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?