About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Sean Carroll, Edge, and falsifiability

by Massimo Pigliucci

Cosmologist Sean Carroll is one of many who have recently answered the annual question posed by Edge.org, which this year was: What scientific idea is ready for retirement? Sean, whom I’ve met at the Naturalism workshop he organized not long ago, and for whom I have the highest respect both as a scientist and as a writer, picked “falsifiability.”

Which is odd, since the concept — as Sean knows very well — is not a scientific, but rather a philosophical one.

Now, contra some other skeptics of my acquaintance, at least one of whom was present at the above mentioned workshop, Sean is actually somewhat knowledgable and definitely respectful of philosophy of science, as is evident even in the Edge piece. Which means that what follows isn’t going to be yet another diatribe about scientism or borderline anti-intellectualism (phew!).

Rather, I’m interested in Sean’s short essay because he deals directly with the very subject matter I just covered in my recent post based on Jim Baggott’s thought provoking book, Farewell to Reality: How Modern Physics Has Betrayed the Search for Scientific Truth. 

Before we proceed, I should also point out that I’m not interested in debating physics with Sean, since he is the expert in that realm (if Jerry Coyne wants to debate evolutionary biology with me, that’s another matter…). Indeed, I’m happy to watch the ongoing conversation between Carroll (and others) and critics of some trends in contemporary theoretical physics (like Baggott, Lee Smolin and Peter Woit) from the outside — which is actually a pretty good job description for a philosopher of science.

Rather, I’m interested in the philosophical aspects of Sean’s Edge essay and in what they say about his conception of science. I have, of course, invited Sean to respond to this post, if he wishes.

Sean begins the essay by attributing the idea of falsificationism to philosopher Karl Popper, correctly framing it within the broader issue of demarcationism (in this case, between science and pseudoscience). Sean immediately points out that demarcationism, while “a well-meaning idea” is “a blunt instrument” when it comes to separating scientific from non-scientific theorizing, and he is right about that.

Indeed, trouble for Popper’s view began even before it was fully articulated, by means of physicist-inclined-toward-philosophy Pierre Duhem, who raised exactly the same objections that Sean summarizes in his Edge piece. Fundamentally, Duhem noted that in actual scientific practice there is a complex relationship between theory and observation or experiment (what philosophers refer to as the theory-ladeness of empirical results), so that any given set of empirical data (say, from a particle accelerator experiment) doesn’t strictly speaking test the theory itself, but rather a complex web of notions that comprise the focal theory (say, the Standard Model), a number of corollary theories and assumptions needed to build it, as well as assumptions about the correct functionality of the measurement instrument, the way the data are analyzed, and so on. If there is a mismatch, Duhem argued, scientists don’t immediately throw away the theory. Indeed, the first thing they are likely to do is to check the calculations and the instrumentation, moving then to the auxiliary assumptions, and only after repeated failures under different conditions finally abandon the theory (if they had strong reasons to take the theory seriously to begin with).

Later on during the middle part of the 20th century, influential philosopher W.V.O. Quine expanded Duhem’s analysis into what is now known as the Duhem-Quine thesis: scientific (or really, any) knowledge is the result of a complex web of interconnected beliefs, which include not just the elements mentioned by Duhem (i.e., those most closely connected to the theory under scrutiny), but also far removed notions about the world and how it works, up to and including mathematics and logic itself.

This should not be taken as counsel for despair: scientific theories still can, and regularly are, tested. But if we are to speak precisely, what we are testing every time is our entire web of knowledge. If something goes wrong, the problem could in principle reside anywhere in the web. It is then up to clever and creative scientists to focus on the most likely culprits, eliminate the ones they can, and eventually reach a consensus as a community regarding the soundness of the theory being “tested.” That’s why science is just as much an art as a logical pursuit.

So far so good. Sean then proceeds to state that “String theory and other approaches to quantum gravity involve phenomena that are likely to manifest themselves only at energies enormously higher than anything we have access to here on Earth. The cosmological multiverse and the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics posit other realms that are impossible for us to access directly. Some scientists, leaning on Popper, have suggested that these theories are non-scientific because they are not falsifiable.”

If some scientists have indeed leveraged Popper in order to criticize string theory, the multiverse and all the other speculative ideas of modern theoretical physics, those scientists really ought to take my Philosophy of Science 101 course before they write another line on the subject. But I think the problem is actually a bit more complex and nuanced than Sean leads his readers to believe.

He continues: “The truth is the opposite. Whether or not we can observe them directly, the entities involved in these theories are either real or they are not. Refusing to contemplate their possible existence on the grounds of some a priori principle, even though they might play a crucial role in how the world works, is as non-scientific as it gets.”

Well, not exactly. To begin with, I sincerely doubt that critics of those theories refuse to contemplate the existence of strings, branes, and the like. Their point, rather, is that these hypothetical entities (“unobservables” in the lingo of philosophy of science) have in fact been contemplated, for decades, and so far nothing much has come out of it, empirically speaking. After all, Smolin, Woit, and Baggott observe, physics is a science, and science is supposed to make contact with the empirical world, at some point. The longer a theory fails to do so, the more problematic it ought to be considered. That’s all.

Sean does provide his own rough alternative to falsifiability. He claims that two central features of any scientific theory are that they are definite and that they are empirical. While there is a lot more to be said about the nature of scientific theorizing (and yes, I understand that Sean is not a philosopher of science, and moreover that Edge probably strictly limits the length of the responses it seeks) let’s go with it for a moment.

