Tag Archives: The Edge of Reason

Book Club: The Edge of Reason 11, political reason

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Plato vs Aristotle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book Club: The Edge of Reason 9, the claims of reason

We are now at the last few chapters of my ongoing discussion of Julian Baggini’s excellent book, The Edge of Reason: A Rational Skeptic in an Irrational World. Chapter 9 begins with a nice little summary of the two recurring themes of the book: “The first is that reason requires judgement, that it is not a pure algorithm that can be set up and left to run by itself to produce true conclusions. The second is that reason, by itself or in the service of science, can neither provide us with all we need for ethics nor debunk it.”

Julian then says that reason is less powerful than some may like, and yet not just a veneer for our irrational beliefs and prejudices. Reason has normative force. But in what sense?

The “ought” that is associated by Baggini with reason is not a moral ought, but rather something along the lines of “given the evidence, you ought to agree that smoking likely causes cancer.” Reason, however, only “demands” that we accept the evidence, not that we actually cease smoking, since the latter is a decision that is affected by factors other than the straightforward available scientific evidence.

Julian thinks that his conception of reason helps to explain why it finds itself in an intermediate position, so to speak, with respect to ethics: reason per se cannot ground ethics (per Hume), but it isn’t irrelevant to it either.

One of his examples has to do with racism. The overwhelming available evidence (as disputed as sometimes it is) is that there are no systematic differences in cognitive abilities among “races,” race being itself a very ill-defined concept, to say the least, from a biological perspective. Accordingly, one “ought” to believe that no racial group is inherently superior or inferior to any other, across the board. (Baggini, wisely, does allow for the fact that some local populations may have a limited number of special characteristics that are significantly different from the rest of the human population, as in the case of runners who originate from the mountainous regions of the Rift Valley in East Africa.)

The acceptance of the evidence that no racial group is superior, however, does not automatically lead to the rejection of racism: “One might, for instance, cite the evidence that almost everyone has some kind of implicit prejudice against people they perceive to be different, and that this suggests discrimination is natural. Combine that with an idea that we have the right to follow our natural instincts and you get an attempted justification of racism that does not deny that we ought to accept that all races are equal.” It’s a pretty bad justification, but a justification it is.

For Julian “the fact that we ought to believe all races are equal adds weight to the judgement that we ought to treat them equally, even if it does not strictly demand that conclusion.” Reason does not determine ethical positions, but it is relevant to them.

Interestingly, Baggini thinks that a bridge between ought and is comes out of the fact that certain objective facts about the world, when considered by human beings, come with a degree of contextual normativity embedded into them. He calls these instances examples of “praxic” statements: “‘Superior’ is always praxic, since things are never better or worse in an absolute sense but always and only with regard to certain [human] purposes. To say a person is a better musician than another is a reason to choose her performance over another but not a reason to give her greater rights in a court of law. … This idea that many terms have a praxic element fills out the notion of ‘normative facts’ that I introduced in chapter seven. Facts are normative when they contain within them some idea of what is good or right, of what we ought to do.”

And in order for his position (which happens to be mine as well) not to be confused with that of the Sam Harrises and Michael Shermers of the world, Julian adds: “I am not saying that what we ought to do automatically follows from simple facts. Rather, it is that simple facts often have an important effect on what we judge we ought to do. ‘Is’ does not imply ‘ought’, but within many an ‘is’ an ‘ought’ is already lurking.”

The chapter concludes with an interesting explanation for why philosophers tend to be such a contentious bunch, the profession being characterized by heated disagreements among its practitioners, which one might think ill suited to the life of reason: “Public outbursts [in philosophy] are unusual but the desire at least to thump the table is much more common than academic decorum suggests. There may be many reasons for this, but, I want to suggest, one is that when we think we have a rational argument we inescapably think that others should accept it. … Believing that in principle we might be wrong [as any good philosopher ought] does little to temper our conviction when we cannot see how on earth we could be. … This helps explain why philosophy matters. We are not just disputing what is true or false, we are arguing about what we ought to think.”

Book Club: The Edge of Reason 8, scientific morality

Here we come to the eighth installment of my running discussion about Julian Baggini’s excellent book on the nature of rationality, The Edge of Reason: A Rational Skeptic in an Irrational World. In this chapter Julian takes on those people — like Sam Harris — who want to reduce moral philosophy to neuroscience or some similarly misguided enterprise. I must admit, there is such a convergence of thinking between Julian and myself on this that reading the chapter was like indulging in philosophical porn…

Right off the bat, Baggini summarizes what is wrong with the scientistic approach (did I mention I have a book on this topic coming out soon?): “Champions of the rational are often their own worst enemies, especially when they happen also to be scientists. … [they push] an excessively narrow understanding of what reason involves, which is essentially evidence-based empiricism, no more and no less. … [this is an] iniquitous intellectual land grab, in which all meaningful discourse is claimed for science and anything else is razed to the ground as useless.” I could stop here, really. But let’s continue. As I said, it was an Epicurean dip for me.

Julian quickly moves on to his favorite example of such malfeasance: Sam Harris’ The Moral Landscape (which I have reviewed, very unfavorably, for Skeptic magazine, even though Michael Shermer censored the final bit of my review, in which I suggested that if someone wanted to learn something about moral philosophy better read Michael Sandel than Sam Harris).

Baggini explains that he is picking on Harris because “the chief value of The Moral Landscape is that it is one of the clearest articulations of the scientistic approach to ethics, which is often less brazenly expressed.” (For another brazen expression, see this discussion I had with the above mentioned Shermer.) Baggini actually interviewed Harris at his home in California, and based his commentary on such interview.

Harris told Julian that “We know that morality has something to do with human well-being and we know that human well-being must be arising from the physiology of the brain and therefore is constrained by whatever psychophysical laws are in in fact true of the brain, and therefore we know it falls potentially within the framework of science.”

