Serial Hyperspecializers and How They Think (guest post by Elijah Millgram)

Serial Hyperspecializers and How They Think (guest post by Elijah Millgram)


This is the second in a series of guest posts* by Elijah Millgram (Utah) based on themes from his new book, The Great Endarkenment: Philosophy for an Age of Hyperspecialization. The first post appeared here last week.


 Serial Hyperspecializers and How They Think
by Elijah Millgram

A little while back, an engineer I know wanted to chat with me about transhumanism:  more or less, the notion that genetic engineering and high-tech prostheses will transform us into creatures who are quite literally no longer human.  I thought about what that would mean; in the sense that matters to philosophers, a species is delineated by its ergon—by what it does and how it works, to paraphrase Aristotle’s concept.  And if that’s right, transhumanism is already here.  Our ergon has changed, we’re no longer human, and no one noticed, because it didn’t look like bad sci-fi.

Here’s one of the deepest aspects of that change:  used to be, we all pretty much worked the same, perhaps modulo sexual and life-stage specialization; division of labor didn’t go all that far down.  Now we are, more and more of us, ever more highly specialized, and what that means is that people in different disciplines have different ways they work; what’s more, these forms of activity (with their built in vocabularies, standards and even logics) are transient.  Film vanished, Kodak imploded, and all those engineers who saw their specialization simply evaporate went on to do something else.  Let’s give this new species a name; they are (we are) serial hyperspecializers.

This sort of low-key transhumanism matters for philosophers, because philosophical problems almost always turn out to be about what the right way to think is, and a creature’s cognition should match its form of life.  If we’ve come to have a different form of life (a form of life that consists in having many thoroughly different forms of life, side by side but temporarily), we should expect to find, when we take another look, that we’ve got a different pile of philosophical problems to deal with.

Sure enough, that is what you do find.  (You didn’t think I was going to take it back, did you?)   Apriorism is acting like you already know what’s going on, without bothering to look.  The posture of philosophy has been apriorist pretty much throughout its history.  But we’d better ask:  when can you afford this posture?  Well, when the intellectual equipment—the concepts, the opinions, the guidelines—that a creature is going to need are stable, they can be front-loaded; however, they’ll be stable when what the creature does and how it works (as we were putting it, its ergon) doesn’t change, or only changes very slowly.  We’re not like that anymore.  So we can’t afford to be apriorist; the job of philosophy for us, for the transhumans we’ve become over the last couple of centuries, can’t be to figure out the built in opinions and concepts and categories and so on.  That’s philosophy for an older, defunct species to which we are very peculiarly related.

A big part of the ensuing Great Endarkenment is that we serial hyperspecializers are deploying—and the philosophers amongst us are methodically working out—a philosophical self-understanding that no longer has much to do with how we can live successfully.  Here’s an illustration that helps itself to a very familiar philosophical view.

If you think that your reasons for doing one thing or another are your desires (or maybe your desires, as you’d adjust them if you knew a little more), then you have an apriorist view of practical rationality.  A desire marks something as practically important, and if just having the desire counts as a reason, then you’re acting as though you can go by what you already think is important (whatever that is), without going to look.  Instrumentalist (or “Humean”) theories of practical reasoning are how philosophers talk through the strategy of hardwiring designated objectives into an organism, so that it can execute a life plan suitable to a stable environment.  Your environment is no longer stable enough for relying on desires to be a decent strategy.  Instrumentalists (“Humeans”) have a view of practical rationality suitable for a cruder, simpler species.  That we still live by theories like this, even as they become more and more wrong for us, is a very large part of the Great Endarkenment.

