Category Archives: Epistemology

Book Club: The Edge of Reason 5, the challenge of psychology

Let us continue our in-depths discussion of Julian Baggini’s The Edge of Reason, a book that aims, in a sense, at striking a balance between the Scylla of scientistic rationalism and the Charybdis of anti-rational relativism. Chapter 5 concerns what Julian calls “the challenge of psychology,” the idea that since much of our thinking is unconscious, we are not really rational beings, as much as rationalizing ones.

The chapter begins with a short introduction to the famous trolley dilemma, introduced by philosopher Philippa Foot as a tool to bring out our moral intuitions. I will not summarize the thought experiment, since it is well known. Baggini says that it is obvious that when many people “go consequentialist” in one version of the dilemma, and “Kantian” in another, this is because different psychological intuitions, not any explicit moral reasoning, are at play. Which immediately brings him to Daniel Kahneman’s famous distinction between “System 1” and “System 2” reasoning: the version of the dilemma that involves a more personal interaction with others is likely to trigger our emotional responses (System 1), while the impersonal version activates our thinking in terms of large numbers and consequences (System 2).

The problem, of course, is that it may be difficult, philosophically speaking, to make sense of one’s diverging reactions to the different situations posed by the trolley dilemma: “if asked why we should not push the person, we don’t say, ‘I don’t know, it just feels wrong.’ Rather, we come up with various rational justifications, such as the idea that it is wrong to use a person as a means to an end — even when this is just what we were prepared to do in the lever case.”

Kahneman himself seems pretty pessimistic about the sort of inference about human reasoning that we should make from his research: “when asked if his 45 years of study had changed the way that he makes decisions, [Kahneman] had to reply, ‘They haven’t really, very little, because System 1, the intuitive system, the fast thinking, is really quite immune to change. Most of us just go to our graves with the same perceptual system we were born with.’”

Setting aside that even the interviewer had a hard time taking Kahneman’s words at face value, Baggini says “not so fast,” so to speak. He points out that System 1 is an “enemy of reason” only if we conceptualize reason as identical to formal logic, which he has been at pains to argue, in the previous five chapters, is far too narrow a conception.

Julian maintains that the sort of “gut feelings” we sometimes have, especially, but not only, when it comes to moral situations, are in fact the result of quick heuristics embedded into System 1: “Heuristics are cognitive shortcuts, and the key is that they wouldn’t have evolved if they didn’t work more often than not. The problem is that they are so deep rooted that we often find ourselves using them even when we don’t need a quick, snappy solution but cool, calm reasoning.”

Julian seems to hint, in the passage above, that these System 1-based heuristics are the result of biologically rooted instincts, and surely in part that is the case. But I don’t see why they cannot also be the outcome of accumulated experiences, and more likely a deeply intertwined combination of both.

Baggini goes on to suggest that it isn’t at all obvious — as utilitarians, or Kantian deontologists, would argue — that moral questions ought to be analyzed solely on the basis of “cold” (i.e., impartial) reason. The most obvious case, he maintains, is that of parental love. As parents we are partial to our children, and given a choice between intervening on behalf of our child or on behalf of a stranger’s child, we do not hesitate and choose the former. And rightly so, says Julian, as the world wouldn’t likely be a better place if everyone treated their kids as random members of the population. That, of course, generates a tension between “local” ethics (i.e., our personal moral decisions) and “universal” ethics (what we should do when we think of humanity at large). Welcome to the human condition, where sound judgment (which, remember, for Baggini is what defines reason in the broadest terms) is a necessary component of our existence. And where Systems 1 and 2 constantly interplay.

Julian then moves to the perilous territory of “gendered” reason: what if it turns out that people of different genders think in significantly, if not radically, different ways, ways that are deeply rooted in their gender identity? Should we then not talk about reason(s), in the plural, instead of the singular term, and concept, we inherited from the Enlightenment?

