Pigliucci And Shaw On The Allegedly Useful Reduction

Massimo Pigliucci critiques the uncritical reductionism that the conflation of philosophy and science brings in its wake, using as a jumping-off point, Tamsin Shaw’s essay in the New York Review of Books, which addresses psychologists’ claims “that human beings are not rational, but rather rationalizing, and that one of the things we rationalize most about is ethics.” Pigliucci notes that Shaw‘s targets “Jonathan Haidt, Steven Pinker, Paul Bloom, Joshua Greene and a number of others….make the same kind of fundamental mistake [a category mistake], regardless of the quality of their empirical research.”

Pigliucci highlights Shaw’s critique of Joshua Greene’s claims that “neuroscientific data can test ethical theories, concluding that there is empirical evidence for utilitarianism.” Shaw had noted that:

Greene interpreted these results in the light of an unverifiable and unfalsifiable story about evolutionary psychology … Greene inferred … that the slower mechanisms we see in the brain are a later development and are superior because morality is properly concerned with impersonal values … [But] the claim here is that personal factors are morally irrelevant, so the neural and psychological processes that track such factors in each person cannot be relied on to support moral propositions or guide moral decisions. Greene’s controversial philosophical claim is simply presupposed; it is in no way motivated by the findings of science. An understanding of the neural correlates of reasoning can tell us nothing about whether the outcome of this reasoning is justified.

At this point Pigliucci intervenes:

Let me interject here with my favorite analogy to explain why exactly Greene’s reasoning doesn’t hold up: mathematics. Imagine we subjected a number of individuals to fMRI scanning of their brain activity while they are in the process of tackling mathematical problems. I am positive that we would conclude the following…

There are certain areas, and not others, of the brain that lit up when a person is engaged with a mathematical problem.

There is probably variation in the human population for the level of activity, and possibly even the size or micro-anatomy, of these areas.

There is some sort of evolutionary psychological story that can be told for why the ability to carry out simple mathematical or abstract reasoning may have been adaptive in the Pleistocene (though it would be much harder to come up with a similar story that justifies the ability of some people to understand advanced math, or to solve Fermat’s Last Theorem).

But none of the above will tell us anything at all about whether the subjects in the experiment got the math right. Only a mathematician — not a neuroscientist, not an evolutionary psychologist — can tell us that.

Correct. Now imagine an ambitious neuroscientist who claims his science has really, really advanced, and indeed, imaging technology has improved so much that Pigliucci’s first premise above should be changed to:

There are certain areas, and not others, of the brain that lit up when a person is working out the correct solution to a particular mathematical problem.

So, contra Pigliucci’s claim above, neuroscience will tell us a great deal about whether the subjects in the experiment got the math right. Our funky imaging science and technology makes that possible now. At this stage, the triumphant reductionist says, “We’ve reduced the doing of mathematics to doing neuroscience; when you think you are doing mathematics, all that is happening is that a bunch of neurons are firing in the following patterns and particular parts of your brain are lighting up. We can now tell a evolutionary psychology story about why the ability to reason correctly may have been adaptive.”

But we may ask: Should the presence of such technology mean we should stop doing mathematics? Have we learned, as a result of such imaging studies, how to do mathematics correctly? We know that when our brains are in particular states, they can be interpreted as doing mathematical problems–‘this activity means you are doing a math problem in this fashion.’ A mathematician looks at proofs; a neuroscientist would look at the corresponding brain scans. We know when one corresponds to another. This is perhaps useful for comparing math-brain-states with poetry-brain-states but it won’t tell us how to write poetry or proofs for theorems. It does not tell us how humans would produce those proofs (or those brain states in their brains.) If a perverse neuroscientist were to suggest that the right way to do maths now would be to aim to put your brain into the states suggested by the imaging machines, we would note we already have a perfectly good of learning how to do good mathematics: learning from masters’ techniques, as found in books, journals, and notebooks.

