Comments on a couple of nonphilosophers doing some philosophy

Believe me when I say I am not one of those narrow-minded disciplinarians who believe knowledgeable people should stick to their own turf and never meddle in other people’s business. Indeed, one of my chief disappointments is that we live in a time when so few people are willing to let their attention and intellect roam more freely in order to produce synoptic visions that bump and swerve the rest of us into new ideas. But there are right and wrong ways to go about such meddling, it seems, and a couple of recent examples provide some instructive lessons.

There is nothing not to adore about E.O. Wilson, who delivers in his gentle drawl the most amazing details of ant life, and then goes on to deliver brazen homespun schemes for unifying all fields of intellectual endeavor. He is, in my mind, a great prophet of the human intellectual anthill. That’s not to say I agree with his schemes. In a recent essay for Harvard Magazine, Wilson suggests that we really won’t know what we are doing in the arts and humanities until we begin to grasp our place in the natural order. Everything we do with our minds and hearts we do because evolution put it there, in some way, and understanding those evolutionary conditions should help us to realize why art moves us, and what the exchange of ideas means for us as a species. To his credit, Wilson is not seeking to reduce arts and humanities to sociobiology; he seems to be arguing for the more modest claim that it would be nice, wouldn’t it, if we all broadened our minds a little and learned a bit of science. After quoting a conventional attempt at defining the humanities, Wilson claims:

Such may be the scope of the humanities, but it makes no allusion to the understanding of the cognitive processes that bind them all together, nor their relation to hereditary human nature, nor their origin in prehistory. Surely we will never see a full maturing of the humanities until these dimensions are added.

And this seems sensible, inasmuch as a truly “full” maturing had better be cognizant of these dimansions. Indeed, why shouldn’t humanists and artists try to understand the origin of their own species?

The bulk of Wilson’s essay is focused on the evolution of human sensory systems, and a general story of how that evolution relates to cave paintings, and (by extension) the rest of the arts. He actually doesn’t say much about the humanities, it turns out, or about post-prehistoric art, and this leads me to discover a blind spot in his vision through which I shall now direct a freight train. I think that he carves the world into “the true story,” revealed by science, and “the entertaining stuff,” comprised of the arts and the humanities. If that’s the division of labor, then it would make sense for the entertainers to know the mechanics of their craft, if only to entertain all the better. But what’s missing is that the humanities and the arts are genuinely different ways of seeing, and deeply different questions raised to human experience – all so different, it seems to me, that I am not sure Wilson’s “added dimensions” of heredity and origins will really add that much. They won’t add nothing, and they may help with some applications, but the fact is that explaining the evolutionary forces behind the beginnings of these endeavors does not reach far enough into the subject matter of those endeavors to be very illuminating.

Take, for example, a scholar thinking through Rawl’s theory of justice. At the core are questions about the community’s obligations to its members, and what a community must provide in order to be just. One wonders whether it will help to know, through Wilson, that:

Selection at the individual level tends to create competitiveness and selfish behavior among group members—in status, mating, and the securing of resources. In opposition, selection between groups tends to create selfless behavior, expressed in greater generosity and altruism, which in turn promote stronger cohesion and strength of the group as a whole.

My bet is that it won’t help that much. The actual subject domain is about the concept of justice, and what it means for the economies of human societies, and consequences of distribution, and entitlements. All of the discussion can be carried out and is carried out under its own steam, so to speak, without much concern over what our ancestors on the savannah were working out for themselves.  Now I can hear someone object that, “Of course it will help, because maybe Rawls is in Cloudcuckooland, and needs to factor in evolutionary constraints in order to be sure he’s dealing with reality!” But no, not really. The aim of the endeavor is to work through the concept of justice, for us as we are with the minds and hearts we have, and that constitutes its own field of concepts and entailments and problems. Bringing up the evolutionary backstory will be about as relevant as urging physicists, as they try to work out a unified field theory, to factor in the political pressures exerted upon granting agencies.

Which brings me to my second point. If the scientists have something to tell the humanists about the origins of their subject matter, so too do the humanists have some news for the scientists. For it turns out, as survey research has shown, that a whopping majority of scientists turn out to be human beings, subject to ideologies, traditions, economies, social conditioning, ressentiment, prejudices, alienation, and wishful thinking. The philosophy and history of science is a field within the humanities, and it is at least in part an attempt to explain why scientists spin out the stories they do. If it is a good idea for humanists to learn their backstory as told by science, wouldn’t it also be good for scientists to make use of what those confounding humanists say about the all-too-human origins of their own work? I’m not saying it should change their field, anymore than learning some science should change the field of the humanist. In both cases, it is a matter of helping disciplines to “fully mature.”

