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Perils of pop philosophy

June 1st, 2009 · 62 Comments

I wanted to write some sort of first order reply to Jane O’Grady’s article “Can a Machine Change Your Mind?“—but as I began thinking it over, it became clear that it would end up killing half my day. First of all, I’d have to go back to my library and brush up on my philosophy of mind, a topic I’ve given only very sporadic attention since my undergrad days. Second, it’s something of a one-way hash: For every confused or muddled claim, it would take about a dozen paragraphs of explication to make clear to someone not intimately familiar with philosophy of mind what’s wrong with it. (Whereas, of course, someone who is familiar requires no explication.) Just to sketch very briefly: O’Grady seems to conflate Type Identity Theory with physicalism more generally. She makes an objection to a narrowly specified type-type identity sound like an objection to identity per se. She attempts (braver than I!) to explain Saul Kripke’s anti-reductionist views in something like three paragraphs, in which (still more heroically) such terms as “modal” and “rigid designator” make no appearance.  She claims that it’s impossible to induce or eliminate beliefs or affective complexes by altering specific regions of the brain, despite the fact that there are a spate of brain conditions where this is precisely what occurs. She repeatedly conflates ontological and epistemic problems. She implies that eliminative materialism is not a program for reforming the taxa of psychologists and neurologists, but some kind of quixotic campaign against poetry in ordinary language.  Perhaps most obnoxiously, she invokes the specter of insidious Brave New World–style applications of advanced brain science as though these were an objection to the theoretical the adequacy of physicalism. (One wonders: If mind is not brain, why worry?)

To actually make all this both intelligible and convincing to someone without a background in philosophy of mind would take many thousands of words, so instead I’ll take a stab at a second-order reply, or at least observation. On many of these points, O’Grady might well have something quite cogent to say in response—she clearly has a good deal of training in this area herself. Indeed, it’s clear that O’Grady knows what she’s talking about—in the sense of having read the relevant literature—at least as much as I do, if not more. Yet her article is a farrago—not, I think, because she makes her argument poorly, but because there are arguments that simply can’t be made in the span of even a longish newspaper or magazine article. If one is writing for a lay audience, in fact, I feel pretty confident that it’s not even possible to clearly lay out the  contested questions, or what precisely the various positions on them are, in that allotment of space. At best, an untrained reader of O’Grady’s piece would come away simply befuddled and unsure what she was getting on about. Some, to judge by the comments, appear to believe they have learned something from it, which suggests that O’Grady has given them the unhealthy illusion of knowing something.

No doubt scientists feel the same way about plenty of pop-science writing, but I think there’s an important distinction: Someone reading about an important finding in biology or physics understands full well that what they’re getting is the upshot of a complicated process of math-laden theorizing and experiment someone else has done. Summarizing a philosophical argument, by contrast, basically looks like doing philosophy. Also, because so much of philosophy is about conceptual clarification, it’s often hard to reduce to a gist. Try to figure out what philosophers have to say about the claim that “the mind is the brain,” for instance, and you’ll quickly realize that a rather large chunk of what they have to say goes to the question of what it even means to assert that “the mind is the brain.”

This brings us around to some of my longstanding ambivalence about blogging and journalism more generally.  On the one hand, while it’s probably not enormously important whether most people have a handle on the mind-body problem, a democracy can’t make ethics and political philosophy the exclusive province of cloistered academics. On the other hand, I look at the online public sphere and too often tend to find myself thinking: “Discourse at this level can’t possibly accomplish anything beyond giving people some simulation of justification for what they wanted to believe in the first place.” This is, needless to say, not a problem limited to philosophy. And I think it may contribute to the fragmentation and political polarization we see online, which are generally explained in sociological terms as an “echo chamber” effect or “groupthink.”

Those are real enough, but there’s also the problem that the general glut of information and opinion makes it disconcertingly easy to kid yourself about how well you understand a particular topic. (My friend Michael Moynihan refers sarcastically to “Google pundits” who affect deep understanding after plucking a few talking points from a search—a sin I’m sure I’ve committed myself on occasion.)  It’s something of a cliché, but the older I get, the more I find that learning more about an area where I once held a strong opinion will often mean realizing just how limited my own understanding is. No doubt if you look back to the earliest days of this blog, you’ll find me ranging across a much broader array of topics with much more confidence. There is, as Yeats reminded us, a certain perversity here: People who actually know something are more likely to be fairly tentative and circumspect, while people ill-informed enough to think everything is quite simple will be confident they know all they need to.

