Tag Archives: scientism

Is ‘real’ really real or just no big deal?

“In giving up the dualism of scheme and world, we don’t give up the world, but re-establish unmediated touch with the familiar objects whose antics make our sentences and opinions true or false.”  Donald Davidson, Inquiries into Truth & Interpretation, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 2001, p. 198.

The word ‘real’ is a divider. Just like with God, when your real isn’t my real that’s enough to create the type of zeal to come to blows. We constantly show we don’t need the Gods to start a war. That is a fact. It might seem everyday and familiar to sophisticated modern people like us constantly figuring out what is real and what a mere figment of our fancy. Nevertheless it is a fact: whenever people think they’re right, ‘really’ right, death’s on our doorstep.

So let us examine this little word ‘real’ for what it does to our reality. Let’s see whether it belongs with the familiar family of other infamous four-letter words. To start the inquiry, try to remember the last time you heard somebody saying person X was not a ‘real’ Y. For instance X was in fact a muslim but she wasn’t a ‘real’ muslim in that she did not wear a hijab. Or, X was in fact liberal but he wasn’t a ‘real’ liberal in that he didn’t verbally come out in support of gay marriage. Or, X was in fact born here but he wasn’t a ‘real’ national because he failed to defend his identity. Or, X was indeed a refugee but she wasn’t a ‘real’ refugee in that she did adopt our identity. Or, like in my case, I am an atheist but I am not a ‘real’ atheist because I do not think religion is the worst thing that ever happened to the whole wide world. Like I’m not a ‘real’ autistic because, well, I don’t look like one.

It won’t be too hard to come up with your own examples where something like this was thrown at you or somebody you liked. So follow me in tracking how the word ‘real’ flies like a boomerang hitting the utterer of it smack in its own face. At least when we’re lucky enough it doesn’t hit a very real person in a very real way before it has fully bent back.

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Improper Subsets

“Your occupation is to keep your disguise intact and you succeed in it because your mask is the most puzzling of all; to wit you are nothing, you are constantly only in relation to others, and what you are you are only in virtue of that relation.” S. Kierkegaard, Either/Or, own translation.

One word can make a world of difference. The word that makes the difference in the above quote is the word ‘only’. It is not a problem to be constantly in relation to others. Likewise it is not a problem to be yourself in virtue of that relation. The issue is when you are ‘only’ that. It is simply true that you are at least that and the sad truth is that in atomistic times that simple truth is swiftly swept under the rug. You can deny that what you are you are in virtue of your relation to others but the result of your denial is that you’re nothing because you add nothing; what remains of you is ‘only’ your mechanical relation to others.

It may be a stretch to go from Kierkegaard to mathematics. Still, there’s a sense in which it is improper to call the subset of all your relations a subset of all your relations. Somehow it is an impropriety shining through a most modern sense of self: by taking everything one is taking all that can be taken and this everything just ‘has to make do’. Well, it doesn’t and I will now rant a little on how this failure explains current political issues around identity as well as the intuition that personality-changing medication strikes us as ‘unreal’. It will be a rant that takes the Heisenberg principle as consequence – not cause! -of Kierkegaard’s above use of the word ‘only’. Call me crazy and just read on regardless. Crazy is fun.

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A small Ode to Julian Jaynes

“The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind”, is a book title ambitious enough to be suspect just on the face of its book cover. But what is philosophy if not over-ambitious science? The tragedy of Julian Jaynes maybe is that science has become nothing more than under-ambitious philosophy. His conjecture was one of Darwinian proportions: we are all schizophrenics who have learned to trust the voice()s in our heads to be our own. He then traveled the seven seas of ancient history to demonstrate how our forefathers, up to 1000 BC, literally heard the voices of Gods instructing them to write the books on which our society is still largely built. As a scientist he was looking for corroborating facts and he found them everywhere: in ancient texts and neurological neologisms like “bicameral”. By the time the book had made instant fame it was already infamous. Everybody debunked it, starting with the left/right brain hemisphere specialization underlying “bicameral” which as a scientific theory was as short lived as it is enduring in popular psychology books. Then historians picked the references of this psychologist self-taught as historian of all ancient cultures apart. D. Dennett and R. Dawkins quietly left the room of vocal supporters of the Jaynesian thesis and that was that. My plea is simple: don’t judge a book by its cover. Read beyond mere skepticism of the facts to discover the ambition of a true work of philosophy. You’ll discover inspiring beauty of thought. Enough said.

