On arrogance (with notes on souls and cosmic consciousness)

The NYAS panel, left to right: Emily Esfahani Smith, yours truly, Michael Ruse, host Steve Paulson, and Jay Lombard

Last week I participated to an interesting panel discussion at the New York Academy of Science, on “Seeking the why of our existence.” We were supposed to talk about meaning and purpose. I am usually somewhat weary of these sorts of panels, as the topic is often vague and open to far too much interpretation, and you never know what the other panelists’ take is going to be until you are on stage and find yourself thinking: “how do I respond to that??”

Nevertheless, I accepted, partly at the prospect of enjoying the stunning view of Manhattan from n. 7 World Trade Center, where the Academy is located, partly because my esteemed colleague Michael Ruse was also on the panel, and partly because, well, how bad could it possibly be? Joining Michael and me were Jay Lombard, MD, Clinical Director of Neuroscience at LifeSpan Medicine; creator, co-founder, and Chief Scientific Officer at Genomind; author of “The Mind of God: Neuroscience, Faith, and a Search for the Soul.” And Emily Esfahani Smith, MAPP, Writer, journalist, and author of “The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life That Matters.” The whole thing moderated by journalist Steve Paulson, Executive Producer of Wisconsin Public Radio’s “To the Best of Our Knowledge.”

Sure enough, it was not bad at all, it actually turned out to be a pleasant evening with good questions from the audience and very able moderation by Paulson. Still, I managed to get called “arrogant” twice, by two fellow panelists (and a third time by a member of the audience), one of whom was Michael himself! (If you know Michael, genial Brit that he is, you may think it odd that he would hurl such an insult to someone else.) My Stoic training has taught me not to get offended, so I responded with humor rather than resentment. But the whole episode made me think about why I do so often receive such label. Immediately discarding the admittedly possible answer that I really am arrogant, I figured something else must be afoot.

Let’s begin with the basics, that is, with the dictionary definition of arrogant:

1. Making claims or pretensions to superior importance or rights; overbearingly assuming; insolently proud.
2. Characterized by or proceeding from arrogance, or a sense of superiority, self-importance, or entitlement.

Now let me tell you why first Jay Lombard, MD, and then Michael himself, thought it appropriate to use the epithet with me. You will be the judge of whether they were justified.

Lombard, pretty early on in the evening, said that — as a neuroscientist — he thinks it is obvious that souls exist. I did a double take, shook my head, and asked what he meant by that. He was ambivalent. On the one hand, it seems, he meant what most people mean by that term: some sort of vaguely defined, incorporeal thing that survives our bodily death and decay, and that in some way carries our “essence” to whatever “next stage” of existence. But when I pressed him, he said that the soul was “the same as” the self.

Well, for one, those two definitions are not at all compatible, unless by “self” one means an incorporeal thing that survives our bodily death and decay — and most people, especially cognitive scientists, definitely do not mean that when they use the word. Moreover, as I pointed out to Lombard, the “self” is, at best, a dynamic “bundle of sensations,” as David Hume so perceptively described it back in the 18th century. And modern cognitive science is squarely behind this notion, as opposed to some Platonic conception of the self as being an unchangeable essence of who we “really” are.

Moreover, I told my interlocutor that he was engaging in a bit of bate and switch: if by “soul” he truly meant the self, why was he using a word so metaphysically and theologically loaded. If, conversely, he meant the above mentioned immaterial essence, then I was pretty confident that there is no such thing. That, of course, is when I got the label of “arrogant.”

Arguably, I should have been more careful with my language. I should have said that there is no scientific evidence for the existence of souls (defined as above), and that, moreover, there is no particular reason to think they exist. Hence, it is perfectly reasonable to take the provisional position that they don’t, until proven wrong. To invoke Hume again, a reasonable person proportions her beliefs to the evidence. No evidence, no justification for belief. It’s as Bayesian as that. But these qualifications should have been obvious from the context of the conversation, with no need to spell them out. Lombard, instead of seeking clarifications of my position (as I had done of his) chose to interpret it in the least charitable way possible, a good rhetorical move, perhaps, but a bad philosophical one.

