Biology’s last paradigm shift and the evolution of evolutionary theory – part I

I find myself devoting more and more time to public outreach and what is increasingly referred to as public philosophy. But, you might know, I am also an academic and publish scholarship in philosophy of science. Which is why from time to time I like to combine the two and do a post that highlights for the general public some of my own technical publications. (A series of these, covering the range 2010-2016, can be found here.) The present essay refers to a paper that I published back in 2012, entitled “Biology’s last paradigm shift. The transition from natural theology to Darwinism.”


The theory of evolution, which provides the conceptual framework for all modern research in organismal biology and informs research in molecular biology, has gone through several stages of expansion and refinement. Darwin and Wallace proposed the original idea back in 1858, centering on the twin concepts of natural selection and common descent. Shortly thereafter, Wallace and August Weismann worked toward the complete elimination of any Lamarckian vestiges from the theory, leaning in particular on Weismann’s concept of the separation of soma and germ lines, and resulting in what is sometimes referred to as “neo-Darwinism.”


The theory then experienced a period of “eclipse” at the turn of the 20th century. Many biologists accepted the idea of common descent but either rejected or greatly de-emphasized the importance of natural selection as an evolutionary mechanism. The situation was exacerbated by the rediscovery of Mendel’s work, which pointed to an apparent incompatibility between discrete inheritance particles (“genes”) and the sort of continuous quantitative variation necessary for natural selection to produce gradual evolutionary change.


Famously, the crisis was overcome with the reconciliation of Mendelian and statistical genetics made possible by Ronald Fisher, J.B.S. Haldane and Sewall Wright in the 1930s, and that later on culminated in the Modern Synthesis (henceforth, MS) of the 1940s, to which several additional authors made important contributions, including but not limited to Theodosius Dobzhansky, Julian Huxley, Ernst Mayr, and George G. Simpson. The MS is still the version of the theory largely accepted by the scientific community, and it is what graduate students in the discipline are trained on.


More recently, several authors have pushed for an Extended Synthesis (henceforth, ES) in evolutionary biology, initially from a variety of individual perspectives largely rooted in particular fields of inquiry, such as Evo-Devo or phenotypic plasticity, and now with a more concerted effort aimed explicitly at the formalization of a broader conceptual framework for evolutionary biology (see here).


The ES is very much a work in progress, but the idea is to accomplish a number of goals that have so far proven somewhat elusive: first and foremost, to finally bring developmental biology – famously left out of the MS – into the fold. Second, to provide a coherent way to reconcile the “holistic” tendencies of organismal biological research with the decidedly more reductionist approach of molecular biology and its most recent products, the various “-omics” (genomics, proteomics, metabolomics, etc.). Third, to incorporate as primary players a number of biological phenomena and processes that had been either discarded or minimized within the context of the MS, e.g., phenotypic plasticity, genetic accommodation, epigenetic inheritance, etc. Fourth, to expand the standard theoretical toolkit of the MS – which is primarily grounded in population and quantitative genetic theory – to include elements from computational biology and complexity theory. Fifthly, to incorporate in evolutionary theory new concepts that have emerged from theoretical research during the past several years, chief among them the triad constituted by evolvability (i.e., the possibility of the evolution of evolutionary mechanisms), modularity (of different components of an organism’s phenotype) and robustness (i.e., the degree of resilience of developmental mechanisms).


In the paper I address the question of whether any of the above amounts to something akin to Thomas Kuhn’s famous paradigm shifts, i.e. whether evolutionary biology has ever undergone anything like what Kuhn describes as a moment of revolutionary science. I argue that it has not, and that it will not, even if the ES will succeed in establishing itself. Rather, I think the only time in the history of biology when such a transition has occurred was during the 19th century, when Darwin’s original theory replaced the dominant “paradigm” of the day, Paley-style natural theology. In the following I will discuss that particular paradigm shift, together with the general Kuhian notion of alternation between revolutionary and “normal” science. People interested in the same analysis applied to what happened to evolutionary theory after the onset of Darwinism are referred to the full paper.


William Paley is responsible for the most articulate defense of the idea that living organisms are the result of a special creation by supernatural forces. In his Natural Theology (1802) he famously introduced the metaphor of a watch and its watchmaker:


“In crossing a heath, suppose I pitched my foot against a stone, and were asked how the stone came to be there: I might possibly answer, that for any thing I know to the contrary, it had lain there for ever: nor would it perhaps be very easy to show the absurdity of this answer. But suppose I had found a watch upon the ground, and it should be inquired how the watch happened to be in that place; I should hardly think of the answer which I had before given, that for any thing I knew, the watch might have always been there. Yet why should not this answer serve for the watch, as well as for the stone? Why is it not as admissible in the second case as in the first? For this reason, and for no other, viz., that when we come to inspect the watch, we perceive (what we could not discover in the stone) that its several parts are framed and put together for a purpose (…) This mechanism being observed (…) the inference, we think, is inevitable, that the watch must have had a maker; that there must have existed, at some time, and at some place of other, an artificer or artificers, who formed it for the purpose which we find it actually to answer; who comprehended its construction, and designed its use.” (1802, p. 5).


Paley argued by analogy from the watch/watchmaker inference to the complex living organism/supernatural intelligent designer inference, despite the fact that such inference had been dealt a devastating philosophical blow by Hume, writing several decades before Paley, in 1779. Contrary to what has been assumed for a long time, Paley appeared to have been familiar with Hume, though he was obviously unconvinced by the latter’s arguments.


Darwin was initially persuaded by Paley’s reasoning, but eventually of course provided the decisive counterpoint that was missing in Hume: an alternative mechanism (natural selection) to generate both biological complexity and the pattern of common descent that was denied by Paley’s natural theology. It behooves us to briefly examine Darwin’s answer, so that we may then proceed to compare Paley’s and Darwin’s “paradigms” in view of Kuhn’s ideas to see whether we can sensibly talk of a paradigm shift occurring at the very onset of evolutionary biology as an independent discipline.


Although Paley is mentioned by name only once in The Origin (on p. 201 of the first edition in the chapter on “Difficulties on Theory”), Darwin mounts a concerted and sustained attack on natural theology in chapters VI and XIII of his magnum opus. Here are some relevant quotes to establish the case. First Darwin explicitly contrasts the type of “explanation” provided by natural theologians with a naturalistic explanation typical of the new science:


“He who believes in separate and innumerable acts of creation will say, that in these cases [of organisms’ behavior that have changed in response to a new environment, without – yet – an accompanying change in the structure of the proper organs] it has pleased the Creator to cause a being of one type to take the place of one of another type; but this seems to me only restating the fact in dignified language. He who believes in the struggle for existence and in the principle of natural selection, will acknowledge that every organic being is constantly endeavouring to increase in numbers; and that if any one being vary ever so little, either in habits or structure, and thus gain an advantage over some other inhabitant of the country, it will seize on the place of that inhabitant, however different it may be from its own place.” (1859, p. 186)


Then he proceeds to directly criticize Paley’s use of analogies to draw a parallel between the inference to human design and the inference to supernatural design:


“It is scarcely possible to avoid comparing the eye to a telescope. We know that this instrument has been perfected by the long-continued efforts of the highest human intellects; and we naturally infer that the eye has been formed by a somewhat analogous process. But may not this inference be presumptuous? Have we any right to assume that the Creator works by intellectual powers like those of man?” (p. 188)


Immediately afterwards, he goes so far as laying out the criteria for the falsification of his hypothesis, in sharp contrast of course with the natural theologian’s ideas, which cannot be falsified:


“If it could be demonstrated that any complex organ existed, which could not possibly have been formed by numerous, successive, slight modifications, my theory would absolutely break down. But I can find out no such case. … Natural selection will never produce in a being anything injurious to itself, for natural selection acts solely by and for the good of each. No organ will be formed, as Paley has remarked, for the purpose of causing pain or for doing an injury to its possessor. If a fair balance be struck between the good and evil caused by each part, each will be found on the whole advantageous.” (pp. 189, 201)


To summarize, then, the idea of intelligent design – which had been around at least since Plato’s Timaeus – had been severely crippled on philosophical grounds by Hume in the 18th century. Still, Paley was able to mount a spirited and detailed defense of it at the onset of the 19th century, while Darwin provided the final blow to it (except of course for the modern resurgence of creationism, which is not an intellectually meaningful movement) for the first time on scientific grounds during the second part of the 19th century. It is on the latter transition that I wish to focus in part II, from the perspective of Kuhn’s paradigm shifts.