He reports a strange conversation he had with the French philosopher Luce Irigaray, who has been influenced by the Lacanian school of psychotherapy, and who thinks of gender differences in a somewhat radical fashion: “When I interviewed her, I suggested that [her position] means that in a sense I was not meeting her at all, since we could not share the same understanding. She agreed. ‘In this moment we seem to be in the same place, inhabiting the same space, the same time, the same country, the same culture, the same language. In a way it is only an illusion.’”

Julian labels this an “extreme” position, “frankly not supported by the best evidence of psychology.” I’m slightly more blunt: it’s nonsense on stilts.

He elaborates along lines that seem eminently sound to me: “Feminist philosophy, for instance, is not separate from all other philosophy. A feminist critique of epistemology (theory of knowledge) has its force because it suggests there is something epistemology is missing because of distortions rooted in gender, distortions it seeks to remedy. Such a critique would lack any power if it amounted to the claim that there is male epistemology and female epistemology, and each of the two should mind their own business.” Exactly, though the latter is, indeed, the position of some radical feminists and gender studies scholars.

Baggini goes on to analyze the gender gap within the philosophical profession, ascribing it to the intellectual culture within, in terms of the assumption that discussions have to be value-neutral (while feminism, most obviously, isn’t), and especially that academic philosophy is characterized by the encouragement of a confrontational approach toward colleagues, which makes a number of women feel very uncomfortable.

All of this certainly does play a role (and indeed, I’ve seen it with my own eyes), but I would like to remind people that a comparable gender gap exists within plenty of other fields where there is no such (special) culture of confrontation, and where there are no approaches to technical matters that depart from value neutrality: mathematics, chemistry, physics and engineering come to mind. So I dispute the idea that the gender gap in philosophy is peculiar to the field, or that the profession itself should undergo some kind of radical change in order to resolve the problem. The problem is going to be resolved in the same way in which it is being addressed in other fields: by encouraging young girls to embrace areas that have been seen as traditionally “male,” on the simple ground that there is no reason at all why they shouldn’t succeed in them. And of course by an explicitly fair treatment of women undergraduate and graduate students, as well as faculty at different ranks. Something, incidentally, that philosophy as a profession is very aware of and has been implementing for years through the efforts of the American Philosophical Association.

So what does psychology tell us about human reason? Baggini suggests a revision of Plato’s famous analogy between the human mind and a chariot led by two horses: “we would do better not to think of the human soul as comprising two wildly different horses and a controlling charioteer, but as being one single equine which draws on all sorts of cognitive tools, from the conscious, systemic and deliberative to the automatic, unconscious and affective.” It’s more a mule than a thoroughbred, he says. The image may be less ennobling, but it is “better to be a many-skilled mule than one-trick pony.”

Prove it! The burden of proof in science vs pseudoscience disputes

IMG_9677Time to look back at one of my technical papers, this one published in 2013 with my friend and collaborator Maarten Boudry in the journal Philosophia, and entitled “Prove it! The burden of proof in science vs Pseudoscience disputes.” (As with all my technical papers, they can be downloaded from my DropBox, by going to this link.)

The starting point for the paper is that the concept of burden of proof is used in a wide range of discourses, from philosophy to law, science, skepticism, and even in everyday reasoning. Maarten and I, then, provide an analysis of the proper deployment of burden of proof, focusing in particular on skeptical discussions of pseudoscience and the paranormal, where burden of proof assignments are most poignant and relatively clear-cut. We argue that burden of proof is often misapplied or used as a mere rhetorical gambit, with little appreciation of the underlying principles. The paper elaborates on an important distinction between evidential and prudential varieties of burdens of proof, which is cashed out in terms of Bayesian probabilities and error management theory. Finally, we explore the relationship between burden of proof and several (alleged) informal logical fallacies. This allows us to get a firmer grip on the concept and its applications in different domains, and also to clear up some confusions with regard to when exactly some fallacies (ad hominem, ad ignorantiam, and petitio principii) may or may not occur.

To begin with, an important distinction needs to be made between prudential and evidential burden of proof (BoP). The prudential BoP is applicable when there are cost asymmetries in arriving at two judgments about whatever matter is under dispute, whereas the evidential burden of proof applies when there are no such cost asymmetries involved.

