In this day and age, sophisticated critique of technology and science is much needed. What we don’t need is critiques like this long piece in the Baffler by Corey Pein which, I think, is trying to mount a critique of the lack of ethics education in computer science curricula but seems most concerned with asserting that computer science is not a science. By, I think, relying on the premise that “Silicon Valley activity and propaganda” = “computer science.” I fail to understand how a humanistic point is made by asserting the ‘unscientific’ nature of a purported science, but your mileage may vary. Anyway, on to Pein.
You know the shtick by now–or at least, twitterers and tweeters do. Every few weeks, Neil deGrasse Tyson, one of America’s most popular public ‘scientific’ intellectuals, decides that it is time to describe some social construct in scientific language to show how ‘arbitrary’ and ‘made-up’ it all is–compared to the sheer factitude, the amazing reality-grounded non-arbitrariness of scientific knowledge. Consider for instance, this latest gem, now predictably provoking ridicule from those who found its issuance predictable and tired:
Not that anybody’s asked, but New Years Day on the Gregorian Calendar is a cosmically arbitrary event, carrying no Astronomical significance at all.
A week earlier, Tyson had tweeted:
Merry Christmas to the world’s 2.5 billion Christians. And to the remaining 5 billion people, including Muslims Atheists Hindus Buddhists Animists & Jews, Happy Monday.
Tyson, I think, imagines that he is bringing science to the masses; that he is dispelling the ignorance cast by the veil of imprecise, arbitrary, subjective language that ‘ordinary folk’ use by directing their attention to scientific language, which when used, shows how ridiculous those ‘ordinary folk’ affectations are. Your birthday? Just a date. That date? A ‘cosmically arbitrary event.’ Your child’s laughter? Just sound waves colliding with your eardrum. That friendly smile beamed at you by your school mate? Just facial muscles being stretched. And so on. It’s really easy; almost mechanical. I could, if I wanted, set up a bot-run Neil deGrasse Tyson Parody account on Twitter, and just issue these every once in a while. Easy pickings.
Does Tyson imagine that he is engaging in some form ‘scientific communication’ here, bringing science to the masses? Does he imagined he is introducing greater precision and fidelity to truth in our everyday conversation and discourse, cleaning up the degraded Augean stables of internet chatter? He might think so, but what Tyson is actually engaged in is displaying the perils of facile reductionism and the scientism it invariably accompanies and embellishes; anything can be redescribed in scientific language but that does not mean such redescription is necessary or desirable or even moderately useful. All too often such redescription results in not talking about the ‘same thing’ any more. (All that great literature? Just ink on paper! You know, a chemical pigment on a piece of treated wood pulp.)
There are many ways of talking about the world; science is one of them. Science lets us do many things; other ways of talking about the world let us other do things. Scientific language is a tool; it lets us solve some problems really well; other languages–like those of poetry, psychology, literature, legal theory–help us solve others. The views they introduce of this world show us many things; different objects appear in different views depending on the language adopted. As a result, we are ‘multi-scopic’ creatures; at any time, we entertain multiple perspectives on this world and work with them, shifting between each as my wants and needs require. To figure out what clothes to wear today, I consulted the resources of meteorology; in order to get a fellow human being to come to my aid, I used elementary folk psychology, not neuroscience; to crack a joke and break the ice with co-workers, I relied on humor which deployed imaginary entities. Different tasks; different languages; different tools; it is the basis of the pragmatic attitude, which underwrites the science that Tyson claims to revere.
Tyson has famously dissed philosophy of science and just philosophy in general; his tweeting shows that he would greatly benefit from a philosophy class or two himself.
We need academia to step up to fill in the gaps in our collective understanding about the new role of technology in shaping our lives. We need robust research on hiring algorithms that seem to filter out peoplewith mental health disorders…we need research to ensure that the same mistakes aren’t made again and again. It’s absolutely within the abilities of academic research to study such examples and to push against the most obvious statistical, ethical or constitutional failures and dedicate serious intellectual energy to finding solutions. And whereas professional technologists working at private companies are not in a position to critique their own work, academics theoretically enjoy much more freedom of inquiry.
