Category Archives: Social & Political Philosophy

True love, fungible love, and the Flash

Barry Allen (the Flash) kisses Iris West

Is love possible across multiple worlds? Does True Love (TM) exist, metaphysically speaking? These and other fun questions are addressed by Mike LaBossiere in an article that is as much fun to read as it is an example of how philosophy — particularly metaphysics — can seriously miss the point when it comes to crucial aspects of our lives. Let me explain by way of a story concerning one of my favorite superheroes, the Flash.

In season 2, episode 13 of the television series, entitled “Welcome to Earth-2,” Flash — the fastest man on Earth (one) — travels to a parallel Earth in order to figure out how to defeat the supervillain of the season, a guy named Zoom. It doesn’t matter why all this is happening, what matters is that Flash, known to the world as Barry Allen, meets the doppelgänger of the love of his life, Iris West. Barry-1 is perfectly aware that he is in the presence of Iris-2, who is a parallel version of the woman he loves, not the “real” thing. And yet, he simply can’t avoid having the same feelings for Iris-2 that he has for Iris-1 back on Earth Prime.

LaBossiere’s article explores the metaphysics of this situation, considering two possibilities: (i) it is rational for Barry-1 to be in love with Iris-2, on the grounds that Iris-2 is, for all effective purposes, the same woman he fell in love with on Earth-1, meaning that she looks the same, has the same interests, sense of humor, way of speaking, and so forth. Love, in this scenario, is fungible. Or: (ii) it is not rational for Barry-1 to be in love with Iris-2 for the reason that she is not his True Love, even though she looks and acts like it.

LaBossiere defends position (i), pointing out that (ii) stems from a metaphysically Kantian, and highly doubtful, view of the self. I will argue that the real answer is indeed close to LaBossiere’s, but that it makes more sense to arrive at it by way of a very different route. Indeed, this has already been done by one of my favorite philosopher-comedians: Tim Minchin. Let’s parse this out carefully.

I’m going to start from option (ii), the “Kantian” view. As LaBossiere is careful to point out, Kant never actually wrote about True Love. But he famously did reject David Hume’s view of the self as just a “bundle of perceptions,” thinking instead that our experiences happen to a unified, metaphysically “thick,” self. A metaphysical self is necessary in order to talk about True Love, the sort of love that Barry Allen can feel only for Iris West-1, and not for her doppelgänger. This is because if Kant is right, and there is such thing as a metaphysical self, then each of us has one and only one self, and anyone who merely looks or talks like us is still (metaphysically) quite distinct from us.

One way to make sense of this position is to imagine meeting for the first time your loved one’s twin. You might naturally feel attracted by her, especially if the twin has no only the looks, but also the opinions and mannerisms of your love. But, according to LaBossiere’s interpretation of Kant, you would be mistaken: regardless of superficial similarities, the twin is metaphysically, at her core, simply not your love.

This, says LaBossiere, goes well with the Dysneyesque intuition that a lot of people seem to share that there really is such a thing as True Love. The problem, as he acknowledges, is that the notion is both scientifically unfalsifiable and metaphysically suspect, and that Hume’s view of the self is actually far more convincing than Kant’s. Hume’s take both makes fewer arbitrary assumptions and is more congruent with what we actually observe via introspection. Not to mention that it goes better with much modern research in cognitive science. As Hume famously put it:

“When I enter most intimately into what I call myself I always stumble on some particular perception or other….and never can observe anything but the perception.” (Treatise, 1.4.6. para. 3)

If that is the case, let us then consider option (i): love is fungible, as they say. It makes sense to be in love with anyone who shares a substantial number of physical and mental characteristics with your original love, other things being equal.

Here LaBossiere helps himself to the idea of parallel universes, in effect arguing that what Barry Allen finds attractive in, and the reason he falls in love with, Iris West, is just the sum total of Iris’ characteristics, from her physical appearance to her interests, from her mental abilities to her moral character. If this is true, it follows that it is perfectly reasonable for Barry to be in love not just with Iris-1, but with any Iris from any of the infinite parallel Earths (so long as, I suppose, their individual life trajectories don’t actually lead them to become adult human beings that are significantly different in some crucial respect from Iris-1).

As LaBossiere summarizes the point (I changed the specific names he uses to keep with the example from The Flash):

“While this is less romantic than the idea of metaphysical True Love, it is more realistic and intuitively appealing. When one person talks about why they love another, they talk about the qualities of the person. Some dating services also make a big deal about testing people for various qualities and using them to find compatibility and love. Scientists also talk about the emotion of love as being driven by genes in search of suitable genes to combine with. Given this evidence, it seems reasonable to conclude that when Barry loves Iris, he loves her qualities. As such, if it was rational for Barry-1 to love Iris-1, then it is just as rational for Barry-1 to love Iris-35756. There is, after all, no discernible difference between the Irises.”

LaBossiere’s conclusion strikes me as fundamentally correct, but it is also an example of what Italians sarcastically refer to as the Ufficio Complicazioni Affari Semplici (Office for the Complication of Simple Affairs). I mean, sure, one can invoke the multiverse to make the point, or — far more simply — one can do like the above mentioned Tim Minchin, and simply look at the issue from the point of view of basic statistics and biological-cultural diversity among human beings.

In his “If I didn’t have you,” a song dedicated to his real life wife and long time love, Sarah, Tim says, in part:

“If I didn’t have you [insert a number a good things about Sarah]
You would think I would have somebody else
If I didn’t have you, someone else would do
[more good things about Sarah]
Your love is one in a million, you couldn’t buy it at any price
But out of the other 999,999 possible others
Someone else would be equally nice
Or maybe not nice, but say smarter than you
Or dummer but better at sports
I’m just saying, I would probably have somebody else

It is just mathematically unlikely that I would stumble
On the one woman specifically designed for me

I don’t think you are special. I mean, you are special
But you fall within a Bell curve.”