Sean says that “by ‘definite’ we simply mean that they say something clear and unambiguous about how reality functions.” He argues that string theory does precisely that, insofar as it says that in certain regions of parameter space particles behave as one-dimensional strings. He is right, of course, but the criterion is far too inclusive. For instance, someone could argue that the statement “God is a conscious being or entity who exists outside of time and space” is also quite “definite.” We all understand what this means, ironically especially after modern physics has actually helped us make sense of what it may mean to be “outside of time and space.” Whatever “was” “there” before the Big Bang was, from the point of view of our universe, outside (our) time and (our) space. So, to say something definite (as opposed to something postmodernistically nonsensical) is certainly a good thing, but it ain’t enough to pinpoint good scientific theories.

What about the empirical part? Here is, according to Sean, where the smelly stuff hits the fan. As mentioned above, he rejects a straightforward application of the principle of falsifiability, for reasons similar to those brought up so long ago by Duhem. But what then? Sean mentions some examples of what Baggott calls “fairy tale physics,” such as the idea of a multiverse. His strategy is interesting, and revealing. He begins by stating that the multiverse offers a potential solution to the problem of fine tuning in cosmology, i.e. the question of why so many physical constants seem to have taken values that appear to be uncannily tailored to produce a universe “friendly” to life. (I actually think that people who seriously maintain that this universe is friendly to life haven’t gotten around much in our galactic neighborhood, but that’s a different story.)

He continues: “If the universe we see around us is the only one there is, the vacuum energy is a unique constant of nature, and we are faced with the problem of explaining it. If, on the other hand, we live in a multiverse, the vacuum energy could be completely different in different regions, and an explanation suggests itself immediately: in regions where the vacuum energy is much larger, conditions are inhospitable to the existence of life. There is therefore a selection effect, and we should predict a small value of the vacuum energy. Indeed, using this precise reasoning, Steven Weinberg did predict the value of the vacuum energy, long before the acceleration of the universe was discovered.”

Notice two problems here: first, according to Baggott, Weinberg’s prediciton was a matter of straightforward (if brilliant) physics, and it was conceptually independent of the fine tuning problem. The same goes a fortiori for another famous prediction, by Fred Hoyle back in the ‘50s, about the cosmic production of carbon. That one, which is nowadays often trumpeted as an example of how science has advanced by deploying the anthropic principle, was actually put forth (and confirmed empirically) before the very idea of an anthropic principle was formulated in the ‘60s.

More crucially, again as pointed out by Baggott, the reasoning basically boils down to: we have this empirically unsubstantiated but nice theoretical complex (the multiverse) that would very nicely solve this nagging fine tuning problem, so we think the theoretical complex is on the mark. This is dangerously close to being circular reasoning. The fact, if it is a fact, that the idea of a multiverse may help us with cosmological fine tuning is not evidence or reason in favor of the multiverse itself. The latter needs to stand on its own.

And yet Sean comes perilously close to proposing just that: “We can't (as far as we know) observe other parts of the multiverse directly. But their existence has a dramatic effect on how we account for the data in the part of the multiverse we do observe.” I truly don’t think I’m reading him uncharitably here, and again, I’m not the only one to read some cosmologists’ statements in this fashion.

None of the above should be construed as suggesting that ideas like the multiverse or string theory are somehow pseudoscientific. They are complex, elegant speculations somewhat grounded in well established physics. Nor is anyone suggesting that barriers be put around the work or imagination of cosmologists and string theorists. Go ahead, knock yourselves out and surprise and astonish the rest of us. But at some point the fundamental physics community might want to ask itself whether it has crossed into territory that begins to look a lot more like metaphysics than physics. And this comes from someone who doesn’t think metaphysics is a dirty word…

Friday, January 24, 2014

Is information physical? And what does that mean?

by Massimo Pigliucci

I’ve been reading for a while now Jim Baggott’s Farewell to Reality: How Modern Physics Has Betrayed the Search for Scientific Truth, a fascinating tour through cutting edge theoretical physics, led by someone with a physics background and a healthy (I think) dose of skepticism about the latest declarations from string theorists and the like.

Chapter 10 of the book goes through the so-called “black holes war” (BHW) that stretched for two and a half decades between Stephen Hawking on one side and Leonard Susskind, Gerard ’t Hooft, and others. The BHW is interesting because Baggott turns it into an illustration of what he thinks is the problem with current theoretical physics, a problem that has much to do with philosophical theories of truth and with the difference between physics and metaphysics.

The BHW began with a challenge issued by Hawking at a scientific gathering back in 1981. Quantum theory maintains that information carried by the wave function of a quantum object cannot be destroyed, it must be preserved because it connects past and future. But Hawking (who is a relativist, not a quantum theorist) had arrived at the conclusion that black holes evaporate over time, emitting what is now known as Hawking radiation. Since everything that ends up inside a black hole’s event horizon can be thought of as representing bits of information, Hawking concluded that while the black hole is evaporating information is not just scrambled — as previously thought — but actually destroyed, thereby contradicting a crucial tenet of quantum theory. Oops!

You can see why Susskind and ’t Hooft, who are quantum theorists, didn’t like this thing, ahem, a single bit. The BHW was on.

