Saturday, December 08, 2007

Monday, November 26, 2007

Common Sense, Science, and "Evidence for Use"

A crucial point that follows on the discussion of Dewey's pattern of inquiry is the relationship between scientific and commonsense inquiry. In this post, I'll be presupposing a lot about Dewey, but hopefully it won't matter too much. By commonsense inquiry, all I mean is inquiry into everyday affairs of use, practical quandaries in a narrow sense. It is commonsense inquiry to which the discussion of the pattern of inquiry that I discuss in my dissertation, and I discussed at my GPC talk in the department, most clearly and obviously pertains. No one could mistake a commonsense problem for a paper problem. However, if the account at hand is to explain genuine scientific inquiry as well as commonsense inquiry, and to give a better account of science that other accounts in philosophy of science, then the relationship between the two types, whatever similarities and differences there might be, must be specified in a clear and compelling way, and it must be shown that the main points of these two chapters apply just as well to science, and if any modification need be made, that must be specified as well.

The difference between the two modes of inquiry is clear from the start. Dewey gives us a basic characterization:

[Commonsense problems] may be reduced to problems of use and enjoyment of the objects, activities and products, material and ideological, (or "ideal") of the world in which the individuals live. Such inquiries are, accordingly, different from those which have knowledge as their goal. The attainment of knowledge of some things is necessarily invovled in common sense inquiries, but it occurs for the sake of settlement of some issue of use and enjoyment, and not, as in scientific inquiry, for its own sake. In the latter, there is no direct involvement of human beings in the immediate environment---a fact which carries with it the ground of distinguishing the theoretical from the practical.

[Common sense inquiries] are those which continuously arise in the conduct of life and the ordering of day-by-day behavior. They are such as constantly arise in the development of the young as they learn to make their way in the physical and social environments in which they live; they occur and recur in the life-activity of every adult, whether farmer, artisan, professional man, law-maker or administrator... On their very face they need to be discriminated from inquiries that are distinctively scientific, or that aim at attaining confirmed facts, "laws" and theories. (LW 12:66-7)

Dewey sharpens the distinction a bit by suggestion that it is, fundamentally,

that between significances and meanings that are determined in reference to pretty direct existential application and those that are determined on the ground of their systematic relations of coherence and consistency with one another. (LW 12:71)

While this is clearly true, so far as it goes, it doesn't help us to understand how scientific inquiry can yet be genuine inquiry in the sense that we've discussed so far. That is, we need some explanation about the continuity of scientific and common sense inquiry such that, despite scientific inquiry not being directly involved in the immediate environment of the agent, it can nevertheless be seen as a genuine inquiry.

The problem is, in essence, a problem of the relation of the problems and subject-matters of the two kinds of inquiry:

In saying that [that the difference between common sense and science] is logical [not metaphysical or epistemological], it is affirmed that the question at issue is that of the relation to each other of different kinds of problems, since difference in the type of problem demands different emphases in inquiry. It is because of this fact that different logical forms accrue to common sense and scientific objects... the question... is that of the relation to each other of the subject-matters of practical use and concrete enjoyments and of scientific conclusions. (LW 12:71)

As a first pass at an explanation of their relationship, consider the following story:

A young auto mechanic, call him Rob, is confronted by a problematic situation involving the engine of a 1974 Volkswagen Beetle. He has proceeded from the initial indeterminate situation which confronted the owner of the car and was communicated to him when the car was brought to his shop, to the point of locating the source of the problem somewhere in the engine, though a more specific and adequate determination of the problem has not yet been reached. Luckily, Rob is something of an expert in engine repair, especially in vintage German cars. He has even spent some of his spare time studying up on the theory of combustion engines from the field of mechanical engineering, and while his amateur knowledge is far from systematic, it occasionally helps him to solve certain prickly problems.

Normally, in the course of engine repair, Rob might use various pieces of this accumulated knowledge as ideas, as theoretical resources that might help resolve the problem. Suppose things don't go quite as swimmingly in this case, however. Rob, at first convinced that he is guilty of some major confusion, dives into the relevant textbook on the theory of combustion engines, and as far as he is able to determine in his personal study, he has understood the relevant theoretical ideas, and yet they fail to function as advertised.

Now, for Rob, the theoretical materials in question themselves cause a new problematic situation. If he chooses to pursue the resolution of that problem, he must begin a new inquiry, related to but distinct from the inquiry into the concrete car engine. The inquiry is into a difficulty in the theoretical materials, as they play their role in the practice of analyzing and diagnosing problems in automobile engines. The problem at hand is no longer with the car engine, or more properly, in the practice of using car engines, but rather in the theory of combustion engines, or rather, in Rob's practice of using that theory for solving the problems that it is putatively designed to help solve. Its problematic character depends crucially on a real feeling of doubtfulness produced when they disrupt the practice in which Rob is attempting to use them.

We might imagine that Rob gets an education in mechanical engineering and goes on to do important work in the field on the topic of combustion engines. He is devoting the major portion of his efforts now in investigating the problematic situation that involves these ideas from the theory of combustion engines. And one might imagine a similar story that moves from combustion-engine engineering to thermodynamics and statistical mechanics to higher-level physics and so on, though of course such extensions strain credulity if we're talking about a single person.

