Tuesday, December 31, 2013

The future of higher education

A gloomy post to end the year, possibly because I spend too much time reading about the academic job market. I'll try to make the next post cheerier.

I once meant to say something about Coetzee's thoughts on the future of higher education, but I don't remember doing so. (Actually I do remember doing so, but I assume it's a false memory since I can't find it by searching the blog.) And then I just read this TED talk on TED talks by Benjamin Bratton, which left me with similar pessimistic thoughts. Coetzee writes that:
All over the world, as governments retreat from their traditional duty to foster the common good and reconceive of themselves as mere managers of national economies, universities have been coming under pressure to turn themselves into training schools equipping young people with the skills required by a modern economy.
Bratton says:
If we really want transformation, we have to slog through the hard stuff (history, economics, philosophy, art, ambiguities, contradictions). Bracketing it off to the side to focus just on technology, or just on innovation, actually prevents transformation.
Both seem right. And of course the economy does not want transformation. Nor do most people. So universities won't provide it.

I used to think that I went to college because I wanted to learn, but of course what my peers were doing and what my parents expected had a lot to do with it. Money and social class were probably the underlying concerns. And today people don't seem to care about social class very much, except to the extent that it has become something that money can buy. All you really need is money. So I don't see much hope for the humanities except in the form of the courses Coetzee describes: "Reading and Writing" and "Great Ideas," for instance. (Except that they won't have these names because they are too honest to be taken seriously by the people in charge of naming.) Perhaps a few boutique humanities programs will survive, but I can't really see why they would. It just doesn't make much sense to get a PhD in a humanities subject any more, and who will teach in these programs if no one has a relevant PhD? Nor can I imagine the politician who will fight to increase public funding for the humanities. So, doom.

But it's not all doom. I don't think the end will come overnight. I don't think it is certain. And I don't believe that philosophy, art, etc, will just disappear if they aren't much taught in universities any more. Perhaps they will even make a comeback after the 'exciting' integration of disciplines (philosophy only being taught by business ethicists, literature only taught by historians who want to add a bit of colour to their courses, etc.) turns out to be a dead end.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Ethics and the Tractatus

Kevin Cahill argues that the Tractatus cannot achieve its ethical purpose. If the resolute reading is right then this purpose, he suggests, must be something like what James Conant and Michael Kremer have said it is. Conant compares the Tractatus with Kierkegarrd's Concluding Unscientific Postscript because both provide "a mirror in which the reader can recognize his own confusions" and have "the reader climb up a ladder which in the end he is to throw away." Kremer connects the Tractatus with Saint Paul and Augustine, suggesting (in Kevin's words) "that one of Wittgenstein's fundamental goals in that book was to expose as illusory all attempts for ultimate justification in logic, metaphysics, and of course, ethics." Both Conant and Kremer, Kevin says, see Wittgenstein as trying to use nonsense to bring about "a change in the reader's self-understanding through a change in her relationship to language" where the change in question is "characterized primarily by how we do and do not act, not by what we know."

He cannot succeed, though, according to Kevin, because "the method in the Tractatus presupposes a view of language and philosophical confusion that is far too narrow." The book is too intellectualist, and tries to do its work by showing us what a sentence is.

If the (relevant part of the) book consists entirely of nonsense, though, then it surely cannot hope to show us what a sentence is. It can at most show us what a sentence is not. That is, if you start with a certain idea of what a sentence is and then follow that through until you end up in patent nonsense then you have shown that the original idea was wrong. But you can't show what we ought to believe instead in this way. Kevin isn't talking about what the Tractatus says about language, though, but about what its method presupposes. If it aims to show that all attempts at ultimate justification in logic, metaphysics, and ethics are illusory then he is probably right. But if the aim is as Conant describes, i.e. if the aim is to show the reader something, not to show something completely general, then whether it succeeds or fails will surely depend on the reader. And Wittgenstein says that:
This book will perhaps only be understood by one who has himself already at some time thought the thoughts that are expressed herein – or at least similar thoughts. –It is therefore not a textbook.—Its end would be reached if it gave pleasure to one person who read it with understanding.          
If the reader has the right confusions then I don't see that Kevin has given any reason to think the book cannot work as intended on him (the suitably confused reader). Can a book like this bring about change in how one lives? Well, I don't see why not. If one's problems are intellectualist then an intellectualist book might be just the thing. Of course it might not work. One might give up one kind of intellectualist wrong path only to take up another. But I don't see that failure is guaranteed.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Useful and harmful animals

Re-reading Kevin Cahill's "Ethics and the Tractatus: A Resolute Failure" I was struck by this passage from Wittgenstein's Nachlass that Kevin translates and quotes:
Why now am I so anxious to keep these kinds of uses of 'Assertions' separate from one another? Is it necessary? Did people before really not correctly understand what they wanted to do with a sentence? Is it pedantry?—It is merely an attempt to do justice to each kind of use. That is to say a reaction against the overvaluation of science. Using the word 'science' for 'everything that can be said that is not nonsense' already expresses this overestimation. Because in reality this means dividing assertions into two classes: good and bad; and therein already lies the danger. It would be similar to if one were to divide all animals, plants, and rocks into useful and harmful. But of course the words 'to do justice to them' and 'overvaluation' express my position.
This brings to mind the Lecture on Ethics, which distinguishes between the relative/trivial/scientific/intelligible and the ethical/religious/absolute/nonsensical, and the Tractatus, which says:
6.53 The right method for philosophy would properly be this: To say nothing other than what can be said, thus propositions of natural science – thus something that has nothing to do with philosophy –, and then always, if another wanted to say something metaphysical, to point out to him that he had given no meaning to certain signs in his propositions. This method would be unsatisfying for the other person – he would not have the feeling that we were teaching him philosophy – but it would be the only strictly correct one. 
So there we have what can be said/natural science versus nonsense/metaphysics. Now what's wrong with this? One obvious complaint, perhaps the obvious one, is to say that it is grossly unfair to at least some of what is categorized as nonsensical. But that isn't what Wittgenstein says. He says that it is unjust because it overvalues at least some of what is categorized as meaningful. What would be wrong with dividing animals into the useful and the harmful is not that we would inevitably make mistakes, labeling useful animals harmful, for instance, but that it is overly simple. The danger lies already in the division into two. We need a higher number (if we are going to divide at all).

Or is it the division into good and bad specifically that is dangerous? Useful animals might be only somewhat useful, after all. Horses can be very useful, but baby pandas are almost completely useless. They might make it onto the 'useful' list (they are valuable for zoo-owners, for instance), but you wouldn't want to confuse their utility with that of horses. Perhaps some harmful animals have their uses: sharks are fun to look at and think about, their fins make allegedly tasty soup, but you don't want them in your swimming pool. If you had to classify them as either useful or harmful, I think it's clear they belong in the 'harmful' category. If they don't then almost nothing does. What seems to concern Wittgenstein most is not this kind of problem, though, but the opposite one: some 'useful' animals or sentences might not be all that great after all.

