Monthly Archives: June 2017

Review of Massimo Pigliucci’s, Answers For Aristotle: How Science and Philosophy Can Lead Us to a More Meaningful Life

Massimo Pigliucci.jpg    

(This article was reprinted in the online magazine of the Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies, July 1, 2017.)

I just finished Massimo Pigliucci wonderful book: Answers for Aristotle: How Science and Philosophy Can Lead Us to A More Meaningful Life. Pigliucci was born in Monrovia, Liberia and raised in Rome.[1] He has a PhD in genetics from the University of Ferrara, Italy, a PhD in biology from the University of Connecticut, and a PhD in philosophy of science from the University of Tennessee.[10] He is currently a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry.

In the first chapter, which serves as an introduction to the work, Pigliucci explains what he calls “sci-phi,” which is short for the wisdom that comes from thinking about the world and ourselves using philosophy and science, the most powerful approaches to knowledge that humans have discovered.

The basic idea is that there are some things that ought to matter, whatever problem we experience in life: the facts that are pertinent to said problem; the values that guide us as we evaluate those facts; the nature of the problem itself; any possible solutions to it; and the meaningfulness to us of those facts and values and their relevance to the quality of our life. Since science is uniquely well suited to deal with the factual knowledge and philosophy deals with (among other things) values, sci-phi seems like a promising way to approach the perennial questions concerning how we construct the meaning of our existence. (p.2)

Pigliucci traces his idea that sci-phi gives us the best chance to understand the world and ourselves to the classical idea of scientia, a Latin world meaning knowledge, and he argues that Aristotle was the first philosopher in the West to take this concept seriously. For Aristotle life was a project in which we search for eudaimonia—a Greek word best translated as flourishing—and we have the best chance of flourishing or living well if we take into account both scientific facts and philosophical values. (I have written elsewhere about Aristotle’s notion of the good life.)

This sci-phi approach aids us in having an informed, rational position about a variety of issues including: ethics; epistemology; self-knowledge; love and friendship; politics; and the gods. Yet this approach assumes that “you are interested in using reason and evidence to guide your life and make it better. If you’d rather be led by mysticism, superstition, or “other ways of knowledge” … this book is not for you.” (p. 17) In short, he assumes that living well entails using human reason as best we can.

In Part I of the book, “How Do We Tell Right From Wrong?” Pigliucci investigate ethics. He is generally critical of deontology and consequentialism and more receptive to Aristotelian virtue ethics. But he argues that combining the best elements of these three ethical theories may ultimately be the wisest course, although he is cognizant that elements of the three ethical theories are in tension. For we need to heed the insights of all the great moral philosophers and then, after careful reflection, do the best we can.

Part II of the book considers epistemology: “How Do We Know What We Think We Know?” His main theme here is that while science is imperfect and its knowledge always provisional, it is still  the best means we have for uncovering the truth about ourselves and reality. So science works—as the success of technology demonstrates—yet most scientific theories have at some point be shown to be wrong. How do we resolve this tension?

To answer this we should remember that science is both objective and subjective. There are objective facts about our experience of color–electromagnetic radiation, wavelengths, retinas—and there is a subjective experience of color. Similarly, science results from the subjective perspective of human beings interacting with an objective world. Now what does all this have to do with living well? The key is to realize that:

Scientists are not objective, godlike entities, dispensing certain knowledge. They have a human perspective on things, including the field in which they are experts. But other things being equal, your best bet—particularly when the stakes are high—is to go with the expert consensus, and if a consensus is lacking, you’re better off going with the opinion of the majority of experts. (p. 124)

A particular area of scientific interest that informs us about living well is cognitive neuroscience, which is the subject of Part III of the book titled, “Who Am I?” The first half of this third part explores free will and Pigliucci advocates for compatiblism—the idea that free will and causal determinism are compatible.

free will is … our (demonstrable) ability to consider information, balance it against our desires, and take a particular course of action among several available to us. So compatibilism is a compromise between the undeniable fact that we are a particular type of biological being … and our sense that we own our decisions and can therefore
—within limits—be held responsible for them and praised for them. (p. 140)

The issue of free will provides a good example of how our best understanding is informed by sci-phi. Philosophy helps clarify the conceptual issues, while science helps settle the empirical ones. So we can say, for example, that what we call free will has a neural basis, but that doesn’t mean the phenomenon is illusory.