(next: the Paley-Darwin transition as a paradigm shift)

Is exposing medical pseudoscience unethical?

You would think the answer to the title question is obvious: no, of course it isn’t unethical to expose medical pseudoscience (or any kind of pseudoscience). How can anyone think so? And yet, there are some decent reasons to doubt the certainty of such a conclusion. At least that’s the take of a paper that so far as I know has not yet been published, but is available at the PhilSci (philosophy of science) Archive at the University of Pittsburgh.


The paper is entitled “Exposing medical pseudoscience may be unethical,” and is authored by Ehud Lamm. Here is Lamm’s argument, as he presents it:


(1) Many ill health situations, in particular those involving multi- and comorbidity do not have very effective treatment options.


(2) Alternative medicine, consisting of various pseudo-scientific enterprises, provides repose to some of those suffering from such conditions.


(3) A significant part (if not all) of this benefit can be attributed to the placebo effect.


(4) In current, “Western,” societies, placebos are most effective when they have the symbolic currency of science.


(5) Ergo, exposing these pseudo-sciences will hurt people for whom there are only limited health care alternatives.


This is a reasonably constructed argument, so if one wishes to reject it — as I do — one needs to attack one or more of the premises, or to uncover and then reject some additional, hidden premises. I will follow both strategies here, though I wish to thank Lamm at the onset for having forced me to think more carefully about something I had hitherto taken for granted.


I am going to agree right away with premise (3): most (indeed, very likely, all) of the benefits of alternative medical treatments are the result of placebo effects. But I have varying degrees of issues with premise (1), (2), and (4). And I also think Lamm is not explicitly listing a few other very relevant premises here, though he mentions one of them in passing in the paper, as we shall see, only to discard it far too quickly.


Premise (1): this threads on an ambiguity surrounding the word “treatment.” Yes, modern medicine does not provide effective treatment against certain conditions, for instance a number of types of terminal cancer, or several types of dementia. But alternative medicine does not provide treatments either, according to Lamm’s own premise (3), only palliatives. Which means that the proper comparison here ought to be only between standard palliative care and “alternative” one. Palliative care works on the basis of a combination of actual biomedical effects (e.g., painkillers) and placebo. Other things being equal, then, it is more effective for a doctor to use her prestige (premise 4) to push tested palliative options rather than pseudoscientific ones.


Premise (2): for the reasons just seen, even if alternative medicine does provide some respite to patients by way of a placebo effect, standard palliative care is in any case preferable, because it also works by placebo, but additionally actually delivers (at least in some cases) a real biomedical effect. Again, remember that we are talking about alleviating pain and similar things, not actual cures, which are not achievable via placebo, and Lamm agrees that placebo is pretty much the only mechanism through which pseudo-medicine “works.”


Premise (4): the symbolic currency of science in the Western world seems much less real than Lamm assumes. Witness the widespread antivax movement, or — outside of medicine — so-called “skepticism” of climate change, or of evolutionary theory. If anything, science is suffering a credibility crisis of late, and inducing medical doctors to deploy pseudoscience is hardly going to improve such credibility.


If the reader agrees with even one of my criticisms of Lamm’s premises, that is enough to reject the argument. But there is more.


For instance, Lamm at one point says: “I am putting to one side deontological and consequentialist arguments against the use of placebos in general, and assume that in some situations relying on a placebo effect is legitimate.” That’s a bit too quick, and a rather big thing to put aside (and the bit after the comma somewhat begs the question)! A deontologist, for instance, might argue that it is a violation of the categorical imperative for a doctor to systematically lie to his patients, because that violates the implicit trust between the two (the very same trust on which premise 4 is built, incidentally), and because the doctors themselves would probably rather not been lied to when it is their turn to be patients.


On consequentialist grounds, one could argue that there are long term negative societal consequences engendered by lying to patients and by pushing pseudoscientific notions. Because, again, patients might eventually lose confidence in their doctors and begin to doubt any sort of medical advice; also because people will be more likely to embrace pseudoscience under other circumstances, for instance when there are, in fact, perfectly good evidence based treatment options available; and mroevoer because we would be condoning a multibillion dollar industry based on what is essentially a fraud.


Furthermore, there is a third big ethical framework out there: virtue ethics. It is hardly a good character trait to engage in systematic deception of others, even for their own good (a premise, this last one, that I have already rejected). Virtue ethics does not follow universal rules, so lying can be acceptable under certain circumstances. But the focus is on the character of the moral agent, and repeated lying is going to be deleterious to that character, since character is shaped precisely by repeating the same actions over and over, or by systematically entertaining and agreeing with the same thoughts.


Lamm sees another concern with exposing pseudo-medicine: “the movement toward Evidence Based Medicine (EBM), to the extent that it is successful, may lead people to be less open to treatments and assistance that are not backed by science, such as talk therapies, meeting with alternative medicine practitioners, support from informal social networks, help from clergy, and so on.”


This is an interesting point, but the way it is articulated it carelessly lumps a number of things that should be considered separately. For instance, homeopathy is clearly and definitely a pseudoscience, so it should be counted as a success if people do not waste their money (and hopes) on very expensive sugar pills. Talk therapies, however, are not necessarily pseudoscientific. We have good evidence that some forms of psychotherapy work (e.g., cognitive behavioral therapy), and there are distinctions to be drawn about what “working” means here. If a patient is in need to simply talk to someone, but is under no illusion that this will actually cure him, I don’t see what the problem is, or why such talk therapy should be counted as pseudo-medicine in the first place. Perhaps it won’t work better than getting a drink with your friend, but if chatting is the only thing one needs in order to feel better, it “works.” Much hinges, of course, on what the precise claim of the therapist is going to be. The very same considerations apply to the use of informal social networks, or to help from the clergy. These things are simply not in the same category of homeopathy and other kinds of pseudo-medicine.


And there is more to consider, like the general ideas that truth and honesty are intrinsically valuable, and should be compromised only under very unusual circumstances. Certainly both a deontologist and a virtue ethicist would reason this way, though a consequentialist might disagree (there goes yet another reason to reject consequentialism, in my view).


Lamm does consider some objections to his argument in the second part of the paper, and rejects them with a number of counterarguments. I have already covered part of what he says there in the previous points, but let me add a few pertinent comments.


He writes: “we should strive for alternative channels of social support to be available and determine whether non-science backed alternatives can provide patients with social and economic benefits that they need, such as health insurance coverage, help with the education system, and so on.” Well yes, as acknowledged before, but again this thread on an ambiguity of the term “support.” There is no problem in supporting people via talk therapy, social networks, religious counseling, and so forth. But these are not types of alternative medicine, and so long as the people providing the support are not lying, then there is no ethical issue. (Of course if you are an atheist you will think that all priests are lying by definition, but this is not the case from the point of view of a believer who has already adopted that particular religion’s framework. Admittedly though, that’s a tough case, best explored on its own.)