The discussion went off in a number of other directions, and then I got a second “that’s arrogant” accusation, near the end of the evening, this time by Michael Ruse. I do not, unfortunately, recall the precise wording of that bit of the conversation, but what I was arguing was that human mental powers — including consciousness — are of a degree the like of which is nowhere to be found in the animal world. Again, I probably should have been very careful to clarify that what I meant by that was that the quantitative differences between us and every other living organisms are such that they essentially amount to qualitative differences, not that they are, in fact, qualitative. But Michael — a philosopher! — decided to use the same rhetorical strategy adopted by Lombard, rather than actually engage in a conversation. Scoring points, apparently, is more essential than understanding.

Now, my position on this is far from radical or unsubstantiated, and is very well defended, for instance, by one of the scientists who has actually spent decades of his career studying cognition in humans, as well as its evolution: Kevin Laland, the author of Darwin’s Unfinished Synthesis: How Culture Made the Human Mind, the book we are going to tackle next in our book club series. He has tons of evidence that licenses the conclusion that human beings are incredibly different from anything else on earth, when it comes to the mind.

I know that in these times of revived interest in panpsychism it is not cool to say that humans are special, even though researchers who actually work on these issues agree that they are (in the so-quantitative-that-it-becomes-qualitative sense just described). Hell, some people even think that bacteria and plants are conscious, though of course there is not a shred of evidence that they are (invoking Mr. Hume again). On my part, I simply think that one ought to be careful about making those claims, if nothing else because vegetarians and vegans are going to be really upset. (I’m not kidding: I have vegetarian friends who are very concerned by the possibility that the carrots they eat may be sentient.)

So I fully expected a negative reaction from Lombard, but not from Michael! And yet he accused me of going “Cartesian,” as in assuming that animals are simply robots, while only humans have the divine spark. This would be comical except for the fact that Michael ought to have known better. We have frequented each other, and known about each other’s work, and in fact even collaborated on a number of projects, for literally decades. He knows I am an atheist (which means I don’t believe in divine sparks of any kind), and that I am an evolutionary biologist (which means that I don’t believe in any sort of qualitative exceptionality of Homo sapiens). And yet, I was the arrogant one because I stated the obvious, scientifically grounded, reality, while he got away waxing poetic about the entirely implausible, and certainly completely lacking in evidence, notion that rocks and atoms have degrees of consciousness!

Back to the definition of arrogance, seems to me pretty clear that I wasn’t “making claims or pretensions to superior importance or rights,” was not “overbearingly assuming,” and certainly not “insolently proud.” But I was reminding the good doctor Lombard, as well as my colleague and endowed chair professor of philosophy, that honest intellectualism is bound by reason and evidence. If there is anything that could reasonably qualify as arrogant is precisely what both Lombard and Ruse where doing: making sweeping ontological claims, i.e., claims about what is real, without a shred of empirical evidence to back them up. This, after all, was a panel discussion held at the NY Academy of Science, not of science fiction, fantasy, or wild speculation. It is a disservice to the public to lend credence — with impressive titles such as MD and PhD — to notions that are speculative at best, and incoherent or false at worst.

Do I know for a fact that atoms are not conscious, or that souls do not exist? Nope. But in both cases the burden of proof is squarely on the shoulders of those who do. It is not arrogant to proportion one’s beliefs to the evidence. On the contrary, it is the only epistemically modest thing to do.

103 thoughts on “On arrogance (with notes on souls and cosmic consciousness)

  1. saphsin

    So far based on the exchanges I’m seeing with Massimo above in the comments “if I think your position is unjustified and full of nonsense and you seem to be overly confident about it, I’ll respond by suggesting you might be arrogant.” At least that’s what it seems like to me. I want to avoid drawing necessary connections here, but if you’re the type of person who’s eager to buy into fanciful claims, other people who deny what you perceive as strong evidence must be close-minded and overconfident about their skepticism indeed. So therefore, arrogant.

    Like

  2. synred

    If you assume naturalism then proving the falsity of supernatural or spiritual claims may sound arrogant.

    Massimo doesn’t/didn’t claim to disprove them, only not to believe them. By their very nature they can’t be disproved.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Robin Herbert

    Massimo

    You are one of the last people I would think of as arrogant.

