Pseudoscience and Continental Philosophy

pseudoscienceDespite recent loud claims to the contrary, there is a significant difference between two modern styles of doing philosophy: so-called analytic philosophy tends to be structured around rigorous arguments, is often dry, and concerns itself mostly (though not always) with matters that are rather arcane and of little social significance. “Continental” philosophy, by contrast, is frequently written in a more engaging, essay-type style, and its practitioners tend to be interested in pressing political and social matters. Unfortunately, it is also often (though not always) rather obfuscatory in language, and occasionally downright nonsensical.

Despite feeling more comfortable with the analytic approach, I do think this split in modern philosophy (which, roughly, originated with Kant, often considered the point of bifurcation) is highly unfortunate. I think philosophy is the sort of thing the ancient Greeks were doing (I mean, they did come up with the name!), it is rooted in the use of reason to arrive at understanding, and it concerns itself with pretty much any subject matter.

Another way to put this is that I think it would be good if analytic philosophers learned how to write in a less rigid and formal manner, as well as to concern themselves more with matters of practical import. By the same token, it would be nice if continentalists were to strive to be less obscure and more rigorous. There are weak sign of progress on both counts, but I’m not holding my breath.

A particular microcosm of the analytic / continental divide is represented by the difference between philosophy of science (analytic) and “science studies” (continental). Just like in the case of the macrocosm described above, this one has unfortunate consequences: in an ideal world, it would be nice if philosophers of science expanded their concern to issues of scientific ethics, for instance, and where a bit more critical of science and its practices, when required. Conversely, it would be good if science studies scholars were a bit more cognizant of what scientists actually do, and showed less of an anti-science reaction as part of their general anti-establishment ethos.

In a recent column for The Philosophers’ Magazine I presented in detail one particular instance of the problem, based on a strange paper by Babette Babich, published in the International Studies in the Philosophy of Science, and entitled “Calling Science Pseudoscience: Fleck’s Archaeologies of Fact and Latour’s ‘Biography of an Investigation’ in AIDS Denialism and Homeopathy.”

It is hard to tell what the main thesis of Babich’s paper actually is, though there is an underlying current of distrust in the authority of science and a great deal of criticism of philosophers of science who are — in the author’s mind — a bit too servile in their cheerleading attitude toward science. The interesting, and a bit maddening, thing is that Babich, like many Continentalists, does have a point: we do live in an era where science is held to be the savior of mankind, despite having brought on us as many disasters as good things.

She is also right that philosophers of science have historically rarely been critical of scientific research or of the scientists that engage in it, though this has began to change in the right direction since the times of logical positivism at the beginning of the 20th century.

The problem is that Babich’s attempt will simply give more excuses to both philosophers of science and scientists to keep ignoring the entire area of science studies and rehearsing instead the infamous “science wars” of the 1990s. She mixes up legitimate criticism of scientific practices and science’s power structure with a defense of decidedly pseudoscientific or highly debatable notions, like HIV-AIDS denialism, homeopathy, cold fusion and climate change denial.

Babich’s paper clearly demonstrates the problem with a number of works coming out of science studies programs: the concern with science’s power structures, as well as with the more or less hidden agendas of governments, corporations and individual researchers is well placed and absolutely deserves close scrutiny. But such scrutiny is undermined by a facile criticism that is founded on a significant lack of understanding of the underlying science and that insists in putting in the same basket good science, bad science, and pseudoscience. The consensus in the field of philosophy of science is that there is never going to be a way to cleanly separate the good stuff from the bad stuff. But the existence of gradations and borderline cases doesn’t mean there are no distinctions to be made, and making those distinctions is both intellectually necessary and socially useful.

37 thoughts on “Pseudoscience and Continental Philosophy

  1. Paul Braterman

    I would invoke a third school of thought here, namely the study of the psychology of decision-making, and the emerging sub-discipline of behavioural economics. These consider what arguments do in fact lead to action, findings that complement philosophical discussions of what kinds of argument *ought* to be convincing. The gap between “is” and “ought” is, of course, tragic.

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  2. Philosopher Eric

    Wonderful post Massimo. It’s certainly educational for me to more fully be shown the analytical versus continental factions. If you have any thoughts on the matter, I do wonder where I might fit in?

