Progress in Philosophy — V

philosophy[for a brief explanation of this ongoing series, as well as a full table of contents, go here]

But is it useful? On the difference between chess and chmess

“Philosophy is garbage, but the history of garbage is scholarship,” said Harvard philosopher Burton Dreben, as quoted by Dennett in chapter 76 of his often delightful and sometimes irritating Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking (2014). One could reasonably wonder why an illustrious philosopher approvingly quotes another illustrious philosopher who is trashing the very field that made them both famous and to which they dedicated their lives. But my anthropological observations as a relative newcomer (from science) into philosophy confirm that my colleagues have an uncanny tendency to constantly shoot themselves in the foot, and often even enjoy it (as we have seen in Chapter 1).

Be that as it may, Dreben’s comment does ring true, though it should be (slightly) modified to read: a lot of philosophy is garbage, but the history of garbage is scholarship. The fact is, however, that the very same thing can (and should) be said of scholarship in any field. Perhaps the case will not be controversial for certain particular areas of academic inquiry (which shall go duly unspecified), but I think the “a lot of garbage” summary judgment applies also to science itself, the current queen of the academy. Indeed, this was said as early as 1964 by John Platt, in a famous and controversial article published in Science magazine. Here is how he put it: “We speak piously of taking measurements and making small studies that will ‘add another brick to the temple of science.’ Most such bricks just lie around in the brickyard.”

I’ve done and read a significant amount of scholarship in both the natural sciences (biology) and philosophy (of science and related fields) (e.g., Pigliucci 2001; Pigliucci and Kaplan 2006) and I can attest that what Platt, Dreben and Dennett say is pretty much uncontroversially true. And moreover, that many people working in those fields recognize it as such, except of course when it comes to their own little bricks in the temple. How is this possible? Dennett explains it in terms of the difference between chess and chmess. I will assume that we are all familiar with the first game. The second one is Dennett’s own invention, and works exactly like chess, the only difference being that the King can move two, rather than one, squares in every direction. Needless to say, many people play (and care about) chess. Not so many are into chmess.

Dennett further explains that a lot of scholarship in philosophy is like trying to solve chess problems — which resonates exactly with what I have been trying to convince the reader of for a while now: philosophical inquiry is a search for logical truths that hold within a defined conceptual space of possibilities. As far as it goes, it’s not a bad analogy, except for the fact that quite a bit of philosophy is actually concerned with the sort of conceptual problems that matter in real life (think epistemology, ethics, political philosophy, and even philosophy of science, at its best), which means it also needs to be informed by the findings of both the natural and social sciences. Still, Dennett’s point is that trying to solve logical problems posed by chmess is just as difficult as trying to solve the very similar problems posed by chess, with the crucial difference that almost nobody gives a damn about the former. A lot of philosophers, he maintains, devote their careers to studying chmess, they are quite good at it, and they manage to convince a small number of like minded people that the pursuit is actually worth a lifetime of efforts. But they are mistaken, and they would realize it if they bothered to try two tests, also of Dennett’s own devising:

1) Can anyone outside of academic philosophy be bothered to care about what you think is important scholarship?

2) Can you manage to explain what you are doing to a bunch of bright (but, crucially, uninitiated — i.e., not yet indoctrinated) undergraduates? (For obvious reasons, your own colleagues and graduate students don’t count for the purposes of the test.)

I think Dennett is exactly right, but — again — I don’t think the tests in question should be carried out only by philosophers. Every academic ought to do it, as a matter of routine. I cannot begin to tell you about the countless number of research seminars in biology I have attended over decades, and about which the recurrent commentary in my own head (and, occasionally, with colleagues and students, after a glass of wine) was: “clever, but who cares?” Another quip quoted by Dennett, this one by Donald Hebb, comes to mind: “If it isn’t worth doing, it isn’t worth doing well.”

So, what, if anything, should be done with this state of affairs? This is a crucial question, which can be reformulated as: why should the public keep supporting universities (and, in the sciences, provide large research grants) to people who mostly, and perversely, insist in wasting (or at the least, underutilizing) their lives while figuring out the intricacies of chmess? Similarly, shouldn’t Deans, Provosts and university Presidents tell their faculty to stop squandering their brain power and get on with some project more germane to the public’s interest, or else? Francis Bacon might have agreed. He famously thought that the very point of human inquiry is not just knowledge broadly construed, but specifically knowledge that helps in human affairs. His famous motto was Ipsa scientia potestas est, knowledge is power. Power to control nature and to improve our lives, that is. In fact, even the famous Victorian debate on the nature of induction between John Stuart Mill and William Whewell (Snyder 2012), which pretty much began the modern field of philosophy of science, was actually a debate about the best way to gain knowledge that could be deployed for socially progressive change, to which both Mill and Whewell were passionately committed.

