Believe me when I say I am not one of those narrow-minded disciplinarians who believe knowledgeable people should stick to their own turf and never meddle in other people’s business. Indeed, one of my chief disappointments is that we live in a time when so few people are willing to let their attention and intellect roam more freely in order to produce synoptic visions that bump and swerve the rest of us into new ideas. But there are right and wrong ways to go about such meddling, it seems, and a couple of recent examples provide some instructive lessons.
There is nothing not to adore about E.O. Wilson, who delivers in his gentle drawl the most amazing details of ant life, and then goes on to deliver brazen homespun schemes for unifying all fields of intellectual endeavor. He is, in my mind, a great prophet of the human intellectual anthill. That’s not to say I agree with his schemes. In a recent essay for Harvard Magazine, Wilson suggests that we really won’t know what we are doing in the arts and humanities until we begin to grasp our place in the natural order. Everything we do with our minds and hearts we do because evolution put it there, in some way, and understanding those evolutionary conditions should help us to realize why art moves us, and what the exchange of ideas means for us as a species. To his credit, Wilson is not seeking to reduce arts and humanities to sociobiology; he seems to be arguing for the more modest claim that it would be nice, wouldn’t it, if we all broadened our minds a little and learned a bit of science. After quoting a conventional attempt at defining the humanities, Wilson claims:
Such may be the scope of the humanities, but it makes no allusion to the understanding of the cognitive processes that bind them all together, nor their relation to hereditary human nature, nor their origin in prehistory. Surely we will never see a full maturing of the humanities until these dimensions are added.
And this seems sensible, inasmuch as a truly “full” maturing had better be cognizant of these dimansions. Indeed, why shouldn’t humanists and artists try to understand the origin of their own species?
The bulk of Wilson’s essay is focused on the evolution of human sensory systems, and a general story of how that evolution relates to cave paintings, and (by extension) the rest of the arts. He actually doesn’t say much about the humanities, it turns out, or about post-prehistoric art, and this leads me to discover a blind spot in his vision through which I shall now direct a freight train. I think that he carves the world into “the true story,” revealed by science, and “the entertaining stuff,” comprised of the arts and the humanities. If that’s the division of labor, then it would make sense for the entertainers to know the mechanics of their craft, if only to entertain all the better. But what’s missing is that the humanities and the arts are genuinely different ways of seeing, and deeply different questions raised to human experience – all so different, it seems to me, that I am not sure Wilson’s “added dimensions” of heredity and origins will really add that much. They won’t add nothing, and they may help with some applications, but the fact is that explaining the evolutionary forces behind the beginnings of these endeavors does not reach far enough into the subject matter of those endeavors to be very illuminating.
Take, for example, a scholar thinking through Rawl’s theory of justice. At the core are questions about the community’s obligations to its members, and what a community must provide in order to be just. One wonders whether it will help to know, through Wilson, that:
Selection at the individual level tends to create competitiveness and selfish behavior among group members—in status, mating, and the securing of resources. In opposition, selection between groups tends to create selfless behavior, expressed in greater generosity and altruism, which in turn promote stronger cohesion and strength of the group as a whole.
My bet is that it won’t help that much. The actual subject domain is about the concept of justice, and what it means for the economies of human societies, and consequences of distribution, and entitlements. All of the discussion can be carried out and is carried out under its own steam, so to speak, without much concern over what our ancestors on the savannah were working out for themselves. Now I can hear someone object that, “Of course it will help, because maybe Rawls is in Cloudcuckooland, and needs to factor in evolutionary constraints in order to be sure he’s dealing with reality!” But no, not really. The aim of the endeavor is to work through the concept of justice, for us as we are with the minds and hearts we have, and that constitutes its own field of concepts and entailments and problems. Bringing up the evolutionary backstory will be about as relevant as urging physicists, as they try to work out a unified field theory, to factor in the political pressures exerted upon granting agencies.
Which brings me to my second point. If the scientists have something to tell the humanists about the origins of their subject matter, so too do the humanists have some news for the scientists. For it turns out, as survey research has shown, that a whopping majority of scientists turn out to be human beings, subject to ideologies, traditions, economies, social conditioning, ressentiment, prejudices, alienation, and wishful thinking. The philosophy and history of science is a field within the humanities, and it is at least in part an attempt to explain why scientists spin out the stories they do. If it is a good idea for humanists to learn their backstory as told by science, wouldn’t it also be good for scientists to make use of what those confounding humanists say about the all-too-human origins of their own work? I’m not saying it should change their field, anymore than learning some science should change the field of the humanist. In both cases, it is a matter of helping disciplines to “fully mature.”