In short, the reduction of a human activity–math–to its corresponding brain activity achieves precisely nothing when it comes to the doing of the activity. It aids our understanding of that activity in some regards–as in, how does its corresponding brain activity compare to other corresponding brain activities for other actions–and not in others. Some aspects of this reduction will strike us as perfectly pointless, given the antecedent accomplishments of mathematics and mathematicians.

Not all possible reduction is desirable or meaningful.

Richard Holmes On Biography’s ‘Physical Pursuit’ Of Its Subjects

In an essay describing his biographical work on Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Richard Holmes writes:

[A] biography is…a handshake….across time, but also across cultures, across beliefs, across disciplines, across genders, and across ways of life. It is an act of friendship.

It is a way of keeping the biographer’s notebook open, on both sides of that endlessly mysterious question: What was this human life really like, and what does it mean to us now? In this sense, biography is not merely a mode of historical inquiry. It is an act of imaginative faith.

Holmes bases this view of the work of the biographer on two claims about the art, the first one of which claims that:

[T]he serious biographer must physically pursue his subject through the past. Mere archives were not enough. He must go to all the places where the subject had ever lived or worked, or traveled or dreamed.

Biography is a famously reviled literary genre–sometimes described as fantasy, sometimes intrusive voyeurism, sometimes ideologically motivated hatchet job. Holmes is right to describe it as being animated by an ‘endlessly mysterious question.’ (He is also perspicuous in describing it as a ‘handshake’ and an ‘act of friendship’ of sorts.) That question’s mystery–which becomes ever more prominent when we think about its unanswerability with respect to ourselves–does not make the attempt to answer it necessarily ignoble or ill-motivated. But it does bid us be circumspect in assessing how much of the biographer’s task is ever ‘complete.’

To acknowledge that difficulty note that Holmes adds a variety of physical emulation to the task of the biographer: we must be where our subject has been in order to assess what his experiences there might have been like, and thus evaluate what their contribution to his life’s work were. Thus the Nietzsche biographer must make the hike to Sils Maria and ascend the heights that surround it. There, perhaps, one might investigate what Nietzsche had in mind in his constant invocations of the ‘clean air’ he experienced there, and wonder about the sordid life he might have left behind. Because we are not disembodied intelligences, but rather embodied beings in constant interaction with our environments–physical, mental, and emotional–Holmes’ injunction is a wise one. The biographer who writes of Jack Kerouac without undertaking a long road-trip on American highways, and does not wonder about what effect the sights seen therein–big skies, the black asphalt stretching to the horizon, the lonely houses and farms, the lives of fellow travelers–could have had on an endlessly restless and fertile imagination is crippled, fatally, in his task.

But even as we set to work in this dimension, we realize how much is still hidden away from us, how much remains inaccessible. We are still left to play, unavoidably, with our speculations, distant third-person reports, and autobiographical confessions of dubious fidelity. Perhaps this is why Holmes concludes by describing biography as an ‘act of imaginative faith.’

Notes: This essay begins with what must be a distinctive entry to the ‘not-so-humblebrag’ genre:

By the time I had finished my eight-hundred-page biography of Percy Bysshe Shelley in 1974, I was nearly thirty.

Liberia, Iran, Gautemala et al.: Liberated By Coup D’Etat

In 1981 or so, as a schoolboy perusing my school library’s archives of LIFE magazine, I came upon a set of photos that–like other images in the past–showcased a brutality not immediately reconcilable with my rational understanding of the world: half-naked men, tied tight to poles with green plastic cords that bit into their skin, mowed down by a volley of gunfire from a firing squad. The incongruous backdrop to this summary execution was a sandy sunlit beach, suitable for wading, surfing, and sunbathing on your average tropical vacation. I did not, and could not, fully understand the historical context and geopolitical machinations described in the accompanying article. That was how I first learned of the existence of a land called Liberia, how it came to be, and its peculiar and particular relationship with the United States.