The remainder of Part III considers our sense of self. Pigliucci is skeptical of arguments that our conscious self controls the subconscious, being more receptive to Hume’s famous remark that “reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions.” Moreover, “modern neurobiology seems to vindicate Hume when it portrays reason as the instrumental tool deployed to achieve our desires, with the fundamental engine generating those desires lying much lower than the cerebral cortex.” (p. 151)  Such considerations should minimize our hubris about how much our conscious selves dictate our lives.

Part IV applies these insights about human nature to something that gives our lives meaning—love and friendship. Pigliucci begins by acknowledging what science has learned about the hormones of love, and how philosophy informs this knowledge.

Neither biology nor philosophy will ever be able to substitute for the first person experience of feeling what it is like to be in love, but they certainly give us plenty of ideas and empirical evidence to begin to answer the Bard’s question [What is it to love?] in a broader sense—and hence to use our new knowledge to further enhance our enjoyment of a purposeful life. (p. 172)

As for friendship, it has a large impact on our happiness.  As Aristotle noted: “friends hold a mirror up to each other; through that mirror they can see each other in ways that would not otherwise be accessible to them, and it is thus (reciprocal) mirroring that helps them improve themselves as persons.” (p. 179)

Part V looks at politics. As with so much else about us, our politics and political views often have less to do with rationality and more to do with our biological origins and cognitive biases. Our sense of fairness and justice are similar to those of chimpanzees, where in-group loyalty and out-group hostility reign supreme, and our cognitive biases are well-documented. How then might we bring about a more just and impartial society? Pigliucci suggests that John Rawls best describes such a society in his monumental work, A Theory of Justice. This leads him to conclude that the best governments producing the most just societies are those of the Scandinavian countries.

Part VI looks at belief in a god. He begins by noting how science can induce mystical experiences. While this doesn’t preclude the existence of supernatural beings, it does seem likely that mystical experiences probably result from malfunctioning brains. Why? Because, while evidence of a meteor on the night you thought you saw a flying saucer doesn’t prove there was no UFO, the meteor is a more reasonable explanation.

Nonetheless, people have a hard time letting go of supernatural explanations for a variety of reason: brain chemistry, the psychology and sociology of human being, and our evolutionary history. As for religion’s evolutionary origins:

Genetic evolution provided the building blocks of pattern-seeking and agency projection behaviors, getting the process started as a by-product of behaviors that were adaptive for other reasons … The move from superstitious and simple religious beliefs to the bewildering variety and complexity of modern religious cultures, however, was a result of cultural evolution, a process that takes place on top of and by distinct mechanisms from the standard genetic-Darwinian one … Needless to say, gods are not actually excluded from the picture … but they are also very clearly not required. (p. 261-62)

Pigliucci adds to the case against religion by showing how Euthyphro’s Dilemma demonstrates that god can’t be the foundation of morality. All of this leads to the conclusion that religion is most likely a human invention that doesn’t reflect a supernatural reality. And this means that we should use sci-phi to understand morality.

The book’s conclusion is titled, “Human Nature And The Meaning Of Life.” Here Pigliucci elaborates on an idea found in Aristotle—we all share a fundamental human nature. By this Pigliucci doesn’t mean what some evolutionary psychologists do, that very complex cultural phenomena are completely explained by biology. For while some human behaviors obviously have a partial genetic basis, it is ridiculous to think that biology completely explains complex cultural phenomena: “… it is increasingly clear that what has mattered most for human evolution and the shaping of human nature during the past tens of thousands of years wasn’t genes, but culture (as well as how the two interact, the so-called gene-culture coevolution.)” (p.277)

Insight into what makes our lives meaningful generally comes not from evolutionary biology but from the social sciences. We know for example that seeking pleasure or wealth for their own sake don’t bring happiness or meaning—a result that wouldn’t have surprised Aristotle. “Psychologist have found that what really satisfies people instead is lifelong happiness—which comes only through the search for meaning.” (p. 279) In addition, we have discovered that our emotional lives are enhanced by experiencing states like gratitude and mindfulness.