Surely he doesn't want to reject the meaning/nonsense distinction altogether. It's the equation of the former with science that he objects to. Not all useful assertions are good. And not all scientific assertions are useful.

One last thought: Kevin also quotes the part of the foreword that says, "the truth of the thoughts communicated here seems to me unassailable and definitive" and 6.54, which says:
My propositions elucidate by whoever understands me perceiving them in the end as nonsensical, when through them – upon them – over them, he has climbed out. (He must, so to speak, throw away the ladder after he has climbed out upon it.)
He must overcome these propositions, then he sees the world rightly.
It's been a while since I read much work on the Tractatus, but I have the feeling that people tend to think either that it consists entirely of purportedly true thoughts or else entirely of purportedly elucidatory propositions. Can't it contain both? Can't "My propositions elucidate.." refer only to those propositions that do elucidate, i.e. to the nonsensical sentences, and "the thoughts communicated here" refer only to the thoughts that are communicated, i.e. to the meaningful sentences? Unfortunately he connects these true thoughts with the solving of the problems with which the book deals, which suggests that most of the book consists of such thoughts. What, then, would be the propositions that we are to overcome? On the other hand, he doesn't actually claim that he communicates any thoughts at all, does he? And if he doesn't then that might explain his confidence in the unassailability of their truth: their truth can't be assailed because they don't exist.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

My gambling problem

This isn't going to be a confession, sorry. The problem is this: is gambling rational?

Very often people say that it is not rational to buy lottery tickets, even going so far as to call lotteries a tax on stupidity. I dislike that joke partly because I think it's more accurate to call it a tax on desperation, and jokes at the expense of the desperately poor aren't funny. Partly, also, because I buy lottery tickets from time to time (despite not being desperately poor), and jokes at the expense of me are never funny. There's also the fact that it is rational to buy a $1 lottery ticket if you get $1 worth of pleasure from it. And fantasizing about what you would do if you won can be very pleasant (much more pleasant if you have a ticket than if you don't). Or at least as pleasant as about a third of a latte. But, here's the problem, is that fantasizing rational? It isn't realistic. It's not like fantasizing about what you might do with money you know you are going to inherit or get from selling your business, say. It's not like fantasizing about spending money you know you have a realistic chance of getting either. It's sheer fantasy. It's not taking pleasure in an aspect of reality but in a kind of escape, or looking away, from reality. And 'irrational' might not be the right word for that kind of pleasure, but it's in the ballpark.

A related issue is the rationality of voting. It's often said that voting is irrational because the cost outweighs the likely benefits, much like gambling. Max Black, as I recall, argues that it can be rational if the stakes are high enough. He's right that the likely benefits need to be taken into account, and not just the odds of one vote being the decider, but I don't think this is enough. In many elections the good candidate is not so much better than the bad candidate that voting is rational on some kind of cost-benefit model. But the idea that voting is irrational immediately raises the question: what if everyone thought that way (and acted accordingly)? It would, most people agree, be bad. Can it really be rational to behave in a way that would be bad if universalized?

It depends, of course, on your conception of rationality. The dominant one is roughly Humean and the alternative I'm groping towards is roughly Kantian. The Humean one counts as rational any act that is an effective means to whatever your ends may be. The more effective, the more rational. So buying lottery tickets is irrational if your end is maximizing your expected wealth, but it might be rational if your end is maximizing your expected pleasure. There is no question, though, whether it is rational to have this or that end.

It is slightly amazing that that conception of rationality has caught on, given how counterintuitive it is. As Anscombe points out, it is irrational to want a cup of mud or to put all your green books on the roof (in the absence of something that makes it rational after all, of course). It is irrational--insane--to want to be killed and eaten. If we are going to distinguish the sane from the insane then I think we need this sense of rationality. The mentally ill are not just inefficient or wrong about the facts. Sometimes their ends make no sense. So I think we need something like the Kantian notion of rationality, and if we use this instead of the Humean one then problems about the rationality of voting go away, while the idea that buying lottery tickets is rational (except perhaps in odd circumstances) also goes away. This also speaks in favour of the Kantian notion.

The problem, of course, is that this notion is obscure. It is closely connected with a notion of humanity, of what it means to be human, and that is difficult terrain. It is also essentially normative, which complicates things. Those aren't reasons to give up on it though.        

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Required-course college essays

If you care about this kind of thing at all you've probably already read Rebecca Schuman's anti-essay essay. It's all over the place (where "the place" is Facebook). So maybe you haven't seen it. In a nutshell, what she argues is that student essays in required courses are a waste of time:
Most students enter college barely able to string three sentences together—and they leave it that way, too. With protracted effort and a rhapsodically engaged instructor, some may learn to craft a clunky but competent essay somewhere along the way. But who cares? My fellow humanists insist valiantly that (among other more elevated reasons) writing humanities papers leads to the crafting of sharp argumentative skills, and thus a lifetime of success in a number of fields in which we have no relevant experience. But my friends who actually work in such fields assure me that most of their colleagues are borderline-illiterate. After all, Mark Zuckerberg’s pre-Facebook Friendster profile bragged “i don’t read” (sic), and look at him.
For this she has been pilloried. Quoting only from some of my Facebook friends:
  • Wow. She's bitter. She's selfish. And she seems to miss entirely the point of what college is all about. Or, rather, what it should be all about. Methinks she's part of the problem, rather than an enlightened bearer of an A-ha solution.
    16 hours ago · Like · 2
  • Yeah, I have to say I think it's pretty crap. She generalizes, she simplifies, she claims she's tried everything when she hasn't tried much and her approaches aren't in any way shape or form informed by that reading thing she claims her students never do.
It struck me that the author of the first of these comments, and both the people who liked it, are very well paid, tenured professors, and that the author teaches at a school with unusually good students. Part of Schuman's point is that she isn't paid enough to do the hard work of teaching mediocre students how to write. So there's that. But let me get out of the way the criticisms that seem accurate and then move on to what Schuman gets right, or at least is right to bring up for discussion.

Of course she's bitter. See here, for instance, if you want to know more about that. Selfish? I don't see evidence for (or against) that here. I think he means lazy, but there is reason to believe that's not true. See here, for instance (worth looking at anyway, as it's a response to some of the misguided pillorying (and for another response to that see here)). Does she seem to miss the point of what college should be about? I don't think so. One of her points is that college is not what it should be. More on that below. She does generalize, of course, and simplify, and she has not tried literally everything. But she has tried more than you might think from just reading that one essay (see the last two links above in this paragraph).

So what is she right about? She's right that a surprising number of students manage to get into college despite being more or less illiterate. In graduate school, when I was at a very highly regarded "public Ivy" university, I taught students who apparently could not write a single sentence without a grammatical mistake in it. I'm told by a colleague that we have students here (in a college that has produced two Rhodes scholars in the last fifteen years) who cannot comprehend a newspaper editorial. That is, given an editorial in the Wall Street Journal they were unable to read it with enough comprehension to answer even the most basic questions about it (like: what is it about?, which side of the debate does it support?, etc.). At less prestigious schools these problems must be even worse. If it were one or two special cases that would be one thing, but it isn't. There are a lot of these people. The obvious response would be to admit fewer illiterate students, to help those who can be helped as much as possible if they are admitted, and to flunk those who are admitted but don't respond well to the help available.

