Tag Archives: Massimo Pigliucci

Can philosophers, or anyone, tell us what is “right” and “wrong”?

Empirical-ethics

Credit: Descartes Centre

It’s no secret philosophers and scientists sometimes seem to be in conflict. I’m not talking about philosophers of religion (there are epistemological grounds for an inevitable conflict with science there). No, I mean philosophers in general. And the conflict usually involves claims being made about the respective roles of science and philosophy. A sort of professional demarcation issue.

Massimo Pigliucci often seems to go into battle on the philosophers side. I often think this reflects his own sensitivity to any real, or perceived, criticism of the role of philosophy. For example, in his recent article Michael Shermer on morality he referred to the “simplistic dismissal of philosophy a la Harris-Krauss-Hawking.” He seems to be reacting to provocation!

But at other times he goes deeper and critiques what he sees as “scientism,” intrusion of scientists into areas he feels should not concern them, or claims that he feels are being made for science outside its special domain. Morality is an area he is sensitive to and he confesses (in the above article) to taking upon himself the role of “chastising skeptics like Sam Harris* on the relationship between philosophy, science and morality.”

Some critics seem to have knee jerk reaction to any scientific investigation of human morality, or to scientists who comment on morality. Pigliucci is not one of those – he will concede that science can properly investigate many areas of morality. For example, he says in the above article:

“This is not at all to say that science is irrelevant to ethical reasoning. No philosopher I know of holds to that absurd position (except perhaps a dwindling band of stubborn theologians).”

And

“we need an evolutionary understanding of where a strong sense of right and wrong comes from as an instinct, and a neurobiological account of how our brains function (or malfunction) when they engage in ethical reasoning.”

But he adds the following (and this may indicate where he sees the problem):

“But it is the moral philosopher, not the evolutionary biologist or the neurobiologist, we should check with if we want to know whether a particular piece of ethical reasoning is logically sound or not.”

I interpret this to mean that it’s OK for the relevant scientist to investigate morality in their area of speciality – evolutionary psychology, cognitive biology, etc. But when it come to actually using logic, doing ethical reasoning, that’s the job of the philosopher, in particular the moral philosopher.

Must we always rely on philosophers for logic?

On the surface that seems reasonable – specialists have their speciality and non-specialists  should defer to the specialist when considering relevant areas. Mind you, I don’t accept that reasoning and logic are the exclusive domain of philosophers. Science does involve reasoning and logic – even in highly developed forms like mathematics.

We in fact receive a certain amount of training in such areas as part of a science degree. Consequently a chemist, physicist or biologist may be quiet proficient at applying mathematics in their area. Although the wise individual recognises their level of understanding and will involve the mathematical specialist if they feel it necessary. In my own research I always involved statisticians – and while I often carried out my own statistical tests I always checked later with a statistician.

And in ethical areas – how complex is the logic involved? Does one have to be able to express each proposition in the appropriate academic notation and be aware of all possible transformations before one can decide, on the basis of the facts and one’s values what is “right” and “wrong?” How would the “person in the street” react to that suggestion?

Who does the lay person trust on moral questions?

I am very sceptical of any group claiming for itself a special role on moral questions. And I don’t think that attitude is unusual. When it comes to decision making in social and ethical areas these day I think the individual herself usually wants to be involved. They won’t automatically just rubber stamp decisions made by specialists – scientists or philosophers.

Take climate change. I think most members of the public actually do accept what climate scientists say about human influence on the planet’s climate. After all, a lot of effort and money has gone into the research. It has been reviewed extensively, there is a wide scientific consensus about the science, and honest awareness of gaps in knowledge. And the conclusions are conservative and  usually presented moderately, with scientific qualifications.

But the climate scientists do not tell us what we should or shouldn’t do politically. Their science informs our decisions (and the decisions of our governments), but it doesn’t determine them. Economic specialists will also have input into recommendations for mitigation of, or accommodation to, climate effects. They will also inform. And while governments and democratic institution in each country make the final decisions on any resulting plans, we all expect that we should have the ability to influence those decisions.