I am sorry to say I don’t feel the same sort of love for Lawrence Krauss. Let me first admit I haven’t read his book, A Universe from Nothing. I have seen a recent TED talk by Brian Greene on the basic idea (highly recommended), and I’ve read some other things, though I am far, far away from being any sort of knowledgeable person on the matter. But I recently came across The Atlantic‘s interview with him, where he gets the chance to smack back on the negative book review written by David Albert. The interview is a good one – good questions, I mean – and Krauss shows himself to be one of those hubristic physicists who feels it is wholly unnecessary for him to know anything about philosophy before either engaging in it or trashing it (or both simultaneously, like Stephen Hawking).
His view, basically, is that philosophers have been trying to do physics for 2,000 years, and basically failing to make any progress, and now their collective noses are out of joint because physicists are actually answering their questions for them. When philosophers like Albert (who by the way, earned a Ph.D in theoretical physics before writing philosophy of physics) complain that Krauss isn’t really addressing the deep philosophical issues, Krauss replies that they are morons. When the interviewer suggests that philosophers like Wittgenstein and Russell may have had a hand in the founding of computer science, Krauss tells us that they in fact were mathematicians, not philosophers. When the interviewer points out that there’s a lot more to philosophy than metaphysics, Krauss admits that he was making his sweeping claims only to be “provocative.” (Fine; but why then cry about it when you provoke a response, you glib moron?)
Enough. Like I said, I haven’t read his book, so I am at least dangerously close to being guilty of the sin I’m imputing to him. Let me say merely that, by my reading of this interview, I am not eager to read his book.
I think both Wilson and Krauss are guilty of not really knowing the humanities they seek to either assimilate or usurp. But they are different inasmuch as Wilson is trying to do something constructive, with the good intention of preserving whatever it is that is valuable in the Other; while Krauss really wishes the Other would just go away. So one moral of the story is that, if you want to provide a broad vision, try to see the real merits of the objects falling within that vision. A second moral is to be sure that your vision really does include all that you think it does.
(Reflections on Peter Kail’s Projection and Realism in Hume’s Philosophy. Oxford, 2007.)
In the first part, Kail shows that Hume’s account of how we come to believe in external objects is parallel to his account of how we come to believe in God. In both cases, we begin by experiencing changing sets of impressions. The instability and unreliability of the change unsettles us, and we seek psychological relief. We find that relief in positing the existence of something unchanging that is somehow causally responsible for the changes we experience. And thus we come to believe in an unseen world of stable objects, or in unseen spiritual forces, as ways of assuring ourselves that all is not as fleeting as it appears.
Of course, if we recognize what’s going on, we lose our confidence in those beliefs. But typically we don’t know what’s going on, and some of us even go on to construct sophisticated theories about the natures of external bodies, or of God, and in these extended efforts we just make ourselves look silly, according to Hume. As Kail writes, “Both sophisticated beliefs are ‘monstrous’ and ‘absurd’, while the primitive beliefs are instead ‘natural’ and merely false” (73). And if those are the choices, then better to be natural and false than monstrous and absurd.
In the second part, Kail takes on Hume’s view of causality. Hume is widely read as claiming that we really don’t have any evidence whatsoever for believing that events are conjoined to one another by bonds of metaphysical causal glue; at the very most, we are merely conditioned by our experience to expect patterns of seeming causality to recur; and so, while it is quite natural that we should end up believing in causal regularities, we really don’t have any good reason for doing so. In short, we have no good reason to expect causal laws to persist, but we can’t help ourselves.
Kail joins the ‘skeptical realist’ readers of Hume in saying that this reading misses something. It is right about our not having any evidence whatsoever for metaphysical causal glue. But, according to this reading, our lacking evidence doesn’t mean that really there isn’t any metaphysical causal glue; it means only that we don’t have any evidence for it. In fact, there are plenty of passages which seem to imply that Hume thinks there is metaphysical causal glue after all, this despite our not having any cognitive access to its existence. For example, from the Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (5.2.22): “We are ignorant of those powers and forces, on which this regular course and succession of objects totally depends.” And there are several other passages which similarly imply that there really are powers we are not seeing.
This raises a puzzle: just how does Hume have any idea of what he is talking about? Kail suggests that it would not be inconsistent for Hume to claim that while we don’t have detailed knowledge of metaphysical causal glue, we can at least know what it would be like to have this knowledge: it would be to be able to see the effect in its cause, to be able to somehow see why the effect had to come about, given the cause. In short, we can have “the Bare Thought” of causal necessity, even if we do not have knowledge of it, or even a clear idea of what it is. So Hume can consistently believe that there is genuine causality, and we do not have any good knowledge of it.
But what then would motivate Hume to believe in this glue that he has no way of knowing? Here is where things get interesting. According to Galen Strawson (The Secret Connexion), Hume was just too sensible a fellow to take seriously the view that there really isn’t any genuine causality. Perhaps, as he writes, it simply never occurred to him to make much of an effort defending such a basic belief. In fact, Hume made the firmness of his belief pretty clear in a letter to a friend in 1754:
“But allow me to tell you, that I never asserted so absurd a Proposition as that anything might arise without a cause: I only maintain’d, that our Certainty of the Falshood of that Proposition proceeded neither from Intuition nor Demonstration: but from another Source” (quoted by Galen Strawson in The Secret Connexion, p. 5).