One answer to what to do about the problem is provided by Dennett himself in his essay referenced above: “let a thousand flowers bloom … but just remember … count on 995 of them to wilt.” Which essentially — and a bit more poetically — echoes Platt’s sentiment from half a century before. That seems right, and it is particularly easy to see in the case of basic (as opposed to applied, or targeted) scientific research, although it goes also for scholarship in philosophy, history, literary criticism or what have you. The whole thing is predicated on what amounts to a shotgun approach to knowledge: you let people metaphorically fire wherever they wish, and statistically speaking they’ll occasionally hit a worthy target. Crucially, there doesn’t seem to be a way, certainly not a centralized or hierarchically determinable way, to improve the efficacy of the target shooting. If we want knowledge about the world (or anything else), our best bet is to give smart and dedicated people pretty much free rein and a modest salary, then sit back and wait for the possible societal returns — which will fail to materialize more than 99% of the times.

So, yes, much of philosophical (and other) scholarship is indeed more like chmess than chess, and we may justifiably roll our eyes when we hear about it. But the difference between chmess and chess is not always clear, and it’s probably best left to the practitioners themselves and their communities to sort it out. The important point is that we do make progress in our understanding of whatever game we are playing as long as we allow smart and dedicated people to keep playing it.

References

Dennett, D. (1996) Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life. Simon & Schuster.

Pigliucci, M. (2001) Phenotypic Plasticity: Beyond Nature and Nurture. Johns Hopkins University Press.

Pigliucci, M. and Kaplan, J. (2006) Making Sense of Evolution: The Conceptual Foundations of Evolutionary Biology. University of Chicago Press.

Platt, J. (1964) Strong inference. Science 146:347-353.

Snyder, L.J. (2012) Experience and necessity: the Mill-Whewell debate, in: J.R. Brown (ed.), Philosophy of Science: the Key Thinkers. Comtinuum, chapter 1.

125 thoughts on “Progress in Philosophy — V

  1. garthdaisy

    Hi Robin,

    “If the reasons we have these feelings never had anything to do with well-being then any details of how this panned out in the past can have zero relevance to decisions about how we live our lives today.”

    You’re kind of making my point here. It’s important to know that the moral feelings juicing through our veins are anachronistic. But this only makes some of them irrelevant. Like xenophobia had a purpose in another environment but certainly not in today’s global culture. So we know to watch out for those feelings in ourselves and others and it gives us a good idea of how to out think them like see all humans as one tribe as a way to deal with tribalism. Studies have shown we are fiercely tribal but completely plastic when it comes to who we see as in our tribe. You can believe that someone is from a threatening tribe and have feelings of hatred towards them, and then receive the new information that they are in fact in your tribe and your hatred immediately vanishes. Knowing our nature gives us our best chance of manipulating it to work to our advantage today.

    Bot some of our ancient traits are still valid and helpful like cooperation, compassion and love. These worked back then and today so we can celebrate that, and also use that information to put those feelings to maximum use in today’s world. Like manipulating kin selection love by calling everybody brother. Just calling people “amigo” makes you love them more. Even perfect strangers.

    BTW when I talk about EP I mean broadly construed, lower case ep. As in, any application of evolution theory to psychological research and hypotheses. So no, we did not already know all this stuff, before EP. It is EP. All theorizing about psychology from an evolutionary perspective is EP.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. brodix

    I think however we slice it, even morality is cyclical. In that what works, is good, is efficient, etc, eventually goes overboard, builds up too much blowback, becomes too rigid, static, stagnant, etc. and some sort of corrective or reset will occur.

    Which isn’t to say we should not strive to better ourselves, but keep it in some kind of perspective and don’t insist on absolutes. Figure out the world around you and consider what might make it a little better. Even if that means just sitting still and being quiet when everyone else is running around like crazy people.

    If the crowd is all running in one direction, at least look to see what is in the other direction. The most anything can do is kill you and you are going to die anyway, so don’t let either blind fear, or blind hope control you. Eyes wide open.

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  3. Daniel Kaufman

    Again, for the sake of those who may be confused about the actual reality of higher education, philosophy departments are overwhelmingly — near universally — charged with providing ethics education. You will find some professional ethics courses taught within business schools or communications programs, but the overwhelming majority of ethics education is done by philosophers in philosophy departments. As I already explained, every nursing student must take our bioethics course in order to graduate and this is hardly unusual to us.

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  4. garthdaisy

    Eric,

    “It is better to give than to receive” explains a reality of human nature by which the individual selfish pleasure is also good for society. But the creators of capitalism misunderstood this and thought human nature was selfish in a different way and now we have a societal system that is at odds with human nature.

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  5. SocraticGadfly

    Sad potential/anticipated to pass on to Massimo and others who have any connection with “scientific/movement (or whatever) skepticism,” although this person wasn’t really organizationally involved himself.

    I’ve subscribed to Bob Carroll’s Skeptics’ Dictionary email newsletter for nearly a decade. The one I received today said it would be the last, and was much shorter than normal.

    I suspect his battle with cancer of a few years running is near the finish line.