You get the gist. Minchin has simply and straightforwardly gotten rid of the “Kantian” idea of True Love, as well as endorsed LaBossiere’s point about the fungibility of real love. All without the need for any metaphysical heavy lifting (assuming that metaphysics can, in fact, do any lifting at all). A simple understanding of how life works, a basic appreciation of probability theory, and a good sense of humor will do just fine.

I’ll leave you with the full video of Minchin’s song, well worth watching:

Book Club: On Inequality 1, Economic equality as a moral ideal

Time to get started with a new book! This time it’s going to be Harry Frankfurt’s On Inequality, an obviously current topic. Frankfurt, of course, is the author of a number of well received, often slim and incisive, books, most famously On Bullshit, where he clarifies, among other things, the distinction between a liar (one who knows the truth, and uses it to effectively deceive others) and a bullshitter (one who uses a chaotic mix of truths, half truths and lies in order to get whatever he wants — the current President of the United States arguably being the archetypal example).

Frankfurt divides On Inequality into two parts: economic equality as a moral ideal, and equality and respect. I will discuss the first part here and the second one in my next post.

The discussion of economic equality as a moral ideal begins with Frankfurt’s statement that the most fundamental social challenge in the United States today is not that people’s incomes are widely unequal, but that too many people are poor. In order to begin to back up this notion, he points out that, after all, we wouldn’t want to eliminate income inequality by making everyone poor. Frankfurt immediately acknowledges that there is a number of people in the US that have far more than is necessary to flourish, and whom he says are guilty of “economic gluttony.” Economic gluttony is a “ridiculous and disgusting spectacle,” but reduction in inequality would be a side effect of combating both poverty and economic gluttony, and should not be a primary goal in itself.

One of the reasons we need to rein in economic gluttony, argues Frankfurt, is that it carries a number of potentially anti-democratic effects, as when few very wealthy people essentially control political power through their money and influence. But, Frankfurt argues, many people seem to think that economic inequality is inherently morally problematic, a position that he regards as highly questionable. As he puts it:

“From the point of view of morality, it is not important that everyone should have the same. What is morally important is that each should have enough.” (p. 6)

Frankfurt writes that being preoccupied with how much money other people have is alienating, in the sense that such preoccupation distracts us from reflecting on what is it that makes our own life worth living, and therefore from which focusing on the resources we actually need to pursue such a life. The result is that:

“The doctrine of equality contributes to the moral disorientation and shallowness of our time.” (p. 14)

The chapter proceeds by considering a number of arguments often being made in support of the idea that inequality is undesirable. Frankfurt discusses several of these, aiming to show that economic equality only has value in a derivative manner, not per se. This strikes me as correct, but I also wonder who would, in fact, argue for an intrinsic moral worth — i.e., regardless of consequences — of equality.

One such example is based on the principle of diminishing marginal utility. The idea is that more economic equality maximizes aggregate utility, i.e. the aggregate satisfactions of members of society. This, in turn, derives from the rather hard to doubt notion that a marginal dollar brings less utility to someone who is already rich than to someone less wealthy.

But, Frankfurt counters, the demand for some kinds of goods will increase as a result of redistribution of wealth, because more people will want those goods, driving the corresponding prices higher. The outcome will be that any progress made by the most poor will be offset by a decreasing purchasing power of the middle class, thus — on average — nullifying the benefit of wealth redistribution.

Well, maybe. To begin with, it is not clear to me why one wouldn’t also see a countering effect due to the fact that at least some of the goods that come to be in large demand will be more efficiently produced, at increasingly lower costs. Moreover, this sort of conclusion cannot be reached simply on the basis of a qualitative argument. Detailed quantitative simulations, ideally backed up by empirical evidence gathered in the field, are necessary.

A bit later on (section IV of the first part), Frankfurt engages in one of those philosophical thought experiments which I increasingly think miss the point, and may arguably be misleading. He invites us to imagine an hypothetical situation where there is a limited number of resources, so that some, but not all members of a given population will survive. It is easy to contrive the numbers in such a way that forcing people to share equally — thus eliminating inequality — will result in everyone’s death. This is supposed to show that equality is not an inherent moral good.

No kidding, I would respond. First, again, I doubt anyone has sensibly suggested that equality is good per se (Frankfurt nowhere in the book provides direct evidence to back up this claim). Second — and most importantly — yes, in the highly artificial situation imagined by Frankfurt it would be grotesque to insist on equality. But no modern society is even close to being in such a situation, rendering the whole thought experiment rather silly.

In section V Frankfurt rejects what he sees as the widespread moral intuition that inequality is objectionable in itself, and suggests that what people find problematic is, again, that fact that some have to little:

“Mere differences in the amounts of money people have are not in themselves distressing. We tend to be quite unmoved, after all, by inequalities between those who are very well-to-do and those who are extremely rich.” (p. 41)

The underlying idea here is that the two doctrines of sufficiency and equality are logically independent, and that one cannot simply deploy arguments in favor of one as if they were pertinent to the other. Frankfurt goes so far as accusing egalitarians of hypocrisy, pointing out that many are quite happy to accept large incomes that are not justified on the basis of their own theories. This, again, is what happens when one confuses sufficiency (which truly is desirable) with equality (which is not, except in terms of certain indirect consequences, such as disproportionate political influence).

The flip side of the coin when it comes to the “hypocritical” egalitarians actually reinforces Frankfurt’s point: these same people don’t seem bothered by the fact that others make a lot more money, so long as they make enough to be reasonably free to pursue their own goals. I certainly count myself in the latter group: I don’t care, per se, how much more money some people make compared to me, because I’m lucky enough to be able to live the kind of life I want to live. That freedom of mine, however, does not obtain for a lot of people who make less than I do. But here Frankfurt strikes me as being right: the situation of these people is problematic not because they make less than others, but because they do not make enough. Insufficiency, not inequality, is the problem.

Frankfurt is careful (p. 25) to stress that “having enough” does not just mean enough to survive, or to live a tolerable life. That, for human beings in modern societies, is not, in fact, enough. “Enough” means an amount of wealth sufficient to pursue the kind of goals one is interested in pursuing. In my case, for instance, living in a large cosmopolitan city, enjoying at least some of its offerings, and being able to devote much of my time to reading and writing.