This doesn't happen. If colleges and universities did not admit illiterate students then they might not have enough students to stay in business. They certainly wouldn't be able to field competitive sports teams or to keep alumni with illiterate children happy. Once the academically weak students are in they cannot be flunked out because attrition is bad for a school's US News & World Report ranking. And professors who give Fs and Ds aren't popular. Unpopular teachers don't get tenure at teaching schools. And unpopular majors have their departments shut down. Unpopular adjuncts, of course, just get fired. Everyone must be kept happy, but there is no incentive for anyone to help students learn how to read and write. Or almost no incentive.

Here's what we do at my school. Every student takes two semesters of composition and then two more writing-intensive courses. There's a Writing Center to help students with problems, but the people there don't proofread student papers, they only give general advice and instruction. Any other writing that students have to do is up to individual professors, as long as their department heads approve of what they are doing, and as long as what they do is deemed good enough to get tenure. Teaching people how to write is not something most of us have been trained to do, it isn't in our job description, it takes time away from teaching our subjects and doing research, and it isn't what students want. There is no incentive to do it, in other words. And writing-intensive courses require a lot of writing, but they are not courses in composition. Papers need not be graded on anything so mundane as grammar or spelling, and these courses are not taught by people with any training in the teaching of composition. I mention all this because I suspect it is pretty typical, not to take a dig at my school. In short, the only courses that students have to take that are aimed at improving their writing are those two first-year composition courses, and as far as I can tell it isn't possible to teach students how to write in that time.

Schuman's suggestion is that professors teaching required (but, presumably, non-composition) courses should not assign traditional essays in their courses because it will just be an exercise in frustration. I think she has a point. The conclusion I draw is not that those professors should not assign essays, but that everyone else should assign them too. And we should be prepared to give Fs to the students she describes who simply don't turn major assignments in. That means not caring so much about popularity and rankings. Which means caring about education, not money. Which means it isn't going to happen. But if the schools we work for don't care about education, why should some professors work hard to educate when many of their colleagues don't bother with the more onerous parts of the job, and when they aren't being compensated by their employers for doing it? Shit is fucked up and bullshit, to coin a phrase. And that, I take it, is Schuman's point.      

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

The problem of other minds

There's nowt as queer as folk, as the saying goes. This can make communication difficult, especially online (where you can't use non-verbal cues and are often talking to people you don't know very well). So it was with some trepidation that I attempted a light-hearted comment over at Philosophical Investigations. The thought of (possibly quite small amounts of) drink leading to someone's being banned from the pubs a philosophical forum struck me as funny. If I could draw I'd try to combine this:

With this:

But does my comment come across as friendly banter or as condescending and insulting? I think I got away with it, but it can be hard to know. And if philosophers are autistic then I might never know. (You can take a 'fun quiz' here to find out whether you might be autistic. The average score is about 16, problem scores seem to start at 32, and I got a worrying 28.)

I wasn't going to blog about any of this (perhaps for obvious reasons--it's Twitter-worthy at best), but then I read Mohan Matthen quoting Wittgenstein and commenting as follows:
We think there must be something going on in one's mind for one to understand the word 'plant'. We are inclined to say that what we mean by one's understanding the word is a process in the mind. ... There is a way out of the difficulty of explaining what understanding is if we take 'understanding a word' to mean, roughly, being able to use it. The point of this explanation is to replace 'understanding a word' by 'being able to use a word', which is not so easily thought of as denoting an [inner] activity. 
Apparently, according to him, there is nothing going on in one’s mind when one comes to understand a word.
How can an intelligent and philosophically sophisticated person misread so badly? It's true that the first sentence here suggests that Wittgenstein might be open to the possibility that there might not be something going on in one's mind when one understands the word 'plant'. (And that does sound odd, though not necessarily wrong.) But he doesn't say this. What he says (or implies) is that there is a problem if we go from this thought to saying (or thinking) that what we mean by understanding a word is a process in the mind. And he suggests a cure for this problem.

The problem, I take it, is that any 'process in the mind' that is supposedly what we mean when we talk about understanding would be very obscure. What is the mind? What might a process in it be? How have we managed to refer to such a process without knowing what it is or ever experiencing it? I have experienced understanding, but not as an internal process. Wittgenstein proposes that we focus less on what we apparently must be talking about and more on what we actually do. Matthen resists doing this, instead relying on appeal to standard views and rhetorical questions ("Such a categorical change must be a mental change—what else could it be?"), along with an apparent presupposition that "understanding a word" must refer to this mental change.  All very odd.     

My point is not that Matthen is wrong. Several people have already pointed that out. What's interesting is the way he has gone wrong, which appears to involve taking several specific ideas for granted but also a general kind of approach to reading an unfamiliar text. I'm not sure that I could characterize that approach, but I'm reminded of it when I read Denis McManus's new book on Heidegger (which, as far as I can tell, being neither an expert nor farther in than p. 30, is excellent) and his discussion of the Theoretical Attitude. It's an approach that takes an awful lot for granted: Wittgenstein, like anyone else, can be understood easily enough even when quoted out of context; there is no need to read sentences carefully because it's obvious what kinds of things someone might say; it is also obvious what questions matter and what don't; it's obvious what kind of thing might be true (the range is limited by science and the current consensus among philosophers); of course there is no point in thinking about whether what seemingly must be true really is true; and so on. In a word: science. And in two words: not philosophy. When continental philosophers talk as if analytic philosophy has not really moved on from logical positivism I suspect it is this kind of thing they have in mind. Not that this is logical positivism, but the scientistic spirit seems much the same. (I don't mean that continental philosophy is better than analytic philosophy, if that needs to be said.) The desire to get on, to make progress (e.g. to figure out what understanding is, and to be impatient with people like Wittgenstein who seem to want to obstruct your project), works against the desire to stop and think. It strikes me as both unphilosophical and characteristic of a mentality that is dangerous. It's easy to think you're making progress just because you keep moving. (And easy, too, to think you are benign just because you are too inert to be malignant.) 

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Drowning children

This article on Peter Singer and choosing how best to help others reminds me that I've been meaning to write something about Singer on the obligation to give until giving more would make us worse off than those we are trying to help. I promised something on G. A. Cohen, but find that I have nothing to say. His paper ("If You're an Egalitarian, How Come You're so Rich?") is good, but has no conclusion. So I'll talk about Singer instead. I doubt I'll say anything groundbreaking, but here's what struck me most on re-reading his essay on "Famine, Affluence, and Morality."