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  6. garthdaisy

    For those confused, academic philosophy teaches about the field of philosophy of ethics, not to be confused with human moral instincts which you learn about from science. Philosophy departments can teach you nothing about actual morality because they have no facts about it, only opinions. But boy oh boy do they have a lot of opinions. In fact there are about as many opinions on morality as their are philosophers.

    So if you want to be an expert in the field of the philosophy of ethics, definitely head to your nearest philosophy department. But if you really want to learn about human morality, I suggest studying evolution, psychology, anthropology, neurology, sociology, and yes, philosophy too. But really all you need there is Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. Then go back to the science.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. SocraticGadfly

    So, if I wanted to “publish or perish,” a good piece to write would be “The ethics of nurses treating pacifists in 1918 London — Bertrand Russell and his introduction to the Bloomsbury nursing set”? 🙂

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  8. brodix

    You can aim for goals beyond your physical capacity to achieve them. You cannot aim for goals beyond your ability to perceive them.

    Garth,
    Capital is a medium. No one invented the premise of a medium. We can only replicate it. The problem is those entities managing this system, both banks and governments, route it to their own ends and they are individual entities, which progress along a timeline, from start to finish and are now over extended.
    The only real issue is what lessons have been learned and how we apply them to the next cycle or stage.

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  9. Robin Herbert

    Hi garth,

    “Bot some of our ancient traits are still valid and helpful like cooperation, compassion and love. ”

    Again, they were not there to give us a good life, they were there because the increased the probability that some patterns among nucleotides predominated over others back then. Any good that came of them was completely accidental. So when you say they are “still valid and helpful”, do you mean that they still help certain patterns of nucleotides predominate over others?

    Or are you talking of the bi-products, that we enjoy in these things? If you are talking about the latter, then the reason that they increased the probability of some patterns of molecules being more numerous than others is irrelevant, because we are not interested in that, we are only interested in the bi-products.

    And how do you know that xenophobia still doesn’t help some genes survive over others? How do you know that rape still doesn’t help spread certain genes? That selfishness and violence don’t do the same?

    It seems highly plausible that they do still serve the function they did back then, especially in societies where these things are common.. But we are not interested that function, which is why we do not consider that fact that rape might be very efficient in spreading genetic information as a good reason to keep on raping.

    If love and compassion no longer served their original purposes, and had no survival advantage for genetic material then that would be no reason to no longer value them. I don’t really care if my particular configuration of genes does not survive.

    The original function of these things to spread genetic information is beside the point when considering how we wish to behave.

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  10. Robin Herbert

    I guess I can see the other side though.

    The information that our feelings of love for our children are nothing more than feelings of well being that manipulate us to look after another organism until it can look after itself, might be useful. We have the illusion that this is some sort of special bond, but it isn’t really, the feelings of well being are not, in any meaningful sense, about the offspring.

    Armed with that information we can judge dispassionately whether the well being to be derived from looking after another human until it can look after itself is greater than the same period spent with the money and freedom to do exactly as we please, when we please.

    Surprising really, that anyone plumps for the former.

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  11. Massimo Post author

    Garth,

    I can see there is likely nothing I can say that will sway you even a bit. That’s fine, your right. Plenty of smart people with strong, irreconcilable views on this site.

    However, as the owner of the blog, I take exception to your condescending tone toward me and my profession, which is beginning to turn off other readers. Please moderate it in future posts, or I will have to exercise my magical power to unilaterally and without possibility of appeal blocking people from this community. Thanks.

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  12. garthdaisy

    Hi Robin,

    We both agree that the thoughtless purposeless process by which our moral intuitions evolved and the adaptive purpose they served is not prescriptive. But that information not being prescriptive doesn’t mean it is irrelevant to how we feel about morality or how we do moral reasoning. Because we know that those moral intuitions, however anachronistic, are none the less, at the very core of how we feel about morality, and we know that not only are those intuitions seemingly impossible to sever from the moral reasoning process, but that they are most often driving the car. This is what the latest psychological research is showing us.

    So although the adaptive story of those moral intuitions may not be prescriptive in any way, it is very relevant, in that knowing the adaptive purpose gives us an advantage in spotting just how and when those intuitions are influencing our moral reasoning or “driving the car.” Then we can figure out perfect plans to manipulate them, knowing what they like, and have them serve us rather than the other way around. If these anachronistic moral intuitions are manipulating our current day moral reasoning as much as the research shows, the better we know them the better we will be at moral reasoning don’t you think?

    Do you disbelieve the evidence that unconscious moral intuitions are most often driving the car during moral reasoning? It certainly isn’t surprising to me. And if that is the case is it not the most crucial thing to our moral reasoning that we know these anachronistic intuitions as well as we can?