As Julian immediately points out, a lot hinges on exactly what one means by “something to do,” and “constrained.” Yes, of course morality has to do with human well-being (actually, more broadly, with the well-being of sentient creatures), and it is constrained by human biology and culture — no philosopher would argue otherwise. But that’s far short of what’s needed to establish a science of morality. Sure enough, Baggini immediately acknowledges that empirical evidence, and therefore science, is informative on a number of ethical issues. For instance, the question “how should I raise my children?” does require input from child developmental psychology, among others. But there are a number of ways to raise one children given the same understanding of developmental psychology. That is, the science — as always — underdetermines the philosophical options. That’s why values are not straightforwardly reducible to empirical facts, which in turn means that one cannot collapse moral philosophy into science.

Julian again: “It simply does not follow from the fact that some things are objectively bad [for human beings] from a scientific point of view that science can determine all that is right or wrong. Take, for example, the old dispute between Mill and Bentham as to whether the pleasure of playing a simple game like pushpin has as much value as the pleasure derived from playing Chopin. Science cannot resolve this dispute.” And before you suggest it, no, it would be ridiculous to try to settle the matter by measuring the intensity of the activity of the pleasure centers of the brain: if you go that way (which actually Harris does, in his book!) you will have to conclude that the most moral thing to do is to hook everyone up to a drug delivering machine for their entire lives. I hope I don’t have to explain to you why this isn’t the moral thing to do.

Baggini notes that Harris concedes that nobody has yet proposed a way to read morality straight off, say, neuroscans. But Harris then engages in a significant amount of hand waiving to argue that not having an answer yet doesn’t mean there is no answer in principle (while at the same time not even giving a hint of what this “in principle” route would look like). Julian’s retort is that “well-being” is not a biologically meaningful category (as a biologist, I wholeheartedly agree), and that there are plenty of instances in which people choose pain and suffering because they think it is the moral thing to do: “The idea that brain scans could reveal to us what form of life is morally better is absurd because brain scans are value-neutral.”

Harris, in the course of the interview, says: “What does it mean to say it’s really true that something is wrong? If you push there, you either have to come down to some truth that falls within the purview of science — that there’s something about our world, human nature or the prospects of human happiness that admits of truth claims — or you’re just left with preferences: wrong just because we don’t like it or a majority of people don’t like it.”

But Julian immediately objects that this is a false dichotomy, that moreover misunderstands the nature of both reason and ethics: “Outlooks, values and beliefs can be more or less reasonable, more or less objective.” (See this old post of mine suggesting as much.)

Moreover, Harris did not invent anything knew. Just consider this bit from John Stuart Mill, back in 1872: “The backward state of the Moral Sciences can only be remedied by applying to them the methods of Physical Science, duly extended and generalized.” Mill’s project, however, immediately failed because of his introduction of the distinction between “high” and “low” pleasures, a qualitative dichotomy that simply cannot be backed up by any “physical science,” and yet is the only thing that saves post-Bentham utilitarianism from descending into a search for the minimum common denominator that makes everyone “happy” (which would be the above mentioned drug hook-up).

After taking care of Harris, Julian then moves on to the opposite mistake, in a sense, made this time by scientistic philosophers like Alex Rosenberg, author of the Atheist Guide to Reality: Enjoying Life Without Illusions. (I reviewed that one too, again, not positively.)

The connection between Harris and Rosenberg is explained very clearly by Baggini: “Harris is not necessarily representative of mainstream scientific thinking about morality. It is telling, however, that the more common alternative view is equally simplistic and extreme. This is the view that science debunks ethics. Science does not determine human values, it reveals them to be a kind of fiction.”

Here is an example of Rosenberg’s approach: “(i) What is the difference between right and wrong, good and bad? There is no moral difference between them. (ii) Why should I be moral? Because it makes you feel better than being immoral. (iii) Is abortion, euthanasia, suicide, paying taxes, foreign aid or anything else you don’t like forbidden, permissible, or sometimes obligatory? Anything goes.”

Julian finds it hard to believe that people like Rosenberg are serious about this, rather than just playing a (sick, I might add) intellectual game. Here is why: “it is interesting that [Rosenberg] does not add to his list child sexual abuse, rape, torture of the innocents and so on. To say ‘anything goes’ after a list like that would be extremely hard to take seriously.” Indeed.

The problem, concludes Baggini in this section of the chapter, is this: “The mistake is to believe that the methods of science have a monopoly on the practice of reason. From this it follows that morality must either be taken under the wing of science or cast out as irrational.” This mistake, of course, runs contrary to Baggini’s own careful analysis of what reason is, which we have explored in detail in the past several posts.

None of the above, however, means that science is irrelevant to moral questions. One of the most obvious examples is that of abortion — interestingly, one of those I also bring forth in the context of these discussions, and pretty much along the lines sketched by Julian in this chapter.

Let’s say we arrive at a position that says that abortion is permissible up until the moment in which the fetus begins to feel pain, and after that only if the life of the mother is in danger. (This is for the sake of discussion, not necessarily my or Baggini’s position, so don’t get worked up about it.) Well, then it is up to science — and in particular neuroscience and developmental biology — to give us the best estimate of when that is actually the case. But arriving at that specific criterion, rather than other possible ones, is a matter of philosophical dialogue, not (just) empirical evidence.

Julian also says, again, very similarly to what I’ve been writing for a while now, that another scientific input into the question of morality comes in the area of understanding the origin of the human moral sense. Here it is comparative anthropology, evolutionary biology, and primatology that play the crucial role.

Then there is the contribution of neuroscience to our understanding of how the brain arrives at moral decisions. Interesting, scientifically, but again not at all the same thing as a science of morality. Why? Because “people all over the world have the same basic brain circuitry and yet moral norms differ enormously.”