    On the issue of Lombard’s use of words, I don’t think that it is completely unreasonable to use the word ‘soul’ to refer to this bundle of perceptions, feelings, beliefs, dispositions that we call our ‘self’.

    The idea of a soul isn’t always lonked to immortality. The early Jewish scriptures seem to have the concept of a soul without the belief that it will live on. While the ancient Greeks had the concept of the soul as an imperishable entity which precedes and survives the body, this does not seem to have been the only view.

    Even the Christan theology doesn’t have the soul as something which can survive without a body, they have the person dying with the body and resurrected in a new body. Islamic theology has the same, although plenty of Christians and Muslim seem to have personal beliefs about the soul continuing as an immaterial entity.

    The word for soul and mind are the same in some languages, such as German, and the term and word roor ‘psyche’ comes from the Greek word which also means soul.

    So I don’t think the fact that many people think of the soul as immaterial and immortal means that thise things are necessarily implied by the concept.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. synred

    Hi Dan,

    I don’t disagree. I don’t know about computational-ism. The point I was trying to make is that there are non-physical things. I don’t think a program is a mind or whatever people mean by ‘soul’.

    Indeed a program is not even a computation, but just a set of instructions..’if this do that’ is all programming is. I think something beyond that is need to understand mind, but don’t have any idea what. I assume whatever it is, is natural.

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  5. brodix

    Microaggressions. Guilty as charged.

    If you ever do find a way to get people to engage in a logical point, without reverting to rhetorical finger pointing when they lack an effective counterargument, I’d like to hear it.

    Like

  6. wtc48

    Socratic: “I have seen the latest Neanderthal studies that note as far as throat structures, they were more capable of a wider range of articulation than in the past.”

    I am glad of this information, which has fueled, in my mind, a wonderful casting of Neanderthals for the Valhalla denizens in Wagner’s Ring cycle.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. wtc48

    robgradens: “You people may keep stroking each other from your ivory towers while the rest of us drive garbage trucks and pump gas.”

    Don’t go away mad! Personally, I spent most of my working career maintaining a golf course, which, though probably less PC than gas-pumping or garbage-hauling, entails a surprising amount of hard physical work. But don’t let that deter you from your judgements: snobbishness is its own reward.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. robgradens

    Thank you for encouraging. I’ve never been a manual laborer myself, but I feel I represent a social class of the less fortunate. I’ve had health problems that are very tricky to diagnose and even harder for society to accept. Yes, it is a mental condition. Since I fell ill in fall 1991, I have gotten mixed responses from faculty who knew. It depended on the individual. One prof, George Rowe, whose expertise was the Renaissance, was very kind to me. He seemed to think there was no reason why I couldn’t do graduate work in English. Rowe even surmised that I might get a score of 800 on the verbal part of the GRE. I visited his office in summer of 1995. However, in January 2010, another professor, John Gage, was very discouraging when I contacted him with the possibility of earning a scholarship to study for an advanced degree. I wanted to get an MFA in poetry writing, but first I needed recommendation letters. I couldn’t conceal the fact that the scholarship was offered for the mentally ill who wanted to study further. In short, Gage advised me to give up. Maybe the timing was wrong, because my older brother, a professor of food science, shot me down as well.

    My illness seems to be better than it was seven years ago. I don’t take any drugs at all now. I stopped drinking altogether, cold turkey, got past the withdrawals, and have been sober for a good month. I’ve gotten involved with the neighborhood Lutheran church just to be around people. I don’t criticize their blind faith as a faulty method. Indeed, my own mind has a “bucket” for that. I read Iris Murdoch’s Under the Net in fall 2004 and laughed till I cried. I apologize for judging these comments too soon, and for overgeneralizing. Massimo categorically rejects faith as “irrational” and “unwise” and something he wants no part of. But I didn’t stick around to read all the discussion from others who might have “speculative” leanings. It seems to me, too, that “reason” varies in meaning across history. In Descartes’s time, it could refer to epistemological rationalism, which the analytic philosophers later panned. And now, it looks like reason is mostly empirical and factual. BTW, I’ve never been a stoic, however Massimo is using this term. If being attracted to Kantian idealism is more poetic than whatever “philosophy” has come to mean, then I never was a philosopher, and neither was Kant. Thanks for reading.