Consider, for instance, the question of the safety of food additives. If approached as a straightforward scientific question, then the relevant concept is that of evidential BoP: there is no “cost” associated with arriving at the right judgment, other than the symmetric cost in getting a chunk of reality wrong. But if we approach the issue of food additives from the standpoint of its potential consequences for public health, there is a differential cost in getting the wrong answer, so the idea of prudential BoP seems more appropriate.

The (controversial) precautionary principle, which is an application of the prudential burden of proof, states that — if a certain action or policy is suspected to be harmful — the burden falls on those who believe that a new policy or course of action is not harmful. The status quo is perceived as less costly than a potentially dangerous new policy or course of action. In more general terms, the prudential BoP can be applied in situations where the cost of a false positive is significantly different (greater or smaller) from the cost of a false negative.

Examples of prudential BoP where the cost associated with a false negative outweighs that of a false positive include smoke detection alarms, environmental hazards, cancer screening, etc. An example of the opposite case, where false positives are perceived as more costly, include the presumption of innocence in a court of law. This principle in American criminal law clearly skews things in favor of the defendant, but this is done because the risk of a false positive (convicting an innocent) is treated as much less acceptable than the risk of a false negative (exonerating a guilty party).

Of course, cases of prudential BoP always involve an evidential dimension as well, while the opposite is not the case. In prudential BoP, cost asymmetries have to be taken into account in addition to prior probabilities. For example, in discussions about cancer and cell phones, the initial plausibility of low-energy electromagnetic radiation being carcinogenic has to be taken into account in addition to cost asymmetries. If prior probabilities are ignored, the precautionary principle is misused and can have paralyzing effects on public policy. Conversely, one cannot just invoke a Bayesian perspective (as useful as it is) to settle issues where cost asymmetries are involved, since even when competing claims have equal priors, a prudential approach (but not an evidential one) could easily tip the balance in favor of one claim over the other.

There are a number of important discussions in science, pseudoscience, and even in straightforward philosophical argumentation, that can reasonably be approached either from an evidential or from a prudential perspective, depending on the interest of the parties involved. For instance, the force of the philosophical argument behind Pascal’s wager is supposed to be that the risk of a false negative (you don’t believe there is a god, but it turns out there is one) is much higher than that of a false positive (because of the threat of eternal damnation in Hell). By contrast, to take another philosophical example dealing with the import of paranormal or supernatural hypotheses: the risk (in terms of practical consequences) of falsely accepting the existence of Bertrand Russell’s tea pot orbiting the sun (false positive) seems to be the same as the risk of rejecting the tea pot when there really is one (false negative).

Maarten and I then discuss a number of sources of subjectivity in the judgment of were the burden of proof lies, as well as a distinction between “global” and “local” burden of proof, where the global BoP is fixed throughout a discussion, because it is related to what a discussant ultimately wishes to establish (or her opponents wishes to deny). Within that broad goal, however, a number of local burdens of proof may arise, which shift during the debate itself, as they pertain to smaller pieces of the overall puzzle.

We move on to consider how BoP should be assigned. In 1970, Brown characterized the request for meeting the burden by a given side in a debate as amounting to the claim that, prima facie, that side’s position is more initially plausible than the alternative(s). Brown’s framework does not involve the costs associated with different judgments, and can thus be seen as a characterization of evidential BoP. A major exponent of modern skepticism, Michael Shermer, describes the principle of (evidential) BoP as follows: “The person making the extraordinary claim has the burden of proving to the experts and to the community at large that his or her belief has more validity than the one almost everyone else accepts.” Psychologist Terence Hines, in another compendium on pseudoscience, agrees that the burden should fall on the claimant of the extraordinary, because “it is often impossible to disprove even a clearly ridiculous claim,” such as that Santa Claus exists.

