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.