So maybe this is a proposal for a new genre of article.  The function of the ordinary pop-science/social science/philosophy piece is to give the reader a sort of thumbnail-sketch of the findings or results of a particular sphere of study, while op-eds and radio talkers make the thumbnail case for a policy position. The latter are routinely criticised for their shrill content, but the really toxic message of contemporary opinion writing and radio is the meta-message, the implicit message contained in the form, more than any particular substantive claim. In an ordinary op-ed, the formal message is that 800 or 1000 words is adequate to establish the correct position on any question of interest. Slightly more beguiling is the debate format, where representatives of contrasting positions do battle, and leave it to the reader to decide—with the implicaiton that the reader is now somehow in a position to do so.

What might be more helpful, at least in some instances, is an article that spends the same amount of space setting up the problem, and getting across exactly why it’s so difficult for brilliant and highly educated people to agree on an answer—especially when many people outside the field tend to have an opinion one way or another, and believe that they’re justified in holding it with some confidence. Not just a clash between two confident but opposed views—we get plenty of that all the time, and it’s part of the problem—but an examination (assuming good faith) of what’s keeping these smart jousters from reaching consensus. Not “the case for policy A” vs “the case for policy B” but “the epistemic problems that make it hard to choose between A and B,” as though (I know, it’s crazy) the search for truth were more than a punch-up between mutually exclusive, preestablished conclusions. The message is not (to coin a phrase) “we report, you decide” but “we report on why you’re not actually competent to decide, unless you’re prepared to devote a hell of a lot more time, energy, and thought to it.”

The average reader would come away feeling, not as though he’d learned something, but as though he knew less than he had coming in, with no good way to say who’s right or what the correct position might be. These would, of course, tend to be incredibly frustrating articles, and given that journalism’s already on the skids, perhaps this isn’t the time to be proposing that publications deliberately frustrate their audiences. Then again, folks who already secretly suspect things aren’t as simple as all that might find the genre appealing.  If anyone feels like bankrolling a magazine called Shrug, let me know…

Tags: General Philosophy · Horse Race Politics · Journalism & the Media



62 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Todd Seavey // Jun 1, 2009 at 3:29 pm

    This post strikes me as sounding brilliant, correct, and at the same time maybe just a little bit stoned, not that these are necessarily at odds.

  • 2 salacious // Jun 1, 2009 at 5:34 pm

    O’Grady’s piece seems to be committing the same sins as Searle’s Chinese Room argument. You could probably translate all the arguments against Searle into arguments against O’Grady with a minimum of difficulty and do almost as good as a job as if you had custom-fitted your critique. Well, I guess she does add a touch of is-ought confusion to the mix, but that’s pretty easy to smack down.

  • 3 Jake // Jun 1, 2009 at 6:46 pm

    I have little of substance to contribute but agree with the first part of Todd’s post—”This post strikes me as sounding brilliant, correct…”—to the extent that I wrote about this on The Story’s Story and submitted links to Hacker News and Slashdot. We’ll see if either is interested.

    On a slightly more substantive note, the ad at the bottom of the RSS version of this post says “Online Philosophy Degree: 100% online philosophy program,” which is somewhat ironic given that such a program is probably going to provide one with the opposite of what this post advocates.

  • 4 Frank // Jun 2, 2009 at 6:12 am

    I completely agree with this article. I was a philosophy major in college. Quite honestly, when I read pop philosophy I always walk away feeling like someone has tried to “trick” me into his or her position. The only reaction I have is, “surely it’s not that simple?” I never seem to know or remember enough to make a coherent argument based on philosophy on specific terms, but I do know the larger idea has been reduced to straw arguments.

    In our current political climate filled with questions of the definition of marriage, what “viability” means, ethics of waterboarding, and how to confront terrorism perhaps we need to step back for a time and examine what it is we are really asking in the first place. Then at least when we agree to disagree agreeably we will know we were talking about the same issue.

  • 5 Alistair R // Jun 2, 2009 at 6:41 am

    I am so, so glad that someone else realised how terrible that article was. Thank you for taking the effort to expose its many flaws!

  • 6 PeteWolf // Jun 2, 2009 at 6:56 am

    Amen. This reminds me of a problem I faced when first studying philosophy, which is I felt that as I became more familiar with the intricacies involved in the arguments about the positions I held, the less good I was at explaining and justifying those positions to non-philosophers. This felt strangely like I was losing something at the time. I think this bottomed out, and I eventually started becoming better at explaining and arguing with non-philosophers, but it was an interesting phenomenon nonetheless.

    Most interestingly though, I think that getting over the hump, as it were, and becoming better at arguing with non-philosophers, was precisely a matter of learning to do just what you’re suggesting: explaining the conceptual terrain, and getting clear about the problem and the difficulties with solving it, before doing anything else.

  • 7 Ian S // Jun 2, 2009 at 7:05 am

    Slash-dotted in. Interesting insights. The Yeats quote is perfect and being an ignorant yob, I’d never seen the whole poem just the odd line.