One objection to providing food aid that he discusses is the fear that it will only temporarily help people avoid starvation, and that they will just starve a year or two later anyway, living miserable lives in the meantime. Singer says that there is very good evidence for this, so he takes it seriously. Here's his response:
It would then follow from the position reached earlier that one ought to be doing all one can to promote population control (unless one held that all forms of population control were wrong in themselves, or would have significantly bad consequences). Since there are organizations working specifically for population control, one would then support them rather than more orthodox methods of preventing famine.
This makes sense, but there is also something odd about it, it seems to me. I can imagine someone giving to, or working for, an organization that distributes contraceptives or information about birth control in poor countries. But can I imagine an affluent person giving so much to such a charity that they become poor themselves? That sounds fanatical (and vaguely racist, given where the poor countries are, and the seeming fanaticism required to want so badly to limit births in these countries). Of course Singer isn't promoting racism, but he's promoting a view that I can only imagine being held by a racist, i.e. a view that seems at least slightly crazy. It makes sense to care about people who are suffering, but I'm not sure that it makes sense to care about suffering itself. What would be the appropriate attitude to take toward pain or suffering (rather than the person or animal suffering from pain or other hardship)? Disapproval? Dislike? It's not clear to me that I can have an attitude toward pain, hardship, or death. There has to be a victim, and then my thoughts and feelings are about that victim, not the suffering itself. It is their suffering qua theirs (or someone's, at any rate) that I care about. So if they don't exist (because they haven't been born yet) then I can't really care about their possible future suffering. At least not in the same way that I care about actual suffering that is going on now. If a child is drowning then it makes sense to go to great lengths to save him. But to go to the same lengths to prevent a child who is probably going to drown from being born? Scarcely intelligible, it seems to me. Of course it is possible to care about population growth, but there is a difference that seems important to me, however dimly I might be seeing it, that Singer appears to ignore.  

Secondly, he writes as if each of us is completely independent and can spend our money as we choose. I suppose in a way that's true, but it's one thing for an affluent person with no dependents to give till it hurts, another for someone with an elderly parent or young children to care for to sacrifice some of that care for the sake of others. I don't mean that having dependents is an excuse to do nothing for victims of famine, etc., but it complicates things in ways that, again, Singer seems to overlook. In fact I don't think 'complicates' is quite the word, since we all have networks of responsibilities that don't lend themselves to utilitarian calculation. I owe something to my parents and children, and to my wife. I have a responsibility to my neighbours not to let my property fall into too much disrepair. My job requires me to wear respectable clothes. My mental health requires that I not deny myself every pleasure. And so on. Exactly how often must I mow my lawn? How much should I spend on work clothes? If I give away so much money that my children can go to college but not as good a college as I would otherwise have been able to afford is that all right? Even if we think of happiness or pleasure as something measurable and quantifiable I'm not sure that the relevant calculations could ever be done. It would be like trying to predict the weather. And I don't believe that happiness is quantifiable anyway.

Should I do more to help people in need? No doubt. But I don't need Singer's argument to tell me that. Still, it might provide a useful nudge in the right direction.  

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Distributive justice: the game(s)

I haven't played with this much, but it looks like fun.

Monday, December 2, 2013


I finally saw a film by Steve McQueen last night: Hunger. Now I know what all the fuss is about. (Spoilers left and right from here on.)

Although I'm not a huge fan of the IRA (who once bombed the railway station via which I commuted to and from school in Manchester every day--luckily for me this was years after I had left both school and the Manchester area), but Bobby Sands comes across as a weird kind of saint in this film. Partly I think this is because of a kind of absence of both time and violence in the beginning of the film, which creates a certain kind of context. A context in which sainthood seems possible. What do I mean? Well, here's the absence I'm talking about. We see a man wash his bloody knuckles before we see him get them bloody, and it's not really clear whether the later scene is a flashback or whether there is just a cycle in his life of violence and cleaning up after violence. This unclarity creates a sense of spinning wheels, like a vehicle stuck in mud or snow, the wheels going round but the overall movement amounting to nothing more than a little move back (flashback?) and a little move forward (no, this is the next day), then back again. We see the same man checking his car for bombs before driving to work, but not finding any. We also see a man clutching some kind of weapon or tool, followed by a wound on another man's head, without seeing the violence between the mere holding of the weapon and the existence of the wound. We see power and suffering, that is, but the violence is only implied. It is ubiquitous, though, this invisible violence.  

After this beginning there is plenty of visible violence, mostly inside a prison, and mostly involving prisoners and what look like riot police: the few against the many, the unarmed against the armed, the naked against the uniformed, the visibly human against the machine-like, the wild against the controlling. It is hard not to sympathize with the prisoners. Christ's crucifixion with criminals is even brought up at one point, in a conversation between Sands and a priest, so martyrdom is in the air. So is nature, as a childhood trip from the city to the countryside is central to the ending of the film. Sands' hunger strike is presented as a kind of victory for the human spirit despite attempts to suffocate it.

But what kind of victory is it? We aren't given much reason to believe that the IRA's cause is just. Sands asserts that it is, or that he believes it to be. The priest he talks to (there is very little dialogue in the film apart from this conversation) sympathizes, and comments on the evils of "the Brits." But who exactly are the Brits, and what exactly have they done? Their face is the prison guards (who would be Northern Irish Protestants, of course, not people from Britain) and their voice is Margaret Thatcher, whose speeches we hear at times, without ever seeing her. "The Brits" are not really people, in other words, but a government or system, a force. It is clearly not a force for good. Its evil is far more clear in the film than is the goodness of Irish national unity. The attempt to fight an evil system by killing people, though, like the attempt to fight terror or terrorism by killing people, seems badly misguided. Understandable, but misguided.

The film shows us two other ways to fight the power. First is the dirty protest. Prisoners refuse to wear prison uniforms (which mark them as criminals rather than political prisoners) and cover as much of the prison as they can with shit and piss. Some of the smearings look like abstract expressionist art, but mostly I thought of the smell. I don't know how you could live like that and not vomit. Nasty physical reality versus something higher, less concrete, half beautiful, half insane. We oscillate between the mundane and the ideal.

The second way is Sands' hunger strike. He dies (after 66 days), as do nine other hunger strikers. So do some prison guards, who are killed during the strike (there were 16, I think, but this statistic is far harder to find online than the number of hunger strikers). As a result of which the British government gives in, quietly, to the prisoners' demands. These demands, though, mostly concern what clothes the prisoners wear. The clothes have significance--are the IRA prisoners merely criminals or not?--but it's hard to see that it is worth dying or killing over this. Especially, turning to reality outside the film, now that the IRA has more or less died out without having got the united Ireland it wanted. Sands' death was not a battle won on the way to winning the war. The war, although I suppose not quite over, has pretty much been lost. If it is ever won it will be by peaceful means. So it won't be a war that is won. And it isn't clear that it matters whether it is won or not. What seems to matter is violence, human rights, democracy, (etc.) not the locations of borders or the colours of flags. ("Imagine all the people..." Corny, but better than nationalism. And much better than nationalism-inspired terrorism.)  