I think this is even truer on moral issues. In the end morality concerns individuals and their actions. We insist on making those decisions ourselves. And especially in this sort of area our decisions and actions are not based only on evidence or logic - inevitably our emotions and value judgements are involved. So we are understandably not happy about any suggestion  that others, specialist or not, make those decisions for us.

So scientists can inform us regarding moral issues. They might give us facts – like when neural activity is present in a foetus, do animals feel pain, is sexual preference innate or learned, etc. But its up to us to use that information when we make decisions on moral questions like abortion, factory farming and eating meat or marriage equality. And we insist that this final decision is for us alone – not the scientist.

I think we would have the same attitude toward the moral philosopher. We might listen to their reasoning (if they communicate it properly), maybe even take it on board, but will still make the final decision ourselves. Because that decision involves far more than the scientist’s evidence and the philosopher’s logic. It also involves our own values and emotions.

We have got used to saying that while science can inform us on moral issues it cannot tell us what is “right” and “wrong”. I think most people today will also want to extend that to say that neither can philosophy tells us what is “right” and “wrong.”

Today we (or at least those of us who value autonomy) no longer allow priests and theologians to make moral decision for us. Why would we allow philosophers to do so – even if they are “moral philosophers.”


* It has become fashionable to criticise Sam Harris’s book The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values because of its probably over-optimistic predictions of a future role of neuroscience in moral decision making. However, I think there is a lot of “throwing the baby out with the bathwater” here. The main purpose of Harris’s book was a strong (and some would say overdue) criticism of moral relativism -  and this is often ignored by his critics.

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Reports from the Moving Naturalism Forward workshop

The workshop I described in Moving Naturalism Forward took place – with a few amendments. A half day was lost because of the super storm Sandy. And medical issues led to Patricia Churchland, Lisa Randall, and Hilary Bok cancelling at the last minute. Pity – I was looking forward to all those contributions.

Turns out that the workshop basically centred on discussions and not presentations. I think these will be fascinating, considering the calibre of the scientists and philosophers present. And the fact that there are clear issues of difference between many of them.

Videos of the discussions should be up in the near future at the Moving Naturalism Forward website.

Until then we have reports about the workshop from three of the participants to go on with:

Sean Carroll‘s first report is up on his blog Cosmic Variance:
Nudging Naturalism Just a Bit Forward
He intends to post more in the coming days – probably about three.

Massimo Pigliucci has posted three reports on his blog Rationally Speaking
From the naturalism workshop, part I
From the naturalism workshop, part II
From the naturalism workshop, part III

And Jerry Coyne has post the power-point presentation he used on his blog Why Evolution is True:
My presentation on Free Will
He also has posted a summary of then workshop:
Moving Naturalism Forward: my summary, and a comment on Carroll’s assessment:
Sean Carroll assesses the Stockbridge workshop

In a nice little twist Jerry collected signatures from the workshop participants on the title page of a copy of his book Why Evolution Is True. In his post Loosen those wallets he undertakes to sell this with “every penny” going Doctors Without Borders?

That’s quite a souvenir.

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Moving Naturalism Forward

Click to enlarge. Credit: XKCD

If you are interested in the philosophy of science here’s something to look forward to. At the end of next week, October 25 – 29 a workshop – Moving Naturalism Forward – will occur in  Stockbridge, Massachusetts.

What’s more, for us so far away, the workshop will be videoed and videos will be on-line as soon as possible after the workshop finishes. They are bound to be fascinating as the questions covered will possibly include:

  • Free will. If people are collections of atoms obeying the laws of physics, is it sensible to say that they make choices?
  • Morality. What is the origin of right and wrong? Are there objective standards?
  • Meaning. Why live? Is there a rational justification for finding meaning in human existence?
  • Purpose. Do teleological concepts play a useful role in our description of natural phenomena?
  • Epistemology. Is science unique as a method for discovering true knowledge?
  • Emergence. Does reductionism provide the best path to understanding complex systems, or do different levels of description have autonomous existence?
  • Consciousness. How do the phenomena of consciousness arise from the collective behavior of inanimate matter?
  • Evolution. Can the ideas of natural selection be usefully extended to areas outside of biology, or can evolution be subsumed within a more general theory of complex systems?
  • Determinism. To what extent is the future determined given quantum uncertainty and chaos theory, and does it matter?