Now having resolved the problem in physics, Rob might never actually return to the "lower-level" problems from which this one grew. Nevertheless, Rob has solved an important problem, one that originated way back in the activity of car repair, and it is not diminished in any degree if he chooses to stop there. In any case, the original customer who brought her old Beetle to him is probably not counting on his return. Rob's story serves to make vivid how a highly abstract and theoretical pursuit, such as the working out of certain improvements in the general theories of thermodynamics and statistical mechanics, might be connected to and continuous with those commonsense, narrowly practical inquiries which more obviously fit the pattern and tests of genuine pragmatic inquiry. It also shows us that such high-level inquiries nonetheless fit the basic patten: they begin in a qualitatively felt problematic situation, they require the determination of a specific problem, the problem is pragmatic in the sense that it arises from the disruption of a kind of practice, etc.

Now, this just-so story is no literal description of how we get from commonsense to scientific inquiry. Nevertheless, it makes it clear how current scientific practices might be continuous with commonsense inquiry, and it shows how they might be counted as genuine examples of inquiry. In order to make the example more realistic, one might consider how the story could be extended from a story about a single agent, to a story about a community.

Dewey describes the fundamental continuity between the subject-matters of science and common sense in this way:

In the first place, science takes its departure of necessity from the qualitative objects, processes, and instruments of the common sense world of use and concrete enjoyments and sufferings. The scientific theory of colors and light is extremely abstract and technical. But it is about the colors and light involved in everyday affairs. (LW 12:76)

Which is to say, the theory of combustion engines is about the combustion engines that are actually used in car engines, and which car mechanics must repair, despite the fact that it is abstract and technical. And the theory of thermodynamics is itself about the quality of heat that plays a role in everyday affairs, despite the fact that it treats heat in a highly abstract, technical, and quantitative way. Despite the fact that thermodynamics may well abstract away from qualitative features of heat that are absolutely crucial to the meaning that heat has for common sense affairs of use-enjoyment (just as optical theory abstracts away from the place that light and color play in social and fine arts, the daily routine of waking, business, going about one's business, and sleeping, and the practices of dyeing, rug-making, and so on), it nevertheless should provide help in those pursuits.

As to how the current scientific disciplines came into existence, that is a historical question that probably contains as many contingent, arbitrary factors as ones that might be explicitly justified. On the other hand, the reason that they continue to exist has much to do with their ability to provide systematic ideas, liberated in a sense from their particular circumstances, which can replace the highly parochial and unreliable ideas that had previously played a role in common inquiry. As Dewey says,

Gradually and by processes that are more or less tortuous and originally unplanned, definite technical processes and instrumentalities are formed and transmitted. Information about things, their properties and behaviors, is amassed, independently of any particular immediate application. It becomes increasingly remote from the situations of use and enjoyment in which it originated. There is then a background of materials and operations available for the development of what we term science, although there is still no sharp dividing line between common sense and science. (LW 12:77)

In the story about Rob, the relevant scientific disciplines may already be in place. But consider a similar scenario outlined by Dewey:

For purposes of illustration, it may be supposed that primitive astronomy and primitive methods of keeping track of time (closely connected with astronomical observations) grew out of the practical necessities of groups with herds in care of animals with respect to mating and reproduction, and of agricultural groups with reference to sowing, tilling and reaping. Observation of the change of position of constellations and stars, of the relation of the length of daylight to the sun's place in relation to the constellations along the line of the equinox provided the required information. Instrumental devices were developed in order that the observations might be made; definite techniques for using the instruments followed.

Measurement of angles of inclunation was a partical part of meeting a practical need... something of this general kind certainly effected the transition from what we call common sense to what we call science. (LW 12:77)

And so we move from the common sense purposes of husbandry and agriculture to scientific astronomy and horology. Dewey suggests we might tell a similar story moving from medicine and the practical needs of healing to the development of physiology and anatomy.

We might consider the mark of science to be its systematicity,[4] then, and its major aim as achieving coherence and consistency in providing resources for the resolution of problems of more specific, concrete situations.

While something like the story of Rob may be helpful in justifying the practices of higher-level science, it should not be the only story about how scientific problems can be counted as genuine. Once we recognize that science is an relatively autonomous practice, we can see that a wide variety of problems might arise in the course of its pursuit. A working physicist may encounter a variety of perplexities that are not tied to specific problems of application, such as the ones that Rob dealt with, and yet they might be quite genuine. For example, a practitioner may disturbed by the lack of consistency between two fundamental theories in physics, or the lack of a comprehensive theory of measurement in quantum physics, or the inchoate and inconsistent uses of the concept "species" in biology, and this may lead them to investigate these problems, though nothing is immediately at stake in terms of everyday practices of use. This is, in part, because for applicability to be both wide and consistent, the theory must be both internally coherent and consistent and clear in its application.

There is some reason to think that the bottom-up story I've told, from "application" (i.e., use) up to theory and back down again, has some plausibility. Frequently, technology has progressed independently of any science that might explain how or justify that it works, for example, prior to the existence of systematic and applicable theory in the area, and it would seem that even in areas where the science is quite mature, related technology might progress largely independent of specific reference to the theory, especially the cutting edge.