We discuss a formal analysis of these ideas, carried out by Larry Laudan (details in the paper), but warn that such an analysis should not be cause for too much complacency on the part of the skeptic of pseudoscience, since it doesn’t license an automatic rejection of any claim of the paranormal or extranormal, except when the prior probability of the paranormal hypothesis is exactly zero (e.g., when it is logically incoherent). The reason why BoP rests on the believers is also often misconstrued in the skeptical community. The evidential BoP is not on “whoever makes the positive claim.”

First, it is very easy to turn any positive claim into a negative one, and vice versa, by simple application of basic logical rules. In general, affirming P is exactly the same as denying ~P. Any existential claim can be translated into a negative universal, and vice versa. Resorting to such moves would merely amount to sophistic word play rather than a substantive consideration of epistemic burden.

Second, there are cases in which the BoP rests on those who are putting forth what may most plausibly be construed as the “negative” claim, in the sense of denying the material existence of some X. For example, the burden of proof is no longer on historians to provide evidence of Zyklon B use in the nazi concentration camps, although, apart from logical sophistries, they are the ones making a “positive” claim. In this case, then, the BoP rests on those making the “negative” claim.

In most discussions of pseudoscience and the paranormal, admittedly, the believers in pseudoscientific notions are making positive claims, in the sense of affirming the existence of entities (spaceships, psi force, qi energy lines, auras) that are rejected by modern science, but this — per se — is not the reason why the BoP rests on them. Evidential BoP assignment always reflects substantial background knowledge and prior probabilities, and these assumptions of plausibility, we argue, should be based on the expert consensus on the matter.

Maarten and I go on explore the role of Occam’s razor in this debate and then tackle what we call the technical burden. Believers of the paranormal and supernatural have often tried to turn the tables on skeptics, finding various ways to shift the BoP back to the latter. In particular, rhetorical moves of the type “you can’t prove it wrong” are unfair requests that fail to appreciate the proper BoP procedure. In some cases, such requests can be straightforwardly fulfilled (e.g., it is very easy to prove that the co-authors of this paper, at this very moment, have far less than $1 M dollar in their pockets), but even then, the skeptic is doing the accuser a favor in taking on a BoP that does not really fall on him (we are under no obligation to empty our pockets after each such gratuitous insinuation).

Similarly, if ufologists claim that some crop circle was left by a space ship, the BoP is firmly on their side to come up with extraordinary evidence. If the skeptic chooses to take on their sophistic challenge to “prove that there was no spaceship” by way of providing direct or circumstantial evidence that that particular crop circle was in fact a human hoax, they are indulging the believers by taking on a BoP that, rationally speaking, does not pertain to them at all.

For most actual para/extranormal claims, however, the space of possibilities cannot be exhausted in a finite (and suitably short) time. For instance, to arrive at proof that there are no alien spaceships visiting earth — at any moment, not just in the case of a specific alleged incident — would require a type of temporally protracted exhaustive monitoring of the entire planet’s surface, something that it is so far beyond current technological possibility that the request can easily be dismissed as a simple debating trick.

This, however, leaves the skeptic with a dilemma. Although it may sometimes be rhetorically persuasive for her to take on a BoP that, strictly speaking, does not fall on her (for example, providing a natural explanation of a given UFO sighting), this may be perceived as an implicit acknowledgement that skeptics do carry the negative BoP for every single anomaly that believers come up with. The result is a mug’s game for skeptics: all believers have to do is throw around challenges for the skeptic, who will surely not be able to answer every single one of them. To refer again to the ufological literature, even ardent skeptics do admit that a small percentage (at most 10%, and likely significantly less than that) of alleged UFOs cannot be turned into IFOs (Identified Flying Objects), even after direct investigation of the available evidence.

There are at least three replies the skeptic has available here. To begin with, investigative resources are limited, especially when it comes to likely pseudoscientific claims, so it should not be surprising that on a certain number of occasions the researcher simply does not have sufficient means to carry out a positive identification of the allegedly unexplained phenomenon.

Second, even in the case of genuinely scientific questions one has to contend with limited epistemic access to the relevant phenomena, access that can be affected by the lack of sufficient empirical traces or by the intrinsic epistemic limits of human reason. Think of the long — and so far still largely unsuccessful — quest for an explanation for the origin of life, for instance.