    Liked by 1 person

  13. garthdaisy

    Apologies, Massimo. As I have said before I love and respect both science and philosophy and I am a staunch defender of philosophy when scientists misrepresent it or erroneously dismiss it, and the same goes when philosophers erroneously dismiss science. I do tend to get particularly territorial on behalf of science in the arena of morality when philosophers try to exclude it entirely and claim domain over the subject. It set me off. I crossed the line. Apologies. Resetting tone. Appreciate the forum. You’re doing a great thing.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. Robin Herbert

    HI garth,

    “Do you disbelieve the evidence that unconscious moral intuitions are most often driving the car during moral reasoning?”

    On the contrary, I have been saying this all along and you seem to be having trouble understanding the problem.

    I am not sure you realise how much the desires and assumptions of scientists can skew data.

    You don’t seem to realise that if one’s unconscious moral desires are in the driving seat then one can pick a preferred moral stance and then allow some set of ostensibly scientific research arrange itself around this conclusion and then let oneself believe that one has come to a scientifically informed conclusion.

    But yes, I have said that there is a role for these kinds of inferences, in the example I already gave of feeling that you love and care for a child, whereas those feelings are not in any meaningful sense “about” the child, rather they are feelings of well being and pain that manipulate us into looking after it until it is ready to go it alone.

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  15. davidlduffy

    I’m not sure I understand how this section slots into the overall argument. I would gloss it as saying that philosophy and science are both flawed enterprises, and practitioners in both fields need to look to the social utility of their work, and to maximize efficacy, which is a bit haphazard since we don’t know in advance what we are looking for (and please keep up our funding).

    Ethics and politics are central to our lives, so one would expect at least some practical spin-offs from academic professional philosophy in these areas. But to be socially efficacious, there have to be organisations that take up these insights – political movements or government bureaucracies or religions. It is difficult to escape the charge that most or all arguments are post hoc justifications.

    “Claims about ethics underlie the most pivotal and fundamental debates
    in contemporary political life…[they] provide the foundations on
    which arguments are built…[and] very often justified in terms of
    one or a combination of many theories…However, there is a problem
    with foundational or theoretical ethics as a basis for politics, which
    is demonstrated clearly by the way in which, in normal debate and
    conversation, ethical claims remain contested and contestable…”
    [Fagan Ethics and Politics after Poststructuralism: Levinas, Derrida and Nancy]

    And I hate the “chmess” analogy – there are plenty of chess variants all as valid/enjoyable as one another – the popularity of any one type is historical accident. With ethics and epistemology there is strong contact with reality.

    Liked by 1 person

  16. brodix

    Robin,

    ” I already gave of feeling that you love and care for a child, whereas those feelings are not in any meaningful sense “about” the child, rather they are feelings of well being and pain that manipulate us into looking after it until it is ready to go it alone.”

    Your built in assumption is that sentience is an individual function and our natural and logical predisposition would be toward ourselves as individual beings, rather than ourselves as expressions of a sentience which finds individual organisms to be an effective method of transmission. In which case, caring for offspring would be more important than one’s own well being.

    It would be one more example of our object oriented mind set, likely due to several million years of tool development and use as a major focus of our intellect.

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  17. garthdaisy

    “I am not sure you realise how much the desires and assumptions of scientists can skew data.”

    Ha. How do you know that? From a study? Of course I realize it it’s the same thing that I am saying happens during moral reasoning. The scientific method does at least try it’s best to eliminate bias precisely because we know that scientist bias affects results, but you know how we know that? From a scientific study on the matter. It’s all a big circle of our intuitions biasing our knowledge, Robin. So it behooves us to know as much as we can about those intuitions. Their source and intention are far from irrelevant if they are affecting everything we do.

    I’m sure there are scientific studies whose results you do believe, even though you know that scientist bias can affect results. It’s all about credences. We always have to factor the bias possibility into our credences. and because we know about confirmation bias from studies on confirmation bias, we have to factor the bias possibility into those studies as well. Round and round we go.

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  18. garthdaisy

    To clarify, when I said:

    “Their source and intention are far from irrelevant if they are affecting everything we do.”

    I did not mean the intention of the trait itself but the intention it causes in us.

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  19. garthdaisy

    David Duffy,

    Thank you for this quote. It’s worth posting twice.

    “Claims about ethics underlie the most pivotal and fundamental debates
    in contemporary political life…[they] provide the foundations on
    which arguments are built…[and] very often justified in terms of
    one or a combination of many theories…However, there is a problem
    with foundational or theoretical ethics as a basis for politics, which
    is demonstrated clearly by the way in which, in normal debate and
    conversation, ethical claims remain contested and contestable…”
    [Fagan Ethics and Politics after Poststructuralism: Levinas, Derrida and Nancy]

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  20. dbholmes

    Hi Garthdaisy, you said…

    “I suggest studying evolution, psychology, anthropology, neurology, sociology, and.. philosophy…”

    Thanks, I have degrees that involved courses and research covering basically all of these. And yet I still have no idea what you have been talking about in this and other threads. Indeed, I have begun to wonder (given the bizarre hubris of your claims) if you have a degree or coursework in any?