I am sorry to say I don’t feel the same sort of love for Lawrence Krauss. Let me first admit I haven’t read his book, A Universe from Nothing. I have seen a recent TED talk by Brian Greene on the basic idea (highly recommended), and I’ve read some other things, though I am far, far away from being any sort of knowledgeable person on the matter. But I recently came across The Atlantic‘s interview with him, where he gets the chance to smack back on the negative book review written by David Albert. The interview is a good one – good questions, I mean – and Krauss shows himself to be one of those hubristic physicists who feels it is wholly unnecessary for him to know anything about philosophy before either engaging in it or trashing it (or both simultaneously, like Stephen Hawking).

His view, basically, is that philosophers have been trying to do physics for 2,000 years, and basically failing to make any progress, and now their collective noses are out of joint because physicists are actually answering their questions for them. When philosophers like Albert (who by the way, earned a Ph.D in theoretical physics before writing philosophy of physics) complain that Krauss isn’t really addressing the deep philosophical issues, Krauss replies that they are morons. When the interviewer suggests that philosophers like Wittgenstein and Russell may have had a hand in the founding of computer science, Krauss tells us that they in fact were mathematicians, not philosophers. When the interviewer points out that there’s a lot more to philosophy than metaphysics, Krauss admits that he was making his sweeping claims only to be “provocative.” (Fine; but why then cry about it when you provoke a response, you glib moron?)

Enough. Like I said, I haven’t read his book, so I am at least dangerously close to being guilty of the sin I’m imputing to him. Let me say merely that, by my reading of this interview, I am not eager to read his book.

I think both Wilson and Krauss are guilty of not really knowing the humanities they seek to either assimilate or usurp. But they are different inasmuch as Wilson is trying to do something constructive, with the good intention of preserving whatever it is that is valuable in the Other; while Krauss really wishes the Other would just go away. So one moral of the story is that, if you want to provide a broad vision, try to see the real merits of the objects falling within that vision. A second moral is to be sure that your vision really does include all that you think it does.

About Huenemann

Curious about the ways humans use their minds and hearts to distract themselves from the meaninglessness of life.
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15 Responses to Comments on a couple of nonphilosophers doing some philosophy

  1. “The aim of the endeavor is to work through the concept of justice, for us as we are with the minds and hearts we have, and that constitutes its own field of concepts and entailments and problems.”

    But doesn’t that field include assumptions about how we are that call for validation (or rejection) from the relevant sciences — perhaps generally the same sciences needed to validate whatever “those confounded humanists” have of value to say to scientists about their practice?


  2. Huenemann says:

    I suppose it does. In this example, people arguing over Rawls assume a theory of human nature – one that is too thin for Aristotelians, and too “apriori” or too armchair-bound for naturalists like Haidt. And to the extent that their arguing draws upon “intuitions” that in fact are not so universal, experimental philosophers can correct the course of the discussion.

    But I still think I am on to something. To exaggerate the case a bit, I think it is possible that philosophers could develop a theory of justice that is just impossible for humans to embody – a dream too grand to be realized, in short, though maybe we could approximate it. This would be like any idealization in any science. The fact that evolution could describe why it is that we are unable to live up to that ideal would not by itself show the ideal to be wrong or useless.

    Now when the humanists turn toward the sciences, they may not be turning to the sciences for validation. Think for example of a Marxist critique of genetics, or of demographics, or of Nietzsche’s critique of atomism. The fact that a science “disproves” the presupposed view of human nature wouldn’t invalidate the critiques, at least from the criticizers’ point of view.

    My point in all this is not really to announce my own “unnaturalism” (don’t fear, Rob!). Rather, it is only to point out that there are entire discourses throughout the humanities and arts that have a kind of autonomy and robustness that doesn’t really connect with any result from evolutionary biology. You can play piano without knowing the physics of sound, be a practicing physicist without understanding the workings of your own digestive system, or write about poetry without knowing the biographies of the poets.


    • robsica says:

      I like, and agree with the spirit of, your intriguing suggestion that philosophy can involve a project of aspirational constructive work that, while closely responsive to science, is not outstripped by it. (Nietzsche seems to optimistically suggest such a role for philosophy “of the future”, though by the final sections of GM, along with Gardner I tend to think his more deeply considered position is rather pessimistic.) However, does the same really apply to the arts the humanities (or, for those who don’t think as I do of philosophy as a kind of ‘queen of Wissenschaften’)? Or, rather, does — or should — the “play” metaphor also apply to philosophy, thereby incurring the humanities’ vulnerability to Alex Rosenberg’s critique of the humanities (which, it seems to me, recalls the hard naturalism of circa HAH1 Nietzsche)?


  3. thedrakesplace says:

    I’m much more sympathetic with Krauss. Here’s how I would put the point: The “ex nihilo” puzzle is premised on prescientific intuitions about the structure of the cosmos with all “matter” (in some prescientific sense) removed. Those notions are misbegotten—as science, and not philosophy, has shown. The puzzle as reconstructed in light of these new findings (as by Albert in his review) merely assumes facts not in evidence, for it may well be that it is impossible to get “something from nothing” in the abstract, reconstructed philosophical sense. Which means that philosophy isn’t even entitled to pose the question, much less pretend to have an autonomous method of answering it. You morons.


