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rationally speaking

Massimo Pigliucci interviewed by Richard Marshall.

Massimo Pigliucci keeps a beady mind’s eye on the demarcation problem between science and pseudo-science, on the fun of getting philosophy out there, on the value of philosophy and how it makes progress, on the Rupture for nerds, on his Hume tattoo, on naturalism, emergentism and a luscious ontology, on when philosophers and scientists over-reach, on Fodor on evolution, on science and ethics, on the interesting work of xphi and why we need the humanities. All told, this one lays the money down…

3:AM: You started as a scientist but now you’re a philosopher. What happened?

Massimo Pigliucci: My mid-life crisis. Well, ok, it’s a bit more complicated than that. I’ve had a keen interest in philosophy since my teenage years (in Italy, unlike the US, studying philosophy is mandatory for college-prep high schools), but decided to pursue my passion for biology instead. Over the course of my career as an evolutionary biologist, however, it became increasingly clear that I was attracted by “conceptual” (i.e., philosophical) questions. While a faculty at the University of Tennessee I had a chance opportunity to enroll in their philosophy graduate program under the guidance of one of their then newly hired young philosophers, Jonathan Kaplan (now at Oregon State, Corvallis). So I went back to school while still running my lab, and got my degree in philosophy. A few years later I made a life quality (i.e., not primarily driven by my career) decision to move to New York City and decided to look for a job there. At which point I asked myself, why not switch to philosophy full time? Luckily, the City University of New York gave me the opportunity, and I’ve been happy ever since.

3:AM: Philosophy of science is a big interest for you. Science vs religion has been making headlines but you’ve recently written about the demarcation problem – the issue about how we make the distinction between science and pseudo-science, and this strikes me as being as equally problematic and important as the atheist vs believer dispute. This is something Karl Popper discussed and Larry Laudan more recently too. Before saying why aren’t they the last word for you can you briefly introduce us to how they tackled the issue?

MP: The term “demarcation problem” was introduced by Popper, and it refers to the issue of what, epistemically, separates science from non-science and pseudoscience. Popper was interested in it because of his concept of falsificationism – the idea that the reason science makes progress is not (as popularly believed) because certain theories are confirmed to be true, but rather because some theories are falsified (and permanently discarded) when they fail the empirical test. For Popper, that is, real science advances not by accumulating truths, but by eliminating falsehoods. So, for instance, Popper thought that Einstein’s theory of relativity was good science (it could be shown to be wrong, in principle), while Marxist theories of history, or much of psychoanalysis, is not (since the “theory” can be constantly adjusted by its supporters to fit whatever data may come in).

Laudan, in a very influential paper published in the early ’80s, pointed out that philosophers of science had long abandoned simple falsificationism (it doesn’t work as neatly as Popper thought, because of something called the Duhem-Quine thesis – more on this another time?). Laudan further argued that it is pointless and dangerous for philosophers to engage in demarcation projects. Pointless because it is not possible to come up with a sharp definition of science (or pseudoscience), dangerous because making public pronouncements about the rationality or irrationality of a given belief or practice has serious social consequences.

3:AM: So what else needs to be said?

MP: A lot, as it turns out! My colleague Maarten Boudry (Ghent University, Belgium) and I were curious to see if people had something new to say about the demarcation problem after Laudan’s funerary eulogy, so we put together a collection of essays on the topic for Chicago Press . Turns out that plenty of philosophers, sociologists and historians of science reject Laudan’s premature dismissal of the whole effort.

Briefly, Laudan was right that science, pseudoscience and similar concepts do not admit of sharp and clear cut distinctions. But this has been known for a while to apply to a large swath of interesting cases, ever since Wittgenstein’s analysis of so-called family resemblance concepts, like that of “game.” Even though there is no precise definition of what a game is, the concept is useful, and most of us can tell the difference between those activities that count as games and those that don’t. Even more to the point, it is precisely the unclear cases that are interesting, and from which we stand to learn the most. The same, we think, applies to science and pseudoscience: astrology, for instance, is clearly a pseudoscience, while astronomy is definitely a science. But what about controversial fields, like evolutionary psychology? Or fringe but not necessarily out of the question areas, such as some aspects of parapsychology or alternative medicine?

As for Laudan’s point that philosophers ought to be careful about making value judgments, it is both true and astounding: philosophy is a prescriptive, not descriptive, discipline. It is in the business of making (well informed, reasoned) value judgments! Doing so in the case of questionable science, or dangerous pseudoscience, is one of the things that makes philosophy relevant to society at large, and we shouldn’t shy away from it.