As an example, Julian compares how the Inuits and the Polynesians treat deception on the part of a group member: it is a capital offense in the first case, but only gets you a slap on the wrist in the second case. Why? Because the living conditions of Inuits are such that deception can cost the lives of several group members, or even the survival of the entire group. Not so under the more benign environmental conditions enjoyed by the Polynesians. The brains are the same, and so is their deep evolutionary history. But the cultural conditions are dramatically divergent, because of their very different environments.

Evolutionary psychology too doesn’t really help settle moral questions. For one because the fact that something is natural (rape, for instance, according to evopsychs Randy Thornhill and Craig Palmer) obviously doesn’t make it right (that would be an appeal to nature, an informal fallacy); and second because “to conclude that evolutionary psychology debunks ethics by showing that it is ‘nothing more than’ reciprocal altruism or enlightened self-interest” is an example of “the genetic fallacy: confusing an account of something’s origins with its justification.”

By the end of the chapter Julian arrives at the very same conclusion I have been defending for years, as astonishing as it is that it actually needs defense: “A scientifically informed ethics is to be welcomed, but a purely scientific ethics is an impossibility.”

Book Club: The Edge of Reason 7, rational morality

Let’s continue our discussion of Julian Baggini’s The Edge of Reason: A Rational Skeptic in an Irrational World, a book that attempts to rethink, and broaden, what counts as “reason.” Chapter 7 is about morality and its relationship with reason, broadly construed.

Julian’s discussion in this chapter is a bit of a simplification of a long and complex philosophical debate. But there is something to be said for cutting to the chase, as they say. He sets it up as a dichotomy between rationalists and sentimentalists: in one corner, Kant, who attempted to derive moral oughts from reason alone; in the other corner, Hume, who thought that at bottom morality was about emotions.

Baggini is immediately careful to disabuse people of the common, but mistaken, notion that sentimentalism is the same thing as emotivism: “Sentimentalism should not be equated with emotivism, the crudest version of the theory, which says that moral judgements are no more than expressions of approval or disgust.” He elaborates on this later in the chapter, but for now please keep it in mind, or you will completely misunderstand what follows.

Julian comes down on the side of Hume, and while I have some qualms with this, I think he got it pretty much right, especially his criticism of the Kantian position.

He begins there, using “Kantian” in the broadest possible terms, to indicate anyone who thinks that reason alone is sufficient to generate moral oughts. And he takes one of my favorite modern philosophers, John Searle, to task for his defense of a form of Kantianism.

Searle distinguishes “strong” from “weak” altruism. The latter encompasses situations in which people are naturally inclined to help others; the former is the result of rational analysis. Needless to say, the “weak” form, which is the Humean variety, is the one that will be left standing after Baggini gets through with this.

Julian gives us a preview of the sentimentalist position while he is gearing up for a discussion of Searle’s: “A sentimentalist might believe that it is wrong to cause unnecessary suffering. The ultimate basis of this judgement is not that to do so would be irrational, but simply a recognition, rooted in empathy, that suffering is a bad thing, to be avoided if possible. Having adopted this principle, the sentimentalist might on a given occasion see reasons not to act in a certain way, despite being inclined to do so, such as when confronted with a juicy steak from a factory-farmed animal.” This is contrasted with the rationalist, who ought not to eat the juicy steak, if he recognizes that doing so contributes to the suffering of animals, which he has judged to be contrary to reason in the first place.

Searle’s position is that a combination of empathetic moral sentiment and factual knowledge is insufficient as a reason to act, and that the latter can only be provided by disinterested reason moved solely by facts and logic (sans sentiments). As Baggini says, the Kantian position, then, gets off the ground by assuming a narrow conception of reason, one that excludes a priori any possibility of considering the sentimentalist position to be “reasonable.”

Julian reconstructs Searle’s argument for rationalism as dependent on three steps:

(i) The generality requirement: “to assert that something is the case is to assert that everyone in a similar situation should also assert that it is the case.”

(ii) My pain creates a need: “I am in pain so I need help. Accepting the generality requirement means that I therefore have to accept that if anyone else is in pain, their pain too creates a need. I cannot make a special case of myself.”

(iii) My need for help generates reasons for others to help me: “the generality requirement comes into play and so I have to accept that, to be rational, if my pain creates a reason for other people to help me, then the pain of others creates a reason for me to help them.”

Baggini has no problem with steps (i) and (ii), but thinks (iii) does not follow. Here is part (and I stress, part) of his argument:

“Let us accept that having a need for help is enough to establish that the need is a reason for others to help me. The problem with this is that at any given time innumerable such needs exist. Just in my neighborhood there are people who need help to cope with their grieving, do their shopping, get over their addictions, escape their loneliness, get money for medical treatment. Extend the circle wider and there are billions in need of clean water, good food, basic healthcare, education. On Searle’s view, I ought to accept that these are reasons for me to help them. That is reasonable enough. But that can’t mean those reasons are sufficient to place a moral obligation on me to help them. If it did, we would have the absurdity that at any one time, we would all be morally obliged to help other people meet any need they had.”

This, in a nutshell, is the same argument I have recently used against Effective Altruism over at my other blog, How to Be a Stoic. It is also the same reason I think we should not accept the infamous “repugnant conclusion,” which stems from utilitarianism for reasons very similar to those criticized by Baggini when it comes to rationalism (even though utilitarianism is obviously not Kantianism, the two approaches do share the rationalist assumption).

This, then, is Julian’s strong conclusion from his analysis of rationalism, one with whom I feel compelled (by reason…) to agree: “the fact that there are rationally binding desire-independent reasons for altruistic action does not in any way place an obligation on me to act on those reasons. What Searle calls ‘strong altruism’ does not, it turns out, place any obligation on me, of any strength. Whichever way you look at it, the fact that there exists a reason to help someone is not sufficient to establish that someone ought to act on that reason. … Unless reason obliges us to behave morally, the Kantian project fails.”