Pigliucci now turns to wisdom, which isn’t factual or technical knowledge, but something that comes with age and experience and philosophical reflection on life’s meaning. Here he adopts Vivian Clayton’s view that wisdom entails the cognitive function knowing things, the reflective function of analyzing that knowledge, and the affective function of being able to filter our knowledge through our emotions. What we do know is that research has shown that older and wiser people: better distinguish situations that call for action from situations that don’t; focus more on meaningful goals;  exercise greater control their amygdala with their prefrontal cortex; and spend more time on positive emotions. Perhaps William James was right when he said: “The art of being wise is the art of knowing what to overlook.” (p. 284)

So what has sci-phi told us about the meaning of life? It may not seem like much, as science is provisional and philosophy isn’t in agreement about life’s meaning. Compare this to the certainty that religious fundamentalism supposedly gives. Why prefer the uncertainties of sci-phi to the certainties of the Bible or Koran? Pigliucci responds that religious texts need to be interpreted by humans so they admit to no literal reading of them nor is certainty to be found in them. Such texts are open to far more doubt that science or philosophy. Moreover, the uncertainty of sci-phi is a virtue, not a vice. I’ll let Pigliucci have the final word:

We need to wrap our minds around the fact that as human beings we are inherently limited in our ability to reason and to discover things about the world. These limitations do not give us license to arbitrarily “go beyond” reason and evidence into religion and mysticism. On the contrary, they are reminders that nobody has final answers and that the quest is open to all people who are willing to use their brains intelligently. Our limitations also give us a reason to cut ourselves a bit of slack for not getting life exactly right, for failing here and there, as humans are bound to do. This is why the eudaimonic life is always an imperfect and incomplete project, all the way until the moment of our death. But it is by far the most important of our projects, and one for which sci-phi is far better equipped to help us along the way than common sense, political ideology, or religious mysticism. We are social and (somewhat) rational animals, and we can reflect on how to employ our rationality to improve our lives and our societies. Seems like the meaningful thing to do.

Reflections – This is a wonderful and readable book. Virtually no rational person can deny that sci-phi provides the best, though imperfect, means to understand our lives and the world. His conclusion is (roughly) that meaning can be found by satisfying our nature. This happens when we use sci-phi to find the happiness and wisdom that are ultimately constitutive elements of a meaningful life. This is a good description of a meaningful life.

We are limited in time so we must choose our books wisely, and this work is definitely worth our time.  I thank Professor Pigliucci for his work.

Should I Go To College?

Education is the point at which we decide whether we love the world enough to assume responsibility for it and by the same token save it from that ruin which, except for renewal, except for the coming of the new and young, would be inevitable.” ~ Hannah Arendt

I received the following questions from a student in a recent university class that I taught. While adequate responses to these queries would constitute a dissertation length study, here are his questions and my brief responses.

1) What is the meaning of college?

The point of college is to help you become educated, which is good for individuals and the society of which they’re part.

2) I can learn anything on the internet, so why am I here?

Various methods of distance learning, most notably the vast store of online lectures from major universities, do serve to replace in-person attendance. I suppose the social elements of such attendance and the superior credentials of a university education offer something that online education can’t.

3) If I weren’t here, I wouldn’t be learning as much as I am because I would lack the proper discipline. So is the university now a disciplinary institution?

Your first statement provides another answer to your second question—you don’t have the discipline to be an autodidact. Your question assumes that there is something negative about the university providing a structure in which you can become educated. But that is a positive for you if you otherwise lack the discipline to learn. After all, they aren’t forcing you to attend and you are free to become self-educated.

4) If I had the self-discipline to learn on my own, what would be the point of going to university? Is it simply a qualifier for real-world employment? If so, why not just learn on my own and take a series of tests to prove my competency to employers?

If you can be an autodidact, great, except that perhaps you can’t and you won’t have the credentials you would otherwise have. So yes. universities today have been transformed in large part to technical schools that certify people for employment—business, accounting, nursing, computer science, etc. As for just taking the tests, that is an alternative model and in areas of great need—like computer science—there is a lot of this going on, and I have no problem with that model if education is just about technical training. I also don’t believe that the cost of college is justified for a lot of people.

But I don’t think that is the point of education, as I’ve argued in a recent blog post. Here is a brief excerpt.

What is the point of education? Is it merely to learn practical techniques? Consider a nurse or physician who has mastered all of the techniques necessary to practice their professions. Are they complete nurses or physicians? Most of us would say no; they need to understand their patients holistically, and this knowledge doesn’t come merely from their technical training. Thus, we do recognize the place in our education for philosophy, literature, poetry, psychology and history, even though they may not be practical. However, if material needs are all that matter, then the life of the mind may be irrelevant.