Lamm also maintains that some pseudoscientific “treatments” may be cheap and effective (again, via placebo) and therefore preferable whenever there are no established medical options for the condition. But we have seen above that at a very minimum modern medicine can provide palliatives, and let’s remember that much alternative medical practices are anything but cheap.


The author acknowledges a big potential downside of his approach: “if the pseudoscience providing the placebo effect causes patients to ignore science backed treatment we have to consider the tradeoff to decide whether belief in the efficacy of pseudoscience is beneficial or harmful.” Indeed, and this may often be the case. Not to mention that so long as the patient is also seeking regular medical treatment then, again, there is no additional benefit of the pseudo-medical one, which will cost money not just to the patient, but also, increasingly (and unfortunately) to the health insurance or government-backed apparatus that will pay for the so-called treatment.


Finally, Lamm argues: “It may be mistakenly suggested that the argument presented here is a justification for fraud (assuming the pseudoscience in question involves fraud). However, if anything, the argument discussed here only applies to exposing fraud, which in some cases may do more harm than good.” I don’t see how this would work: if a medical practitioner knows that a given remedy is pseudoscientific and recommends it nonetheless, he is participating in a fraud, even in cases in which he is not directly pocketing money for it (someone else is, and besides, he is being paid to take care of the patient). So, refraining from exposing fraud is, seems to me, condoning and abetting fraud no matter how one puts it. This may be a case of philosophical distinction without a difference.


Again, I recognize that Lamm’s paper is important because too often people like myself, who have pursued a career of exposing pseudoscience and defending science, make leaps of reasoning from the factual to the ethical, automatically assuming certain value judgments without further argument. But it seems to me that, once the arguments have been examined, there is still a strong preponderance of reasons to expose pseudo-medicine whenever possible.

Evolution, moral realism, and conditional imperatives

Is it true that genocide is wrong? Most of us would respond in the affirmative, would think that the answer is obvious, and would regard anyone answering in the negative as a psychopath, best immediately locked up somewhere where he can’t hurt people. And yet, that kind of response implicitly assumes that there is a fact of the matter about moral pronouncements, that some statements in ethics are true or false. But by what standard?


Moral truths — if they exist — don’t appear to be on par with scientific truths, despite much nonsense that has been written about it in recent years (see here and here). If a scientist says that, for instance, the planet Saturn has rings, that statement is true if, and only if, it turns out that Saturn does, in fact, have rings. This is referred to in philosophy as the correspondence theory of truth: a statement is true if it corresponds (to the best of our knowledge) to what’s actually “out there.”


Moral truths are also not (quite) like mathematical truths. In mathematics the Pythagorean theorem, say, is “true” if it can be derived deductively from a small number of axioms. The reasoning that leads to its derivation has to be coherent, meaning that the theorem has to be logically entailed by the axioms, and not lead to or imply any contradiction. This is known as the coherence theory of truth.


I don’t mean to imply that there is a sharp distinction between science and mathematics, nor that individual applications may not rely on a combination of the two theories of truth (indeed, we’ll see one such application below), but the above is a basic sketch that will serve us well in this essay.


So if moral truths don’t follow either a correspondence or a coherent account, what are we left with? Enter error theory. According to the excellent Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:
“Understanding the nature of an error theory is best done initially by example: It is the attitude that sensible people take toward phlogiston, that level headed people take toward astrology, that reasonable people take toward the Loch Ness monster, and that atheists take toward the existence of gods. An error theorist doesn’t believe in such things; she takes talk of such things to be a load of bunk. The moral error theorist doesn’t believe in such things as moral obligation, moral value, moral desert, moral virtue, and moral permission; she takes talk of such things to be bunk.”


The upshot is that if you (like the majority of people) believe that there are such things as moral truths, you are a moral realist, but you need to provide an account of where moral truths come from. If you reject the existence of moral truths (and error theorists are just one class of philosophers who do) then you are left with the task of explaining how come so many people are prone to this particular type of error.


This is why I was curious to read a recent paper by eminent philosopher of science Kim Sterelny and his University of Canberra colleague Ben Fraser, entitled “Evolution and moral realism,” and published in the British Journal for the Philosophy of Science. Here is a summary of their approach:


“We are moral apes, a difference between humans and our relatives that has received significant recent attention in the evolutionary literature. Evolutionary accounts of morality have often been recruited in support of error theory: moral language is truth-apt, but substantive moral claims are never true (or never warranted). We: (i) locate evolutionary error theory within the broader framework of the relationship between folk conceptions of a domain and our best scientific conception of that same domain; (ii) within that broader framework, argue that error theory and vindication are two ends of a continuum, and that in the light of our best science, many folk conceptual structures are neither hopelessly wrong nor fully vindicated; and (iii) argue that while there is no full vindication of morality, no seamless reduction of normative facts to natural facts, nevertheless one important strand in the evolutionary history of moral thinking does support reductive naturalism—moral facts are facts about cooperation, and the conditions and practices that support or undermine it. … True moral beliefs are a ‘fuel for success,’ a map by which we steer, flexibly, in a variety of social interactions.”


Let me unpack the above, and see where this leads us. The rather uncontroversial premise of Sterelny and Fraser’s paper is that our sense of right and wrong derives from an instinct that was probably favored by natural selection in order to improve our prosocial behavior, because the latter — in highly social species like ours — increases individual survival and reproduction, which are the only things natural selection “cares” about. Elements of prosocial behavior of this sort, which we would call moral if observed in humans, are indeed present in other species of primates.


But as Sterelny and Fraser point out, evolutionary accounts have largely being co-opted by error theorists: while moral language is what philosophers call “truth-apt” (i.e., it looks like it’s referring to truths), actual moral claims cannot be demonstrated to be true, since neither the correspondence nor the coherence theory seem to apply.


This has actually always sounded strange to me, for the following reason. A similar argument could be made that natural selection evolved our intelligence not in order for us to discover truths about the world (including scientific truths), but rather to figure out how to best our rivals within social groups. This is referred to as the Machiavellian theory of the origin of mind (but see here for one criticism), and it would lead us to conclude that even our scientific utterances are “truth-apt” and yet “never true or warranted.” One theologian, Alvin Plantinga, actually makes that argument against naturalism (as opposed to supernaturalism), ironically using evolutionary theory to conclude that either evolutionary science is untrustworthy or philosophical naturalism is wrong. I think Plantinga’s argument is bogus, though it would require a separate essay to show why (maybe at a later time). Still, it seems really weird to say that science (including evolutionary theory) doesn’t at least approximate truths about the universe, given how well its products work in practice. So error theorists shouldn’t be that quick to co-opt evolutionary theory on behalf of their position, or they risk falling into something like Plantinga’s dilemma.


Which lead us to the three points that constitute the heart of Sterelny and Fraser’s paper. They consider evolutionary error theory within a broader framework, the continuum between “folk” (i.e., everyday) and scientific understanding of things. Let’s clarify by means of an example not related to ethics: the phenomena of sunrise and sunset. The folk understanding in pre-scientific times was that, literally, the sun would rise above the horizon every morning, and set below it every evening. The sun was understood in a variety of ways, metaphysically, but usually as some kind of god or manifestation of the divine. The scientific account, of course, is that the sun isn’t doing any such thing, and in reality it is the earth that rotates on its axis, causing the illusion of sunset and sunrise. An evolutionary error theory would say that although sunrises and sunsets are illusions, in the sense that they are not a truthful description of what is going on, they are useful, since people can regulate their days accordingly. For everyday life, it simply doesn’t matter whether it is the sun that rises or sets, or the earth that rotates around its axis.
This is why Sterelny and Fraser say that according to this approach “many folk conceptual structures are neither hopelessly wrong nor fully vindicated.” But how is evolutionary morality cashed out, using this framework? On the one hand, there cannot be any simple reduction of moral truths to scientific facts. On the other hand, “moral facts are facts about cooperation, and the conditions and practices that support or undermine it.”


