Philosophy Snobbery and Communication


Scientists came to realise the media had an important role to play in communicating science. The media could not only inform the public of new discoveries, but it could educate them about the scientific method, and it could boost the visibility, esteem and trust of science as an institution. Then came the advent of “science communication” as a profession unto itself. These were scientifically literate communicators whose sole purpose was to bridge the gap between academia and the general public. There is now an entire industry around science communication, with post-graduate degrees, and science communicators are employed in most major scientific research institutions.

I’d suggest philosophy needs a similar awakening to the importance of outreach, and a similar commitment to what we might as well call “philosophy communication.”

That’s Tim Dean, a philosophy and science journalist (with a PhD in philosophy) and an editor at The Conversation, in “Why We Need Philosophy Communication: An Open Letter To Philosophers.”

Dean laments the absence of philosophers from public discourse:

When was the last time you read a snappy op ed by another philosopher surgically dismantling a topical issue or slamming a public figure for shoddy reasoning? Yeah, I can’t remember either.

He thinks philosophers could “offer a breath of reason that can bring genuine progress to stalled debates” and have several public roles to play: the “opinionator,” the “clarifier,” the “stirrer,” and the “thinker.” Why do so few of them take up these roles? Part of his answer has to do with the culture of philosophy:

There is still a culture within academic philosophy that dissuades many philosophers from engaging with the media or the public directly, and that needs to change. I have noticed something of a cultural resistance to the “vulgarisation” (to use the literal term, in the sense of making something appeal to the “common folk”) of philosophy. An ivory tower mentality that can see any attempt to make the inevitable complexities of philosophy accessible enough to the masses as a debasement of philosophical standards. Those philosophers who do walk the grounds beyond the tower… are often lambasted by thinkers as being frauds or lightweights.

We’ve explored this attitude previously here at Daily Nous. It was suggested as a problem by Walter-Sinnott Armstrong here and skeptically discussed here, for example. Further thoughts on that matter, as well as the idea of “philosophy communication” more generally, are welcome.

Towards the end of the piece (in the “Doing It” section), Dean provides some welcome practical advice for philosophers seeking to engage with the public. It’s worth checking out.

Relatedly, no philosophers were among the winners of NEH’s recently announced grant program, The Common Good: Humanities in the Public Square.

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Mark Eli Kalderon
Mark Eli Kalderon
6 years ago

“Those philosophers who do walk the grounds beyond the tower… are often lambasted by thinkers as being frauds or lightweights.” Notice de Botton is being lambasted by, not a philosopher, but an art critic.Report

CB
CB
6 years ago

On the whole I for one would support anyone’s efforts to engage in “philosophy communication” and to that end Dean’s article seems a helpful guide.

It’s his analysis of why there aren’t public philosophers already that I think is way off base. In his article he paints it primarily as a supply-side issue but (like most other crises under capitalism) it seems FAR more likely that this is a problem of insufficient demand.

If we can bracket the pompous assumption that philosophers are the ones who really have a monopoly on being reasonable, exposing assumptions, and mapping arguments (it hardly needs pointing out that there are oceans between taking apart a David Lewis argument and laying bare the mechanisms at work when the Democratic President who ran on a pseudo-grassroots platform is arguing in support of something like the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or figuring out what’s going on when a formerly self-identified socialist presidential candidate every now and then reveals that he is actually a populist nationalist protectionist) it should be fairly clear that there are lots and lots of reasonable people out there who, despite not being professional philosophers, are doing their absolute best to bring reason into shallow big-media driven public discourse.

It would be very interesting to talk about why such people are shut out (and people have been talking about it for a long time). But it really strikes me as remarkably naive when philosophers issue the call for more public philosophy, as if the “real world” is out there just begging us to step in and clear things up for it. As if there are not extremely powerful forces that have long ago developed ways for keeping this sort of discourse out of public view despite the valiant efforts of many (non-philosophers) to break through. As if the sort of “reason” and “clarity” philosophers have to offer is actually what a progressive agenda needs (perhaps it is—but it’s a large assumption).Report

JCM
JCM
Reply to  CB
6 years ago

There’s a lot to like in this comment, but I want to express bewilderment at your claim that the ‘assumption’ that philosophers have a monopoly on exposing assumptions, etc., is ‘pompous,’ and presumably false. I’ve heard people say what you say before, and I just don’t see even its prima facie plausibility.

First, of course, the exaggeration. No-one is claiming a monopoly for philosophers, just a relative aptitude. So modified, the ‘assumption’ – and of course it is no assumption but the conclusion of arguments which have often and eloquently been made, from Plato down to the present, and one question to you is why you call it an assumption – seems eminently reasonable. I won’t repeat them now, you’ve heard them countless times. I will point out, though, that no-one is claiming either that philosophers are well-placed to pick apart the political horse-trading that has Obama supporting TTIP or whatever. Philosophers are, though, well-placed to do other things: to distinguish positive and negative liberty, to argue against commodification of the university, to argue why equality of opportunity is more important than equality of outcome (or vice versa, I don’t know), to show people how the private and the public interact, to stop people conflating pleasure and annual income and goodness, to articulate a coherent notion of God, to ground morality, to argue for the social importance of art… The list of obviously important things to which philosophers’ expertise is obviously relevant just goes on and on! And I haven’t even mentioned the really basic stuff – calling out fallacies and enthymemes and so on – which is philosophy, even if it’s a philosophy sufficient competence in which is found among lots of people other than professional philosophers.Report

Anon
Anon
6 years ago

Are the following beliefs inconsistent? 1. It’s too bad that few people in the larger culture respect philosophy as an activity or as a discipline. 2. We must keep philosophy as a discipline professional and rigorous, which requires the use of professional disincentives to make sure philosophers, especially early career philosophers, avoid any contact with the larger culture in their guise as philosophers.Report

Ronnie Hawkins
Ronnie Hawkins
6 years ago

I very much appreciate Justin’s willingness to explore the relevance of academic philosophy on the Daily Nous, because I have recently been engaging in a process of seriously questioning the relevance of the discipline–or perhaps better put, the “profession”–myself. Just yesterday I combed through Michael Beaney’s piece on “Analysis,” complete with its supplementary quotations, on the SEP, trying to understand why the sorts of “problems” that seem to have absorbed the attention of so many philosophers in past decades (let alone centuries), and that continue to do so now, are so different from the “problems” that drew me into philosophy originally, and why these erudite discussions seem to contribute so little to any sort of attempted solutions to the latter set of problems.