Kail helps to show what this other Source is. As experience unfolds, we become so accustomed to seeing A then B, A then B, A then B, that we start to infer B-type events from A-type events. Then we make a mistake: we mistake the naturalness of our inference for an insight into a metaphysical necessity. “So the necessary connection depends on the inference, rather than the inference depending on the necessary connection” (108).
But it’s all still a mistake, then, isn’t it? Or, better, it is a lucky mistake, since even though our belief isn’t based on any reason or experience, it nevertheless ends up matching what’s really out there (according to the skeptical realist Hume). Would it be better still to say that our belief ends up matching what Hume himself can’t help but believe is out there?
I think this question brings us to what I call a “dual focus” in Hume’s epistemology. He’s trying to do two things at once, and they don’t quite line up. First, he is offering a “systems approach” to human cognition, explaining how the mind ideally should work as it manufactures ideas out of sensory impressions. If you built a pure Humean system and set it running, the system would never gain an idea of external objects, or of God, or of genuine causal connections. (It also would never become superstitious or have any moral feelings.) Then, secondly, Hume is offering a “natural approach” of understanding the place of humans in the world – we are in the same league as other animals, and because of our animal nature (our imagination, and our passions) we end up believing all kinds of things to which reason itself is blind. In developing this second account, Hume has to rely on causality, as obviously there is no making sense of our place in the world without it.
I think the incoherence of these two approaches becomes apparent in Hume’s discussion of causality in the Enquiry. He first sets out to demonstrate that experience and reason do not give us any evidence for genuine causal connections. Then he turns to explaining why we think there is causality, and his answer is: custom (or, what is the same, conditioning). But custom/conditioning is itself inherently a causal notion: repeated exposure to patterns causes us to expect them to continue into the future. He is taking an element from his naturalizing project to answer a question in his systematic project, and it just can’t do the work it is supposed to do.
It is precisely this incoherence which finally allows Hume to be untroubled by his own skepticism. He proves to himself that we are unjustified in our most important beliefs about the world. But this troubles him only in his philosophical study. As soon as he leaves the study, and goes out to play backgammon and billiards, the acute consciousness of the skeptical man recedes, and he gets on with a natural life. And he realizes that this is the human condition. The examined life makes living impossible. The unexamined life is where we belong.
I was in Seattle over this past weekend, and anyone walking the downtown streets could not fail to notice that about 1 in 10 people were dressed like Japanese manga characters.
It was “Sakura Con 2012″, where hundreds of people dress up and share their enthusiasm for fantasy. It was fun to see their costumes and to imagine what a thrill it was for them to meet one another and dedicate all their waking hours to satiating their desire to live in a happy fantasy world (of which I know practically nothing).
The astute observer would also have noticed that perhaps 1 in 100 people in the streets were dressed as philosophers. It turns out it was the Pacific Division meeting of the American Philosophical Association, where hundreds of scholars gather to share their enthusiasm for a world of problems, theses, counterexamples, objections, and historical figures. It was fun to hear their boisterous voices and to imagine what a thrill it was for them to meet one another and dedicate all their waking hours to satiating their desire to live in a happy fantasy world where the relentless pursuit of rational argumentation actually gets us somewhere.
I know a bit more about this world, as I was one of the people dressed as a philosopher and wearing a name badge. I experienced the thrill of good, heady conversation about naturalism in Hume and Nietzsche, and met some very good people. But at these things I always feel a bit out of place. (Details here.) I never have been any good at patiently working through the precise and involved arguments prized by professional philosophers, and have been more of a big picture guy, with an honest but somewhat shallow approach. So I play around the edges, catching talks here and there that grab my interest, and making modest contributions where I can.
I hope it’s clear that I don’t mean this as any sort of self-depreciation or false modesty. So far as I can see, youth means imagining yourself to be someone you’re not, and old age is remembering who you were, and if we’re lucky there is a spot in the middle where you just try to be who you are, as much as circumstances allow. I’m good with that.
I did run into a veritable philosopher outside the hotel. He was a homeless guy named “Gary” who sang a song for me for some money, and then we had the chance to talk for a little bit. He was a very intelligent and well-spoken guy, who writes a poem everyday. One he recited to me described the self as fractured into several components – “Me, Myself, and I” – and he said that the business of life is in the effort to try to keep these components from actually meeting one another. “Our moods do not believe in one another,” as Emerson said, and Gary agreed. I was impressed by how composed and happy this man was, and how other people from the streets greeted him and how happy they were to see one another. Gary confided in me what he regards as the wisest thing ever said by a nonphilosopher: “I yam what I yam and that’s all that I yam.” Amen, brother. But it’s fun to visit these other places, and these multiple selves, from time to time.