It took Susskind, ’t Hooft and Don Page a number of years to do it, but they finally came up with a serious counter to Hawking’s challenge, indeed one that led Hawking to admit defeat in 2007. The best known visual metaphor that captures the response is Susskind’s famous “holographic universe.” The principle essentially states that the information contained in an n-dimensional space (let’s say, a three-dimensional black hole, for instance) is equivalent to the information found on its n-1 dimensional boundary (for example, the surface of said black hole).

Susskind boldly proposed that the universe itself behaves as a hologram, i.e., that all the information that constitutes our three-dimensional world is actually encoded on the universe’s equivalent of a black hole’s event horizon (the so-called cosmic horizon). If true, this would mean that “reality” as we understand it is an illusion, with the action actually going on at the cosmic horizon. Baggott ingeniously compares this to a sort of reverse Plato’s cave: it isn’t the three-dimensional world that is reflected in a pale way on the walls of a cave were people are chained and can only see shadows of the real thing; it is the three-dimensional world that is a (holographic) projection of the information stored at the cosmic horizon. Is your mind spinning properly? Good.

What does any of this have to do with the BHW? That became clear in 1998, when Juan Maldacena (theoretically) demonstrated a “superstring duality”: it turns out that the physics of an n-dimensional spacetime described by a particular type of superstring theory (which one doesn’t really matter for our purposes here, but you’ll find all the details in Baggott’s book) is equivalent to the physics described by a quantum field theory applied to the n-1 dimensional boundary of that same spacetime. This result has deep connections with the idea of a holographic universe, so much so that Susskind eventually wrote in triumph:
Whatever else Maldacena and Witten had done, they had proved beyond any shadow of a doubt that information would never be lost behind a black hole horizon. The string theorists would understand this immediately; the relativists would take longer [ouch!]. But the war was over.
Indeed, as I said, Hawking conceded in 2007, thus ending the BHW, despite some rather large caveats attached to the Maldacena-Witten results, such as that, you know, they actually describe a universe that is not at all like our own.

And now comes what Baggott properly refers to as the reality check. Let us start with the obvious, but somehow overlooked, fact that we only have (very) indirect evidence of the very existence of black holes, the celestial objects that were at the center of the above sketched dispute. And let us continue with the additional fact that we have no way of investigating the internal properties of black holes, even theoretically (because the laws of physics as we understand them break down inside a black hole’s event horizon). We don’t actually know whether Hawking radiation is a real physical phenomenon, nor whether black holes do evaporate.

To put it another way, the entire BHW was waged on theoretical grounds, by exploring the consequences of mathematical theories that are connected to, but not at all firmly grounded in, what experimental physics and astronomy are actually capable of telling us. How, then, do we know if any of the above is “true”? Well, that depends on what you mean by truth or, more precisely, to what sort of philosophical account of truth (and of science) you subscribe to.

There are several theories of truth in epistemology, but the two major contenders, especially as far as the sort of discussion we are having is concerned, are the correspondence and the coherence theories. Roughly speaking, the correspondence theory of truth is what scientists (usually without explicitly thinking about it this way) deploy: in science a statement, hypothesis or theory is considered (provisionally, of course) true if it appears to correspond with the way things actually are out there. So, for instance, it is true that I wrote this essay on an airplane on my way between Rome and New York, because this statement corresponds with reality as ascertainable via a number of empirically verifiable facts (e.g., my airplane tickets, witnesses who saw me boarding, deplaning and writing on my iPad in between, time stamps encoded in the file I generated, and so on). 

A coherentist account of truth seems to me to be more appropriate for fields like mathematics, logic, and perhaps (to a point) moral reasoning. Coherentism is concerned with the internal consistency of a given account, eschewing any reference to correspondence with a reality that, by definition, we can only access indirectly (after all, if you wish to measure the degree of correspondence between your theories and the way things really are, it would seem that you need some kind of direct access to the latter; but you don’t have it, that’s why you need theories to begin with; there are ways around this, but they would lead us too far from the matter at hand).

Back to the outcome of the BHW: in what sense is the holographic principle “true,” given our short discussion of theories of truth? As Baggott reminds his readers, the principle hasn’t been established by way of empirical observations or experiments, so it cannot possibly be true in the sense of the correspondence theory. Rather, it has been arrived at by way of superstring theory, which itself is a theoretical structure which has, so far, not been empirically tested either. The holographic principle, therefore, is true — at best — in the sense of the coherence theory of truth. But the history of physics is littered with examples of beautifully coherent theories that turned out to be wrong when the empirical verdict finally came in. Perhaps Hawking conceded a bit prematurely, after all.

Finally, back to the idea that “information is physical.” What does that mean? Baggott summarizes the two possibilities thusly: “The scientific interpretation acknowledges that information is not much different from other physical quantities [like, say, temperature]. But, as such, it is a secondary quality [italics in the original] … The metaphysical interpretation suggests that information exists independently of the physical system, that it is a primary quality [original italics].” He concludes that he has no problem with either interpretation, as long as nobody is going to attempt to pass the second one as science. I couldn’t agree more.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Rationally Speaking cartoon: Sam Harris

This is in response to the latest Sam Harris, ahem, I don't even know what to call it, at this point... At any rate, I figured it wasn't really worth 2000 words. (Though, come to think of it, since a picture is worth 1000 words, the cartoon below amounts to an 8000 words commentary. Hmm...)

(click on images for larger view)

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

The sciphi of gay adoption

by Massimo Pigliucci

Gay marriage is rapidly becoming less and less controversial, at least in the Western world. Yes, the battle hasn’t been won just yet, both in Europe and in the US, but we are getting there at a pace that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago.

