Wednesday, 24 September 2014

The Yeti view of religion - sine qua non of 'New Atheism'

In his four Yale "Terry lectures" (2009), Terry Eagleton gives repeated reminders of the extremely narrow platform from which so-called 'New Atheists' so confidently pronounce on the falsity of religion. It is their frequently asserted, or implied, and automatically assumed concept of "Religion" (singular) as faith in the existence of a supernatural being. Daniel Dennett's definition of religion (from his book "Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon") is often cited as typical:
"social systems whose participants avow belief in a supernatural agent or agents whose approval is to be sought".

Eagleton refers to this as the "Yeti view of religion".

The typical view of New Atheists, and, he stresses, many Christians, contained in this definition, is that God exists rather as the Yeti exists, or Ley Lines or the Loch Ness Monster. The enlightenment-rationalist Dawkinses then, having taken up this view of religion as all that religion is, find that all that is needed to demolish Religion is lack of evidence in the sense that we should be able to use the same techniques to prove the existence of God as we would use to prove the existence of necrophilia or Justin Bieber.

It is nigh-on pointless to try to persuade anyone (particularly of the Dawkins-stripe) who takes this "Yeti view of religion" that they might be missing something. This is because he will most probably insist that only what is rational to believe is scientific. The moment one attempts to engage with him from the starting point of science and empirical evidence (for example to question, as William James did, and so as did Karl Popper in a different way, that "evidence" may not be completely free of human interests) one has already given some tacit confirmation that his Yeti view of religion has some traction, that it presents a real challenge. But having begun to engage in that way, the onus will be very great indeed to bring the discussion, and the skeptic's attention, to consideration of philosophical aspects of science, and hence to metaphysics, which could show up religious thinking as containing any reason at all. (A great onus simply because philosophising is difficult and not everyone likes it or is prepared or motivated to enter into it). Put this kind of discussion on a stage, with a live audience, and the temptation to resort to rhetorical performances and knock-down arguments will often be too great, and the result will be "opponents" talking-past each-other with little or no communication.

The best of these live discussions, in my view, was that between Richard Dawkins and the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, moderated by (Agnostic) philosopher Anthony Kenny, which took place in 2012.
In this discussion, in my view, Dawkins' limited view of religion shows up in what he does not say, and (together with this, and just as importantly) the way he does not say it.

One good thing about this discussion is that, at around 18m30 (in answering Dr Williams's query that Darwin's theory and science in general does not do well in addressing the phenomenon of consciousness) Dawkins asserts his commitment to philosophical materialism. This is a great help for anyone who wants to try this engagement via philosophy, because materialism has certain consequences and counter-arguments that can be addressed. And note Dawkins's prior statements to the effect that he has faith in the idea that all complex things can be explained as the result of the interaction of their simpler parts.

At around 29m, Anthony Kenny queries Dawkins' belief that there is no free will and asks him to comment on the "gene determinism" that his readers often attribute to him. As Kenny acknowledges, Dawkins rejects "gene determinism" (that not just all our development but all our actions are genetically determined), but he queries how Dawkins' squares his rejection of gene-determinism with his belief that there is no free will. As Kenny puts it "Usually, being a determinist means not believing in free will".
Dawkins responds that he rejects "gene" determinism, but maintains determinism in general. He says (in that characteristic tone of authority, which seems so out of place, especially given that he's talking to a philosopher) "You can be a determinist without being a genetic determinist." (!?)

It seems to me that this begs the question that genes are part of the universe: if determinism holds in the universe, then are genes not determined along with the humans in whose cells they are found?

Dr Williams comes in here, and asks of Dawkins "Does it [determinism] mean that in principle every decision is predictable?" (If the universe - including human subjects - is wholly determined, and one has confidence in knowing how all the matter in the universe interacts, as strong scientist-materialist-determinists claim, then one might well be led to take on the belief that all decisions are predictable. So this seems a fair question).
Dawkins replies that he is hesitant over decision-predictability "because of quantum indeterminacy", but he quickly adds (as if this is the alternative) "but I don't believe you can get away from determinism by postulating that there is a ghost inside that takes decisions which are somehow independent if physical reality".
(This is an example of Dawkins' Cartesian view: there is material, physical reality and then there is immaterial spirit. He takes over this philosophical dualism without question.)
Dr Williams responds: "I don't think that believing in free will commits you to a ghost taking decisions independent of physical reality".

Seeing an opportunity to bring Dawkins to philosophise, Dr Williams poses to Dawkins the possibility that the distinction between mind and absolutely inert stuff is not where it is thought to lie; that the constituents of the universe do not resolve into, on the one hand, inert matter, and on the other hand, mind or spirit. If that is so then, he says: "a decision is not something that an independent homunculus inside me makes never mind what happens [but] it is something that emerges from a set of physical conditions not wholly determined but innovating".
Dr Williams offers the notion of "stuff" as active and not inert, and he puts this as a question and a challenge to Dr Dawkins' received Cartesian view.

Dawkins replies, consistent with his materist-determinism: "They [the set of physical conditions] could be wholly determined, but you would have the illusion of freedom."

Dr Williams comes back immediately with the question: "How would you tell the difference?"

At this point Dawkins recalls certain neurological experiments which revealed that actions we take over bodily movement (like picking up a glass) are decided in the brain before we become conscious of deciding them, and this is, for him, evidence that we have the illusion of free will. 
Dr Williams returns that this "less than clinching" because it desks with rather uninteresting decisions. The clinching evidence would concern the kinds if decision over who to marry, who to vote for.
Now Dawkins comes back (as if Dr Williams, or for that matter anyone who has a reasonable grasp if the significance if these issues, has not already reached this conclusion) "It's quite difficult to do experiments on that kind of..."
Exactly, Dr Dawkins, exactly.

I think these exchanges show up Dr Dawkins lack of awareness of the philosophical problems thrown up by his assumed philosophical position, and his, well, inability to philosophise.

Dawkins concedes: "Well I'm not a philosopher, that would be obvious. Perhaps you should have invited a philosopher instead" (!!)

In this way, Dawkins simply brushes of and absolves himself of responsibility for holding the beliefs he does hold. He simply gives to "philosophers" that responsibility, and carries on as if his views have met no challenge whatsoever.

This is an example, I think, of the kind if difficulty faced in trying to philosophise with the Dawkinses who hold the Yet view of religion.

There, I have said enough.

Please listen to the discussion, and tell me that you think.

No there is more here.
At about 53 m, there is a question that is being clarified by a member of the audience. The question is:
"Human beings are immensely imperfect, with so many of our potentialities unrealised. Are these failures of evolution or failures if design."
Here is a very good and insightful question. 

