Future, Present, & Past:

~~ Giving itself latitude and leisure to take any premise or inquiry to its furthest associative conclusion.
Critical~~ Ready to apply, to itself and its object, the canons of reason, evidence, style, and ethics, up to their limits.
Traditional~~ At home and at large in the ecosystem of practice and memory that radically nourishes the whole person.

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Monday, March 15, 2010

Trust me, I'm a philosopher

Glancing over at my own blogroll, I noticed the headline at The Existence Machine: “Who Do You Trust?” A question that was on my mind, since I was thinking about science and the position of laypeople with respect to it. Turned out to be more relevant than I would have guessed: a long post by blogger Richard Crary specifically taking off from my observation that contentious matters always turn upon issues of trust. Crary writes:

Consider the following sentence: "You're entitled to your own opinion; you're not entitled to your own facts." … I myself have said much the same thing in political arguments. Of course, it rarely gets me anywhere. And as I've noticed that my arguments rarely get me anywhere (assuming those cases when I've been my most coherent and least defensive, and being as charitable as possible toward my interlocutors; it's not helpful going through life thinking everyone else is an idiot, even when they're wrong), I've often wondered how it is that we come to know and understand things, how it is we become open to certain ways of looking at the world.

Socrates probably noticed the same thing: “By Zeus! Callicles and I did not make much headway today, did we?”

Commenting on my post about the neuroscience of wisdom, dy0genes recently spun out a sort of science-fiction scenario (and there is no reason to presume it is inherently fictional) in which it is plausible to know what sorts of brain states correspond to what sorts of mental processes. Could we then artificially induce or repress these processes? This would be one way of approaching the question of “how we become open to certain ways of looking at the world.” We could program everyone to think “scientifically!” No more relying on revelation, or blind faith, refusing to look at the evidence… we would all be perfectly rational creatures, with valid reasons for thinking what and how we think. Well, except of course, for thinking this way in the first place.

Is there an irreducible difference between causes and reasons? No one, I take it, will contest that if I listen to an argument and change my mind, this is different from changing my mind as a result of undergoing hypnosis. (One of the things that makes psychoanalysis, and indeed psychotherapeutic theory in general, fascinating, is the way it blurs this distinction. Ancient philosophy often reads like a weird blend of such therapy and modern informal logic). If, instead of being hypnotized, I am injected with a drug or and have some precise electrical stimulation to particular regions of my cerebral cortex, the case is if anything even more clear. I have not rationally changed my mind; I have had my mind changed for me.

Pursuing the consequences of this Phildickian premise would take me too far afield (questions about autonomy always involve identity, for instance; e.g., “Am I still the same person?”). But I think it is fair to say that if Socrates had been offered the opportunity to change Callicles’ mind with a syringe, he would have thrown the proffered instrument into the Aegean Sea. (This is not an argument against pursuing a line of research, but a way of drawing more starkly its ramifications).

Remarking on my claim that rival arguments about (for example) “What Really Happened on 9/11” all hinge upon unspoken investments of trust, Crary remarks:

I … have occasionally found myself wandering onto certain websites that purport to present expert testimony on, say, the physics of demolition and realizing that I had no basis for deciding the matter. My concern here, of course, is not 9/11 per se, nor is it [Skholiast’s], but rather this matter of trust. In particular, trust in the context of our highly technocratic capitalist society.

Crary goes on to cite Daniel Hind’s book The Threat to Reason, arguing that the alleged rising tide of irrationalism (superstition, fundamentalism, postmodern mumbo-jumbo) is a minor concern compared to the betrayal of the forces of reason into the hands of the powerful corporate and government interests in its own backyard. Hind, and Crary citing him, pointing out the consequences of being continually beset by claims upon our trust. Institutions of state, education, science, commerce, and religion, all vie for our attention and, yes, our credence. Crary underscores that part of the fallout from this is that one has to make an endless array of judgment calls in who you listen to and—perhaps tentatively—believe. Hind’s suggestion that the legacy of the enlightenment (both its democratic and its scientific trajectories) has been, at least partially, hijacked by power, brings into stark relief the fact that we come by our commitments in large part unconsciously.

