Neil deGrasse Tyson And The Perils Of Facile Reductionism

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.

Szasz On The Myth Of Mental Illness

This semester, in my Landmarks in Philosophy class, I used Thomas Szasz‘s The Myth of Mental Illness as one of the three texts on the reading list (The other two were Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Woman and William James’ Pragmatism.) Szasz’s argument that mental illness does not exist, that psychiatry is a pseudo-science was, as might be expected, fairly controversial; critics accused him of overstating his case and of drawing too sharp a boundary between the physical and the mental. Be that as it may, there are many, many acute insights in Szasz’s work; these continue to make reading his work a useful experience for any philosophy student.

Among these insights, in no particular order, are the following:

1. Reducing the mental to the physical comes at a cost of explanatory power. Especially when such reduction is merely offered in the form of a promissory note; many existing behavioral disorders still lack physical correlates in neurophysiology. The languages of the mental and the ethical often offer us richer and more useful explanations for understanding our fellow human beings than the language of the physical; many phenomena of social and ethical interest ‘vanish’ when subjected to the lens of the physical.

2. The so-called ‘mentally ill’ are engaged in a species of communication with us; it behooves us to try to translate their ‘speech.’ This leads to a consideration of a hierarchy of languages and a study of the metalanguage and object language distinction.

3. The category ‘mentally ill’ functions, all too often, as a catch-all category used to lump in socially undesirable behavior; what counts as desirable and undesirable is clearly a function of existing social prejudices.  The infamous DSM criteria often encapsulate such prejudices; unsurprisingly these need to be revised over time to accommodate such inclinations. (Remember that Dostoyevsky’s ‘Underground Man‘ was a ‘sick man.’)

4. A game-playing and rule-following model of human behavior offers us interesting and useful interpretations of social situations and interactions within them. (Wittgenstein’s notion of language as a kind of social game immediately comes to mind here and allows for a fruitful investigation of this claim.)

5. Medicine functions within a social, economic, political, and ethical context; the rights of patients and healers emerge within this context.  We should expect medicine to be practiced differently–with different medical outcomes–in different contexts. From this, a larger point about the social construction of science, scientific practice, and scientific knowledge can be seen to follow; the boundaries of science are very often informed by social and legal considerations. Consider, for instance, the testing of cosmetic products or new drugs on laboratory animals, experimental procedures which stand and fall depending on whether they have received legal sanction from the surrounding legal regime.

6. The autonomy and personality of the patient is a moral good worthy of respect; the practice of medicine and the relationship between the doctor and patient should be cognizant of this. (The notion of ‘informed consent’ in modern bioethics can be seen to be powerfully informed by such a consideration.)

Tony Judt On A Pair Of Intellectual Sins

In The Burden of Responsibility: Blum, Camus, Aron, and The French Twentieth Century (University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1998, p. 121), Tony Judt writes of Albert Camus:

One of the things that he had to come to dislike the most about Parisian intellectuals was their conviction that they had something to say about everything, and that everything could be reduced to the kind of thing they liked to say.

Of the two intellectual sins made note of here, the former seems more forgivable than the latter. Moreover, it is not a specifically ‘intellectual’ failing (and certainly not restricted to only those that live within Parisian precincts); the desire to make our opinions heard on every topic imaginable seems a rather more universal striving. We are a loquacious species, prone to issuing a series of rich, detailed, reports on what we observe in both the inner and outer dimensions. We thrive on communication and theorizing, on seemingly endless chatter; even our silences are understood to be pregnant with meanings and are instantly analyzed as such. We valorize the novel and the personal essay–perhaps even the tweet and the ‘status’–and esteem their creators as among our finest. So long as this incentive scheme remains in place, those who speak and write will continue to hold forth, and with ever greater ambition.  When history and philosophy and autobiography cannot contain these strivings, they spill over into fiction. Or vice-versa.

The sin of indiscriminate reduction is another matter altogether. It insists on an unimaginative pigeonholing of our experiences into rigid, unbending templates; the rich multiplicity of possible perspectives vanishes into a monochromatic view.  Discourse–the supposedly unending stream alluded to above–narrows. The bit about the lack of imagination is crucial; it is reductionism’s greatest sin. It lazily insists on returning all conversations to the same terminus. Again, intellectuals are not the only ones to stand indicted of this failing, but their sin is greater. For they are supposed beneficiaries of education, that great ‘broadening’ of the mind; the ignorant’s failure to move beyond the confines of their illiteracy is more comprehensible.

If we had to extend our tolerance to these failings let us err on the side of generosity and encourage the possibilities of the former. Richer rewards await us there.

Note: The supposedly old saw about hammers and nails is, according to Wikipedia, possessed of a relatively recent academic etymology:

Abraham Maslow, The Psychology of Science, 1966, page 15 and his earlier book Abraham H. Maslow (1962), Toward a Psychology of BeingI suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.

Similar concept by Abraham Kaplan, The Conduct of Inquiry: Methodology for Behavioral Science, 1964, page 28: I call it the law of the instrument, and it may be formulated as follows: Give a small boy a hammer, and he will find that everything he encounters needs pounding.

Labeled “Baruch’s Observation” (after Bernard Baruch) in The Complete Murphy’s Law: A Definitive Collection (1991) by Arthur Bloch.