3:AM: You have your own on-line philosophy blog and podcast, Rationally Speaking. Is there a problem with making the general public aware of what philosophers are up to and if there is, what’s the cause and have you any suggestions for solving the difficulty?

MP: I think the problems with public appreciation of philosophy are greatly exaggerated. Academic philosophy is just as foreign to the layperson as academic science, or literary criticism, or whatever. Moreover, in recent years we have seen a veritable renaissance of books of philosophy for the public and popular magazines about philosophy, not to mention the countless philosophy cafes that have sprang up all over the world. So i guess my suggestion to my colleagues is to stop beating themselves up and start doing what so many of us have been doing of late: write for the public, participate or organize public discussions, put out podcasts and publish blogs. It’s fun, and very good for society at large.

3:AM: Some prominent scientists are dismissive of philosophy, and some naturalist philosophers take their scientism to dismiss aspects of philosophy too but you argue for the value of philosophy don’t you? One issue is the contention that philosophy got stuck – it doesn’t make progress – it’s still discussing issues raised by Plato whilst the physicists are not still using ancient Greek science. You think that this is a false picture don’t you – so does philosophy make progress and how?

MP: Glad you ask. As it happens, I am just now writing a book (to be published by Chicago Press) on whether and how philosophy makes progress. There are several misconceptions about this, beginning with the misguided idea that if something doesn’t move the way science does then it isn’t moving at all. Historians, for instance, have made progress in their reconstruction and interpretation of historical events, and yet history is not a science (though it certainly can benefit from appropriate scientific input). Nobody, I hope, would argue that mathematics and logic have not made progress, but that progress does not depend on empirical data or science.

Another misconception regards the idea that philosophers “always ask the same questions.” Well, so do scientists, right? I mean, physicists are still asking the question of what is the fundamental structure of the world, but they are making progress in addressing it. Something like that holds for philosophy: yes, ethicists are still asking what is the right thing to do, but modern versions of, say, utilitarianism or virtue ethics are significantly better than older ones, because people revise ideas while taking into account previous criticisms.

My basic proposal in the book I’m writing is that progress in philosophy is somewhere between progress in science and in math/logic. Philosophers move primarily in conceptual space (like logicians and mathematicians), but their moves are constrained by empirical facts, since after all philosophers are concerned with the world, both as it is and as it could (or should) be.

3:AM: Even if philosophy is making progress, what do you say to those who argue that philosophy is being left behind by the fast advance of science and it can’t do the work it ought to because it hasn’t enough resources? This is the gist of something Peter Ludlow has argued – there just aren’t enough people being thrown at philosophical problems to keep up. And philosophers like Ludlow and Dave Chalmers warn of the singularity problem – that advances in technology will soon be so far in advance of human capabilities that human philosophy will become redundant.

MP: Again, the whole thing is predicated on the idea that philosophy makes progress in a way akin to science, which I think is profoundly misguided. Would I like to see more philosophers at work? Perhaps, but I’m actually more concerned with bringing philosophy to the public than with the necessarily narrow interests of academic philosophers.

As for the so-called Singularity, I think of the whole idea as the Rupture for nerds. It’s based on bad assumptions about technology, and even worse ones on what consciousness and intelligence are. But perhaps this too is a whole different conversation?

3:AM: You’ve a tattoo on your right shoulder haven’t you – a quote from Hume I believe – so are you a Humean skeptic? What’s the appeal of Hume for you?

MP: Yes! I have a phrase attributed to Hume, which is also the motto of my blog (RatinallySpeaking.org): “Truth springs from argument amongst friends.” I’m a Humean skeptic in the sense that I like to proportion my beliefs to the available evidence (and to revise them accordingly, when necessary). More broadly, although I may disagree with some of Hume’s specific views (for instance, in philosophy of mind), I find him incredibly inspirational as a philosopher. He wrote very clearly, he was not afraid to question received wisdom, his reasoning was sharp, and by all accounts he was also a very likable human being. What else can one ask for in a role model?

3:AM: You participated in the Moving Naturalism Forward conference organized by Sean Carroll. You disagreed with mad dog naturalist Alex Rosenberg and defended a version of emergentism didn’t you? So why aren’t you with the mad dog view?