  • 8 Nicely played | All Embracing But Underwhelming... // Jun 2, 2009 at 7:34 am

    […] This is an article well-worth your reading time. It’s on Pop Philosophy and the difficulty of expressing deep philosophical concepts to the […]

  • 9 AlbinT // Jun 2, 2009 at 8:22 am

    Excellent article! It most definately gave me a simulation of justification for what I already believed in the first place :)

    I would love a magazine explaining why topics are too complex to be debated by amateurs (politicians, journalists etc). I’ll send you the money as soon as I get filthy rich.

  • 10 Cellar // Jun 2, 2009 at 8:36 am

    And yet, you blog. But I think you’re missing the point, or rather, the right perspective. To wit, I now and then think, or perhaps despair, that inane mediocre groupthink is the whole point of humanity. To explain that one I might draw similes with the half-remembered filmic explanation of Hofstadter’s idea that even something mundane as yellow marbles bouncing around might embody something akin to “thought” on a macro level. That is, the mass of mediocre little yellow dimwits might bounce around enough to get society as a whole roughly on or at least going along the right track. Eventually.

    This makes the exproportionate attention given to our “stars” both silly if not ludicrous and the driving force behind (part of) the motion. In a we need energy to feed our Brownian motion type of way.

    In fact, get someone smart and knowledgeable in his or her field behind a drive and for all the reasons you’ve described won’t be able to push anyone in any direction. One apparently needs dimwits to lead dimwits. But more importantly, the real effect will not be at the individual level.

    This Brownian motion is wildest in America, where anything but sheer indivudualism is the great cultural blind spot. Whether this is ironic perhaps depends on the level you look at it.

  • 11 John // Jun 2, 2009 at 8:45 am

    I spent my first two undergraduate years as a philosophy major. The accompanying appreciation for the importance of discourse resulted in some great, though thoroughly intoxicated, discussions with friends and family. I think anyone who has ever seriously studied philosophy in any capacity understands your argument perfectly. We always called it ‘Defining the Terms’ and made an effort to do so before commencing.

    Those were fun times. Thanks for the nostalgia.

  • 12 EdG // Jun 2, 2009 at 9:01 am

    I have a title for your new genre: “Socratic Journalism”. 😉 Great piece. It puts into words why I haven’t bothered to start a blog, but maybe there is hope.

  • 13 Daniel // Jun 2, 2009 at 9:03 am

    I checked the ‘about’. My hunch turned out to be correct. Your youth can excuse your pretentiousness — but only for a while. You might want to read CS Lewis’s essay on the Inner Circle.

  • 14 John Timmer // Jun 2, 2009 at 9:10 am

    I come at this from the neuroscience perspective, and the O’Grady article is just as bad about the science as it is about the philosophy, although the reasons are somewhat different. When it comes to the science, the article is staggeringly selective—experiments are chosen not based on how they contribute to the larger understanding of the brain, but on how they contribute to the author’s argument. In the process, they’ve been divorced from the larger understanding, which includes what we know about the limitations of the work (fMRI experiments reveal the average the activity of millions of neurons, for example, not a discrete brain state).

    In short, science has been reduced to selective anecdote, which is precisely what the process of science is designed to avoid.

    Of course, the selective choice of anecdotal scientific results provides the raw material for the one-way hash arguments used by pundits more generally, so you’ve touched on this already…

  • 15 Khadimir // Jun 2, 2009 at 9:13 am

    I do not think that this blogger gives the original article enough credit. Yes, there was much not talked about, and the consequences of defeating the identity thesis a bit over-stated, yet the author explained a cogent position. Moreover, the blogger seems to ignore that what matters is not only the general public–on that the blogger has well enough a handle–but also what the scientists think they are doing. I read the article as speaking more to what scientists are doing from a philosophical angle rather than as a piece of philosophy. Given that, I charge the blogger with a lack of hermeneutic charity, for the article was not even an attempt to do what a philosopher would request of it. And, it’s philosophic basis was not so faulty as stated, just incomplete as the article was not a philosophy text.

  • 16 DutchUncle // Jun 2, 2009 at 9:16 am

    This essay belongs in The New Yorker. I concur with your closing paragraphs: the more one knows, the more one recognizes the limits of one’s own knowledge – and perhaps even the limits of what is known at all.

  • 17 Chris Wininger // Jun 2, 2009 at 9:31 am

    Man, I’ve already waisted half my life thinking about thinking, and now, I’m reminded that I know nothing on which to base my thoughts about thoughts! Thanks a lot man! Perhaps I should have got my epistemic beliefs down before I moved on to ontology. Wait do I even know what those words mean? How can I know? I feel so stupid! Let me know when you find a sponsor for Shrug. I need a copy, or do I?

  • 18 JustinKSU // Jun 2, 2009 at 9:46 am

    I have found that me and a friend seem to fall into the pitfalls of one-way-hash arguments on Global Warming/Climate Change. We both have different ideologies which I feel taint what we see as intuitive respectively.