The back story to that execution is worth revisiting–if only as an exercise to see how political and historical patterns may be easily detected:

In 1971, President William Tubman [of Liberia] died and his left-leaning, idealistic vice-president, William Tolbert, took over. Tolbert expanded social services like health care and education and scrapped subsidies on imported rice to encourage Liberian farmers. However, he antagonized the US by renegotiating unfavorable contracts with Firestone and other companies. He also criticized Israel for its treatment of the Palestinians, offered support to the African National Congress and other revolutionary groups, and established diplomatic relations with North Korea, Libya, China, the USSR, and other countries on America’s cold war enemy list. He also refused to grant the American military unlimited access to the nation’s main airport, which it had been using to send weapons to cold war allies around the continent.

This should sound vaguely familiar. (Guatemala-Árbenz, Iran-Mosaddegh, perhaps?)

In 1980, Tolbert was murdered in his bed by soldiers allied to Samuel Doe, a young sergeant in the Liberian army. US foreign aid cuts and riots organized by CIA-backed opposition groups over increased rice prices had already weakened Tolbert’s regime. Doe himself also claimed to have been recruited into the CIA in 1973, and according to eyewitnesses he called the US embassy the night of Tolbert’s murder and received its blessing for the takeover. Ten days later, thirteen of Tolbert’s cabinet ministers were paraded around Monrovia in their underwear and then shot dead on the beach before an audience of horrified Western journalists.  [citations removed]

Those ministers were the trussed up men, the sweat and sand and spit visible on their writhing bodies as they died, that I had seen in those photos.

And then, grimly and inexorably, other aspects of the visible historical pattern stand forth:

Doe promptly dismantled Tolbert’s leftist policies, cut ties with Libya, the Soviets, and other enemies of America, renegotiated contracts with US companies, and allowed the US military free rein at the airport. In return, Doe received $500 million in foreign aid from the Reagan administration, far more than any other African country at the time.

And this, of course, is not where it ends. Charles Taylor awaits.

Richard Ford On ‘Secular Redemption’

In his review of Richard Ford’Let Me Be Frank With You: A Frank Bascombe Book (Ecco, 2014) Michael Dirda quotes Ford as saying:

For me what we are charged to do as human beings is to make our lives and the lives of others liveable, as important, as charged as we possibly can. And so what I’d call secular redemption aims to make us, through the agency of affection, intimacy, closeness, complicity, feel like our time spent on earth is not wasted.

The end of a year–another one that rapidly accelerated, nay, hurtled, to its closing–is as good time as any to think about how the creation of value is supposed to make our brief span of existence ‘meaningful’ and thus not ‘wasted.’ (I suspect the sin of ‘wasting time’ was invented after timepieces were, but that reflection is for another, er, time.) The first part of what Ford supposes human beings are ‘charged’ with is familiar: ‘make our lives and the lives of others as liveable[sic], as important, as charged as we possibly can.’ (These values  raise familiar puzzles about their grounding and meaning.) The second part is more interesting.

Here, Ford invokes first, the agencies of ‘affection, intimacy, closeness’ and closes with ‘complicity.’ The first three are explicitly related to the ethics of love that are sometimes derived from the world’s great religious traditions. They suggest that our time on this planet is best spent loving and being loved; from those acts will follow all else. (If we are loved, we will be safe; if we feel safe, we will be not fearful or anxious; we will trust more and be more trustworthy; thus we will be less prone to hatred and distraction, ours, and that of others. And so on.) ‘Complicity’ has a slightly different flavor: we must collaborate. With others like us. On our life’s ‘projects’ and on theirs. Now, ‘complicit’ is usually used to indicate membership in a criminal conspiracy of some sort. What does its use here indicate?

I would venture that very often our life’s projects are ‘illegal’ in some sense or the other. They are not sanctioned; not approved; not permissible–custom, order, procedure, convention, norm, historical precedence must be violated. But we press on; we feel we can do no other. To do so we require collaborators; and the best place to find them is among those for whom we feel and experience and express the ‘affection, intimacy, closeness’ (and presumably trust) that Ford speaks of.