The next frontier, it seems, is adoptions by gay parents. When I talk to even some of my somewhat progressive friends and relatives, including those in the Old Country, they seem to resist the idea of gay couples adopting children much more than they resisted (if they ever did) the idea of gay marriage. Why?

Time to deploy some good SciPhi, as I termed a hybrid of science and philosophy to be used to address practical personal or societal questions (rather than relying, say, on “common wisdom” or, worse, religious authority). For more on the sciphi approach, how it works, and a number of examples and applications, you may of course take a look at Answers for Aristotle.

SciPhi is relevant because opponents and proponents of these types of societal changes rely on a mix of (hopefully) logical arguments and (sometimes alleged) empirical evidence to make their respective cases. And as is well known to readers of this blog, I think the best way to build (or debunk) logical arguments is via philosophical analysis, while the best way to assess factual evidence is through the methods of the natural and social sciences. So let’s proceed and see where SciPhi gets us in the specific case of gay adoptions.

To begin with, let’s agree that the issue of gay adoptions is, in fact, intrinsically more complex than that of gay marriage. This is simply because the latter involves only consenting adults, while the former affects the (physical and psychological) welfare of children. Which is, of course, precisely why the notion is more controversial to begin with.

Consider two standard arguments opposing gay adoptions, one a priori, the other one empirical: the a priori argument is based on the idea that children have a right to mixed parents (i.e., a man and a woman). The empirical one alleges that children will be at a psychological disadvantage if they are reared in a single-sex family.

The a priori (i.e., philosophical) argument suffers from a number of — in my opinion fatal — flaws, depending on how the idea is cashed out. If it is a matter of children having a right to a mixed sex family because that is the natural state of affairs for human beings, then this is an argument based on an appeal to nature, which immediately runs afoul of the obvious objection that we do all sorts of other things to children (from education to vaccination) that is not natural at all, and yet to which only lunatics and Jenny McCarthy would object to. Not to mention, of course, that there are plenty of perfectly natural situations where children either have only one parent or no parent at all around during their upbringing. While the latter case is usually precisely why we allow adoptions, should we also put children of single mothers or fathers up for adoption on the grounds that they have a right to two parents of different sex? I doubt anyone would seriously pursue that logic, and yet it seems to follow from the way the objection is formulated. 

Moreover, of course, there is no such thing as a natural right to anything (pace the libertarian myth to the contrary). Rights are stipulations of a society, so society is perfectly entitled to change them if better ideas come along and are accepted by the members of that society. After all, until not long ago residents of some US states had a “right” to own slaves, and until even more recently women did not have a right to vote, in any state. Both those rights have been altered, thankfully, so that the first one has been abolished and the second one has been accepted.

What about the empirical (i.e., science-based) argument, then? It is of course perfectly possible in principle that children raised by gay couples turn out to be on average worse off than children raised by mixed sex parents — other things being equal. That last clause is often left out of the discussion, but it is, of course, crucial. There are plenty of situations in which children are faced with psychological or physical abuse while growing up within a two-sex household; and of course there are plenty of children who are orphan and it is difficult to find a two-sex couple willing to adopt them (for instance because they are too old, or have already developed significant behavioral issues). In these instances “other things” are definitely not equal, so it would seem that even in the worst case scenario there is room for sensible gay adoption (gay couples rarely have children by chance, and are often willing to take on problematic kids: see here).

But what about hard empirical evidence concerning the more general case of gay vs straight adoptions? Isn’t it too early to say anything about it, since gay adoptions are a recent phenomenon? Not exactly. There is mounting evidence that children adopted by gay parents do well compared to those adopted by straight parents according to a variety of psychological, social and educational indicators.

This article, for instance, comments on a report co-authored by Benjamin Siegel of Boston University’s School of Medicine. In part it says: “Many studies have demonstrated that children’s well-being is affected much more by their relationships with their parents, their parents’ sense of competence and security, and the presence of social and economic support for the family than by the gender or the sexual orientation of their parents.”

There are, of course, caveats. To begin with, these are not randomized controlled trials. Those are pretty much impossible to do (for practical as well as ethical reasons) for this sort of issue. And the sample sizes are rather small, again by necessity (though this will improve with time). Here is Siegel again: “we’re never going to get the perfect science, but what you have right now is good-enough science. The data we have right now are good enough to know what’s good for kids.”

Then there is the National Longitudinal Lesbian Family Study, which began as far back as 1986. And the good (or bad, depending on your ideological standpoint) news is that “the self-reported quality of life of the adolescents in this sample was similar to that reported by a comparable sample of adolescents with heterosexual parents.”

Another recent study, conducted at the University of Cambridge’s Centre for Family Research, found that gay parents are “at least” as good as straight ones at coping with the demands of being a parent. And just in case you are worried about homosexuals imposing their agenda on the human race and turning everyone into gays, there was also no evidence that having a gay parent in any way affects the children’s own gender conception in ways that depart from what is expected for their sex.

Finally, there are even good reasons to think that gay parents actually have parenting skills that are uncommon among straight parents. As mentioned above, they are willing to adopt the neediest children, and of course they are in a good position to instill the value of tolerance in their kids.

There are, naturally, dissenting studies, usually to be found only on the web sites of Catholic organizations. One such study conducted by a researcher at the University of Texas has been discredited after the author admitted that he could not separate his (Catholic) faith from his scientific research.