Dawkins' immediate response is to think of "imperfections" in terms of physiological "design", and calls up the laryngeal nerve which originates in the mammalian brain but passes around the heart before arriving at the larynx. He explains this feature in evolutionary terms, but he would not regard this (though he does not say this) as an "imperfection", because he denies any notion of "perfection" in nature. Every physical form in nature, every state of inert matter, is just as accidental and arbitrary as any other.
Dawkins acknowledges that this says nothing about "unrealised potentialities", and wonders if the questioner is thinking of this in terms of the doctrine of original sin.

Clarification is sought from the questioner. What does she mean by "imperfection" and "unrealised potentialities"?

The questioner clarifies that by "imperfections" and "unrealised potentialities" she means the occasions of tragedy in human life, such as babies born but soon dying, people not being able to achieve what they could have achieved in different circumstances, and so on. "Do we need an explanation", she asks, for these occasions of un-fulfilment?

Firstly, it is a good question, because it acknowledges the fact (and it surely is a fact) that humans require meaning in order to survive. A meaningless world is unendurable, because suffering is everywhere with us.
Secondly, It is a good question because it calls up the idea of perfectibility. There is nothing that can be thought of as imperfect unless there is something more perfect against which it is compared.
Thirdly, it is a good question because it refers directly to the competing world views offered by the protagonists: Atheism and Christianity.

On the one hand, we are offered by the materialist-determinist-atheist the prospect of blind evolution and inert matter unfolding in lawful ways throughout the universe until the end of time, in which case do I understand the meaning of the occasion of imperfection in human life and tragic things through this story and hope that evolution will move to a state where there is less imperfection?
Dr Dawkins' answer is: "No! Stuff happens!"

But notice that he adds that "Death before reproduction is what natural selection is all about, and it's tragic" (at 55m). But "tragic" is a human sympathy, a meaning, and his use of the word here is, I'm sure, genuine.

With that "No" Dr Dawkins' intolerance shows through (also seen in the 2006 BBC film "The Trouble with Atheism"). He finds the need for meaning to be an in-eliminable human weakness - a defect which he does not regard himself as having. His "No!" carries that force. He really wants the questioner to not seek meaning for tragedy. And yet - which suggests he's not super-human after all - he doesn't stop at calling suffering in nature "tragic". (Even my perception that things are "tragic", rather than simply indifferent, presupposes my investing things with meaning - but why should we assign any meaning at all to the pure accident of forms around us, whatever they are, especially if we are also purely accidental agglomerations of inert matter?
Why then should we want to live?) The whole new-atheist-aligned talk of "illusory" self-consciousness implies, indeed their matter-spirit dualism leads us to conclude, that our reality is "really" this complete meaninglessness. Dawkins, like his fellow 'New Atheists, doesn't take God's absence seriously.

On the other hand, we have the notion of a God-designed world, in which case, why doesn't God act to make the world more perfect?
Dr Williams response is to caution against the notion of God as a designer, because all we have to understand "design" by is what it is like for us to design. He emphasises the intelligibility of the universe (and we humans the ones finding it intelligible) as part of what he means by God as an ultimately unknowable creative intelligence.

One final thing.
Towards the close, around 1hr19m, Dr Dawkins, in some exasperation, wants to know, given the very beautiful and inspiring theories of origins developed in physics and biology, why the priest wants to "clutter up your world view with something so messy as a God". Why, he asks, resort to ancient scripture for anything when we have 21st century science.
Once again, we meet Dawkins' lack of awareness of, and more importantly, lack of respect for, the dimension of meaning in life and of Christianity. As Dr Williams responds, the account in Genesis offers a different kind of account, that can and has and does (for many people) satisfy the question of the meaning of my place in time and the universe
Williams: "I don't see God as this extra thing shoe-horned in..."
Dawkins: "Well that's exactly how I see it".

No movement whatsoever. It's depressing.
I like Dawkins' accounts of evolution. He just can't philosophise. He knows he can't but he persists, hectoringly, demandingly, in challenging others, including philosophers and Theologians, to justify themselves to him, in terms, of course, satisfactory to himself.
I'll stop now.

Just to return to the part of the discussion in which Dawkins claims that there is no free will. A very great deal depends on his having assumed mind-body (Cartesian) dualism. But it requires philosophical work, which he is either not prepared or not capable of doing, to understand its influence.
Dawkins points to the experiment of the person lifting the glass and on the basis of the results of that experiment he says "You see the decision to lift the glass was taken long before the person was conscious of having taken the decision, therefore free will does not exist, it's an illusion."

Anthony Kenny: Most philosophers don't like the naive picture of free will that that experiment presupposes ... that there is a soul inside in which mental events occur that are the causes of bodily events. ... It's surprising that you [Dawkins] should accept it [i.e. accept the experiment and what it 'shows'] because it's very much the 'ghost in the machine' picture [Dawkins tacitly accepts the mind-body duality picture but denies there is a ghost]. You say, "Ah! The 'machine' works before the 'ghost' does", but I think most philosophers today believe that the whole idea of constructing mind and body like that is quite wrong."

RD: "But why doesn't it destroy the idea of free will?"

AK: "Because it only shows the order of events in an act that is undetermined may not be what you would have expected if you had the false philosophical idea."

The experiment presupposes, and 'tests for', the mind-body duality - the false philosophical idea. The experimenter anticipates mental activity giving rise to physical activity, and looks closely at the brain (where it is supposed the immaterial mind must be seated), then finding that the physical activity precedes the brain activity concludes there is no mind.

Only someone who holds the mind-body duality to be true would attempt to find evidence for mind with this kind of experiment - as if 'chopping up' the brain will somehow show "Aha! You see, there's nothing extra there!" It is very odd that one should look to demonstrate the non-existence of something immaterial by examining material as minutely as possible in order not to find it.

I find brief and sensitive - and humane - reflections on the incoherence of Cartesian dualism (and the un-knowing perpetuation of it in para-science writing) in Marilynne Robinson's "Absence if Mind - the dispelling if inwardness from the modern myth of the self". See the chapter "Thinking Again".

See essay by Dr Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury, here:

Monday, 22 September 2014

(Not quite) Richard Rorty vs Jerry Coyne, on "The Compatibility of Science & Religion"

Richard Rorty's talk on "The Compatability of Science & Religion" is available on YouTube here:

Rorty (1931-2007) espoused philosophical pragmatism and a pragmatist view of language.
My understanding is that he came to this position via analytic philosophy, in which the main concern is the analysis of language (and therefore of thought).

In this talk, Rorty rehearses and develops pragmatist (James & Dewey) notions of different descriptions of things - such as scientific and theological descriptions - as serving different needs (towards human happiness), there being no one description that is closer to "reality" than any other, and this being a kind of utilitarian concept of language. 'True' is 'belief that works'. This Pragmatist approach towards language gives up on attempts to search for "truth", in the sense of descriptions of the intrinsic nature of things, or what things really are in themselves.