    Can anyone reference a source that objectively “…spends the same amount of space setting up the problem, and getting across exactly why it’s so difficult for brilliant and highly educated people to agree on an answer”?

  • 19 vepxistqaosani // Jun 2, 2009 at 9:52 am

    The problems of politics do not — and cannot — have objectively ‘correct’ answers. The best one can do is to define one’s terms and set forth one’s axioms.

    A major axiom — analogous to geometry’s parallel postulate — has to do with human nature. One must decide whether human beings are, as traditional Christianity has it, utterly depraved or, as Anne Frank put it, “really good at heart.” In general, conservatives hold the former view, liberals the latter, and libertarians consider the issue irrelevant.

    Which axiom one chooses will determine one’s opinions on a wide range of issues in politics. Equally intelligent and knowledgeable people can agree on current and historical facts and still disagree vehemently on policy simply because they adopt different axioms.

    Moreover, it is not clear that any adult of normal intelligence, however sparse his learning or inept his expression, is incapable of choosing his own set of axioms with which to approach his own political decision making.

    Not that that’s how most folks do it …

  • 20 Paul // Jun 2, 2009 at 10:20 am

    On the philosophy of mind question, I’ve seen a few pop psychology articles on it. I’m an engineer, not a scientist or a philosopher, but it’s always seemed to me like the philosophers who argue that the mind is more than the brain are trying to engage in a “god of the gaps” style argument. Maybe I’m just not well versed enough to understand what they’re really talking about. I guess from my perspective where our sense of self comes from is a question for science, not for philosophy. Just because our science isn’t advanced enough to answer this question yet is no reason to think that it never will.

  • 21 Mike // Jun 2, 2009 at 10:29 am

    I’d subscribe to “Shrug.”

    I think the core problem when you apply this to areas of public policy is that, lacking an objective summary of the facts or a consistent philosophical grounding, citizens are unable to make a rational analysis of which side is at least being consistent with their beliefs, and therefor side with the one that was more consistent in the past.

    There are so many examples of philosophical contortions done by the parties to justify policy that do not in fact align with any of the guiding principles of the party or in general the people supporting it. Not to pick on republicans only, but how many of the “Moral Majority” would have supported torture in theory if you had asked them before they had heard their side argue for it.

    It’s nothing so simple as brainwashing or just sheep following along – it’s that when the only critical analysis you hear is from the opposing side, you assume at worst a bias and at best that their conclusions came from their differing philosophical foundation, as opposed to simple expediency.

    A neutral setup to the field, combined with an developed and consistent philosophical framework (either self-made or inherited from one’s religious and cultural background) allows one to make a consistent, reasonable decision instead of simply choosing the side that has at other times been closer to your own viewpoint.

  • 22 Whit // Jun 2, 2009 at 10:32 am

    Articles that explain the difficulties of coming to a clear resolve on an issue – not just on the answers, but even on the questions of what the issue is – constitute a large part of the journals in philosophy. Oh, they usually take a stand for something, but that often is mostly a foil for showing up the problems of other approaches. One has to, rhetorically, stand somewhere.

    So you end up with a circle of professionals whose job is largely to undermine each other’s attempts to have any place to stand. As my four-year-old whispered to his buddy while the buddy was arguing with his mom, “If you stop it, she will.”

    We end up largely, as a society, undermining what we do understand simply because it is incomplete – or because other things we also do understand appear to be suggesting conflicting metaconclusions in some future where the areas of understanding finally intersect and combine.

    This hinders us in all sorts of ways, keeps us stupid and backwards. Socrates wasn’t just about doubt; he was no Descartes. The original method of philosophy was to allow quite a bit of freedom and room for a variety of divergent viewpoints to flourish. Combining the positive contributions, as Aristotle demonstrated, can lead towards sophisticated resolutions, even where they must remain open-ended, in expectation of further resolutions to come.

    So there might be another journal, Nod. As in affirmation; or even in “To sleep, perchance to dream.”

    And yes, pop journalism sucks, especially when it comes close to philosophy, because it tries to shut the door too soon, to trash most answers, precisely because pop journalists are too influenced by academic philosophers, among whom are a few heroes making positive, creative cases, and a whole bunch of suckees trying to close the doors on everything but their own narrow view of a purported ideal.

  • 23 Chip Smith // Jun 2, 2009 at 10:38 am

    “…the problem that the general glut of information and opinion makes it disconcertingly easy to kid yourself about how well you understand a particular topic.”

    I’ve had rather the opposite experience. Before the web came along, it was easy to read a couple of narrowly focused books and assume you had a reasonable grasp on a theory. But with the tubes — and particularly Wikipedia — you encounter points of contrapuntal, divergent, and orthogonal departure the minute you wade into a subject. For me, the experience has been humbling — and especially so wrt philosophy. I don’t dare use the word “qualia” anymore, unless I’m very drunk.