Pointing this out is neither the obscurantist ploy that impatient critics of either “conspiracy theory” (that unanswerable insult) or postmodernism say it is; nor is it a gotcha-move that outflanks all the he-said-she-said of contemporary debate, as though pointing out that Rupert Murdoch owns a newspaper meant one could, by that token alone, disregard
or even disbelievewhatever is printed there. But it does name another set of trajectories to which one must pay heed. In the next post or so I will try to show one way in which these considerations pertain, with regard to the so-called Science Wars.

Whether we acknowledge it or not, a tremendous amount of our worldview has been caused, not decided—at least, not by us. Philosophy aims to both to understand, and to prudently increase, the decision/cause ratio.


  1. Am I the friend you say you always disagree with over on "The Existence Machine" I'm not THAT bad, am I?

    Here is a point that I think we will agree upon. It is the would be defenders of Enlightenment ideas who have done the most damage to the acceptance of those ideas. I have become very skeptical about the *dogma* of Medicine, for instance. When I was in school it was pounded in my head that it would be malpractice to not provide hormone replacement treatment for women. A few years later we were told that we were killing them by doing so. Seriously, if we don't know then lets just say so. And the Vioxx disaster! We (professionals) all knew of the side effects of Vioxx, exactly the ones it got pulled off the market for--heart problems--from day one. We knew because the exact same complications can come from Ibuprofen or any other drug in the class. But it wasn't *marketed* that way so it became a Big Pharma problem and now a perfectly useful drug is off the market. I watched the debates on cspan. It was horrible. Now we only have narcotics and steroids to treat patients that were happily on Vioxx. I don't think I have to tell anybody that those aren't exactly great choices for the aged and infirm. That decision was, as you say, caused by government/corporate rivalries, not decided by those who should be deciding.

    It was a tradition, coming out of Harvard I believe, to send graduating doctors off with a clear warning: "Half of what we have taught you is wrong, we just don't know which half. It's now your job to figure that out". I don't think that is taken to heart as much as it should be. In as much as Medicine makes claims to science it must be in the critical spirit, especially about what it claims to know.

    Thanks, again, for bringing up Crary and Hind in addition to all the interesting stuff you provide here. I get a lot from following these various thread. I'll try not to be too disagreeable.

  2. I am quite sure there is dogma in all of the sciences; possibly more where there are vested interests, and especially where there is a sense of embattlement. E.g.: I recently read a prediction from some partisan of Intelligent Design to the effect that "our so-called 'junk DNA'" will prove to serve some function." This prediction (which I noted was a pretty vague one, certainly ill-formed and not falsifiable as formulated) was dismissed haughtily on the hard-core evolutionist blog where I read it, thus (I quote from memory): "Most of our DNA has been proven to be meaningless. The prediction is disproven." I am not a believer in Intelligent Design as I understand it, but this particular dismissal is stunning in its over-reach. First off, you can't scientifically prove a negative, so the claim that junk DNA has been proven to have no function is meaningless at best. Secondly, it just strikes me as setting yourself up for disaster to categorically assert such a thing. Imagine if some years back a scientist had claimed that glial cells had no neurotransmission function. Oh, wait... they did claim this. All the time. But guess what...?

    (Now, if the analogy falls apart because of something I don't know, I'm all attention; as I say, I am a layperson in every science.) My guess is that the battlements are manned quite thickly in evolutionary biology and that this explains such overstatements--which may or may not actually translate into scientific mistakes in practice (e.g., failure of research into 'junk DNA').

    Similar points might be made about other disciplines, but the disputes seem less charged--usually. In physics & cosmology the big bang majority is so tremendously ascendant in cosmology that those who still think there might be some other explanation for the background microwave radiation are pretty condescended to. I "collect" minority view like these and while I can only evaluate them from the outside, I have to say that their adherents don't all strike me as crazy self-proclaimed unknown geniuses laboring in obscurity with their Tesla complexes. These aren't guys trying to bend spoons with their minds or comparing the "Face" on Mars with the sphinx; they just question the status quo in some way. Their de facto exclusion leads me to conclude that there are indeed scientific dogmas.