There is essentially no distinct field of academic study that takes seriously the responsibility of understanding and critiquing the role of technology — and specifically, the algorithms that are responsible for so many decisions — in our lives. That’s not surprising. Which academic department is going to give up a valuable tenure line to devote to this, given how much academic departments fight over resources already?
O’Neil’s piece is an unfortunate continuation of a trend to continue to castigate academia for its lack of social responsibility, all the while ignoring the work academics do in precisely those domains where their absence is supposedly felt.
In her Op-Ed, O’Neil ignores science and technology studies, a field of study that “takes seriously the responsibility of understanding and critiquing the role of technology,” and many of whose members are engaged in precisely the kind of studies she thinks should be undertaken at this moment in the history of technology. Moreover, there are fields of academic studies such as philosophy of science, philosophy of technology, and the sociology of knowledge, all of which take very seriously the task of examining and critiquing the conceptual foundations of science and technology; such inquiries are not elucidatory, they are very often critical and skeptical. Such disciplines then, produce work that makes both descriptive and prescriptive claims about the practice of science, and the social, political, and ethical values that underwrite what may seem like purely ‘technical’ decisions pertaining to design and implementation. The humanities are not alone in this regard, most computer science departments now require a class in ‘Computer Ethics’ as part of the requirements for their major (indeed, I designed one such class here at Brooklyn College, and taught it for a few semesters.) And of course, legal academics have, in recent years started to pay attention to these fields and incorporated them in their writings on ‘algorithmic decision making,’ ‘algorithmic control’ and so on. (The work of Frank Pasquale and Danielle Citron is notable in this regard.) If O’Neil is interested, she could dig deeper into the philosophical canon and read works by critical theorists like Herbert Marcuse and Max Horkheimer who mounted rigorous critiques of scientism, reductionism, and positivism in their works. Lastly, O’Neil could read my co-authored work Decoding Liberation: The Promise of Free and Open Source Software, a central claim of which is that transparency, not opacity, should be the guiding principle for software design and deployment. I’d be happy to send her a copy if she so desires.
A very popular video on YouTube featuring Richard Dawkins is titled ‘Science Works, Bitches.’ It periodically makes the rounds on social media; as it does, Dawkins acolytes–in the video and on social media–applaud him as he ‘smacks down’ a questioner who inquires into the ‘justification’ for the scientific method. (A familiar enough question; for instance, science relies on induction, but the justification for induction is that it has worked in the past, which is itself an inductive argument, so how do you break out of this circle, without relying on some kind of ‘faith’?) Dawkins’ response is ‘It works, bitches!’ Science’s claim to rationality rests on its proven track record–going to the moon, curing disease etc.; this is an entirely pragmatic claim with which I’m in total agreement. The success of inductive claims is part of our understanding and definition of rationality; rationality does not exist independent of our practices; they define it.
Still, the provision of this answer also reveals Dawkins’ utter dishonesty when it comes to the matter of his sustained attacks on religion over the years. For the open-mindedness and the acknowledgment of the primacy of practice that is on display in this answer is nowhere visible in his attitude toward religion.
Dawkins is entirely correct in noting that science is superior to religion when it comes to the business of solving certain kinds of problems. You want to make things fly; you rely on science. You want to go to the moon; you rely on science. You want to cure cancer; you rely on science. Rely on religion for any of these things and you will fail miserably. But Dawkins will be simply unwilling to accept as an answer from a religious person that the justification for his or her faith is that ‘it works’ when it comes to providing a ‘solution’ for a ‘problem’ that is not of the kind specified above. At those moments, Dawkins will demand a kind of ‘rational’ answer that he is himself unwilling to–and indeed, cannot–provide for science.