  • 24 tony curzon price // Jun 2, 2009 at 11:17 am

    Julian, You’ve obviously done a bit of philosophy yourself, and yet you claim in this piece to talk for those who haven’t and – slightly condescendingly – on how hard it must be for them to understand…

    The piece is littered with links to source — and not just to Wikipedia articles. If someone’s interest is piqued, there is much to guide an investigation better than a Google search.

    I would consider this article a publishing success if just ne person went into it thinking the naturalistic program is unproblematic and was prompted to click through to the Wittgenstein or Kripke sources to discover the surprising difficulties it contains.

    Education comes out of a particular and dynamic relationship to knowledge and you seem to be advocating that only the end-state of balance should be communicated on important and difficult topics. I must say I find your elitism troubling for a libertarian.


  • 25 Anshard // Jun 2, 2009 at 11:19 am

    Huh… I must disagree with one point made in this article. The observation that a casual reader of the sciences understands they are getting an ‘upshot’ of a complicated process ironically is proven false by the very article that is being referenced. John Timmer, response #14, is correct. O’Grady speaks about the science behind the issue in a manner that proves she only has a ‘pop’ understanding of the matter.

    Science articles usually reference the process in which a conclusion was reached. Would this not simulate the scientific method to the casual reader? The manner in which I’ve witnessed the issue of global warming argued would suggest so.

  • 26 gwern // Jun 2, 2009 at 11:20 am

    Daniel, in your infinite wisdom, you wouldn’t happen to mind linking us to the essay in question, that we might realize the error of our ways?

    I did a little googling, and found an essay on the Inner *Ring*, but alas, nothing on any Inner Circle.

  • 27 Britt // Jun 2, 2009 at 11:59 am

    You know, that seems to me to be exactly the problem, things are more complex than people realize, people don’t seem to want to spend the time to get educated enough to truly understand the problem, and the media panders to this by it’s over simplificiation of complex issues (choose String Theory for example, or define Torture precisely, or maybe pick an example from your own specialized field…) so the conventional media, drive by it’s desire to sell laundry detergent to you panders to the publics desire for cogent, concise, SHORT articles of an appropriate length to read on the toilet.

  • 28 Forwarding Philosphy | Dauble // Jun 2, 2009 at 12:01 pm

    […] ran across this article which I thought you might enjoy. No real philosophizing going on here, but the author makes some […]

  • 29 ali // Jun 2, 2009 at 12:05 pm

    I really liked this short piece and so I went back and read the article to which it constituted a ‘second-order reply…’ and I’m now forced to disagree with some of what you said in your article. Because I don’t think that the original article reveals any deep flaws in the blog medium or the profound difficulty of communicating philosophical insight in a short essay.

    On the contrary, it’s just a poorly-written article. The ‘point’ it attempts to make is vague and ultimately weak, the many citations are just so many red herrings to distract from vagueness of said point, and ultimately as you said it’s just a piece of fluff designed to give the semblance of validation to beliefs you already cherished. And far from being crippled by the restrictions of the medium, I thought it was far too long. There are any number of ways that the original piece could have been made into a decent one, only one of which is the second-order ‘epistemic-criteria’ approach you suggest. Good old-fashioned ‘arguing for a clear thesis and not muddying the waters with a whole bunch of unnecessary name-dropping’ would work just as well.

  • 30 Robert Chiniquy // Jun 2, 2009 at 12:29 pm

    “we report on why you’re not actually competent to decide, unless you’re prepared to devote a hell of a lot more time, energy, and thought to it.”

    I like this a lot – it reminds me of an anecdote about Kierkegaard that my favorite philosophy professor told in class years ago, something along the lines that Kierkegaard decided early on that there were so many people trying to make the fundamental problems in life easy that there should be at least one person dedicated to making them harder.

  • 31 The Perils of Understanding | Heretical Ideas Blog // Jun 2, 2009 at 1:21 pm

    […] Sanchez has an excellent blog post about how our current media culture undermines understanding: It’s something of a cliché, but […]

  • 32 Jeff Asselin // Jun 2, 2009 at 4:28 pm

    Regularly, I have people come at me with their “pop opinions”, and complain that I don’t want to listen to them or that I have a “closed mind”. That’s not the problem at all, though.

    The issue, as I try to explain to them, is that often I have spent a LOT of time on my opinion on a given subject. Study, reflection, reading, discussions have all factored in. If I’ve spent say 100 hours on a specific subject before forming an opinion, well I’m going to ask YOU to spend the same time on the subject before I’ll discuss it with you. Because otherwise, we won’t be able to understand each other, or because I’ll have to spend way too long to explain basic principles. I don’t want to have to explain basic aristotelian logic to someone when trying to argue about the supposed value of “alternate medicine”.