Moreover, “enough” also doesn’t mean that the person in question couldn’t benefit from, or would not welcome, additional income. When the State of New York finally renewed its teachers’ contract (after five years of stalling), I got a significantly larger paycheck. I did not need it in order to live the life I want to live, but it was welcome nonetheless. The point, as Frankfurt articulates it, is that I did not have an “active interest” in getting a higher salary. When I got it, it was a nice bonus, which allows me to do a few more things. But I was not preoccupied in the least by the missing money (as much as it was ethically and legally due to me by the State of New York).

It was refreshing to see that Frankfurt — going against what I will call the Wall Street ethos, for lack of a better term — doesn’t think there is anything wrong with people who take my attitude toward money:

“There are quite reasonable people who feel that their lives are good enough, and that it is not important to them whether their lives are as good as possible. The fact that a person lacks an active interest in getting something does not mean, of course, that he prefers not to have it.” (p. 55)

In a sense, says Frankfurt, the situation is similar to a man who is deeply in love with a woman and is happy about his relationship. It would be perverse to criticize him on the ground that, if he really tried, he could do “better,” quite regardless of the fact that there obviously isn’t a single measure of “better” out there, and of the even more obvious fact that the amount of money in one’s bank account certainly is no such measure.

This leads us to the end of the first part of On Inequality. In the next post of this series I will tackle what Frankfurt has to say about the relationship between equality and respect.

The Greeks were right about love

An Ancient Greek symposium

Love is a fundamental aspect of the human experience. When people are incapable of it we think there is something seriously wrong with them, something that makes them almost inhuman. And yet there are many different types of love, for one’s partner, one’s children, one’s parents, even one’s nation or God. Each carries with it its own version of pains and pleasures. Yet, our vocabulary may not be well suited to such an important phenomenon. When I first came to the United States I was struck by the fact that the English language, the tongue of Shakespeare, has only one word for the notion. In Italian, for instance, I would never say to my daughter “I love you,” it would sound weird and incestuous. And that’s only one problem.

Even if we limit ourselves to “romantic” love, i.e., to love for one’s partner or spouse, the modern notion is confused compared to both what sound psychology and modern neuroscience tell us. A classical study on the progression of love in human beings found major differences between the neural underpinnings of intense romantic love (see also this, more recent, study), of the type we feel at the beginning of a relationship, and what scientists call limerence, the more subdued, but deeper attachment we may or may not develop for a partner with whom we were initially “in love.” (If you are curious about the details, the first phase activates mostly the striatum, part of the nucleus accumbens, the pleasure center of the brain; the second one activates also the insula, which the brain uses to assign value to our activities so that we continue to engage in them.)

Insisting in using the same word to describe these two conditions confuses two very different biological and psychological (and hence also social and cultural) phenomena. More crucially, expecting — both individually and as a society — that once two people embark on the first phase they will necessarily move to the second, which will itself automatically last a life time (the famous “and they lived happily ever after” of Disney-style tales) is absurd and arguably the cause of a lot of unnecessary pain and suffering.

The modern idea of romantic love probably traces back to the medieval concept of chivalry, made popular as well as more specific by French, Italian and Spanish troubadours, and finally canonized for Western audiences during the Romantic era that followed, as a backlash, the Enlightenment. However, it is arguably the Ancient Greeks and Romans that got it right, or at least closer to the mark. Interestingly, they used three different words that translate to “love,” none of which actually corresponds to our (confused) conception of romantic love. (A good and short introduction can be found in this video.)

To begin with, there is agápē, which means love that comes with an aspect of charity, in the sense of benevolence, embedded into it. This is the sort of love we have for our children, but also for our spouse or partner. Early Christians adopted the term to mean the unconditional love that God has for his children. As Thomas Aquinas put it, agápē means “to will the good of another” (in Summa Theologiae I-II, 26, 4).

Second, we have érōs, which in part does mean, as the modern word “erotic” indicates, sexual attraction for someone (the sort of stuff that stimulated the striatum in the neuro-studies linked above). However, Plato for one expanded the concept to indicate, after maturation and contemplation, love for beauty itself. This is the origin of the phrase “Platonic love,” which does not mean love without sex, necessarily, but rather love of the ideal Form of Beauty itself. This may begin with erotic attraction, but eventually transcends it.

In the Symposium we are treated by a lesson on love by none other than Socrates, who says that érōs allows the soul to recall knowledge of beauty and thus to arrive at an understanding of spiritual truth. In this sense, then, both lovers and philosophers are inspired by érōs.

Finally, we have philía, which describes a sense of affection and regard among equals. Aristotle uses this word to characterize love between friends, for family members, or of community. It is a virtuous type of love, often cast as of a brotherly sort, but with a component of enjoyment.

Notice that what distinguishes the three types of love recognized by the Greeks is not the object of love, but rather the modality of the sentiment. Take the specific instance of a long-term “romantic” relationship. Ideally, what one wants in that case is a particular combination of the three modes: we unconditionally (i.e., not because it is to our advantage) want the good of the other person (agápē); we want not just physical attraction, but a deeper appreciation of the “beauty” of our partner, in terms of his or her character traits (érōs); and we want to be their friends and to enjoy their company for its own sake (philía).

What distinguishes love of a partner from love of our children, friends, country or God, then, is the specific modulation of all three types of Greek “love.” Notice that none of them obviously maps to the initial phase of romantic love in the modern conception. That’s because, arguably, that phase is not, in fact, love itself, but (potentially) preliminary to love. If it lasts, and if it matures, then it becomes love. If this is even approximately correct, than a lot of what our literature, movies and advertisements describe as love is — rightly conceived — no such thing.


Postscriptum: various readers have commented on the fact that I have left out a fourth Greek word for love, storgē. That’s because it was actually rarely used in ancient texts, but still, it does help add even more nuance to the concept. Storgē means affection, especially (but not only) of the kind one has toward parents and children, and includes a component of empathy of the type felt naturally toward one’s children. Storgē was also used to indicate love for a country, or even a sports team, and — interestingly — in situations when one has to put up with unpleasant things, as in the oxymoronic phrase “love for a tyrant.”