Consider a religious person who when asked to ‘justify’ faith, responds ‘It works for me when it comes to achieving the end or the outcome of making me happy [or more contented, more accepting of my fate, reconciling myself to the death of loved ones or my own death; the list goes on.]’ Dawkins’ response to this would be that this is a pathetic delusional comfort, that this is based on fairy tales and poppycock. Here too, Dawkins would demand that the religious person accept scientific answers to these questions and scientific resolutions of these ‘problems.’ Here, Dawkins would be unable to accept the pragmatic nature of the religious person’s answer that faith ‘works’ for them. Here, Dawkins would demand a ‘justified, rational, grounded in evidence’ answer; that is, an imposition of standards that he is unwilling to place on the foundations of scientific reasoning.
As I noted above, pragmatism is the best justification for science and the scientific method; science works best to achieve particular ends. Dawkins is entirely right to note that religion cannot answer the kinds of questions or solve the kinds of problems science can; he should be prepared to admit the possibility that there are questions to which religion offers answers that ‘work’ for its adherents–in preference to other alternatives. Pragmatism demands we accept this answer too; you can’t lean on pragmatism to defend science, and then abandon it in your attacks on religion. That’s scientism. Which is a load of poppycock.
Imagine that an extremely improbable event occurs, one for which there was no warning; your best theories of the world assigned it a near-zero probability (indeed, so low was this probability then calculating it would have been a waste of time). This event is inexplicable–no explanations for it are forthcoming, and it cannot be fitted into the explanatory frameworks employed by your current conceptual schemes. What effect would this have on your theory of knowledge, your epistemology, the beliefs you form, and the justifications you consider acceptable for them?
This question is raised with varying degrees of explicitness in HBO’s The Leftovers–which deals with the aftermath of the sudden disappearance of approximately two percent of the earth’s population. ‘The Departure’ selected its ‘victims’ at random; no pattern appeared to connect the victims to each other. The ‘departures’ all happened at the same time, and they left no trace. There is no sign of them anymore; two percent of the world’s population has been vaporized. Literally.
The Leftovers is not a very good show, and I’m not sure I will watch it any more (two seasons has been enough). It did however, afford me an opportunity to engage in the philosophical reflection I note above.
One phenomena that should manifest itself in the aftermath of an event like ‘The Departure’ would be the formation of all kinds of ‘cults,’ groups united by beliefs formerly considered improbable but which now find a new lease on life because the metaphysical reasonableness of the world has taken such a beating. Critics of these cults would find that the solid foundations of their previous critiques had disappeared; if ‘The Departure’ could happen, then so could a great deal else. The Leftovers features some cults and their ‘gullible’ followers but does little of any great interest with them–lost opportunities abound in this show, perhaps an entirely unsurprising denouement given that its creators were responsible for the atrocity called Lost.
As one of the characters notes in the second season, ‘The Departure’ made the holding of ‘false beliefs’ more respectable than it had ever been. And as yet another character notes in the first season, that old knockdown maneuver, the one used to dismiss an implausible claim made by someone else, that ‘the laws of nature won’t allow that,’ is simply not available anymore. Science used to tell us that its knowledge was defeasible, but now that that dreaded moment, when evidence of the universe’s non-uniformity, irregularity, and non-conformance with scientific laws is upon us, what are we to do? In The Leftovers a scientific effort gets underway to determine if geographical location was determinative of the victims’ susceptibility to being ‘departured,’ but it seems like this is grasping at straws, a pathetic and hopeless attempt to shoehorn ‘The Departure’ into extant scientific frameworks.
So, in the aftermath of ‘The Departure,’ we reside in a zone of epistemic confusion: we do not know how to assign probabilities to our beliefs anymore, for the definition of ‘likely’ and ‘unlikely’ seems to have been radically altered. That old ‘you never know’ has taken on a far more menacing tone. Only the resumption of the ‘normal’ stream of events for a sufficiently long period of time can heal this epistemic and metaphysical rupture; it will be a while before our sense of this world’s apparent predictability will return. But even then, every argument about the plausibility or the implausibility of some epistemic claim will take place in the shadow of that catastrophic disruption of ‘reality;’ the reasonableness of this world will always appear just a tad suspect.