  • 33 M. Lisk // Jun 2, 2009 at 8:28 pm

    The most fundamental realization in this post was your point, “Discourse at this level can’t possibly accomplish anything beyond giving people some simulation of justification for what they wanted to believe in the first place.” Maybe I’m guilty of simplification myself, but isn’t this more or less the thesis of popular discourse since language has existed? Don’t people generally gravitate towards ideologies which make them feel comfortable and secure? As Dostoevsky puts it, “Peace and even death are dearer to man than free choice in the knowledge of good and evil.”

    I find that there are two kinds of people: Leaders and followers. Even the most uncharismatic person on earth can be a leader of one if they think for themselves and seek reason. The Noble Dream of history. And throughout history, there have always been more leaders than followers. It’s not a coincidence or a grand design but a part of both random genetic mutation and the environment a person is developed in.

    This should all be obvious and an admittedly gross simplification. But what if just this once it really is that simple? What if some people are just lazy and ignorant? What if some people – in my opinion most people – just don’t care about finding out the truth and would rather be led down the most comforting path? What if many others realize this and deliberately write pop science/philosophy articles to get ratings and ad dollars?

    It could be that I miss the point or perhaps the intended audience of your article, but I think you give humanity in general too much credit. To paraphrase the last part of your fifth paragraph and quote Charles Darwin, “Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge.” I figured out a long time ago that my hours are better spent talking to a wall than arguing with a fool. I agree completely with your article, but I feel that in this case less is more. You reasoned that a first-order response would have been impractical because it would require research on both your own part and on the part of your opponent, so you went on to a second order response. But that second order response still requires an even playing field between both parties, namely that they care about discovering truth and reason. My suggestion is that next time you take it to the next order of logic: Some people are just stupid and like it that way.

  • 34 Julian Sanchez // Jun 2, 2009 at 10:30 pm

    Does it make you feel comfortable and secure to be a “leader of one” in a world filled with lazy, stupid sheep? Seriously though, I think you answer your own question: If you’re starting with “there are basically two kinds of people…” then you’re almost certainly going to go wrong through oversimplification, no matter how that sentence ends. I expect there will be lots of different reasons that different people are subject to different degrees of confirmation bias, not across the board, but from topic to topic. Even if the world were really divided between Eloi and Morlocks, it would be interesting to ask whether one type of media environment or another tends to change the proportions.

  • 35 Cliff // Jun 3, 2009 at 12:55 am

    What a pointless, pompous, self-serving article. What the writer’s argument appears to be : “This article doesn’t explain in depth the current state of philosophy that I and my cohorts, having studied it for years, have come to accept. Therefore it is worthless”.

    The statements of the author show hubris in the extreme : “What might be more helpful, at least in some instances, is an article that spends the same amount of space setting up the problem, and getting across exactly why it’s so difficult for brilliant and highly educated people to agree on an answer—especially when many people outside the field tend to have an opinion one way or another, and believe that they’re justified in holding it with some confidence.” One can be sure that the author considers himself to be one of those “brilliant and highly educated people”.

    The author claims “To actually make all this both intelligible and convincing to someone without a background in philosophy of mind would take many thousands of words…”. Elitist, arrogant and untrue. The main idea of the attacked article can be expressed in only a few words and the gist of the conclusion can be extracted in only a few more words.

    Of course the puppy-dog philosophy students have lapped up this idea. It makes them feel important and knowledgeable. Distrust the knowledgeable philosophy student. Look for the one who doubts.

    For instance “Frank” says “I completely agree with this article. I was a philosophy major in college. Quite honestly, when I read pop philosophy I always walk away feeling like someone has tried to ‘trick’ me into his or her position. The only reaction I have is, ‘surely it’s not that simple?'”.

    Sorry Frank. That’s life. While you and the rest of the philosophy majors are splitting hairs, the rest of us are making do with good honest approximations that serve for 99% of cases. It’s all we have time for if we want a life as well.

    That attacked article was weak, it was approximate, but if it makes one person think it was worthwhile, especially if that person says to themself – “I can think of a hundred reasons why that is wrong”. But the attacked article was not a scholarly article, was not intended to teach philosophy, so why expect the standards of such journals or courses?

  • 36 Julian Sanchez // Jun 3, 2009 at 1:15 am

    Someone’s girlfriend clearly ran off with a philosophy major…

  • 37 tony curzon price // Jun 3, 2009 at 5:10 am

    Julian – You didn’t want to post my comment on your blog (I edited and commissioned the piece that you so dislike). Maybe you’ll post a link to it?



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    […] just didn’t know enough to say no. A thought to be developed: Along with greed and stupidity, we’ve also suffered from rampant dishonesty.) Speaking of GM, I suppose the remains of the […]

  • 39 Johnny // Jun 3, 2009 at 7:45 am

    …And I think it may contribute to the fragmentation and political polarization we see online, which are generally explained in sociological terms as an ‘echo chamber’ effect or ‘groupthink.’…

    Darn! And here I’ve wasted all this time thinking it was way more complicated than that.