Here’s a list of the participants, together with field. Have a look art the list of participants for more information on affiliation, books and websites.

It’s an impressive list and  I know there are some differences – so look forward to lively debates.

It’s about time somebody sensible discussed what is meant by “naturalism” and how it relates to science.

(No. Alvin Plantinga hasn’t been invited).

Sean Carroll, Physics
Hilary Bok, Philosophy
Patricia Churchland, Neuroscience/Philosophy
Jerry Coyne, Biology
Richard Dawkins, Biology
Terrence Deacon, Anthropology
Simon DeDeo, Complex Systems
Daniel Dennett, Philosophy
Owen Flanagan, Philosophy
Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, Philosophy/Literature
Janna Levin, Physics/Literature
Massimo Pigliucci, Philosophy
David Poeppel, Neuroscience
Lisa Randall, Physics
Alex Rosenberg, Philosophy
Don Ross, Economics
Steven Weinberg, Physics

The science philosophy “conflict”

I don’t know if it is physics envy or philosophy envy but scientists and philosophers do seem to snipe at each other a bit. Usually it is a philosopher criticising scientists, but often for dismissive comments about philosophy the scientist has made.

A recent example was the comment inThe Grand Design by Stephen W. Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow. Here’s what they said in the first two paragraphs of the book:

“people have always asked a multitude of questions: How can we understand the world in which we find ourselves? How does the universe behave? What is the nature of reality? Where did all this come from? Did the universe need a creator? Most of us do not spend most of our time worrying about these questions, but almost all of us worry about them some of the time.
Traditionally these are questions for philosophy, but philosophy is dead. Philosophy has not kept up with modern developments in science, particularly physics. Scientists have become the bearers of the torch of discovery in our quest for knowledge.” (My emphasis here and following quotes).

Well, that caused a few negative reviews! And the highlighted text has been used as evidence for the charge of “scientism” by more than one commenter.

Philosophy a useless enterprise?

The philosopher Massimo Pigliucci was also critical of some scientists in his recent book Nonsense on Stilts: How to Tell Science from Bunk“.

“Philosophy, by converse, is, according to some physicists (for example Steven Weinberg, in his Dreams of a Final Theory), a useless, perhaps even dangerous enterprise because it can slow scientific progress. . . . .Weinberg argues that not only is philosophy not useful to science, but in some instances it can be positively harmful.

Pigluicci calls the “simplistic academic posturing” and writes:

“Attitudes such as Weinberg’s are largely the result of intellectual arrogance. I am convinced that such arrogance hurts science, and it certainly doesn’t help bridge what C. P. Snow famously referred to as the divide between “the two cultures.””

So these “conflicts” can become rather harsh!

Personally, I think Pigliuicci’s characterisation is unfair. Having just read Weinberg’s Dreams of a Final Theory: The Scientist’s Search for the Ultimate Laws of Nature I think Weinberg actually largely justifies his comments – and Pigliucci is too dismissive of them.

Valid criticisms?