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.
Over at The Week, Damon Linker accuses ‘the Left’ of being disconnected from reality, basing this charge on his reading of two recent pieces by Corey Robin and Jedediah Purdy. (It begins with a charge that is all too frequently leveled at the Bernie Sanders campaign: that its political plans are political fantasies.) What gets Linker really offended is that ‘left-wing intellectuals’–who presumably should know better–are trafficking in the same ‘disconnected from reality’ ramblings.
I don’t think they are. Rather, they are doing the exact opposite of what Linker claims, and in this spectacular misreading of them, Linker only indicts his own disconnect from the actual historical realities of how ideas and actions–especially political ones–interact.
First, Linker suggests that Robin thinks that indifference to political reality is a virtue. As he notes:
In a provocative essay for The Chronicle of Higher Education, “How Intellectuals Create a Public,” Robin argues that “the problem with our public intellectuals today is that they are writing for readers who already exist, as they exist,” as opposed to “summoning” a new world, a new public, a new reality, into being.
In his essay, Robin offered a critique of Cass Sunstein‘s libertarian paternalism, suggesting that it merely further reifies an existing political reality, leaving everything as it was before; later Robin goes on to suggest that Ta-Nehisi Coates is afflicted by a kind of ‘impossibilism’ about the possibility of the “politics of a mass mobilization.” (Robin’s take on Coates deserves far more considered analysis than I can provide here. More on that anon.) Linker then, by linking to Marx’s famous quote in the Theses on Fuerbach about the need for philosophers to change the world and not just interpret it, insinuates that Robin is just being an impractical Marxist in accusing Sunstein and Coates of producing “an all too accurate reflection of the world we live in.” (Incidentally, this trope “You sound like Marx; you’re impractical!” is profoundly unimaginative. I’m surprised it still does work for people.) The production of this facsimile for Linker is a virtue; for Robin, in the case of Sunstein, it speaks of a limited imagination (in the case of Coates, I think, again, that matters are very different.)
What makes Linker’s critique of Robin especially bizarre is that from the very outset of his essay, Robin is talking about action, activity, making and remaking, interacting with this world, reshaping and reconfiguring it–through ideas and beliefs, expressed through writing, sent out into this world in an effort to change people’s minds, to make them see the world differently. This is about as far as being disconnected from reality as you can imagine; Robin is not advocating a retreat to the ivory tower, to write complacently for a pre-existent audience that will force the author into the templates of its demands; rather he is suggesting that the author, the intellectual, by the form and content of his ideas–as expressed in his writings–can change and alter those templates and bid his readers follow different trajectories of both thought and action.
As Robin says:
[The public intellectual] is…the literary equivalent of the epic political actor, who sees her writing as a transformative mode of action, a thought-deed in the world.
This is as ‘reality-based’ as you can get, and you only get to doubt that if you, perhaps like Linker, seemingly doubt the power of ideas and beliefs; you know, those things the American pragmatists called ‘rules for action.’ Let’s forget about religion for a second, and simply consider a couple of examples Robin provides: Rachel Carson‘s Silent Spring and Michelle Alexander‘s The New Jim Crow. The former produced an environmental movement; the latter has galvanized a nation-wide movement against mass incarceration.
As Robin goes on to note:
By virtue of the demands they make upon the reader, they force a reckoning. They summon a public into being — if nothing else a public conjured out of opposition to their writing. Democratic publics are always formed in opposition and conflict: “to form itself,” wrote Dewey, “the public has to break existing political forms.