Book Club: The Edge of Reason 11, political reason

It has been a long way, but it is now time to wrap up my commentary of Julian Baggini’s book, The Edge of Reason: A Rational Skeptic in an Irrational World. We have looked together with Julian at the proper uses, as well as the abuses, of the concept of reason, in terms of science, philosophy, decision making, and impact on society. The last chapter is on reason in the political sphere.

Despite his criticism (in chapter 10) of Platonic and other utopias, Baggini begins his discussion by restating that, obviously, it would be foolish to somehow abandon reason in the context of political discourse, as much as it appears that’s exactly what we have been doing, especially of late. He begins with a discussion of the idea of a pluralist society:

“In its most general sense, pluralism is the belief that there is no one, single, complete and unified true perspective. There is more than one legitimate way of seeing and no one perspective can maximally accommodate all that is good or true. This is not to say that there are no wrong perspectives or that there are never good reasons for preferring one perspective over another.”

The problem is that while pluralism sounds good, some demands made by segments of our society are prima facie irreconcilable: certain people want to be able to openly criticize religions, others want to protect their faith from what they see as unacceptable offenses; some people want to eat meet and others to protect animal welfare; businesses typically want to cut cost, but there are issues of protection of workers’ rights, or of guaranteeing physical accessibility for everyone; and so forth.

Julian points out that political pluralism is not the same thing as democracy, since in a democracy a majority of people could pass laws that undermine the rights of minorities, even within a constitutional framework. Conversely, it is hard to imagine a functional non-democratic pluralist society, which would be a benign tyranny constantly in danger of slipping into a malign one.

What, then, justifies political pluralism? The standard answer, especially on the left of the political spectrum, is ethical pluralism: a major function of politics is to facilitate the flourishing of the citizens of a state, but since there is more than one conception of the good life, we invoke ethical pluralism, which entails political pluralism.

This is all fine and dandy until we realize that many people reject the very idea of ethical pluralism. As Baggini puts it: “although ethico-political pluralism is a liberal position, it is not even the case that all liberals are ethical pluralists.”

At this point Julian makes an interesting move: for him a good justification for political pluralism is not ethical, but epistemological, originating from the demands of reason, as he has outlined them in chapter nine. As you might recall, the principle he introduced there is that “we should believe what is most rational to believe,” a precept that gets its force from the simple fact that most people do, indeed, argue for their positions, i.e., implicitly accept the notion that we convince others on the basis of our reasons. If one rejects this principle, then dialogue becomes impossible by definition, and we are down to a might-makes-right type of society.

The principle, however, doesn’t simply say that we should believe what seems reasonable to us, but rather what is, in fact, reasonable. There is a difference, but how do we cash it out? After all, Baggini’s own discussion of religion and science early on in the book has established that reasonable people can, and indeed often do, hold different, yet incompatible, notions. Reason typically underdetermines scientific, religious and political positions.

Julian correctly warns against dismissing other people’s reasons on the basis of underlying biases, since we are all biased and fallible. He claims instead that what we should do is to accept a greater degree of defeasibility of our own positions, in essence agreeing to insist less forcefully on them on the grounds that they may, in fact, turn out to be wrong. He then introduces his principle of epistemological pluralism:

“In the absence of an overwhelmingly strong error theory [i.e., of an account of why others’ positions are incorrect], the impartiality of rationality entails that where competent rational judges disagree, we should accept that we have insufficient grounds to insist on the truth of one conclusion and so do what we can to accommodate reasonable different ones, even if we believe only one of them to be the sole truth.”

Yes, Baggini is well aware that some important ideas here are left underspecified, chiefly that of a competent judge. But one has to start somewhere, and I think we have a good intuitive notion of what he means by that label. Also, it is worth noting that at times we do have an “error theory” that allows us to dismiss a particular ideology, say Nazism, regardless of the fact that a segment of society thinks it reasonable (again, there is a difference between what seems reasonable to me and what actually is reasonable). The general idea, though, is that we can apply the principle of epistemological pluralism to the specific issue of how we should run our society. We have then arrived at political pluralism not via the ethical route, but taking the epistemological path:

“There can be no one way of ordering society so as to satisfy completely all aspirations for the good life because competent rational judges disagree about how society should be run, and the impartiality of rationality entails that in such cases we should accept that we have insufficient grounds to insist on the truth of one conclusion and accommodate different ones, even if we believe only one of them to be the sole truth. Therefore the role of politics is to balance and negotiate between competing claims and demands so as to enable as many compatible goods from different incompatible positions as is possible.”

Julian then moves to considering threats to political pluralism, focusing not on the obvious one (tyranny) but on internal ones, beginning with the danger posed by populism, which “in social science is almost always understood as entailing a malign kind of simplification in which the virtuous and the wicked are neatly divided between ‘us’ and ‘them’.”

Populists undermine rational discourse in society because, even though they may agree that we should believe only what is reasonable to believe, they fail to distinguish between what seems reasonable to them and what actually is reasonable (according to the aforementioned competent judge). Specifically, populists want people to equate what is reasonable with what is self-evident, and when one takes that step then all need for defeasibility of one’s own positions disappear and one simply rejects out of hand the very idea that other positions may indeed be reasonable. The danger of populism in a multicultural society is then summarized in this fashion:

“In place of reason, [populism] puts conviction; in place of evidence, the seeming self-evidence of common sense.”

Baggini astutely observes that although populist parties have rarely gained power in Western countries in recent decades, the major threat they pose is indirect, since they cause a shift toward populism within so-called mainstream political debate. This is something I have directly observed in the Unites States since I moved here back in 1990. One political debate after another, over the years, seems to me to have shifted the parameters of discourse more and more toward simplified, populist analyses, until we finally got Trump, the logical endpoint (for now) of a process that has unfolded for decades:

“The root [of the problem] is a shift from real politics — which involves messy compromises between competing interests — to what I call political consumerism. … Today’s career politicians are like executive managers. In true consumerist style, the manager’s job is to deliver to the public what it wants.”