  4. Huenemann says:

    It seems to me that somewhere in the “nothing from something” discussion the basic point got lost, which has more to do with the principle of sufficient reason than with the physics of the vacuum. Krause in the interview recognizes that one can keep asking, “Why are things that way?” but he thinks at some point one should just stop asking that, and accept the brute facts of the matter. Well, that is a move that has been made before. I’m not saying it is wrong. I’m saying it didn’t take 21st-century physics to make it. It is whoppingly cool to see quantum goings-on that spontaneously emerge when you suck all the matter out of a space, and even suck the space out of a space. But it doesn’t add up to much philosophically. You poopyheads.


    • No, you’re the poopyheads!

      It seems to me the principle of sufficient reason can’t have any purchase here: either something came from nothing, in which case the PSR is false (and some class of existents therefore brute), or it came from something, in which case science is better placed than philosophy to explain the causal dynamics.

      And no ‘e’ in ‘Krauss’, BTW.


  5. Huenemann says:

    Whoops! Thanks for the correction (I’ve changed the original post). That’s embarrassing. I don’t know how that ‘e’ got there; it’s like it came out of nowhere!

    When Krauss pulls the something out of (nearly) nothing, he does so by the aid of some physical theory. The PSR forces us to ask why that theory should be true. One possible reply is the multiverse, which sponsors a universe for every (logically?) possible set of laws. But why this be the way things run? Why should there be a multiverse? Or, equivalently, why should there be those laws/principles which explain why there should be a multiverse? At any point we can dig in and say “it just is” or – better yet – confess that we just don’t know. (There’s an idea!) Scientists can keep pushing the horizon back, but the PSR is as relentless as the metaphysician armed with it.

    Oh, and by the way, we’re still waiting for a decent account of causality. If the scientists could lend a hand there, we’d be grateful.


    • “[I]t’s like it came out of nowhere!”

      A very fine recovery.

      “The PSR forces us to ask why that theory should be true.”

      But how is that a problem for Krauss? The horizon-broadening question “Why would that be so?” can be asked by anyone—scientists, philosophers, or even the common clay of the west. On the other hand, Krauss says, if what you want in any given instance is an answer to that question, then you’ll just have to see how the science shakes out, or else accept the fact as brute. In that, at least, I think he’s right.


      • Huenemann says:

        I still can’t see how the science’s shaking out will finally satisfy PSR. On the whole, I’d be happier if Krauss et al simply said, “Look! We can explain a whole lot more of the fundamental stuff than anyone ever has before! But for the great big philosophical questions, we’re as clueless as ever.” That seems to me to be the honest truth, and scientists thinking otherwise need to go back and read Hume.


  6. bjk says:

    “Scientists can keep pushing the horizon back, but the PSR is as relentless as the metaphysician armed with it.”

    If the scientist says “the universe is infinitely old – it has no beginning,” that would seem to be an argument trumper.

    Fodor’s review of Wilson is worth quoting:

    Consilience is an epistemological thesis: roughly, it says that all knowledge reduces to basic science. This would appear to be very different from the metaphysical thesis that all the facts supervene on the facts of basic science. In particular, it is by no means obvious that the epistemological kind of physicalism follows from the metaphysical kind. And if it doesn’t, then an enthusiast for the second might consistently – even plausibly – reject the first. Wilson’s failure even to notice this possibility makes a shambles of his book.


    • Huenemann says:

      The “infinitely old” claim was made by Aristotle. But Aquinas challenged it later in his Third Way, arguing that it still leaves unexplained why there should be an infinitely old universe rather than none at all.

      Very perceptive quote from Fodor. Thanks!


  7. “I still can’t see how the science’s shaking out will finally satisfy PSR.”

    Why suppose anything will ever “finally satisfy PSR”? Maybe it’s just false. But even if it’s true, the explanation has to end somewhere: if it didn’t, we’d find ourselves asking, “Now why should that PSR be true?” (Actually, doesn’t that regress prove that PSR is false? 😉


    • Huenemann says:

      I am interested in examining whether PSR is fundamentally nonsensical, perhaps for Wittgensteinian reasons. So far I haven’t seen a compelling argument, but maybe there is one. Short of that, why think that explanations have to end somewhere? Why assume that the PSR is false if it incurs some sort of infinite regress of explanations?


      • “Regress” was inapt there. More like reductio. My thought was that if there is no explanation available for why PSR is true, that’s at least prima facie reason to suppose that PSR is false.

        And you’re right that one needn’t think that explanations have to end somewhere—as long as one is prepared to accept an infinite regress and abjure the idea of “first cause.” It’s not clear that most advocates of creatio ex nihilo meet that condition.

        The larger point, though, is that there’s no more reason to believe that there is an infinite regress than there is to believe that some facts are brute. Accordingly, there’s no more reason to believe that PSR is true than that it’s false.


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