The role for the public intellectual that Robin envisages is the breaking of existing political forms–philosophers of culture like Nietzsche suggested doing this with a hammer; we’ll have to settle for our word processors. Far from being disconnected with reality, Robin is suggesting an active engagement with the world; these engagements, Linker might be surprised to know, take many forms, ranging from the grubby and sordid to the elevated and sublime. Sometimes those forms of engagement are literary, sometimes physical, sometimes performative, sometimes emotional.
The problem is that Linker’s imagination is limited; he is himself cut off from the very reality he claims to be in touch with. Robin’s vision, by extending further than Linker’s, might be informing him that there are more things in this world than he might have allowed for.
Linker then moves on Purdy, summarizing his claims as follows:
[P]olitics and economics have been “denaturalized” in our time, and that even nature itself is undergoing the same process….all appeals to permanent, intrinsic truths or standards by parties involved in political, economic, or environmental debates have become unconvincing. Nothing is natural in the normative sense — no political or economic arrangement, and not even any specific construal of the natural world and its meanings.
All such appeals to nature are in fact conventional, artificial constructs of the human mind imposed upon the world.
Linker suggests that Purdy draws a ‘radical’ conclusion from this:
a wonderful opportunity [which] holds out the possibility of a collective “world-shaping project” that would bring about a radical democratization of politics and economics, and of the relation of both to the natural world.
Linker now fulminates:
The problem with this way of describing the world is not merely that it’s wrong. (As long as human beings have physical bodies that can thrive, be injured, and die, and as long as they live out their lives in a physical world that obeys natural laws disclosed by science, politics and economics will be hemmed in by constraints and obstacles that stand in the way of any number of potential “world-shaping projects.”)
Purdy’s claims are not particularly ‘radical’; instead they build on a rich tradition of deflationary claims about the pretensions of absolutist theorizing about metaphysics, ethics, and politics. Linker should know–if he’s read any philosophy of science or history of science–that science richly interacts with politics and economics and law. Thus the very science that Linker so valorizes is in fact something co-constructed with the society in which its practices are embedded. The politics and economics of this world impinge on the science it practices; a radical remaking of our politics and economics will also remake the science we practice. Not the truths it discovers but what it thinks it is important to research, investigate, and pursue as an object of knowledge. Science is “hemmed in by constraints and obstacles that stand in the way of any number of potential “world-shaping projects.” Want to build that accelerator? Sorry; we don’t have the funds. Want to go to Mars? Same problem. Want to do stem-cell research? Sorry, no can do. The religious folk won’t stand for it.
If Linker simply wishes to say that our physical bodies and the world limits our physical actions, then he’s stating the obvious. What he missed out on, like he did with Robin above, is that Purdy is speaking of an untrammeled imagination, which hitherto has been restricted and confined to pre-existing categories of thought and possibilities. It is the ‘construals’ of the world that have been limited; change those and you change your sense of what is possible for your interactions with this world. We’ll always bump up against the hard, unforgiving edge of something or the other; but we don’t even know, so long as we are confined by existing construals, what and where those edges are.
And then, Linker levels that old canard:
The even bigger problem with Purdy’s account of things is that it renders political evaluation and judgment impossible. As Will Wilkinson writes in a brilliant critique of the essay, “Appeals to value only make sense…against a background of belief about how things really are. If our best ideas about the way the world works can’t put a boundary around political contestation, then leaving the lead in Flint’s drinking water makes as much sense as taking it out.”
The kind of anti-metaphysical claims that Nietzsche made, the kind of radical undermining he conducted of morality, did not render moral evaluation impossible. Au contraire, it bid us examine the foundations of our moralities to see whose interests were represented therein. We, moral subjects, could radically reconfigure those values by dint of our actions. By, you know, our politics, our imaginations, our actions, our writings.
Accusing of intellectuals of being disconnected from reality is a tired, old, reactionary political trick. It is a ideological maneuver, one that merely indicts the one making the charge of preferring their own fantastic vision of the world.