Or, more precisely, to pretend that he will deliver, and then use propaganda tools (don’t listen to the “fake news!”) to convince people that he has, actually, delivered. Julian brings up the example of Silvio Berlusconi in Italy, who was elected and re-elected because if a sizable number of people believe that all politicians are crooks, it makes sense to vote for the most crook of them all. Mutatis mutandis, this surely applies to the election of Donald Trump.

The last part of the chapter then tackles a second major threat to political pluralism: the attack on secularism, which, properly understood, is also indispensable to a vibrant democracy.

“Secularism is not a doctrine of religious unbelief, but of state neutrality on matters of religious belief. … A secular state is therefore not necessarily a godless one.”

Secularism, for obvious reasons, appeals to atheists. A secular society, says Baggini, is superior (in terms of political pluralism) to a theocratic one, but it is also superior to one where the state imposes atheism. And indeed, secularism is often the result not of atheist politics, but of the need to balance different religious viewpoints. The famous “wall” of separation between Church and State associated with the work of Thomas Jefferson in the United States was originally proposed in order to reassure Baptists that the new republic would not impose a particular version of Christianity through the powers of the state. Secularism is a friend of religious believers and atheists alike.

Recently, however, secularism has been under attack, because it has allegedly excluded religious discourse:

“Bhikhu Parekh [for instance] advocates bringing religion back into the public square [on the basis that] excluding religion from it fails fully to respect religious beliefs and their importance in people’s lives. Furthermore, it privileges a certain atheistic, liberal world-view that is not widely shared. Secularism is not [according to Parekh], as it is claimed to be, neutral with regard to belief.”

Please notice that Parekh is a Labour member of the House of Lords in the UK, not a conservative, and he is arguing that a vibrant pluralist society emerges from open discussion of people’s ideas and values, including religious ones, which therefore we should not — as a society — simply pretend do not exist or play a fundamental role.

Julian acknowledges that the argument put forth by Parekh and others is appealing, but also says, correctly in my view, that we should resist it. It is true that zealous secularism (think France’s and other European countries bans on burqas) has led to the suppression of religious discourse. But there are other models of secularism that are viable and do not require Parekh’s step, which is itself fraught with dangers.

“Crucially for the current debate about religion, [secularism] does not require us just to leave behind our personal convictions: everyone brings their personal beliefs to the secular table. The trick is that we find a way of expressing them in universalist and not particularist terms.”

Consider, says Baggini, the example of debates about abortion. A given politician may oppose abortion because of his religious, let’s say for instance Catholic, convictions. But he is not going to make much of a headway in terms of rational discourse if he gives a speech on the floor of the Senate arguing that abortion should be illegal because the Pope (or Jesus) says so. That way lies the path to sectarian struggle, and ultimately violence.

Rather, the politician in question will attempt to “translate” his religious motivations into neutral secular discourse, just like political philosopher John Rawls (mentioned by Baggini) suggested we should do. The politician may, for instance, cast his objections in terms of the inherent worth of human life, and argue that a fetus, at any age, is a (potential) human being. His opponents (many of whom, incidentally, will not be atheists, but rather religious people who interpret the tenets of their own religion differently) will then engage the discourse at that level, not by simply rejecting the Pope (or Jesus) as moral authorities.

“The intention to respect fully the diversity of beliefs and not to impose a homogeneous, blurred-out secularism is a noble one. But the way to do this is not to scrap secularism and let a cacophony of different belief systems fight it out instead. The way forward is to reform existing secularism much more modestly and to rid it of its theophobia.”

I will leave it at that, though there are several other interesting points made by Julian in this last chapter. It has been, I hope, an interesting journey, made possible by a book that I do not hesitate to recommend to anyone seriously interested in the nature of reason and its practical roles in society.


The next book club will be a two-part affair, on Harry Frankfurt’s (he of “On Bullshit”) On Inequality. Stay tuned…

Book Club: The Edge of Reason 10, the rational state

Plato vs Aristotle

We have arrived at the next to the last chapter in our long discussion of Julian Baggini’s The Edge of Reason: A Rational Skeptic in an Irrational World. To briefly recap, the first part of Julian’s book (chapters 1-3) was about “the judge,” i.e. the myth of reason understood as an impartial replacement for human judgment; part II (chapters 4-6), “the guide,” was concerned with the Platonic myth of reason in charge of unruly emotions and desires; part III (chapters 7-9), “the motivator,” discussed a third myth, that reason, by itself, motivates us to action. These last two installments refer to part IV, “the king,” an analysis of the role of reason in politics and society at large.

Julian begins chapter 10 by acknowledging the rather obvious point that human beings tend to run their societies in a rather irrational manner. From which it would seem to follow that it should be possible to build better societies based on reason. And yet, every time we have tried such an experiment, implementing a radical new view of how things ought to do, it has resulted in abysmal, and more than occasionally bloody, failure. Why?

As in previous sections, it all goes back to Plato (see? There is a point, after all, for the name of this blog…), particularly the Republic, which Baggini describes as “one of the most unworkable, unattractive utopias ever conceived. Plato advocated a society in which a separate Guardian class is raised from childhood and ‘women and children are to be held in common among the Guardians’. Rulers ‘will have to employ a great deal of fiction and deceit for the benefit of their subjects’, ‘mate the best of our men with the best of our women’ and ‘bring up only the offspring of the best’.”

Of course, Plato had a reason for proposing such a radical departure from the way things were done then, since he learned his political lessons from the failure of the Athenian democratic experiment (which, among other things, ended up killing his mentor, Socrates), and the general decline of Athenian power.

I think Julian is right in framing the Republic in terms of what he calls Socrates’ mistake: “Socrates begins by asking Glaucon whether he agrees with the principles that lie behind his exposition. ‘Does practice ever square with theory?’ he demands. ‘Is it not in the nature of things that, whatever people think, practice should come less close to truth than theory?’” For Socrates the problem is “to show what fault it is in the constitutions of existing states that prevents them from being run like ours.”