On Saying “That”

Perhaps it should come as no surprise to learn that the form of psychological sentences in English apparently evolved in much the way these ruminations suggest. According to the Oxford English Dictionary

The use of that is generally held to have arisen out of the demonstrative pronoun pointing to the clause which it introduces.

(..)” D. Davidson, “On Saying That” in Inquiries into Truth and Interpretation, Oxford University Press, 2001, p. 106.

Charles Taylor is right, the question ‘Why?’ is humanly unavoidable. My question is why this is so. If we know why we cannot but ask ‘Why?’, we have resolved that part of the mystery of life which tends to separate people. I agree with Charles Taylor as well that naturalistic reduction – scientism is the more appropriate label – is a moral hazard but I think science, under the lead of the human sciences, must address why this is so. The strategy for doing so is the most basic strategy of all science: to trace to the origins of the phenomenon, just like Charles Darwin did.

Well, I think the origin of the word ‘why’ lies in the word ‘that’. The latter word has been the object of intense scrutiny for instance by Donald Davidson. Its non-verbal equivalent, finger pointing, is a  necessary gateway between the realm of things and that of thought. The word ‘that’ presupposes a lot. It presupposes a lot of things of which at least two need to be complex enough to point to some third thing. These things qua things are the subject matter studied by so called hard science. Kant called this pure reason. Most have forgotten his critique of it though. Basically: that this hard science presupposes subjects that do the pointing and have mastered a language consisting of a lot more words than ‘that’.

Indeed, on the other side of the word ‘that’ lies our language and therefore also lie we qua humanity as studied by human science. These are sciences that do not merely use words but are, strictly speaking, about words. The division between the hard and human sciences cuts across scientific fields, in particular across psychology, which explains why they are internally so divided. It has become a vulgar truth of scientism that individuals become objective if they just follow the insight of the hard sciences; that the question ‘Why?’ Is just a phenomenon, that there is no basic reason why this is so, that the word is the mental equivalent of an appendix that just needs to be removed when it is inflamed. This runs counter to the origins of hard science in multiple ways. Just take “that”: it’s no small matter that before it can be uttered there need to be at least two beings complex enough to point to some third thing and identify it as the same. The work of George Herbert Mead is a work of hard science and already explains that it takes a community to create anything that can be properly called an individual.

Tracing our origin to the word ‘that’ establishes a before and an after but only what comes after is capable of examining what came before. People may have little patience nowadays to appreciate  a difficult point: still, the hard sciences presuppose human sciences and not vice versa. They will be as incapable of overtaking them as the tortoise the hare. Scientism is a dangerous, and harshly metaphysical, fallacy that subjects subjects to matter. It’s to be fought with the type of science so characteristic of a Ludwig Wittgenstein. That’s a fight we will fight insight by insight for the patient who know solutions don’t come cut and dried and overnight. Everything I ever wrote is dedicated to this fight.

Another fallacy is the Augustinian one of spiritualism in which the before and the after of the word ‘that’ are impermeable. The word then stands alone without its body, without grounding and (speaking as an as of yet unconfirmed autist) leads to the kind of mysticism and skepticism that throws a tantrum every time its selfmade why it is so gets challenged and changed. It ignores that desire, vital energy in the sense of Bergson, was there long before the word ‘that’ – and that this desire is as fully permeating the creation of anything in language as it permeates any living thing. It ignores the fact that human science is science as wel: a human activity of reason (and therefore of mathematics) that can explain why a tantrum is thrown. Philosophical hermeneutics as proposed by Gadamer is nothing else as tracing what is after ‘that’; it is the origin of humanity in the survival of ideas that fit the environment of reason.

Before the word ‘that’ there was only desire and its dynamics of energy shaping matter against entropy; all a mere matter of pure probability whether physical, thermodynamical or evolutionary. After the word ‘that’ there’s a new force of energy in the development of reason that shapes thought, basically around the mathematics of probability. We’re still discovering how this is all linked but one link is a priori necessary (even if it is real hard to synthesize): that we are creatures driven by desire in developing reason and creatures of reason in driving our desires. Neither reason nor desire can rule (in) us – this is why asking ‘Why?’ is so basic, so universal and so common to all of us. What rules in us is judgment (it is Deleuze who explained me why Kant wrote 3 critiques). If we realize we all ask the same question for a same reason we can transcend the specific comprehensive answers that we individually need at any given time. This does not discredit any of these answers as such but opens the playground to develop understanding – to develop our common language, to discover the Rawlsian overlapping consensus we all share. We may be just (im)probable creatures, but as creatures we are necessarily driven to adaptation to a common judgment sharing as we do a common desire and a common reason.