Third, as Thomas Kuhn reminded us, even successful “normal” science constantly has to deal with a number of unsolved “puzzles,” and it is only when the puzzles become numerous and widespread that they genuinely begin to threaten the reigning paradigm, forcing scientists to seek alternative theoretical frameworks. Even if skeptics cannot provide a complete explanation for every single anomaly, what they often can do is to offer promissory notes for explanations, speculating about potential natural interpretations. Given that the BoP really falls on believers to come up with convincing evidence, this is all that can be expected from skeptics under these circumstances.

Intelligent Design proponents and assorted creationists, for instance, have often pointed to alleged instances of “irreducible complexity” in the living world: biological systems that are so intricate that they could not possibly have evolved. In dealing with such challenges, evolutionary biologists can suggest possible evolutionary pathways leading to a given complex biological structure. When they have done so, there is an extra BoP on ID advocates to rule out all of the proposed natural explanations. Contrary to what believers think, the BoP is not on skeptics to demonstrate which one of the natural explanations is the correct one. Given the overwhelming evidence for the power of natural selection to produce adaptive complexity, and the difficulty of garnering information about a distant evolutionary past, this kind of informed speculation is all that is needed to put ID arguments to rest (of course, evidence of specific mutations and selection processes further strengthens the case for evolution, but its fate no longer depends on it). The amount of anomalies (in casu, evolutionary puzzles) has simply not come even close to the Kuhnian threshold for a paradigm shift, though of course this says nothing about whether it might do so in the future.

At this point the paper changes direction somewhat, and Maarten and I provide a discussion of so-called informal logical fallacies. I strongly suggest interested people to check the paper for the details, but we basically argue that too often skeptics (and now, increasingly, believers) throw out the “you committed logical fallacy X” as if that were the end of all discussion. Sometimes an informal fallacy is not a fallacy at all, but actually a good heuristic, or a relevant piece of information.

Let’s say, for instance, that during court proceedings a lawyer for the defense points out that a hostile witness has a history of being unreliable and of lying, or perhaps has something to gain if the accused is convicted. The prosecution can’t just shout “ad hominem!” and be done with it, since information about the character and/or personal interests of the witness are, in fact, germane to the case, even though of course they don’t prove that the witness is lying on this particular occasion.

In conclusion, the word “skepticism” has, of course, a long and venerable history in philosophy. When it comes to disputes about allegedly pseudoscientific notions, though, the term may refer to one of two distinct attitudes: one corresponds to someone who knows that the para- or extra-normal claim is wrong and is out to prove it. Although this may in fact be the case in many actual instances, such a figure is not at all intellectually interesting. The second meaning is the Humean sense in which “a wise man proportions his belief to the evidence.” If we are to be honest Humean skeptics, though, we need to set the bar for evidence of extraordinary claims at the right level, not as low as a gullible believer would wish it, but not as high as for the BoP to be impossible to meet.

Modern skeptics are fond of quoting Carl Sagan’s rendition of the Humean dictum mentioned above: “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” This is fine as far as it goes, but we clearly need criteria to credibly establish when a claim is indeed “extraordinary,” and what would count as commensurate evidence. Hume’s own famous argument against miracles is sometimes (uncharitably, we think) interpreted as amounting to a statement of the impossibility, not just very low likelihood, of miracles, and people who believe in ufological or paranormal phenomena echo that sentiment when they claim that skeptics will never be satisfied no matter how compelling the evidence is going to be.

However, Hume’s approach in Of Miracles can be reasonably reformulated in Bayesian terms, with the priors — and consequently the BoP — being set by the accepted background conditions pertinent to the dispute at hand. Seen from this perspective, all we need to avoid are the extremes of setting our priors to 0 (complete skepticism) or to 1 (complete belief), since no amount of data can possibly move us away from those limit cases. Indeed, there are some instances in the skeptical literature on pseudoscience where priors have significantly moved over time. For instance, while acupuncture is still criticized in terms of both the underlying theory and the exaggerated claims of its supporters, there may now be sufficient evidence of its limited efficacy that a skeptic needs to reconsider outright rejection. This is even more so for a variety of transcendental meditation techniques, where again one may reasonably reject the underlying metaphysics while agreeing that qua techniques they do work for a range of claimed effects.