The mistake, in other words, is to put theory ahead of practice, assuming that whenever things go wrong that’s because the implementation of the theory was insufficiently accurate, not because the theory itself is unworkable. This type of Socratic error has been repeated in all utopias attempted ever since, on whatever side of the political spectrum.

Also, one corollary of the Socratic-Platonic assumption is the idea that there is one universal conception of justice (remember that part of the Republic has the goal of identifying the characteristics of the just state). But there are serious objections to this too, exemplified for instance by a thought experiment proposed by Amartya Sen in The Idea of Justice.

Consider a “story of three children and a flute, all of the children having some claim to the instrument. One says she is the only one able to play it, another that he is the only one with no other toys and the third that she made it. Sen argues that ‘we may not be able to identify, without some arbitrariness, any of the alternative arguments as being the one that must invariably prevail.’” I think that’s right: different plausible arguments could be constructed in favor of each of the three kids, without any of them being a knock-down against the others. And this isn’t evidence of some kind of failure of ethics to arrive at “truth,” but rather a good illustration that rational arguments tend to underdetermine the answers to ethical problems.

Julian faults Plato, again, rightly, in my mind, for putting reason on the side of theory, thus automatically shifting the burden of failure to practice. But reason can, and indeed should be, practical as well. As he reminds us, “pragmatic” is considered a bad word in politics precisely because of this Platonic remnant that principle is superior to practice, but “a principle that can’t be implemented is just a bad principle. … Political reasoning cannot be a priori. Experience has to have a more engaged and ongoing role to play. … That way lies the absurdity uttered by Ferdinand I, the Holy Roman Emperor: ‘Let justice be done, though the world perish.’”

What, then, is the answer? Conservatism, says Julian! Wait, wait, don’t just throw stones at him (or me), let’s first hear him out. He makes an argument that there is something fundamental on which both conservatives and progressives really ought to agree on, reasonably.

Consider “Burkean conservative philosophy [as] eloquently articulated by Roger Scruton. For Scruton, society is like a living organism, and individuals are not distinct ‘atoms’ of autonomous self-determination, as characterized by liberalism, but parts of a whole which only flourish when that whole is itself flourishing. This means that human life only makes sense, values only have currency and projects only have meaning when understood as part of a social history that extends both before and after our own lives. … Conservatism is therefore ‘an exercise in social ecology’ whose goal is ‘to pass on to future generations — and if possible enhance — the order and equilibrium of which we are the temporary trustees.’”

Put this way, the basic idea of conservatism, then, is that society is like a delicate ecosystem, and that therefore one should be careful about how to tweak it, and certainly be weary of any radical attempt to tear it down. Baggini proposes that “liberals” (by which he doesn’t mean American-style libertarians, but politically progressive, left-of-the-spectrum individuals) should have no trouble agreeing with this commonsensical precept. The difference is in what tweaks to make, and how much to tweak, keeping in mind that modern conservatives would readily accept the value of what in the recent past appeared as radical reforms, such as the abolition of slavery, or women’s vote (though many are still largely, but presumably only temporarily, not on board with equal rights for gays and transgenders).

The idea, then, is that “the process of designing a better society has to start by looking at the society we have, since we cannot build a new one from scratch to replace it.” And guess who was the first to propose just such an approach? None other than Plato’s famous rebellious student, Aristotle:

“He began by examining the political systems currently in existence, seeing their relative strengths and weaknesses. He never made the mistake of thinking about the relative merits of oligarchy, democracy or monarchy in purely abstract terms. … He had a realistic expectation that political philosophy can never be clear-cut and that a certain amount of unclarity and imprecision is inevitable.”

Of course, the point is not that we should accept Aristotle’s specific conclusions, but rather that his approach — in an important sense antithetical to that of Plato — is the way to go. As Baggini puts it, in perfect Aristotelian fashion, “to be as rational as possible means not trying to get more from rationality than is possible. In no domain is this true more than in politics.”

Julian then examines some of the most disastrous recent attempts to establish utopias by wiping out (as opposed to tweaking) previous systems, particularly the communist regimes of the 20th century, all of which quickly degenerated into tyranny and caused the death of hundreds of millions of people. The communist mistake, in a sense, is the same as Plato’s: despite Marx’s alleged attention to historical realities, communists have always put pure theoretical reasoning ahead of practice, attempting to turn history itself into an exact science.

I refer the interested reader to Julian’s discussion of the concept of surplus value and the role it plays in Marxist theories. He acknowledges that surplus value is a real thing, but he rejects the Marxist analysis of the role it plays in society, and therefore the Marxist recipe for how society ought to be changed.

Baggini has a little more sympathy for anarchists, but he charges them with committing the opposite mistake to that of the Platonists and Marxists: ignoring theory altogether in favor of too much emphasis on practice: “Bakunin is clearly advocating something close to what I have been arguing for here. ‘Natural and social life always precedes thought (which is merely one of its functions) but is never its result,’ while ‘abstract reflections’ are ‘always produced by life but never producing it.’ However, his inverted Platonism is as simplistic as the view it replaces. … Bakunin writes as though the truth simply flows from the facts in some unmediated way.”

Sure enough, historically speaking, anarchism — though not responsible for the atrocities of communism (and fascism) — has not really fared particularly well: “You can count on the fingers of one hand the number of anarchist cities or communes that have been established long enough to leave a mark on the world, and each lasted for months rather than years.”

I am going to skip Julian’s analysis of yet another case of exaggerated “theoretical” rationality, that of economic theory, and leave you instead with his conclusions regarding political systems: “if anyone proposes a radical new model of how we should organize society then we have good grounds to suspect that the model is grossly and dangerously simplified. … To be truly rational we need to acknowledge the limits of our rationality: nothing is more irrational than an unwarranted faith in reason.”