    The interesting, and a bit maddening, thing is that Babich, like many Continentalists, does have a point: we do live in an era where science is held to be the savior of mankind, despite having brought on us as many disasters as good things.

    My own explanation for why science has brought so much bad — countless starving, war wrecked, persecuted victims, and so on — is because it’s really only done half the job over its roughly few hundred years of existence.

    What has science done so far? It has brought us power. What has it not yet done? Teach us the effective use of power — it hasn’t provided theory from which to lead our lives, nor structure our societies, for the good of any given subject. And what might we expect of something which quickly becomes very powerful, without much theoretical understanding for how to effectively use its power? The daily news tells us this story.

    In the end, however, I do believe that science will prevail — it will teach us how to effectively lead our lives, as well as structure our societies. So perhaps I do have the optimism of the analytic side, though I’m surely no less critical than any of the continentalists.

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  3. Paul Braterman

    Part of the problem with evaluating the achievements of science is that we take the benefits for granted. The combined effect of the sciences of plant breeding and synthetic ammonia production has been to make the planet support, mostly at an acceptable level of nutrition, a population three times that of the late 1940s, when we seemed to be on the brink of mass starvation

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  4. Coel

    My own explanation for why science has brought so much bad — countless starving, war wrecked, persecuted victims, and so on …

    Really? What do you think things were like before modern science? The evidence is that in the Middle Ages, and before that, the chances of being killed by another human were about 100 times greater than they are now in the democratic and scientific West. (cite: Pinker, “Better Angels”) Further, death by starvation is now pretty much unheard of in the democratic and scientific West. Persecution is also at the lowest it has ever been.

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  5. Massimo Post author

    Eric,

    “In the end, however, I do believe that science will prevail — it will teach us how to effectively lead our lives, as well as structure our societies”

    I seriously doubt it. It isn’t even the business of science to teach us how to effectively lead our lives, though of course we need factual (and therefore *also* scientific) input to do so.

    Coel,

    things have certainly gotten better by a variety of measures (though I’m a bit skeptical of Pinker’s overt optimism, which has been criticized on methodological grounds by historians). But the fact remains that if we manage to blow ourselves up via atomic warfare, create a lethal pandemic out of bio-manipulation, or destroy civilization because of climate change, it will be *science* that will have given us the means to do it.

    Of course, it is our lack of wisdom that will make us misuse science so badly, but there isn’t much that science can do about wisdom.

    Liked by 6 people

  6. brodix

    I second Paul, in that a large part of the problem is this channeling philosophy into two, somewhat complimentary schools. Yes, there is this cultural dynamic bubbling up from social realities, that is the basis of the Continental school and it is intellectually necessary to frame it with analytical tools, in order to extract useful information, but is the solution to simply canonize both approaches and hope useful bridges develop, or could there be alternatives? A third way? A meta approach?

    Personally I’ve put up a number of ideas, such as how we experience time as a sequence of events and so think of it is the point of the present moving past to future, when the obvious physical reality is a changing configuration coalescing potential into determined effect, i.e. future to past and that only the present is physically real, which contradicts significant physical theories. Yet the primary response has been, “Meh.”

    Now I might well be wrong, there might really be some block time fourth dimension and we really can time travel through wormholes, with the right algorithms, but what has been most depressing in presenting this idea and various others, to a group of people supposedly interested in philosophical argument, is the complete lack of curiosity, in actually examining it objectively and even skeptically.

    What truly drives philosophy, if not some elemental intellectual interest and objective curiosity about the nature of reality? Without that, it is just the schools of stale ideology and the writings of dead white men, it’s assumed to be by most people outside of professional philosophy.

    So my question that should be addressed, is not so much the merits of the various schools and sub departments, but what does truly drive the essence of philosophical examination and why do people feel compelled to do it? Surely it is not just to spend one’s life in the humanities department of your local university, generally overlooked and passed by, by the more specialized and focused fields? Or is it?

    Is it just to trail along behind those fields and patch over the various gaps they leave in their wake? Wouldn’t a more truly valid approach be to try to construct a holistic view, that, for better, or worse, tied all these other disciplines together? Or is that too heavy a load?