For example, consider Steven Gulie's account of how he was treated for Parkinson's using implanted electrodes ("A Shock to the System," WIRED Magazine vol 15.03, March 2007). The surgery implants two sets of electrodes near the subthalamic nucleus, an small cluster of neurons near the center of the brain. The electrodes are hooked up to a kind of pacemaker-like computer than is implanted under the collarbone, and delivers a constant flow of electricity to the electrodes. A variety of options on voltage and number of contact points activated can control the exact area stimulated. This stimulation counteracts the disease, which is caused by the death of cells in substantia nigra, where the neurotransmitter dopamine is produced.

The FDA approved this procedure for treatment of Parkinson's in 2002, which meant that it met the government standards for being an effective treatment, though long-term side-effects are unknown. What is certain is that it is far more effective, with fewer side effeccts, than the older chemical treatment, which is taking high doses of a L-dopa, a building block of dopamine, in attempts to spur dopamine production. On the effectiveness of his own implant, Gulie writes,

[M]y body is almost free of symptoms. With the stimulator turned off, a Parkinson's test shows 20 significant impairments. With the stimulator on, it drops to two. Add just a touch of L-dopa and it drops to zero.

... It's been five months since the surgery, but it has finally all come together: It works. I forget that I even have Parkinson's most of the time. And last November, I went back to work full time. It's a miracle. A second chance at life.

And while Parkinson's is a degenerative disease (the dopamine-producing cells keep dying), patients four years after the surgery still required an average of fifty percept less L-dopa than they did prior to it.

And yet, in terms of the science behind the treatment, there are more questions than answers. Anyone familiar with the neuroscience knows that our knowledge is largely incomplete. Even those philosophers who tell us to look to neuroscience when worrying about philosophical problems do so with a bevy of warnings about the tentativeness and incompleteness of the science, and a litany of promissory notes about future developments. What systematic treatments we have are highly idealized and largely unrelated to specific application and fine-grained detail, and what we do know at a more fine-grained level is very narrow to specific neuronal and sub-neuronal structures and low-level systems.

In terms of his procedure, Guiles writes,

No one really knows precisely why deep brain stimulation works. Some things about deep brain structures, like the thalamus, are understood well enough for stimulators to be routinely successful. But the high-level brain structures in the neocortex, where all the evolutionary action has ben for the past 100,000 years or so, are still largely a mystery. How does shocking the thalamus in the deep brain help the cortex in the upper-level brain control fine motor movement? Is this suppressing electrical activity or enhancing it?

In terms of programming the stimulator to effectively control the symptoms, Guiles at first speaks charitably: "Getting the settings right is midway between an art and a science." But his further descriptions show a mounting frustration, "Ultimately, getting the system to work comes down to trial and error," and "Finally, after three months of tinkering..." Guiles goes back and forth between neurologists, goes through months of trial and error, and has many frustrations along the way. Clearly, no sorts of systematic knowledge yet guide this part of the process. There are, according to Guiles, 1,200 permutations of the settings of the device, and the hope is that one of them will work out. And yet, in the end, for Guiles, and for many other patients, it does!

This modern example is complemented by a variety of examples employed by Feyerabend to call into question the view that development of science is univocally beneficial and progressive. On the one hand, Feyerabend points to the variety of specific knowledge of materials, how to manipulate them and use them, that was possessed by common people and alchemists prior to the rise of Chemistry, which was originally quite impoverished in terms of specific knowledge about how to manipulate various materials, relative to those traditions it purported to overthrow. Likewise, folk or traditional medicine in various parts of the world was able to do much that scientific medicine could not do, and some things that it still has yet to reproduce.

One might likewise point to the relative success of local, subsistence agriculture in poorer cultures, in terms of meeting basic needs of the populace, as compared to what happens when entities like the World Bank come in to attempt to develop these countries. Charlie, environmental advisor to the President in Kim Stanley Robinson's novel, Sixty Days and Counting, says, in an angry diatribe at a meeting between the World Bank and the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change,

You go into poor countries and force them to sell their assets to foreign investors and to switch from subsistence agriculture to cash crops, then when the prices of those crops collapse you call this nicely competitive on the world market. The local populations starve and you then insist on austerity measures even though your actions have shattered their economy. (p. 204)

In all these cases---cutting edge neurosurgery, the knowledge of materials and medicine in traditional culture, and subsistence agriculture---able use is made prior to, or independent of, systematic knowledge in the relevant science, whether that be as-yet-unrealized neuroscience, early chemistry, scientific medicine, or modern agricultural science and capitalist/neoclassical economic theory.

Compare discussions in philosophy of science of applications or use. The traditional answer is Euclidean: applications are deduced from a combination of general principles and specific conditions of the situation. To launch a rocket to the moon, one plugs the weight of the payload and the various properties of the Earth, Moon, and other relevant planetary bodies into Newton's laws, to determine the force necessary to launch the rocket (and further such derivations are necessary when seeking a source of the force, such as chemistry for burning fuel, and so on).

Or consider what happens in "science lab" classes in college, where one follows directions from a manual or instructor to set up an "experiment,"[Though it should be clear from the discussion of the necessity of experiments, that such demonstrations lack the force and function of real experiments.] then derives an expected result from the relevant theory. Finally, one checks the results against the expectations, and does it over again if one doesn't get the "right" answer!