Baggini then moves to an exploration and defense of the sentimentalist position, beginning, of course, with a discussion of the famous is/ought (facts/values) distinction, made explicit by Hume himself:

“In every system of morality, which I have hitherto met with, I have always remarked, that the author proceeds for some time in the ordinary way of reasoning, and establishes the being of a God, or makes observations concerning human affairs; when of a sudden I am surprised to find, that instead of the usual copulations of propositions, is, and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought, or an ought not. This change is imperceptible; but is, however, of the last consequence. For as this ought, or ought not, expresses some new relation or affirmation, ’tis necessary that it should be observed and explained; and at the same time that a reason should be given, for what seems altogether inconceivable, how this new relation can be a deduction from others, which are entirely different from it. But as authors do not commonly use this precaution, I shall presume to recommend it to the readers; and am persuaded, that this small attention would subvert all the vulgar systems of morality, and let us see, that the distinction of vice and virtue is not founded merely on the relations of objects, nor is perceived by reason.” (A Treatise of Human Nature, 1739, book 3, part 1, section 1)

Julian’s reasoning is clear-headed here, so I will simply transcribe a few key lines:

“[Hume warns that] if the premises of an argument contain only statements of fact, then the conclusion must also contain only statements of fact, and must not smuggle in assertions of value, such as ‘oughts.’ In ordinary discourse, we do this all the time. We say, people are starving, they will die unless we send them food, therefore we ought to send them food. The conclusion does not follow logically. In practice, this is usually because premises are not so much absent as unstated. … Philippa Foot argued that it is a kind of fact about the natural world that living things have needs and desires and that therefore it is a matter of fact that certain things are of value to them. Take the proposition: ‘children are born helpless and have to be taught to learn language and so on.’ That, she explains, ‘means already that children have to be looked after.’ Crucially, these reasons are ‘objective and have nothing to do with preferences: some people love children and some people hate them. That doesn’t make any difference.’ On the one hand, this is a pure statement of fact. But it would also appear to contain implicit within it a statement of value: it is better that a child is looked after than not. We could call such statements ‘normative facts,’ meaning they are facts that contain elements of value. … It sounds paradoxical to say that we have interest-neutral reasons to accept the objectivity of interests, but the seeming paradox quickly dissolves when you see that the interest-neutrality of reason only concerns the requirement that we do not allow our interests to cloud our judgement of what is the case. It does not prohibit the recognition of real interests in the world. Given that these interests can be emotional as well as biological, this means that emotions can sometimes number among the reasons of rational argument.”

Time to take a break and go back to why sentimentalism as proposed by Hume-Baggini is not at all the same thing as emotivism, the “crude,” as Julian puts it, proposition that morality boils down to (essentially arbitrary) gut feelings.

First, notice that Baggini is — once again — broadening our conception of reason, to include our natural emotional dispositions (which, of course, ultimately derive from our evolution as social primates). So, contra Hume, it’s not that “reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions” (A Treatise of Human Nature, book 2, part 3, section 2), but rather that the passions are part of our reasoning arsenal.

Second, not all emotional responses are created equal: if you don’t care at all about the welfare of others, you are a socio-psychopath, and we shall not take your “reasoning” into account, and possibly provide you with the necessary mental care, since you are not a functional human being. Some degree of pro-sociality is characteristic of normal, healthy members of the species Homo sapiens.

Third, both contra and per Hume (I know, I know), the passions can actually be trained by reason, i.e., the two interact developmentally, both within an individual and even in terms of shaping different human cultures. (If you are puzzled by this, read my essay on Hume’s biological-cultural developmental theory of human nature.)

Fourth, the above should also make clear why morality cannot be read off straight from factual knowledge (and hence, there cannot be “scientific” answers to moral questions, pace Sam Harris and Michael Shermer). The facts — both straightforwardly empirical ones and those that Baggini, following Foot, terms “normative” ones — underdetermine moral action, meaning that the same set of facts of both kind do not pinpoint one and only one possible moral option. Which means one needs philosophy, i.e., the ability to reason about those facts from within a given general framework or another, in order to arrive at specific conclusions.

(Incidentally, if anyone is curious about how all of the above fits with my practice of Stoicism, the answer is very well indeed, thank you. The Stoics were the first to propose a developmental theory of morality, according to which we begin as small children with selfish desires about our own well being; we then naturally expand our concerns to our care takers and others who immediately surround us; and finally we begin to be able to use reason to further enlarge our circles of concern, shaping our moral character by way of reason and practice.)

Back to Baggini. In the fourth section of this chapter, he elaborates on the idea that the sentimentalist position does not mean that reason has nothing to contribute to morality. On the contrary, it is indispensable to it, once properly understood and broadly reformulated. He summarizes his version of sentimentalism in this fashion:

“If a creature has interests — being able to pursue projects and live a life which it finds meaningful, and/or can feel pain and pleasure, physical and psychic — then we have reasons to take those interests into account and not frustrate them without good reason, nor refrain from assisting them when it is easily in our power to do so.”

And here is a wonderful example of the above mentioned principle of underdetermination: “three people might agree with this and accept that we therefore have a duty to take a farm animal’s interests into account. But one might conclude we ought then not to eat it, another that we simply ought to rear it well, while the other might say as long as we don’t torture it, we’ve done nothing wrong.” The differences among the three people may not get settled, period. However, each of them may be able to present arguments — informed by both empirical and normative facts — for why his position is better than the other two. Sometimes that argument will succeed, at other times it won’t.

Julian is clear that one could very reasonably disagree with his definition of sentimentalism and with what follows from it. As he puts it, such “a dissenter would be heartless, not brainless.”