Now, we are talking empirical evidence here, and moreover evidence concerning long-term effects on complex human behaviors, likely to be the result of countless environmental and genetic interactions. So it is conceivable that the preliminary findings accumulated so far will be overturned by research conducted with more rigorous protocols and on much larger samples. But the most reasonable evaluation of the current evidence clearly weighs against the empirically-minded objection to gay adoptions. And social policy cannot afford to wait for decades of further studies, it has to be based on the best current understanding of any given issue, provided we are willing to alter our policies if and when contrary evidence comes in. Moreover, even if our understanding of these matters should change dramatically (indeed, reverse) in the future, it would still be difficult to argue against gay adoption at the least in those far less than ideal cases that don’t meet the ceteris paribus condition.

So to recap: a SciPhi analysis of the issue of gay adoptions pretty much demolishes the a priori argument (by philosophical analysis), and preliminarily rejects the empirical argument (by scientific analysis) against the practice. It seems therefore reasonable to conclude that, at the moment, objecting to gay adoptions is not rational and it is more likely to be the result of (largely religiously instilled) prejudice. Not that that’s going to change the minds of some of my relatives, or of the Pope, of course.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Rationally Speaking cartoon: Metaphysics

(click on images for larger view)

Friday, January 10, 2014

Massimo's Picks!

* Three new books about humans as social animals. Apparently, none of them too good.

* The complexities of the relationship between immigration and cultural identity (of both the immigrants and the "natives").

* Ross Douthat criticizes Jerry Coyne's metaphysics, and rightly so, unfortunately.

* The rich think they are superior. How convenient.

* Alex Rosenberg on the humanities (but not philosophy) shooting themselves in the foot.

* From Obamacare to truly social-democratic medicine?

* Has the (massive) online education "revolution" already at a stand still?

* Some much needed reassessment of TED.

* Can you be too intelligent for your own good? Apparently, yes.

* What it's really like to work on the drones program.

* New study exposes acupuncture as pseudoscience. Again.

* Kant and the morality of sexbots.

Wednesday, January 08, 2014

What virtues, and why?

by Massimo Pigliucci

Here comes another post on ethics! This one is, I must admit, somewhat meta-ethical, despite my recent post about the limited value of meta-ethical discussions when it comes to debates in first-order ethics. As I pointed out in the discussion that followed that essay, it’s not that I don’t think that meta-ethics is interesting, it’s just that it shouldn’t be used as an excuse for refusing to get down and dirty about actual everyday moral questions.

At any rate, what I’d like to do here is to explore a bit more of my own preferred framework for ethics, neo-Aristotelian virtue ethics (the “neo” prefix should alert the reader that I’m not about to defend everything Aristotle said, but rather discuss an updated version of the idea, based of course on his original insights). Specifically, I want to focus on the concept of virtue and the work that it can do in moral philosophy.

Before we get into the details, however, let me remind you of the basic stuff. First off, for the ancient Greeks the fundamental ethical question was not “what is right or wrong?” but rather “what sort of life should I live?” This shifts the emphasis from a societal, universalist, conception of ethics to one that is more personal (although the social context is always very much in sight); it also changes the sort of answers that are acceptable, since we are moving away from ethical judgments about individual actions and toward ethical consideration of one’s character and entire life. This different approach is based on the idea that if one has a right character then one will (likely) do the right things, which seems plausible to me, if there is any content to what the ancients referred to as phronêsis, or practical wisdom.

Aristotle was a keen observer of human nature, so he realized that being able to live a eudaimonic (i.e., morally virtuous) life is not just a matter of personal effort, but also of circumstances: one has to be lucky enough to be generally healthy and of sound mind, grow up within a supportive family, and be nurtured and educated early on by society at large. Failing any or all of this it will be impossible, or at the least extremely difficult, to be virtuous. This, again, strikes me as about right, and much more reasonable than the kind of impersonal view of morality that is embedded in systems such as utilitarianism and, particularly, Kantian deontology.

That said, what did Aristotle (and his more recent followers) mean by virtue? Certainly not what, say, Christians typically mean by that word. Concepts like purity and faith just don’t enter into the virtue ethical framework. Rather, for Aristotle a virtue is a character trait that, if cultivated, leads to a eudaimonic life. Typically, virtues are defined as a balance between extremes. For instance, courage is somewhere between rashness and cowardice. It has to be noted immediately that “somewhere between” doesn’t mean exactly in the middle. This isn’t an exercise in arithmetic. Where is the virtuous middle, then? It is a matter of commonsense, and the more wise a person is the more s/he will be able to find the right way. If this sounds vague, get used to it. A major criticism — but also a major advantage — of virtue ethics is precisely that it is flexible, leaving room for maneuvering around the complexities of human nature and circumstances.