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  9. brodix

    Hopefully some observations on the quality of human talents isn’t too much of a tangent from Massimo’s debate style, or the source and construction of consciousness, but how special are we and is there some spectrum of specialness along which we are advancing?

    Yes, our technical abilities, social integration and conscious study of the physical world are orders of magnitude greater than other species, but given this is a mass effort, it does seem individuals are mostly components of a larger system and are possibly less engaged and aware than in our more primal state. Not only might our vocal ranges have decreased, but apparently our brain case is smaller, as well.

    I would argue that nature, with the evolution of complex organisms, attained a level of complexity far greater than human society has attained and it did so through feedback loops with the natural world that we are more subconsciously, than consciously replicating.

    For one thing, states would seem to be geographic social organisms, with governments as their central nervous system. Existing within an environment of other such entities, with other utilities as internal organs and micro-biomes, aka, the private sector. Finance and money as the circulation tying these structures, substructures and individual players together.

    If one was to accept this as a description of human culture, what lessons might it have of where we are headed? For one thing, disregarding all the scifi imagining otherwise, we will increasingly come to realize this planet is our only niche, for any foreseeable future and so we are currently in that late childhood stage of burning off the seemingly excess of resources we have been given, but are simply too immature to be able to put to wiser uses. Sort of like drinking one’s way though college, on the assumption it will remain this protected.

    Suffice to say, it will likely take a very significant crash to wake enough people up, that we are in this together and only have each other. Wealth is not in the stock of resources, but how well what there is, is used.

    So are we special, or just following the very same rules on a different scale?

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  10. Ivan Camargo

    I think this is a problem of authority (that finally lead to arrogance), they (Lombar and Michael) don’t wan to loose authority because of the prestige derived from it, in spite of the poor evidence in favor of its claims. How far is our society from a civilized conversation…

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  11. Disagreeable Me (@Disagreeable_I)

    Hi Massimo (and Thomas Jones),

    Since Thomas mentioned this talk was on youtube, I have watched it.

    I think Thomas’s reaction was pretty much right. You did not come across as arrogant to me, but it didn’t seem to me that your interlocutors really intended to call you arrogant either, so perhaps you were being a little thin-skinned.

    You were asked did the soul exist, and you jokingly said “Nah!”. Lombard went on to say shortly thereafter that he thought it was arrogant of scientists to proclaim that the soul doesn’t exist, more or less because there is so much we don’t know about the brain. So, as you say, he was calling the claim arrogant rather than calling you arrogant. And to me, that seems relatively reasonable, at least from his perspective, as there really is a lot we don’t know and perhaps it is a bit presumptuous to be making such sweeping statements while so much is unknown.

    Of course I’m not saying that I have any suspicion that a supernatural soul might exist. There are good reasons to think that it doesn’t, and so this is what I believe. But any scientist who says “Science shows there is no soul” is being arrogant, and I think that’s what Lombard is objecting to, more than your joking “Nah”. Later you clarified that while it is possible souls exist, you don’t see any evidence for them. I don’t think Lombard would have called this position arrogant.

    I gather Lombard is a man of faith, so I assume he does believe in a supernatural soul of some kind, but he seems to be mainly reacting against greedy reductionism, or the idea that if we understand how neurons and neurotransmitters work we will understand the mind. When he is speaking as a neurologist in support of the concept of the soul, he is more or less saying that his knowledge of this area makes such reductionism seem hopelessly misguided.

    When he actually tries to describe what he means by the soul, most of what he says seems compatible with naturalism to me and chimes well with what I believe myself. For him, soul, mind and self are more or less synonymous, which seems fair enough to me. They are simply different words he uses for the same concept, that which makes you you, that which thinks your thoughts etc. He sees these as distinct from the brain or the body, and I do too. For me, the mind is the pattern of information processing performed by the brain. This means that for me too the mind is not a material thing, but it is a thing which exists nonetheless. I’m sure Lombard’s actual position is quite far from my own (clearly he does not think much of the prospect of artificial intelligence), but what he actually says is cautious and tentative enough that I don’t think he need be interpreted as making any particularly wild claims — so when what he is saying is rejected out of hand, I can understand why he feels this is arrogant.