The traditional answer presumes that the lab demonstration generalizes to all of science application. We know that this is problematic for a number of reasons. First, for purely logical reasons, the straighforward deductive schema for confirmation/falsification has given way to confirmation holism, so that even those who would give something like the traditional answer must admit that a variety of auxiliary assumptions play a role in such deductions. In the context of justification, this means that no evidence by itself can clearly confirm or refute a general principle, and in the context of use, it means that there is a certain slippage already between principle and application.

But more recent developments have caused further reasons to doubt the standard story. For one, there are many reasons to doubt the picture of scientific theory as a system of statements from which consequences can be deductively derived. This has led to an explosion of alternatives, from models and modeling (Suppes, Giere, van Frassen), to a mangle of practices (Pickering), to cognitive maps (Churchland). Given the complexity of the current field as compared with the traditional picture, it is not at all clear that the present thesis, which involves a significant independence of specific use from general theory, given that they occur in different kinds of inquiries, is so implausible.

A very contemporary discussion which the present picture might be revealingly contrasted with has been spear-headed by Nancy Cartwright. Cartwright asks us to look beyond the traditional questions of how is a general claim in science justified or confirmed by evidence, and how do we have evidence for a particular use of that claim. The question takes on board certain developments from recent work, and so assumes a slippage between theory and application. But it also assumes a certain temporal development that I'm trying to deny: first, a theory is justified by evidence, then we try to apply it in the various fields.

Evidence <---> Theory ---> Application

On the view discussed here, no such simple story is available. There are many options available. There could be a history of more or less unsystematic inquiries into matters of use, which eventually lead to a systematization of theory, which then helps guide further inquiries of application. Or, in the process of inquiring into general questions, we may discover a range of potential applications which we mark as future tests of the theory. What is clear is that, in an inquiry into some potential matter of use, a theory can never wear its usability on its sleeve; it is a matter to be decided by inquiry, not one decided ahead of time. If it is decided ahead of time, then there is no inquiry; but there is also no question about whether there is evidence for its usability. It is simply used unreflectively.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Cold hands and 19th Century Americana

I was looking at this photo of Lincoln and noticed that the two guys he's with have their hands in their jackets. Then I started to think about this pose a bit and wondered why it shows up so much in old photos and paintings. I suppose I could just google it and find out, but I thought it'd be more fun to ask the grad-student useless trivia/nonsense postulation machine. Two questions:

(1) Why do guys in old photos pose this way?
(2) Should I start posing this way in pictures taken of me?

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

a relatively naive gripe about brain research

First, look at this article on what happened to some people who got fMRI'd and received politics-related stimuli. Or maybe just read this quotation, which gives the tenor of the piece:

When we showed subjects the words “Democrat,” “Republican” and “independent,” they exhibited high levels of activity in the part of the brain called the amygdala, indicating anxiety. The two areas in the brain associated with anxiety and disgust — the amygdala and the insula — were especially active when men viewed “Republican.” But all three labels also elicited some activity in the brain area associated with reward, the ventral striatum, as well as other regions related to desire and feeling connected.

Or this one:

Voters who rated Mrs. Clinton unfavorably on their questionnaire appeared not entirely comfortable with their assessment. When viewing images of her, these voters exhibited significant activity in the anterior cingulate cortex, an emotional center of the brain that is aroused when a person feels compelled to act in two different ways but must choose one. It looked as if they were battling unacknowledged impulses to like Mrs. Clinton.

Granted, there is some hedging in these claims. But I think it's clear that the intended interpretation of the data is: Activity in the insula indicates that men are disgusted by the Republican party. And likewise, mutatis mutandis, for the other trials.

Drawing conclusions about people's mental states from brain imaging is tricky for a lot of reasons, but isn't there a very basic confusion going on here? I mean that what (say) fMRI studies give us is information about brain activity given some emotional state (or whatever), where the emotional state is identified independently by subject report or reasonable assumption. So the studies tell us that the probability of B given E is very high. But the claims above are of the reverse form: that the probability of E given B is high, enough so for us to be confident that the subjects really are anxious, disgusted, etc., based upon their patterns of brain activity. And absent background assumptions, P(B|E) and P(E|B) are completely independent, so the one tells us nothing about the other.

Is it possible that these scientists are making such a basic confusion of reasoning? Are there important and reasonable assumptions that I don't know about? Because to my eye, articles like this are really just embarrassing exercises in stamping the imprimatur of brain-scanning techniques onto the messy phenomena of human choice.

Monday, October 29, 2007

GPC (and GBP)

A couple people have asked me where the GPC website is. It's here.
It's also linked from the "graduate program page" on the department website.

This Thursday we continue on with Streed on naturalism. Be there.

As for tonight: Go, Pack, Go!

Fires and Chocolate

I'm grateful to hear, via various and sundry sources, that everyone made it through the fires relatively safe and sound; here's hoping that smoke inhalation and cabin fever were the only negative consequences of the wildfires for UCSD philosophers. Oh yes, and not being able to see your students' smiling faces for an entire week!

Speaking of students, I was recently directed to the following article about a study from Northwestern about student evaluations:

It reminded me of two things, in particular:

(1) Why I wait to bring in the home-baked chocolate chip cookies until AFTER the evals; and
(2) Why student evals should always be taken with a grain of salt.

