Category Archives: Social & Political Philosophy

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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