If anything, it is harder to find prominent exponents of para- or extra-normal beliefs that have changed their mind in the face of skeptical arguments (though even those can be found, if one digs deep enough). Which brings us to the last point in this paper (which I haven’t discussed above): discussions of BoP in the context of science vs pseudoscience disputes are, of course, a type of Wittgenstenian language game that presupposes a minimum commonality of standards. People cannot agree on how to fairly allocate BoP unless they find themselves at the least in the same ballpark when it comes to the type of background knowledge that constraints the priors pertinent to the dispute at hand. And that is precisely the most common obstacle in debates between skeptics and believers: the former too often simply reject out of hand even the possibility of an anomalous phenomenon turning out to be real, while the latter are equally quick to label the entire scientific enterprise as “too reductionist” or narrow minded to be able to come to terms with novel phenomena. This sort of impasse depends on a widespread lack of appreciation for the sort of epistemic issues Maarten and I have described in this paper, but it also boils down at least in part to individual psychological attitudes, whereof a philosopher is better served not to speak.

The most important philosopher you never heard of

The latest video in the Sophia “Dan & Massimo” series covered a philosopher you likely never heard of, and yet you should. We talked about Wilfrid Sellars (1912-1989), who had a big influence on Dan and who I discovered only relatively recently, to my delight.

Sellars is perhaps most famous for his distinction between what he called the “scientific image” and the “manifest image” of the world, meaning our understanding of how things are from, respectively, the scientific and the commonsense standpoints.

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The problem with “Indigenous science”

The logo of the Worldwide Indigenous Science Network

Last month I was invited by Frances Widdowson, a faculty in the Department of Economics, Justice and Policy Studies at Mt. Royal University, in Calgary, to participate to a panel discussion on the topic of the “indigenization” of the university curriculum. It was a weird experience, to say the least. [Warning: if you think that as a White Male European I am automatically disqualified from offering reasoned opinions on matters pertaining the history of exploitation of Indigenous people by Western nations, you may want to stop reading and take a walk. I’m trying to save you a possible ulcer.]

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Book Club: The Edge of Reason, 1, the eternal God argument

After having spent some posts examining Paul Feyerabend’s Philosophy of Nature, it’s time to tackle the second entry in Footnotes to Plato’s book club: Julian Baggini’s The Edge of Reason, A Rational Skeptic in an Irrational World. Julian is a founding editor of The Philosophers’ Magazine, and has written a number of acclaimed books in popular philosophy before. The Edge of Reason attempts to strike a, well, reasonable balance between fashionable postmodernist-inspired rejection of rationality (which, arguably, gave us the dreadful age of “post-truth”) and the older and equally unsupportable rationalist-positivist faith in reason’s essentially unlimited powers.

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Book club: Philosophy of Nature, ch. 5



We now get to the next to the last chapter in Paul Feyerabend’s recently (and obviously posthumously published) Philosophy of Nature. (Here you will find part I; part II; part III; and part IV.) Recall that the point of this rather idiosyncratic book is to provide a broad account of the transitions among three major “forms of life” representing three ways in which humans have made sense of the world: myth, philosophy, and science. This chapter is about the pre-Socratics until Parmenides, while the last (very long) chapter will cover everything that has happened over the past couple of millennia, up to modern physics. (Yes, I know.)

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Anatomy of a frustrating conversation

Bates equationAs readers of this blog, of my books, and of pretty much everything else I’ve written so far know, I value rational discourse and (still) believe it to be the only way forward open to humanity. But boy it can get frustrating, sometimes! One such example occurred recently, during an increasingly surreal discussion I had with one of my relatives — about politics, pseudoscience (specifically, the non-existent connection between vaccines and autism), conspiracy theories (9/11), and much, much more.

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