 

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Ram Neta
Ram Neta
6 years ago

Has the specialization introduced by industry and capital changed our ergon, or rather alienated us from it? Have we changed species, or just become unhealthy specimens of our species?Report

Ronnie Hawkins
Ronnie Hawkins
6 years ago

One of the contributory factors to our hyperspecialization is an overemphasis on the type of thinking characteristic of our left cerebral hemispheres at the expense of the approach of the right: an upholding of analysis and fragmentation over synthesis and integration, a focus on parts and pieces over a holistic view. We do live in one reality (despite the pretensions of antirealists), and we need to forge a shared understanding of that reality in order to start solving our many self-created problems instead of making them worse. I would highly recommend taking a look at Iain McGilchrist’s The Master and His Emissary for an extensive examination of this aspect of the issue.Report

Matt McAadam
Matt McAadam
6 years ago

It’s unclear to me who “we” refers to in the post and, therefore, who the claims about serial hyperspecialization are supposed to be about. Is it human beings in general? Does “we” refer to humans of a certain age and education level? Perhaps it’s academics (despite the example of Kodak engineers)? And, relatedly, specialized how? Professionally? I find it hard to take seriously the charges against apriorism in this post without more clarification on these matters, since it’s not clear to me how this post isn’t also just an example of it.Report

Beau Madison Mount
Beau Madison Mount
6 years ago

“[P]hilosophical problems almost always turn out to be about what the right way to think is, and a creature’s cognition should match its form of life.”

This is the sort of thing that people often say as though it’s obvious, but I think it’s straightforwardly false. (Well, at least the first conjunct; the second seems too unclear for me to evaluate.)

Whether one acts freely even if the fact that one acts is a consequence of the laws of nature and the universe’s boundary conditions; whether everything that’s necessary is necessarily necessary; whether anything has a proper part; whether moral properties are natural properties; whether, if x is F and y is F, then there is some thing such that they are both F in virtue of participating in it; whether knowledge is justified true belief; whether an action is good just in case it maximizes expected utility; whether there is a unique intended model of set theory; and so on — these are not in the least questions about “what the right way to think is”; they are just questions about the world.

Perhaps Millgram would argue that these are the sort of questions that only interest ‘hyperspecializers’ mired in the Great Endarkenment; if so, then the Great Endarkenment has been going on at least since the Presocratics, and a hyperspecializer seems like a pretty good thing to be.Report

KleineGeist
KleineGeist
6 years ago

Thank you for the post and the comments! The following is an unfinished response––and I am not exactly sure what I think yet. What I am saying is very, very indefinite––and definitely so!

To some extent, I think the comments might be free-associating with the term “Hyperspecializers.” In the book, the term is developed throughout the first chapter (and perhaps after, I haven’t read that far yet). With my *extremely* preliminary reading, the term is used mainly to identify how creatures can occupy niches and, in our contemporary case, move on to other niches quickly. This is, seemingly for Milligram, a practical consideration to have when one considers “how to act.” In a sense, Millgram is beginning with an observation (and a checkable observation at that); yet, the “how to act” is already cognitively situated within how we appraise the world or which niche we are occupying. Thus (if I am even remotely tracking the thought), trying to determine “how to act” a priori is a lot like drawing a blueprint for a building with no understanding of the function of the building, terrain, location, or the materials you have in stock.Report

Matt McAadam
Matt McAadam
6 years ago

“trying to determine “how to act” a priori”

Is there a philosopher (or anybody) who encourages this?Report

PeterJ
6 years ago

Sorry, but I don’t buy it. Philosophy of the kind being discussed (call it ‘western thought’) did not work before this modern age and it does not work now. Nothing much has changed.

If a philosophy changes with changes in society then it is superficial and unimportant. A good philosophy works under all conditions because it reflects reality. In some circles the idea that philosophy can change (as opposed to the language, the metaphors etc.) would be considered absurd. Does the truth keep changing?

“[P]hilosophical problems almost always turn out to be about what the right way to think is, and a creature’s cognition
should match its form of life.”

It seems to me that it’s form of life has no bearing on what is true. It has a bearing on how it behaves, and how in detail it responds to its own philosophical ideas or knowledge, but the metaphysical facts (whatever they may be) are unaffected by what species we happen to belong to. I’d rather say that a creature’s cognition should match the reality of its situation’, and thus should be concerned with discovering what that situation really is.

Specialisation may have a profound effect on how people think these days, and it seem to me that it is leading to a situation where nobody can even see the box let alone climb outside of it, but they didn’t climb out of it in the many centuries prior to this trend for specialisation so it’s not clear that the trend is doing any real damage besides making things a bit worse.