He adds that someone may feel the moral force of an argument, and yet not feel compelled to act (as in my case with vegetarianism: I recognize its moral force, but I tend to behave like a reducetarian, or at best a pescatarian). “But why should we expect or demand that the only good moral reasons are ones which are beyond all conceivable rational dispute? This is simply too high a demand.” After all, he points out, even the compulsion to accept that 2+2=4 (yes, yes, given certain axioms, you pedantic bastard!) is not absolute: “We can certainly imagine some people who just don’t feel the force of the argument at all. In the mathematical argument, this blindness might suggest a rare cognitive impairment that simply doesn’t allow them to follow logical steps. In the moral argument, the equivalent would be a cognitive impairment such as psychopathy, which makes people indifferent to the interests of others.”

Let me end, then, with an apt quote by American philosopher Thomas Scanlon (cited by Baggini): “To see something as good reason for acting in a certain way and being disposed to do it is not a matter of logic, but it is a matter of rationality.”

Book Club: The Edge of Reason 6, the five characteristics of rational discourse

The Pioneer plaque

Julian Baggini’s The Edge of Reason, of which we have so far examined the first five chapters, ends its second part with a discussion of the distinguishing characteristics of objective rational discourse. He begins it by suggesting that the problem with the classic (Platonic, really) view of reason is that it treats reason as an heteronomous entity, something coming from the outside, imposed on us by eternal laws of logic. Instead, human reason is, well, human, i.e., autonomous, shaped from the inside, shaped by the characteristics and limitations of what it means to be human in the first place.

That said, Julian immediately qualifies, reason does have a component of heteronimity, in that it cannot simply be a self-serving instrument entirely detached from how the world actually is, but rather has to account for the brute facts of external reality. Reason, he says, is nothing if it doesn’t aspire to objectivity, and this brings him to propose a definition of rational argument: “the giving of objective reasons for belief.”

However, if you recall our previous discussions of Baggini’s book, you will immediately notice a tension here: he has been arguing for a somewhat deflated, human, view of reason, and now he’s going to ask for objectivity? Well, yes, but he puts forth a deflated view of objectivity itself, one that he derives from the philosopher Thomas Nagel.

Nagel wrote a famous book, back in 1986, in which he argued that objectivity is often conceived in terms that he summarized with the oxymoronic phrase of the view from nowhere. Particularly, science aspires to such a view, which both Nagel and Baggini see as hopelessly misguided.

Julian’s intriguing example of an attempt to achieve a view from nowhere is the famous plaques that were put onboard the two Pioneer spacecrafts launched in the early ‘70s, and which are now outside the confines of the solar system (see top figure). The plaques were designed by astronomer Carl Sagan as a symbolic attempt to communicate with possible alien beings. (Symbolic because there is pretty much no chance in hell that the Pioneers will ever actually reach another habitable world, given their speed and their cosmic trajectories.)

The plaques convey stylized graphic information about the solar system and humanity itself, attempting to provide reading keys for the aliens, for instance by representing the position of the solar system with reference to fourteen nearby pulsar stars, as well as by drawing the symbol of the hydrogen atom, the most abundant element in the universe.

But for all that, the plaque is going to be very difficult to decipher for a non-human intelligence. For one thing, of course, it assumes that the aliens are capable of perceiving visual information, which is far from obviously true. Notice also the use of an arrow to indicate the trajectory of the Pioneer probe itself, as well as the male human being drawn with a raised hand and an open palm, in the universal sign of greeting. Universal, of course, for human beings. Just like the arrow indicates direction for us, because our prehistory included hunters who used arrows to catch their prey. There is no reason whatsoever to imagine that an alien culture would recognize either one of these human graphic conventions. One of the reasons it will be difficult to communicate with alien intelligence is precisely because no species truly speaks a universal language. There is no view from nowhere.

As Julian summarizes the problem: “Even if the truths we latch on to are indeed objective, they are always framed within our human ways of understanding, by our language and our senses. … Truth has to be seen from some perspective or other, even if it is in itself purely objective.”

Nagel’s view of knowledge is nuanced. There is a continuum from the entirely subjective (I know that I like chocolate) to the purely objective (1+1=2), with much of interest to us lying somewhere in the middle. The more our knowledge of things is linked to our particular framework, the more it depends on the idiosyncrasies of human senses and reasoning, the more it veers towards the subjective, as much as it aspires to reach the other end of the spectrum.

Baggini points out that it is a mistake to confuse objectivity with truth. I can report a subjective fact in a truthful matter (it is true that I like chocolate), and I can state an objective facts untruthfully (the distance between the Sun and the Earth is 300 million kilometers — which it isn’t). That’s why talk of “objective truth” is not redundant.

Julian goes on to say that “rationality and objectivity are usually seen as natural bedfellows. My suggestion is that their link is more intimate than this. To offer a rational argument just is to provide objective reasons for belief, reasons which can include both evidence and argumentative moves.” Notice the inclusion of argumentative moves, not just evidence. The “facts” never speak for themselves, they need to be framed within a given argument, and that argument can be rational, and yet fail.

Which brings him to discuss what he sees as five characteristics of objective reasons and arguments: they are comprehensibility, assessability, defeasibility, interest-neutrality and being compelling.

Let’s begin with comprehensibility. The quintessential example of subjective judgment is art: I can tell you that I like, say, Van Gogh’s Starry Night, and you can reply that you don’t. But we can then move from simple statements of likes and dislikes to a discussion of aesthetics if I begin to tell you why I like the painting, describing its vivid colors and evocative shapes, and so forth. My argument may not convince you, but it may prompt you to take a second look. Importantly, by giving you reasons for my subjective aesthetic judgment I have made a (small) move toward the objective end of Nagel’s spectrum, because I have made comprehensible to you my reasons for liking Starry Night.