Ideally, our pedagogy will be developed enough that we'll be able to engage even the most reticent students in a way that stimulates them WITHOUT using chemicals :-) (For the more sarcastically inclined, a snarkier take on this study is at

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Some bars probably aren't on fire

We should all do something social this week/weekend. I'm already feeling the cabin fever a bit. Any ideas?

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Analytic vs. Inspirational Philosophy

More from Richard Rorty, Achieving Our Country:

A humanistic discipline is in good shape only when it produces both inspiring works and works which contextualize, and thereby deromanticize and debunk, those inspiring works. So I think philosophy, as an academic discipline, was in better shape when it had room for admirers of Whitehead as well as admirers of Ayer. I think that literature departments were in better shape when people of [Harold] Bloom's and [Dorothy] Allison's sort had a better chance than, I am told, they now have of being allowed to spend their teaching lives reiterating their idiosyncratic enthusiasms for their favorite prophets and demiurges. People of that sort are the ones [Frederic] Jameson thinks outdated, because they are still preoccupied with what he calls the "bourgeois ego." They are people whose motto is Wordsworth's "What we have loved/Others will love, and we will teach them how." This kind of teaching is different from the kind that produces knowingness, or technique, or professionalism.

Of course, if such connoisseurs of charisma were the only sort of teacher available, students would be short-changed. But they will also be short-changed if they only sort of teacher available is the knowing, debunking, nil admirari kind. We shall always need people in every discipline whose talents suit them for understanding rather than for hope, for placing a text in a context rather than celebrating its originality, and for detecting nonsense rather than producing it. But the natural tendency of professionalization and academicization is to favor a talent for analysis and problem-solving overt imagination, to replace enthusiasm with dry, sardonic knowingness. The dismalness of a lot of social science, and of a lot of analytic philosophy, is evidence of what happens when this replacement is complete.

Within the academy, the humanities have been a refuge for enthusiasts. If there is no longer a place for them within either philosophy or literature departments, it is not clear where they will find shelter in the future. People like Bloom and Allison---people who began devouring books as soon as they learned to read, whose lives were saved by books---may get frozen out of those departments. If they are, the study of the humanities will continue to produce knowledge, but it may no longer produce hope. Humanistic education may become what it was in Oxbridge before the reforms of the 1870s: merely a turnstile for admission to the overclass. (pp. 134-5)

Of course, this is Rorty at his best: sweeping, broad, visionary... and maybe a little overgeneralizing and incautious. The context of this is a chapter entitled "The Inspirational Value of Great Works of Literature," in which Rorty bemoans the trend in Literature towards cultural studies and "theory" and away from the appreciation of the Western canon. Now, on the one hand, the passage was published in 1998, and, on the other hand, I have no way to evaluate his claims about the trends in Lit, either then or since. But I feel a little more comfortable assessing his claims about philosophy, and I find both sets of claims interesting and inspiring.

As background, Rorty has been in the chapter getting some mileage out of comparing the current trend to the history of sociology departments, which according to Rorty "started out as movements for social reform [and] ended up training students to clothe statistics in jargon." In comparison,

If literature departments turn into departments of cultural studies, Bloom fears, they will start off hoping to do some badly needded political work, but will end up training their students to clothe resentment in jargon. (p. 127)

The second comparison that guides Rorty is the state of academic philosophy in the 1930s, in which he saw two paradigmatic figures. On the one hand, there was A.N. Whitehead, who "stood for charisma, genius, romance, and Wordsworth. Like Bloom, he agreed with Goethe that the ability to shudder with awe is the best feature of human beings." On the other hand, there was A.J. Ayer, who

stood for logic, debunking, and knowingness. He wanted philosophy to be a matter of scientific teamwork, rather than of imaginative breakthroughs by heroic figures. He saw theology, metaphysics, and literature as devoid of what he called "cognitive significance," and Whitehead as a good logician who had been ruined by poetry. Ayer regarded shudders of awe as neurotic symptoms. He helped create the philosophical tone which Iris Murdoch criticized in her celebrated essay "Against Dryness." (pp. 128-9)

Now, we are far removed from the '50s, in which positivism was arguably at its zenith, and it's been a decade since Rorty's essay. I'm a little more optimistic than he about the possibility for what we might call "inspirational philosophy," bringing his comparison full-circle. Feyerabend's imaginative late work, Conquest of Abundance, was published a year afterwards, and in recent years, the appreciation of imaginative figures like Whitehead, Dewey, Feyerabend, the German Romantics, and others like them seems to be on the rise in academic departments, and there were even when he was writing more imaginative and inspirational figures than Rorty probably appreciated (I would count Paul Churchland as one such). Still, we obviously have a long way to go towards being a humanistic discipline that is in "good shape," if Rorty is right.

What do you think?

Does This Help?

Chaospet raises an interesting problem for compatibilism. (Hat tip: Leiter)

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Did I miss something?

Found this on the USD Law and Philosophy Roundtable website.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Is there still an American Left?

