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.

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

  1. I can’t resist a further contraction of “sci-phi”: ξ-φ.

    This statement needs some qualification:
    “Pigliucci doesn’t mean what some evolutionary psychologists do, that very complex cultural phenomena are completely explained by biology.”

    I don’t know of any evolutionary psych claims that biology determines behavior. Far from it — the most common belief seems to be that genetic factors lay a foundation. Culture builds a layer on top of that, and personal experience adds a third layer on top of that. Thus, behavior is “determined” (if we can use so strong a term) by a pyramid of factors, with personal experience providing the most direct influence and genetics providing something more like “general proclivity”.

    A simple example comes from the strong genetic proclivity for males to pursue sex with any female and females to be very careful about selecting a mate. This proclivity extends to almost every species of animal, due to the fundamentals of the biology of reproduction.

    Thus, all men have a proclivity to pursue sex with many women, but culture restrains that proclivity. Personality in turn refines the expression of that proclivity.

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