    There don’t seem to be any heavy weights in the field today.

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  7. Daniel Kaufman

    I’m extremely skeptical of Pinker, the best thing about whom I can probably say is that he has really nice hair.

    “The Better Angels of our Nature” is an embarassing excercise in first-world self-congratulation. Embarassing not simply because of the transparently fallacious thinking involved in the main thesis, but because it comes just some 70 years (which might as well be five minutes ago, in historical time) after the worst excercises in human barbarism in the history of mankind.

    For those interested, I skewered Pinker a bit, here:

    http://theelectricagora.com/2015/12/21/report-from-the-empire-of-nice/

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  8. Daniel Kaufman

    Philosopher Eric wrote:

    What has science done so far? It has brought us power. What has it not yet done? Teach us the effective use of power — it hasn’t provided theory from which to lead our lives, nor structure our societies, for the good of any given subject.

    ———————————————

    Don’t hold your breath waiting for this. Science is very good at telling us what *is* the case. But it has no tools by which to tell us what *ought* to be the case.

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  9. Coel

    Dan,

    [Pinker] comes just some 70 years (which might as well be five minutes ago, in historical time) after the worst excercises in human barbarism in the history of mankind.

    Pinker does address this in his book. In terms of fraction of the population killed the 20th century was not exceptional. It does feature large in our consciousness owing to it being recent and, perhaps, owing to the larger scale of the events (larger in absolute terms, given that societies were organised on a larger scale, not larger relative to populations).

    But [science] has no tools by which to tell us what *ought* to be the case.

    This is indeed correct. And that’s because there are no such things as “tools … to tell us what *ought* to be the case”. Indeed, there is not even any sensible meaning of “ought” as used in that sentence.

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  10. Daniel Kaufman

    Coel: I’ve read Pinker’s book. As you will note from my comment, the recentness of the barbarisms of the 20th century is only one problem — and it *is* a significant problem. The other is the folly of drawing the sorts of evaluative conclusions he does from nothing but quantitative data.

    As for the rest, obviously, I am not going to engage with you on these topics anymore. We exhausted them more than sufficiently at Scientia, and we simply disagree.

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  11. Robin Herbert

    A critique of science from continental philosophy is a bit like me giving gardening advice to.my neighbours. They would be entitled to draw certain conclusions about my gardening expertise from the impenetrable thicket of weeds behind my house.

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  12. michaelfugate

    Don’t hold your breath waiting for this. Science is very good at telling us what *is* the case. But it has no tools by which to tell us what *ought* to be the case.

    Science never has and never will have those tools – people, on the other hand, can connect *is* and *ought*. We simply haven’t spent the time needed on reintegrating science and philosophy. Things like open source data, increasing diversity, and ethics training to name a few are steps in the right direction, but there is much work to do and at a younger age. I see the need for less specialization in say undergraduate education or most likely before and a broader focus on both how we know and what we do with that knowledge. In the US, a subset of the population confuses indoctrination with education and would love to tell children what to know and do rather than have them learn to explore and think for themselves. Like science or history education, ethics education will step on toes, but we should be developing a “next generation ethics standards”. I see science and ethics as part of a feedback loop.

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  13. penj3

    “though I’m a bit skeptical of Pinker’s overt optimism, which has been criticized on methodological grounds by historians”
    I have seen some complaints that seemed valid about the An Lushan Rebellion (but then they followed by claiming historical estimates are unknowable, which seemed a bit weak) but I’ve never seen any reasonably comprehensive analysis. Most are either
    1. Focussed on one specific estimate without looking at whether it affects his conclusion.
    2. Telling stories about atrocities, as though Pinker claimed none occur anymore
    3. Complaining about a cherry picked estimate by cherry picking the highest or lowest other estimate.
    4. Rambling essays without a point.

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  14. brodix

    Massimo,

    Putting Continental and analytical philosophy in a scientific model, it would seem Continental is emotive and expansively liberal, while Analytical is intellectually focused and thus conceptually conservative, in the sense of extracting order from all the noise Continental wallows in.

    As such, they reflect the two sides of the dynamic cycle I keep harping on, energy versus order/form.