    With regard to Ruse, he may have misunderstood you, or perhaps your position really is arrogant, depending on what you mean. If you want to deny that animals are conscious, or that they might have something akin to purpose in their lives, then I can’t fault Ruse for calling that position arrogant. We can’t know that, and the terms are vague enough anyway to make any such absolute claims hard to justify. Ruse never denied that humans are qualitatively different from animals, but that doesn’t mean that animals are mindless automatons (what he referred to as the Cartesian position). The Cartesian position is what Ruse finds arrogant, but I don’t think you intended to express the Cartesian position. There was no time to clarify this issue before the talk concluded.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Massimo Post author

    All,

    There seems to be a bit of a misunderstanding about the point of this post. It’s not about me being called arrogant and trying to demonstrate I wasn’t. I honestly couldn’t care less about that. It is about what I think is a pattern, of people defending unlikely positions on the basis on no evidence who turn around and call anyone (not just me) “arrogant” as if that were substitutive of an actual argument.

    Valarian,

    “They anticipated questions from the audience, not from other panel members”

    No, we were instructed from the beginning to ask each questions throughout most of the panel.

    “I find you to be a gracious host on this forum and appreciate the time and effort you put in.”

    Thank you, much appreciated.

    Thomas,

    “Okay, well I cheated. I found the panel discussion on Youtube and listened fairly closely”

    That’s not cheating! I didn’t know the video was already out (the NYAS was supposed to send us the link). Here it is:

    https://t.co/GObs1WZe4o

    “I think perhaps you are being thin-skinned with your concern about being “arrogant.””

    See top of this comment, concerning what this post is meant to be about. Otherwise, I agree with your analysis.

    Jbonni,

    “So, given what you have said, why would Michael Ruse, equally learned, have said you were arrogant?”

    Because he has made a career of appearing moderate and open to positions that most philosophers of science are not open to. I believe it does that genuinely, not as a pose, but that occasionally pushes him into a corner from which, apparently, his only way out is to use ad hominem.

    Robin,

    “You are one of the last people I would think of as arrogant.”

    Much appreciated.

    “I don’t think that it is completely unreasonable to use the word ‘soul’ to refer to this bundle of perceptions”

    Unreasonable is probably going too far, but ambiguous and leading to confusion for sure. Moreover, Lombard very clearly did not mean it that way. He really was talking about the sort of immaterial, immortal soul that many people want to believe in.

    Markk,

    “I would like to know why Lombard thought it so obvious that souls exist”

    Good question…

    DM,

    “as you say, he was calling the claim arrogant rather than calling you arrogant. And to me, that seems relatively reasonable, at least from his perspective, as there really is a lot we don’t know”

    I’m sorry, but when we don’t know things the only thing that is reasonable is to say just that, we don’t know. If one makes up entities then one is not being reasonable, given the evidence.

    “perhaps it is a bit presumptuous to be making such sweeping statements while so much is unknown”

    Again, no. If you tell me that aliens have been visiting earth for thousands of years it isn’t presumptuous of me to say “I seriously doubt it,” or even to respond (clearly jokingly) with a “nah!” It is, however, presumptuous of you to want me to take the possibility seriously, especially in a public forum at the NY Academy of Sciences, without any reason or evidence on your side.

    “he seems to be mainly reacting against greedy reductionism”

    As you should know by now, I am most definitely not a greedy reductionist. But naturalism, which is my position, is not greedy reductionism.

    “When he is speaking as a neurologist in support of the concept of the soul, he is more or less saying that his knowledge of this area makes such reductionism seem hopelessly misguided.”

    Because he can get a neuro-scan of a soul??

    “For him, soul, mind and self are more or less synonymous”

    Indeed, but that’s only because he confuses different things, probably in order to prop up his belief system.

    “For me, the mind is the pattern of information processing performed by the brain”

    DM, this isn’t about your particular version of dualism, which we have discussed aplenty. And that is definitely not Lombard’s position.

    “what he actually says is cautious and tentative enough”

    It’s also vacuous and completely not backed by evidence enough that it should have been embarrassing in that forum.

    “If you want to deny that animals are conscious, or that they might have something akin to purpose in their lives, then I can’t fault Ruse for calling that position arrogant.”