    Evo-psych is a nascent field, which if laudable and interesting in theory, is far short of data to say anything conclusive about anything. As it happens my Neuroscience research group just merged with the Complex Traits Genomics group and I would be highly interested in passing on any of this data concerning evolved “anachronistic” feelings you claim exists.

    I mean this group gets great funding for what are considered pioneering (and massive) twin and international population studies to simply scratch the surface of the connection between genes and thought/behavior, yet here you are saying someone has beaten them to the punch with full historical and comparative species analyses to reach solid evolutionary conclusions? I’m impressed! Please provide a link or something.

    “But really all you need there is Socrates, Plato and Aristotle.”

    What about Hume? You know the PHILOSOPHER who observed several hundred years ago that reason is the slave of the passions, which apparently you believe is some new idea attributable to scientists…

    “Because we know that those moral intuitions… are none the less, at the very core of how we feel about morality, and we know that not only are those intuitions seemingly impossible to sever from the moral reasoning process, but that they are most often driving the car. This is what the latest psychological research is showing us.”

    Yeah, well some PHILOSOPHER pointed that out a few hundred years ago, and PHILOSOPHERS have been dealing with it… teaching it even as part of those dubious courses in ethics you dismiss. Did you ever take one by the way?

    Here’s the deal, even if Evo-Psych was at this minute providing beautiful detailed renderings of the evolutionary pathway of all of our feelings, all the work necessary for deciding what to do about those feelings remains ahead of you. And that work is called ETHICS, it is PHILOSOPHY. Get used to it.

    Yes philosophy has not come to solid conclusions. Perhaps because the answer is very complex (like abiogenesis or quantum mechanics which also lacks solid conclusions) or that there are no singular conclusions on anything in the moral sphere. In any case, there are ways to reason about our feelings within the context of the drives/interests we have.

    You claim our moral intuitions are “anachronistic”. How so? Because they emerged in a different environment than we live now? Even if I believed that (which I don’t) how does that make them “anachronistic”? We could easily return to the environment in which they purportedly emerged… the one we live in now is clearly artificial… and then I guess there would be no problem, right? Or is there some reason for keeping what we have now, even if it is (allegedly) at odds with our intuitions, our natural environment? What reasons would those be… I mean what intuitions would those be… and where did they come from? Your posts appear to deny the value of philosophy, yet all of your conclusions are soaking in it.

    Liked by 1 person

  21. Coel

    Hi dbholmes,

    Just a slight quibble to our comment:

    Perhaps because the answer is very complex (like abiogenesis or quantum mechanics which also lacks solid conclusions)

    Abiogenesis is indeed highly uncertain and speculative, but it’s wrong to say that quantum mechanics lacks solid conclusions. Quantum mechanics is a hugely successful tool for calculating properties of the world to high accuracy.

    As an example, take the value of the anomalous magnetic moment of the electron. Calculating the value of g/2 using QM gives a value of (the bracket gives the error in the last figure):

    1.001 159 652 181 8(8)

    The measured value is:

    1.001 159 652 180 7(3)

    That agreement is generally reckoned to be quite good. 🙂

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  22. garthdaisy

    DB

    “I have degrees that involved courses and research covering basically all of these. And yet I still have no idea what you have been talking about in this and other threads”

    Are you suggesting evolution, psychology, anthropology, neurology, sociology, do not all reveal pertinent information one would want to factor into moral reasoning?

    “Evo-psych is a nascent field, which if laudable and interesting in theory, is far short of data to say anything conclusive about anything”

    I’m not looking for conclusive. Philosophers say there’s no such thing anyway. I’m looking to form credences. Obviously I give EP (broadly construed) more credence than yourself. I’m here to be talked down off that ledge, and good arguments work on me but academic credentials do not for future reference. There are some isms I go for but credentialism isn’t one of them.

    “yet here you are saying someone has beaten them to the punch with full historical and comparative species analyses to reach solid evolutionary conclusions?”

    No I said nothing about any “full historical and comparative species analyses” or “solid conclusions.” Philosophers say there’s no such thing as solid conclusions anyway so what’s the point of those? It’s all about credences. I’m a generalist looking at the whole picture from both science and philosophy. It’s just that on the subject of morality, I obviously give higher credence to the picture painted by science than most philosophers do. But there are many philosophers and multidisciplinary academics who hold the same view I do on EP and morality, some working on projects like “Evonomics” and evo-political theory. But if you really want to impress me in the credentials game on the subject of morality you’d need to be Steven Pinker.

    “What about Hume? You know the PHILOSOPHER who observed several hundred years ago that reason is the slave of the passions”

    Footnote to Plato.

    “which apparently you believe is some new idea attributable to scientists…”

    No I said it’s a footnote to Plato. Nevertheless, I love Hume. Evolution theory strongly suggests that he got a bunch of things right.

    “all the work necessary for deciding what to do about those feelings remains ahead of you. And that work is called ETHICS, it is PHILOSOPHY. Get used to it.”

