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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 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.

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

    uh, strike the word “fact” from above.

  • 3 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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  • 5 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.

  • 6 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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  • 12 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.