I've just finished reading Richard Rorty's Achieving Our Country, and I must say that it is the best thing of his that I've ever read. I will probably bother the group with it more than once as I think about it more, but for now, since I'm just in the "stunned" phase, here's a choice little passage I wanted to share:

It is as if, sometime around 1980, the children of the people who made it through the Great Depression and into the suburbs had decided to pull up the drawbridge behind them. They decided that although social mobility had been appropriate for their parents, it was not to be allowed to the next generation. These suburbanites seem to see nothing wrong with belonging to a hereditary caste, and have initiated what Robert Reich (in his book The Work of Nations) calls "the secession of the successful.

Sometime in the Seventies, American middle-class idealism went into a stall. Under Presidents Carter and Clinton, the Democratic Party has survived by distancing itself from the unions and from any mention of redistribution, and moving into a sterile vacuum called the "center." The party no long has a visible, noisy left wing---a wing with which the intellectuals can identify and on which the unions can rely for support. It is as if the distribution of income and wealth has become too scary a topic for any American politician---much less any sitting president---ever to mention. Politicians fear that mentioning it would lose them votes among the only Americans who can be relied on to go to the polls: the suburbanites. So the choice between the two major parties has come down to a choice between cynical lies and terrified silence. (pp. 86-7, emphasis mine)

Monday, October 08, 2007

You're all just a bunch of robots, man.

I've been thinking a lot lately about the "determinism makes us robots" assumption that seems more or less pervasive in the popular literature on free will and moral responsibility. It popus up especially in popular articles about the impact of neuroscientific work on free will. The idea seems to be that the truth of determinism would preclude reasoned judgment, which appears to be at least a significant requirement for free and responsible action. But the robot metaphor carries with it the image of self-alienation, as if determinism would have us carrying on mechanistically in spite of some deper free self.

There was an interesting exchange about this on The Garden of Forking Paths recently over an article of Dana's. And since then contributors have been linking to (mostly popular) articles that make this assumption or seem to take it as a serious position that needs to be dispatched.

All this strikes me as interesting both sociologically and philosophically. There's ample evidence to show that lots of people think this way about determinism. What makes, not just incompatibilism, but this particular interpretation of its consequences, so attractive to undergraduates and science journalists? Is compatibilism really that unintuitive? And so what if it is? Eddy Nahmias and Joshua Knobe have pushed this for some purpose that is a bit opaque to me.

Anyhow, thoughts on the determinism to robots move, either anecdotal or otherwise?

Friday, October 05, 2007

semantic externalism comics


the medicalization of back pain

Here. An excerpt:

Now as I have said so many times before, the placebo effect is not about a sugar pill, it’s about the cultural meaning of a treatment, and our expectations: we know from research that two sugar pills are more effective than one, that a salt water injection is better for pain than a sugar pill, that colour and packaging have a beneficial effect, and so on. Interestingly, there has even been a trial on patients with arm pain specifically comparing a placebo pill against a placebo ritual involving a sham medical device, modelled on acupuncture, which found that the elaborate ritual was more effective than the simple sugar pill. “Placebo” is not a unitary phenomenon, there is not “one type of placebo”.

But the most important background information missing from the news reports wasn’t about the details of the study: it was about back pain. Because back pain isnt like epilepsy or tuberculosis. Most of the big risk factors for a niggle turning into chronic longstanding back pain are personal, psychological, and social: things like depression, job dissatisfaction, unavailability of light duty on return to work, and so on.

And the evidence on treatments tells an even more interesting psychosocial story: sure, anti-inflammatory drugs are better than placebo. But more than that, bed rest is actively harmful, specific exercises can be too, and proper trial data shows that simply giving advice to “stay active” speeds recovery, reduces chronic disability, and reduces time off work.
We don’t like stories and solutions like that for our health problems. There are huge industries telling you that your tiredness is due to some “chromium deficiency” (buy the pill); your cloudy headed foggy feeling can be fixed with vitamin pills, pills, and more pills. It is a brave doctor who dares to bring up psychosocial issues for any complaint when a patient has been consistently told it is biomedical by every newspaper, every magazine, and every quack in town.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

cooked up thought experiments and the viciousness of ethics

I've been working on these thoughts for a while, but I hope they will be particularly relevant given the recent discussions of the so-called problem of ethics professors.

There is something that has always bothered me about the thought experiments / intuition pumps that are the ultimate data for ethics according to many people, and for even more people, the rhetorical device driving ethical writing. Consider the following typical case (drawn from a pretty much random source):

You are out in a small boat and come upon fifty people in danger of drowning. Your boat can only accommodate ten people, and there is not time to make more than one trip to shore. Furthermore, there are no other boats in the area, and no one close enough to aid in any other way. No matter what you do, at least forty of the fifty will die.

My immediate inclination in these cases is always to try to find some way out of these situations. This, of course, is cheating, the ethicist will say. If you press them, they will add further constraints that frustrate your creative solutions, until you are left with the "hard choice" that the ethicist wanted to probe your intuition about.

I suspect my annoyance at this procedure is pretty universally understood as a sign that I am not serious about ethics, that I'm being annoying, or that I am too thick-headed to see the point. I also suspect that there is a strong pressure to stop suggesting the creative solutions, and to "play along" when these kind of cases are brought up, so that the ethics discourse can continue. And certainly, taking a certain conception of what ethics is to do for granted, this would be a totally reasonable way to go.