He says, at about 17 minutes:
"These philosophers [Pragmatists] all deny that truth is a matter of correspondence to the way things are independent of our needs, for, they argue, there is no way we could ever test for such correspondence: any proposed test would have to compare the way we talk about things with the way things are apart from being talked about; and we have no idea what such a comparison would look like."

He goes on to discuss William James' essay "The will to believe", which is James' reply to the charge made by scientist-positivist W K Clifford that religious belief is intellectually irresponsible and "sinful" because it is belief on "insufficient evidence". 
In reply James questions the assumption that evidence "floats free of human interests". 

On the egalitarianism which runs through Mill's (utilitarian) and James' (pragmatism) work, Rorty says: "[it] is a moral attitude which ... could only flourish in a culture which had been told, century after century, that God's will was for human beings love one another."

The conclusion of the talk is something along the following lines (I'm paraphrasing). 
Lives that have been "smooth" (Rorty's term) may not contain moments of agony where religion or religious kinds of experience arise. A person asserting that religion is not any kind of knowledge or source of knowledge, or not serving any kind of dimension of human life, may well have known only that kind of "smoothness". (There is a temptation to deny feelings in others that are unknown to oneself, maybe accompanied by feelings of indignation that others should claim to have had those unknown feelings). Meeting such a person, and wanting to challenge his assertion, it is pointless to urge them to agonise or wax philosophical.

Now, having listened to Richard Rorty (philosopher) it might be interesting, or a challenge, or curious, to hear Jerry Coyne (evolutionary biologist) lecture on "Why science and religion should not cohabit" (the in-compatibility between science and religion), here:

In the opening few minutes, the premise of Coyne's lecture emerges: that there is a conflict because religion and science - he claims - compete as accounts of 'what there is'. I don't accept this characterisation of religion. (Compare the passage in Rorty's talk in which he mentions the period in which, on the whole, religious institutions - at least the Christian religion - stopped attempting predictions of events in nature when science was seen to do this better). But Coyne, lecturing in Edinburgh University, UK, may be describing a particular section of the religious community, in the US especially, that is opposed to certain scientific claims or theories and offers alternative revelatory claims or speculations as preferred accounts of 'what there is'. It strikes me that Coyne takes this form of religion to be what religion is, opposes it, and builds his presentation on this narrow platform. In my view it is a too-limited view.

Philosophical reflection on the metaphysical aspects of science, the philosophy of science, or epistemology - how and what we can know - bring one into contact with the issues Rorty raised about "truth" (e.g. the passage in his talk quoted above, about truth as correspondence). Through this effort of reflection it may be possible at least to see where Rorty is coming from, so that whether one agrees or disagrees with his philosophical pragmatism, one will at least have developed appreciation of the different philosophical positions and, with that, the humility to acknowledge that these are open questions, and demanding of the best intellectual efforts to address adequately. Only when one's assumptions and myths are challenged - when life is not "smooth" - will study of these things appear as important or necessary. Only an unchallenged mind is going to dismiss them as nothing at all to bother me about.

Compare Rorty's closing statement on the "smooth" life, free of agony (as one in which religion and faith can appear as alarming, irrational or barmy) with the more acerbic but (I believe) similarly intended words from Terry Eagleton's 2009 lecture "Christianity: fair or foul" (

"The trouble with the Dawkinses of this world ... is that they don't find themselves in a frightful situation at all. ... [For them] things are just not that desperate enough and in their view it's simply self-indulgent leftist rhetoric to imagine that they are. Your average liberal rationalist doesn't need to believe that despite the tormented condition of humanity there might still, implausibly enough, be hope, since he doesn't believe in such torment in the first place."

I borrow from the same lecture by Terry Eagleton* the following analogy to help convey the flavour of Jerry Coyne's lecture at Edinburgh University: Listening to Jerry Coyne lecture on religion and theology is like listening to someone talk about a novel as if it is a piece of botched sociology.
That says it all.

*(Eagleton's lecture is one of four presented in his "Reason, Faith and Revolution", 2009)

Tuesday, 16 September 2014

The violence of surfacelessness in conceptual visual art

I am thinking of what Duchamp called "non-retinal" visual art, and of its violence.

Such "conceptual" visual art, of which I take Duchamp's ready-mades to be the type, such as his "bottle rack", is art that by-passes the body. This is because it lacks surface, which is the same as lacking touch.

I mean that when we contemplate, say, "bottle rack", in the art-space-gallery, there is no call to consider the object other than in its signifying or symbolic potential. I suppose we can, if we want, consider the aesthetic (by which I mean sensory-perceptible) qualities of the ready-made, and certainly a bottle-rack (like many other things) has a strangeness, and perhaps a strange beauty, when seen out of its normal context. Its "look", though, is as it is. And the artist is presumably not selecting the ready-made for its surface-visual seductiveness except at a relatively superficial level. It's "look" is what it already is. The placing of it in the space of art, and its naming as art, is what sets the thoughts going towards meanings, such as "Is this art?", "What was 'retinal' art, if this is 'non-retinal' art?"

When I look at a painting I see a surface that has been touched (or from which touch has been withheld - but in which case touch is still implied, by its absence).

A photograph has no surface.

I saw the John Stezaker show at Whitechapel Art Gallery in 2012(?)
I feel (I nearly wrote "fear") that the work is substantial. The choice of photographs (1930-1950s period, am I remembering rightly?) makes me think of things just beyond memory, now looking too distant to have influence. Then the splicing and slicing interruptions of the visage are very powerful. The synapses are severed as one looks.

From Charles Baudelaire "The Desire To Paint"
"She is beautiful, and more than beautiful: she is overpowering. The colour black preponderates in her; all that she inspires is nocturnal and profound. Her eyes are two caverns where mystery vaguely stirs and gleams; her glance illuminates like a ray of light; it is an explosion in the darkness."

I found myself feeling quite nauseous. Again, it was something about the work by-passing the eye and going straight into the mind, straight into meaning. I'm not sure what I mean by this. I think of Duchamp's term, "brain-facts".

The photograph has no surface.

In by-passing the body, conceptual visual art, deploying objects (including humans) and resolving things to their meaning in a system of objects, in particular arrangements, does a kind of violence. I think it acts to separate the intellect from the senses. One ends up being, not an eye, but a camera.

Painting is also "conceptual", or can be, but it has a surface.