And yet Sands' starving himself to death does not seem pointless. What matters is not so much what he achieves but that he refuses to give in. And it isn't what he refuses to do (wear these clothes, etc.) that matters, but his refusal to be controlled by a faceless, almost anonymous power ("the Brits"). His methods wouldn't work against any other kind of enemy. They are an assertion of humanity, especially mortality, against an inhuman force. But that sounds too trite. It's a very mysterious kind of act. What's so great about dying? What's so great about shit? It's almost the pointlessness of it all that is the point. If the goal is to achieve something then whoever has the most power wins. One way to beat power is to play a different game, a non-consequentialist game, a game that is played outside the causal nexus. If he wins at all he wins by being human. The reward is to die as a human being.   

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Kafka and the incarnation

Reading Rebecca Schuman's entertaining review of two new Kafka-related books I was struck by what she quotes from "The Metamorphosis":
A weakly thrown apple grazed Gregor’s back but skidded off harmlessly. But another one, thrown immediately thereafter, drove hard into Gregor’s back. Gregor wanted to drag himself away, as if he could make this surprising and unbelievable pain disappear with a change of location; alas, he felt instead as if he were nailed to the floor, and lay stretched out in complete confusion of all his senses.
The apples already had me thinking of Adam and Eve, then Gregor's being stretched out and nailed made me think of the crucifixion. And of course he has already been transformed to a lower order of being, rather like God becoming a human being.

Then I remembered this.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Pinker is wrong

A bit late, I know, but I just read Steven Pinker's "Science is Not Your Enemy," and I have to say I think he is badly wrong. Not that science is your enemy, but much, perhaps most, of what he says in defence of the thesis in his title is false.

He begins with the claim that the "great thinkers of the Age of Reason and the Enlightenment were scientists." In the next paragraph he names them, and they are all philosophers: Descartes, Spinoza, Hobbes, Locke, Hume, Rousseau, Leibniz, Kant, Smith. Now Descartes certainly was a scientist as well as a philosopher, Leibniz was a mathematician, and Hume a historian who wanted, in his philosophical work, to be a second Newton of the moral sciences (i.e., roughly, a psychologist), but they are all philosophers, and their philosophical work is not the same kind of thing as their work on optics, calculus, etc. Pinker seems to be blurring this distinction from the start. He claims that methods and insights from the sciences are shedding light on ancient problems and that "writers in the humanities" should be delighted about this. So now philosophy is all the humanities, and the fact that some philosophers also did science means that distinctions between science and the humanities are artificial and bad. He doesn't quite say that, but it seems to be the idea. When you do say it explicitly it is clearly a bad idea.

From here he moves on to defend 'scientism,' reclaiming the word from those who use it in an allegedly vague and certainly pejorative sense. As he redefines it, 'scientism' is distinguished by commitment to the beliefs that the world is intelligible and that the acquisition of knowledge is hard. The intelligibility claim is connected to the belief that phenomena can be explained by principles that are more general than the phenomena themselves. 

One immediate problem with this is that understanding comes in different forms. It is one thing to understand a thing in terms of some general principle, another to understand something particular in its particularity, i.e. not as an instance of a general rule. I need to give examples or this idea will be very obscure. Say my mild-mannered neighbour turns out to be a serial killer and I struggle to understand how this could be, how he could have killed all those people. Perhaps all I need is statistical information about the correlation between mildness of manner and violent behavior. But perhaps that will not help me at all. Perhaps what I don't understand is how this man's particular mildness could coexist with the brutality of these crimes. I need some way to see the gentle neighbour as the same person as the serial murderer. One thing that might help here would be if he is like some character in a novel and you point this out to me. Then I can read the novel and, if you are right, I might gain the insight, the understanding, that I need. But novelists are not scientists. They don't offer general principles. Another example would be if I want to understand how Hamlet or a painting by Jackson Pollock works. I might want to know things about the brain and the effects on it of certain patterns of sound or colour, but what I want is probably something quite different. I don't want general laws. I want to know how this work is put together, how its various parts rhyme or contrast. To understand Hamlet, for instance, I need to know the plot, the characters, and the language of the play. I need to understand how these things work together in the play, in this play. What I want to understand is essentially particular. General principles can help at most only a little.

Maybe that's still too obscure. One way to understand something is to see it as an instance of a general rule, and science does a good job of providing these rules. But sometimes what we want is to understand a particular person or thing not as an instance of a general rule but as the particular thing it is. Why do the particular features of this work go so well together? It can't be because of some general rule because only this work has these features in just this relation, and telling me that any work that has these features in this relation is good is telling me nothing helpful. "Hamlet is good because of its Hamlet-iness" is not illuminating. Nor is, "When you watch Hamlet blood flows to these parts of your brain." If I want to understand a person, similarly, it might help if I know that all teenagers are like that or that such-and-such behaviour is common in old men, but equally this might just make me puzzled about all old men, or simply be no help at all. If I want to make sense of x it might be that I need to find a way to relate various things about x to various other things. Putting things in context is a way of understanding that does not involve applying general rules to particular cases.  

A second problem with Pinker's benign scientism is that according to it "the findings of science entail that the belief systems of all the world's traditional religions ... are factually mistaken." At most this applies to literalist versions of religious belief, and even there it is hard to believe that there isn't something else going on, that the people who insist we could get to heaven in a rocket or find hell by digging in the right place would at some point in the experiment reveal that they had not meant all of it, including the 'literally' part, literally. Maybe I'm over-optimistic there, but the idea that science could prove that God did not create the world, or become a man, or send his messenger to us, shows an outstandingly crass conception of religious belief (at least for someone who wants to be taken seriously as a critic of religion). This is a point that has been made repeatedly in response to people like Dawkins, but Pinker seems to be ignoring it. 

He then moves on to ethics:
in combination with a few unexceptionable convictions— that all of us value our own welfare and that we are social beings who impinge on each other and can negotiate codes of conduct—the scientific facts militate toward a defensible morality, namely adhering to principles that maximize the flourishing of humans and other sentient beings.   
Science, or facts combined with "unexceptionable convictions", supports utilitarianism! Incredible that seemingly intelligent people would still bother to think about ethics any other way! Who needs philosophy? Incredible also that Pinker would come so close to endorsing Mill's version of utilitarianism without, apparently, having read what Mill has to say on the subject. Mill offers a reasonable defence, of course, but he is far from claiming that the issue needs no argument. Indeed he brings out just how much room for debate there is on, for instance, the nature of flourishing.

When Pinker moves on to politics it is hard not to see shades of Jonathan Haidt:
The new sciences of the mind are reexamining the connections between politics and human nature, which were avidly discussed in Madison’s time but submerged during a long interlude in which humans were assumed to be blank slates or rational actors. Humans, we are increasingly appreciating, are moralistic actors, guided by norms and taboos about authority, tribe, and purity, and driven by conflicting inclinations toward revenge and reconciliation.
There is more wrong with Haidt's thinking than I can go into now, but for an introduction see here. Pinker has a lot of the same flaws, especially ignorance of the philosophical work on the topic he is discussing and ignorance of the fact that what he is getting into is philosophy.