    You are correct here. I’ve done some of that work, but much more to do, yes. And yes it is a job for philosophy of ethics. I am a philosopher of ethics. One who disagrees with you about the relevance of evolution theory in moral reasoning. Get used to it.

    “You claim our moral intuitions are “anachronistic”. How so?”

    Some of them are not all of them. The troublesome ones like xenophobia for example are anachronistic it seems. I give high credence to the likelihood that it is a result of a time when not fearing different looking people meant your ass. You want data? Why? Philosophers say it doesn’t necessarily reflect reality anyway. All we have are credences. And mine for this theory of xenophobia is high.

    “how does that make them “anachronistic”? We could easily return to the environment in which they purportedly emerged… ”

    Easily? Whatch u talkin bout Willis?

    “the one we live in now is clearly artificial”

    Nothing is artificial. Humans are not unnatural “Artificial” is a concept as ignorant as “humans are separate from nature.”

    “Or is there some reason for keeping what we have now, even if it is (allegedly) at odds with our intuitions”

    Capitalism is at odds with our intuitions. I say we chuck it. I give high credence to these propositions.

    Your posts appear to deny the value of philosophy, yet all of your conclusions are soaking in it.”

    No, my posts deny the value of philosophers (most of them) who think evolution theory is irrelevant to moral reasoning. I am quite flattering of the few philosophers who agree with me. But isn’t that just so typical of us philosophers. 😉

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  23. dbholmes

    Hi Coel, point taken! I should have made clear I was talking about the model or “interpretation” of quantum mechanics and not the experimental/mathematical work which has proven quite useful. Of course are those “conclusions” or “solutions”? 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  24. dbholmes

    Hi Garthdaisy, let me start by pointing out I was not trying to dazzle you with my credentials, or in any way suggest that people should believe me because of my credentials.

    What happened is that you threw a bunch of subjects around, boasting like you knew them and that they would support your thesis. I was simply stating that as someone who has had more than a casual connection with those fields (perhaps that is all I should have said) your argument didn’t hold water. That is to say YOU need to do a better job convincing ME.

    Your reply has not helped matters.

    “I’m not looking for conclusive. Philosophers say there’s no such thing anyway. I’m looking to form credences. Obviously I give EP (broadly construed) more credence than yourself.”

    In order for scientists to inform philosophy, or anything for that matter, they must have sufficient data, and be capable of generating meaningful conclusions. At this time the field of EP lacks credible data and models, and so conclusions emerging from it are speculative at best. Credences? As in credulous? Show me data please.

    And yes the scientific fields you mentioned (besides EP at this stage) have the potential to provide useful information for discussions regarding moral reasoning. That is not to say they will provide useful information, or overriding information, for all discussions. It all depends on the question being asked.

    “I obviously give higher credence to the picture painted by science…”

    Science has yet to paint a complete picture about moral intuitions and reasoning, nor can it ever tell us what to do with our intuitions and reasonings.

    “But there are many philosophers and multidisciplinary academics who hold the same view I do on EP and morality… But if you really want to impress me in the credentials game on the subject of morality you’d need to be Steven Pinker.”

    So now I’m supposed to be impressed by the credentials of mostly unnamed sources? Steve Pinker’s work on acquisition of language (including evolutionary development) is interesting. He went on to write a book which touched on morality, but he has done no formal work on it that I know of. Again, I am looking for research, not inferences.

    “You want data? Why? Philosophers say it doesn’t necessarily reflect reality anyway.”

    I want data, because I am a scientist and you were making claims about science. I need to judge the quality of the research (not how much you like a theory) before we address whether particular conclusions are useful to philosophy or discussions on morality. Scientific sounding speculation is not science, and is not helpful to anyone.

    “Humans are not unnatural”

    Thankfully I never said we were. Our civilizations however are artificial states, which is not to say unnatural (though that is what you seemed to be arguing). We could choose to go back to living a hunter-gatherer life if we wanted.

    “Capitalism is at odds with our intuitions. I say we chuck it. I give high credence to these propositions.”

    Tell you what, you get Steven Pinker to say that capitalism is at odds with our intuitions and we “ought” to chuck it (particularly based on scientific evidence). That would be interesting.

    I’ll end by pointing out you have yet to show how how evolutionary theory provides anything relevant to moral reasoning, beyond assertions and what would seem to be applied circular logic.

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  25. garthdaisy

    What happened is that you threw a bunch of subjects around, boasting like you knew them and that they would support your thesis.”

    I DO know those subjects and I find them all enlightening on human morality and I included philosophy on that list, in case you hadn’t noticed. But I happen to find the science information more enlightening than Kant or Hume, in that it demonstrates to me where they were right (very little in Kant’s case) and where they were wrong (very little in Hume’s case.)

    “In order for scientists to inform philosophy, or anything for that matter, they must have sufficient data, and be capable of generating meaningful conclusions.”