I must acknowledge, up front, that I didn’t start out wanting to be “a professor of philosophy,” and then casting around for a “problem” to work on that would conform to what was being rewarded with positive feedback from peers. I had already been engaged in another career, but as I began to discover, more than 30 years ago now, what we humans were doing to the biosphere–our species driving so many others into extinction, and undercutting our own life support systems in the process–I wanted to understand WHY this was happening, and what could be done about it. In other words, I identified a “real-world” problem to solve, and since it seemed, even to my then-philosophically untutored mind, to have something to do with the way we think, getting a second doctorate in philosophy seemed to be a reasonable approach to take.

But now that I have retired from my tenured position after spending a couple of decades teaching, writing, and taking part in the affairs of an academic community, I can’t help but wonder if any of it was worthwhile. Clearly, as an individual, I was unable to make a dent in the surging push of our species driving us all headlong into ecocide. And yet, I also can’t help but feel–entertain the intuition–that, if there were a serious, concerted effort by the academic community on a worldwide basis, starting very soon, to “clarify the problem” that I identified early on, we still might have a chance to turn things around through collective action.

Along with roles of the “opinionator,” the “clarifier,” the “stirrer,” and the “thinker” recommended by Tim Dean, I would like to suggest that of the “synthesizer” or the “integrator,” as a needed complement to the analyst. In my reading yesterday, I noticed that many early philosophers spoke of the importance of both analysis and synthesis (granted that their definitions of these terms exhibited a fair amount of variability), but that attention to “synthesis” seems to have dropped largely out of sight over more recent decades. It was also interesting that, for a period of time, philosophers seemed to see their discipline as closely aligned with science as a human project, if going beyond it in certain ways, and that many seemed to have undertaken the responsibility to be “up with the science” of their day, at least insofar as physical science–physics–was taken as the paradigm. Admittedly, today so much information is forthcoming from the many scientific subdisciplines that staying abreast of it all would be extremely difficult, yet throughout my time in philosophy I have been very disappointed in the commonly encountered attitude that keeping up with the findings of science–particularly biological science–just isn’t at all important if you want to engage in “real” philosophy.

I think that’s quite wrong-headed, and one of the many factors that has led philosophy to be viewed as largely irrelevant to the larger academic community, let alone the public at large. Yes, there is a growing need for “science communication,” by those who can integrate the details of various sciences into a core of basic knowledge that all educated people should be able to grasp, but this knowledge also needs to be integrated into our common worldview, such that what counts as metaphysics and ontology for the average citizen can be brought into coherence with it, at least at a coarse-grained level–and in many cases, so does what academic philosophers take those subfields to be about need be brought into such coherence as well. For example, when Walter Sinnott-Armstrong writes “Metaphysicians propose views on free will and causation that could change the way law ascribes responsibility for crimes or limits access to pornography on the grounds that it causes violence to women,” I am skeptical of the degree to which those “views on free will and causation” have accommodated what biological science has learned about the complexity of living organisms, including the many, many opportunities for the introduction of both chance and what can reasonably be described (and is described, in the scientific literature) as “choice,”even at the level of single-celled organisms, as well as of “necessity.” Many of the contemporary conversations I have witnessed regarding “free will,” however, seem to be hopelessly out of date, conducted as if “determinism” on the model of 18th century physical science might still pertain to us living human beings. Since humanity now faces some urgent choices with respect to getting off its extreme dependence on fossil fuels, continuing to propagate the message that our behavior is “determined” and thus not even open to alteration via ethical decision making would seem at best highly irresponsible, an example of a negative role philosophers with a poorly integrated understanding of the science of living beings might play in “the real world.” On the other hand, pointing out the vast ontological difference between that which is studied by the sciences and those entities which only “exist” within our collective belief systems–things like “money” and “nation-states,” an unquestioning belief in which seems to be the major driving force behind humanity’s current neglect of and destructive approach to the biosphere, but which ARE open to alteration through human choice in a way that the physical/biological world is not–would seem an important positive role for philosophers to play, one that would utilize our best science while at the same time going “beyond” it in its pronouncements.Report

Alan Richardson
6 years ago

Good heavens, what a morass of parochialism (the social place of philosophers in Europe is far different than in the USA) and confusion. Professional science communication is what puts the science news in the newspaper (usually in the form of a slightly rewritten press release), not what puts scientists on Op Ed pages. And if you think that philosophers’ jobs on Op Ed pages is limited to “dismantling” issues and “slamming” shoddy reasoning, you have a terribly limited view of philosophy. I have recently read an Op Ed from Carrie Jenkins that makes a real contribution to public discourse because it does neither of those things: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/globe-debate/whats-love-got-to-do-with-sex-ed-maybe-everything/article24456722/. Let’s “mantle” a few issues and engage in excellent reasoning–maybe even show a sense of humility and humour…..Report

Hey Nonny Mouse
Hey Nonny Mouse
6 years ago

@CB The claim that the problem is insufficient demand rather than insufficient supply is not supported by the evidence. Popular philosophy books sell very well. It is important that professional philosophers don’t give up on interesting the public in philosophy without ever having made a serious effort to interest the public in philosophy.Report

Thom Brooks
6 years ago

I think not enough academics engage with the press in general, but don’t think philosophers have some special problem. I’ve done three television interviews today (BBC News, France 24, Al Jazeera) – philosophers can and do get noticed.Report

Ronnie Hawkins
Ronnie Hawkins
6 years ago

CB writes:
“On the whole I for one would support anyone’s efforts to engage in “philosophy communication” . . . If we can bracket the pompous assumption that philosophers are the ones who really have a monopoly on being reasonable, exposing assumptions, and mapping arguments (it hardly needs pointing out that there are oceans between taking apart a David Lewis argument and laying bare the mechanisms at work when the Democratic President who ran on a pseudo-grassroots platform is arguing in support of something like the Trans-Pacific Partnership . . .) . . . it should be fairly clear that there are lots and lots of reasonable people out there who, despite not being professional philosophers, are doing their absolute best to bring reason into shallow big-media driven public discourse. . . . As if the sort of “reason” and “clarity” philosophers have to offer is actually what a progressive agenda needs (perhaps it is—but it’s a large assumption).”