I largely agree with all the criticisms of Pinker's essay made here, here, and here, but let me try to add a brief point of my own. Ignorance of philosophy is certainly a big part of Pinker's problem, but so is the difference between matters of fact and matters of value. If I want to know what makes a poem so good science won't help me. If I want to know in what circumstances if any abortion is OK science won't help me. If I want to know how best to relate one thing to another science will often be of limited use to me. This is not to deny that science has great value, or that open debate and hard work are valuable. It is, though, to push back against the idea that science is the way to solve all problems, i.e. to push back against scientism.

Let me end with some points made by others I agree with to save you from having to click on all the links above. First, Massimo Pigliucci:
Yes, quantitative methods can (and should) be used by historians, though this will always likely be complementary to, rather than substitutive of, classical historical methods. And yes, the fruitful collaboration between philosophers of mind and cognitive scientists is a shining example of how to bridge the divide between the two cultures. But no, quantitative analyses of Jane Austin novels interpreted in evolutionary psychological key are frankly ridiculous (I've seen it done), and while clearly the study of the physiology of visual or auditory perception are fascinating fields in their own right, they are far less useful to my enjoyment of a Picasso or a Beethoven sonata than knowledge of the history of art or of music.
Next, P. Z.Myers:
Science is a fantastic tool (our only tool, actually) for probing material realities. Respect it for what it is. But please, also recognize that there’s more to the human experience than measurement and the acquisition of knowledge about physical processes, and that science is a relatively recent and revolutionary way of thinking, but not the only one — and that humans lived and thrived and progressed for thousands of years (and many still do, even within our technological culture!) without even the concept of science.
Scientism is the idea that only science is the proper mode of human thought, and in particular, a blinkered, narrow notion that every human advance is the product of scientific, rational, empirical thinking. Much as I love science, and am personally a committed practitioner who also has a hard time shaking myself out of this path (I find scientific thinking very natural), I’ve got enough breadth in my education and current experience to recognize that there are other ways of progressing.
And finally, Ross Douthat:
Like Sam Harris, who wrote an entire book claiming that “science” somehow vindicates his preferred form of philosophical utilitarianism (when what he really meant was that if you assume utilitarian goals, science can help you pursue them), Pinker seems to have trouble imagining any reasoning person disagreeing about either the moral necessity of “maximizing human flourishing” or the content of what “flourishing” actually means — even though recent history furnishes plenty of examples and a decent imagination can furnish many more. Like his whiggish antecedents, he mistakes a real-but-complicated historical relationship between science and humanism for a necessary intellectual line in which the latter vindicates the former, or at least militates strongly in its favor. And his invocation of “the scientific facts” to justify what is, at bottom, a philosophical preference for Mill over Nietzsche is pretty much the essence of what critics mean by scientism: Empirically overconfident, intellectually unsubtle, and deeply incurious about the ways in which human beings can rationally disagree. 
P.S. Then there's Ray Monk on Wittgenstein and scientism:
Scientism takes many forms. In the humanities, it takes the form of pretending that philosophy, literature, history, music and art can be studied as if they were sciences, with “researchers” compelled to spell out their “methodologies”—a pretence which has led to huge quantities of bad academic writing, characterised by bogus theorising, spurious specialisation and the development of pseudo-technical vocabularies. Wittgenstein would have looked upon these developments and wept.
There are many questions to which we do not have scientific answers, not because they are deep, impenetrable mysteries, but simply because they are not scientific questions. These include questions about love, art, history, culture, music-all questions, in fact, that relate to the attempt to understand ourselves better. There is a widespread feeling today that the great scandal of our times is that we lack a scientific theory of consciousness. And so there is a great interdisciplinary effort, involving physicists, computer scientists, cognitive psychologists and philosophers, to come up with tenable scientific answers to the questions: what is consciousness? What is the self? One of the leading competitors in this crowded field is the theory advanced by the mathematician Roger Penrose, that a stream of consciousness is an orchestrated sequence of quantum physical events taking place in the brain. Penrose’s theory is that a moment of consciousness is produced by a sub-protein in the brain called a tubulin. The theory is, on Penrose’s own admission, speculative, and it strikes many as being bizarrely implausible. But suppose we discovered that Penrose’s theory was correct, would we, as a result, understand ourselves any better? Is a scientific theory the only kind of understanding?

Thursday, November 21, 2013

World Philosophy Day

Today! Who knew?
Celebrated every year on the third Thursday of November, the World Philosophy Day will be held in 2013 on Thursday, 21 November. The day after the closure of the 37th session of the General Conference of UNESCO, the celebration will be a unique opportunity to reflect on the greatest contemporary challenge, to which UNESCO and the entire United Nations system seeks to respond, namely: building inclusive societies on a sustainable planet.

Celebrated on 21 November 2013, the 11th edition of the World Philosophy Day will be an opportunity to organize, on all continents, various events under the general theme of the 2013 World Philosophy Day “Inclusive Societies, Sustainable Planet”. They will enable their participants to share a multitude of views and experiences, fully respecting cultural diversity. 
This seems worthy, but I'm not sure how philosophical it is. There is more to philosophy than letting people share their views and experiences, after all, although perhaps no one is confused about that. I hope it's productive.  

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

The philosopher's role is just to point out contradictions and entailments

Thanks to Tommi Uschanov I recently read Catherine Wilson's "On Some Alleged Limitations to Moral Endeavor." The title of this post comes from it, as Wilson imagines what Peter Singer would have said to critics who claimed that he ignores the importance of what we care about and is too demanding when he says we should forego many of our pleasures in order to give more to the needy. Roughly speaking (and I have sat on this post long enough that I'm starting to forget the article) Wilson wants to find some alternative to Singer's non-motivating altruism and Thomas Nagel's possibly-seeming complacency.

The single thing that has stuck with me the most from this paper is Nagel's reference to our wanting to spend money on, among other things, stemware. I own wineglasses, but this still tended to push me toward Singer's camp. It's one thing to resist changing your whole way of life in order to give to the poor, but what kind of way of life centrally involves not just using but shopping for stemware? And if we concede this point, if we accept that Nagel has strayed too far from Singer (even if we don't agree with Singer), what else might have to go?

Wilson recommends "letting the lives of people who do not shop, or travel, or enjoy professional entertainment, make their own impression on us" so that "the perception of a gulf between the private and the public sphere is altered and the superstition that one's own good fortune is either morally deserved, or a highly improbable but lucky accident, undermined." This seems like good advice, but it might be easier said than done. Rich people can't just go and make poor friends, after all. There is journalism, though, and fiction, if real-life contact is not an option.

If we do let the lives of the poor make an impression on us, then what? If we can do what Wilson suggests, presumably by informing ourselves about how the other half lives (or belonging to that half) and keeping these people in mind long enough and often enough to influence our thinking about the world (or at least politics) more generally, then we won't want these people to suffer. We probably don't want them to suffer anyway.

Which means that we might not have to change what we care about or stop caring about stemware or anything else in order to behave decently. What we need to do, or so I would like to think, is to bring our various concerns together and, roughly speaking, to rank them. To get them in order. We don't want other people to live miserable or restricted lives. We don't want to be callous. We don't want to be hypocritical. We do want nice stemware (perhaps). OK. Now let's think about (and find out about) how these and other facts relate to each other. Can we have all the things we want? If not, what must go?