So the notion of secular redemption does two things here: it invokes a unavoidably groundless ethic of love (asking us perhaps to look at our most instinctual reactions of caring and wanting care), and then, in a more existential sense, as it commits us to projects uniquely and particularly of our own making, it also bids us ensure that we remember we cannot accomplish them alone. The only human essence here is one of love; all else remains to be determined. We make ourselves but with others.

Note: I have no idea what Richard Ford thinks ‘secular redemption’ means.

Cultural Associations Do Not Add Up

In reviewing Jonathan Lethem‘s Dissident Gardens (“Leftists in Jeopardy“, New York Review of Books, April 2014), Michael Greenberg writes:

Lethem’s impulse to display his knowingness, his “vernacular” expertise, as he calls it, his belief that “were’ surrounded by signs [and] our imperative is to ignore none of them engenders a narrative noise that drowns out the novel’s subtler chords. His characters become the sum total  of their cultural associations,  creatures of the zeitgeist, a form of determinism, that as determinism does, leaves little or no room for spontaneity and nuance. We know them by their era, their affiliations, the music they listen to, and the products they boycott, or acquire.

Greenberg may be right that such ‘narrative noise…drowns out the novel’s subtler chords.’ But I do not know if the fundamental anxiety he expresses, that the characters subjected to such treatment become entirely relational–the “sum total of their cultural associations…with no room for spontaneity or nuance”–is all that worrisome or even perspicuous.

These associations and affiliations are expressions of taste, evidence of choices. These choices may display the very ‘spontaneity’ and ‘nuance’ whose absence Greenberg is bemoaning. We might know these characters by ‘their era, their affiliations, the music they listen to, and the products they boycott, or acquire’ but that does not mean the particular and peculiar way these are assembled by each individual may not be a ‘style’, a distinct signature, all its own.Greenberg seems to imagine such characters are entirely passive, merely bearing the impress of their cultures. But that would only be so if there is an assumption of, ironically enough, a certain ‘determinism’ on his part. These collections of ‘cultural associations,’ often very distinct from each other, present a different breeding ground for the various influences they subsequently encounter. Those interactions will often result in a quite unique character.

As but a trivial example, the temporal sequencing of these cultural adoptions may significantly affect the particular ‘sum total’; cultural choices and tastes do not follow some commutative law of addition. The teenager who discovers Slayer first, and then Black Sabbath later is very different from the one who listens to Black Sabbath first and finds Slayer later. The former finds his beloved thrashers have their provenance in classic heavy metal; the latter finds his beloved masters continue to live on in the homage paid them by contemporaries. The former may be tempted into an exploration of an older school of music; the latter may seek to find other bands’ expressions of a signature style. Their resultant journeys are likely to be very different. Or, if you prefer a more exalted example, those who read military histories of the Second World War first, and then later read those written by Herodotus, are likely to have a quite different reading experience from those who bring Herodotus to their reading of the Second World War histories.

Conformity is a genuine worry, but not quite in the way that Greenberg worries about it. The notion of a ‘sum total…of cultural associations’, in particular, strikes me as incoherent.

Freedom in the Absence of Social Convention

In reviewing Arturo Fontaine‘s La Vida Doble, “a harrowing examination of violence during the Pinochet period,” whose heroine is Lorena, “a female terrorist who is tortured, changes sides, and becomes a torturer herself”, David Gallagher writes:

But why in fact do good fathers and meek husbands and generous lovers undertake such cruel torture? Here Lorena sees the torturer as someone who becomes isolated from any sort of moral standard while granted absolute impunity for what he does, no matter how vile. In the glib manner of a French student of the Sixties, she speculates about two opposing views of what happens when social conventions have no effect. One is that you recover the innocence of the noble savage. The other—the relevant one in this case—is that you revert to a state of primal savagery. Because there are no limits, she tells the “novelist,” an inner monster springs to life, one we all potentially harbor. Once there is no possibility of punishment, “the monster we carry within us, the beast that grows fat on human flesh, is unleashed within the good father or the daughter of a good family.”