In follow-up to the last point I tried to make in my post above, I think the distinction John Searle makes between the “ontologically objective” (acknowledging the unfortunately controversial nature of that last term), those entities that make up the physical/biological reality studied by science, and the “ontologically subjective,” those things that “exist” only by human agreement, entities that we could alter or even abolish by conscious collective agreement, has profound implications for things like the TPP. This agreement, and the entities of economics that underlie it, are completely ontologically subjective–they only exist, in physical/biological terms, as patterns of neuronal activation in human brains and in the form of symbols we inscribe within various sorts of artifacts. The TPP, as I understand it (apparently much of the text is still kept “secret,” in what we would like to still believe is a “democratic” society), is likely to have effects that will further damage the biosphere, which has a different KIND of existence–it is not “mind-dependent”–rather our lives, mental as well as physical, depend upon its functioning within a certain set of parameters (parameters that our collective activities are currently pushing toward a different basin of attraction) for their own sort of existence to continue. I think it could make a big difference to what we do, as human agents, if this crucial ontological difference were widely understood–it might inspire us, as citizens, moral agents, to actually _make_ some changes in what we collectively agree to do.

Today I’m slogging my way through Amie Thomasson’s Ontology Made Easy, however. She seems to be arguing for an “easy ontology” that will permit accepting the use of the word “exist” for any entities which fulfill the “application conditions” for standard English sentences, and she seems to want to reject Quine’s stipulation that only entities which make our best _scientific_ theories true be accepted, without (as yet–I’m still reading) making any distinction as to _the way in which_ different entities could be said to exist, i.e., as existing as part of our “given” physical/biological reality or simply within our human belief systems. This seems, in other words, to take no notice of our ability to choose to change what we collectively believe in, i.e., it seems to be a philosophical position that shores up the status quo, the kind of social reality that allows for agreements like the TPP to be rammed through against the better judgment of many of us. Moreover, the rather nervous focus of “professional” philosophers on issues of “funding” and status (apparently largely dependent on conforming, in their beliefs and behavior, to what they think their peers and the “powers that be” in their tiny academic worlds expect from them) seems to demonstrate a lack of seriously questioning the ontology of what actually prevails in our society as well. But wouldn’t the role of someone seriously committed to practicing philosophy in the manner of the historical figures that we revere be to do exactly that–to question the assumptions that we “live by,” not just what we admit to in armchair discussions?Report

Cary Cook
6 years ago

Communicating philosophical concepts to laymen is not even difficult – if they WANT to understand you. Just do 2 things:

1. Avoid obscure terminology.
(Just assume your audience knows the meaning of ontology & epistemology, objective & subjective, absolute & relative, and possibly a few other basics.)

2. Express ideas without referring to persons or books.
e.g. The Gettier Problem takes several pages to say what can be said in 2 words: coincidental correctness.

Critical thinking alone is sufficient to communicate any philosophical concept to any person who understands an equal amount of critical thinking. People who don’t understand enough critical thinking to understand what you’re saying are simply outside of your target audience. But that’s OK. Any communicator must accept that some people will be outside his target audience.Report

Andrew Moon
Reply to  Cary Cook
6 years ago

Hi Cary,
I agree we should avoid obscure terminology, but I’m skeptical that we can assume that our audience knows the meanings of “ontology & epistemology, objective & subjective, absolute & relative, and possibly a few other basics.” I’m pretty sure even philosophers mean a few different things by ‘objective’, ‘subjective’, ‘absolute’, and ‘relative’, and I suspect they’re also ambiguous in ordinary language.

The need to really, really clearly define these terms is supported by the “Comments” section of Justin McBrayer’s article: http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2015/03/02/why-our-children-dont-think-there-are-moral-facts/?_r=0

Of course, I agree w/your main point that we should avoid obscure terminology.Report

Trinidad
Trinidad
6 years ago

No doubt there are various ways philosophers could do better at communicating their ideas to a wider audience and bringing clearer reasoning to public debates. However, I suspect that the problem goes two ways. Even when philosophers do make excellent attempts at doing these things their efforts often have very little penetration. One reason for this failure is that many people are intellectually lazy. When an argument is complex and requires sustained concentration many people are too lazy to see it through. This laziness persists even if the argument is written in clear, succinct, lively, jargon-free prose, and the author has carefully explained why the conclusion of the argument should be of fundamental interest to humanity. I think Jeff McMahan makes this point especially well in the following passage:

“One of the depressing injustices of contemporary intellectual life is that, if a book addresses moral issues of the profoundest importance in a serious, scrupulous, and rigorous way, then, apart from the recognition it may receive among a tiny coterie of academic philosophers, it is virtually assured a secure niche in oblivion. No trade publisher will touch it. Review sections in newspapers and magazines, swollen with extravagant accolades for the shallow, vaporous, and ephemeral offerings of the popular culture, will ignore it. It makes no difference if the book is accessibly, lucidly, and even powerfully written. If the logic is complex, requiring sustained concentration and careful thought, and if the reader is neither massaged with rhetoric nor drugged with sentimentality, the book is destined for obscurity.”

There are no doubt many works of philosophy that are just not written well enough to communicate their ideas to a wider, non-academic audience. However, I can think of several recent books that tick all the boxes in terms of excellent, accessible writing. For example, I would put John Broome’s ‘Weighing Lives’ in this category. Yet these books still fail to reach a wider, non-academic audience despite the best efforts of the author.Report

Hey Nonny Mouse
Hey Nonny Mouse
Reply to  Trinidad
6 years ago

The problem absolutely goes both ways. The public is not approaching philosophy as it should. Thus, for professional philosophers, the important question is what we can do to ameliorate this.

Also, that some individual books fail to reach a wide audience doesn’t indicate anything per se. The public is fickle and there are no guaranteed successes in book publishing. On the other hand, the popularity of popular philosophy in general indicates that opportunities for us to be read are there if we want to try to exploit them.Report

JCM
JCM
Reply to  Trinidad
6 years ago

This is a very important point. I would go so far as to say that it is a key mark of excellent philosophy that it requires difficult intellectual virtues like courage, seriousness, deep openness even to the thought that one may be wasting one’s life or that one is exactly the sort of person one defines oneself as not being, patience. It demands not to be read as some amount of information or wisdom to be ingested like a commodity, but to be read as a partner in an exercise of spiritual self-criticism and growth. (Obviously enough, I have in mind here the old tradition of philosophy in which how to live is always in the background (or foreground!); Analytic philosophy of logic and its ilk is clearly a different kind of thing altogether to which none of this applies!)

‘Communicating’ or ‘popularising’ good philosophy, then, is a deeply different enterprise to popularising science, and intrinsically more difficult. (And as CB rightly points out, there are ideological/institutional forces against non-commodifiable things such as this.) This said, it is not impossible, and I would hope that there is still an audience out there. I often encounter people who have the requisite virtues outside philosophy: in architecture, modern art, radical left politics (and even other politics!), the British aristocracy, LRB-, NYRB-, TLS-, etc.-readers, and so on and on. I wonder how hard Broome really tried to get ‘Weighing Lives’ into the public discourse.Report

PeterJ
6 years ago

Ronnie Hawkins – I very much enjoyed your comments.