Van Gogh’s Starry Night

For Julian, “an argument that is in principle comprehensible by any rational agent is more rational than one that is comprehensible only by certain types of rational agent,” even though any given argument may not be comprehensible by just any rational agent. For instance, in the case of art, it helps to know something about its history to better appreciate how to situate certain paintings that may at first appear strange and puzzling.

For something to be objective, through, it has also to be assessable. If others do not have any way to judge the truth of your assertions, then those assertions are hopelessly stuck right at the subjective end of Nagel’s spectrum.

Baggini notes that “whenever people appeal to inner convictions, esoteric revelations or diktats from authorities they are evading objective scrutiny by keeping key elements of their justification hidden.” But he acknowledges a kind of circularity in his reasoning: he invokes the concept of a rational agent in explaining what rationality is. Yet this sort of circularity is not vicious, since any definition turns out to be, if pushed far enough, circular. He is just saying that “a rational agent is one who can understand and assess objective arguments, and an objective argument is rational if it can be understood and assessed. These terms all hang together.”

After a brief discussion of several attempts to make sense of rational argument, from David Hume’s distinction between “matters of facts and relations of ideas,” to the logical positivists’ verifiability criterion, to Popper’s falsificationism, Julian says: “if an idea is too vague it will be dismissed as woolly and hand-waving. Too precise, however, and the logic-choppers will be out to unpick its contradictions and inconsistencies. As Aristotle’s immortal adage states, ‘It is the mark of the trained mind never to expect more precision in the treatment of any subject than the nature of that subject permits’ — nor less, we might add. The Goldilocks state of philosophy is to be precise enough to be saying something substantive but not so precise as to ride roughshod over the complexities and ambiguities of the real world.”

Which leads us to a discussion of the third criterion: defeasibility. One of the reasons Popper’s famous criterion of falsifiability for demarcating science from non-science did not work is because “a rational argument is always in principle defeasible — open to revision or rejection — by public criteria of argument and evidence,” and in turn “defeasibility is a property of all propositions with any degree of objectivity, however small.” The history of science is littered with theories that at some point ran into apparent empirical falsification, only to be rescued by scientists because of the adoption of suitably modified versions of the original theory. The Copernican view of the solar system did not work particularly well because Copernicus had assumed the orbits of the planets to be circular. When Kepler made the modification of treating them as elliptical the calculations matched the empirical evidence far better.

The fourth criterion is interest neutrality. Here Baggini helps himself to a thought experiment. Imagine a philosopher who is captured by a super-villain and is presented with the following ultimatum: either believe, genuinely believe, that 1+1=3, or I’ll destroy the world. (The super-villain can check by way of brain imaging whether the philosopher really believes something or not.)

This would seem to be a case of a belief that meets our first three criteria: it is assessable, comprehensible, and defeasible. And yet, it now seems that the philosopher has objective reasons to believe something false.

The way out is that we need to distinguish between two modes of rationality: in the service of an end, or as an end in itself. The super-villain’s threat “does not provide a rational argument to believe that 1+1=3, but a rational argument why it is prudent to believe 1+1=3.” There is a huge difference between the two. Julian calls one practical rationality (yeah, I’ll try to believe that 1+1=3 if it saves the world) and the other epistemic rationality (in reality, 1+1<>3). Both require assessability, comprehensibility, and defeasibility, but epistemic rationality also requires interest-neutrality, which the super-villain vs the philosopher case clearly lacks.

Importantly, practical rationality rests on epistemic rationality, as an agent, “in order to make the right decision, must assess the evidence in an interest-neutral way, and only then decide what she ought to do in order to serve the interests she takes to be most important.” It follows that it may, in some cases, be practically rational to believe something that is not epistemically rational.

Baggini acknowledges that these days there is a lot of skepticism in the very possibility of interest-neutral rationality. He mentions the sort of postmodern criticism by the likes of philosopher Michael Foucault, for instance, the idea that claims to knowledge are always connected to the striving for power or the serving of particular interests. But he may as well have cited also the sort of research conducted by contemporary social psychologists like Jonathan Haidt, which highlight motivated reasoning and rationalization over rationality.

But Julian makes a good argument that — pace both Foucault and Haidt (both of whom do make good points) — if one insists in arguing that all rationality is practical / motivated and not interest neutral one ends up in absurdity (and, I would add, in self-defeat).

He mentions an interview he conducted with radical postmodern philosopher Luce Irigaray, who “notoriously suggested that perhaps even E = mc^2 is a ‘sexed equation,’ expressing masculine dominance. Why? Because ‘it privileges the speed of light over other speeds that are vitally necessary to us.’” I hope you appreciate the ridiculousness of this, without the need of further explanation.

Baggini distinguishes between the claim that there is no such thing as a value-free practice of science (true) from the stronger claim that there are no value-free scientific claims (false, E really does equal mc^2). Another example of this is provided by philosopher Tim Lewens, who said that Marx and Engels were right when they argued that Darwin’s thought was “steeped in the industrial capitalist milieu.” It does not follow at all, however, that the Darwinian theory of evolution is not, in fact, a good account of why we see such a bewildering variety of living organisms on our planet.

Finally, we get to the fifth element of a rational claim: compulsion. “Turned over and examined on all sides, any rational agent who understands the argument should find herself feeling forced – or at least strongly pushed – to accept the conclusion, whether she likes it or not.”

The case of believing that 1+1=2 is an obvious one. Baggini also says that a rational agent should feel compelled to accept the existence of a causal link between smoking and cancer, on the basis of the available evidence. I would add the theory of evolution, climate change, and the fact that vaccines do not cause autism, among many others.