MP: Because it’s mad? Kidding aside, I don’t actually defend (strong) emergentism, as much as I am sympathetic to the idea and think the reasonable thing to do about it is to maintain agnosticism. Alex seems to think that modern physics has established the philosophical notion of strong reductionism, but this is highly debatable (and vigorously debated). Indeed, if one were to take a straightforward empiricist approach, one would have to lean toward emergentism, as there are plenty of higher-than-fundamental-physics level principles that scientists need in order to account for how the world works (i.e., quantum physics does no work at all – other than setting boundary conditions – in areas ranging from solid state physics to ecology, and from geology to the social sciences).

And of course there is something inherently unsatisfactory, if not even downright self-contradictory, in people like Alex trying to convince others of the inevitable truth of nihilism. I mean, if he’s right, then everything we said at that workshop was already fated to happen since the moment of the Big Bang. So why argue about it? Except of course that according to his own doctrine he can’t avoid to argue about it, and I cannot but gently disagree, and so on…

3:AM: Are you agreeing with James Ladyman that there is no fundamental reality?

MP: That’s another area where I think engaged agnosticism is in order. I have read James’ and Don Ross’ Every Thing Must Go, and found it intellectually highly stimulating and thought provoking. Whether the notion that there are no “things” at the bottom of reality, or that – as they put it – ultimate reality is made of relations without relata, remains to be seen.

Of course one of the reasons I find that view (ontic structural realism) appealing is because it may be the ultimate vindication of mathematical Platonism, a position that has held a considerable attraction for me in recent years. At the very least I am strongly sympathetic to Ladyman and Ross’ “luscious” ontology, as opposed to the “desert ontology” advocated by Quine (the very same of the Duhmen-Quine thesis mentioned above) in the middle part of the 20th century.

3:AM: What do you make of the relatively recent spats between philosophy and science involving Fodor on evolutionary theory and Nagel on teleology and Krauss on nothingness and Dyson and Hawking on the general useless state of philosophy? Are there things we can learn from all this? Are they examples of overreach from both sides – philosophy and science respectively?

MP: Briefly: Fodor and Nagel wrong (for the philosophers); Krauss and Hawking wrong (for the scientists). Yes, these are all cases of overreach, where the philosophers should have taken the science a bit more seriously, and the scientists should have at least bothered to read the philosophy (I am willing to wager that neither Krauss nor Hawking have ever read a technical philosophy paper in their lives).

What is really puzzling is the fact that such obvious blunders come from very well known philosophers and scientists. It’s possible that one can reach a stage of one’s career where it is ok to just open one’s mouth without checking whether the brain is properly connected to it. I’m not there yet myself, I hope.

3:AM: Fodor was arguing about an aspect of evolution – and you’re background as a scientist is biology isn’t it. Fodor’s book was joint-authored with a biologist so presumably the science there wasn’t off the money. So what did you make of his argument which seemed to suggest that if Skinner’s Behaviourism was a mistake then exactly the same problem faced Darwinism?

MP: The argument is hopelessly confused, and Fodor’s co-author, Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini, is not an evolutionary biologist, his background is in psychology and cognitive science.

Fodor seems to think that evolutionary theory (to which he incorrectly refers to as “Darwinism”) is not a scientific theory because it cannot bear counterfactuals or, to put it another way, is not based on scientific laws (after all, evolutionary biology is a historical, not nomological, science). But this stems in part from his (and Palmarini’s) superficial reading of the evolutionary literature (as colleagues like Elliot Sober have rightly pointed out) and from his idiosyncratic view of what ought to count as proper science. On the latter, Fodor – whose specialty is the philosophy of mind – has been quickly set staugt by philosophers of science, including yours truly. (Though I doubt he will heed our advice.)

3:AM: A recent topic of controversy that you’ve been concerned with is the issue of whether science has anything to say about philosophy of ethics. Josh Greene and and Philippa Foot’s trolley problem recently written about by David Edmonds is perhaps a parade case – so where do you stand on all this?

MP: Ah, that’s a good one! I’m a fan of Greene’s research in neurobiology, as well as of Foot’s take on metaethics (and she was a modern day virtue ethicist, the position I favor among available frameworks for ethics). I’m notoriously much less enthralled with what I consider simplistic attempts at a science of ethics, along the lines of writers like Sam Harris, Michael Shermer, and possibly (depending of how one reads him), Jonathan Haidts.