Link to blog, where is an article on the non-retinal

Monday, 1 September 2014

Scientism - a commitment to a scientific view of total reality

From Bryan Magee, "Confessions of a Philosopher" (1997), p.401-403, in the discussion of the philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer:

"In recent centuries, there have been quite a lot of people in the West who believed, often as a matter of principle, that we should do everything we could to construct our total conception of the way things are out of what can be inter-subjectively observed. Such a programme constitutes a commitment to a scientific view of total reality.
Schopenhauer sees this as an almost absurd error, not because he has anything against science, but because of it's obvious limitations.   ....
The growth of scientific knowledge seemed to him among the few glories of mankind's history, one of not many things that human beings could be proud of.   .....
Nevertheless, its explanations, though of prodigious richness, value and fascination, can never be exhaustive, because it is characteristic of science that it explains things in terms [e.g. Laws involving entities and concepts such as mass, energy, light, gravity, distance, time] that are themselves left unexplained. .....
Ultimate explanations, then, are not to be looked for in science. The insistent belief that they are is not a scientific belief but a belief in science, a metaphysical belief, an act of faith....
At its crudest it takes the form of materialism, which Schopenhauer once described as 'the philosophy of the subject who forgets to take account of himself'. Unfortunately it seems to be characteristic of many people who have committed themselves to an act of faith in the ultimate ability of science to explain everything that they construe any denial of this as hostility to science [if not also as 'irrationalism', AvProtestant]"

Some readers will be familiar with the criticisms made by Mary Midgley of certain claims emerging in evolutionary biology and neuroscience to give a scientific accounts of morality and consciousness.

I think of a discussion on BBC radio 4, first broadcast 5th November 1998 (
between the physicist and popular-science author John Gribbin and MM.

In this discussion Dr Gribbin confidently asserts that the human-social activity "football" (Mary Midgley's example) can be fully and meaningfully explained through a complete physical account of all that is happening in a football match, which would include the account of the interaction of particles forming the brains of the players, referee and spectators.
"Money" is another example Midgley offers of a real thing, something we see in our universe, which - again she challenges Dr Gribbin - cannot be understood from an account of the physical world. Such a physical account could never enable understanding of what money is.
Dr Gribbin disagrees.

What MM is up against, and Dr Gribbin exhibits, is a mind-set which starts from an assumption that all that happens in minds, including self-awareness and free-will and the grasping of what money and football are, experiences of fantasy, love, despair, trust, is ultimately interactions of sub-atomic particles in the brain, and that the scientific account of these interactions is, first, within grasp, and, second, the fundamental explanation; fundamental to all explanations.
Therefore, any, say, "anthropology" of money, or of football, or any other account of any event, that claims itself to be "knowledge", must be further translatable and reducible to this fundamental physical-atomistic-naturalistic account.
As Professor Colin Blakemore asks, insistently, of his audience in the debate "Mazes of the Mind": "What is the explanatory alternative?" His answer is: there is none.
Professor Blakemore, and Dr Gribbin in his way, means to assert that there can be no "knowledge" (and no understanding, and no explanation, without such knowledge) that is not the "knowledge" of things that we attain through science.

It is a mindset that starts out regarding such things as novels (works of art) as shoddy sociology, and religion as poor science. 
It is a mindset that ultimately eliminates meaning (nihilistic).
Myth, as Popper (and Freud) wrote, is the character of science and that out of which it emerged: imaginative accounts of events as seen from our human perspective, and never attaining true objective knowledge.

I recommend listening to the discussion to get a proper flavour of the absence of self-reflection that prevents Dr Gribbin from seeing the grounds for the criticisms that are put to him by MM.

Here a quote from the auto-biography of Bryan Magee (p.426/7), again from the chapter on Schopenhauer, that echoes MM's approach.

"The metaphysical visions of philosophers are not empirically verifiable, and this us as true of those of the empiricists as of any if the others. When Locke, like Descartes, presents us with a vision of the universe as a vast cosmic machine made up of lesser machines, all of them subject to the same scientific laws, this is not a scientific theory that observers can investigate and test, it is a vision of how things are; yet it will have a thousand practical influences on whoever accepts it. And when, by contrast, Schelling comes along and says that reality us not so much like a machine as like a single great big living organism, and is therefore better understood as a quasi-organic developmental process rather than as something mechanical, and that in the highest products of the human mind this process achieves an understanding of itself, there are no crucial experiments by means of which scientific-minded observers can adjudicate between this view and Locke's to decide which of the two, if either, is 'true'. However, to conclude from this that such world outlooks are nothing but words, and therefore fanciful, a lot of nonsense - a load, really, of meaningless metaphysics - is a profound mistake. It is those metaphysical visions that give rise to our research programmes, as they did in the case of both Plato and, two thousand years later, empirical scientists."

Here is another quote, this time from Rudiger Safranski's biography of Martin Heidegger (1999), which I think chimes very closely with the criticism Mary Midgley makes (futilely) of Dr Gribbin's views, drawing on the same two examples of phenomena offered by MM: money and football.

"If, says Heidegger, we approach a "subject" in order to discover what it is; if we wish to comprehend its "Being-meaning" (Seinsinn), we must first get into the "implementation meaning" (Vollzugsinn), from which alone its Being-meaning can be derived. Anyone entering our economic life from a strange culture, and still unable to grasp its implementation meaning, will be unable to comprehend the Being-meaning of money, even though he may touch it, or weigh it in his hand; ...... This applies to the different areas of Being - art, literature, religion, calculation with imaginary numbers, or football. These considerations, moreover, also - by argument e contrario - reveal the blinkered aspect of the reductionist method. If we say: thinking is a function of brain physiology, ..., then we are making a statement about the Being of thinking ... without having placed ourselves in their implementation. Viewed from a non-implementation angle, all this is not present at all - the game, the music, the picture, religion."

Friday, 22 August 2014

The idea of a fixed scale of values

Listen to the claims made ("The Great Debate: Can science tell us right from wrong", Nov 6th 2010, Arizona State University, USA) by a prominent "new atheist" that values must, ultimately, be grounded in "the way the universe is". Sounds ok. But the notion is that there is a determinable constellation of "matter" or stuff in the universe which we can identify with (that corresponds to) value. In this way, he asserts, values are facts, and such facts are means to state, "objectively", that X way of life is of greater worth than Y way of life.

I won't mention this man's name, because every mention of it provides him with a bit more oxygen of publicity. He is Dr H.

This idea of a constellation of stuff in the universe corresponding to a value, so that we can say that such and such constellation represents greater "well-being" than that other constellation, this is to be preferred over that, is not new.

I reproduce here a comment I made on this video.
It is to remind me that once I experienced the profound pull of this idea, in the form that all artistic expression must be judged according to some or other fixed scale (pointing to its moral value).
It's also to remind me that great thinkers have dealt with it, whose writing has helped me, for example Isaiah Berlin's "The Divorce between the sciences and the humanities", in which he deals at length with the idea of "one true answer to all proper questions".
It's also to remind me of the urge, which comes from a kind of fear of (complex) feeling, to render things in unambiguous terms, somehow finding poetic forms a deliberate mis-representation of the truth. Think of Bentham's method of "paraphrasis".

