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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.