Who’s Afraid of Reduction? Massimo Pigliucci and the Rhetoric of Redemption

by rsbakker

On the one hand, Massimo Pigliucci is precisely the kind of philosopher that I like, one who eschews the ingroup temptations of the profession and tirelessly reaches out to the larger public. On the other hand, he is precisely the kind of philosopher I bemoan. As a regular contributor to the Skeptical Inquirer, one might think he would be prone to challenge established, academic opinions, but all too often such is not the case. Far from preparing his culture for the tremendous, scientifically-mediated transformations to come, he spends a good deal of his time defending the status quo–rationalizing, in effect, what needs to be interrogated through and through. Even when he critiques authors I also disagree with (such as Ray Kurzweil on the singularity) I find myself siding against him!

Burying our heads in the sand of traditional assumption, no matter how ‘official’ or ‘educated,’ is pretty much the worst thing we can do. Nevertheless, this is the establishment way. We’re hard-wired to essentialize, let alone forgive, the conditions responsible for our prestige and success. If a system pitches you to any height, well then, that is a good system indeed, the very image of rationality, if not piety as well. Tell a respectable scholar in the Middle Ages that the sun wasn’t the centre of the universe or that man wasn’t crafted in God’s image and he might laugh and bid you good day or scowl and alert the authorities—but he would most certainly not listen, let alone believe. In “Who Knows What,” his epistemological defense of the humanities, Pigliucci reveals what I think is just such a defensive, dismissive attitude, one that seeks to shelter what amounts to ignorance in accusations of ignorance, to redeem what institutional insiders want to believe under the auspices of being ‘skeptical.’ I urge everyone reading this to take a few moments to carefully consider the piece, form judgments one way or another, because in what follows, I hope to show you how his entire case is actually little more than a mirage, and how his skepticism is as strategic as anything to ever come out of Big Oil or Tobacco.

“Who Knows What” poses the question of the cognitive legitimacy of the humanities from the standpoint of what we really do know at this particular point in history. The situation, though Pigluicci never references it, really is quite simple: At long last the biological sciences have gained the tools and techniques required to crack problems that had hitherto been the exclusive province of the humanities. At long last, science has colonized the traditional domain of the ‘human.’ Given this, what should we expect will follow? The line I’ve taken turns on what I’ve called the ‘Big Fat Pessemistic Induction.’ Since science has, without exception, utterly revolutionized every single prescientific domain it has annexed, we should expect that, all things being equal, it will do the same regarding the human–that the traditional humanities are about to be systematically debunked.

Pigluicci argues that this is nonsense. He recognizes the stakes well enough, the fact that the issue amounts to “more than a turf dispute among academics,” that it “strikes at the core of what we mean by human knowledge,” but for some reason he avoids any consideration, historical or theoretical, of why there’s an issue at all. According to Pigluicci, little more than the ignorance and conceit of the parties involved lies behind the impasse. This affords him the dialectical luxury of picking the softest of targets for his epistemological defence of the humanities: the ‘greedy reductionism’ of E. O. Wilson. By doing so, he can generate the appearance of putting an errant matter to bed without actually dealing with the issue itself. The problem is that the ‘human,’ the subject matter of the humanities, is being scientifically cognized as we speak. Pigliucci is confusing the theoretically abstract question of whether all knowledge reduces to physics with the very pressing and practical question of what the sciences will make of the human, and therefore the humanities as traditionally understood. The question of the epistemological legitimacy of the humanities isn’t one of whether all theories can somehow be translated into the idiom of physics, but whether the idiom of the humanities can retain cognitive legitimacy in the wake of the ongoing biomechanical rennovation of the human. It’s not a question of ‘reducing’ old ways of making sense of things so much as a question of leaving them behind the way we’ve left so many other ‘old ways’ behind.

As it turns out, the question of what the sciences of the human will make of the humanities turns largely on the issue of intentionality. The problem, basically put, is that intentional phenomena as presently understood out-and-out contradict our present, physical understanding of nature. They are quite literally supernatural, inexplicable in natural terms. If the consensus emerging out of the new sciences of the human is that intentionality is supernatural in the pejorative sense, then the traditional domain of the humanities is in dire straits indeed. True or false, the issue of reductionism is irrelevant to this question. The falsehood of intentionalism is entirely compatible with the kind of pluralism Pigluicci advocates. This means Pigliucci’s critique of reductionism, his ‘demolition project,’ is, well, entirely irrelevant to the practical question of what’s actually going to happen to the humanities now that the sciences have scaled the walls of the human.

So in a sense, his entire defence consists of smoke and mirrors. But it wouldn’t pay to dismiss his argument summarily. There is a way of reading a defence that runs orthogonal to his stated thesis into his essay. For instance, one might say that he at least establishes the possibility of non-scientific theoretical knowledge of the human by sketching the limits of scientific cognition. As he writes of mathematical or logical ‘facts’:

take a mathematical ‘fact’, such as the demonstration of the Pythagorean theorem. Or a logical fact, such as a truth table that tells you the conditions under which particular combinations of premises yield true or false conclusions according to the rules of deduction. These two latter sorts of knowledge do resemble one another in certain ways; some philosophers regard mathematics as a type of logical system. Yet neither looks anything like a fact as it is understood in the natural sciences. Therefore, ‘unifying knowledge’ in this area looks like an empty aim: all we can say is that we have natural sciences over here and maths over there, and that the latter is often useful (for reasons that are not at all clear, by the way) to the former.