So, here is the complete table of Aristotelian virtues, each characterized by the domain of action or feeling to which it refers, and accompanied by the two extremes between which one finds the virtuous compromise (unlike the usual version, these are in alphabetical order, for ease of consultation):

Domain Mean Excess Deficiency
Anger Patience/Good temper Irascibility Lack of spirit
Conversation Wittiness Buffoonery Boorishness
Fear and Confidence Courage Rashness Cowardice
Getting and Spending (major) Magnificence Vulgarity/Tastelessness Pettiness/Stinginess
Getting and Spending (minor) Liberality Prodigality Illiberality/Meanness
Honour and Dishonour (major) Magnanimity Vanity Pusillanimity
Honour and Dishonour (minor) Proper ambition/pride Ambition/empty vanity Unambitiousness/undue humility
Indignation Righteous indignation Envy Malicious enjoyment/Spitefulness
Pleasure and Pain Temperance Licentiousness/Self- indulgence Insensibility
Shame Modesty Shyness Shamelessness
Self-expression Truthfulness Boastfulness Understatement/mock modesty
Social Conduct Friendliness Obsequiousness Cantankerousness

Of course, one doesn’t have to buy into this particular list, and indeed several others have been proposed. There is a useful Wiki entry on the history of the concept of virtue that I think makes clear two apparently contrasting things: on the one hand, there is (predictably) cultural and historical variation about what counts as a virtue (as the above mentioned case of Christianity clearly shows); on the other hand, there is surprising, shall we say, meta-convergence on the very idea of a virtuous character, and even on several of the traits that count toward that goal.

For instance, Plato (Aristotle’s teacher) only listed five virtues: courage, justice, piety, wisdom, and temperance. With the exception of piety — if you don’t believe in god-given morality — the list is hard to object to. The Stoics, however, seem to espouse what today is referred to as the doctrine of the unity of virtues, i.e. the idea that all virtues are really subsumed into a single fundamental one, which for them was prudence, meant as general wisdom.

Skipping the Judeo-Christian-Muslim tradition, because of its emphasis on things like faith and purity, let’s move Eastward: according to the Hindu, virtues lead to a dharmic (i.e., ethical) life, the clear equivalent of a eudaimonic existence in Greek parlance. Hindus have different lists of virtues, the shorter one being: non-covetousness, inner purity, self-restraint, truthfulness, and non-violence. Again, I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t be too difficult to build a correspondence map with Aristotle’s desiderata.

In Buddhism, the Noble Eightfold Path can be thought of as a list of virtues, although the brahmavihara sound more like what Westerners think of virtues: altruistic joy (i.e., being glad about the accomplishments of another person), compassion, equanimity, and kindness toward all.

Going even further East, in Taoism the term De actually meant precisely virtue in the sense of integrity of personal character, and was later re-conceptualized as moral virtue. It is also good to bear in mind that Confucianism has a lot in common with Aristotelian virtue ethics, though it put more emphasis on family and socially-oriented rules of conduct than Aristotle did.

Finally, in Japan the Bushidō code was based on a list of virtues: benevolence, care for the aged, courage, filial piety, honesty, honor, loyalty, rectitude, respect, and wisdom.

Now, if you expect to see my own version of the list of virtues, I’m about to disappoint you. I think many of the above are actually interchangeable, and that it doesn’t matter very much which specific list one subscribes to, if any. The point of the whole exercise is the general idea that certain character traits identify some people as worthy of our respect, and that we wish to cultivate those traits in ourselves and in our children.

Lest you be left with the impression that this is all so much philosophical masturbation, let’s bring in some science. Psychologists Christopher Peterson and Martin Seligman (yes, yes, I’m a bit skeptical of “positive” psychology too) did research on virtues across human societies (see their Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification, published in 2004 by Oxford Press). They grouped their findings into classes of virtues (Wiki version here): regarding wisdom and knowledge (e.g., creativity, curiosity, open-mindedness), courage (e.g., bravery, persistence, integrity), humanity (e.g., kindness, social intelligence), justice (e.g., citizenship, fairness), temperance (e.g., forgiveness, humility), and transcendence (e.g., appreciation of beauty, hope, humor). The result highlights “a surprising [not to me, or Aristotle!] amount of similarity across cultures and strongly indicates a historical and cross-cultural convergence [in the concept of virtue].” [If you don’t want to shell out the bucks for the book, here is a paper on the same topic, co-authored by Dahlsgaard, Peterson, and Seligma. And here is a comparative study across nations and across American states.]

So, at the very least it seems like the concept of virtue (and, to a lesser extent, its specific content) is widespread across human cultures, both temporally and spatially. It can be studied by the social sciences, and it can be unpacked and — arguably — improved upon by philosophical reflection. Will any of this help you the next time you face a moral dilemma? And, more to the point, will it lead you to a satisfying, eudaimonic life? The proof, as they say, is in the pudding. But I’m tempted to wear a bracelet with the initials WWAD, rather than the more popular WWJD.

Friday, January 03, 2014

The “meta” itch

by Massimo Pigliucci

I used to have the “meta” itch, but I learned to live with it and stop scratching it. It only irritates anyway, without doing much good work. Let me explain. If you are a regular (or even occasional) reader of Rationally Speaking you know that we often publish essays that have to do with ethics and moral philosophy. That's because ethics is one of those things that always lurks in the background (and sometimes the foreground) of our lives, whether we reflect on it or not. And I of course think it is better to reflect on it, at least from time to time.

But invariably, regardless of what the specific impetus is for a given post, one or more of our readers brings up the “meta” question, i.e. the question of what could possibly ground our ethical judgments to begin with. Of course, meta-ethics is a legitimate branch of philosophy, and philosophers in general are properly concerned — at least from time to time — with meta-issues. But meta-issues are notoriously difficult, especially when they are approached from a so-called foundationalist perspective.