“I think the distinction John Searle makes between the “ontologically objective” (acknowledging the unfortunately controversial nature of that last term), those entities that make up the physical/biological reality studied by science, and the “ontologically subjective,” those things that “exist” only by human agreement, entities that we could alter or even abolish by conscious collective agreement, has profound implications for things like the TPP. ”

It would have profound implications for the whole of philosophy and human society, and yet it is not a well studied issue. Most university philosophers seem to take it for granted that there are “ontologically objective” phenomenon, even though they cannot prove it and despite the fact that it is denied by one entire tradition of thought. This is not good philosophising and the general public would be better off without it. The first rule of marketing is to get the product right.Report

g
g
6 years ago

It’s not clear to me that engaging a public audience is an easy task for a philosopher. It’s not merely a matter of overcoming one’s snobbery, but also one’s training. At least in my experience as a graduate student, I felt there was an unspoken pressure for there to be numbered premises or predicate logic or jargon in my paper in order for it to be of any quality. Communicating the content of a specialist field without the use of specialist trappings is itself a learned skill, and it’s certainly not a skill I was taught in my philosophical training.Report

CB
CB
6 years ago

@JCM

I admit that my comment tended toward exaggeration, which you are correct to call me out for. Of course the “philosophers should engage the public more” argument does not require the premise (pompous or not) that philosophers have any sort of monopoly over reason or sophisticated argumentation–simply having access to those things indicates that philosophers have something to contribute to discourse, a discourse in which they may participate happily along other classes of people who have (perhaps differently oriented) access to the virtues of reasonable argumentation. Fair enough.

I’m less inclined to so quickly capitulate on calling the premise of philosophical reasonableness an “assumption”. I take your point that philosophers have fought battles and crafted arguments for a very long time, intending to demonstrate (not merely assert) that “the philosopher” is in communion with reason, and as such plays a vital role in society (particularly a democratic one). I suppose (and now I really am just descending into pessimism, if that wasn’t evident enough from my original comment) that I take the contemporary manifestation of “the philosopher” to be an aspirational one, and therefore for any given professional philosopher, there is no guarantee that that person is relevantly similar enough to “the philosopher” to share in its hard-won recognition as a bearer of the light of reason. Part of the point of my David Lewis / TPP disanalogy was to suggest that the professionalization of the philosophy discipline seems likely to have created a new “breed” of philosopher in which cleverness is more valuable than wisdom. A possible result of such a shift could be that the eloquent arguments made throughout history in defense of “the philosopher” may still be valid, but may have no present-day referent.

On the other hand I am moved by your (partial) list of things philosophers do seem (if not uniquely, then unusually well-) positioned to do — “to distinguish positive and negative liberty, to argue against commodification of the university, to argue why equality of opportunity is more important than equality of outcome (or vice versa, I don’t know), to show people how the private and the public interact, to stop people conflating pleasure and annual income and goodness, to articulate a coherent notion of God, to ground morality, to argue for the social importance of art”– I completely agree with you that these are vital functions of the philosopher in a (fleetingly) democratic society.

What remains as the main upshot of my original comment is that the philosopher’s duty is not merely to do these things, but also to recognize the probability that these things will not be easily or well-received, and to direct one’s philosophical efforts against the forces which make such a recognition necessary. And that itself is not a new point, but is also one that Socrates knew well. I just worry that the clever philosopher sometimes thinks that s/he need only expose her/his cleverness to the world and progress will result.Report

JCM
JCM
Reply to  CB
6 years ago

I think we’re in total agreement, pessimism and all.Report

CB
CB
6 years ago

(And lest anyone take offense: I do not intend to imply that David Lewis was not wise but merely clever. Perhaps I do intend to imply that about some people–not any one in particular–who study him.)Report

Ronnie Hawkins
Ronnie Hawkins
6 years ago

To PeterJ–
You say “It would have profound implications for the whole of philosophy and human society, and yet it is not a well studied issue. Most university philosophers seem to take it for granted that there are “ontologically objective” phenomenon, even though they cannot prove it and despite the fact that it is denied by one entire tradition of thought. This is not good philosophising and the general public would be better off without it.”

Well, Peter, as I recall from an exchange we had on the “intellectual ergonomics” topic (and what a thoroughly well-beaten dead horse that one became), you never answered my question about what you would think re the existence of a cancerous mass, should a doctor tell you that you had one somewhere in your body. In such a situation, I might seek further tests, but the issue of concern to me would be the “mind-independent”existence, or nonexistence, of a cancer. The physical/biological state of certain cells of my body–whether or not they exhibit malignant neoplastic changes– is of a different ontological nature than whether or not I _HAVE A BELIEF_ in that regard; were this not the case, I might simply refuse to believe that I had cancer, and bingo! there would “be” none. One would hope that a good doctor, or several of them, could examine the situation from several different angles and determine if a cancerous mass was “objectively” present in my body (presumably physicians haven’t yet been scared away from using such a term, even though the very concept may have been villified by “one entire tradition” of philosophical thought). Perhaps armchair philosophers could not “prove” to themselves that an “objective” physical/biological reality actually “exists” in the manner of carrying out a mathematical proof of a theorem, but in real-world medicine a tissue diagnosis of malignancy would be sufficient “proof” of the existence of cancer to underwrite the choice of a specific course of therapy. If said philosophers took a different stand because their “theory” denied the existence of “ontologically objective” phenomena, then perhaps the public is better off without THEM–if they tried to communicate such a view to the public, they would likely be laughed off the stage, and rightly so.

The state of our planet’s biosphere, to my way of thinking, is another such example of a physical/biological reality regarding which there is a “fact of the matter,” one that exists independently of what sorts of beliefs we might have about it; while many people may deny that global warming/climate change is happening, whether or not it is happening is of a different ontological order than their BELIEFS about it (and of course the same can be said about the BELIEFS of the scientists who study such things, but we hope that those engaged in studying something have beliefs about that something that are better justified than are the beliefs of those who are not studying it). Searle’s important point, however, is that things like money are _nothing but_ a matter of belief, “all the way down.” A one-dollar bill is roughly the same in physical composition as a one-hundred-dollar bill; the difference between them is purely linguistic, a matter of different symbols that we humans have different sorts of beliefs about. That there is a difference of “value” between the two strips of paper, should we hold them side by side, seems to be an “objective” fact (should anyone dare to use that term) because it isn’t just a matter of my belief or your belief that there is a hundredfold difference in what they symbolize but rather A COLLECTIVELY HELD BELIEF by pretty much everyone in our language community–in Searlean terminology, this is an _epistemic_ sort of “objectivity.” _Ontological_ “objectivity,”on the other hand, refers to their _mode of existence_; their existence as ink-marked strips of paper would be termed “ontologically objective,” or mind-independent, while their existence as “a one-dollar bill” and “a hundred-dollar bill, depending as it does entirely on our beliefs–us conceptually investing them with differential “value”–would be termed “ontologically subjective.” The difference that we recognize between them is a purely symbolic difference, a difference in what we (collectively) BELIEVE about them, not in what they ARE, in a mind-independent fashion.