Now ask yourself: Is the point of lifting weights merely to push them against the force of gravity? No! In lifting weights we seek to transform our physiques, accomplish our goals, learn the valuable lesson that nothing comes without effort, and that life’s greatest joys accompany personal struggle and subsequent triumph.  And through this process our bodies are transformed. Analogously, education transforms us by increasing our awareness, diminishing our dogmatism, honing our critical thinking skills, and, at its best, helping us to live well, and to be happy and wise. Jiddu Krishnamurti made this case:

Why do we go through the struggle to be educated? Is it merely in order to pass some examinations and get a job? Or is it the function of education to prepare us while we are young to understand the whole process of life? Surely, life isn’t merely a job, an occupation: life is wide and profound, it’s a great mystery, a vast realm in which we function as human beings.

Politics and the Movie Fargo: For a Little Bit of Money

Today’s Republican party believes that tax cuts for the wealthy, despoiling of the environment, and the loss of health-care from millions is a sufficient reward for enabling the slow rot of constitutional government. They believe Presidential actions that would cause them to be apoplectic if done by a member of the opposing party–interfering with FBI investigations for example—are fine if done by a member of their clan. After all, tax cuts for the wealthy, incarceration of minorities, media based on conspiracy theories, gangsterism and nepotism at the highest levels, and so much more is profitable.

For modern-day Republicans: wealth is power; power is the bottom line; might makes right; and the ends justify the means—as the Greek Sophists, Machiavelli, and Nietzsche taught long ago. And no New York Times/Washington Post op-eds, or moral arguments will decrease their lust for power. At the moment their opponents aren’t relative power equals, so they will do what they want, however immoral, to impose their will.

All this got me to thinking about one of the final scenes in the Coen brothers movie, Fargo.

In the scene, a simple, kindhearted, woman speaks to a psychopath who has killed multiple people for money. (See video above.)

Now the politicians that undermine our political system do collect vast sums of money, and they increasingly have law enforcement under their control, but I wonder if it’s in their long-term interest to undermine a relatively stable social system in which they are the primary beneficiaries. Mob mentality, which increasingly has become their modus operandi, leaves everyone looking over their shoulder and invites more social unrest. Whose to say that the violence they unleash might not come back to haunt them? In the long run, I doubt this state of nature will be good for anyone. But many might have to suffer, as generations before had to do, before they realize this. On the other hand, we may all be in for immense suffering in the coming decades—even those in the world’s most powerful countries.

(For a bit more I suggest two recent op-eds. “The conservative mind has become diseased” by Michael Gerson of the Washington Post; and “Trump doesn’t understand how to be president. The Comey story shows why“, by E. J. Dionne of the Washington Post.)

Good luck America. And good luck to the rest of the world which lives in the shadow of our neurosis.

Review of Dreyfus and Kelly’s, All Things Shining: Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age

The late Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Kelly‘s book, All Things Shining: Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age, addresses the question of finding meaning in the contemporary world. Here is a brief recap with some reflections to follow.

The preface sets out the book’s project:

The world doesn’t matter to us the way it used to. The intense and meaningful lives of Homer’s Greeks, and the grand hierarchy of meaning that structured Dante’s medieval Christian world, both stand in stark contrast to our secular age. The world used to be, in its various forms, a world of sacred, shining things. The shining things now seem far away. This book is intended to bring them close once more. (xi)

The first chapter, entitled “Our Contemporary Nihilism,” focuses on the angst caused by the many choices we now have compared to previous generations. In response people typically adopt a self-confident persona to mask their insecurity, or they become paralyzed by their obsessions and addictions. But neither mollifies our existential anguish, as anxiety pervades western civilization, as our former religious moorings have been lost. In the Middle Ages, for better or worse, nearly everyone believed that God created them and determined their fate. One could choose to turn away from God and sin in medieval times, but being an atheist or rejecting religious ethics altogether wasn’t an available choice. But today ethical prescriptions are tenuous, and nihilism is a viable option. The faith that once comforted does so no longer—today even fervent believers face existential questions.