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.

Being Reductive About Sport (And How Silly It Is)

Some folks dislike sport. I use the word ‘dislike’ advisedly; the members of this cohort are not offering critical, politically tinged analysis of sport’s entanglement with big business and its value schemas; they are not exposing sport’s use as an ideology promulgating system, it’s supposed facilitation of political disengagement; they are not critiquing sport for offering a domain in which sexism, racism, xenophobia, and nationalist chauvinism often find unbridled expression; they are not upset by the loss of productivity and the diminution of gross national product that major sporting events bring about. These folks just find sport silly, a waste of time, a ridiculous way for adults and children, men and women, white or black or yellow or brown, to spend their time, whether playing or spectating.  You know some of them; you might be one yourself.

There is a particular mode of description of sporting activity, much favored by these worthies. It is better shown than described. Here, for instance, is tennis: people knocking balls back and forth endlessly across a net strung up between two poles. Here is basketball: young men and women, possibly suffering from gigantism, run up and down a wooden court, trying to throw a ball through a hoop strung up on a wooden board. And here is soccer: twenty men or women run up and down a field, kicking a ball around for ninety minutes, all the while trying to maneuver the ball through and between a pair of posts put up at the end of the field.

And then, the inevitable question: why would you want to waste your time, hours and days of it, looking at, talking about, and getting all worked up over, something as inane and silly as these activities?

One would imagine, given the almost instantaneous self-parody that these reductive takes on sport produce, that the placement of such a question alongside others of its ilk such as–why spend so much time looking at ink marks on a page, or why travel to distant lands to look at ruined buildings, or why spend millions of dollars on hundreds of years old splotches of paint on canvas–would be obvious. But equally obviously, for those who employ them, such descriptions are instead, a marvelously witty puncturing of pretension.

My contribution to this ‘debate’ is going to be a good old-fashioned rehashing, from an older post on the laziness of reductionist analyses:

An absence of a ‘sense of humor’ it seems, is almost endemic to all reductive, ‘X is nothing-but or merely Y’ style analyses….They are also depressingly narrow-minded and lacking in imagination.

Wittgenstein once pointed out–in his critique of psychoanalysis–that a facile reduction of this sort was misguided for the most elementary of reasons: when it was over, you simply weren’t talking about the same thing any more. Boil a man down to flesh, blood and bones to show us that that was all he was, and what you’d have left was a bag of just that. You wouldn’t have a man any more.


The Laziness of Reductionist Analyses

In his review of David Luke‘s translation of Thomas Mann’s Tonio Kröger and Other Stories W. H. Auden wrote,

Polar opposites as in appearance they look, the two literary doctrines of Naturalism and Art-for-Art’s-Sake, as propounded by Zola and Mallarmé, are really both expressions of the same megalomania. The aesthete is, at least, frank about this. He says: “Art is the only true religion. Life has no value except as material for a beautiful artistic structure. The artist is the only authentic human being: all the rest, rich and poor alike, are canaille.”

The naturalist is more disingenuous. Officially, he says: “Down with all art that prettifies life. Let us describe human life and nature as they really are.” But his picture of life “as it really is” is a picture of human beings as animals, enslaved to necessity, who can only manifest behavior and are incapable of personal choice or deeds. But if human beings are really as the naturalist describes them, then they cannot be loved or admired. Who can be? Only the naturalist himself for his accurate clinical observations. Like all kinds of behaviorists, he does not apply his dogmas to himself. He does not say: “My books are examples of behavior, conditioned by blind reflexes.” The hidden link between the naturalist and the aesthete is revealed by the total absence in both of any sense of humor. [links added]

An absence of a ‘sense of humor’ it seems, is almost endemic to all reductive, ‘X is nothing-but or merely Y’ style analyses (as in the example of the naturalist above, who suggests that books are nothing but examples of conditioned behavior). They are also depressingly narrow-minded and lacking in imagination.

Wittgenstein once pointed out–in his critique of psychoanalysis–that a facile reduction of this sort was misguided for the most elementary of reasons: when it was over, you simply weren’t talking about the same thing any more. Boil a man down to flesh, blood and bones to show us that that was all he was, and what you’d have left was a bag of just that. You wouldn’t have a man any more.

All too often, reductionist analyses fail to answer the most basic questions about their enterprise: Why is one necessary? How would it be accomplished? What explanatory power or insight do we gain with the new language of description that is now afforded by these ‘nothing-but’ locutions that you provide us? What would we lose in its place? A reduction for reduction’s sake seems extremely unappealing.

This is not to discount the explanatory power that some reductionist analyses have afforded us, especially within the sciences. But even there, occasionally, as the misguided efforts to reduce biological explanations to exclusively physical and chemical ones shows, the seductive allure of the catch-all, explain-all impulse dies hard. That same urge fuels the intemperate extension of the reductive net to catch all manner of fish, be it literature, psychology, or the social sciences.

Auden is right: the reductionist is megalomaniacal and a bore. He fails to see that what makes inquiry interesting is the creation of meaning in rich and diverse forms; he’d rather channel that fundamental impulse into some narrowly circumscribed channel. And Auden is right too, about the lack of a sense of humor. The universe is laughing at you behind your back anyway; why not join in and crack a joke or two yourself?