But I've still got a nagging bit of dissatisfaction, here, that I want to probe. Why do people react this way to thought experiments in ethics in particular? No one tries to "weasel out" of thought experiments in physics (do they?). I think my worries begin with a strong feeling that ethics ought to be tied to helping people make concrete moral decisions. I know this isn't universally accepted; it isn't uncommon to make a distinction between decision procedures and standards of value, to focus ethical theory on the latter, and to ignore any impracticalities of it, because those only matter for the former. I don't buy it; I think ethics has to be strongly concerned with both, and that they probably aren't totally separable. For a criterion in ethics to be true, it seems to me that a minimal condition is that it ought to be usable in (at least some) concrete situations.

Here's how I analyze my dissatisfaction. It seems like what I, or the undergrad ethics student, or others who cause this kind of trouble are trying to do is actually a sign of a good moral sensibility. It's not that we're not serious, or annoying, or thick-headed. It's that we're trying to do what most people try to do, what one ought to do when faced with a moral problem: we're trying to find a solution that maximizes all the types of value at hand. This kind of problem-solving activity uses a variety of resources, including background knowledge from any relevant area, to try to come up with a better solution than the immediately obvious ones.

Take the example above. As I read, I have in mind a picture of what my boat looks like (smallish wooden boat with oars), and I start using my background knowledge to come up with ideas about how we could save more people. Perhaps a few people could use the oars for flotation? Perhaps we could break up the boat and everyone could have a large enough piece to stay afloat? What if, instead of just letting 10 people in the boat, I let as many people as can manage grab on to the side to stay afloat? Etc.

And I start to think about reasons to take certain people over others. I should pick women and children, and probably I could fit more. I'd pick people who look weak or like poor swimmers, and try to come back for the others. Maybe I'd pick one or two stronger looking fellas who could paddle the boat faster than I could. And so on.

None of these considerations are supposed to be allowed, of course, because the point is that we want to theoretically explore the case when we can only save 10 out of 50. We want to ask something about our obligations, or their claims, or whether there is moral remainder, or whatever. They don't want the creative solution because it prevents us from facing genuine conflicts of value, which is one of the things they are interested in exploring. So the ethicist will keep adding stipulations until you are forced to deal with the issue that interests them.

And, given enough examples with this, you're probably going to get driven out of ethics, or you're going to fall in line. This actually strikes me as quite a vicious result! One of the results of studying ethics, then, is to squash one's ability to engage in ethical deliberation! No wonder that it's said: "nothing makes a man so much of a scoundrel as a prolonged study of ethics"[1]. In this case, we should recommending to students who might hope to become more skilled at solving moral problems, or become more reflective about right-behavior, to at all costs stay away from Ethics courses!

A further worry goes to the heart of the enterprise. I think the most sensible way to understand the point of intuition-pumping must be that it is supposed to make explicit the wisdom implicit in our practices of ethical choice-making, or, a bit more opaquely, to find out our core commitments or basic beliefs at the level of particular judgments. There is a worry, though, that since, in the course of intuition-pumping, we actually end up pretty far away from normal practices of ethical problem-solving, that whatever the thought experiments produces is going to be loosely if at all related to any actual implicit wisdom we have or practical judgments that we would make.

[1] It is quite difficult to find the original source of this saying. I've seen it alternatively attributed to C.S. Peirce and G.K. Chesterton.

Saturday, June 02, 2007

Teaching Philosophy?

Howdy philosophers!

Well, in response to Matt's plea for posts, I thought I'd weigh in on a topic that I've
been thinking about recently, since I'm teaching existentialism (again) this summer.
Since I'm pretty certain that teaching will be the largest part of my academic life
after I leave here, I'd like to be able to articulate a coherent theory about how one
should teach philosophy (or maybe, how one should teach at the university level more
generally). It's easy to fall into cynicism and apathy about teaching after a few bad
experiences, and I'm just as guilty of this as anyone else. But given that most of our
students only get a single (or, if we can get them hooked, a couple years of) exposure
to philosophy, it seems like we should be thinking about how to make the most of that
opportunity (or those opportunities, if we're talking about majors).

I know that there are articles about this type of thing floating around; one author whose
work on pedagogy that I really like is Parker Palmer, and I could do a lot more reading to get
ideas. But I'm sure some of you have thought about this as well. Does anyone have
particular recommendations, or thoughts on the matter?

Thursday, May 31, 2007

Common Sense and Scientific Inquiry, OR why I'm always tripping over my feet

Almost every day I trip over my feet: I catch my toe on a curb, shuffle over some uneven piece of pavement, mis-step down a stair, or trip over a shoelace. I've never met someone who stumbles as much as I do. But I almost never actually fall over. I'm a master in terms of using my momentum, flailing my arms, and other strategies that doubtlessly make me look ridiculous, but pretty much do a great job of keeping myself upright. And I was walking to LSE this morning, after such a close save, thinking about all this. And thinking about whether there might be something about the way I walk that causes the problem (doubtless this is the case).

