judgments are (sometimes) the subject of philosophical analysis, but that does not mean that such judgments comprise philosophy itself. Similarly, financial transactions are the subject of economic analysis, but they do not comprise economics. Economics is the study of how money gets distributed in a population. It is not the practice of distributing money.

But let's take a step back and look at the picture Pigliucci is presenting.  It is similar to Stephen Jay Gould’s NOMA principle, the idea that religion and science are “non-overlapping magisteria,” because (allegedly) science deals with facts and religion deals with morality. Pigliucci is not talking about religion and morality, but philosophy and values. The problem is, he has not given an argument yet. He has only claimed that we need both science and philosophy because we live with both facts and values. The question he must answer is, why are values outside the purview of scientific discovery? Why are ethics and aesthetics a matter of philosophical, but not scientific, analysis?

Some would no doubt argue that aesthetics and ethics are not outside the bounds of science. They would accuse Pigliucci of creating a false dichotomy between philosophy and science. And if they are not so sympathetic with philosophy at all, they might say something like this: Philosophy is the space where sloppy language and muddled concepts frolic, waiting desperately for science to come along and clean up the mess. And sometimes, they might say, science cleans up the philosophical mess by simply ignoring it, sweeping it under the rug, so that it doesn’t get in the way of proper intellectual development. If Pigliucci’s book is going to make a substantial contribution to correcting this popular (mis)understanding of philosophy and its relationship to science, he will have to provide some tools for countering this sort of objection. Unfortunately, though I am only a little over a quarter of a way through his book, I am doubtful that he is successful.

Pigliucci relies heavily on an appeal to Aristotle to ground his practical, if not conceptual, wedding of science and philosophy.  He says Aristotle was “[a]rguably the first philosopher in the Western tradition to take the concept of scientia (or what [Pigliucci calls] sci-phi) seriously.” The idea is that Aristotle was the first Western philosopher to combine both science and philosophy in his pursuit of practical wisdom.  This is quite misleading, since the contemporary distinction between “science” and “philosophy” came over a millennium after Aristotle’s death. Pigliucci observes this several pages later, in fact. Yet, he still projects a contemporary division between science and philosophy on Aristotle.

In contrast, I think one could more easily argue that Aristotle was the first philosopher in the Western tradition who took up philosophical questions in a scientific manner. While no ancient Greek philosophers distinguished between science and philosophy, we can retrospectively view Aristotle as establishing the first major shift in philosophy towards science. Aristotle did this by rejecting Platonic idealism and attempting to understand the essence of reality in terms of the changing world itself, and not some ideal forms which it could never fully realize.

Pigliucci also appeals to 18th-century Scottish philosopher David Hume. I presume anyone reading this review already knows about the “naturalistic fallacy,” but just in case: It is the fallacy of arguing from a statement about what is the case to a conclusion about what ought to be the case. Recognition of the fallacy is credited to Hume, who quipped that when people base their moral judgments on what is the case, they make hidden assumptions about what ought to be the case. The implication is that facts alone do not give us moral prescriptions. In order to decide what we ought to do, we must have values in addition to facts.

The naturalistic fallacy is intuitively obvious (to some, at least, including myself) and worth taking seriously, though its implications can be confusing. Sam Harris, for example, has taken it to mean that there can be no factual explanation of what values are or how they come about. That is mistaken. One can respect the fact/value distinction and still regard values themselves as facts about people. (Incidentally, Pigliucci does not pass over an opportunity to criticize Harris, and in very harsh terms. The criticism is sloppy, though, and does not add value to Pigliucci’s book.)

Pigliucci’s discussion of the fact/value distinction lends itself to conceptual confusion, too. He writes: “Taking the naturalistic fallacy seriously, we acknowledge that science (dealing with matters of fact) is not enough; we also need philosophy (dealing with matters of value).” I’ve never seen anyone take the naturalistic fallacy to warrant such a conclusion. Why would Pigliucci claim that philosophical analysis is limited to the domain of values, and not facts?  Pigliucci offers no argument to support this strange assertion.