“The value today of philosophy to physics seems to me to be something like the value of early nation-states to their peoples. It is only a small exaggeration to say that, until the introduction of the post office, the chief service of nation-states was to protect their peoples from other nation-states. The insights of philosophers have occasionally benefited physicists, but generally in a negative fashion—by protecting them from the preconceptions of other philosophers.
I do not want to draw the lesson here that physics is best done without preconceptions. At any one moment there are so many things that might be done, so many accepted principles that might be challenged, that without some guidance from our preconceptions one could do nothing at all. It is just that philosophical principles have not generally provided us with the right preconceptions. In our hunt for the final theory, physicists are more like hounds than hawks; we have become good at sniffing around on the ground for traces of the beauty we expect in the laws of nature, but we do not seem to be able to see the path to the truth from the heights of philosophy.
Physicists do of course carry around with them a working philosophy. For most of us, it is a rough-and-ready realism, a belief in the objective reality of the ingredients of our scientific theories. But this has been learned through the experience of scientific research and rarely from the teachings of philosophers.
This is not to deny all value to philosophy, much of which has nothing to do with science. I do not even mean to deny all value to the philosophy of science, which at its best seems to me a pleasing gloss on the history and discoveries of science. But we should not expect it to provide today’s scientists with any useful guidance about how to go about their work or about what they are likely to find.
This is not merely a matter of the scientist’s intellectual laziness. It is agonizing to have to interrupt one’s work to learn a new discipline, but scientists do it when we have to. At various times I have managed to take time off from what I was doing to learn all sorts of things I needed to know, from differential topology to Microsoft DOS. It is just that a knowledge of philosophy does not seem to be of use to physicists—always with the exception that the work of some philosophers helps us to avoid the errors of other philosophers.

I think many scientists may agree with Weinberg’s comments here -and Pigliucchi seems to actually acknowledge that with his comment “philosophy has simply never had, in recent memory anyway, much of a sway with scientists.”

More than one “philosophy”

I can really identify with Weinberg’s assertion: The insights of philosophers have occasionally benefited physicists, but generally in a negative fashion—by protecting them from the preconceptions of other philosophers.

I have often been told during debates that I am being “scientistic” because I have asserted that many “big” questions, such as consciousness, the nature of human morality, the origins of the universe and the question of existence of gods are scientific questions. Critics have countered with the assertion that they are philosophical questions and that scientists should keep away from them. That it is OK for cosmologists to investigate the development of the universe back to a few seconds – but they should not be investigating, hypothesising or even speculating on the actual formation of the universe. That’s a job for philosophers!

I know not all philosophers will agree with such a naive statement. But that fact illustrates an important point. There is not one “philosophy.” There are different schools of philosophy and I believe my critics have been presenting the views of one school, but claiming those views are those of philosophy in general. This deception actually seems to be quite common for philosophers of religion who will pretend their claims are common to philosophy in general. Meanwhile surveys actually show that most philosophers are not theistic believers.

Different perspectives inevitable

Perhaps the philosopher-scientist “conflict” is inevitable because each party comes from a different perspective. Perhaps clarifying his perspective Weinberg writes:

“It may seem to the reader (especially if the reader is a professional philosopher) that a scientist who is as out of tune with the philosophy of science as I am should tiptoe gracefully past the subject and leave it to experts. I know how philosophers feel about attempts by scientists at amateur philosophy. But I do not aim here to play the role of a philosopher, but rather that of a specimen, an unregenerate working scientist who finds no help in professional philosophy. I am not alone in this; I know of no one who has participated actively in the advance of physics in the postwar period whose research has been significantly helped by the work of philosophers.”

That has also been my experience. Yes I know critics will lament this and assert that scientists should be educated in philosophy (which philosophy?). My reply is that scientific researchers learn a working philosophy on the job. An intuitive understanding of scientific process and method which many professional philosophers seem to be ignorant of.

Pigliucci tends to dismiss Weinberg’s criticism of the role that philosophy played in resisting the move away from mechanical tradition in science, the acceptance of atomism, relativity and quantum physics.  And perhaps such influences are inevitable and may even be balanced by the positive influence of other, more radical, philosophical ideas.

