Sunday, April 22, 2012

To engage or not?

Anyone interested in general questions about human knowledge, about the scope and nature of science and related matters, is faced with a dilemma: whether or not to engage with recent work done by professional philosophers. For a strong case can be made that something is seriously wrong in contemporary philosophy which seems in many respects to have become a self-perpetuating enterprise divorced from the concerns both of the educated public and of practising scientists.

Furthermore, it is undeniable that many philosophers are motivated by religious or political agendas which are not always easy to identify. Although it has always been the case that philosophers have had ideological motivations, the professionalization of philosophy has encouraged the view that ideological and religious motivations are irrelevant to, and should not be discussed in the context of, a philosopher's professional work. Consequently, work which appears on the surface to involve the disinterested pursuit of truth may all too often be, in effect, disguised apologetics.

If one engages, one runs the risk of becoming caught up in a futile new form of scholasticism (if that is what it is). If one keeps one's distance, one is excluded from the conversation (such as it is).

And throwing the occasional hand grenade is not particularly productive. (See, for example, comment #14 - not mine! - on this post plugging a new philosophy journal.)

I'll have more to say on science and scientism, on physicalism and the limits of human knowledge in due course. I have strong intuitions in these areas, but I want to spend a bit of time reading and thinking before I commit myself to specific positions.

For the present, here is an interesting response by H. Allen Orr to E.O. Wilson's book Consilience: the Unity of Knowledge. (Massimo Pigliucci, who is preparing for a conference on Wilson's ideas, recently recommended Orr's review.)

And here is a transcript of an interview with Patricia Churchland in which this controversial, scientifically-oriented philosopher outlines her basic views. (Hat tip to Pete Mandik.)


  1. Churchland:

    "Analyzing a concept can (perhaps) tell you what the concept means (at least means to some philosophers), but it does not tell you anything about whether the concept is true of anything in the world."

    Umm, concepts are never "true of anything in the world". That's not their role. She's made a category mistake. She's conceptually confused. She might want to do a bit of conceptual analysis.

    Sorry, I'm getting polemical.

    1. I think perhaps she meant 'relates to' rather than 'is true of'.

      One thing that particularly struck me was her change of mind about and dismissal of possible world semantics.

    2. I think she means 'is true of'. I have a concept of birds. I also have a concept of unicorns. Is it true of anything in the world that it is a bird? Yes. Is it true of anything in the world that it is a unicorn? No. How do I know that there is nothing in the world that my concept of unicorns is true of? By going out and having a look, not by staying in my armchair and just reflecting on my concept of a unicorn.

      This, I take it, is what Churchland has in mind in connection with 'concept' and 'true of'.

    3. You put it very clearly and this is no doubt what she meant and would generally be understood to have meant.

      Nevertheless, picking up on Alan's point, there is a difference between asking 'Is it true of anything in the world that it is a bird?' and asking whether a bare concept (e.g. a bird, or unicorn, or flying pig) is true of anything in the world. The latter may be acceptable shorthand but we would all agree, I'm sure, that it is always some kind of statement which is true or false rather than a concept.

    4. Yes, Mark's point is what I was thinking.

      I'd add that we have the concept of "and", but it is not true of anything in the world that it is and. Other examples are easy to invent.

      Concepts require people to make use of them in statements before they can have truth values.

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  3. The Orr article is dated 1998, written shortly after E.O.Wilson's Consilience hit the best-seller lists. It is a very trenchant (but not decisively fatal) negative analysis of Wilson's fierce-reduction argument for "unity of knowledge," in which everything from subatomic physics to human creativity and art are connected in a smooth continuum, theoretically describable, of causes and effects. Wilson falters, says Orr, on the issue of consciousness -- specifically the core epistemic problem "how can we know" anything, given the limitations of both our senses and our logic. And even if, in principle, we proceed as though "we can know" (which science does), it's unlikely that thoroughly describing brain processes that enable people to create (or interpret) works of art (for instance) could be used in any way to produce (or appreciate) a work of art. It might be clear what an idea is, physically, in the brain. But how ideas happen -- how the content of an idea forms -- is not accounted for. Of course I think that last question is not completely in the realm of science; the day everyone believes it is, we shall have lost our creativity and might as well become machines.