"Take the part of his address 10.06 to about 11.10.
Here he re-asserts the existence of a fixed scale of moral worth, being a scientifically-determinable fact of the world, by which one would be able to say that "this way of life is morally superior to that way of life" or "this way of life is of greater value than that".
In my view this concept pre-supposes that every expression of "how things should be", or of "how to be human" (and we do see cultural difference in the world) is translatable into any other such expression so that, however different they may be, they can be compared to this notional scale. This in turn pre-supposes some sort of common "basic elements" or terms to which all expressions can be reduced - i.e. be re-stated unambiguously - so that they can be so compared. In my view there are no such "basic elements". (Dr H proposes that these "basic elements" are to be found in brains, or some observable constellation of matter that corresponds to optimum "well-being". And what criteria would he use to assert that "this and not that" constellation of matter corresponds to the greater "well-being"? Again, this calls on the concept of a fixed scale, now of "well-being", which somehow exists as a fact of the world. Ad infinitum. It is an ideal, and for that reason, not a fact. And also, for that reason, it is an aspect of thinking and philosophy is the discipline to address it, not science.)

This is the "fixed scale"-concept which Dr Blackburn refers to in his reply.
I believe it is more than likely that it is an idea (supporting a philosophical standpoint) that comes to the aid of someone for whom difference - the co-existence of incompatible values - is uncomfortable.
That, on its own, wouldn't be a problem. But as a philosophy claiming general assent, I think it is a very bad idea, and to be opposed, for the above reasons, but also because it lends to the culture that wields it a basis for asserting its own moral worth above that of all others."

Bentham was the originator of modern utilitarianism.
And there is a fair argument for saying that this man exhibited characteristics which are associated with the term "Asperger's Syndrome". Indeed this possibility has been explored by psychologists Philip Lucas (US) and Anne Sheeran (UK) in a paper which can be found on-line. The psychologist community likes to call Apserger's part of the "Autism Spectrum", and describes individuals who are "on the spectrum" as "mind-blind". 
I'm not altogether comfortable with naming these things and talking about brains, rather than persons, because it is clear, I think, that brains develop in tandem with mind. I believe brains are affected by thought and feeling, and these are things which are to do with socialisation and culture. "ASD" maybe. But I would direct readers to the very interesting talk (part of a series of lectures) given by former Archbishop Rowan Williams "Material Words, Language as Physicality" :

I also direct readers to a critical review by John Gray of another effirt (by Jonathan Haidt) to ground morality in science, this time in evolutionary psychology. I mention this here because the review calls up utilitarianism.

Saturday, 9 August 2014

"the worshipper of 'our enlightened age'"

In JS Mill's essay 'Coleridge' (1840) we find that description of types who have been at each other in the now-faded "God debate": the worshipper a of 'our enlightened age' or Civilsation (scientific materialists) and worshippers of Independence (their reluctant opponents - it was an unpleasant job but someone had to do it).

See pages 105-106 of the 1959 Chatto &Windus edition of 'Mill on Bentham & Coleridge' (with introduction by F R Leavis)

What is "Personality Disorder"?

Find intelligent and insightful accounts of "personality disorder" in "Identity Crisis: Modernity, Psychoanalysis and the Self" by Stephen Frosh (Palgrave 1991), and at (the website of psychotherapist and analytical philosopher Hanna Pickard).

Such terms as "Borderline Personality Disorder" or "Narcissistic Personality Disorder" are used as a shorthand by people concerned with mental health to stand for sorts of more-or-less stable patterns of inter-personal and intra-psychic (that is self-reflecting) relating, which in one way or another are extremely distressing and damaging to lives.

In my view, it is sensible to think of such disorders not as "things" that people "have" but what comprises that person's experience (and indeed others' experience of them) in the broad sense of states of feeling and perception, understanding and expression. In my view what might be identified as "narcissistic personality disorder" or "borderline personality disorder" are people who are trying - in ways that survived infancy - still to achieve self, in which effort their early family environment could not give support. In that respect then "self" can be lacking, and I think it makes sense to link this lack with envy, and the composition of self is to do with range and depth of feeling.

In this sense self can be lacking:
"[A feature disqualifying him as a philosopher] was the incompleteness of his [Bentham’s] own mind as a representative of universal human nature. In many of the most natural and strongest feelings of human nature he had no sympathy; from many of its graver experiences he was altogether cut off; and the faculty by which one mind understands a mind different from itself, and throws itself into the feelings of that other mind, was denied him by his deficiency of Imagination." 

Here I read "mind" as something like "self" or "person".
The quote is from John Stuart Mill's essay "Bentham" (1838).

Recently I found this passage from Mill's essay quoted in a paper by two clinical psychologists on Asperger's syndrome.

Sunday, 3 August 2014

Andrew Bowie "Adorno and the Ends of Philosophy"

In his book "Adorno and the Ends of Philosophy", Andrew Bowie explores the significance of art for contemporary philosophy. Along the way he also provides, as he has in previous books like his Introduction to German Philosophy, many pithy and lucid asides. At one stage he is extolling Adorno's Lectures on Aesthetics (compared with the Aesthetic Theory), and reminds us:

"The reason that aesthetics is so significant in questioning the ends of modern philosophy is that an area of philosophy concerned with subjective responses to the natural and cultural worlds necessarily involves a kind of objectivity which differs from that present in warranted scientific knowledge.
If culture were supposedly about what gives subjective pleasure to individual human organisms, and what gave pleasure to each organism was radically particular to that organism, there would be no such thing as culture anyway." (p.140)

Monday, 28 July 2014

A few responses to N personality disorder blogs

I have written elsewhere of my view that much popular writing on narcissistic (N) psychopathology and N personality disorder satisfies itself with making of disordered individuals demons and evil-doers.

Typically writers employ language of ownership of personality disorder which conveys the idea that what is, for N-disordered individuals, a pervasive, wall-to-wall psychological defence (against narcissistic injury), is consciously deployed by a thinking and fully aware self somewhere "behind the scenes"; a homunculus operating a mask known as the "false self".
Adopting this language gives writers (and readers) the satisfaction of seeming objective and simultaneously presenting the N as outright wicked.

This kind of language is, in my view, inappropriate and inadequate to conveying the nature of disorder. My main reason for objecting to it is that I believe Donald Winnicott was right to identify a "false self" as emerging (in adverse conditions of infancy) where the true self ought to be. So, for a N to become aware of themselves as N-disorder, that is, become aware of their own psychopathology, is for them to become aware that the true self is lost, and was lost at some time in (early) childhood. Experiencing this loss and being able to feel sadness over it could be the beginnings of someone recovering from N-disorder.