A foundationalist in ethics, for instance may reasonably ask what grounds (notice the metaphor!) our ethical judgment in general (as opposed to asking what reasoning has brought one to a particular ethical judgment about whatever matter happens to be under discussion). There are, of course, a number of different approaches on offer: from divine law (yeah, I know) to conventionalism, various forms of moral realism and anti-realism, and so forth. I happen to be both a naturalist and a virtue ethicist, which meta-ethically speaking means that I think the ability to experience moral sentiments evolved in our social primate ancestors and has then developed culturally into a number of principled and practical ways to conduct one’s own life, as well as to deal with other people in a way that leaves as much room as possible for individual flourishing while also improving social justice. This way of looking at meta-ethics, of course, will not satisfy everyone, and perhaps for good reason. Nevertheless, pretty soon one needs to move away from the “meta” analysis and get down to everyday ethical judgments. Why? Because life demands it, darn it!

Now, what strikes me as bizarre is how much resistance this obvious move from “meta” to ordinary ethics encounters, while the same people who so staunchly resist it appear to be little (or not at all) bothered by very similar “meta” questions one could reasonably ask about all sorts of other areas.

Take science, for instance. Ever since Hume formulated his famous problem of induction — and despite much philosophical literature concerning it — we have known that we do not have a logical foundation for inductive reasoning. If that doesn’t bother you, it should. Induction, in its varied forms, is the basis of both commonsensical and scientific reasoning. So if we have no logical justification for induction it means we have no logical justification for pretty much any of our empirical knowledge, all scientific knowledge included! Oops.

Now you might be tempted to scoff at the Humeans amongst us and respond that we know induction works because it has worked so far. I sincerely hope you’ll refrain from such quick answer, though, because that would simply show that you haven’t understood the problem: you see, invoking the fact that induction has worked in the past to justify future inductions is itself an inductive move, which means that you are using induction to justify induction, which means that you are engaging in circular reasoning, which is no good at all.

A more defensible response would be the pragmatist one: well, we may not have any logical foundation for using induction in everyday life and in science, but it seems to work, and we really have no alternative but to use it. If you went that route you would be in good company, beginning with Hume himself! But notice what you’ve just done: you have acknowledged the “meta” issue and promptly set it aside, because after all you’ve got a life to live, or a grant proposal to write. Why, then, can’t you do the same with ethics? Why does the meta-ethical hitch bother you so much, while you seem to be able to gingerly ignore the meta-scientific one?

Or consider an even more disturbing case: mathematics. Up until the early part of the 20th century people thought that it would be possible to establish mathematical knowledge on an entirely logically tight foundation. Russell and Whitehead famously made the most valiant attempt in that direction, resulting in their colossal Principia Mathematica, a book that many like to cite, but very few have ever read (including yours truly, though I did at least start it, once!). That entire intellectual project was smashed into pieces by Gödel’s famous incompleteness theorems, and that was the end of that. But it wasn’t the end of mathematics, was it? It’s not like people stopped doing it because they thought “oh my god! We can’t find a complete logical foundation for mathematics! It must all be rubbish!”

Indeed, things get even worse than that, if possible. I just came back from the annual meeting of the Eastern Division of the American Philosophical Association in Baltimore. The last session I attended was comprised of a single paper (accompanied by two detailed commentaries). The paper, by University of New Mexico’s Matthew Carlson, was entitled “What’s basic about basic logical principles?” and of course took its starting point from the known failure to foundationally justify some of the, ahem, basic principles of logic, such as the law of the excluded middle, or modus ponens. So, really, not even logic itself has a (logical?) grounding in something solid. Even that “meta” question seems unanswerable! But do you see logicians fretting too much about it, throwing logic away and going home? Not at all.

Indeed, Carlson’s paper and the ensuing discussion reminded me of what these days (in philosophy) is a very acceptable and very decent way out of foundational conundra: the Quine gambit. W.V.O. Quine was one of the most influential and controversial philosophers of the 20th century, though I think he was off the mark on a thing or two (aren’t we all?). But one of his most famous moves was to introduce the metaphor of a “web of knowledge” to replace the commonly used one of an “edifice of knowledge.” Unlike buildings, webs don’t have foundations, they have (many) threads. And even though some of these threads are more important than others (at the risk of pushing the analog too far, some of those threads attach the whole web to a tree), none of the individual threads is irreplaceable. There is, in a web, no keystone you can take out and make the whole thing fall down. Rather, each and every thread can be replaced by other threads, if need be, without dramatically altering the structure of the web. For Quine, every scientific theory, all of mathematics, and even logic itself are threads in the human web of knowledge. They all contribute to the structural integrity of the web, they reinforce each other, and if necessary they can all be replaced (though only a few at a time, just like in a spider web). Isn’t that a powerful picture? Don’t you feel the foundational hitch gradually lose its lure?

So here is my advice, people. If you are not bothered (too much) by the lack of foundational grounding of commonsense, science, mathematics and logic, give the ethics’ “meta” itch a rest too, and focus instead on whatever pressing moral question is at hand. It’s going to be so much more useful, really. (But if you are a true glutton for punishment, try meta-metaphysics instead!)

Thursday, January 02, 2014

Wednesday, January 01, 2014

Buzzing About the Bema

by Steve Neumann

It’s cliche to claim that around the clock news outlets and social media such as blogs, Facebook and Twitter have revolutionized our culture and raised our global consciousness. These technologies have provided us with many benefits: they brought the gruesome reality of war and other political injustices into our living rooms in real time, which has inspired more and more people to oppose unnecessary or immoral wars and interventions; they have enabled greater communication and understanding between cultures; and they have even contributed to economic growth by allowing both corporations and individuals to reach ever wider audiences with their products and services.