The thing he fails to mention, however, is that there’s facts and then there’s facts. Science is interested in what things are and how they work and why they appear to us the way they do. In this sense, scientific inquiry isn’t concerned with mathematical facts so much as the fact of mathematical facts. Likewise, it isn’t so much concerned with what Pigliucci in particular thinks of Brittany Spears as it is how people in general come to evaluate consumer goods. As a result, we find researchers using these extrascientific facts as data points in attempts to derive theories regarding mathematics and consumer choice.

In other words, Pigliucci’s attempt to evidence the ‘limits of science’ amounts to a classic bait-and-switch. The most obvious question that plagues his defence has to be why he fails to offer any of the kinds of theories he takes himself to be defending in the course of making his defence. How about deconstruction? Conventionalism? Hermeneutics? Fictionalism? Psychoanalysis? The most obvious answer is that they all but explode his case for forms of theoretical cognition outside the sciences. Thus he provides a handful of what seem to be obvious, non-scientific, first-order facts to evidence a case for second-order pluralism—albeit of a kind that isn’t relevant to the practical question of the humanities, but seems to make room for the possibility of cognitive legitimacy, at least.

(It’s worth noting that this equivocation of levels (in an article arguing the epistemic inviolability of levels, no less!) cuts sharply against his facile reproof of Krauss and Hawking’s repudiation of philosophy. Both men, he claims, “seem to miss the fact that the business of philosophy is not to solve scientific problems,” begging the question of just what kind of problems philosophy does solve. Again, examples of philosophical theoretical cognition are found wanting. Why? Likely because the only truly decisive examples involve enabling scientists to solve scientific problems!)

Passing from his consideration of extrascientific, but ultimately irrelevant (because non-theoretical) non-scientific facts, Pigliucci turns to enumerating all the things that science doesn’t know. He invokes Godel (which tends to be an unfortunate move in these contexts) commits the standard over-generalization of his technically specific proof of incompleteness to the issue of knowledge altogether. Then he gives us a list of examples where, he claims, ‘science isn’t enough.’ The closest he comes to the real elephant in the room, the problem of intentionality, runs as follows:

Our moral sense might well have originated in the context of social life as intelligent primates: other social primates do show behaviours consistent with the basic building blocks of morality such as fairness toward other members of the group, even when they aren’t kin. But it is a very long way from that to Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, or Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill’s utilitarianism. These works and concepts were possible because we are biological beings of a certain kind. Nevertheless, we need to take cultural history, psychology and philosophy seriously in order to account for them.

But as was mentioned above, the question of the cognitive legitimacy of the humanities only possesses the urgency it does now because the sciences of the human are just getting underway. Is it really such ‘a very long way’ from primates to Aristotle? Given that Aristotle was a primate, the scientific answer could very well be, ‘No, it only seems that way.’ Science has a long history of disabusing us of our sense of exceptionalism, after all. Either way, it’s hard to see how citing scientific ignorance in this regard bears on the credibility of Aristotle’s ethics, or any other non-scientific attempt to theorize morality. Perhaps the degree we need to continue relying on cultural history, psychology, and philosophy is simply the degree we don’t know what we’re talking about! The question is the degree to which science monopolizes theoretical cognition, not the degree to which it monopolizes life, and life, as Pigliucci well knows—as a writer for the Skeptical Inquirer, no less—is filled with ersatz guesswork and functional make-believe.

So, having embarked on an argument that is irrelevant to the cognitive legitimacy of the humanities, providing evidence merely that science is theoretical, then offering what comes very close to an argument from ignorance, he sums by suggesting that his pluralist picture is indeed the very one suggested by science. As he writes:

The basic idea is to take seriously the fact that human brains evolved to solve the problems of life on the savannah during the Pleistocene, not to discover the ultimate nature of reality. From this perspective, it is delightfully surprising that we learn as much as science lets us and ponder as much as philosophy allows. All the same, we know that there are limits to the power of the human mind: just try to memorise a sequence of a million digits. Perhaps some of the disciplinary boundaries that have evolved over the centuries reflect our epistemic limitations.

The irony, for me at least, is that this observation underwrites my own reasons for doubting the existence of intentionality as theorized in the humanities–philosophy in particular. The more we learn about human cognition, the more alien to our traditional assumptions it becomes. We already possess a mountainous case for what might be called ‘ulterior functionalism,’ the claim that actual cognitive functions are almost entirely inscrutable to theoretical metacognition, which is to say, ‘philosophical reflection.’ The kind of metacognitive neglect implied by ulterior functionalism raises a number of profound questions regarding the conundrums posed by the ‘mental,’ ‘phenomenal,’ or ‘intentional.’ Thus the question I keep raising here: What role does neglect play in our attempts to solve for meaning and consciousness?

What we need to understand is that everything we learn about the actual architecture and function of our cognitive capacities amounts to knowledge of what we have always been without knowing. Blind Brain Theory provides a way to see the peculiar properties belonging to intentional phenomena as straightforward artifacts of neglect—as metacognitive illusions, in effect. Box open the dimensions of missing information folded away by neglect, and the first person becomes entirely continuous with the third—the incompatibly between the intentional and the causal is dissolved. The empirical plausibility of Blind Brain Theory is an issue in its own right, of course, but it serves to underscore the ongoing vulnerability of the humanities, and therefore, the almost entirely rhetorical nature of Pigliucci’s ‘demolition.’ If something like the picture of metacognition proposed by Blind Brain Theory turns out to be true, then the traditional domain of the humanities is almost certainly doomed to suffer the same fate as any other prescientific theoretical domain. The bottomline is as simple as it is devastating to Pigluicci’s hasty and contrived defence of ‘who knows what.’ How can we know whether the traditional humanities will survive the cognitive revolution?

Well, we’ll have to wait and see what the science has to say.

 

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