I do not wish to excuse N-disordered individuals, or N-abuse. Personality disorder is a social phenomenon, and creates massive suffering for individuals and those with whom they are close. I say: don't put up with N abuse! Seek professional help! But after the rage and hurt and anger we may feel, compassion is called for.

Since 2012, when I first encountered it, I have been mindful of the work on personality disorder by Dr Hanna Pickard of Oxfird University. In a nutshell, her work encourages a clinical and general stance towards personality disorder (or what, significantly, she calls "disorder of agency") that stresses an individual's responsibility for harmful behaviours but without blame. For example, in her paper "Responsibility without blame: philosophical reflections on clinical practice" (Oxford Handbook of Psychiatry and Philosophy, OUP), Dr Pickard points to disordered individuals' awareness of their harmful behaviours. They have "conscious knowledge" of these behaviours and it is therefore right to assert that they have choice to desist from them. But Dr Pickard also makes it clear that by "conscious knowledge" she does not intend that disordered individuals necessarily know "why" they might behave in those harmful ways, or what those behaviours might be achieving in terms of protecting them against (for example) narcissistic injury.

[Dr Pickard is an analytic philosopher and clinician (psychotherapist). I seem to remember some of her writing addressing a problem that may be a characteristic pre-occupation of that school of philosophy, i.e. the question whether or not minds exist. It's never occurred to me to doubt that other minds exist. My view is informed by the practice of psychotherapy, in which "self-objects" (aspects of one's mind, one's personality) may be acquired through a therapeutic relationship that enable psychological growth. This points to some sort of merged infant-mother mind in early life. How can any mind be without other minds to act as it's container?]

So here are some responses I have given on the culprit blogs I have stumbled over. The comments I made appear out of context (I won't identify the blogs themselves), so it may be tricky to understand what I have been responding to. But the gist of my comments has been towards denying the idea that there is, in the N-disordered individual, someone else present behind the mask who, therefore, must be evil-doing.

In response to a blog on what James F Masterson called "Closet" Narcissistic Personality Disorder:

The word "malign" accurately describes the effect of personality disorder on lives. Unfortunately, it also encourages the idea that PD sufferers are also "malign", that they are self-conscious, that behind the narcissistic "false self" there is another, conscious self, manipulating things. I appeal to readers of this blog, which has attracted thoughtful comments, to consider that there is no self-consciousness in NPD sufferers (whether of the "closet" or "overt" kind). The damaging thought-feeling-behaviour patterns are sub-consciously driven. In total they are geared towards maintaining self-esteem, getting external validation/love/admiration of a false-self-image. The false self emerges in response to unempathic parenting (usually a mum who has her own un-met narcissistic needs). Disordered individuals lack real self-esteem, lack self-love, which is the same thing as lacking authentic "self" - something virtually unimaginable if not directly experienced. Personal setbacks, contradicting the false-self-image of the NPD sufferer, may drive the individual to seek psychotherapy. It's only in the therapeutic environment that the individual can achieve (with great pain) self-awareness, i.e. awareness of the disorder.

The blog author maintained that CN's "are aware of their traits but choose to repress them out of  denial which is one of the main characteristics of the disorder".
I responded with the following comment.

You are right to say that cheating on one's partner and maintaining a double life could not appear to an individual as anything other than wrong, whether they have a narcissistic personality disorder or not. (I would encourage anybody whose partner cheats to not tolerate the behaviour in any way. The same goes for any kind of "narcissistic" abuse - "passive-aggressive" or anything else - in a relationship. Don't put up with it!).
The denial and stress and tears and overall defensiveness, when challenged, reflects the anxiety induced when the N's false self-image is threatened.
(I would say that in "overt Ns, this image is typically of superiority or "greatness", in "covert" Ns, it is typically of perfection or saintliness. See V. Tonay at )
The intense anxiety is because there is nothing "behind" that self. If it goes, then there is nothing. For such a person, the false self has been a way of surviving childhood that has continued into adulthood. That self cannot be simply discarded, because no other (empathic) ways of relating are known.
You are right that CNs (and ONs) are aware of their traits. But the manner of speaking suggests the kind of awareness of a person who knows he is vain, or a perfectionist, or big-headed.
Thus, I would say, such a person, if he or she is an N, is aware of the traits of the false self.
But that, I would say, is very different to awareness that the self is a disordered or false self.
To put it another way, I am precisely saying that the N is unaware of the behaviours as narcissistic in the special sense of their being pathological.
Such self-awareness can only come through breakdown and psychotherapy.
I realise this sounds like I'm splitting hairs and I acknowledge that to highlight the lack of self-consciousness in Ns appears to "give them an excuse" to carry on or even encourages them to keep up their bad behaviour. I certainly don't intend this. But neither do i think it makes much sense to speak in those terms.
When I see a mum constantly using her children like objects to win admiration for herself, I might say to myself "Hm. Narcissistic abuse of the children". But I would be pretty sure that the mum feels, and would say, she is loving the children, and is precisely unconscious of the underlying compensation going on (i.e. her lack of self-love that compels her to derive others' admiration from things around her that she can say are "hers"). With that kind of lack of self awareness, the individual would not perceive some anonymous writing in a blog about narcissists' lack of self-consciousness as an "excuse" to continue the abusive behaviour. The N mum simply continues to "love" (pathologically). My point is that there is no conscious abuser there, but a person who thinks and believes her behaviour to be "normal".
My aim, in contributing to this blog, is to empower people in narcissistic or co-dependent relationships to not put up with abuse. Little children who are treated unempathically by parents can't not put up with it, they have to adapt to it in order to survive. The people who tolerate narcissistic abuse in a relationship, but stay in the relationship, must be getting some sort of compensation to make it worth while. Both partners, in this way, collaborate to maintain the status quo. (I'm saying that that's what goes on in co-dependency and other forms of damaging love relations. It might be asked here: to what extent would the abused partner of an N accept that he or she was self-consciously enabling the abuse?). If the abused partner has the strength to leave, or to challenge the abuse, that is a very powerful and potentially empowering act. (It might even bring about a change in the N). It is predictable, and understandable, that those who have been abused should demonise the abusers. But we should recognise that this reaction may itself be a form of denial of the part we have had to play in enabling (or, if you like, "excusing") the abuse.
I do not wish to excuse abuse, or let Ns off the hook. My aim is to shift the tone of discussion away from "good" and "bad" polarisation, towards a point of view that sees pathological narcissism as something that occurs in a thousand small ways (not just in violence and infidelity, though these are the extreme and horrible manifestations of abuse), and as a function of socialisation, in which we are all, to some degree, involved.

Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Popular writing on NPD

Popular writing on "covert", or "overt", "narcissistic personality disorder" is intended to provide information to people so they can recognise behaviours and traits of individuals in whom the disorder manifests (call them ONs and CNs) and possibly help them, if they are in close personal relationship with ONs or CNs, to understand what may be giving rise to hurt and damage in the relationship.

