Mar 282014
 

Some of the initial listener reaction to our David Brin episode harkens back to similar comments we got about our Pat Churchland episode, our first attempt at including a celebrity author in the discussion.

As Seth commented right after the recording with David, there was little purchase on his edifice in which to plant a foothold in real time. I did my best to engage him in discussing what philosophy is and how it really differs from science and sci-fi, and Dylan hit him about the same issue from a different angle a few times, but his answers tended to be in the form of “OK, but what you’ve got to understand is…” and then lapsing into one of his stump speeches whose relevance to the question was only evident about 5 minutes in. I’ll admit at the time that by half way through the episode I had more or less given up and was starting to tune out a bit, particularly since I had just listened to David on maybe three other podcasts deliver many of the same points that we were hearing. This was not what I had in mind, but as he was essentially doing us a favor by participating, I didn’t see a lot of options to change the dynamic then and there without massively violating the spirit of PEL congeniality. It was good to have the follow-up discussion (which Wes did join us on) a week later, and I hope to post that early next week for you.

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Jan 032013
 

Credit vimeocdn.com

I’m generally skeptical when someone proclaims that “rationality” itself should get us to throw out 90%+ of philosophy. So I was a bit puzzled when someone on our Facebook group pointed at some articles by Luke Muehlhauser (specifically “Philosophy: A Diseased Discipline” and “Train Philosophers with Pearl and Kahneman, not Plato and Kant“), host of the excellent Conversations from the Pale Blue Dot podcast, that took this hardcore stance:

Large swaths of philosophy (e.g. continental and postmodern philosophy) often don’t even try to be clear, rigorous, or scientifically respectable. This is philosophy of the “Uncle Joe’s musings on the meaning of life” sort, except that it’s dressed up in big words and long footnotes… Analytic philosophy is clearer, more rigorous, and better with math and science, but only does a slightly better job of avoiding magical categories, language confusions, and non-natural hypotheses. Moreover, its central tool is intuition, and this displays a near-total ignorance of how brains work. …a few naturalistic philosophers are doing some useful work. But the signal-to-noise ratio is much lower even in naturalistic philosophy than it is in, say, behavioral economics or cognitive neuroscience or artificial intelligence or statistics…

This might appear to be garden-variety scientism, but it’s not a rejection of philosophy. Like Pat Churchland, Luke acknowledges that many fundamental problems are philosophical, and that scientific studies do not in themselves settle conceptual issues, and that without good philosophical analysis, science can waste a lot of time investigating ill-formed questions. But still, the accusation is that most philosophizing is useless unless explicitly based on scientific knowledge on how the brain works, and in particular where intuitions come from.

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Aug 172012
 

Not long after I wrote this post linking to Isaac Chotiner’s negative review of Johah Lehrer’s Imagine and its “fetishization of brain science,” Lehrer was forced to resign from The New Yorker for fabricating Bob Dylan quotes. A lot has been written about the meaning of Lehrer’s transgression; but I was bothered less by the distortion of relatively trivial facts than the use to which they had been put: giving shallow, pseudo-scientific explanations of phenomena where philosophical or literary explanations would have been more informative.

Steve Meyers airs a related sentiment about the Bob Dylan scandal overshadowing the numerous scientific errors in Lehrer’s work.

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Jul 312012
 

Evolutionary psychologists seem to assume that all of an organism’s traits must be the result of natural selection. This is not the case. As Stephen Jay Gould pointed out, it is entirely possible that a given trait is merely a by-product of another trait that is adaptive. This by-product may in fact thwart reproductivity (“fitness”) as long as this is outweighed by the benefits of adaptive trait with which it is associated.