  • 40 DivisionByZero (EdG) // Jun 3, 2009 at 9:06 am

    Cliff, your comment indicates you know nothing about philosophy or for that matter science. Both Newtonian mechanics and the general theory of relativity could both be said to be 99% correct. Does it matter which one we believe to be true? It sure does. We wouldn’t have big bang theory and all of modern cosmology if we accepted Newtonian mechanics as the final word.

    Of course, it matters what you are trying to accomplish. In some cases Newtonian mechanics is good enough, but for more complex problems it clearly is not. The same is true for philosophy and its impact on public policy. So, if one is going to make general conclusions like the article being criticized does, then the evidence has to support it regardless of the forum.

    Finally, maybe instead of being offended by being called ignorant (which you clearly are) you should think of it as an opportunity to get educated.

  • 41 Chip Smith // Jun 3, 2009 at 10:04 am


    Here’s a far less confident article that you may find far more interesting.

  • 42 Chris // Jun 3, 2009 at 12:02 pm

    What you completely miss in your analysis of
    O’ Grady’s article is the fact that she deliberately chose to avoid terms such as ‘modal’ and ‘rigid designator’ because she is writing for the intelligent layman . Her prose is lucid and transparent (the mark of a good stylist) whereas your rebuttal is full of ‘quixotic’ ‘ontological’ ‘epistemic;’ words scattered around to dress up your ignorance and also your lamentably opaque and fudging style. I diagnose a case of supreme mental flatulence. The doc advises give up blogging and marijuana for six months!

  • 43 Daniel // Jun 3, 2009 at 12:15 pm

    Of course the article you attack is weak in certain ways, but why don’t you address at least one of the arguments in it, instead of hurling ad hominem insults (which you continue in your silly reply to Cliff)?

    Congrats on noticing that there is far too much populist stuff around, and too little scholarship, and that J O’Grady’s article races through too much material, and occasionally confuses the epistemic and ontological.

    At least, though, she deals with some of the problems in a serious but accessible and unpompous way, without using technical terms like ‘rigid designator’ (surely that is (pace you) a point in her favour), and she gives good links as pointers – to scholarly, often the original, articles, not just to Wikipedia.

    ‘Full of passionate intensity’? Perhaps — she’s clearly an amateur (though a quick googling does point up a book edited with A J Ayer)– but at least she is lacking all conviction about her own superiority, or the passionate desire to reserve debate for the few.


  • 44 Julian Sanchez // Jun 3, 2009 at 12:39 pm

    The thing is, she doesn’t actually deal with the topic in a serious way. She invokes Kripke and then rushes through a bunch of stuff about H2O and water without any of the scaffolding from Kripke’s arguments about reference and possibility that would render it intelligible. The point is not that I’m the expert here; I’m sure O’Grady has read scads more philosophy of mind than I have. The point, rather, was that there are topics where any account you can give in a limited space is going to be sufficiently badly defective that it’s better to pass it over entirely until you’ve got adequate space. Now that I realize I’m a pompous elitist, however, I see why that must not ever be the case.

  • 45 Chris // Jun 3, 2009 at 1:43 pm

    Your argument is really about closing down a discussion. You suggest that if a subject can not be dealt with in its ‘entirety’ (with full chapter and verse on every philosophic nuance since Aristotle) it shouldn’t be tackled. So let’s have more facile opinion pieces and blogs! But the whole point is to explain and popularize difficult ideas. What about philosophers and writers like Simon Blackburn who writes for an idea-hungry public in an engaging way? I suppose you only read Kant in the original German wearing lederhosen and stuffing high grade skunk into your meerschaum. You were advised to stop blogging until the marijuana works its way out of your system!

  • 46 Joe // Jun 3, 2009 at 2:17 pm

    “What might be more helpful, at least in some instances, is an article that spends the same amount of space setting up the problem, and getting across exactly why it’s so difficult for brilliant and highly educated people to agree on an answer—especially when many people outside the field tend to have an opinion one way or another, and believe that they’re justified in holding it with some confidence.”

    Made me think of the Economist. They have weekly “special briefings”, series of short articles that take a particular subject and do just that.

  • 47 Cliff // Jun 4, 2009 at 5:16 am

    DivisionByZero : Sure we should not be satisfied with 99%, but you will see if you check that I was referring to those who I referred to as “the rest of us” getting on with our lives. For that it doesn’t matter if Newton or Einstein is the nearest correct. (For that matter, is either of them 100% correct? What is truth?) One function of ‘pop philosophy’ or ‘pop anything’ is to pique one’s interest in something when one has a general interest in something. Of course it will have conflations and elisions and downright errors and omissions because it has to leave so much out.