This is all to the good.

Of course the one who is in a relationship with a N is attracted to something, and it may often be the case that there is a great pay-off for that person in staying in the relationship, even if it means tolerating a lot of abuse.

This is difficult territory, because N disorder is a social phenomenon insofar as the self-image of the N requires constant mirroring and buttressing from others in the world. It may often be the case that the one who provides such constant mirroring (in a relationship) to a N is someone of low self-esteem and who derives esteem through his or her attachment to the N.
In this way maintenance of a defensive (special or inflated) self image - i.e. that of the N - may become the purpose of ways of relating in the relationship, and it may become "co-dependency", with an "enabler" tied to the N.

But popular writing doesn't often get this far. Authors seeking attention and web-hits know it is more attractive to general readers, who know little about NPD or other personality disorders, but who may have hurts deriving from relationship with a N, to harp on the outright "wickedness" of Ns.

This satisfies what is legitimate anger and desire for retribution when we have suffered abuse, but does nothing to promote understanding of N disorder or develop awareness of the parts we have had to play in sustaining disorder in our midst. It excuses is from thinking more deeply about the roots of personality disorder in our social and cultural life.

Indeed, in my view, much popular writing - even, or perhaps especially, from persons psychoanalytically trained - actively mis-represents N disorder by using language that coneys the notion that disordered individuals (Ns) choose to be N, for example, 'in order to' 'conceal' their 'true self'.

Beth K MacDonald examines an example of this psychologically loaded language in her MA thesis "Out of The Mirror: A Workbook of Healing for Children of Covert Narcissistis" (Adler Graduate School, October 2013).
The example is taken from "Trapped in the Mirror": Adult Children of Narcissists" by E. Golumb (1997), a work evidently concerned primarily with the "overt" N.

"They turn themselves into glittering figures of immense grandeur, surrounded by psychologically impenetrable wall. The goal of this self-deception is to be impervious to greatly feared external criticism and to their own rolling sea of self-doubts."
(E. Golumb, Trapped in the Mirror)

Here, for example, the use of the term "self-deception" implies a self that is lied to. But the character of the disorder is precisely that any such lied-to self is not present. There is what Winnicott called the "false self". Only breakdown and psychotherapy, I believe, is capable of revealing the disorder (the false self) to the individual in whom it manifests.

MacDonald writes:
"A reader who is not familiar with the complex nature and psychology of NPD might conclude that narcissists choose this personality disorder, and thus could choose a different way of living if they truly wanted to."

I follow Dr Hanna Pickard's view that there is indeed choice for the N. But I don't believe that this choice can be perceived without a co-incident breakdown of the false self.
In my view it is a mis-representation of disorder - a pervasive psychopathology - to suppose that it is a mask consciously worn by the N. The moment of realisation that there is choice is accompanied by the realisation that N disorder is where the true self, the "I", should be.

In other words, any individual who becomes conscious of themselves as manifesting N disorder must also become conscious of the loss of self they have sustained. There is no "real self" underneath or behind the disorder, no homunculus operating the mask from behind the scenes. At best there are fragments if self, around which some new self-image might form.
The individual in whom N disorder manifests is maintaining the self-image that arose for them in their childhood, winning the love of his or her mother which was otherwise withheld.

In these circumstances, what is called for is, yes, refusal and condemnation of narcissistic abuse in whatever form, but also sustained compassion for the individual for whom N disorder has been the route to psychic survival.

Among online resources on narcissistic psychopathology that I regard as compassionate and insightful, and would recommend to anyone interested, are academic papers such as:

McWilliams and Lependorf “narcissistic pathology of everyday life”:

Here is an extract from the McWilliams/Lependorf paper which indicates the care they take to avoid demonisation of disordered individuals, even while showing how abuse looks.

"[We] are departing somewhat from the tone of much of the
current literature on narcissism, which, because it is about
treating patients with pathological self-structures, observes
narcissistic processes from a position of sympathetic identification
with the person who manifests them. Our exploration of the nuances
of narcissistic operations will be conducted primarily from a
position of identification with the objects of these subtle and
often malignant processes. In explicating what might be considered
the typical dilemmas of "victims" of narcissistic operations, we do
not want to be misunderstood as minimizing the suffering of
the "perpetrators" of narcissistically motivated acts."

Monday, 14 July 2014

Images come before words

"Images come before words and images are created by passions, and passions are not analogous in men under different circumstances."

(From the essay on J G Hamann, by Isaiah Berlin in "Two Enemies of the Enlightenment")

I am interested again in the account Berlin gives, in this essay on Hamann, of Herder's prize-winning essay (Herder as follower of Hamann) that denies an idea emerging from certain contemporary French philosophes that language emerged from some sort of biological or physiological need: 

"human beings seeking to communicate, seeking to express themselves, and finding that incoherent noises and gestures didn’t perform this particular task sufficiently well, proceed in some almost conscious sense – almost, not quite – to invent language exactly as one invents a chair, a table, the screw, as one uses fire"

Herder opposes this: thinking itself is done in symbols, and therefore language must have emerged with thought.

"the whole systematic use of certain marks on paper, or certain sounds, for certain purposes could not have been used by human beings until and unless their consciousness, their reason, their faculties had developed to a certain degree; and when their faculties, their consciousness and their reason had developed to this degree, then the very development of the consciousness and the faculties to this degree was in fact the use of symbolism."
I'm interested in the similarities here with the very little I know of the work of Wifrid Bion, in which (so I understand) he explores this very development into symbolising (that is, thinking) during infancy.

I believe the process of symbolising can be cut off, the innate gesture can be stolen by the parent who envies the child and, it seems to me, thinking can become something removed from the life of the individual. I relAte this to the notion in Winnicott (if not also Bion) of the "false self".

Monday, 7 July 2014

Historical study of biology of value to biologists

Reading University's 2012 research publication "The Value of the Literary and Historical Study of Biology to Biologists" is available on-line.

It seems a very worthwhile piece of work towards breaking down specialist-isolationism in both literary and scientific practices.

I noticed (part 2.2iv of the document) that Karl Popper is mistakenly identified as one of the Vienna circle of logical positivists. Popper was an opponent of logical positivism.

It seems the great lengths Popper went to to have his work read and understood and accepted by the Vienna Circle of scientist-philosophers (by communicating to them in language they would accept) led not only his wider readership, but also members of the Circle itself, to believe that he was one of them.

I think Popper was justified when he claimed to have "killed off" logical positivism, even if, as he put it, "by accident". (See Popper's "Unended Quest: An Intellectual Autobiography", chapter 17).