Further, we know little about our ancestral environment and its selective pressures, and consequently the claims of evolutionary psychology cannot (excepted for more generic and less controversial cross-species claims) be tested. So when someone excitedly tells you that some human behavior evolved for such and such a reason, you should keep in mind that you’re being fed a great big heap of unscientific bullshit disguised as science. Is rape a “secondary sexual strategy” that evolved in disadvantaged males, or is it the by-product of aggressive human behavior that serves a variety of adaptive functions in human beings? Continue reading »

Jul 282012
 

On a regular basis someone publishes a book in which they attempt to apply neuroscience, evolutionary psychology, or the social sciences to questions that the humanities are actually better equipped to address. As a consequence, such authors typically end up dressing up their embarrassingly sophomoric musings related to philosophy, literature, and culture in the trappings of scientific rigor. Meanwhile, they ignore — and show themselves to be thoroughly unacquainted with — the thousands of years of excellent work that might have deepened their approach. A case in point is Jonah Lehrer’s Imagine: How Creativity Works, which Isaac Chotiner savages in words that could have been written about any number of these books:

What his book has to teach, and by example, is the fetishization of brain science, and the anxious need for easy answers to complex questions.

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Dec 172011
 
Maurice Merleau-Ponty

Discussing Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s “Primacy of Perception” (1946) and The World of Perception (1948).

What is the relation of perception to knowledge? In M-P’s phenomenology, perception is primary: even our knowledge of mathematical truths is in some way conditioned by and dependent on the fact that we are creatures with bodies and senses that work the way they do. Science is great, but it doesn’t discover the truth of things hiding behind perception: it is an abstraction from certain kinds of perceptions. Other modes of approaching things, e.g. art, can equally well give us knowledge, though of a different kind.

Mark, Seth, Wes, and Dylan argue over whether this thesis is just a bunch of truisms and despair over not having read The Phenomenology of Perception, the longer work which what we did read was meant to summarize. Is M-P just saying that scientific knowledge is defeasible, which scientists already believe? Read more about this topic.

Buy “The Primacy of Perception and its Philosophical Consequences,”or read it online. Buy World of Perception,or read online.

End song: “Write Me Off” by Mark Lint and the Simulacra. Read about it.

If you enjoy the episode, please donate at least $1:

Nov 262011
 

Hannah ArendtThe question of the “pernicious influence” of scientism on modern life and philosophy gets raised fairly often here at PEL. I get the sense that Wes and Seth think the influence ‘quite pernicious’ while Mark thinks ‘not so pernicious’. (Correct me if I’m wrong guys). So I thought it would be helpful to clarify what is implied by the term, so that we might open the way for some good discussion of the issue. In my view, when we explicate the problem and put it in the right light, we should see that it is the essential problem of modern philosophy.

I recently came across the following article by Hannah Arendt, written late in her life during the 1960s. I felt that she gives here a good expression of the issue. It would not be mere political correctness to say of Hannah Arendt that she is a philosopher of the first rank, and a better critic of the modern age, our science and politics, than Heidegger was. She recognized the import of Heidegger’s diagnosis of the ills of modern existence (as one of his students) while not falling prey to the naive neglect of politics in his philosophy and the terrible choices wound up making in that arena.

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Nov 232011
 

Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s magnum opus–his equivalent to Being & Nothinginess or Being & Time–is The Phenomenology of Perception. It is reputed (by Seth, at least) to complete Heidegger’s project by paying proper attention to our embodiedness: we have bodies, with specific perceptual limitations and are not only culturally but physically situated in ways that (as Heidegger insisted) make Cartesian doubt a sham. Scientism is a mistake, and in particular attempts to explain consciousness without allowing first person reports (i.e. by strictly applying the scientific method) will be hopeless, because all inquiry starts with, is founded on, and presupposes this situation of us already in the world, with other people, with all these layers of meaning packing up our conscious experiences and even our unthinking behavior, to be elaborated by phenomenology.

So the Phenomenology of Perception is a very fat book that purports to give an existential phenomenology, from an analysis of perception (attention, judgment, “the phenomenal field”), to the various aspects of having a body (its spatiality, sexuality, expression, and how mechanistic psychology and classical psychology teat it), to a consequent analysis of time and freedom. …All stated with much less of the horrific made-up terminology of Heidegger or B&T-era Satre than you’d expect.