The reason why grasping this ontological distinction is so important is that it makes us face what we are doing now as a species–to put it bluntly, we have a situation where the vast majority of us human primates are engaging in activities largely determined by a socially conditioned desire to chase after symbols, “entities” that are desirable in themselves simply because of the BELIEFS of other human primates that they are desirable, to the virtual exclusion of paying attention to the effects of those activities on the physical/biological reality on which all of our lives depend. As long as everyone continues to believe in the whole symbol-system that frames the “value” of the strips of paper, or electronic blips or however else these “dollars” are instantiated, the system “works,” but it is vulnerable not only to a generalized failure of such collective belief (as happens when currencies become devalued and “collapse”) but also, more seriously, when the things that our collective chasing after such symbols cause us to do to the real, “ontologically objective,” actually existing biosphere start to disrupt its functionality, as, e.g., when the goal of “making money” leads people to send drilling rigs to the Arctic as it melts to pump out more oil that, when burned, will make the Arctic melt even faster, and so on. If our biosphere shifts into another basin of attraction, we won’t be able to collectively “think it away,” any more than you or I could “think way” a cancerous tumor; but together we could “think away,” or radically reorganize, the “rules” of our economic symbol-system. Right now we’re engaging in some very stupid collective activities, and while many people have some intuition that this is the case, most people don’t seem to understand the difference between what is physical/biological reality (the nature of which can’t be changed by human fiat) and what is just a belief system (which CAN be changed by collective human decision making)–if they did, then together we might be able to make some more sensible decisions about what we should and should not do.

It originally seemed to me that professional “ontologists” could try to make this fundamental ontological distinction clear to the public–“deflating” our ecocidal economism–but I now seem to be finding out that most of them, living conceptually largely within a linguistic bubble while socially staying within very conventional boundaries defined for them by others, fail to grasp this fundamental distinction themselves. It is a sad situation, to say the least.Report

PeteJ
6 years ago

Ronnie Hawkins

I think we may be slightly at cross-purposes. You are making distinctions between phenomena on the basis of their physicality, (roughly speaking), while I am denying the ontological objectivity of physicality itself. Or, you are talking about phenomena, while I am going beyond phenomenology to ontology. I can see that some objects are more painful to bump into than others but this is not a proof of ontologically objective phenomena. There can never be any such proof, and many would deny the possibility of such a phenomenon.

Searle’s distinction is useful for dealing with some issues, no doubt, but it has no basis in metaphysics. Some things are physical and some are not but none of them can be established as ontologically objective.

“It originally seemed to me that professional “ontologists” could try to make this fundamental ontological distinction clear to the public–“deflating” our ecocidal economism–but I now seem to be finding out that most of them, living conceptually largely within a linguistic bubble while socially staying within very conventional boundaries defined for them by others, fail to grasp this fundamental distinction themselves.”

Well, professional ontologists maybe. We are both complaining about them but for different reasons. You say they should take account of the relative existence of money, say, as compared with trees. I say that for a metaphysical view they should take into account the possibility that trees are no more ontologically objective than democracy. I suppose my objection would be that ontological objectivity should be established and not assumed. By assuming it we may be, and I would say are, painting ourselves into an philosophical corner from which there would be no escape.

Searle’s approach may be suitable for practical political/social decision-making but it would be highly objectionable in philosophy. So perhaps we are working at rather different levels of analysis.Report

Brint Montgomery
Brint Montgomery
6 years ago

I cannot say I know the man personally, but I have been very impressed by the public face of (analytical) philosophical analysis by one John Danaher on his blog “Philosophical Disquisitions”. As a quick link, it’s here: http://philosophicaldisquisitions.blogspot.com/Report

Ronnie Hawkins
Ronnie Hawkins
6 years ago

For PeterJ:

You say: “I can see that some objects are more painful to bump into than others but this is not a proof of ontologically objective phenomena. There can never be any such proof, and many would deny the possibility of such a phenomenon. . . . I suppose my objection would be that ontological objectivity should be established and not assumed. By assuming it we may be, and I would say are, painting ourselves into an philosophical corner from which there would be no escape.”

I agree that we are arguing at cross purposes here. I am trying to garner some philosophical interest in addressing a very serious real-world problem, the apparent fact that many, many people currently live as though the humanly constructed symbol-world based on money is somehow more fundamental than the physical/biological world which supports their lives, including their ability to conceptualize about, and thus bring into a subjective sort of “existence,” things like money. I think Searle is right on target when he asks why so many people “cheerfully accept what would appear to be unjust arrangements” ( as he puts it, “how do we get away with it?”) and answers “people do not typically understand what is going on. . . they tend to think of [things like money, private property, and other sorts of social institutions] as part of the natural order of things, to be taken for granted in the same way they take for granted the weather or the force of gravity” (2010, 107). One possibility that I see (admittedly a distant one, at least given our present state of social inertia) for getting humanity to change its current ecocidal course is for a certain critical percentage of our species to wake up to what I (as well as Searle) continue to see as a crucial ontological difference and start focusing our collective attention on changing our malleable social constructions so as to preserve the only-so-resilient biosphere that those constructions are currently directing us to destabilize. It seems incredibly stupid for us not to do so, and for intellectuals who understand the problem to twiddle around and do nothing about it.

You, however, seem to require a “proof” of the very existence of this biosphere that I believe our lives depend upon, while at the same time maintaining that there can be no such proof. What would such a “proof” consist of, or in? Do you think your own existence as a human being requires such a “proof”? You continue to ignore my question about how you would approach, conceptually, being told by an authoritative source that you might have a cancerous tumor–would you be able to comfort yourself by doubting the “ontological objectivity” of such a thing? I would very much like to understand how your conceptual convictions translate into how you live your life (assuming that you actually have one).