That it was "by accident" is because his work comprised not a critique of Logical Positivism but an entirely different epistemology. The Circle interpreted his work as correcting their view, replacing verification with falsification, without realising that the whole trajectory of, and therefore the place of falsification in, his work was an attempt at demarcation between science and non-science, and not - as had been the aim of the Circle - at providing criteria for "meaningfulness". (See Bryan Magee's account of this misinterpretation in "Confessions of a Philosopher", 1997, p.54, or Malachi Hacohen's "Popper: the formative years", 2002).

Returning to the Reading University document, it strikes me that the potential in Popper's work for support in making the case for the value of historical and literary studies to biologists is contained in the same paragraph (2.2iv), which reads as follows.

"Before we go any further, it might be instructive to consider what historical contextualisation might have meant for the practice of science, and why it apparently had only this limited impact. For many historians, the argument that ‘meaning and context’ are inseparably intertwined has become almost the defining feature of the discipline [Tully, 1988]. ‘Meaning’, it follows, is by definition always historically constituted. Applied to science it suggests that it is impossible to elucidate the meaning of scientific statements in purely empirical terms, because all observation is theory laden, all knowledge is ultimately historical." 
(Section 2.2iv, "The Value of Literary and Historical Study of Biology to Biologists", Reading University 2012)

The words in bold contain, it seems to me, the core of Popper's work. Indeed, he uses these very words, in that order!

The jist of this paragraph is that the historical approach, in upholding an inescapably subjective aspect to knowledge, (i.e. that all observation is theory-laden) "challenged" "the 'common sense' approach of most practising scientists".

But here is a philosopher of science whose entire output, it could be said, makes the very same challenge.

As the Stanford encyclopaedia has it:

"following Kant, [Popper] strongly repudiates the positivist/empiricist view that basic statements (i.e., present-tense observation statements about sense-data) are infallible, and argues convincingly that such basic statements are not mere ‘reports’ of passively registered sensations. Rather they are descriptions of what is observed as interpreted by the observer with reference to a determinate theoretical framework."
Admittedly, I would venture, Popper would not have accepted that "all knowledge is ultimately historical". He is perhaps better known for work contesting "historicism". But his work does deny the positivist assertion that only what is "meaningful" is scientific, which is surely a typical response when people want to deny the value of non-science.

In a wider setting, I accept Marjorie Grene's criticism of Popper, that he clings to the ideal of certain knowledge (of error), even if he denies certain "positive" knowledge.

I'm going to plug a 2001 Masters Degree thesis by (now tenured professor at Lafayette University) Benjamin R Cohen, entitled "Uniquely Structured? Debating Concepts of Science, from the Two Cultures to theScience Wars".
This thesis was submitted for the degree of master of science in the science and technology studies at Virginia Polytechnic and State University. The thesis is available to be read online at the latter institution's website.
It seems to me to be very well written and researched, and it explores a theme relevant to Reading University's research document (above), namely the 1990s stand-off between scientists (or "science defenders" as Cohen calls them) and the science and technology studies (STS) community of historians, literary scholars and sociologists: the so-called "science wars". The thesis also examines whether and what similarities exist between this stand-off and the "two cultures" debate of the 1960s, about which I have written elsewhere.

The thesis has much to say on the assumption of special epistemological status of scientific knowledge, which science defenders claimed was under attack by "irrationalist" STS scholars, and the measures taken by the science defenders to safeguard that special status. I believe this fear, on the part of some scientists, of the loss or dissolution of science's special epistemic status to what was regarded as irrationalism in other non-science parts of the academy, contributed to the wave of 'New Atheism' in the 2000s. Of course some biologists and neuro-biologists were very vocal in this wave.

Reading the thesis I was surprised, given the importance to "science wars" of the epistemological status of scientific knowledge, that there was not more discussion to the philosophy of science. There is no mention of Karl Popper in the thesis, for example, whom one might have expected to have been a point of reference for both the science defenders and the STS community. That he seems not to have been such a point of reference I would put down to the general lack of interest in philosophy on the part if the science defenders, and the mis-characterisation of Popper as a positivist by the STS community.
Anyway, it's an interesting thesis.

Sunday, 6 July 2014

Minds affect brains - Mary Midgley

From Mary Midgley's "The Myths We Live By":

"all reasoning is powered by feeling and all serious feeling has some reasoning as its skeleton"

From "Discussing Darwin", 2009:

Theos (interviewer): Would it be fair to say that we cannot think outside myths?

Mary Midgley: Yes, in the sense of an apparatus whereby you think. I suppose it sounds less surprising if one refers to ‘visions’. 

Minds affect brains as much as brains affect minds.
Here are edited highlights from a discussion with philosopher Mary Midgley at the Royal Society for the Arts in London.

In this talk Mary Midgley gives the example of the brains of taxi drivers as evidence that thoughts affect brains. In another talk (see "Mazes of the Mind"), this time as a questioner, she cites the thinking of Einstein as very much NOT an illusion created by the random accumulation of particles.

In the RSA talk a question comes from one audience member committed to "evidential truth". He seems to ask: What in minds (thoughts, emotions) is not reducible to an account of brain activity such as MRI-type technology can help to provide?

As I have written elsewhere, it seems to me to be naive to assume that our uptake of "evidence", our perception, in other words, is pure objectivity. But it seems to be an assumption of this kind that lends the questioner his confidence. Behind this assumption lies the history of philosophical work on the validity of induction, empiricism, Kantian epistemology and so on.

To judge by what I have read in Mary Midgley's books, she is not exactly a fan of Karl Popper, because (and I would submit, in spite of Popper's own wishes) his work on demarcation - between science and non-science - has contributed to the vaunting of the self-image of scientists, some of whom are prone, as Midgley says in this discussion, to think of everything, including our subjective life, as having an ultimate explanation accessible by science.

As Mary Midgley has pointed out, it seems a great pity that Popper could not have done such assiduous work on the proper place of, and status of, non-science in intellectual life: the standards we use to judge non-scientific thought. However, from my reading of Popper, the salient point is that he established that scientific knowledge has a metaphysical foundation which can never be known. His work was a criticism of the philosophical project of "logical positivism" which sought to eliminate metaphysics and create scientific philosophy.

Mathematics is not in direct contact with the world, but a very rich language of description.

That minds do affect brains should make such statements as this, in the British Medical Journal
by Lewis Wolpert and Paul Salkovskis, be regarded as silly:
"We suggest that it would be perverse to provide any place in modern mental health services for psychoanalysis."

(See "Does psychoanalysis have a valuable place in modern mental health services? No", BMJ 2012;344:e1188)

Here is a link to an article by Mary Midgley which appeared in New Scientis magazine in 2011.
It deals with more general themes of scientism (the notion that no questions are not answerable by science). Lewis Wolpert gets a mention.