However, that book is much too long, and takes a long time to get around to saying much, so instead, we chose to read a sort of presentation of that work to a lay audience.World of Perception,from 1948, is actually a series of radio lectures for a general audience, presenting on broad strokes what the viewpoint of the kind of philosophy he represents has to add the popular view of science.

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Jun 172011
 

naturalism[editor's note: Here's our guest blogger Tom McDonald with a bit of original philosophizing. You can read more like this on his blog zuhanden.com. -ML]

I want to pose some general questions to all readers, but especially to those scientifically inclined and favorable to a naturalistic worldview. The questions are about the naturalistic worldview that is presently normative but problematic in modern society.

Firstly, the problem I see is not with science per se, but with philosophical naturalism.

I would argue that the ultimate rift between science as culture and religion as culture should be understood in terms of the broader rift between philosophical-metaphysical naturalism and the remarkable historical phenomenon of human normativity, i.e., our ability to reason and deliberate about rightness in theoretical and practical matters.

If anyone of a liberal or humanistic persuasion thinks through the above problem philosophically, they should (a normative-theoretical claim by me) come to realize that they share much more with religiously-flavored objections to naturalism than they otherwise might be inclined to based on more superficial political issues.

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Jun 172011
 

naturalism[editor's note: Here's our guest blogger Tom McDonald with a bit of original philosophizing. You can read more like this on his blog zuhanden.com. -ML]

I want to pose some general questions to all readers, but especially to those scientifically inclined and favorable to a naturalistic worldview. The questions are about the naturalistic worldview that is presently normative but problematic in modern society.

Firstly, the problem I see is not with science per se, but with philosophical naturalism.

I would argue that the ultimate rift between science as culture and religion as culture should be understood in terms of the broader rift between philosophical-metaphysical naturalism and the remarkable historical phenomenon of human normativity, i.e., our ability to reason and deliberate about rightness in theoretical and practical matters.

If anyone of a liberal or humanistic persuasion thinks through the above problem philosophically, they should (a normative-theoretical claim by me) come to realize that they share much more with religiously-flavored objections to naturalism than they otherwise might be inclined to based on more superficial political issues.

Continue reading »

Jun 092011
 

We’ve talked quite a bit recently about neuroscience, not to mention scientism — which again, I take to be:

the idea that science is applicable to any domain of inquiry that is meaningful, and will inevitably provide a solution to all meaningful questions

Mark calls it “the dreaded scientism,” I think because he doubts it’s so prevalent or powerful; whereas I find it a constant, cultural irritation, and I’ve been meaning to catalog the examples as they come up.

Here’s one: V.S. Ramachandran has written the kind of book that for me has the effect of something like crack: The Tell-Tale Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Quest for What Makes Us Human.

May 252011
 

We’ve bashed NY Times columnist David Brooks before on this blog for his attempts at philosophy, and I absolutely feel for the guy from a logistical perspective: he’s not an academic that can take a sabbatical and hole up to write and revise. He’s more or less a blogger who has to fumble around every few days to figure out something that he’s read about to spit back in an insightful way, and I don’t think that’s a recipe for great depth and profundity.

Well, now he’s released a book on neuroscience

In this article in “The Nation,” Gary Greenberg rips Brooks for his pretentious (Brooks: “I’m going to walk, stylistically, in the footsteps of Jean-Jacques Rousseau.”) scientism. (Greenberg: “These science-minded utopians may disagree wildly with one another about the essence of human nature, and the kind of world best suited to its flourishing, but they all are equally certain that only scientific inquiry… can settle the matter. We can crack our own source code…, and… we can build a world in which we cannot help being, as Skinner once put it, ‘automatically good.’”)

As Newt Gingrich said a week or so back in a wholly different context, “I don’t think right-wing social engineering is any more desirable than left-wing social engineering.”

I’m currently reading both Plato’s Republic and Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland (both utopian visions) for future episodes, so this is all right on topic for me.

-Mark Linsenmayer

Apr 072011
 

Alright, Mark has successfully baited me into a response on the issue of scientism. I should begin by saying that Mark has an interesting reading of Dennet that makes him out not to be a reductionist (as I and many others interpret him). I won’t address that here; I’m more interested in the general question of the influence of scientism on well-educated, intellectually curious people.