    So if you want to bring them together, then try that relationship; Energy expands, form coalesces.

    No, they are not the same thing, but at some point, the west needs recognize the duality of reality.

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  15. Thomas Jones

    The commentary on Massimo’s piece has been interesting despite its straying from his subject, a critique of Babich’s piece that seems to serve as an exemplar to Massimo of the deficiencies of “continental” philosophy. It is not clear to me whether Massimo’s critique arises from his perspective as either a biologist or a philosopher. In the penultimate sentence of his conclusion, he writes:

    “The consensus in the field of philosophy of science is that there is never going to be a way to cleanly separate the good stuff from the bad stuff.”

    Why is this the case? It resonates of academic turf war fodder to which Coel introduces our favorite punching bag (aside from Dawkins) Steven Pinker.

    IMO, Massimo is on target in his response to both Eric and Coel when he writes, “. . . there isn’t much that science can do about wisdom.” Similarly, Daniel K seems on target when he writes,
    “‘The Better Angels of Our Nature’ is an embarrassing exercise in first-world self congratulation.”

    Key here, I think, is Pinker’s inclusion of “Our Nature” in his title. I haven’t read Pinker except by way of secondary sources and his presentations on venues like “TED,” but I’m reminded of the use of dead enemy body counts during the Vietnam War as a crude and misleading measure of attaining some poorly characterized “goal.”

    In addition, there seems a near inbred tendency-depending on which professional side one resides–to confuse these discussions by mistakenly personifying science and philosophy and their practitioners as caricatures. I think each does the other a disservice, for I feel confident that most enter these fields with the best intentions. What happens? The interested reader such as myself feels himself adrift in a raft in the Pacific. Thus, when Brodix writes, “Wouldn’t a more truly valid approach be to try to construct a holistic view, that, for better, or worse, tied all these other disciplines together?” one doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry at the seeming dysfunction in our institutional approaches. One wants to say like Hamlet to Ophelia, “Get thee to a nunnery.”

    As for the oft cited divide between “is and ought,” I would point to the endless exhortations regarding paths to wisdom and flourishing and eudaimonia and ask whether they amount to more than rhetoric in most cases. Think not? Explain how an ought is ever derived without some existentially contested notion of what is. Paraphrasing Gide, it is less a problem to conceive of freedom than it is to agree on what to do when one is actually free. So, much of this commentary is about mankind’s roll of a pair of dice, 7-Out, and nature-whatever it might mean–passes them to the next shooter.

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  16. Fleshy 506

    What strikes me, reading this post, and the TPM column it links to, is how *obvious* everything about the author’s critique of Babich’s paper is. I don’t think that the specious reasoning that Massimo identifies is the result of Babich attempting but failing to do what analytic philosophers would consider intellectually rigorous analysis, any more than her “rococo” prose style is the result of her trying and failing to write lucidly. I’m not sure what Babich was actually trying do, but I’m pretty sure she and people like her are smart enough to be aware of the difference; they just subscribe to a different notion of what constitutes good scholarship.

    If I’m correct about this, then philosophy of science people trying to engage science studies people by politely pointing out obvious fallacies and offhandedly remarking on the obscurity of their prose style probably isn’t going to lead to a fruitful dialogue any more than physicians engaging homeopaths in such a manner would. In fact, I would say that critical theory itself presents an interesting boundary case for the problem of distinguishing, not between science and pseudoscience, exactly, but between rational inquiry more broadly and its corresponding counterfeit version.

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  17. Robin Herbert

    I heard it attributed to George Bernard Shaw, “Science is always wrong, it never solves a problem without putting up ten in its place”

    A cute line, and often true. But not, I think in general.

    I note from my family tree that about half of my great aunts and uncles died in their infancy. Apparently this was not so unusual and in some places is still not unusual.

    But it was sobering to think, when carrying my severely dehydrated son into the emergency unit, that in time not so long ago that this would likely have been the end of him.

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  18. SocraticGadfly

    Per the straying in comments, I am again reminded of Star Trek, the Original Series, and Khan Noonian Singh — how much technical advancement, how little human improvement:

    Sorry, Eric, but along with the others, science in the realm of public policy is but a tool. It doesn’t cause evil. It doesn’t cause good, either.