Science is clearly pertinent to answer certain questions about ethics. For instance: where does the strong feeling of right or wrong we all experience come from? Very likely from our evolution as highly intelligent social primates. Or, how does the brain handle ethical reasoning? That, obviously, is the province of neuroscience. But neither of these questions have much to do with the core of ethics, which deals with logic applied to resolving moral quandaries among actual human beings (or, as the virtue ethicists would have it, about answering what kind of life ought one to live). Anyone who has read Peter Singer or Michael Sandel will quickly recognize that the arguments put forth by Harris & co. are entirely irrelevant to the actual practice of ethics.

Consider an analogy with mathematics: likely, our ability to think about abstract entities like numbers evolved over time, possibly to help us solve simple arithmetic or geometric problems related to survival. But there is no evolutionary advantage to being able to solve, say, Fermat’s Last Theorem, so evolutionary accounts have comparatively little to say when it comes to high level math.

As for neurobiology, yes we can ask what parts of the brain are activated by thoughts of Pythagoras’ theorem, but no fMRI is going to tell you whether you got the proof of the theorem right. You need a mathematician for that, not a neurobiologist. (And before someone jumps on me and points out that ethics is not identical to mathematics, let me remind your readers that it is an analogy, and as all analogies it is – at best – only good to make the specific point for which it was invoked, and no further.)

3:AM: What’s your opinion about Josh Knobe’s xphi crew?

MP: They do interesting work, and I like Joshua personally (I interviewed him for my Rationally Speaking podcast). But I think that what they are doing really isn’t philosophy, it is philosophy-inspired social science.

That said, some of their stuff is a good corrective for whenever philosophers bring up “common intuitions” in their reasoning, since it turns out that some of those intuitions are common only among white males of medium to high income levels. But even then there is a limit: it is a widespread mistake to think that intuitions fuel a lot of philosophical discourse. They don’t. Sometimes intuitions are invoked simply as starting points, as axioms to be unpacked and analyzed by reason – where the meat of the philosophizing takes place; in other cases philosophers use the word intuition not in the common sense, but simply to indicate a notion that they will take for granted and not further defense for the purposes of current discussion. But such notion is always open to revision and unpacking anyway, if need be.

3:AM: The philosophy of science is but a small part of what philosophers do. What do you think about the argument that humanities are struggling to attract funding that isn’t linked to science and this is distorting intellectual enquiry? Are universities and its ideal being eroded by scientism and neo-liberal politics?

MP: I am very concerned about the neo-liberal (and yes, you are right, scientistic) attack against liberal education. And I speak both as a scientist and a philosopher. Yes, our students absolutely need scientific literacy to navigate an increasingly complex world. And yes, college is also about finding a job, not just about learning for learning’s sake. But main points of college education (indeed, of education in general) are to develop a better understanding of the human condition, to sharpen one’s critical thinking skills, and to help people become purposeful human beings and informed citizens of a democratic society. And there is no substitute for doing that but to study the humanities (included, but not limited to, philosophy) as a major component of such effort.

As Noam Chomsky once aptly put it, citizens of modern democracies need a course in intellectual self-defense to guard themselves against all the bullshit they will be bombarded with by corporate and governmental powers. I can’t think of anything better than studying history, reading Shakespeare and Joyce, learning how to admire a Picasso or Van Gogh, or understanding Aristotle and Marx as the foundations for that course.

3:AM: And finally, other than all your great books, are there five books you could recommend to readers here at 3:AM to take them further into your philosophical world?

MP: Just five? Ok, I’ll try, in no particular order:

- Bertrand Russell’s Autobiography, to learn about being a philosopher who is engaged in both rigorous intellectual work and important social causes.
- Michael Sandel’s Justice: What is the Right Thing to Do?, for a taste of what it is really like (pace Harris, Shermer et al.) to do ethics.
- John Searle’s Mind: A Brief Introduction, to appreciate how awesome philosophy of mind really is, and how much, ahem, debatable stuff has been written about it.
- David Hume’s An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, for a taste of first rate philosophy done by a first rate philosopher who writes both cogently and clearly.
- The Philosophy of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, edited by Nicholas Joll, to appreciate how one can do philosophy about anything, and of course to be nudged toward (re-)reading Douglas Adams’ immortal masterpiece (which I guess was a sneaky way to get a sixth book on the list!)


ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Richard Marshall is still biding his time.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, December 6th, 2013.