As I’ve said before, I think scientism — the idea that science is applicable to any domain of inquiry that is meaningful, and will inevitably provide a solution to all meaningful questions — is a much more pernicious cultural force than does Mark. In fact, I think it’s the popular religion of most smart people (even of many people who also consider themselves moderately religious). The other popular religion for educated people is cultural constructivism (or something of the sort) and accompanying relativism and postmodernism: it shares with right-wing religious fundamentalism an overly dismissive attitude towards science (see this article on how the right has co-opted this approach in its resistance to science). I’m not a fan of this extreme either; but it doesn’t have the same influence outside the university that it does within it. It’s quite hard to find an educated person who isn’t significantly influenced in one of these directions.

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Jan 142011
 

A research physicist friend of mine who works at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory is a bit of a global warming skeptic. When I brought up all the scientific research on the subject, he said, somewhat dismissively, “Yes, but anyone who gets a PhD in climate science goes into it with an agenda. No one goes into particle physics just to prove a point. So no, I don’t always trust their research.” Not being a scientist myself, I had no clever rejoinder at the time, other than to say, essentially, “Well, 50,000 climate scientists can’t all be wrong!” But what if most scientists tend to be wrong most of the time? And not due to political agendas, but academic, professional, or even psychological ones?

A good New Yorker article appeared last month regarding the fallibility of scientific research as currently practiced, or perhaps as inevitably practiced. There is a lot to chew on here, once you consider the ramifications.

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Jan 112011
 

Pigliucci strongly rebukes the organization of which he is a lifetime honorary member, for an ad calling all religions “scams”:

First, the ad is simply making a preposterous claim that cannot possibly be backed up by factual evidence, which means that, technically, it is lying. Not a good virtue for self-righteous critical thinkers…

Yet, several atheists I have encountered have no problem endorsing all sorts of woo-woo stuff, from quasi-new age creeds to “alternative” medicine, to fantapolitics. This is partly because many of them seem to be ignorant of the epistemic limits of science (in which they have almost unbounded faith) and reason (ditto). At the very least it seems that we ought to treat factual evidence with due respect, and claiming that religions are scams flies in the face of the available factual evidence. Hence, it is a bad idea that damages our reputation as an evidence-oriented community.

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Sep 122010
 

In its current issue The New Yorker profiles Rhonda Byrne, the author of the Oprah Winfrey-endorsed “The Secret,” the book that “urges readers to rid themselves of illness through ‘harmonious thoughts,’ to attract love by loving themselves, and to express gratitude for what they want before they get it.” There is a “law of attraction, which decrees that thoughts have physical power, and that thinking about something is the way to get it.” And in a phrase reminiscent of both post-modernism and the Bush administration: “You are the only one who creates your reality ….”

Unfortunately, these affirmations have not worked so well for Byrne’s colleagues, one of whom parted ways with her in a financial dispute and another who was charged with manslaughter after he led a sweat-lodge ceremony in which three people died. Apparently they thought overly hot thoughts.

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Sep 042009
 
Wittgenstein5

Continuing last ep’s discussion of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus with some Rudolph Carnap (a logical positivist from the Vienna Circle: “The Rejection of Metaphysics” from his 1935 book Philosophy and Logical Syntax) about what kind of crazy talk is outside of legitimate discourse.

Carnap interprets W as simply ruling out as unscientific most of the talk we’d consider philosophical, i.e. metaphysics, ethics, the self… Or is W really a mystic who just wants to distinguish these from science? Why doesn’t he just write more and explain himself? This tricky text inspires Seth to start a cult.

To follow along, read the Tractatus from the beginning through around 4.12, then skip to 6.3 and read to the end, skimming the more technical material in the middle. Buy the book

Also, if you’re confused by the description of truth tables (which are hard to picture without seeing some), look here.

End song: “The Last Time,” by Mark Lint and the Fake from the 2000 album So Whaddaya Think?