It’s worth noting that Pigliucci does not view this as a hands-off arrangement. Science can inform philosophy and vice versa, he says. His idea is that philosophy “guides the general direction in which science (and science funding) goes.”  But his implication is that philosophy cannot give us unique knowledge or insight into facts, and that science cannot give us unique insight or knowledge into values.  Philosophy is presented as the application of ethical and aesthetic theories in the making of moral and aesthetic judgments, and as a discipline which has no insights to offer outside of the making of such judgments. Science, in contrast, gives us factual knowledge.  That’s not a very flattering picture of philosophy—especially for those who think that moral and aesthetic judgments are never more than matters of personal (or familial, or cultural) taste. If philosophy is just a matter of making subjective judgments, then why should we take sophisticated philosophical arguments seriously?

Indeed, at times Pigliucci doesn’t seem to want us to take philosophy too seriously at all. In a later chapter, he gives a very brief introduction to normative ethics. He indicates that consequentialists and deontologists have sophisticated arguments to poise against their critics, but then immediately suggests that neither one is good enough, and that we should turn to virtue ethics for help. The passage is curious:
“It seems, then, that there is something flawed about the principle of utility (though, predictably, there are some reasonable counter-objections that utilitarians can mount here.)
If neither deontology nor consequentialism quite cut it, is there perhaps a third option?”
In other words, consequentialists have very reasonable objections to the arguments against them, and yet we need to look for another option because consequentialism might not cut it.  This is not even the facade of a substantive argument against consequentialism. 

All that’s really clear is that Pigliucci prefers that third option, virtue ethics, and so he does not really care about paying much attention to the others. And yet, he says that virtue ethics is also problematic, so that we should ultimately just pick and choose from all three of them as we see fit. Rigorous philosophical analysis is thus rejected in favor of cherry-picking from a “morality menu.”

For example, Pigliucci likes Kant’s categorical imperative, at least in one of its formulations (he seems to think less of the others; he doesn't mention that Kant thought all of the formulations were logically equivalent), but he does not think we should be too strict with it (there's an implication that Kant was too joyless).  He also thinks we should consider the consequences of our actions (as if Kant didn’t!), and he thinks that we should focus more on developing our character than on anything else (that's where the virtue ethics comes in). So he wants to be a virtue ethicist with deontological consequentialist tendencies of some kind, but does not suggest any need to take on the philosophical arguments in any depth. In fact, he says we shouldn't take them too seriously.  We should just take the parts that we like (however strictly or loosely we like them) and ignore the rest.

This is a little offensive and also hypocritical, since one of his criticisms of Sam Harris is that Harris “dismisses the entire philosophical literature on ethics in a footnote.” He says that what Harris offers is “not serious scholarship.” That may be true enough, but Pigliucci’s book is not serious scholarship, either. (Pigliucci makes as many references to chapters in his own book as he does to other people’s work. He doesn’t use footnotes, either, opting instead to supplement the text only with a chapter-based list of references at the back of the book.) And Pigliucci too seems dismissive of the philosophical literature, though not as rudely.  I should mention that Pigliucci’s criticism of Harris is hyperbolic—Harris does not dismiss the entire philosophical literature on ethics. Such exaggeration is forgivable. What is not so forgivable is Pigliucci’s inconsistency. If he thinks the philosophical literature should be taken so seriously, why does he say we should treat various approaches in normative ethics as a “menu” from which we can hand-pick a personal moral theory to our own personal liking? 

It seems that Pigliucci is supporting, and not contesting, the popular opinion that philosophy has no advantagae over personal taste and basic common sense. Why should we think that philosophers have anything special to add to our lives? What makes philosophy better than, say, religion, as a source of moral attitudes?  Richard Dawkins says we shouldn't trust priests any more than we should trust plumbers, when it comes to seeking moral wisdom.  I agree.  But then, why should we trust philosophers over plumbers?  Why should we think that anybody has anything uniquely valuable to say about values?

The fact is, I don't think philosophers have any unique contributions to make about our understanding of values.  I think Pigliucci's framing of his project is wrong-headed.

Pigliucci’s discussion of scientific discovery is slightly better than his discussion of philosophy. He makes the easy, though basically true, claim that there is no single method guiding scientific discovery. He also makes the easy, though also true, claim that science has managed to consistently defy common sense. He sums this up with an appeal to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, a man who was more mystic than scientist. “Science proceeds,” Pigliucci writes, “in a way similar to Sherlock Holmes’s explanation to Dr. Watson . . .: ‘It is an old maxim of mine that when you have excluded the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.’” The idea is that scientists have a set of possibilities, some more probable than others, and that scientific discovery consists in excluding all but one of them. It is, at best, a profound oversimplification of how science works. Maybe I’m being too charitable. It’s not an oversimplification so much as a gross misrepresentation of scientific discovery.