This trend is not without its side effects, of course - chief among them the fact that anyone can say anything at the press of a button pretty much with impunity. And this unfortunate effect has grown so much just in the past decade that it has now become an unsettling cacophony, a near-constant noise that refuses to relent. Unless you live in a cave in the mountains, your environment is saturated with it. And the ejaculations of these media have increasingly become less about expressing oneself than about persuading others to think and believe as we do - in other words, to impose our values on others. 

It seems to me that this is most evident in the political sphere. When it comes to politics, everyone’s a pundit; and whether we offer original analysis or regurgitate the opinions of our favorite thinker or talking-head, we are making assertions - arguments that contain evidence and assumptions that aren’t readily offered or apparent. It seems that very few people actually take the time to vet the information that comprises the substance of their tweet, status update or fifteen minutes of verbal diarrhea on The O’Reilly Factor. Many people simply see the title or tagline of an article that confirms their preconceptions and promptly jettison it out into the Informatosphere. 

To make matters worse, the things that matter most to us are inevitably tied up with politics of some sort - the rules, regulations and laws that are being contemplated by our elected officials. And things get confusing really fast. When we’re this inundated with information, with passionate and strident opinions, how do we make the time to separate the wheat from the chaff? How can we have time to read the original article that led to our friend’s tweet, or the soundbite we heard on the news, when we’re driving our kids to school, burning the midnight oil to get those TPS reports done, trying to stave off heart disease at the gym, or simply enjoying a wee dram of Bulleit bourbon to ward off the winter chill? 

When it comes to politics, we tend to rely on the “experts,” the columnists, talk-show hosts and public figures with whom we have an affinity. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. None of us really has the time - and frequently not even the aptitude - to become subject matter experts, so we look to authority figures in those domains to help us work out our beliefs and opinions about things. When it comes to physics, for example, I trust people like Sean Carroll to tell me what the physical world is really made of. So when it comes to politics, we naturally gravitate toward those whose “job” it is to work on such things. But why is it still so confusing? Why do we still have a sense that we’re often being lied to, or harbor strong feelings of skepticism and distrust? 

Plato would probably blame it on the drones. Not the unmanned aerial vehicles that can assassinate you with rockets - but not entirely unrelated, either. In The Republic, Plato famously describes what he considers the downhill slide of political organization from aristocracy to tyranny. Unlike us moderns, he didn’t have a high opinion of democracy; for him, it was just a gateway drug to tyranny. But when Plato talks about the drone, he means that citizen who is “neither ruler nor subject, but spendthrift,” akin to the male honey bee in the beehive, having all the sex but doing none of the work. He goes on to say that “while the keener sort speak and act, the rest keep buzzing about the bema and do not suffer a word to be said on the other side; hence in democracies almost everything is managed by the drones.” Plato believed that the drones become the dominant political figures, and blames “freedom” for creating conditions in which they flourish. He even believed that they’re fiercer in a democracy than in other forms of government. 

But do we have those kind of drones in our society today, or are they of a different sort? I would say that the drones of our society today are the professional political pundits. They are the ones who try most strenuously to persuade everyone to their view of things while at the same time trying to silence any opposing voices. The next time you watch a talking-head show, just try not to imagine the raucous back-and-forth exchanges between pundits as a swarm of honey bees whose nest has just been disturbed. But the real problem is that these drones are more concerned with the efficacy of their rhetoric than with the veracity of their facts. 

University of Pennsylvania Professor of Psychology Philip Tetlock published a book in 2005 entitled “Expert Political Judgment: How Good Is It?” His research showed that accurate long-term political forecasting is pretty much impossible. But since then, we’ve had the infamous Nate Silver episode, where he accurately predicted Obama’s reelection amid the outrage of the Right, which showed that short-term prediction is possible to some degree. It was controversial because it not only showed the relative vacuity of most pundits’ “gut feelings” but also because it provides a precedent for a potential benchmark in political forecasting. Pundits might have to rely less on impassioned rhetoric and more on rigorous and “objective” analysis. 

Tetlock believes that if pundits realize that their accuracy can be benchmarked, then this will elevate the quality of public debate. But I’m skeptical. We’ve all heard political pundits and lackeys hedge and hem and haw when confronted with information that puts their judgments in doubt, or even contradicts them altogether. I have yet to see one say, “You know, you’re absolutely right; I was wrong.” People may temporarily doubt their most cherished presumptions, but they almost never go back and totally reevaluate them. But as I said before, punditry is less about disseminating truth than it is about bolstering the prejudices of, and mobilizing the armies of, the base of the party to which their leash is attached. 

I find it interesting how prescient Plato was when he also said that the drones “try to convince the poor that the rich are oligarchs, and they try to convince the rich that the poor are going to revolt.” Income inequality is a reality, and there are definitely pundits out there who try to convince others that the rich really are oligarchs - hell, I might even be one of them. But I don’t think pundits are necessary for the rich to know that the poor are going to revolt - just look at what happened with the Occupy movement two years ago, spreading from Manhattan to the rest of the globe. 

But I guess now that nearly everyone can be considered a “lay pundit” because of blogging, Twitter and Facebook, there’s not much hope that we’ll be able to drown out the buzzing of the drones, or decipher a signal amidst all that noise - at least not without a lot of effort on our part.