Philosophy, Film, Politics, Etc.

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.