Philosophy, Film, Politics, Etc.

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.