Moreover, you say “Searle’s approach may be suitable for practical political/social decision-making but it would be highly objectionable in philosophy.” Excuse me, but I was under the impression that John Searle was a well-respected _philosopher_ of mind and language. It may be that the kind of ontology he writes about is classified as social ontology, whereas you seem to think that only the highly rarefied kind of conceptual analysis that cannot escape the self-enclosed bubble of its own endlessly repeating “arguments,” which reject and even denigrate the possibility of making contact with lived reality, deserves to be considered REAL ontology; indeed, you seem to be claiming that only the latter approach deserves to be considered “philosophy” at all. I find this to be highly insulting to the noble history of the discipline, if not to the current “profession.”

Quick note to Brint Montgomery: Thank you for referring me to John Danaher’s blog, which does seem to make an effort to engage with science and other aspects of the real world (and even gives a nod to Searle’s pointing out the “subjectivist ontology” of many aspects of our social reality). I was particularly interested in his first item yesterday on neuroscience and free will. It confirmed my impression that the “thesis of determinism” is still alive and well in academic philosophy, altho he (wisely?) refuses to discuss it, and it also confirms my understanding that a sizeable percentage of discussions in philosophy of mind are still conducted as though it makes sense to say things like “if event C causes an event E, then C is causally sufficient for E,” as if the highly complex intercellular interactions constantly going on in our brains should be conceptualized in such a linearly reductive way; I was glad to see that Danaher brings multiple realizability and the issue of grain size into the conversation.

I would like to introduce an example from the literature of biological science that, when put in perspective, demonstrates how vast the complexity of living organisms actually is, how far from simple, linear, deterministic “causation” the operations of life processes are at the many, many levels and grain sizes there are to be considered. An illustration from E. D. Levy et al.’s “Signaling Through Cooperation” (_Science_ 328 (2010): 983-984), a “perspective” on an original research article presented later in the issue, juxtaposes, on the left, a “textbook-depicted linear cascade” picturing the transmission of a signal for a response-generating change within the cell of a budding yeast as following a simple, unidirectional linear pathway connecting 5 nodes [the OLD way we conceptualized such things], with, on the right, a stylized “interaction network” among myriad kinases, phosphatases and associated proteins so complex that it looks like a veritable “cloud” (the original research article found 887 protein partners involved in 1844 interactions) of interactors interposed between “change” and “main response,” with “complementary response(s)” also generated, along with “noise” [the NEW way we should see them, based on contemporary science]. The authors state that living cells are “complex systems that are constantly _making decisions_ in response to internal or external signals,” and speak of this kind of interaction network as “a collaborative layer” that “can be pictured as a table around which decision-makers debate a question and respond collectively to information put to them, akin to a ‘democratic’ network”; they observe that, in addition to “necessity,” there is “a lot of ‘chance’ as well,” and at least imply that there may be a certain degree of “choice” going on too, even within this one signalling pathway within a single yeast cell (multiply the opportunities for flexibility and “choice” at such a grain size within our own, highly complex, multicellular bodies, including our highly interconnected brains!). The illustration is really quite striking, and could be a useful visual teaching aid in trying to get across what’s wrong with the OLD linear, reductionistic, deterministic thinking about “free will.” This is just one example of why I believe that, if our new knowledge were fully integrated into our worldview–new concepts _synthesized_ instead of old ones endlessly “analyzed”–our metaphysics would be changed in significant ways.Report

PeteJ
Reply to  Ronnie Hawkins
6 years ago

Ronnie –

“I agree that we are arguing at cross purposes here. I am trying to garner some philosophical interest in addressing a very serious real-world problem, …”

Okay. So am I, but from a different direction. I do see your point and it’s a good one. Indeed, I feel the whole thing is summed up long ago in an old Cree Indian saying that I’ve had pinned on my wall for decades…

“Only when the last tree has died and the last river has been poisoned and the last fish has been caught will we realize we cannot eat money.”

This says more than most long essays on the topic. But this is a social/economic issue, not metaphysical. My objection was to the idea that a philosopher would take the reality of anything for granted.

” You continue to ignore my question about how you would approach, conceptually, being told by an authoritative source that you might have a cancerous tumor–would you be able to comfort yourself by doubting the “ontological objectivity” of such a thing? I would very much like to understand how your conceptual convictions translate into how you live your life (assuming that you actually have one). ”

It would translate as Middle Way Buddhism, for which nothing would really exist. This works for my life well enough, and in my opinion it would be the best solution for both philosophical and ecological problems. It would be the reification of the unreal that causes all the problems, just as you say, except that for philosophy one has to go all the way down. Searle does not, (in this instance) so ends up with a social theory rather than a philosophical one.

“Excuse me, but I was under the impression that John Searle was a well-respected _philosopher_ of mind and language.”

Yes, he is. This is odd to me as he has solved no problems. I do not follow the practice of lauding philosophers who have solved no problems but happen to write well. Searle himself would not claim to understand philosophy.

“It may be that the kind of ontology he writes about is classified as social ontology, whereas you seem to think that only the highly rarefied kind of conceptual analysis that cannot escape the self-enclosed bubble of its own endlessly repeating “arguments,” which reject and even denigrate the possibility of making contact with lived reality, deserves to be considered REAL ontology; indeed, you seem to be claiming that only the latter approach deserves to be considered “philosophy” at all. I find this to be highly insulting to the noble history of the discipline, if not to the current “profession.”

This seems like a cheap shot. I am not in favour of “endlessly repeating “arguments,” which reject and even denigrate the possibility of making contact with lived reality.” In fact this exactly and precisely what I am objecting to and it characterizes Searle’s kind of philosophy. If you see this as insult to the “noble history of the discipline and the current profession” then it may be for I am a fierce critic, but it is not an insult to philosophy or its noble tradition outside of the profession, where there has been more success. If you can see a success in the profession then for the sake of PR it should be highlighted and publicised. As it is we have the Krauss/Dawkins brigade gathering strength and making good arguments.

The point I was making would be that however useful Searle’s view may be (and I believe he makes a good point), it is not a view grounded in any philosophical truths or that explains anything about ontology. It simply says that physical phenomena are more real than conceptual phenomena. This is not a philosophically sound view. For a start, it ignores the possibility that physical phenomena are conceptual phenomena. As I say, it backs him into a corner from which he cannot escape.

“This is just one example of why I believe that, if our new knowledge were fully integrated into our worldview–new concepts _synthesized_ instead of old ones endlessly “analyzed”–our metaphysics would be changed in significant ways.”