    But, because enlightenment is a value against ignorance, science is more likely to lead to good than to evil results.

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  19. Daniel Kaufman

    Massimo: I think Babich had a better point in her TB example than you give her credit for.

    Scientism, when combined with the perverse incentives introduced by the business of medicine, has caused us to focus, narrowly, on imminent causes, for which there are equally narrow — and shallow — pharmacological or surgical solutions. Narrow, because they only examine the problem through one framework and shallow, because the solutions they provide are not comprehensive. The frequent — and accurate — charge that many if not most physicians are largely ignorant of nutrition and as a result, over-prescribe and engage in excessive medical intervention is just one example of an increasing — and in my view, correct — correction to this tendency.

    Hand out all the antibiotics you want, but if the larger social conditions are not addressed, there will simply be another TB outbreak next year. Address them and you won’t need the antibiotics in the first place. Dose as many people up with anti-depressants as you like, but when they wear off — or cease to be effective, over time — the patient is still left with all of the hard work ahead of him.

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  20. Alan White

    “Another way to put this is that I think it would be good if analytic philosophers learned how to write in a less rigid and formal manner, as well as to concern themselves more with matters of practical import. By the same token, it would be nice if continentalists were to strive to be less obscure and more rigorous. There are weak sign of progress on both counts, but I’m not holding my breadth.”

    I suspect this last was a typo–but from the mouths of boo-boos. . . indeed we should not be holding our breadth.

    I think that narratives and dialogues can communicate a lot of analytical depth–The Meditations and Plato’s dialogues classically certainly come to mind. There’s a reason the Zombies Argument as a story gained traction–it tapped into a popular image with some real depth of analysis. I’ve published on Einstein’s simultaneity thought-experiment as referring to his “train of thought”–most recently in Erkenntnis–it doesn’t hurt to mix a bit of humor with close analysis.

    And for the praxis–I used to abhor pragmatism. Now I am quite on that side.

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  21. ejwinner

    I am with Dan Kaufman and Thomas Jones on Pinker. penj3, I suggest reading the article at Electric Agora Dan linked to, along with its comments discussion. It probably won’t change your mind, which appears made up on the matter, but it surely wouldn’t hurt to have a look.

    I also think Fleshy 506 makes valid points on ‘Continentalist’ science studies, and that Dan Kaufman raises a valid point concerning Babich’s argument. Her style may be ‘rococo’ and a bit strident; but certainly scientists in some medical research fields tend to ignore social contexts which do play a part in development of diseases. I remember when my teachers assured us that the battles against TB and polio were over. They just forgot that this victory was largely restricted to the Euro-American populations, because after all, the ‘undeveloped nations were, well, not ‘us.’ (Nor was the problem of contextualized microbial mutation well understood at the time, eg., ie., with hospital-context infections.)

    Massimo,

    but I want to raise directly a seeming side topic that may really be near the heart of the matter: ‘Science studies,’ setting aside its different research methodology and difficult language aside, is politically weighted. That may be misguided.

    But it is surely not misguided to raise related questions concerning the ethics of scientific research. I am not referring to the inner ethics of publication or hiring issues, cooked evidence or possible plagiarism, etc. I mean concerning choices of what is researched and why.

    It is said that the physicists at Los Alamos laid bets on whether the nuclear bomb was a doomsday device that would destroy the world. And while overtly Hiroshima was an act of war, I think we are kidding ourselves if we deny it was also covertly an experiment. The scientists had to see what their shiny toy could really do.

    We know that bio-chemical warfare research was not conducted by scientists thinking they were doing something of benefit to humanity that just happened to, oops!, kill people. They accepted payment to find new ways to kill people – on massive scales.

    The reason some of us wring our hands over the Nazi scientists – who, for instance, wanted a precise measurement of what freezing temperature would kill a person, such as the Russian POWs they experimented on – is that we recognize that the cold objectivity needed to research empirical phenomena has a dark side.

    Of course we rightly fear a return to institutional censoring as occurred in the Middle Ages. But unmonitored research, uncriticized research, can surely result in unethical research.