The dangers of “philosophy”

But history has also seen how the political and state endorsement of philosophical position can also seriously retard scientific advance. Weinberg writes of the situation in the USSR:

“for a while dialectical materialism stood in the way of the acceptance of general relativity in the Soviet Union. As late as 1961 the distinguished Russian physicist Vladimir Fock felt compelled to defend himself from the charge that he had strayed from philosophical orthodoxy. The preface to his treatise “The Theory of Space, Time, and Gravitation” contains the remarkable statement, “The philosophical side of our views on the theory of space, time and gravitation was formed under the influence of the philosophy of dialectical materialism, in particular, under the influence of Lenin’s materialism and empirical criticism.””

I remember feeling a similar concern when I saw the obligatory prominent references to Marxist philosophers in the Chinese 1970 paper describing the first synthesis of insulin. And there are many examples of physical repression, and murder, of scientists, justified by philosophical conventions in the USSR, China and Hitler’s Germany. No wonder scientists react strongly to even a hint of philosophers wishing to dictate acceptable scientific methodology or limit areas of research or permissible conclusions.

A current threat?

To some extent all this might seem like old history. At least not relevant in today’s modern developed pluralist and democratic societies. But look at the USA where evolutionary science and climate science are under daily attack. Sure, scientists keep their heads down and continue their work. To them it’s like water off a duck’s back. And it’s not as if the creationists and intelligent design people are saying anything, or indeed doing anything, which is relevant to the day-to-day work of scientific researchers.

But these science deniers do have political effects. The media cover’s their arguments. School boards can subvert the scientific curriculum. State Governors exert an influence. And education boards manipulate regulation to allow suppression or distortion of accepted science and introduction of religion into science classes.

Part of this war on science is carried out in the philosophy departments of universities and conservative think tanks. The Discovery Institute clearly advances an agenda of converting modern science into a “theistic science.” Academic philosophers write text books attacking modern “scientific materialism.” And, of course, philosophers of religion get behind such anti-science trends among philosophers.

I can easily imagine the political and cultural influence of these critics of science having an effect on future research funding and on the public acceptance of scientific findings. It’s already happening with climate science.

No – I am not laying this charge against good philosophers who make the occasional snipe across the philosophy/science border. Many of these often come out against such anti-science attacks.

I just wish there were more philosophers who would.

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Free will – problems of definition

Some of the philosophically inclined readers have probably followed the recent internet discussion of “free will.” I am referring specifically to that between evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne (blog: Why evolution is True) and philosopher  (blog: Rationally Speaking). It been interesting partly because the debate has also encompassed commenters on each blog. Regulars who might otherwise have lined up with the specific blogger but disagreed in this case.

I have no wish to get into debates on “free will” – I find them frustrating because people often argue past each other. And it seems to me that the debate often really boils down to how we define “free will.”  So I just want to restrict my comments here to the matter of definition.

I think much of what Jerry writes is good – but in this case I find his definition of “free will” too mechanical. And I think this leads him to doubtful conclusions. Here is how he defines “free will” in his USA Today article (see Why you don’t really have free will):

“. . .let me define what I mean by “free will.” I mean it simply as the way most people think of it: When faced with two or more alternatives, it’s your ability to freely and consciously choose one, either on the spot or after some deliberation. A practical test of free will would be this: If you were put in the same position twice — if the tape of your life could be rewound to the exact moment when you made a decision, with every circumstance leading up to that moment the same and all the molecules in the universe aligned in the same way — you could have chosen differently.”

It is the “consciously” which I wish to take issue with. It’s important because part of his argument refers to work indicating that decisions on an action may be taken by a person well before that person is conscious of the decision. As Jerry describes it:

“Recent experiments involving brain scans show that when a subject “decides” to push a button on the left or right side of a computer, the choice can be predicted by brain activity at least seven seconds before the subject is consciously aware of having made it. . . . “Decisions” made like that aren’t conscious ones. And if our choices are unconscious, with some determined well before the moment we think we’ve made them, then we don’t have free will in any meaningful sense.”