You speak for the Academy, where metaphysics is a mystery, and not all of philosophy. This continual focus on one group of philosophers and a way of thinking that has proved itself to be ineffective would be, in my opinion, the entire problem. There is no new knowledge in respect of metaphysics. I would rather say that if our old ideas were analyzed properly our metaphysics would improve in significant ways. But it does not happen. I do not know why. It is one of the puzzles that I’m trying to solve by chatting here.Report

Ronnie Hawkins
Ronnie Hawkins
6 years ago

Hi Peter–When you say “My objection was to the idea that a philosopher would take the reality of anything for granted,” and seem to be asking for a “proof” of the existence of the biosphere or of our own existences as living beings, it sounds to me very much like what might be said by the left hemisphere of a human brain operating without right-hemisphere input. As I have mentioned before, there is a good deal of empirical evidence now amassed regarding the different styles and abilities of our asymmetric cerebral hemispheres, and I would highly recommend reading Iain McGilchrist’s 2009 tome on the subject for anyone who would like to understand some of the major critiques of “analytic philosophy” made from “outside” this way of thinking–first of all, that there is a need to recognize that there IS an “outside” or alternative to this way of thinking. In most people, as McGilchrist describes, the left hemisphere is the seat of “language, logic, and linearity” of thought, where representations of the world that have already been constructed are presented and re-presented, divided up, “analyzed.” It is the right hemisphere, in contrast, that is open to intuiting the reality that provides the context of our lives, that takes an “I-thou” approach to other living beings rather than directing a manipulative, “I-it” kind of attention toward them, and that is able to “grasp the gestalt” of a relationship rather than demanding a linear, bit-by-bit establishment of the “truth” of something that can never adequately be “proven” according to these methods–THERE ARE OTHER METHODS BY WHICH WE CAN KNOW SOMETHING. One example of the two ways of approaching things can be seen in the “paradoxes” that have occupied many philosophers over the ages and continue to fascinate many of them now, at least those of this particular, peculiarly hypertrophic left-hemisphere persuasion. Take Zeno’s paradoxes, for example–we can never move at all, Achilles can never overtake the tortoise and a released arrow can never reach its target–IF you break motion down into presence at a series of static points and then suppose that they can somehow be summed together to give the motion; it is the right hemisphere that grasps the “whole” (recall the pictures, if you’ve seen them, of clock faces drawn by people who have had right-hemisphere strokes, all the numbers from 1 to 12 crowded together on the right half, leaving the other side bare). Serious difficulties arise when, as McGilchrist puts it, one begins to think, “not that there must be problems in applying this kind of locic to the real world–but that the real world isn’t the way we think it is _because logic says so_” (140). The right hemisphere doesn’t need a “proof” of its own existence, of the existence of loved others, or of the real world of its experience; it is the left hemisphere that continually demands such linear “proof,” and then is never satisfied with what it gets. A similar way of looking at Meno’s paradox: “”[A] man cannot search either for what he knows or for what he does not know[.] He cannot search for what he knows–since he knows it, there is no need to search–nor for what he does not know, for he does not know what to look for”–in place of “a man” I would put the left hemisphere, operating in isolation. But this is revealing of a large problem at the root of conceptual analysis itself, as apparently has been recognized but not as yet resolved.

But perhaps I have been misreading you in another way, a way that does not seem to have as much to do with analytic philosophy as with what might be called the unfortunate pessimism that has fallen upon so many of younger generations. You say, about your willingness to doubt the existence of an “ontologically objective” reality, “It would translate as Middle Way Buddhism, for which nothing would really exist. This works for my life well enough, and in my opinion it would be the best solution for both philosophical and ecological problems.” This is a form of quietism that I believe some would say is a misrepresentation of Buddhism (I’m not enough of a scholar in that field to debate the point), but I see it as a great cop-out, a way of trying to deny all the pain inherent in realizing that the way we humans are living now threatens the life of all we are amd all we have ever cared about–and yes, underneath all the left-hemisphere detachment and confabulation, I think we all, at some level, do care deeply about those we love and the natural world of which we are a part, no matter how much we might want to pretend differently.Report

PeterJ
6 years ago

Ronnie – I think we may be too far apart to sort this out. I don’t see the relevance of brain hemispheres, I’m not advocating quietism and I’m certainly not ‘copping out’ of anything.

I’m advocating taking metaphysics seriously as opposed to reducing it to a muddle of conjectures. I would say that a person who takes existence for granted is not a philosopher. I’m suggesting taking Zeno seriously. The idea that there is an ontologically objective phenomenon is untestable empirically and incoherent logically. Maybe there is one but if there is we’ll never know it.

I sympathise with your goals, of course, but I’d see the best way to achieve them as normalising people’s views on the facts. This would require establishing the facts. Ontologically objective phenomena are not facts but conjectures. If we can prove the existence of one we will have falsified a vast swathe of religion. I am not holding my breath.

I suppose I’m just suggesting that we don’t take things for granted, in particular the idea that we can actually get to the bottom of these issues and do not have to guess.Report

Ronnie Hawkins
Ronnie Hawkins
6 years ago

“I’m suggesting taking Zeno seriously.” You’re right, Peter, I think we are too far apart. And I see this statement as having everything to do with brain hemispheres–my right one is in touch with the fact that arrows really do reach their goals.Report

PeterJ
Reply to  Ronnie Hawkins
6 years ago

Your left one isn’t? But never mind. I’d love to continue but this would not be the place.Report

Ronnie Hawkins
Ronnie Hawkins
6 years ago

No, the right hemisphere is the “master” and the left–the linear, logical, language-obsessed one–is only the “emissary,” but it seems to have forgotten its proper place. Ignorance of the empirical shouldn’t be flouted like a badge of honor, although that does seem to be one more symptom of the “philosophy snobbery” this thread was originally about.Report

PeterJ
6 years ago

Ronnie –

I find myself am unable to connect the left/right brain issue with metaphysics. The way I see it, if we do not question the intrinsic reality of motion and arrows then we have adopted a conjectural metaphysical theory across both sides of our brain. Should we suggest that lay folk do the same? Or should we encourage them to examine the plausibility of this theory and consider the alternatives?Report

Ronnie
Ronnie
6 years ago

” if we do not question the intrinsic reality of motion and arrows then we have adopted a conjectural metaphysical theory across both sides of our brain.” Peter, it’s obvious you have not read anything about hemispheric asymmetry or you wouldn’t make such a comment. It might, however, be noted that “confabulation,” an activity frequently engaged in by the unbalanced left hemisphere, is a matter of talking freely about something one knows nothing about.