    Every community has its ‘oughts’ and ‘ought nots.’ Denial of this is flippantly asocial and ahistorical. And perhaps for too long, scientists have been given a special pass to remain detached from the communities in which they live.

    What I suggest is that, if the Analytic tradition wishes to mount a counter-agency to ‘science studies,’ perhaps what its adherents need to develop is a ‘philosophy of science ethics,’ that raises such questions in a manner ‘dry’ and ‘clear.’

    (If there is already work done in such a field, I would be happy to learn of it.)

    At what point can we rightfully say, ‘regardless of the knowledge we could gain, we are not doing this – doing so would cause more harm than good’?

    If we cannot answer that question (and, over the years, it has only been answered piecemeal and always backed with plenty of cash), then I fear science really loses its credibility as a pursuit for an intellect that is both reasonable – and humane.

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  22. Coel

    Hi ej,

    I am with Dan Kaufman and Thomas Jones on Pinker. penj3, I suggest reading the article at Electric Agora Dan linked to, …

    It seems that perhaps some are over-interpreting Pinker’s claim. He is not saying that human nature has now changed or is now fundamentally better, nor that we are all paragons nowadays.

    He’s actually making a more limited and straightforward point. He’s saying that humans are capable of organising societies in ways that radically reduces violence (people killing each other in all forms), and the evidence for that is that we have done so. For example, in the UK over the last 50 years, the chances of being killed by another human are down by a factor of 100 to 1000 compared to typical UK past, and typical human past.

    I read the article on Electric Agora, but it doesn’t really even attempt to rebut what Pinker is actually saying.

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  23. Philosopher Eric

    Hmm…bit of attention. I like it!

    Coel what I mean by good/bad, may be referred to in terms of “happiness” or “utility,” though technically like to reference good/bad as the “sensations” input to the conscious mind. The non-conscious mind presumably produces this stuff, in order to motivate conscious function. Apparently without sensations, existence becomes just as personally inconsequential as it is for a stone or a computer. Thus the more positive sensations which a given subject experiences over a given period of time, the better existence will be for it, with the negative being the opposite. Technically this can be looked up as “total utilitarianism,” though I use a “subjective” modifier in front (which I doubt you’ll find anywhere else). Furthermore this ideology can be quite “immoral,” which is different from being “non real.”

    My disturbance with science largely concerns the potential horrors that it seems to facilitate. Observe that it has led to population booms in places such as Africa, which is theoretically good when happy lives result. But it has also provided weapons of war from which to cause vast suffering among the masses. I doubt there is any kind of happiness that can be felt which matches the magnitude of even moderate pain, so perhaps the experience of one tortured person could negate the happiness of a hundred very happy people, or even a thousand random ones.

    Of course the Middle Ages did hold such horrors as well, though surely not to the same extent. Regardless, I do suspect that there was greater aggregate human happiness per unit of time back then, though it’s only a gut feeling. Nevertheless to change my mind you’ll need better evidence than a higher murder rate!

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  24. Philosopher Eric

    As for others, whether you’ve formally addressed me or maybe just want to, I do thank you for your concern! Nevertheless I am quite aware that standard beliefs do make my position seem fantastical, and plenty have tried to turn me around since I was a kid. Still we surely do need people to question standard beliefs — not only do such people help us understand the validity of our more valid ideas, but sometimes they help us improve standard beliefs!

    As mentioned to Coel above, the point I’m making is merely this: Positive/negative sensations, define good/bad for any given subject, whether personal or social, over a given period of time. In a universe where all things once were perfectly inconsequential to all things, the concept is that evolution was able to develop a type of mind by which punishing/rewarding sensations were experienced, and so existence did become personally consequential. If accepted this would serve as theory from which to effectively lead our lives, as well as structure our societies, given that “good” for any personal or social subject would be understood as the welfare of its sensations.

    As for rebuttals, the traditional way to counter utilitarianism is to demonstrate the position to be immoral. This needn’t be attempted here however, since my theory concerns that which is “real” rather than “moral.” Another form of rebuttal would be to demonstrate something which seems good/bad, but doesn’t seem sensation based. I do enjoy testing my theory in such ways. Then there are various metaphysical arguments, and they generally force me to think hard about what’s being said. I’ll do my best if I get any of these.

