Philosophy, Film, Politics, Etc.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

A Preview of Pigliucci's "Answers For Aristotle"

This just caught my attention.  Massimo Pigliucci has a new book, Answers For Aristotle: How Science And Philosophy Can Lead Us To A More Meaningful Life.  It looks like a plea for a better appreciation of the need for both science and philosophy.  As such, I'm happy to see it hitting the shelves this year.  I get more and more annoyed by scientists who don't recognize the relevance of philosophy or, even worse, who ignorantly try to make philosophy seem irrelevant.  (I've long since had my fill of philosophers who don't recognize the relevance of science.)

This does not look like a book for the philosophically minded who lack adequate respect for science, however.  It looks more like a book for a lay audience which duly respects scientific methodologies, but which thinks, as Pigliucci writes in Chapter 1 (page 8), that philosophy is "a quaint activity best left to a bunch of white old men with a conspicuous degree of social awkwardness."  Either way, I'm not the target audience.

That explains my distaste over the "how science and philosophy can lead us to a more meaningful life" part of the title.  I'm not so happy to see philosophers telling people how meaningful their lives can be.  I'm not sure that is what Pigliucci wants to do, even.  The title of the book is probably the result of a marketing strategy.  The target audience might like a taste of in-depth philosophical analysis, but just a taste.  The goal is not to teach philosophy, but to give a sense of why philosophy is important and relevant--and the strategy is to invite people to reflect on what philosophy uniquely contributes to our understanding of what brings meaning and value to our lives.  At least, that's what I'm guessing.

If Pigliucci is saying that philosophy and science can actually make our lives more meaningful, then his book may be a bit of a disappointment.  (Unless he has some unexpected arguments up his sleeve.)  I do not think scientists and philosophers have more meaningful lives than people with no scientific or philosophical literacy.  How would we measure meaning in the first place?  If it's a matter of influence, then we have to think of all the different ways a person can influence in the world.  Scientists and philosophers can influence the world in some unique ways, but those aren't necessarily more important or more powerful than all of the ways that are open to people with other interests.  We're mostly blind to all of the little ways we change the lives of people around us.  Or perhaps the idea is that science and philosophy actually enhance the meaning of life for everyone, even the people who aren't so obviously doing science or philosophy.  Well, I won't speculate on what somebody might say about this.  I don't think this kind of question is what Pigliucci is really after, anyway.

Pigliucci's point, I suspect, is just that scientists and philosophers deal with questions which get at the meaning of life.  That does not mean that science and philosophy actually make life more meaningful.  So the title of the book is probably misleading and therefore annoying.  But it doesn't matter if it annoys me, because I'm not the target audience.  Of course, if I do recommend the book, or ask some of my students to read it, I will have to deal with the title.  And while I haven't read past page 8, it does look like something I might assign (at least in part) to my Theory of Knowledge students.

Anyway, I'm hoping that Pigliucci does a decent job of balancing in some pointed doses of critical thinking.  I hope it is not a feel-good book for the critically disinclined.  If done right, it could be a useful addition to the popular literature on science and philosophy, and the fact/value distinction in particular.  And I think Pigliucci may have done it right.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Scientists Make Premature Declaration on Consciousness

Several scientists have made a declaration on consciousness.  (You can read coverage from a Scientific American blog here.)

Unfortunately, I think the declaration is more likely to promote confusion rather than clarity. What does it mean to "experience affective states?" What characterizes intentional behavior as such? These are problematic questions and I don't see this declaration helping matters. They seem to be ignoring the difficulties, not overcoming them.

One basic difficulty is that the word "consciousness" has multiple recognized definitions. For most people, I think if you told them octopuses had consciousness, they'd think that octopuses had self-awareness, higher order thoughts about their lives and experiences, and such. But that is not what the science shows. (I'm not saying octopuses don't have these things, but only that the science doesn't show it.) I suspect that the scientists making this declaration take "consciousness" to mean "phenomenal experience." But even then, the topic is incredibly problematic and the science does not really show us anything about it.

For a long time, neuroscientists have made a distinction between emotions and feelings, and have studied emotions in animals other than human beings. (E.g., see Joseph LeDoux's excellent book, The Emotional Brain.)  It's no news that all sorts of animals have emotions. The question of feelings and consciousness is more difficult, and I think these scientists are only giving the illusion of progress.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

My Thesis, and other news, sort of

I've completed my masters thesis.  It's over one hundred pages, by far the longest thing I've ever written.  And it's not half bad, in my opinion, though there are a few arguments I would have liked to flesh out in more detail.

The first half is on the history of the concept of subsidiarity and its relation to the foundations of human rights law, including some criticism of the liberalism we find in Mill, Rorty and, most recently, Nussbaum.  I advocate an alternative, which I call pragmatic secular constructivism.  It is secular in the sense that it does not give religious belief a privileged place in political discourse; however, I take an accepting position towards the inclusion of religious language in political affairs.  My argument is that religious perspectives are going to influence politics one way or another, so long as religion is an influential factor in social life; and that if explicitly religious language is barred from entrance into the political sphere, then the more entrenched religious views will still find a way in (through seemingly secular language, like "family values") at the expense of the less popular religions.  There's no sense pretending that we can somehow keep people's religious views outside of political discourse.  I would much rather leave the door open and let all religious views be expressed and criticized in the political sphere.

The second half is on the Lautsi v. Italy case, with a strong focus on the influential role of the Vatican in European politics.  I think I have identified clear flaws in the Grand Chamber's Lautsi ruling and some plausible sources of bias in the Court. I think my observations are original and valuable, and the warning I present should be taken seriously.  There is a real risk of bias skewing the Court's judgments in favor of the Catholic Church and at the expense of non-Christian values.

So, the thesis has been accepted and approved and all that.  Now I just have to go through the formal procedures to get my MA in European Studies.  The plan has always been a PhD in Philosophy, but I haven't begun to figure out all of my options yet.  Whatever I choose will involve continuing to live in Szczecin, so that limits my options in a pretty big way.  As much as I'd like to join a top-notch department one day, I don't expect to ever be a serious competitor on the job market.  I just want the PhD so I can have some clout when I get into philosophically-oriented debates, and maybe if I ever get around to trying to publish a book.  Also, I wouldn't mind a part-time gig as an associate professor.  My aspirations are pretty low at this point.