Of course, it is painfully true that not everyone accepts rational arguments (remember that an argument can be rational and still wrong, by the way). To which Julian sensibly replies:

“If you can see that an argument is assessable by all, and that assessment has not raised any major problems with it; if you also understand it; and if you can see that it does not require you to share any particular agent’s interests to accept it: such an argument must carry with it a certain degree of force. There is a sense here in which there is simply nothing left for a rational agent to say to someone who claims to have followed all these steps but is still not convinced.”

As I often want to tell some of my students (but I don’t because I’m too polite and because it would be counterproductive): I can explain it to you, but I cannot understand it for you…

Baggini points out that the failure to translate the rational force of an argument into the psychological force of accepting and acting on it is particularly evident in cases of ethics. For instance, many people readily acknowledge that vegetarians got the better moral argument, and yet refuse to follow through and switch to a vegetarian diet (I include myself here, as I am a pescatarian, and sometimes even just a reducetarian).

After having discussed his five criteria for rational arguments, Julian turns to what he calls the boundaries of rationality. His approach can be applied, he suggests, to common cases where people think they are providing rational arguments, but in fact fail to do so, as in instances of reasoning relying on anecdotal evidence, or of claims based on mystical insight.

Take the case of someone who says that homeopathy works because it has worked for him and for several people he knows. Baggini’s analysis goes like this:

“We can see why these reasons deserve to be considered as attempts to provide a rational case for the efficacy of homeopathy. They appear to be comprehensible and assessable, and in turn defeasible. Those who offer them also see them as interest-neutral and compelling. We should reject them, however, because when we examine these supposed characteristics more carefully, they are not present to a sufficient degree. Assessability is the key here.”

Julian distinguishes between arguments that are rational or irrational (their mode), and arguments that are good or bad (their quality), and further adds that some arguments are simply non-rational, as in when people say that they have acquired special insights into the nature of the world by virtue of taking LSD. Mystical experiences do provide reasons for belief, since we believe all sorts of things as a result of direct experience. But they don’t provide rational reasons for belief.

In the section of this chapter entitled “Rational catholicism,” Baggini reiterates his idea that good (human) reasoning requires judgment, but again clarifies that “good judgement is much more than just opinion, and something less than the mere following of logical rules.” He uses this to elaborate on his take about why philosophy, unlike science, does not lead to agreement about the issues being discussed: “Philosophy relies entirely on rationality and nothing but [i.e., empirical evidence does not directly enter into it, unlike in science]. This involves a high degree of commitment to the rigors of argument but also, ultimately, an acceptance that rational argument does not lead linearly to only one answer, since you cannot take judgement away from rationality.” I think he is partially correct here, but see my full treatment of why philosophy makes progress in a way different from science in my book devoted to that topic.

The last section of the chapter is a call for ending the “truth wars”: “[there now is] a stand-off between what Bernard Williams called the ‘deniers’ — those who deny that there is such a thing as ‘the truth’ that reason aims at — and the ‘party of common sense,’ those who claim that the truth really is out there. Williams wrote that ‘the deniers and the party of common sense, with their respective styles of philosophy, pass each other by.’”

But there is a greater cause that should be common to both parties: “that greater cause is a commitment to reason, no matter what reservations some may have about the history, use and connotations of that term. Despite their apparent differences, it should be obvious that both ‘deniers’ and the ‘party of common sense’ share something like the thin conception of reason and rationality that I have been defending.”

To keep arguing against each other in the face of post-truth and alternative facts would be to end up in the tragicomic situation of the strife among the People’s Front of Judea, the Judean People’s Front, and the Judean Popular People’s Front…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book Club: The Edge of Reason, 4, lives of the mind

IMG_8349Time to resume our discussion of Julian Baggini’s The Edge of Reason. After having looked at chapters 1, 2, and 3, we move on to 4, on the lives of the mind. Here Baggini takes up another myth about philosophy, this one imposed by professional philosophers themselves: that philosophizing is a matter of pure, objective reason, and doesn’t depend on the personal preferences, inclinations, and character of the individual philosopher. Remember, in what follows, that Baggini’s project is that of rescuing philosophy in particular, and reason more generally, from the extremes of epistemic relativism and epistemic objectivism, so to speak, and to recover an image of philosophy, science and reason at large as that of very powerful, yet fallible, human enterprises.

Indeed, Julian immediately admits that the very same observation about the importance of personality holds for science as well, not just for philosophy. And the issue is that both these disciplines have much invested in a self-image of objective rationality. So much so that when historians or sociologists highlight the contingent and human elements, both philosophers and scientists immediately switch to a defensive posture.

Julian, however, claims that the problem is somehow more pronounced for philosophy than for science, something I take issue with, and I will be pushing against in my commentary. But let’s get to the meat of the chapter, which begins with an invitation to examine a series of case studies of autobiographies of prominent philosophers.

[I do find this methodology questionable, not just because the resulting sample is far from systematic or quantitative, but most importantly because I think autobiographies are exceedingly unreliable documents to seriously assess a person’s character and foibles.]

Baggini recounts that Mill writes about how his personal experiences had an impact on the way his thinking developed, and so did Rousseau, Quine, and Feyerabend. This is surely the case, but I don’t see why an examination of the biographies of Einstein, Newton and so forth wouldn’t also reveal something very similar. When Julian writes: “[in science] character may cause people to discover what they do, but evidence and reason alone determine whether what they find is indeed a true discovery or a mistake” he is, of course, right. But why on earth wouldn’t the same hold for philosophy, sans the evidence part, since philosophy is not an empirically-based discipline? If you are thinking that that’s why science makes progress and philosophy doesn’t, I will respond that you may have a misconception about the nature of philosophy, and I invite you to read my book on that very topic.

“It would take a great deal of faith in the objectivity of philosophy and philosophers to think that Feyerabend and Quine arrived at their respective philosophical positions simply by following the arguments where they led, when their inclinations so obviously seem to be in tune with their settled conclusions.”