An embarrassing moment for the skeptical movement

IMG_8356Twentyone years ago physicist Alan Sokal perpetrated his famous hoax at the expense of the postmodernist journal Social Text. It was at the height of the so-called “science wars” of the ’90s, and Sokal, as a scientist fed up with a lot of extreme statements about the social construction of science, thought of scoring a rhetorical point by embarrassing the other side. He wrote a fake paper entitled “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity,” full of scientific-sounding nonsense and submitted to the editors of Social Text. They didn’t send it out for peer reviewed and published it as a welcome example of a scientist embracing the postmodernist cause.

Sokal then proceeded to unveil the hoax in the now defunct Lingua Franca, a magazine devoted to academic affairs, thus exposing the sloppy practiced of the editors of Social Text while at the same time embarrassing the postmodernist community.

Sokal, however, is no intellectual lightweight, and he wrote a sober assessment of the significance of his stunt, for instance stating:

“From the mere fact of publication of my parody I think that not much can be deduced. It doesn’t prove that the whole field of cultural studies, or cultural studies of science — much less sociology of science — is nonsense. Nor does it prove that the intellectual standards in these fields are generally lax. (This might be the case, but it would have to be established on other grounds.) It proves only that the editors of one rather marginal journal were derelict in their intellectual duty.”

Move forward to the present. Philosopher Peter Boghossian (not to be confused with NYU’s Paul Boghossian) and author James Lindsay (henceforth, B&L) attempted to replicate the Sokal hoax by trick-publishing a silly paper entitled “The Conceptual Penis as a Social Construct.” The victim, in this case, was the journal Cogent Social Sciences, which sent out the submission for review and accepted it in record time (one month). After which, B&L triumphantly exposed their stunt in Skeptic magazine.

But the similarities between the two episodes end there. Rather than showing Sokal’s restraint on the significance of the hoax, B&L went full blast. They see themselves as exposing a “deeply troubling” problem with the modern academy:

“The echo-chamber of morally driven fashionable nonsense coming out of the postmodernist social ‘sciences’ in general, and gender studies departments in particular … As we see it, gender studies in its current form needs to do some serious housecleaning.”

And (a large chunk of especially influential people in) the skeptic community joined the victory parade:

“We are proud to publish this exposé of a hoaxed article published in a peer-reviewed journal today.” (Michael Shermer)

“This is glorious. Well done!” (Sam Harris)

“Sokal-style satire on pretentious ‘gender studies.'” (Richard Dawkins)

“New academic hoax: a bogus paper on ‘the conceptual penis’ gets published in a ‘high-quality peer-reviewed’ journal.” (Steven Pinker)

“Cultural studies, including women’s studies, are particularly prone to the toxic combinations of jargon and ideology that makes for such horrible ‘scholarship.'” (Jerry Coyne)

Except that a mildly closer look shows that Boghossian and Lindsay are no Sokals, and that the hoax should actually be treated as an embarrassment for the skeptic community. Let’s do a bit of, ahem, deconstructing of the conceptual penis affair.

(i) Like the Sokal hoax, the sample size is n=1. Since Boghossian teaches critical thinking, he ought to know that pretty much nothing can be concluded from that sort of “sampling” of the relevant population. That’s why Sokal properly understood his hoax as a rhetorical success, a way to put the spotlight on the problem, not of showing anything broader than “that the editors of one rather marginal journal were derelict in their intellectual duty.”

(ii) The B&L paper was actually rejected by the first journal it was submitted to, NORMA: The International Journal for Masculinity Study. Boghossian and Lindsay admit this, but add that they were “invited” to resubmit to Cogent Social Sciences, which is handled by the same prestigious Taylor & Francis publishing group that handles NORMA. The reality is that NORMA itself doesn’t make it even on the list of top 115 publications in gender studies, which makes it an unranked journal, not a “top” one. also, if you check Cogent Social Sciences’ web site you will see that it operates independently of Taylor & Francis. Oh, fun fact: NORMA’s impact fact is a whopping zero… And remember, it actually rejected the paper.

(iii) The “invitation” to resubmit to Cogent Social Sciences was likely an automated email directing the authors to an obvious pay-to-publish vanity journal. See if you can spot the clues from the journal’s description of their acceptance policies. First, authors are invited to “pay what they can” in order to publish their papers; second, they say they are very “friendly” to prospective authors; lastly, they say that they do not “necessarily reject” papers with no impact. Does that sound to you like a respectable outlet, in any field?

(iv) But isn’t Cogent Social Sciences said to be “high quality” by the Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ)? It may be, but the DOAJ is community run, has no official standing, and to make it on its list of recommended publications a journal “must exercise peer-review with an editor and an editorial board or editorial review…. carried out by at least two editors.” Even vanity journals easily meet those criteria.

All of the above said, I am indeed weary of “studies” fields, of which women and gender studies are just a couple of examples. As I’ve written in the past, my experience actually interacting with some faculty and students in those programs has been that they do have a tendency to insularity, which could be remedied by integrating them into the appropriate classic departments, like philosophy, history, comparative literature, and the like. That, in fact, was the original intention when these programs first appeared decades ago, and my understanding is that it was the traditional departments that did not want to go down that route, in order to protect their turf, faculty lines, and students tuition money.

It is also the case that many in “X Studies” programs embrace left-leaning politics and see themselves as activists first, scholars next. This is a problem, as the two roles may lead to conflict, in which activism may prevail at the expense of sound scholarship. But the problem isn’t confined to X Studies, as it is found, for instance, in ecology (where a lot of practitioners are also involved with environmentalist organizations), cultural anthropology (protection, not just study, of indigenous populations), and frankly even critical thinking and philosophy. I have made a career of studying pseudoscience (academically) while at the same time advocating on behalf of science and reason (blogs, books, articles, podcasts). So the two activities shouldn’t be seen as ipso facto incompatible (as, for instance, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt does). But one does need to thread cautiously nonetheless.