    This isn’t about consciousness, DM, since I think any animal capable of feeling pain is conscious. This is about what the panel was suppose to discuss: meaning and purpose. Those only come from conscious reflection, and probably require language to be articulated. That is what I’m seriously doubting exists in other animals. And if someone says they do, then, again, they need evidence. The one currently available (Laland’s book) does not support the notion.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Disagreeable Me (@Disagreeable_I)

    Hi Massimo,

    I think you’re maybe misinterpreting where I’m coming from a little.

    Once again, I don’t think you came across as arrogant, and I don’t think the accusations of arrogance were targeted at the positions you actually hold. They may have been target at positions you were wrongly interpreted to hold where the format of the discussion did not allow these issues to be explored fully.

    It is about what I think is a pattern, of people defending unlikely positions on the basis on no evidence who turn around and call anyone (not just me) “arrogant” as if that were substitutive of an actual argument.

    But it’s not just that they’re calling anyone who disagrees with them arrogant. They are calling the dismissal of their ideas without evidence arrogant. I think that’s fair. Lombard claims there is a soul. Fair enough, I disagree with him, but making that claim in the right way need not be arrogant. But merely dismissing the claim without conclusive proof can be arrogant — not that that’s what you actually did in this case. But that’s what I take him to be objecting to. It’s not clear to me that he thought you in particular were guilty of this. He was just saying that he found this to be arrogant in general.

    Again, no. If you tell me that aliens have been visiting earth for thousands of years it isn’t presumptuous of me to say “I seriously doubt it,” or even to respond (clearly jokingly) with a “nah!”

    Agreed! Again, I’m not at all saying you were arrogant, because I don’t think you displayed arrogance in this case and it’s not clear to me Lombard was even trying to call you arrogant. He was calling arrogant those who would say flatly that science shows there is no soul. That’s not what you did. What’s not clear to me is whether he thinks you were doing so or not.

    As you should know by now, I am most definitely not a greedy reductionist.

    Certainly! I did not mean to imply that you were. Rather I was trying to lean on your antipathy to greedy reductionism to try to see things a little more from Lombard’s perspective. Because I think what he’s trying to express is close to your rejection of greedy reductionism. He’s calling the greedy reductionists arrogant, not you. He may have mistaken you for a greedy reductionist, however.

    DM, this isn’t about your particular version of dualism, which we have discussed aplenty. And that is definitely not Lombard’s position.

    I know my position is not his. My point is that Lombard’s expressed position was so tentative and vague that it could be interpreted any number of ways, including in my way. As such it can’t easily be rejected or dismissed. To reject or dismiss it you would need a clearer idea of what exactly he was saying than came across in that discussion.

    This isn’t about consciousness, DM, since I think any animal capable of feeling pain is conscious

    It is if you want to understand what Ruse called arrogance. Here, your actual position is not as relevant as what Ruse thought it was.

    What he said was:

    “I’m just appalled now at this Cartesian position that my fellow philosopher is taking … I’m very uncomfortable with saying that my dogs don’t at some level have an independent purpose or meaning or something like that … there’s an arrogance there [gets derailed here by a humorous interjection from Massimo before Ruse can explain what he means exactly]”

    What jumped outi to me is that he’s calling your position Cartesian. Descartes held that animals were automatons, not conscious. So I think that there’s a fair chance that he thinks you think that humans are exceptional in this way as well as in having language etc. I think he came to this misunderstanding of your position because you argued against the idea that non-humans have purpose by saying that amoebas don’t have purpose, “they just do what they do”. There is little doubt that amoebas are not conscious at all (except among panpsychists), and since you took amoebas as your example I think he therefore incorrectly inferred that you were suggesting that all animals were unconscious and mindlessly just doing “what they do”.

    He’s also being quite tentative in how he talks about purpose “or something like that”. To me, this vagueness suggests that he is arguing only that the minds of his dogs are not completely unlike the minds of humans, if a lot less sophisticated, and indeed that they have minds at all. Again, he’s being tentative, and what he finds arrogant is the dismissal of this idea, a dismissal I don’t think you intended to make.

    Those only come from conscious reflection, and probably require language to be articulated.