This is an interesting move, but I think it succeeds only in part. Sterenly and Fraser are ambitious here, as they want to ground a kind of moral realism, or quasi-realism, in evolutionary theory. Essentially, they are saying that moral truths follow the correspondence account outlined above, in that something is morally true just in case it fosters cooperation among human beings, and it is morally wrong if it doesn’t.


But this simply cannot be the full story. I think it is morally right (“true”) to cooperate with the entire human race in order to achieve a peaceful and prosperous world. Unfortunately, this is certainly not the sort of cooperation that natural selection has ever fostered. On the contrary, human evolution has been characterized by competition, not cooperation, among groups, with cooperation limited to each in-group. Indeed, it can be argued that the natural human trait of xenophobia (which I assume we would unequivocally label as morally wrong) has been adaptive for much of the history of Homo sapiens: if someone looks different from members of your in-group, he’s probably dangerous and you should be wary of him.


It is true that Sterelny and Fraser are careful, and are not committed to the simplistic notion that whatever behavior was favored by natural selection it is ipso facto morally good. But there are simply far too many discrepancies between what a theory of evolutionary morality would predict and what most people nowadays consider morally right or wrong for their approach to get us very far.


What then? Are the error theorists right after all? I don’t think so. I suggest that the sort of considerations articulated by Sterelny and Fraser provide a good account of how a natural moral instinct might have evolved: to favor in-group prosociality. But ethics since the invention of language, and especially since the invention of philosophy in different parts of the world between two and a half and three millennia ago, has been about using reason to precisely articulate and usually expand what counts as moral. Slavery, oppression of women, and xenophobia were initially considered morally acceptable, because they either enhanced or did not get in the way of the functioning of human groups. But today we think of all those notions as morally wrong, and for good reasons.


These reasons are the result of a combination of a basic prosocial human nature, an innate sense of the existence of right and wrong things, and of reason applied to the amelioration of the human condition. The first two components are the result of biological evolution, the latter of cultural evolution, which took over once we left the African savanna between 70,000 and 40,000 years ago, and especially after the agricultural revolution of 12,000 years ago. While the natural selective imperative is to survive in order to reproduce, the cultural imperative goes well beyond it: we want to flourish, to pursue projects, to acquire a certain degree of independence, and so forth. Biology simply cannot account for that.


What does, then? As philosopher Philippa Foot famously argued in her landmark 1972 paper, “Morality as a System of Hypothetical Imperatives,” moral truths are conditional truths. IF we wish to build a peaceful world THEN xenophobia is immoral. IF we wish to maximize every agent’s ability to flourish THEN the oppression of groups or individuals is immoral. And so forth.
This makes moral truths a combination of correspondence and coherence. The correspondence part derives from the notion that there are certain facts about the human condition that we can ascertain empirically. For instance that individuals flourish if they are accorded some rights, like the right to health care, or education. The coherence part comes from the fact that IF … THEN statements are a matter of logic, and so reasoning built on their bases is valid in some cases and invalid in others.


Another way to put it is this: if moral reasoning is reasoning about hypothetical imperatives, as Foot correctly, in my mind, argued, then the structure of that reasoning is a matter of logic (coherence) while the assumptions from which one begins any such reasoning are empirical in nature (correspondence). If human beings were radically different kinds of beings, our moral philosophy would look very different, or perhaps wouldn’t exist at all. Hence the relevance to ethics of the concept of human nature.


Some people may be unhappy with what they will conceive as a weakened sense of moral truths. They want categorical, not just hypothetical imperatives. They wish for universal, mind-independent moral truths. Too bad, there is no such thing. Others will deny the above account and embrace a relativist position in which morality is an entirely arbitrary human construct. While theoretically possible, I challenge anyone who adheres to such position to actually live by it. It’s not going to happen because it isn’t a good concept of morality for humanity. Foot-style categorical imperative offer us the best available option to navigate between the Scylla of strict moral realism and the Charybdis of strict moral anti-realism.

Does the universe suffer from multiple personalities disorder?

I am the sort of rare philosopher who is somewhat skeptical of metaphysics. For instance, I recently wrote that I don’t think there is such thing as metaphysical necessity or impossibility, because those two categories are exhaustively covered by physics and logic: something is either physically or logically impossible / necessary. But if there is something that really makes my bullshit detector go up to red alert when it comes to metaphysical claims is the increasingly popular idea of panpsychism.


There are a number of versions of it (we will encounter a couple below), but essentially the notion is that consciousness is not — as biologists and neuroscientists would understand it — a highly evolved trait present only in human beings and, to a lesser extent, in other species with sufficiently complex brains. On the contrary, panpsychists think that it is an elemental property of the universe, like mass, or the spin of a particle, and is therefore present everywhere.


Needless to say, there is not a shred of empirical evidence that panpsychism is a correct description of the world, and the notion, in modern metaphysics, is tightly linked to the solution of an entirely made up (in my opinion) problem in philosophy of mind: some philosophers, like my New York University colleague David Chalmers, just can’t imagine how a mass of meat, electrical signals and chemicals (i.e., your brain) can possibly produce the first-person experience we all commonly have when we see red (literally, as in the color), or experience sexual pleasure, or think and feel anything at all.


Chalmers calls this the “hard problem” of consciousness, and I have argued that there is no such thing. Consciousness has not, yet, been understood by science, but there is no reason in principle why it couldn’t. It’s “hard” only in the sense that it requires a hell of a lot of imaginative empirical work.


The fact is that people like Chalmers find themselves in a pickle. Since they maintain that consciousness is a problem irreducible to the methods of science, they have to postulate some sort of dualism, i.e., a radical, qualitative separation between what regular matter does and what thinking matter does. The most famous dualist was Descartes, who thought that there are actually two different kinds of matter: res extensa and res cogitans (this is called substance dualism).


This sort of dualism has gone, thankfully, out of fashion in philosophy, only to be replaced by a milder (but I think equally untenable, in the form in which it is usually presented) type, known as property dualism. Property dualists like Chalmers argue that when matter (the same matter, not two different kinds as hypothesized by Descartes) is organized in a certain complex manner, then consciousness somehow emerges. This is problematic because nobody seems to have a clue about what emergence means in this case, or how to cash it out as an actual explanation of consciousness. It’s sophisticated hand waving, but hand waving nonetheless.


Enter panpsychism. Chalmers and others have figured out that this very old notion (it is found in a number of cultures across the globe, for instance in Stoic philosophy in the West) can be couched in modern philo-scientific jargon and made to do the work to solve the hard problem. Indeed, for a panpsychist, in a sense, the hard problem dissolves into a non-problem, because consciousness does not have to emerge from certain organizational patterns of matter, since it is a foundational property of matter itself. It’s consciousness all the way down, so to speak.


The idea is elegant an appealing. And I assure you that, as a modern Stoic practitioner, I would love for it to be true! But it is ad hoc, meaning that the only reason to believe it, so far, is that it solves an artificial problem created by philosophers of mind themselves. There is no empirical evidence or independent theoretical support (say, from biology, or fundamental physics) for us to believe it.


Which is why we now turn to a recent essay by Bernardo Kastrup, Adam Crabtree, and Edward Kelley, entitled “Could multiple personality disorder explain life, the universe and everything?” Yeah, you read the title right (and did you notice the reference to the brilliant Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy?) The article, published over at the Scientific American blogs, is a lay summary of a technical paper that I honestly can’t believe passed peer review: The universe is consciousness, which appeared in the Journal of Consciousness Studies (David Chalmers is on the advisory editorial board, tough that doesn’t mean there is any direct connection between him and the paper).