    1. I agree that the appreciation of art is not something science can really contribute to.

      What particularly interests me in Orr's piece is the discussion of the limitations of our minds. I'm inclined to think however that language takes us into a realm which to some extent transcends our mammalian heritage. (So the cat example doesn't really work.)

  4. Churchland:

    "Well of course knowing about oxytocin and the circuitry it works with does not tell us whether or not a flat tax is preferable to a graduated income tax, or how the drugs laws should be revised, and so forth. I make that point in the book. I do not think neuroscience will weigh in on what makes us happy or how to improve our institutions. But knowing about the neurobiological and evolutionary basis for social behavior can soften the arrogance and self-righteousness that often attends discussions of morality. It may help us all to think a little more carefully and rationally."

    Very sensible. But not very exciting. I was expecting something more assertive.

    "so far as I can tell moral philosophers do not possess special moral expertise — they are not, as philosophers, more morally wise than regular people in other trades and professions. By and large, the philosophers who say we must maximize aggregate utility end up with all the usual problems every undergraduate can list at a moment’s notice, not least of which is that what makes people happy is apt to vary with their values, not to mention that calculating aggregate utility is NP-incomplete, or as close as makes no difference. Other philosophers who shop some version of Kant’s categorical imperative seem equally stubborn about sticking to their guns regardless of the difficulties. So if moral philosophy is a normative business, perhaps some new strategies might be worth considering."

    Again, very sensible. Again, not very exciting. Where's the interest in this? Am I missing something? What's "neuro" about it?

    (Not sure what is meant by "NP-incomplete".)

  5. Not sure about "NP-incomplete" but I think it means "non-Pareto" as in "Pareto-optimal" -- that's the way I read it and I got the drift.

    Churchland has a cool point about wisdom there. That got me excited. For all our centuries of philosophizing, wisdom per se is ill-defined, little discussed and rarely pursued.

    On mental limitations, Orr is right when it comes to our senses not being optimized to perceive more than a hunting social ape would need to survive, but I kept thinking he was giving too much away and giving up too soon on what it's possible to understand, which seemed a little odd coming from a scientist. But his basic observation that possibly there's a limit to what we can know is a healthy thing for a scientist to consider.

    Every time I read the word "truth" lately, as in Orr, I cringe -- not because I'm skeptical about truth, but because people use the word when they mean "actuality." What science is pursuing is actuality -- "what is" -- and truth should only mean "accurate description" rather than the metaphysics-laced somewhat mysterious condition it's commonly made out to be. The Quest for Truth is overblown; what I want to know is how things work.

    1. I thought Churchland was meaning something like 'computationally intractable' by 'NP-incomplete'. NP stands, I think, for Nondeterministic Polynomial time. Clear as mud. Is she guilty of using unnecessary jargon here, I wonder, or is she saying something specific which we just happen not to understand?

      As you point out, GC, it's interesting she uses the word 'wisdom'. Having reread the interview, I still find little to disagree with - though that NP-incomplete comment bothers me!

      And regarding Orr: he does have a religious agenda - which may explain your reservations.

  6. I am still puzzled by her statement that "I do not think neuroscience will weigh in on what makes us happy". Suppose that oxytocin were readily available. Could people be made happier? A couple who have lost interest in each other might become more empathetic perhaps. ("Have you taken you oxytocin today dear?", she asks.)

    Or would it be like a nice glass of wine at the end of the day -- enough to induce pleasant feelings, but not enough to change relationships (except for the worse)?

    1. When she says that neuroscience will not weigh in on ... she is talking about the understanding or insight that a knowledge of neuroscience may or may not give us, not about technologies which might flow from the science. And I think she is quite realistic on this. (She makes the point by the way that oxytocin is just one component of a complex system.)

      More generally, it seems to me that what may be to some people controversial or confronting in her approach relates not to the details of her research so much as to the implicit rejection of a spiritual or mysterian perspective on the human mind. As she suggests, Nietzsche (and any number of other anti-metaphysical thinkers) would not be surprised by the sorts of neuroscientific findings she talks about.