    Furthermore if this seems like a distraction, don’t hesitate to reach me here: thephilosophereric@gmail.com

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  25. brodix

    In the contrast between is and ought, it seems we should be giving much more credence and attention to the is and much more skepticism to the ought, given that as complex organisms moving about on the surface of this particular planet, we do tend to take the “is” far too much for granted and often our “ought” tends to be short sighted, if not often self centered. Yes, we would all like each life to reach its greatest potential, but nature does treat individuals as necessarily expendable expressions of a larger dynamic and learning we do exist as parts of some larger process and organism would serve to mediate between individual desires and collective needs.
    Learning to accept both the ups and the downs as inherent functions of life and reality and not think we can push everything up forever, with no consequences will be necessary for the long term survival of humanity.

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  26. Massimo Post author

    michael,

    “Like science or history education, ethics education will step on toes, but we should be developing a “next generation ethics standards”. I see science and ethics as part of a feedback loop.”

    Indeed, like the Greeks used to do.

    penj3,

    I think you are being a bit uncharitable to Pinker’s critics. But my point is different. I don’t doubt that humanity has made moral progress, just the abolition of slavery is proof enough of that. (That said, I don’t believe such progress is universal, linear, or irreversible.) But I don’t think science has anything to do with it. Science makes it possible for us to live longer and better lives, or to annihilate the entire species and destroy the planet. It is a tool for understanding and controlling our environment, but what we do with such understanding and control is up to us.

    Thomas,

    ““The consensus in the field of philosophy of science is that there is never going to be a way to cleanly separate the good stuff from the bad stuff.” Why is this the case?”

    Because concepts like “science” and “pseudoscience” are inherently fuzzy, with borderline cases that are difficult to assess and that change over time, so that one can only arrive at a firm conclusion with hindsight.

    Fleshy,

    “I’m not sure what Babich was actually trying do, but I’m pretty sure she and people like her are smart enough to be aware of the difference; they just subscribe to a different notion of what constitutes good scholarship.”

    Maybe so, but in this case I submit that it is a corrupted conception of scholarship. It isn’t good scholarship to write in an obfuscatory manner, nor to criticize science without understanding it, nor yet to buy into clearly pseudoscientific notions because that helps you make an ideological point.

    “I would say that critical theory itself presents an interesting boundary case for the problem of distinguishing, not between science and pseudoscience, exactly, but between rational inquiry more broadly and its corresponding counterfeit version.”

    You may be right on that.

    Robin,

    “But it was sobering to think, when carrying my severely dehydrated son into the emergency unit, that in time not so long ago that this would likely have been the end of him.”

    Indeed. But your son also lives in a world where Trump, if elected President, could unleash Armageddon on a whim. That too wasn’t possible in earlier generations.

    Dan,

    “Hand out all the antibiotics you want, but if the larger social conditions are not addressed, there will simply be another TB outbreak next year”

    Indeed, and that was Lewontin’s point. But his book is an example of very clearly written and argued writing, informed by actual understanding of science. None of those attributes come across in Babich’s paper.

    Alan,

    “I suspect this last was a typo–but from the mouths of boo-boos. . . indeed we should not be holding our breadth.”

    Thanks, corrected it!

    ej,

    “Her style may be ‘rococo’ and a bit strident; but certainly scientists in some medical research fields tend to ignore social contexts which do play a part in development of diseases”

    And that licenses her endorsement of homeopathy? Seems like a non sequitur to me.

    “But it is surely not misguided to raise related questions concerning the ethics of scientific research”

    Agreed, which is why I say that analytic philosophers can learn something from their continental colleagues.

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  27. Daniel Kaufman

    For those who are interested in the actual facts about Pinker’s book:

    From the New York Times:

    “It is unusual for the subtitle of a book to undersell it, but Steven Pinker’s “Better Angels of Our Nature” tells us much more than why violence has declined. Pinker, a professor of psychology at Harvard who first became widely known as the author of “The Language Instinct,” addresses some of the biggest questions we can ask: Are human beings essentially good or bad? Has the past century witnessed moral progress or a moral collapse? Do we have grounds for being optimistic about the future?”

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