Before I get to the crazy part of Kastrup and colleagues’ article, let me talk about the bits where I agree with the authors. First off, multiple personality disorder, or as it is now known, dissociative identity disorder (DID), is real, and these authors are credentialed experts in that field. I am, therefore, not questioning what they say about the disorder itself.


People affected by DID switch between a number of alternative personalities, each characterized by its own distinctive behavior. Recent research has shown that there are clear neural correlates to each “alter.” For instance, a woman with DID exhibited some alters that claimed to be blind, even though there was nothing wrong with her optic nerve or any other part of her visual system. Using EEGs, researchers were able to confirm that the component of the woman’s brain activity normally associated with sight was, in fact, not present whenever one of her blind alters was in control. By contrast, when a sighted alter reasserted control, the usual brain activity returned. So the phenomenon is real, with a clear and demonstrable biological underpinning.


I also agree with Kastrup and colleagues’ criticism of standard versions of panpsychism. Specifically, they call the sort of panpsychism I described above “constitutive panpsychism” and write:


“Constitutive panpsychism has a critical problem of its own: there is arguably no coherent, non-magical way in which lower-level subjective points of view — such as those of subatomic particles or neurons in the brain, if they have these points of view — could combine to form higher-level subjective points of view, such as yours and ours. This is called the combination problem and it appears just as insoluble as the hard problem of consciousness.”


Yup, exactly.


Kastrup and colleagues then move to something called “cosmopsychism,” which is the idea that consciousness is indeed spread throughout the universe, but it isn’t particulate (i.e., present in bits and pieces in particles, molecules, rocks, neurons, and so forth) but rather one whole thing. This is really the old fashioned philosophical notion of idealism: there is only one, universal, consciousness.


But cosmopsychism also is no slam dunk:


“You don’t need to be a philosopher to realize the obvious problem with this idea: people have private, separate fields of experience. We can’t normally read your thoughts and, presumably, neither can you read ours. Moreover, we are not normally aware of what’s going on across the universe and, presumably, neither are you. So, for idealism to be tenable, one must explain — at least in principle — how one universal consciousness gives rise to multiple, private but concurrently conscious centers of cognition, each with a distinct personality and sense of identity.”


I think you know where this is going, right? Let us have Kastrup and colleagues tell us explicitly:
“We know empirically from DID that consciousness can give rise to many operationally distinct centers of concurrent experience, each with its own personality and sense of identity. Therefore, if something analogous to DID happens at a universal level, the one universal consciousness could, as a result, give rise to many alters with private inner lives like yours and ours. As such, we may all be alters — dissociated personalities — of universal consciousness. Moreover, there is something dissociative processes look like in the brain of a patient with DID. So, if some form of universal-level DID happens, the alters of universal consciousness must also have an extrinsic appearance. We posit that this appearance is life itself: metabolizing organisms are simply what universal-level dissociative processes look like.”


Holy crap. So we are now positing that the entire universe “suffers” from a multiple personality disorder because we need to solve a non-problem that we created ourselves out of stubbornly postulating that there is something special and quasi-magical about consciousness. And of course, all of this without either a modicum of empirical evidence or any serious theoretical reason (again, from either biology or fundamental physics) to back it up!


(Moreover, if the universe were suffering from DID and I were one of the alters, shouldn’t I perceive myself as a coherent entity looking out to the whole universe, just like human DID patients see the world around them from a standpoint of unitary consciousness, no matter which alter is in control?)


No my friends. I think it far more reasonable to take consciousness at face value. It’s a biological process (like photosynthesis, say), that evolved in certain groups of the phylum Animalia (but not in plants, fungi, bacteria, and the like) with a sufficiently complex brain. We do not know how it works in detail, though we are beginning to map its neural correlates. We also don’t know why consciousness was favored by natural selection (we infer that it must have been because the necessary brain structures are metabolically very costly), though there are hypotheses out there (it may have to do with our ability to create mental representations).


Let me be clear about one thing here: panpsychism, property dualism, and even substance dualism aren’t crazy ideas. They are not logically inconsistent or anything like that. But they are not consistent with everything we know from the natural sciences at this point. And if I have to choose between that knowledge and made up notions like the ones we have considered here, I’m whipping up my Occam razor and mercilessly slash through the whole shebang. At this point in time, the razor will surely cut down panpsychism. In the future, we’ll see, fate permitting.

Plato’s reading suggestions, episode 140

Here it is, our regular Friday diet of suggested readings for the weekend:

The philosophy of romantic comedy.

Academics present their research on emojis.

Aztec moral philosophy: not as different from Greek virtue ethics as this article suggests.

The Two Cultures fallacy: a brief history of the ever shifting divide between the sciences and the humanities.

Changing the concept of “woman” will cause unintended harms.

Generation wealth: how the modern world fell in love with money.

Monty Python accused of being too white. Terry Gilliam responds by declaring himself a BLT, black lesbian in transition… (Bonus link: watch Monty Python’s Loretta sketch from Life of Brian!)

Who really holds the power in our food chain?

Memo to those seeking to live forever. It’s complicated.

The evils (or lack thereof) of cultural appropriation.

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Please notice that the duration of the comments window is three days (including publication day), and that comments are moderated for relevance (to the post one is allegedly commenting on), redundancy (not good), and tone (constructive is what we aim for). This applies to both the suggested readings and the regular posts. Also, keep ‘em short, this is a comments section, not your own blog. Thanks!

Sophia video: ontology, materialism, and all that jazz

Dan Kaufman and I have done it again. We have produced another fun (well, to us!) video conversation, this time on the pretty tough philosophical issues surrounding that branch of metaphysics known as ontology, i.e., the study of what is.

After a brief introduction to the general topic, we make a distinction between ontology and epistemology: it’s not just a question of what exists but, just as importantly, of how we know that something exists (or doesn’t). I make the suggestion that it is wise to always keep one’s ontology not too far from one’s epistemology…

But “know” here is yet another tricky word, as there are different theories of knowledge, and I suggest, in response to one of Dan’s excellent questions, that we deploy — sometimes without thinking — different conceptions of truth in different contexts. For instance, when we say that it is true that the Pythagorean theorem holds (yeah, yeah, in Euclidean geometry) we are not saying the same kind of thing as when we say that it is true that Saturn has rings. In the first case we deploy a coherence account of truth, in the second a correspondence account.

We then talk about materialism, and I admit to Dan that while I am a naturalist, I am not really a materialist, at least under certain conceptions of the term. I believe, for instance, that the Stoics virtues exist, but they are not made of matter, they are human concepts, necessary categories we use to talk to each other, tell each other what to do or not to do, and so forth. The same goes for a lot of other things, especially things that have to do with values.

Mind you, I’m not about to deny that every physical object is made of the same stuff (be it quarks, strings, or whatever physicists decide in the end). But I don’t think that an ontology based only on fundamental physics is sufficient to make sense of the world. Which, of course, brought Dan and I to discuss Wilfrid Sellars, the philosopher who introduced the famous distinction between the manifest and the scientific images of the world, and who was the subject of a separate dialogue published previously.

Near the end of the video we even get to re-examine Daniel Dennett’s famous contention that certain things (like consciousness, or the self) are “illusions.” We find that we may agree with Dennett only if we use the word “illusion” in a very specific metaphorical sense, and we are not positive that Dan (Dennett) would agree to be so constrained.

Enjoye the video!

 

Plato’s reading suggestions, episode 139

Here it is, our regular Friday diet of suggested readings for the weekend:

The phrase “meaning of life” has a surprisingly recent origin

The elusive quest to demarcate science from non-science.

Imagine, if you can, a criminal justice system that doesn’t yield to the retributive side of anger.

The difference between true contrarians and the oxymoronic concept of a contrarian herd.