    I think we would need a clearer understanding of purpose and of conscious reflection to be able to say with any degree of certainty that purpose requires conscious reflection, and you say yourself that purpose only “probably” requires language. So to me the argument you’re making — that non-human animals cannot have purpose because purpose requires conscious reflection and conscious reflection requires language and studies X and Y and Z show that animals don’t have language — this argument too many weak links to yield a definite conclusion. I take no issue with the weaker conclusion that animals probably don’t have purpose. The problem is declaring that animals definitely have no purpose as if this is an entirely settled matter and there is no room for doubt.

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  14. Daniel Kaufman

    Of course most animals don’t have meaning and purpose in the sense that is meant, and of course that also does not mean they are automata.

    Animals are not agents, which is why we don’t arrest them for disorderly conduct when they pee on the floor.

    Pretty silly dispute this.

    Liked by 1 person

  15. Disagreeable Me (@Disagreeable_I)

    Hi Dan,

    Pretty silly dispute this.

    Which one is that? The one where Ruse thought Massimo’s position was arrogant, or the one where Massimo accuses Ruse of thinking that a perfectly reasonable position is arrogant and I’m saying that Ruse may have misunderstood Massimo’s position?

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  16. Daniel Kaufman

    As for Massimo’s intended topic, unfortunately, professional scholars are taking on board some of the worst developments in recent public discourse. Characterizing a person as “arrogant” for being critical of fuzzy wuzzy soul talk is in the same universe as saying that someone who refuses to call another person “Ze” is committing an act of “violence” or that questioning the 1 in 5 statistic makes someone a “promoter of rape culture.” And while I understand the political, tactical reasons for playing these sorts of cards, it is very, very depressing to see them being employed in scholarly discourse, though, of course, Massimo’s relatively light treatment is nothing like what was done to Rebecca Tuvel by professional philosophers.

    Basically, if we can get everyone to think Massimo is just a big meanie, then we don’t have to deal with our own ridiculous views and our inability to give any sort of respectable accounting for them. It’s amazing that this sort of kindergarten strategy actually works, but there it is.

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  17. saphsin

    “Animals are not agents, which is why we don’t arrest them for disorderly conduct when they pee on the floor.

    Pretty silly dispute this.”

    I dispute this depending on what you mean by agency, I mean they definitely don’t have agency in the sense we do and don’t have moral agency, but does that mean they don’t have agency in any sense? Cooperative behavior among animals exist too. Agency seems more like a spectrum.

    Liked by 2 people

  18. synred

    Animals are not agents, which is why we don’t arrest them for disorderly conduct when they pee on the floor.

    Lot’s of animals are ‘punished’ esp. for peeing on the floor. It even works for dogs.

    I once had a fight with our cat over sitting on our new stereo. This was in Urbana, Ill, We were students — short on money and the stereo was a big expense.

    When I got home from school I found Suzy (the cat) sitting on top of the new stereo. I yelled at her and took her down. Every day she’d be up there again. I got increasingly angry. I little stoicism would have been useful.

    Finally, I threw her across the room (I did aim at the twin bed we used as a couch, so she wouldn’t be hurt). Next day she was back on the stereo.

    However, I was so embarrassed by my behavior, I said ‘fuck it’ to myself and let her be. She stayed there dozing for a couple of hours.

    The day after when I got home, she was not there on the stereo. She was sleeping on the enclosed porch on her favorite plastic chair (painted with peace signs by Margaret’s brother).

    Suzy won.

    Now that might not be ‘agency’, but Suzy wanted what she wanted and got it.

    Liked by 2 people

  19. Thomas Jones

    Dan K:

    “Animals are not agents, which is why we don’t arrest them for disorderly conduct when they pee on the floor.”

    That’s a good point, but as a commonplace distinction is arguable. The reason Fifi is not arrested for disorderly conduct is because we humans make the rules regarding acceptable behavior in our households, and that includes the behavior of both domesticated animals and humans.