Notice that Lorena establishes a dichotomy–there are only two possible modes of behavior possible when social conventions cease to constrain us. But we might speculate too–perhaps for the benefit of a future novelist–that the absence of social conventions might result in a new kind of freedom, one in which, rather than revert to the two states described above, human beings experiment with finding new orderings of moral and ethical values. Certainly, it isn’t clear why these “two opposing views” are the only possibilities open to human beings, why our options in the face of the absence of social conventions would be so limited.

The “two opposing views” that Gallagher refers to are influential, of course, but that might be due to a lack of imagination on the part of those speculating about a convention-free world. In the absence of convention it would also seem just as likely that rather than being innocent savages or beasts, we might merely be utterly confused and bereft, content to experiment with modes of behavior and interaction that might provide some guidance for how to proceed in this newly ordered world.

The “lack of imagination” I refer to above, is an almost inevitable consequence, of course, of a deeply essentialist view of human nature, one committed to the idea that the visible human persona consists of two layers: an abiding, enduring, inner self temporarily covered by a thin epidermis of social convention. But a more existential view would suggest that when social conventions are removed, we have no way of saying what will remain. Perhaps the new being that will emerge will delight in alternating between innocence and bestiality, perhaps it will develop ever more complex characteristics, perhaps it will grow in dimensions–moral, psychological, and emotional–that we cannot yet fathom, gripped as we are by conventional modes of thought. When we think of how constraining social conventions–fundamentally and broadly understood–are, such speculation should not strike us too outlandish.

April Bernard on Margaret Drabble as Moral Psychologist

In reviewing a selection of Margaret Drabble‘s novels, April Bernard writes:

Drabble, as a moralist, seems to believe that it is less important what and why we do what we do, than how we think about it—before, during, after….If the reason that a man always sins is that he is sinful, what matters can only be what he does, spiritually, with these hard facts.

“What we do” i.e., our actions. “Why we do what we do” i.e., the reasons for our actions. Agents’ reasons–their beliefs and desires–are the causes for their actions. And then, finally, “how we think about what we do”–before, during, after–our beliefs about our actions and their reasons, introspectively and retrospectively.

I do not know if Bernard intends to describe Drabble’s views of moral psychology as being a paradigmatic instance of what moralists do, or whether she is taking her stance as a particularly idiosyncratic one. Be that as it may, it is interesting to consider a moralist as being more concerned with our reasoning about our reasons for our actions than with our actions and our reasons for them.

Consider for instance, a putative rebel who consistently fails to file taxes on time and sometimes fails to do so altogether. A little introspection on his part reveals he does so because he believes that tax-collection authorities are instruments of oppression and thus want to let them know–however indirectly–that he cares little for their intrusion into his life.  For Drabble then, the failure to file taxes and the resentment of authority is not as interesting as the actual introspection indulged in by the agent.

The reasons for this should be evident: such introspection–prior to actions, concurrently and retrospectively–is bound to be interestingly revealing, a tapping into a rich mother lode of psychologically acute facts about oneself. Our rebel may find–when he commences his archaeological investigations, in guided or unguided form–that his resentment of authority stems from other deeply held beliefs, primeval in origin, shrouded perhaps by childhood amnesia. He might find that he does not derive as much pleasure as anticipated from the commission of his action, that indeed, while he delays his payment of taxes, he is gripped by acute anxiety and fear–while he resents authority he fears it even more. And lastly, he may discover that his actions, rather than leaving with flush with the glory of success, bring in their wake a curious emptiness.

The visible actions we take and our publicly professed reasons for doing so may then just be a kind of froth on the seemingly placid–and occasionally disturbed–surface of our beings; they are interesting precisely because they suggest we look deeper and wider. Perhaps we could find a broader pattern that indicts the same set of reasons and provokes the same kind of introspection, thus suggesting the fundamental importance of the issues brought to the forefront of our consciousness.

These closer looks at oneself thus may point to further avenues for exploration of that most uncharted land of all: our inner spaces of motivation and fear and pleasure.