Finally, my observation by talking to colleagues in X studies and reading some of their papers (an approach that Boghossian and Lindsay boast of having rejected, because they apparently know a priori that it’s all bullshit), is that there is a tendency to embrace a form of environmental determinism — as opposed to its genetic counterpart — about human cognitive and cultural traits. This attitude is not scientifically sound, and it even generates internal conflict, as in the case of some radical feminists who reject any talk of being “trapped in the wrong body” by transgender people. As someone who has actually studied gene-environment interactions I am extremely skeptical of any simplistic claim of either genetic or environmental determination. Human beings are exceedingly complex and inherently cultural organisms, and the best bet is to assume that pretty much everything we do is the highly intricate result of a continuous interplay among genes, developmental systems, and environments.

So yes, X Studies are potentially problematic, and they probably ought to undergo academic review as a concept, as well as be subjected to sustained, external scholarly criticism. But this is absolutely not what the B&L stunt has done. Not even close.

And of course, for balance, let’s remember that science too is subject to disturbingly similar problems (thanks to Ketan Joshi for this brief summary, to which many, many more entries could easily be added — here is a similarly good take):

* Andrew Wakefield, a British anti-vaccination campaigner, notoriously managed to publish a fraudulent paper in the (really) prestigious medical journal Lancet in 1998.

* A US nuclear physics conference accepted a paper written entirely in autocomplete.

* A trio of MIT graduate students created an algorithm that produces fake scientific papers, and in 2013 IEEE and Springer Publishing (really seriously academic publishers) found a whopping 120 published papers that had been generated by the program.

* A paper entitled “Get me off your fucking mailing list” was accepted for publication by a computer science journal.

* A 2013 hoax saw a scientific paper about anti-cancer properties in a chemical extracted from a fictional lichen published in several hundred journals.

And of course let’s not forget the current, very serious, replication crisis in both medical research and psychology. Or the fact that the pharmaceutical industry has created entire fake journals in order to publish studies “friendly” to their bottom line. And these are fields that — unlike gender studies — actually attract millions of dollars in funding and whose “research” affects people’s lives directly.

But I don’t see Boghossian, Lindsay, Shermer, Dawkins, Coyne, Pinker or Harris flooding their Twitter feeds with news of the intellectual bankruptcy of biology, physics, computer science, and medicine. Why not?

Well, here is one possibility:

“American liberalism has slipped into a kind of moral panic about racial gender and sexual identity that has distorted liberalism’s message” — Michael Shermer, 18 November 2016

“Gender Studies is primarily composed of radical ideologues who view indoctrination as their primary duty. These departments must be defunded” –Peter Boghossian, 25 April 2016

Turns out that a good number of “skeptics” are actually committed to the political cause of libertarianism. This is fine in and of itself, since we are all entitled to our political opinions. But it becomes a problem when it is used as a filter to inform your allegedly critical thinking. And it becomes particularly problematic when libertarian skeptics go on a rampage accusing others of ideological bias and calling for their defunding. Self-criticism before other-criticism, people — it’s the virtuous thing to do.

This latest episode does not, unfortunately, surprise me at all. It fits a pattern that has concerned me for years, as someone who has been very active within the movement and who still identifies with its core tenets. When Steven Pinker openly embraces scientism, turning an epistemic vice into a virtue; or when atheists think that their position amounts to anything more than a negative metaphysical stance — and think that being nasty about it is the way forward; or when atheism, skepticism and scientism are confused with each other for ideological purposes; then I get seriously worried about the future of a movement that has so much potential to help keep the light of reason alive in a society that desperately needs it.

The Boghossian and Lindsay hoax falls far short of the goal of demonstrating that gender studies is full of nonsense. But it does expose for all the world to see the problematic condition of the skeptic movement. Someone should try to wrestle it away from the ideologues currently running it, returning it to its core mission of critical analysis, including, and indeed beginning with, self-criticism. Call it Socratic Skepticism(TM).


Update: Steven Pinker has admitted on Twitter that the hoax was a bad idea: “‘Gender studies’ is an academic field that deserves criticism, but The ‘Conceptual Penis’ hoax missed the mark.”

The key is activism, not persuasion

Two kids at the recent women's march in New York (photo by the Author)

Two kids at the recent women’s march in New York (photo by the Author)

I’ve been giving a lot of thought about the rise of Trump, and even though I rarely write about explicitly political matters on this blog, this will be one of the exceptions. I think it is necessary. WARNING: unusually strong language ahead, either deal with it or go somewhere else for the day, we’ll be back to normal programming later in the week.

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My friend Julia and the rationalistically relativist crowd

[Note: all excerpts from Julia’s Facebook page are reprinted here with permission from my friend. I invited Julia to comment on this essay, if she so wishes.]

As I have mentioned lately, I’m a bit concerned about certain people and attitudes within the broader skeptic movement, a concern that led to a fruitful recent exchange with my friend Steve Novella. Before that, I had expressed a worry about some over-interpreting of results from neuroscience and social psychology, seemingly suggesting that we are not as much Aristotle’s “rational animal,” as a rationalizing one, always busy confabulating in order to justify our own points of view no matter what. The two worries came together in the immediate aftermath of the US Presidential election, when I read with utmost interest a series of exchanges between my friend Julia Galef (with whom I used to co-host the Rationally Speaking podcast) and some of her followers on Facebook. The evidence is, of course, anecdotal, but it fits with the above worries I’ve been harboring for some time, based on my broader experience with self-professed skeptics.

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What’s the difference between sexism and misogyny?

WordsDonald Trump, the now official Republican candidate for the 2016 Presidential elections in the United States, is often called a misogynist. I have also recently been called a misogynist on that most august locus of intellectual interactions, Twitter. Something doesn’t add up, since I don’t really think I qualify for the appellative, and I’m not completely sure even about Trump…

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The philosophy of irony and sarcasm

characters in ancient Greek comedy

characters in ancient Greek comedy

In Ancient Greek comedy, Eiron was a clever underdog who somehow always managed to get the better of his rival, Alazon, by sheer use of wit. The Socratic dialogues by Plato essentially represent Socrates as the philosophical equivalent of Eiron. And, of course, it is from him that we derive the term “irony,” the Greek root of which means dissimulation, feigned ignorance.

Contrast that with sarcasm. That word also has a Greek root, naturally, which meant “to tear flesh, bite the lip in rage, sneer.”

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