Hard data, or intuitive hunch? That is the false dichotomy.

Five features of better arguments. Good luck implementing them.

Moderation: the most challenging and rewarding of virtues.

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Please notice that the duration of the comments window is three days (including publication day), and that comments are moderated for relevance (to the post one is allegedly commenting on), redundancy (not good), and tone (constructive is what we aim for). This applies to both the suggested readings and the regular posts. Also, keep ‘em short, this is a comments section, not your own blog. Thanks!

Book Club: Early Socratic Dialogues, 5, the Charmides and the nature of self-knowledge

Temple of Apollo at Delphi

The Charmides, the next entry in our exploration of the early Socratic dialogues from the homonymous Penguin collection, is a big one. Its primary objective is an exploration of the concept of the cardinal virtue known as sōphrosunē. It is one of the four Socratic virtues found also in the Stoics, the other three being practical wisdom (phronesis, or prudence, from the Latin prudentia), courage and justice. But the dialogue is also about the “paradoxical” Socratic doctrine of the unity of the virtues, the idea that all individual virtues are really different aspects of one fundamental thing, wisdom.

The word sōphrosunē, etymologically, meant something like soundness of mind, but the popular usage in Plato’s time was akin to self-control, the same way in which the Stoics use it. In the Charmides, however, Socrates / Plato is giving it a far wider sense, closer to self-knowledge (from which self-control stems as a consequence). Needless to say, “know thyself” was the primary Socratic dictum, which Socrates inherited from the Oracle at Delphi, and the concept of self knowledge is central to Socratic philosophy.

It is interesting to note that the title character, Charmides, was a relative of Plato (his uncle on his mother’s side, as well as the son of Glaucon, who will play a major role in the Republic). Another major character, Critias, was a cousin of Plato’s mother. Both Critias and Charmides eventually became members of the Thirty Tyrants (indeed, Critias was their leader), who imposed terror in Athens at the end of the Peloponnesian War. They both died in battle, while fighting against the democratic forces. Both Plato, in this dialogue, and Xenophon in his Memorabilia, try to show that Socrates attempted to educate Charmides and Critias in the matter of self-knowledge, but obviously failed.

Another interesting preliminary note is that at the beginning of the dialogue there is a brief appearance of a friend of Socrates, Chaerophon. He is the guy that was told at Delphi that Socrates was the wisest man in Athens.

We have seen while studying other dialogues that this sort of search is based on Socrates’ assumption that there is a ousia, an essence, to the definitions of the terms he is interested in. But they all end in a state of aporia, i.e., inconclusiveness, presumably because there is, in fact, no essence to any of these concepts — as Wittgenstein will remark more than two millennia later. That said, Plato was clearly aware of some of the limitations of Socrates’ approach, since even in this dialogue he has Critias articulate a general criticism of analogical arguments in dialectics.

In order to understand one of the main points of the dialogue, the one about the unity of virtue, we need to keep in mind that for Socrates the virtues were types of technē, i.e., skills or crafts, analogous to other technai like shoemaking and weaving. These were a body of precisely attainable knowledge (epistēmē), but there is a difference between knowledge of oneself and other technai: unlike the others, it does not seem to have a product (like shoes for shoemaking, baskets for weaving, and so forth).

The dialogue begins with Socrates saying that he just came back from the battle of Potidaea, which was fought in 432 BCE and was one of the catalysts of the Peloponnesian War. After exchanging some news related to the events, there is a shift to philosophy, and Socrates characterizes sōphrosunē — even before arriving at a definition of it — as “health of the soul.”

Critias tells Socrates that Charmides (who has not appeared yet on the scene) is exceptionally handsome and amazingly tall. To which Socrates responds:

“Goodness, how irresistible you make him sound, provided that he happens to have just one other little thing.’ ‘What’s that?’ asked Critias. ‘Provided that he happens to be endowed with a fine soul.’” (154)

When Charmides finally makes his entry, Socrates is duly impressed, and not by the youth’s fine soul:

“Everyone in the wrestling-school swarmed all round us. That was the moment, my noble friend, when I saw what was inside his cloak. I was on fire, I lost my head, and I considered Cydias to be the wisest man in matters of love.” (155)

Eventually, Socrates pulls himself together and gets around to inquire whether Charmides is equipped with self-control, and he is assured by Critias that he is indeed. But Socrates wants to make sure for himself:

“‘Well then, so that we can guess whether it is in you or not, tell me,’ I said, ‘what you say self-control is in your opinion.’” (159)

Charmides’ first attempt at defining sōphrosunē is pretty weak: he says that it is quiet conduct in society, an obvious result of his aristocratic upbringing. But Socrates dispatches of this pretty quickly, by pointing out that self-control is kalon (i.e., beautiful, admirable), while quieteness is not always kalon, therefore sōphrosunē can’t be quietness.

“But, my friend, if at the most there are in fact as many quiet actions which are more admirable as there are vigorous and quick ones, it still wouldn’t mean that doing things quietly would be self-control any more than doing them vigorously and quickly would.” (160)

Charmides then moves to a second definition, shifting to the description of an inner condition that manifests itself outwardly as modesty. But Socrates will have none of that either, since self-control is not just admirable, but also good. Modesty, by contrast, is not always good, from which it follows that self-control is not modesty.

[Charmides] “Well, I think that self-control makes a man feel shame and be bashful, and that self-control is the same thing as modesty.” (160)

[Socrates] “Self-control can’t be modesty, if it really is a good thing, and if modesty is no more a good thing than a bad one.” (161)

The third definition proposed by Charmides is that self-control is akin to doing one’s job well. Which Socrates rejects along similar lines as before: self-control is good, but sometimes doing one’s job properly is not good, so self-control is different from doing one’s job well. Socrates then turns to Critias, who proposes the fourth definition: self-control is the doing of good things.

Socrates then investigates whether it is possible to be self-controlled without knowing it, by presenting the following argument: (i) self-control is doing what one should; (ii) doing what one should is doing good; therefore: (iii) self-control is doing good; but (iv) one may do good without knowing it; therefore: (v) one may be self-controlled without knowing it.

[Socrates] “‘So sometimes,’ I said, ‘the doctor does something beneficial or harmful without knowing which he has done. And yet, according to what you say, in doing what is beneficial, he has done what is self-controlled. Wasn’t that your point?’”

[Critias] “Yes, it was.” (164)

Socrates aint’ happy with this:

“If you think that that must follow as a result of what I admitted earlier, I’d rather retract part of that admission – and I’d not be ashamed to say that I was wrong – than ever allow that a man who does not know himself is self-controlled.” (164)

The fifth definition proposed is that sōphrosunē is knowledge of oneself. But Socrates attempts to deny this too, by pointing out that sōphrosunē does not seem to have a product, unlike, say, knowledge of medicine, which produces health (and so it is not a type of knowledge). Critias rightly responds that other kinds of knowledge also lack a product: arithmetics, for instance. Socrates says that while this is true, it is also the case that arithmetic is knowledge of numbers, but numbers are not arithmetic itself. At this point, the definition of sōphrosunē is modified to knowledge both of the other knowledges and of its own self, that is, knowledge of knowledge.

[Critias] “Indeed, I’d almost say that is what self-control really is, knowing oneself. I agree with the man who dedicated the inscription to that effect at Delphi.” (164)

[Socrates] “If indeed self-control is knowing something, it will obviously be a knowledge and a knowledge of something, won’t it?”