    There is sufficient data that we have powerful innate intuitions that evolved over the course of millions, even billions of years. There is sufficient data that demonstrates that “survive and procreate” is an innate prime directive in ferns, flies, beluga whales, and humans. That’s the most important thing anyone could know as a starting point for moral philosophy in my opinion. But that’s just the beginning. We haven’t even begin to talk about the sufficient data that shows cooperation in social animals EVOLVED. That’s the second most important thing anyone could know as a starting point for moral philosophy.

    Then there is all of that sufficient data that shows that early humans lived as hunter gatherer tribes for millions of years, long enough for intuitions optimized for hunter gatherer tribal life to evolve.

    Then there is all the sufficient data from psychological research that shows universal human intuitions and emotions related to cooperation, family loyalty, tribal loyalty, fairness, disgust, etc.

    If you dispute that there is sufficient data to demonstrate all of these things then you are looking for the kind of proof philosophers don’t think exists. And if you think any of those things I mentioned are only “interesting at best” to moral philosophy, as Massimo has asserted, then there is no mystery as to why we disagree on so much here.

    “Science has yet to paint a complete picture about moral intuitions and reasoning, nor can it ever tell us what to do with our intuitions and reasonings.”

    Philosophy can? You are peddling both a straw man and false dichotomy here. Neither science nor philosophy are being proposed as the deciders, WE do the deciding. And we make those decisions with information. Science is just one thing that informs us about those intuitions and I think it does so better than most philosophers.

    “We could choose to go back to living a hunter-gatherer life if we wanted.”

    Glad you dropped the “easily” from this claim. It’s still pretty untenable. I doubt it would get past the plebiscite stage.

    “Tell you what, you get Steven Pinker to say that capitalism is at odds with our intuitions and we “ought” to chuck it”

    I intend to one day. It’s one of my areas of disagreement with him. The great right/left divide creeps it’s way into everything. There are EP advocates on both sides of the political spectrum. I clearly think the ones on the right are mistaken. For now. Got his number?

    “I’ll end by pointing out you have yet to show how how evolutionary theory provides anything relevant to moral reasoning, beyond assertions and what would seem to be applied circular logic.”

    You want circular reasoning? You are insisting that “scientific data” be “conclusive” before it can inform philosophy, meanwhile, informed by nothing more than opinions, philosophy has declared that no scientific data is ever conclusive. It doesn’t get more circular than that, my friend.

    You seem to forget that no one ever relies on scientific data alone. We all have the capacity to think for ourselves. We are all philosophers. We are all in a constant state of empirical observation of human nature from the inside out. And scientific findings are just one part of a whole slew of inputs that inform our moral reasoning. Philosophy too. And then of course there are those passions. Never forget the passions, proposed as car drivers by Plato, Hume and modern psychology.

    Liked by 2 people

  26. dbholmes

    Hi Garthdaisy,

    “There is sufficient data…”

    There is a difference between “sufficient data” (which is what I was talking about) and “sufficient evidence for” (which is what data can provide). You seem to be discussing the latter so you were missing my point. Plus you hijacked evidence for one set of theories to make it seem as if there was evidence for another set of… speculations.

    Yes there is credible evidence supporting evolution, which of course includes humans. Yes we have credible evidence supporting theories that early humans lived as hunter gatherers. The rest, regarding the evolution of “powerful innate intuitions” (particularly as effected by life as hunter-gatherers) is simply tacked on (and I would add overly vague), as it presumes facts about and causal relations between physiology, mental capacities, feelings, and behaviors about which we simply lack data (especially over these time periods).

    Considering the evolution of moral intuitions or social customs, you have failed to distinguish between intuitions and capacities. I love Frans de Waal (he’ll be speaking at a meeting here soon) but his research does not form a convincing argument that “cooperation evolved” (as if there is some singular cooperative intuition), as opposed to mental/behavioral capacities which (given certain environments) allows for greater cooperative activity. The difference between the two is significant.

    “… long enough for intuitions optimized for hunter gatherer tribal life to evolve.”

    That such a thing might be possible in such a timeframe, does not constitute evidence to support a theory that it did. Indeed, what intuitions at the time needed to be “optimized” and how? For all we know the “powerful intuitions” you discuss as being useful for life in such societies may very well have emerged as far back as our wholly aquatic ancestors. So already you have snuck in hidden assumptions with no ability to form a testable hypothesis.

    You mention human “universals”. You mean the ones that come with counterexamples? Loyalty, whence comes betrayal? Fairness, whence comes injustice? Disgust… about the same things across all humanity? Perhaps humans evolved so as to produce offspring with diverse characteristics and intuitions, including intuitions driven largely by life experience, and so there are few if any universal, set intuitions… even if there would be commonalities.

    “[1]…you are looking for the kind of proof philosophers don’t think exists… [2] Philosophy can? You are peddling both a straw man and false dichotomy here. Neither science nor philosophy are being proposed as the deciders, WE do the deciding…[3] You are insisting that “scientific data” be “conclusive” before it can inform philosophy, meanwhile, informed by nothing more than opinions, philosophy has declared that no scientific data is ever conclusive. It doesn’t get more circular than that”

    (1) No, I’m not. (2) No, I didn’t say philosophy could and yes we make decisions, based on information. (3) And for the third time no, you strawmanned me yet again by merging two different arguments, then sticking some strange philosophical position on top that I neither stated nor believe. I already said I work in science. I wouldn’t be able to work in it if I held the position you just pretended I was advancing.