    It is not always easy (for me, anyway) to tell the difference between the certifiable loons and the disgruntled folks who are fed up with a lifetime of frustration. Sometimes there are border cases that lead me to wonder. (Cold fusion, for instance).

    In any case, I think I would second your call for a renewed humility for science, but I really can't say that it is called for since I do not work in the sciences. I do think that in medicine above all, this humility is as valuable as the philosopher's stone.

  3. It looks like your Intelligent Design friend is being vindicated. Uses for Junk DNA are being discovered all the time. Besides the regulatory promotion/inhibition function it is known to have on surrounding encodable sections of DNA is it also clear that many segments are under heavy pressure for preservation. For some as of yet undefined reason these areas are not drifting in random fashion. The clear indication is that they must have some use that is being selected for that we have not yet figured out.

    I don't want to labor the point but I'm still pissed about this after all these years ('96) so bear with me. When I was an undergraduate I took a course in Evolutionary Biology. It was an upper level course and Biology was not my major so I had to petition the professor to let me in. I proved that I knew enough math and was quite enthusiastic as I had been reading quite a bit in the field (Gould is a personal hero). It didn't go so well. If your last words to a professor are "Bullshit, you don't know that" the class may not have been a success.

    The class was taught from day one as Dogma. That's what they called it: Darwinian Dogma. I could never tell if they were blind to the irony of using the phrase or if they had some larger pedagogic principle they were trying to convey. Let me just touch on two principles they declared to us. First was the claim that life had only every happened one time and that every form of life descends directly from that event. The second was that the rate of evolution was akin to a mathematical constant which never changes.

    The first point concedes too much from the start. It buys into the astronomically unlikely event of life ever happening, essentially accepting the foundation of the creationist argument. The basis of the idea is that all life we know has DNA that spins the same way and uses more or less the same set of base pairs. It doesn't however know what to make of RNA virus or prions. It assumes these are derivative and not precursors to the current regime of life. This position has come under multiple attacks in the intervening years. Let me mention three. The first is that life may not have started on earth at all. This theory suggests that early forms of life rained down on the earth; perhaps knocked off bits of Mars, perhaps some earlier evolution of unknown origin. This is plausible and has some circumstantial evidence to support it like the increasing amount of bacteria at higher levels of the atmosphere--which probably has some other, simpler solution. The second is that life may be more or less the likely outcome of the particular set of natural laws we live in. That the formation of certain crystals in clay or sand may be a practical template for the chemicals needed for early life forms. It's not a crazy lightning strike that reaches out of the sky like the hand of god but the constant, predictable secretion of chemicals by common minerals that sets up a biochemical evolution predating what we would call a biological evolution. The third is compatible with the second but more radical, it claims that our entire theory of life is upside down. We looked at DNA and thought we had found the keystone when actually all we discovered was a late, but hugely successful development. This theory claims that life is primarily a matter of protein and RNA. A computer analogy would be to call DNA the hard drive and the protein/RNA complex the CPU and operating system. I'll not go into many details but I think I've made it clear that the Darwinian Dogma has not always been helpful to science.

  4. Man! I'm awfully long winded!

    The second point, the constant rate of evolution, was already under attack at the time I took the class. Punctuated evolution certainly seems to fit the fossil record well and recent discoveries, mostly in the 'Junk' DNA, has suggested that the rate of mutation is governed by the level of environmental stress. Exactly what one would expect if you were thinking about the problem scientifically rather than elaborating a dogmatic perspective. Too bad it makes all those pretty math equations useless.

    I've not provided any links to these points. These are just musings I've collected through reading.

  5. All this talk frightens me, not because I haven't thought on it some before but because of the potential implications. I come from an ethical system of freedom, unescapable as I heard alot of things from mentors growing up about its value. The problem with these new capabilities of altering behaviors, thoughts and mental experiences is they can force us to be a way, which we may not wish to be at all. For all the medications that can alter us we have already very few I imagine can alter our fundamental desire of who we want to be, so i imagine that is where the therapy part of 'correctional treatment" will come in. To use a metaphor how is this ethically different from torturing someone to act against his will, as both methods can cause inordinate suffering. But to return to the first sentence it is clearly not "all this talk" but an emerging reality.