So in this Charles Taylor is most probably wrong: there is a universal moral claim of reason – there is a “basic reason” of morality. We should not seek it in what specifically comes after the ‘that’, in what we point to (we should not seek it in the specific answer we give at a certain point to the question ‘Why?’). We should see it in the fact that we all use ‘that’ in the same way to point to what we believe (this is the universal ‘Why it is so’ we all ask that same question ‘Why?’). This may seem opaque but it really isn’t. It’s something we know in everyday life and everyday speech. There is nothing ultimately arbitrary or relative or perspectivist in what we point to with ‘that’. A bird is a bird even if it may be difficult to be sure we are pointing to the same thing. The same is true for beliefs in a ‘that’-clause, they are not magically lifted out of the realm of logic to do with as we please (not even Humpty Dumpty can do that). We can hold many false beliefs but once somebody points us out that the earth is round we simply can no longer also believe it is flat. You cannot hide stupidity in personal opinion even if it has become the most popular political opinion. There always is a fact in the moral, however difficult and endless it may be to uncover all the facts.

The Dead

“- Well, we usually go to France or Belgium or perhaps Germany, said Gabriel awkwardly
– And why do you go to France and Belgium, said Miss Ivors, instead of visiting your own land?
– Well, said Gabriel, it’s partly to keep in touch with the languages and partly for a change.

– And haven’t you your own language to keep in touch with – Irish? asked Miss Ivors.
– Well
, said Gabriel, if it comes to that, you know, Irish is not my language.”
(James Joyce, Dubliners, The Dead, The Portable James Joyce, Viking, 1947, p. 205)

And well, we’re all stuck between where we come from and where we to go. Well, some of us want to go where we come from. And others come from where they want to go. The difference is not material but it is the difference between artists, broadly speaking, and bastards, narrowly defined.

The nostalgic focus on the material, on solutions that are both clear-cut and that cut clearly into same and different. It is not so with the optimistic for whom push never comes to shove; there always remaining a difference, in principle. Never mind the issues we face in interpreting what is around us. What counts is that we will never and cannot ever have a final interpretation even if we always will have issues to face.

I know this is not clear. But it is what it is, and, well, Continue reading

Adaptive Thinking

“(..) insight can come from outside the mind.”
G. Gigerenzer, Adaptive Thinking, Oxford University Press, 2000, p. vii (a.o.).

There’s something deeply unnerving about scientists, especially neuroscientists: it is the idea that whatever there is can be located somewhere. Localized so as to make it a candidate for treatment of some sort. In this sense, neuroscience took over the world because the world is filled with people who believe things can be pinpointed and then addressed. Forget about the butterfly effect, the butterfly is in our current world view pinned down where it can be examined.

Nothing can be farther removed from the ecological point of view (this includes most people who see themselves as the ‘advocates of ecological preservation’). It may well be that this world view of pinning down, setting apart and solving is the root cause of us not applying evident solutions to the issues we have, in a broad sense, with our environment.

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The Auguries of Science

“The very notion of truth is a culturally given direction, a part of the pervasive nostalgia for an earlier certainty. The very idea of a universal stability, an eternal firmness of principle out there that can be sought for through the world as might an Arthurian knight for the Grail, is, in the morphology of history, a direct outgrowth of the search for lost gods in the first two millennia after the decline of the bicameral mind.”
Julian Jaynes, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind., Mariner Books, 1990, p. 446.

[Re-posted from The Old Site, original dd. 11-02-2010. Between this and Kyburg at least the author list is complete.]

There you have it in one quote: all of the beauty and most of the folly of one of the most original thinkers of the XXth century – a scientist that did some good philosophizing but presented it as a bad scientific hypothesis. A thinker lost in the Quine-Duhem-Davidson triangle of changing too much concepts at the same time to be taken seriously by anybody because – in the end – everybody has one concept that is so near and dear to her or his heart that it’s a little bit too holy to be touched.

The prime example being: a naïve concept of truth. The type of truth that settles things, once and for all. Continue reading