[Critias] “‘Yes,’ he said. ‘Of oneself.’” (165)

[Critias] “‘But Socrates,’ he said, ‘your method of investigating the question is wrong. It isn’t like the other knowledges, and they aren’t like one another either; but you’re conducting the investigation as if they were. For tell me,’ he went on, ‘what is the product of the art of arithmetic or geometry.” (165)

[Critias] “‘That’s just it, Socrates,’ he said. ‘You’ve come in your investigation to the question of what the difference is between self-control and all the other knowledges. You’re trying to find some similarity between it and the others. There isn’t any. All the others are knowledges of something else, not of themselves. Self-control alone is the knowledge both of the other knowledges and of its own self.” (166)

Socrates attempts again an argument from analogy, in this case with vision. Vision sees color, but it does not see itself. Similarly, desire desires pleasure, it does not desire itself. And so on.

[Socrates] “It would appear we’re saying that there is some such knowledge, which is the knowledge of no branch of learning, but is the knowledge of itself and the other knowledges?” (169)

Interestingly, at this point Socrates grants the possibility that sōphrosunē is knowledge of knowledge, but points out that then it follows that in order to know other things, for instance that an alleged doctor is actually a quack, one needs a different kind of knowledge, namely knowledge of medicine. It would seem, then, that one must possess both sōphrosunē (knowledge that one knows) and technē (professional skill).

[Socrates] “Supposing there is a knowledge of knowledge, will it be able to determine anything more than that one thing is knowledge and another is not?”

[Critias] “No, just that.”

[Socrates] “Is it the same thing as knowledge and ignorance of what is healthy? Is it the same as knowledge and ignorance of what is just?”

[Critias] “Not at all.’’ (170)

[Socrates] “How will he know by that knowledge what he knows? For example, he knows what is healthy by medicine, not by self-control; what is harmonious, by music, not by self-control; what makes a building, by the art of building, not by self-control; and so on. Doesn’t he?”

[Critias] “So it seems.” (170)

[Socrates] “So the man who is ignorant of that won’t know what he knows, but only that he knows.”

[Critias] “It would appear so.” (170)

[Socrates] “So he won’t be able to distinguish the man who pretends to be a doctor, but isn’t, from the man who really and truly is one, or indeed to distinguish any other of those who know from any other of those who don’t.” (170)

If sōphrosunē doesn’t help us with deciding things like whether an alleged doctor is a quack, what is it good for? Well, it is a kind of super-knowledge, which presides over the performance of the other kinds of knowledge, insuring their correct functioning. While a good practitioner of any skill (like medicine) will require the pertinent technical knowledge, technical knowledge by itself is not a guarantee of a good and happy life.

[Socrates] “Does knowing knowledge and ignorance, which is what we are now discovering self-control to be, bring the following advantage, that the man who possesses this knowledge will more easily learn whatever else he learns, and everything will appear clearer to him inasmuch as he will see, in addition to each thing he learns, its knowledge?” (172)

Critias now suggests that sōphrosunē is knowledge of good and bad. Socrates is skeptical, however, that this sort of knowledge can be beneficial, again because unlike other forms of knowledge, it doesn’t produce a product. Here, however, it seems like Socrates is getting a bit stubborn and even sophistic, while Critias’ position, though not necessarily logically airtight, is more sensible. Consider this exchange:

[Critias] “‘Why wouldn’t self-control benefit us?’ he asked. ‘If self-control is in the fullest sense the knowledge of knowledges and presides over the other knowledges too, it would certainly govern the knowledge of good too and consequently benefit us.’”

[Socrates] “‘Would it make us healthy too,’ I asked, ‘not medicine? Would it make the products of the other arts, instead of each of them making its own? Weren’t we solemnly declaring all this time that it was knowledge only of knowledge and ignorance and of nothing else? Isn’t that so?’”

[Critias] “Apparently.”

[Socrates] “So it won’t be the producer of health?”

[Critias] “Certainly not.” (174)

But Socrates/Plato is going somewhere with this. While the dialogue ends in the usual aporia (inconclusiveness), with no clear winning definition, Socrates does say that sōphrosunē is beneficial, he just can’t prove it, blaming his own shortcomings as a philosopher for that. The translator of the dialogue takes this, rightly I think, to be a strong hint that the preferred definition is that sōphrosunē is knowledge of good and bad. This, however, would be a definition not of a specific virtue, but of virtue itself, which means that — as in the Laches — Socrates is arguing for the unity of virtue. It also follows that virtue is a type of knowledge, a famous Socratic paradox (meaning “uncommon opinion,” not a logical contradiction).

(next: the Hippias Major on what it means when something is “fine”)

Plato’s reading suggestions, episode 138

Here it is, our regular Friday diet of suggested readings for the weekend:

Was autism a Nazi invention? (Not really, but it’s an interesting story.)

People’s egos get bigger after meditation and yoga, says a new study.

“Because I don’t think we should legitimise personal experience as the final arbiter of truth it’s worth gently questioning what it means to experience ego dissolution.”

How we got to be so self(ie)-absorbed: the long story.

The omnigenic model: research suggests pretty much every gene affects pretty much every complex character.

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Please notice that the duration of the comments window is three days (including publication day), and that comments are moderated for relevance (to the post one is allegedly commenting on), redundancy (not good), and tone (constructive is what we aim for). This applies to both the suggested readings and the regular posts. Also, keep ‘em short, this is a comments section, not your own blog. Thanks!

Should “the ignorant” be denied access to audiences?

John Stuart Mill

People who ended up voting for Donald Trump were famously characterized by Hillary Clinton as the “basket of deplorables.” And I must admit that I wonder in stupor at the foolishness of US politics, the recent Italian elections, Brexit, or the re-election of Turkish strongman Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Not to mention what seem to be genuinely adoring crowds in Vladimir Putin’s Russia.

How is any of this possible? It’s always a complex combination of factors, of course, ranging from people’s socio-economic situation to their ideological or religious commitments, to deficient education, to the pure and simple human herd instinct that so annoyed Nietzsche. But surely one thing that contributes to the current insane state of affairs is the reach that pernicious ideologues have in the modern era, a reach made far more efficient by the existence of the internet and social media. And by the fact that these people are often offered platforms to address audiences by institutions such as universities, newspapers, television stations and the like.

My colleague Bryan Van Norden, a professor of philosophy at Wuhan University, as well as the author of “Taking Back Philosophy: A Multicultural Manifesto,” has published a thought provoking op-ed about institutional platforms in the New York Times. It is well worth considering in some detail, as I see where Bryan is coming from, but I consider his proposed path dangerous, and his argument self-contradictory.

He begins with a couple of examples. Ultra right-wing commentator Ann Coulter recently appeared on Fox News to say that the crying migrant children separated from their parents by the Trump administration were child actors. Van Norden comments: “Does this groundless claim deserve as much airtime as, for example, a historically informed argument from Ta-Nehisi Coates that structural racism makes the American dream possible?” University of Toronto psychologist, and darling of the alt-right, Jordan Peterson talked about how difficult it is to control “crazy women” and the fact that men naturally can muster respect only for people whom they can threat with violence. Bryan’s comments: “Does this adolescent opinion deserve as much of an audience as the nuanced thoughts of Kate Manne, a professor of philosophy at Cornell University, about the role of ‘himpathy’ in supporting misogyny?”

The classical liberal response to these questions is that Ann Coulter and Jordan Peterson ought to be accorded freedom of speech, on grounds famously laid out by John Stuart Mill in his On Liberty, published in 1859. The argument is based on the following considerations: (i) you may think opinion X is clearly wrong, but history is littered with people, even majorities, who were sure that something was wrong when it turned out that it wasn’t (say, that gays should have a right to marry); (ii) if X is indeed wrong, then we learn something from people who defend it, because we need to make clear to ourselves why a given notion is, in fact, wrong (otherwise, we reject it out of prejudice, not knowledge or understanding); (iii) truth is not an all or nothing matter, so we may learn even from partially or largely wrong opinions; (iv) if an opinion offends you, that’s not sufficient reason to suppress it; and (v) who, exactly, ought to be in charge of limiting the expression of unpopular or “offensive” opinions?