A little but further along in the same chapter, he presents a much better picture of what philosophy and science are about.  Yet, the closer he gets to a satisfactory description of science and philosophy, the more he seems to cause problems for his own framework.  He properly emphasizes the probabilistic and tentative nature of all scientific conclusions. Science, he says, “is a form of inquiry into the natural world characterized by the continuous refinement of theories that are in one way or another empirically verifiable.” That is not a particularly good or insightful definition of science, in my opinion, but it is much better than what Sherlock has to offer. For one thing, it is strange that Pigliucci refers to science as “a form of inquiry” when he had, just pages earlier, claimed that there is no particular scientific method. He does not suggest how a “form of inquiry” could be distinguished from a "method of inquiry."  This gives the impression that Pigliucci isn’t so clear on what he really thinks science is. There’s also the fact that scientists and philosophers of science are usually careful not to define science in terms of verifiability. It’s not that we should nitpick every time the word “verify” and its cognates are used to describe science. However, in a book devoted to exploring the relationship between science and philosophy, I would expect a more nuanced discussion. Pigliucci could have at least addressed this obvious question: What should we make of verifiability, if all scientific conclusions are tentative? We must suppose that all scientific verification is tentative. But in that case, is it really verification?

Pigliucci’s discussion of philosophy makes a turn for the better, too. After mentioning some of the many branches of philosophy, he quotes Wittgenstein, who wrote: “Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language.” Pigliucci is happy to settle on this as a way of thinking about what philosophers do. This leads him to adopt another conception of philosophy as dealing with “the power and limits of the ultimate human tool: language.”

Indeed, there has been a “linguistic turn” in philosophy, so that many philosophers over the past century have come to view the philosophy of language as the key to philosophy itself.  Semantic analysis has become a common method of argument across the board, from the philosophy of mind to epistemology. And Wittgenstein is partly to thank for that, though he would certainly not approve of the way much of that analysis is done. (Just as many of those doing the analysis do not approve of how Wittgenstein thought philosophy should be done.)

Pigliucci remarks that there are probably more definitions of “philosophy” than there are philosophers. He does not want to settle on one definition, but instead makes a general observation: philosophers tend to focus on the careful construction and criticism of formal arguments. This leads him to a particular conception of philosophical progress: We make progress in philosophy when we better understand the meaning and implications of our concepts. (The analysis of reasoned arguments does help us better understand the meaning and implications of our concepts; however, Wittgenstein might say that it also helps us create the meaning and implications of our concepts. But okay, that’s not essential here.) So philosophy is not just about making arguments, but about trying to understand the meaning and logical implication of our concepts. 

That’s a good working definition of “philosophy,” but it is not consistent with Pigliucci’s framing of a division between science and philosophy. If philosophy deals with the meaning and implications of concepts, then it is not specifically about values at all. It is also about facts. So why did Pigliucci say that philosophy is uniquely associated with the realm of values, and science with the realm of facts?

While I'm curious to know what comes of the rest of the book, I am not itching to finish it.  Besides the conceptual confusion concerning the way the entire book is framed, there is a consistent lack of caution and clarity.  There are also some significant errors.  For example, he mentions in passing that Kant has given us the best arguments against the existence of God, pointing to Kant's Critique of Practical Reason.  I don't know where Pigliucci got that.  In the Critique of Pure Reason, Kant gave sophisticated arguments for why the existence of God can neither be proved nor disproved.  In the Critique of Practical Reason, he argued that morality requires us to believe in God.  Some have even taken this to be a sort of proof for the existence of God.

It's a minor point, not worth making a fuss about.  But it seems to be a result of a general lack of caution and a feeling that the details aren't as important as the bigger picture, qualities that are evident throughout the first quarter of the book.  That makes it a frustrating read.  Pigliucci attempts to write with an authoritative voice, but he has not quite established one, and the small errors (not to mention the conceptual confusion outlined above) make it hard to trust him.  So I'm not so eager to finish the book.  But, if I do, I'll post a follow-up review.  Hopefully I'll be able to balance my critical comments with more praise.

Update: This post was edited on 3 November 2012, mostly to substantially improve paragraph 3.