This line of thinking is likely to push us in Singer's direction, I think, but it isn't pure Singer or pure utilitarianism. It might lead to nothing more in practice than support for a political party that promotes greater equality. But at least it isn't purely defeatist or positively celebratory of the lifestyle of the comfortable shopper. The danger of my view, or one danger at any rate, is that it is essentially the same as Nagel's. But I don't think it can be, since I agree with Wilson, who rejects Nagel's position. So perhaps the danger is that I'm just too far from Singer. But I am far from Singer, and it's hard for me to believe that this is a bad thing. I'm not just far from him in terms of where we end up but also in terms of where we start from and how we go on from there.

Well, this blog is in danger of withering on the vine if I let other things and a desire not to post rubbish get in the way, so I'm going to hit 'publish.' Next up, G. A. Cohen.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Nonsense in action

I mentioned before that I see a connection between Orwell and Wittgenstein, and that "bullshit is things we do." I'm just re-reading Orwell's essay on politics and language as well as Frankfurt's "On Bullshit," and it's interesting to see some connections. For instance, compare Orwell (1946):
If you simplify your English, you are freed from the worst follies of orthodoxy. You cannot speak any of the necessary dialects, and when you make a stupid remark its stupidity will be obvious, even to yourself.   
With Anscombe (1958):
It would be a great improvement if, instead of "morally wrong," one always named a genus such as "untruthful," "unchaste," "unjust." We should no longer ask whether doing something was "wrong," passing directly from some description of an action to this notion; we should ask whether, e.g., it was unjust; and the answer would sometimes be clear at once.
The points may not be the same but they are surely similar. And Wittgenstein makes neither of them, but I believe he would have been sympathetic to Anscombe's point (and Orwell's, for that matter). If you want evidence, try this from Frankfurt's essay:
Wittgenstein once said that the following bit of verse by Longfellow could serve him as a motto:
In the elder days of art/ Builders wrought with greatest care/ Each minute and unseen part,/ For the Gods are everywhere.
The point of these lines is clear. In the old days, craftsmen did not cut corners. They worked carefully, and they took care with every aspect of their work. Every part of the product was considered, and each was designed and made to be exactly as it should be. These craftsmen did not relax their thoughtful self-discipline even with respect to features of their work which would ordinarily not be visible. Although no one would notice if those features were not quite right, the craftsmen would be bothered by their consciences. So nothing was swept under the rug. Or, one might perhaps also say, there was no bullshit.
As for bullshit's being something one does, this is something Frankfurt suggests. He quotes Max Black on humbug (a notion he takes to be very similar to that of bullshit) and points out that Black identifies humbug as a category of action as well as of speech (this is on p. 3 of the pdf). Frankfurt doesn't then do much with this, except to say that bullshit is to be defined not by the content of what is said but by the program or intent of the speaker, by his engaging in speech without regard for the truth or falsity of what he says.

Bullshit is concern with appearance over substance, and this can take various forms. More on this soon, I hope.  

Monday, November 11, 2013

Anscombe and the Catholic intellectual tradition

[I've been asked to spread the word about the following conference. I doubt I'll be going (I've already asked for more travel funding than I'm likely to get, and I am not exactly an expert on the Catholic intellectual tradition), but it looks as though it could be very good.]

Call for Papers

Neumann University to host Conference on Anscombe’s work March 15, 2014

Featured Speakers:

• Candace Vogler, David B. and Clara E. Stern Professor of Philosophy, University of Chicago

• Reverend Dennis J. Billy, Cardinal Krol Chair of Moral Theology, St. Charles Borromeo Seminary, Archdiocese of Philadelphia

Submissions (papers or substantial abstracts) should be submitted electronically by November 30 to John Mizzoni at mizzonij@neumann.edu.

March 2014 marks the 95th birthday of G.E.M. Anscombe, one of the twentieth century’s most provocative and highly regarded philosophers.

Many conferences on Anscombe’s work have focused on her contributions to moral philosophy and action theory. This conference focuses on the question: What are Anscombe’s contributions—actual and potential—to the Catholic intellectual tradition? We welcome submissions that try to answer this question through an exploration of a wide range of themes from her work.

Possible Topics:

• Just War Theory • Euthanasia • Sex • Contraception• Chastity • Personhood • The Soul • The Conscience • The Will • The Doctrine of Double Effect• How Anscombe’s Wittgensteinian approach can enrich Catholic philosophy

Aston, Pennsylvania

Select proceedings of the conference will be published by Neumann University Press.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Critical thinking yet again

I won't mention Brian Leiter this time.

I don't know why, but I keep wanting to design a kind of introductory course on what I think of as critical thinking (although what this is keeps changing). What I'm currently thinking of would include some stuff on to what extent we are or are not rational (maybe some Plato and Aristotle, definitely Hume, some contemporary psychology), some stuff on science (the scientific method plus some philosophy and maybe sociology of science, as well as how science gets reported), something about how academia and academic publishing works (this could be a very minor part of the course, but I want students to know something about peer review and the extent to which certain sources are more reliable than others), something about whether there are ways of forming justified true beliefs other than science, and inductive and deductive reasoning. It would be a course in where our beliefs come from and which sources of belief are most trustworthy and reliable. Roughly: how to be rational.

Does anyone teach a course like this? I don't mean any readers of this blog, necessarily, but is this a thing? It's sort of epistemology but I remember college epistemology as all theories of perception and Gettier. I don't want to do any of that. And it certainly includes some philosophy of science, but it doesn't really match the tables of contents of introductory philosophy of science textbooks and readers that I've seen. Is the idea horribly misconceived in some way I'm not seeing?

Thursday, October 31, 2013

An emotion in need of further study

This post by Helen De Cruz at NewAPPS rubs me the wrong way, but I'm not quite sure why (or whether) it should. I've been asked to give a lecture next year on Peter Winch and the idea of a social science, so I'm starting to think more about psychology's status as a science, and this seems like a good opportunity to get some practice.

De Cruz asks:  "Why do we sometimes delight in natural disasters? And is it morally appropriate to do so?"

My initial response is something like the following: We don't, and of course not. But that on its own won't really do. Why does De Cruz think that we sometimes delight in natural disasters? She mentions Miyazaki's Ponyo (which I don't remember well enough to comment on) and says that several times in the movie he expresses his "aesthetic delight in natural disasters." She also links to this article which talks of the Japanese as celebrating nature in spite of (my emphasis) its destructive power (not quite the same thing as delighting in disaster) and quotes Miyazaki saying that natural disasters such as typhoons and earthquakes are a given in Japan and must be accepted as part of life. Again, this is a long way from celebrating disaster. De Cruz also says that Turner's painting of a steamboat in a storm is done "with gusto," which strikes me as an inaccurate description of the painting. Turner has a sense of awe, an important concept for De Cruz, but I don't sense any relish in his portrayal of the boat's fate. If he is enthusiastic at all it isn't about what is happening to the boat, let alone to the people on it, but about the amazing power of the storm.       