Chapter 2, “David Foster Wallace’s Nihilism,” discusses Wallace’s sense that something is amiss for millennials in American today:

There’s something sad about it, something that doesn’t have very much to do with physical circumstances, or the economy, or any of the stuff that gets talked about in the news. It’s more like a stomach-level sadness. I see it in myself and my friends in different ways. It manifests itself as a kind of lostness. (24)

While the authors grant that Wallace’s depression informs his views, they also think he offers perceptive insights. Perhaps his depression makes him uniquely sensitive to the vacuity of our culture, and his lesson is that if we pay attention to life we can find in it something sacred and meaningful. But Wallace’s thinking manifests the sense in which the twentieth century forces us to respond to the death of God, and the shared virtues and values this once implied. So we live in a time when God’s existence and all that entails is problematic. Wallace accepts that God is dead, and that our only hope for meaning is found in our individual’s will.

For Wallace we can find some meaning by creating value in a mundane world—creating something that substitutes for the sense of the sacred we have lost. But the authors don’t think this suggestions helps ameliorate our nihilism, for creating our own meaning is too demanding. Yet we can any longer passively accept meaning from God. So then, is there something between the individual creating meaning, or receiving it from the divine?

Chapter 3, “Homer’s Polytheism,” begins with a discussion of Helen of Troy’s affair with Paris that ignited the Trojan War. The authors note that Homer admires Helen, although modern commentators typically argue that Homer didn’t understand the immorality of Helen’s adultery. But what if Homer had a more profound understanding of the situation—that Helen’s eroticism was an admirable human excellence to be valued independent of moral concerns. In other words, Helen is admirable as a “shining example of the sacred erotic dimension of existence.”(62)

The authors then turn to the issue of fortune or luck. For Homer good luck means the Gods favor you, which implies life’s meaningfulness. We should be grateful to the Gods, as fate is no mere statistical aberration. This contrasts harshly with the contemporary view that life is meaningless and ruled by randomness. Moreover, we live better when we think of ourselves, not as agents responsible for our own actions, but as vehicles through which the Gods or fate work. “The Greek’s of Homer’s era lived intense and meaningful lives, constantly open to being overwhelmed by the shining presence of the Olympian gods. As happy polytheists their world … was filled … with wonder and gratitude …” (88)

Chapter 4, “From Aeschylus to Augustine: Monotheism on the Rise,” traces the descent from Homer’s enchanted world to our disenchanted one. It isn’t that progress has left wonder behind, nor that wonder existed only in a long ago past, but that we have lost touch with the wonder that still surrounds us. The story of losing touch with wonder is a long one, but it begins with the Christianity’s emphasis on faith and religious experience, and continues with Augustine’s increasing emphasis on reason and our inner lives. This emphasis on the inner life will lay dormant until the philosophies of Descartes and Kant.

In Chapter 5, “From Dante to Kant: The Attractions and Dangers of Autonomy,” the authors argue that Dante and Aquinas’ attempt to reconcile Aristotle with Christianity moves us closer to nihilism. The key is that the emphasis on the self implies that it must be the sole source of meaning. So Descartes “established our Modern World in which we understand ourselves as self-sufficient subjects standing over against self-sufficient objects. (137) And, given our self-sufficiency, Kant argued that we must take responsiblity for our own actions, and (largely) be the our own source of meaning. Nihilism beckons.

The main thesis of Chapter 6, “Fanaticism, Polytheism, and Melville’s ‘Evil Art’,” is that Herman Melville saw clearly both that nihilism results from the death of Christianity, and a way out. For Melville there is no meaning hidden behind the surface of life, behind the quest for his whale. But this is enough for us, and we can still find meaning in a godless world. However the authors reject this solution, for them this doesn’t seem to be enough.

The final chapter, “Lives Worth Living in a Secular Age,” suggests that we can still get in touch with the sacred through such diverse shining things as an insightful speech, athletic excellence, or scientific breakthroughs. Everything in the world doesn’t shine, but its shining beauty can be found for those who look. “All things aren’t shining, but all the shining things are.” (224)

Reflections – Nihilism haunts our modern world in a way it didn’t haunt ancient Greece or medieval Christendom. Something has been lost between those times and our own. But I don’t share the authors regret about this, and I certainly have no desire to return to these previous epochs. Our history represents (hopefully), a maturing of the Western mind. We have left the gods behind and must create our own meaning in the context of what we know about ourselves and our current place in the universe.

No, all things don’t shine. And we shouldn’t focus exclusively on only the shining things, thereby ignoring all the world’s ills. Instead I’d say that we should appreciate the shining things and try to polish the dull things. But this project will only be successful if we recognize the good and evil, and the knowledge and ignorance, that are inside us all.