One way you might try to understand the difference between the ways the two hemispheres “see the world” is it’s similar to the difference between the positions of Zeno and Heraclitus. McGilchrist writes “Time is essentially an undivided flow: the left hemisphere’s tendency to break it up into units and make machines [clocks, watches, etc] to measure it may succeed in deceiving us that it is a sequence of static points, but such a sequence never approaches the nature of time [Heidegger objected strongly to this “series of points” idea also]. . . like a series of tangents that approaches ever more closely to a circle without ever actually achieving it” (76). (Of course, I’m sure you, operating primarily in the left-hemisphere mode, just automatically discard whatever Heraclitus or Heidegger might have said–most unfortunate, not to even bother to try to understand what they were getting at, in that it simply leaves you ignorant!)

Some other ways the contrast is characterized: “The right hemisphere prioritises what actually _is_, and what concerns us” (56); it is the hemisphere that is the seat of emotional and social intelligence and empathic identification with others. “The left hemisphere is the hemisphere of abstraction”; the right hemisphere gives us access to what “presences,” while “the left hemisphere can only re-present” (50). In studies of how we attend to what we apprehend, “Global attention, courtesy of the right hemisphere, comes first, not just in time, but [it] takes precedence in our sense of what it is we are attending to: it therefore guides the left hemisphere’s [serial and] local attention [to details], rather than the other way about” (43). “The right hemisphere sees the whole, before whatever it is gets broken up into parts in our attempt to “know” it” (46). The left hemisphere’s “superiority for language stems from its nature as the hemisphere of _representation_, in which signs are substituted for experience,” whereas the right hemisphere’s supposed visuospatial superiority probably arises “because this is the main route of perception of the external world, of things in and of themselves, as opposed to their signs” (70).

The observation that apprehension of something is a matter of FIRST “seeing the whole” and only later tracing serially the way its parts fit together in space or time seems that it might be brought to bear on Plato’s notion of knowledge as “remembrance”; similarly, Meno’s paradox might be addressed by noting that “If it is the right hemisphere that is vigilant for whatever exists ‘out there,’ it alone can bring us something other than what we already know” (40). The reason the “epistemic paradoxes” seem paradoxical is because the philosophers who fixate on them are seeing the world predominantly in the mode of their left hemispheres, ignoring or denying that it can be seen in any other way. Being “open to what presences” is not a matter of “adopting a conjectural theory”–it’s our primary way of apprehending the world (and the way infants and nonhuman animals apprehend it, too), and does not require a “theory.” But of course you can deny all of these considerations, if you want to (pretend to) dwell in a state of doubting that anything at all really exists. (I say “pretend to” because you can’t truly live in the world this way, though you can surely indulge in what Sartre called “bad faith”–but of course, you are likely to disregard everything that Sartre said too, if you’re even aware of what it was.)

I’ll take one more shot at trying to redirect your attention to “prioritis[ing] what actually _is_, and what [should] concern us”–take a look at this article in the August Esquire: http://www.esquire.com/news-politics/a36228/ballad-of-the-sad-climatologists-0815/.Report

PeterJ
Reply to  Ronnie
6 years ago

Ronnie

I think you have misunderstood my position. Probably my fault. I’m suggesting that the brain as a whole makes a mistake. There may be differences in how the two hemispheres operate but the net result is all the matters to me. Or you, come to that.

Regarding the continuum, I am a great fan of Hermann Weyl. As you will know he makes a clear distinction between the mathematical or conceptual continuum and the empirical or intuitive continuum, or, in Bradley’s terms, between Appearance and Reality. In my view this would be the answer to Zeno’s riddles, to recognise the conceptual nature of time and space. I am also a fan of Heraclitus and Heidegger, neither of whom took metaphysics lightly.

It seems to me that we agree about the conclusions our brains should be reaching but not about how it should reach them. You say we should allow our left-brain to take more dominance, I say we should use our right-brain more effectively. Either we end will end up agreeing with Weyl and Heraclitus that the world must be a unity.

You bristled at my comment that if we do not question the intrinsic reality of motion and arrows then we have adopted a conjectural metaphysical theory across both sides of our brain. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that our brain-hemispheres have taken a vote and agreed not to question these things. The philosophers you mention do not do this and I’m not quite sure why you think anybody should. Perhaps this is not what you meant to suggest.Report

Ronnie
Ronnie
Reply to  PeterJ
6 years ago

“You say we should allow our left-brain to take more dominance, I say we should use our right-brain more effectively.” No, Peter, this is exactly the opposite of what I’m saying. McGilchrist makes the point that our western culture seems to have become, over the last several centuries, more and more dominated by the left hemisphere’s type of thinking–abstract, linear, quantificational, mechanistic, not attuned to context or to relationships with living beings. I agree with him, and I think our severe economism, which makes us keep on pumping out the carbon even as the planet is destabilizing, is in large part due to this kind of brain asymmetry.

But I think it’s time to end this conversation, since I just don’t find the kind of conceptual flights of fancy that most philosophers who frequent this website want to engage in to be very interesting. I made a foray into “analytic metaphysics” to see if anybody claiming that specialty was interested in trying to apply what they do to solving the real, existential problems that we humans now face as a species, but it seems that the answer was generally “no.” Since those are the kinds of problems that I do find interesting, I’m going to focus my attention on addressing them in other ways now. Been nice talkin’ to ya!Report

PeterJ
Reply to  Ronnie
6 years ago

Right, left whatever. My suggestion was that we should use both halves of our brains better.

My interest is in philosophy, solving existential and ethical problems, not in neuroscience and sociology. I see no chance of the latter two helping us solve any environmental problems. I am very keen to solve the problems we face as a species but don’t share your view of what would be effective, so the ‘holier-than-thou’ comments were as uncalled for as the accusations of ignorance. Enjoyed the argument though.Report

Ronnie Hawkins
Ronnie Hawkins
6 years ago

I’m sorry if some of my comments seemed offensive or were hurtful, Peter. I want to say something like, don’t take it personally–much of what I said about being ignorant of the empirical aspects of our situation was aimed at a kind of anti-science smugness I’ve encountered in a number of “analytic” philosophers and that I seemed to be detecting in your responses, and I didn’t mean it to be an ad hominem attack. I am curious, though, how you can be so convinced that an understanding of neuroscience and social psychology will be of no help in solving the problems we humans have created for ourselves by being so destructive of the biosphere. Where do the roots of this destructiveness lie? Some of it is, I think, conceptual–like believing in Cartesian metaphysics, holding that humans are absolutely different from all other living beings, which presumably opens the door to our thinking that we can do with them whatever we wish, and with impunity. But if we are to effect a widespread change in our shared conceptual sphere, it is going to involve considerable change at the levels studied by neuroscience and social psychology as well.Report