De Cruz goes on to discuss the sublime and awe:
The prototype model of awe by Keltner and Haidt suggests that awe - the emotion most commonly associated with the sublime - is elicited by stimuli that are vast and that prompt a need for psychological accommodation. Keltner and Haidt see awe as an adaptive emotion that arose in our primate ancestry, in particular, in the need for lower-status individuals to recognize the status of higher-status individuals within the group: by feeling awe for an alpha individual, one would desist in fruitlessly trying to challenge his or her authority, which would have been adaptive. Keltner and Haidt propose that the primordial form of awe is the emotions a low status individual feels towards a powerful one.
As she says, "To me, this is quite a stretch." 

Rather than propose an alternative theory she raises the questions: why do we feel awe, and is it morally objectionable to do so? Here's an example (from Job) of which she says that, "One cannot help but feel how insensitive and morally objectionable Elihu is when he says this":
God’s voice thunders in marvelous ways;
    he does great things beyond our understanding.
 He says to the snow, ‘Fall on the earth,’
    and to the rain shower, ‘Be a mighty downpour.’
 So that everyone he has made may know his work,
    he stops all people from their labor.
 The animals take cover;
    they remain in their dens.
 The tempest comes out from its chamber,
    the cold from the driving winds.
 The breath of God produces ice,
    and the broad waters become frozen.
 He loads the clouds with moisture;
    he scatters his lightning through them.
 At his direction they swirl around
    over the face of the whole earth
    to do whatever he commands them.
 He brings the clouds to punish people,
    or to water his earth and show his love.

Listen to this, Job; stop and consider God’s wonders.
Do you know how God controls the clouds
     and makes his lightning flash?
Do you know how the clouds hang poised, 
     those wonders of him who has perfect knowledge?
You who swelter in your clothes 
     when the land lies hushed under the south wind,
Can you join him in spreading out the skies, 
     hard as a mirror of cast bronze?   

One can help feeling that this is insensitive and morally objectionable, even if one knows that Job's house and children have been destroyed by the storms and floods being described. I agree that it could be very objectionable to tell sufferers that their loss is all part of God's plan or that whatever doesn't kill them will make them stronger. But Elihu's words are powerful, and spoken to a man who does not want to give up his faith in God. I don't see things the same way, but I don't find these words objectionable. Delighting in disaster qua disaster is obviously no good, but seeing a disaster under some different aspect and delighting in, or just being impressed by, that is surely OK. Imagine you see a volcano erupt and enjoy the spectacle, but later find out that someone was killed by it. Your previous enjoyment doesn't suddenly become wicked (assuming you weren't reveling in the thought of someone's possibly being killed by the lava or a hail of rocks).

One way to understand the question "Why do we feel awe?" is to take it as asking what it is about a particular phenomenon that is awe-inspiring. This calls for aesthetic criticism and careful attention to the phenomenon in question. De Cruz means something else though. She wants to know why human beings evolved to feel awe. This calls for little attention to particular phenomena (although examples and counterexamples must be considered) and requires us to try to fit awe into an existing framework that accounts for emotions. What could be wrong with that?

There are several possibilities. One might reject the framework (evolutionary psychology). One might reject the project of trying to fit emotions (or 'mental states' in general) into that framework. Or one might reject the idea that this emotion, awe, fits the framework. Or all of the above. And perhaps more as well.

I'm not qualified to comment on the merits of evolutionary psychology, but it certainly has its critics, and Wittgenstein's skepticism about psychology as a science might be a source of additional criticisms. As far as I know psychologists today mostly study brains and behavior. Presumably brains evolved: animals with brains that helped them survive would tend to survive longer and reproduce more, and their offspring would be expected to have somewhat similar brains. Behavior seems like a different matter. I don't inherit my parents' behavior in the way that I might inherit their curly hair or straight teeth. But we're talking about emotions, so perhaps behavior is not really relevant. Wittgenstein thinks of emotions as something like aspects of human life or modes of our complicated form of life. Does it make sense to think of such things as evolving? In some sense it must, I think. Anything self-destructive is likely to die out, and anything life-preserving is likely to thrive. But, again, I don't inherit emotions from my parents in the way that I inherit purely biological traits. And if an emotion or form of behavior dies out it does not do so in the same literal way that a species of animals dies out. Animals die, behavior does not. Nor do emotions. So there are questions to be asked about the very idea that emotions are part of evolution. That's all I'll say about that for now. (By which I don't mean to imply that there is no more to be said.)

What about the project of fitting emotions into the evolutionary psychology framework? Part of me thinks this cannot possibly be wrong. It's like a game, and if you don't want to play it you don't have to. But it's possible to disapprove of certain games. And this one asks us to adopt a certain perspective on such things as awe, wonder, and love. This could be regarded as a kind of blasphemy. It could also be regarded as dangerous, as likely to undermine ways of thinking, feeling, and living that are important. It might, for instance, trick us into thinking that we understand more than we do (e.g. what love really is), or that what we value is actually not so special after all. A dangerous game is not wrong per se, of course, (it's possible to gamble and win) but we still might object to its being played.  

And in the particular case of awe we might well feel that there is something both misguided and dangerous about the attempt to fit it into a pre-existing theoretical framework. For one thing, the fact that we have a word does not mean that we have a thing for which that word stands. And awe seems like an especially pronounced case of this. It surely isn't a Cartesian entity, and I can't really imagine someone feeling awe except in the presence of something properly awe-inspiring. Drug-induced awe, for instance, would not (it seems to me) be real awe at all. It only make sense to talk of awe in certain kinds of context, and that makes awe unlike standard objects, including heritable biological traits. Perhaps the biological basis that gives us the ability to feel awe is heritable, but that's a different matter. We might have evolved to have this capacity for reasons that have nothing to do with awe.

Why do we feel awe? What evolutionary advantage might it have given us? If awe combines fear of dangerous things (which sounds like a useful emotion) with a funny kind of pleasure at the thought of great power then this doesn't seem so mysterious. Power is a useful thing, so contemplating power that does us no harm might well trigger a positive reaction. But all this seems like a strange line of inquiry. Why turn away from the awesome to think about the evolution of awe? It's like pointing to some fantastic sight and finding your audience looking at your pointing finger. I think that's what feels wrong about De Cruz's questions. It shows a preference for the uninspiring over the inspiring, like a student choosing to major in something 'practical' rather than something that really interests them. It's a bit depressing. And the question doesn't only show an interest in the wrong things. It also directs our attention towards those things (our awe or its biological basis) and away from the awesome. And that seems not just depressing but bad.

I don't mean to exaggerate. De Cruz is not a monster, and her questions are in some sense legitimate (how generous of me!). But I think it is thoughts along the lines that I have sketched above that make me less than enthusiastic about her project. If we're going to study psychology I much prefer this kind of approach (h/t dmf). It may not be about the awesome directly, but it is about people behaving in interesting ways, and it's quite different from the evolutionary psychology approach to explanation of such behavior. It keeps everything within the human sphere. Attempts to explain the human in terms of the non-human seem to leave out everything that really matters. Which I suppose is the kind of point Winch might make.