Van Norden calls the above line of reasoning “specious,” adding that it is rooted in “a naïve conception of rationality that [Mill] inherited from Enlightenment thinkers like René Descartes.” [Technically, Descartes influenced the Enlightenment, but was not an Enlightenment thinker, since he lived from 1596 to 1650, and the European Enlightenment was an 18th century thing.]

Bryan argues that “If you do have faith in a universal method of reasoning that everyone accepts, then the Millian defense of absolute free speech is sound,” but he very clearly states that there is no such thing as universal reason, so we should reject Mill’s argument. I think that Van Norden’s statement is ambiguous and that what he argues in the remainder of the NYT op-ed flatly contradicts his opening statement.

He writes: “I wish it were self-evident to everyone that we should not discriminate against people based on their sexual orientation, but the current vice president of the United States does not agree. I wish everyone agreed that it is irrational to deny the evidence that there was a mass shooting in Sandy Hook, but a syndicated radio talk show host can make a career out of arguing for the contrary.”

But the fact that Mike Pence does not agree with a given notion does not mean that the notion in question is not self-evident, it may simply be that Pence denies self-evident truths, either because he is too ignorant to see them, or because of bigotry, or political expediency. Similarly, a nutcase radio talk show host, syndicated or not, may deny empirical evidence all he wants, but that doesn’t mean that his denial is reasonable. At all.

Bryan understands why Mill, and Alexis de Tocqueville, made their argument. Mill was a strong proponent of women’s rights and an opponent of slavery, and he knew too well that many people found such topics offensive, resulting in what he famously termed a tyranny of the majority.

But, argues Van Norden, we are in a very different situation from 19th century England and America. We are witnessing the worsening of a scenario already described by the philosopher Herbert Marcuse back in 1965, when he wrote: “In endlessly dragging debates over the media, the stupid opinion is treated with the same respect as the intelligent one, the misinformed may talk as long as the informed, and propaganda rides along with education, truth with falsehood.”

This is quite obviously true, of course (or is it?). Only a foolish society would give “equal time” to the discussion of evolutionary theory and creation “science,” or to a climate researcher and a so-called “skeptic” of global warming, or a medical researcher and Jenny McCarthy. But setting aside that a lot of other cases, especially political opinions (as distinct from scientific theories) are not quite so easy to settle, what is the alternative? Mill wasn’t naive about how difficult it is for most people to wade through public controversies. He just thought that freedom of speech was the least of possible evils.

Marcuse famously advocated the outright suppression of right-wing perspectives, a position that, thankfully, Bryan does not endorse. Instead, he makes an intriguing proposal: to distinguish between free speech and just access: “access to the general public, granted by institutions like television networks, newspapers, magazines, and university lectures, is a finite resource. Justice requires that, like any finite good, institutional access should be apportioned based on merit and on what benefits the community as a whole.”

But that comes perilously close to begging the question against Mill: on what criteria should we apportion the merit of different opinions? How do we figure out what is just? How do we measure the benefit of an opinion for the community as a whole? Recall that Van Norden has denies that there is such thing as universal reason. It follows that all such judgments are bound to be arbitrary, and therefore simply to reflect the will of the people who happen to be wielding power by virtue of controlling the limited resources Bryan is referring to. This may not be quite a tyranny of the majority, but it is still a tyranny (of the elite, perhaps?).

Let’s take a look at some of the specific examples Van Norden brings up. In 2004 one Nathaniel Abraham was fired by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute because he admitted to his employer that he did not believe in evolution. Correctly, Bryan asserts that Abraham has a right to his wacky opinion, but that Woods Hole has a right to fire him on the grounds that he holds such opinion. But this has nothing to do with freedom of speech or institutional access: Woods Hole is a preeminent research laboratory that carries out a lot of work on evolution, so Abraham had simply admitted to his incompetence at working there. It would be like NASA firing a flat-earth believer. Or a hospital a doctor who did not “believe” in vaccines.

The next example is more pertinent, but far less clear: Van Norden claims that a number of universities, including Columbia and NYU, should not have invited Charles Murray, the co-author of The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life to speak on their campuses. Why? Because Murray’s notions are junk science. That is true, I think (for a variety of reasons, including those explained here and here), but there are two additional factors to consider. First off, “universities” don’t invite anyone; often it is specific faculty or student associations that do. And to bar invited speakers in either case amounts to an infringement of academic freedom or students’ rights. Second, I am of the opinion that a significant chunk of what goes on in a number of legitimate university departments is either questionable or downright junk (no, I will not mention names). But, again, I don’t get to decide which is which. I do get, however, to argue — in perfectly Millian fashion — in favor or against certain programs, positions, claims, and so forth.

Bryan’s third example is the recent firing by ABC of their television star, Roseanne Barr, because of her racist public remarks. But that’s yet another situation altogether. Barr did not make her remarks on television, and she was fired from ABC because the network was (rightly, I think) embarrassed by her behavior, and feared a public backlash. Of course, had the episode happened, say, in the 1950s, ABC would have likely not moved a finger about it. I assume it is a rationally objective fact that we have made (some) improvements in our thinking about race and gender since then, but of course Van Norden cannot claim so, because he does not believe in universal reason.

Bryan mentions recent research in social psychology showing that if a falsehood is repeated, even when it is in order to debunk it, people are more likely to believe it. This is both true (maybe, since there is a replication crisis ongoing in that field) and worrisome, but is it — as Van Norden claims — reason to cheer MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” decision never again to invite Kellyanne Conway because of her bizarre notion of “alternative facts”? I don’t know. It is very unfortunate that someone like Conway is currently a high profile government official, but isn’t a journalist supposed to challenge that sort of notion, rather than suppress it? Besides, by way of similar actions MSNBC has now gathered the reputation (deservedly or not) of the left’s Fox, which makes their decision about Conway come across to many as naked partisanship. Is this really helpful to public discourse? I’m not so sure.

Bryan says that “right to free speech is not the right to an audience,” and he is correct. But in philosophy we make a distinction between negative and positive rights. You may have, say, the negative right of being allowed to leave the country whenever you wish. But if things are such that you could never muster the means to actually leave, you do not have a corresponding positive right, and negative rights by themselves are largely useless. To pick a more concrete example, in the US (for now) women have a right to abortion. But such right is meaningless if local state legislatures make it so difficult for abortion clinics to practice that for all effective purposes a woman in Texas or Alabama has to drive hundreds of miles, or even go out of state, to get an abortion. Ironically, it is a typical tactic of the right that whenever they cannot eliminate a negative right (like abortion, again, for now) they go after its positive counterpart, thus making it difficult or impossible for people to enjoy that right. The same goes for speech: if I have a “right” to it, but I am then systematically denied audiences by a small number of gatekeepers, I might as well shout in the void. And, again, who gets to make such decisions, and on what grounds, given that there is no universal reason?

Van Norden concludes his op-ed by stating: “These views [that he criticizes] are specious, and those who espouse them are, at best, ignorant, at worst, sophists,” calling people who hold those views “invincibly ignorant and intellectual hucksters.” It sounds to me like Bryan thinks he has good reasons to think that these people’s opinions are, in fact, wrong. I agree with his assessment. And so should any reasonable person, because reason isn’t a matter of your personal opinion — across time and cultures. There are standards of evidence and argument that have been worked out over the past two and a half millennia of philosophy and science, way before the European Enlightenment came about. On my part, I prefer by far a society where we do our utmost so that more and more people are familiar with such standards and apply them properly, rather than one in which whoever happens to be in charge is going to decide which resources to apportion to whom. Call me an old fashioned Millian, in that sense.