    It is simply not true that animals lack agency, particularly in the wild. While it is true that so far as we know cetaceans haven’t engaged in discussions to license the “Trump” brand for an underwater golf course or hotel in the South Pacific, I think there is sufficient evidence of agency. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  20. Massimo Post author

    People, unfortunately there is no obvious way in WP to limit comments size, but I will no longer respond to commenta that are a significant fraction of the OP. C’mon, we all have limited time, this is a comments section, not your own blog…

    That said:

    DM,

    “They are calling the dismissal of their ideas without evidence arrogant. I think that’s fair”

    No, it isn’t. If “their ideas” amount to unsubstantiated ontological claims with not a shred of evidence, I seriously don’t think it is “arrogant” to dismiss them. That’s on the ground that there is an infinite number of ontological claims one can make, most of which are false (because the universe of logical possibilities is far, far larger than the one of physical possibility, which is itself larger than that of actuality). So, no, they don’t get to fairly tell me that it is arrogant to criticize their made up stories.

    “He’s calling the greedy reductionists arrogant, not you.”

    I’m pretty sure his comment was referring to me, or rather the position I was putting forth. Which was not greedy reductionism.

    “Lombard’s expressed position was so tentative and vague that it could be interpreted any number of ways, including in my way. As such it can’t easily be rejected or dismissed.”

    Ah, right. In other words, it’s not even wrong, because he’s not saying anything of substance, just equivocating on language. Not sure that makes things better for him.

    “I think that there’s a fair chance that he thinks you think that humans are exceptional in this way as well as in having language etc. I think he came to this misunderstanding of your position because you argued against the idea that non-humans have purpose by saying that amoebas don’t have purpose”

    “Purpose” here is very clearly understood in the human sense, the ability to reflect on one’s own goals and to derive meaning from them. Sorry but I’m still pretty damn sure that neither amoebas nor dogs have that sort of purpose, because we have no reason to think that they are capable of self reflection. And biology doesn’t really leave any room for other meanings of purpose without slipping from teleonomy to teleology, a move best not undertaken in the light of Darwin, as I explained in a video with Dan.

    “He’s also being quite tentative in how he talks about purpose “or something like that”. To me, this vagueness suggests that he is arguing only that the minds of his dogs are not completely unlike the minds of humans.”

    This tentativeness is simply the reflection of the vagueness of his thoughts on the matter. How does he know that the minds of dogs (do dogs have minds? How does he know that?) are “something like” ours? And what does “something like” mean? For crying out loud, these are supposed to be scientists and philosophers, they are supposed to be clear in their language and empirically informed. At times — especially when talking to Lombard — I had the distinct sensation of arguing with Deepak Chopra.

    “I think we would need a clearer understanding of purpose and of conscious reflection to be able to say with any degree of certainty that purpose requires conscious reflection”

    I gave you that clarity above. Sometimes I think people say that purpose, consciousness, etc. are “complex” and “hard to define” because of one of two reasons: (i) they don’t know what they are talking about (fuzzy thinking), or (ii) they don’t want to admit the uniqueness of humans (call it scientifico-philosophical correctness, or SPC (TM)).

    Saphsin,

    “I dispute this depending on what you mean by agency, I mean they definitely don’t have agency in the sense we do and don’t have moral agency”

    Again, I explained above what was meant, very clearly, by agency in the context of the discussion: human-type agency, based on explicit goals and reflections about meaning.

    Just because plants or bacteria appear to have purposes (“catch the light!”, “move along the pH gradient!”) it doesn’t mean that they are doing anything other than mechanically respond to stimuli. In that sense, they really are Cartesian automatons. (Not so animals with complex brains, I hasten to say before another round of “arrogant!” is going to be thrown my way.)

    To deny that would erase more than a century and a half of Darwinism and plunge biology back into vitalism.

    Liked by 1 person

  21. synred

    Animals make decisions. I don’t know what agency means.

    Human agency, perhaps in the sense of knowing you’re deciding, presumably did not just pop out of nowhere.

    Like

  22. saphsin

    Massimo

    “Again, I explained above what was meant, very clearly, by agency in the context of the discussion: human-type agency, based on explicit goals and reflections about meaning.”

    I know, I was just narrowly probing to what I was directly responding to.. I wasn’t talking about bacteria and plants. Probably not even ants. Definitely talking about smarter birds and mammals though. Sure I doubt elephants make meaning in any sense that reflective humans do, but they do mourn for their dead. I don’t know what to call that, but to say that they lack agency doesn’t seem to be it.

    Liked by 2 people

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