    “It’s one of my areas of disagreement with [Steven Pinker]. The great right/left divide creeps it’s way into everything. There are EP advocates on both sides of the political spectrum.”

    That is a pretty damning statement regarding EP’s position as a science. Let me know when you convince Pinker that your leftist science is more correct than his rightist science.

    “Never forget the passions, proposed as car drivers by Plato, Hume and modern psychology.”

    Thanks for pretending to tell me about something that I already discussed.

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  27. garthdaisy

    DB

    “That is a pretty damning statement regarding EP’s position as a science. Let me know when you convince Pinker that your leftist science is more correct than his rightist science.”

    You just can’t help yourself with the strawmanning. Who said EP was a science? Not me. Not even it’s most zealous advocates would deny the parts of it that are not testable (most but not all) are not science, though they are aware that it is far more related to science than it’s detractors portray it. So to kill your 2 main straw men once and for all.

    I DO NOT BELIEVE EP IS A SCIENCE.
    I DO NOT BELIEVE SCIENCE CAN TELL US WHAT WE OUGH TO DO.

    EP is not science. Just like philosophy it is an area of inquiry that makes use of information from science, but no one is claiming that the untestable portions are anything more than educated guesswork. EP practitioners are most certainly aware of the difference between traits and capacities. They are aware of the complexities that make it very difficult guesswork. You are implying they believe everything they theorize hook line and sinker. This is simply false.

    Moral philosophers don’t just use empirical evidence they use intuition, thought experiments, induction, extrapolations etc. And you keep forgetting that every person has a lifetime of experience studying human nature and experiencing it from the inside out. We can all empirically recognize things like “slave of the passions” as Hume did and now anyone with a clear understanding of natural selection which would include the latest ideas about epigenetics, plasticity, capacity, environment interaction, etc. can see how these “passions” we al experience MAY HAVE or even MOST LIKELY arose through the process of natural selection.

    We can then take this information, imagine that, say, “the desire to know purpose” which we already know through empirical observations exists, evolved along with division of labour in tribal settings. And then one can imagine and propose moral implications of this seemingly universal desire to know purpose. And then one can imagine public policy and laws that might work well with i.e. making best use of said seemingly universal innate desire.

    If we’re wrong, no biggie. We’re not doing science. It’s philosophy. Just seeing how things hang. You though, as a scientist, are correct not to weigh in until you have sufficient data to be conclusive. But philosophers do not have to wait for that especially when the data isn’t coming because it is untestable. You can not rob philosophers of venturing into the area of EP because some of it’s theories are not testable and likely never will be. But you, scientists, definitely button your lip until the data is in. because that is science. And we philosophers will extrapolate and theorize all we want with your data because that is philosophy.

    But of course as a human being, you are welcome to jump into philosophy mode anytime and ponder along with us, but it seems that you’d rather not and wait for the data. Which is fine. That’s science. EP, as you said, is not.

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  28. garthdaisy

    DB

    Sorry again for the tone. I did not mean that to sound as harsh as it does nor was I telling you personally to “button your lip” I was using a colloquial to a generic scientist to indicate the correct position of science to only report conclusive data, I really didn’t meant for it to sound personally directed at you as it may have read.

    We are both in sparring mode but do prefer a more cordial tone. I’ll lighten up if you do.

    I’m actually surprised this thread is still open.

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  29. Massimo Post author

    Garth,

    All threads reopen after the new ones have been out for a bit. It’s a continuing discussion, as long as it stays more or less on topic.

    # You just can’t help yourself with the strawmanning. Who said EP was a science? Not me. Not even it’s most zealous advocates would deny the parts of it that are not testable #

    I’m sure that’s your position, but it is most definitely not the one endorsed by evopsych researches themselves, who think of the discipline as clearly scientific, and of their hypotheses as eminently testable.

    My take is that — because of how hard it is to test hypotheses about the evolution of human behaviors in particular –evopsych produces at best plausible scenarios. That, however, doesn’t make it “just like philosophy,” but rather more like quasi-science.

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  30. garthdaisy

    Massimo,

    “evopsych produces at best plausible scenarios.”

    Agreed. But are you saying philosophy of ethics produces something more than plausible scenarios? I would assert that most of it doesn’t even accomplish that.

    What is testable, has been tested, and has been confirmed beyond reasonable doubt is that we did indeed evolve to be what we are today by the process of natural; selection. I am convinced that includes innate mental states as well as physical states. None of this is controversial.

    When I am trying to make sense of human nature and behaviour both inward looking and outward looking, just knowing about the process of evolution by natural selection alone helps me sort it all out a great deal better than any philosophy I have ever read.

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