Consciousness is much over-rated

I think this work is interesting because it suggests an important role for the subconscious (or unconscious part of the brain) in decision-making which, on the surface, appears conscious. In a way this isn’t surprising because most of the work the brain does is, has to be, unconscious. Just imagine if all the ongoing work involved in homeostasis were controlled by conscious decisions. That you had to consciously decide how to respond to every incoming biological threat and then pass those conscious decision on to the immune system!

So, I don’t think it is wise to differentiate so sharply between the conscious and subconscious working of the mind/brain. I have written before about the role of the subconscious in moral decisions and think this stretches to many more areas of our decision-making than we might think. And that is a two-way street – our conscious mental deliberations also influence our subconsciousness brain – and that in return feeds back into later conscious decisions. Our academic and social learning involves, over time, constant interaction between the conscious and unconscious brain.

My suggestion is that when we “freely and consciously choose” this decision is not restricted to the conscious, self-aware brain. It also, and inevitably, involves the unconscious. Using the particular definition Jerry has, and limiting the process of decision-making to the conscious brain, is just too mechanical.

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Pseudoscience and anti-science nonsense

Book Review: Nonsense on Stilts: How to Tell Science from Bunk by Massimo Pigliucci

Paperback: 336 pages
Price:
US$13.60; NZ$41.99
Publisher:
University Of Chicago Press (May 15, 2010)
Language:
English
SBN-10: 0226667863
SBN-13:
978-0226667867

The “climategate” fiasco revealed an undercurrent of anti-scientific thinking in our society.  But that is just the latest issue. We have continuing problems with creationism, “alternative” medicines, and so on. Several centuries after the scientific revolution pseudoscience and anti-science attitudes are still common. The struggle for scientific literacy continues.

Massimo Pugliucci stresses this is an important issue for citizens in today’s society:

“Given the power and influence that science increasingly has in our daily lives, it is important that we as citizens of an open and democratic society learn to separate good science from bunk.

This is not a matter of intellectual curiosity, as it affects where large portions of our tax money go, and in some cases even whether people’s lives are lost as a result of nonsense.”

So, here is the motive for Pugliucici’s new book “Nonsense on Stilts.” In this he makes the case for real science, warns against the dangers of pseudoscience and provides readers with help in distinguishing the two.

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Carl Sagan’s challenge ignored

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Carl Sagan’s 1985 Gifford lectures are really interesting. They have been edited and published in The Varieties of Scientific Experience: A Personal View of the Search for God.

I highly recommend this book.

Massimo Pigliucci recently commented on the book at his blog Rationally Speaking (see Good point, Dr. Sagan!). He points out that Sagan effectively issued a challenge to theologians in his lectures. It’s a challenge they have not taken up.

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From stones to atoms

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Book Review: The Scientist’s Atom and the Philosopher’s Stone: How Science Succeeded and Philosophy Failed to Gain Knowledge of Atoms by Alan Chalmers

Paperback: 288 pages
Publisher: Publisher: Springer
Language: English
ISBN-10: 9048123615
ISBN-13: 978-9048123612
US$119.00


It’s reasonable to see philosophy and science as natural partners, complementary in their application and intimately related. However, there is some distrust between the disciplines. Massimo Pigliucci discussed the problems in his paper: The borderlands between science and philosophy: an introduction. The March 2008 special issue of the Quarterly Review of Biology has other papers dealing with these problems.

Scientists often feel that some philosophers can be hostile towards, or misrepresent, science. Some philosophers have an “armchair approach” which inhibits a proper understanding of the scientific process. But there are other philosophers who promote a respectful relationship with science.

Alan Chalmers textbook is an example of the healthy relationship that can, and often does, exist. It is therefore a welcome addition to the philosophy of science and should benefit students of philosophy and science alike.

In particular, it will help put the relationship between science and philosophy into the right perspective. And what better subject to do this than atomism with its clear roots in philosophical thought but is clear proof in experimental science. Chalmer’s epistemological history shows how “the philosophical atomists’ miniature stones were replaced by the scientist’s quantum-mechanical atom.” This serves to provide a comprehensive history of the relationship between philosophy and science.

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