Absolutely. But it would take a gargantuan amount of distrust of reason to believe that the many philosophers that accepted and attempted to improve on Quine and Feyerabend did it only or even chiefly because they liked those people or shared similar life experiences.

Baggini quotes Peter van Inwagen as saying that “There is almost no thesis in philosophy about which philosophers agree,” and goes on to discuss the famous survey of philosophers’ opinions published a few years ago by David Bourget and David Chalmers. I also used that survey in my book on the nature of philosophy, and I agree that the data gives us a fascinating glimpse inside the profession. But Baggini, Bourget and Chalmers are seriously mistaken in their interpretation of what the survey’s results say about the nature of that profession.

Briefly, and without rehearsing the whole book: philosophy makes progress by exploration of conceptual, not empirical, landscapes. Conceptual landscapes are much broader than empirical ones, which underdetermine them (because there are many possible realities, and only one real reality). Consequently, philosophers are not actually expected to arrive at a consensus on a single way of looking at things, but rather to arrive at the identification, and subsequent refinement, of a small number of competing accounts. Example: it makes no sense to ask whether Kantian deontology, utilitarianism, or virtue ethics are “true,” that’s a category mistake. Instead, they are solid, sophisticated frameworks, or accounts, to think about ethics, each defensible and criticizable in its own way. Which is why philosophers are close to evenly split about which framework they prefer. (By comparison, I think realism is significantly more defensible than constructivism in philosophy of science, and sure enough, while a good number of philosophers may be found on each side, there is a clear majority favoring the first account over the second one in the Bourget-Chalmers survey.)

The other thing that I find weird about the survey is that both Bourget and Chalmers, as well as Baggini, dwell on the correlations found between preferences for certain philosophical positions and variables such as gender, nationality, age, etc.. But if one looks at the actual tables of results, those correlations — even though statistically significant — actually account for a tiny fraction of the variance in the stated preferences. It’s like one of those studies that finds that, say, 5% of the variance in sexual preference in a given population is accounted for by genetics and goes on to boldly, and misleadingly, conclude that it found “the” gene for homosexuality, thus ignoring that 95% of the variance is non-genetic.

It is also de rigueur to cite Wittgenstein, of course: “[these findings] endorse Wittgenstein’s belief that ‘Work in philosophy […] is really more work on oneself. On one’s own conception. On how one sees things.'” Maybe, then again that sort of “philosophy as therapy” account is perfectly compatible with the idea that the results of such work are going to be accepted, or not, by the broader community of scholars independently of the personality and degree of self understanding of the individuals that produced the work in the first place.

In the last section of this chapter, Baggini veers toward an apparently somewhat disconnected discussion of causality which, however, does have its raison d’etre. He explains that when we analyze phenomena in causal terms — including the influences of personal circumstances on a given philosopher’s ideas — we preferentially highlight certain causes over others. After all, there is a large number of phenomena hinging on any particular happening, and we foreground a small subset of those potential causes because of the particular kind of interests we have in specific cases.

For instance, consider the classical example of a police investigation of a house fire, where the inquiry determines that “the” cause of the fire was a short in the electrical system of the house. Obviously, that was part of the relevant causal web, another one being the very existence of an electrical system to begin with, or the presence of oxygen. But both the oxygen and the electrical systems are backgrounded for the purposes of this specific investigation, so that it is perfectly fine to talk about the short as “the” (relevant, difference making) cause.

Why does Baggini bring this up? “Causal accounts do not merely describe the facts but reflect our attitudes to them. … The selection of some data and the setting aside of other data is both necessary and desirable. No account can include everything.” And this selection cannot be done mechanically, by an algorithm based on pure logic. It requires, you guessed it, the real protagonist of Baggini’s book: human judgment. And I think he is absolutely right about that.

Which brings us to his conclusion about the subjective development of ideas in philosophy: “[The preceding discussion] does not mean that our philosophizing adds up to no more than a reflection of prejudices or received opinions. As I have been arguing, philosophy requires judgement. What we need to add to this is the adjective ‘personal,’ thus accepting that philosophy requires personal judgement.” Yes, but that does not account for the difference between science and philosophy, nor does it have much to do with the (usually very small) plurality of positions endorsed by philosophers concerning any major philosophical problem.

Book Club: The Edge of Reason, 3, rationality and judgment

IMG_8136We come now to the third installment of our discussion of Julian Baggini’s book, The Edge of Reason: A Rational Skeptic in an Irrational World (ch. 1 here; ch. 2 here). Thus far, Julian has been arguing that reason by itself is insufficient to objectively adjudicate between arguments. Reasoners, as he puts it, have to exercise their own judgment, implying therefore that judgment is both distinct from, and to be deployed in augmentation of, reason. The latter, by itself, is not an algorithm for making decisions on our behalf.

Baggini defines judgment as: “a cognitive faculty required to reach conclusions or form theories, the truth or falsity of which cannot be determined by an appeal to facts and/or logic alone.”

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Book Club: The Edge of Reason, 2, science for humans

Time to go back to Julian Baggini’s book, The Edge of Reason: A Rational Skeptic in an Irrational World, which I have began discussing last month. While the first chapter was about God and the rationality (or lack thereof) of arguments pro and against, the second one is about science and why it is far less rational that we are led to believe (especially by scientists).

The chapter opens with the observation that science is not an objective “view from nowhere” thing, but a sophisticated, yet fallible, human enterprise, fundamentally dependent on human judgment. As in the case of a poll Baggini cites from 1999: when 90 leading physicists were asked which interpretation of quantum mechanics they thought was best, 4 voted for Copenhagen, 30 for Many Worlds, and 50 said either none of the above or undecided. Clearly, which available model is preferable is a question of subjective judgment, not empirical fact (as the very word “interpretation” strongly suggests…).

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