My problem is always with the use of the word ‘philosophy’ to cover only a small selection of philosophers and a limited set of ideas. This is an arrogant practice but the norm in academic circles, and it results in a lower view of philosophy than can be justified.Report

Joe
Joe
6 years ago

What are the admission or entrance requirements of serial hyperspecializers? What about exit requirements?

Suppose an “entrance requirement” to be a criterion or a set of criteria that provides us with a rule or guideline for who counts as a serial hyperspecializer. (Presumably, there are some people who are not yet serial hyperspecializers, e.g., children.) One should assume that a criterion or a set of criteria identify serial hyperspecializers by their ergon. If forms of hyperspecialization are transient (cf. ¶2 above), then identifying the ergon of any hyperspecialization is difficult to do. For, every time one has thought to have pinned down the ergon of some hyperspecialization, the person will come to discover that the ergon has shifted slightly to include another criterion in the set. Compare what I am saying here with the diligent graduate student who’s constantly editing a full draft of a dissertation because the student’s found one more article or book that has to be cited, or at least read. The graduate student will never finish that dissertation. Likewise, a person will never be a hyperspecializer, or attain hyperspecialization.

Professor Millgram, have I missed something here?Report

RobH
RobH
6 years ago

Why should we think that what/how of the Kodak material/chemical engineer changed when she moved to a new industry? Because she applied her background knowledge to a new media? Does a stone mason who works on marble one decade and limestone/basalt the next qualify as changing specializations? If so, then serial specialization has been with us since (at least) ancient Greece. If not, then how are we to understand what is meant by specialization — of the type the author thinks is so new to human existence?Report

Elijah Millgram
6 years ago

I’m not sure that hyperspecialization in academia is driven by what Ram was calling ‘industry and capital,’ so maybe it’s not always the driver elsewhere. Nonetheless, I agree that it’s a difficult question how we distinguish between having a surprising species form and not living in accord with one’s species form. (That is, as people used to put it, often when they were talking about reproduction, perversion.) We do have recognizable and philosophically engaged models of the latter, e.g., the French Decadents (think of Huysmans) and their followers (such as Oscar Wilde or Fernando Pessoa).

I also agree with Matt McAadam that it’s always a worry, when you’re pushing back against apriorism, that your objections to apriorism are themselves aprioristic. I take that concern very seriously in my own philosophical practice. For this reason, working through a varied list of cases to see if they bear out a general claim is something you can’t dispense with. Here’s the sort of thing I have in mind. Beau Madison Mount picks out one such claim—that characterization of what the subject matter of philosophical problems typically proves to be—and around half of the problems he enumerates as intended counterexamples come in for pretty extended discussion in The Great Endarkenment, and in fact under just this heading. (For instance: Is the claim about iterated necessity operators a matter of brute metaphysical fact, or is it actually about the design of a cognitive device? Is moral naturalism a brute metaethical fact, or is the view a side effect of techniques for handling communication across disciplinary barriers? Is the utilitarian criterion a moral fact—or rather, an assessment technique, but one suited to a species not our own?) I wouldn’t be convinced that, in general, resolutions of philosophical problems that strike people as reports of brute metaphysical fact are really about how to manage our cognition if it wasn’t borne out in the investigation of one after another case. But take a look for yourself: you may be convinced by those case-by-case arguments in The Great Endarkenment… or then again, you may not.

The question we just encountered as the flip side of that general claim—i.e., what to make of metaphysical claims announced as just the way things are—is hard to discuss in passing, and central enough to The Great Endarkenment to deserve a further post. Before I get to it, however, I’ll take a shot at McAadam’s second query, about where we would look for apriorism in practical rationality. I suggested in the post above (and I argue in The Great Endarkenment) that people who think their desires are reasons to do things are closet apriorists. In the next post, I’ll say something about the ideal of autonomy (a centerpiece of Kantian moral theory). In the meantime, ask yourself: When was the last time you heard an aposteriori argument from a philosopher for being autonomous? Have you ever heard a Kantian allow that whether autonomy is valuable is an empirical question?Report