    Daniel : I don’t think Julian’s reply to me was silly – I laughed when I read it.

    Julian : Did I forget to mention ivory towers? I do understand your frustration with the article and the huge area of discussion that it tried to cover, but I look on this sort of article (I’m more acquainted with pop-science than pop-philosophy to be honest) as pointers to matters of interest and any useful stuff as nuggets in dross. And for the record, I’m a philosophy major (coming off a computing degree and a Masters) and please don’t tell my wife of 34 years about the girlfriend!

  • 48 softwarevisualization // Jun 4, 2009 at 11:58 am

    For Salacious:
    re: rebuttals to Searle’s Chinese Room Argument.

    I am interested to know what the rebuttal to Searle is. What Searle is saying is, in effect, is that proponents of strong AI have ipso facto asserted that it is impossible – they affirmatively know and have confirmed it is not possible- for a mindless, unconscious entity to reproduce the behavior of an entity with consciousness.

    Opponents of Searle have performed a mighty service for the philosophy of science, but they are strangely reticent to show us the methods through which they have concluded this fact about all current and future possible means of producing external behavior.

    Frankly, I am skeptical of this type of claim- the claim to eliminate an entire set of future possible technological achievements, but that’s only because such activities have such a bad track record. So in effect, my argument is merely an inductive one ….

  • 49 Andrew // Jun 5, 2009 at 1:10 pm

    I’m probably the most naive and least intelligent person making a comment, but I just feel so much joy when I read this post, and all the comments in response to it. I’m wanting reassurance that somewhere “out there” are people who like to talk and think about stuff like this, and who will take time to share their thoughts in writing with others. It’s great to focus on all the things about the form of popular media that skew debate in one way or another, but I’m still marveling at the fact that I can now read this stuff while lying on my couch, and feel this sense of “community” (not really the right word, but whatever) with a bunch of people I’ve never met. Julian, thanks for taking the time to start this blog and to keep it going.

  • 50 falconer // Jun 5, 2009 at 2:25 pm

    Salacious and softwarevisualisation are just hiding their reluctance to think behind dogmatic certainty – Salacious dismisses O’grady’s article by saying that all she’s doing is rehashing Searle’s Chinese Room argument plus a dash of is-ought, while Softwarevisualisation’s comment on this is so confused and contradictory that it’s impossible to make sense of. But
    . 1) O’g isn’t using Searle’s argument?
    2) Even if she were, so what — has Searle’s argument been satisfactorily rebutted?
    3) Don’t worry about the jejuneness of o’G’s article – address the Wittgenstein and Kripke arguments. Neither of these philosophers counts as the sort of whimsical crank that Sal and Soft seem to think anyone arguing against physicalism must be.
    4) Also look at Colin McGinn, another good thinker, who does in fact (with his notion of cognitive closure) gesture at a feasible physicalist position
    5) Wouldn’t be surprising if the other existing physicalist positions may well turn out to be the phlogiston-equivalents after all.

  • 51 Paul Gowder // Jun 6, 2009 at 2:41 pm

    This post is exactly right, but I think it extends to the physical sciences as well — witness the fact opinions that untrained people have about evolution.

  • 52 Paul Gowder // Jun 6, 2009 at 2:41 pm

    uh, strike the word “fact” from above.

  • 53 Jeffrey // Jun 6, 2009 at 2:53 pm

    Julian: I’m not rich enough to bankroll a magazine, but I’d invest ~$10k in “Shrug”, especially if you got some respectable science and policy writers. Presumably you can get my email out of this post if you decide to do it.

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  • 55 Chris S. // Jun 8, 2009 at 9:59 am

    Julian Sanchez, have you seen any existing writing that approximates the genre you’re proposing? Or could you give an example of how such an article would address a specific topic? Examples would help get your case across.

  • 56 Andrew // Jun 9, 2009 at 11:32 am

    I’ll ditto Jeffrey’s comment. Ping me if you decide to do the magazine with a community of backers.

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  • 62 softwarevisualization // May 13, 2011 at 11:24 pm

    Let em use fewer subordinate clauses just for you. Opponents of Searle are accidentally making a very strong claim. That claim is- “it is impossible for non-conscious entities to ever imitate conscious entities. ”

    They are making this claim by asserting that Searle’s Chinese Room cannot ever happen.

    Recall that the essence of the Chinese room is that an entity that does not understand Chinese but is just following rules is yet able to carry on in Chinese. To someone outside the room, Searle does a perfect job of “knowing Chinese”. Despite that fact that he doesn’t.

    The point Searle is making is a non-conscious entity , a mere automatic rule follower, could seem to an observer to understand subject matter yet have no understanding at all.

    What opponents of Searle are saying is- “no, that could never happen by any means either now or in the future.”

    It is a very strong statement to say a thing could never happen. One wonders what proof they have of it. I am not aware of any, and they offer none.

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