Then it occurred to me that this was the perfect analogy for something I've been thinking about recently. John Dewey, perhaps notoriously, maintains that scientific and common sense inquiries are of fundamentally the same type, operating the same sort of way. This is extremely dubious to most people, given the obvious dissimilarities (how is Loop Quantum Gravity or Evolutionary Genetics anything like fixing a bike?). Dewey maintains that the only difference is that scientific inquiries are more systematic, more concerned with general relations and long-term consequences that immediate circumstances, but they have the same basic pattern, and they serve the same basic type of goal (solving a concrete problem rather an abstract one like "discovering the true structure of reality" or "saving the phenomena"). How to understand this?

Well, here's an analogy. Clearly, something like problem-solving has gone on as I attempt to compensate for my clumsiness. I have developed a set of solutions to help me recover from a fall (this has actually proved useful this year as I've pursued the quixotic venture of trying to learn how to skateboard, with only a few tumbles and even fewer serious ones, though many ungraceful recoveries). These solutions are more or less particular solutions to immediate problems. But when I begin to think more systematically about the way I walk, I begin an inquiry that is more scientific in nature. I'm concerned now not so much with an immediate problem, but a generic set of consequences and a systematic cause for them. To follow the inquiry out might take me through areas of physics and physiology, and perhaps ending in a general theory of walking that could be used to correct particularly clumsy gaits.

The advantages to this approach are the same advantages that Dewey names for science. Solutions developed here are potentially applicable to any person, if done well enough, and they cut to the problem right at the source, rather than develop more fragile and immediate solutions. It could be used to inform more immediate inquiries in a way that helps develop more permanent and robust solutions, though of course any application will itself require some degree of inquiry, rather than being totally automatic.

Anyhow, I thought that was a pretty neat illustration.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Kit? Fine.

Have ya'll seen this?

(props to Adam.)

Monday, February 05, 2007

Elements of a Pragmatist Theory of Social Inquiry

Part One: A Pragmatist Framework for Inquiry

First, I will defend a broadly pragmatist, Deweyan model of inquiry. Time does not permit me to flesh out Dewey's theory of inquiry in full detail, nor to explain the difference between my own views and his, but I will concentrate on the following features of the pragmatist framework of inquiry. First, inquiry begins with a situation that is pre-cognitively problematic; the problem is a matter of an objective but also qualitatively felt conflict in the situation, not merely due to subjective or theoretical factors, and the explicit formulation of the problem comes within inquiry itself, rather than occurring prior to inquiry. It is the objective, precognitive, problematic situation which lends significance to the problem at hand. Second, inquiry draws the resources for resolving problems from the situation itself; the materials of inquiry are always immanent, not transcendent. Third, inquiry proceeds by complementary processes of gathering data and proposing solutions; these processes coevolve and both facts and ideas are mutually revisable. Fourth and finally, competent inquiries require not only processes of reasoning but also experimental interventions.

The first key element of a pragmatist framework of inquiry is the claim that all genuine, significant inquiry begins not with mere "paper" problems, but with precognitively felt problematic situations, situations whose problematic nature arises from objective conflicts within the situations themselves. A crucial and ongoing part of inquiry is formulation and refinement of the problem itself, the attempt to explicitly represent the implicitly felt difficulty.

Inquiry must rely on resources within the situation in order to solve the problem: the accumulated wisdom of the inquirer in terms of facts, theories, methods, and values developed in prior inquiries, the factual conditions present in the situation, and the ongoing opportunities for tentative intervention and testing. There is no room for transcendent factors in a pragmatist account.

There are two major types of resources available to the inquirer: facts and ideas. Facts are data that represent concrete features of the situation, particular or universal. The main function of facts in inquiry is to indicate set conditions or constraints: first, in determining what the problem at hand is, then, in constraining the field of possible solutions. Ideas are representations of operations to be performed on the situation in order to solve the problem. Their content is conceptual or ideal in the sense that it represents not actually existent conditions, but rather future possibilities for activity that might result in problem solutions. Instead of constraining inquiry, ideas attempt to indicate the open possibilities of inquiry. They are doubly hypothetical: they are hypotheses for solutions of the problems, and they are hypothetical imperatives for action.

Besides two types of resources that are available to inquirers, there are also two broad types of techniques that are available: reasoning and experimentation. The role of reasoning is quite familiar: it helps us work out in an abstract way the consequences of certain ideas. Solving any problem also requires experimental operations of making and doing. Ideas cannot be tested by a purely passive collection of facts through observation. Active interventions of an experimental nature provide necessary evidence about the prospective effectiveness of solutions.

Part Two: Evaluative Inquiry and Social Problems

The theory of inquiry discussed up to this point is meant to apply generally to all types of inquiry. The theory is insofar necessarily quite schematic, and has often been criticized for being so general as to be empty (Rorty 1986). I hope that I have given you a flavor of the significant, substantive points made in a general theory of inquiry like Dewey's. Now we turn to what inquiry looks like in more specific terms once we turn to inquiry into values and social problems.

Social inquiry is necessary whenever the problematic situation is essentially a problem of social structure, coordination, or relationships. Problems of social inquiry often take the form of crises of value, where inquiry will focus on evaluation or reevaluation of previously held values. We need to know not just what is going on in the situation, or what is to be done in the situation, but how we should value (things in) the situation. The subject-matter of social inquiry generally has an emphasis of this kind.

In contrast to many philosophical traditions of social inquiry, the pragmatist must insist that the problems of social inquiry are not set prior to inquiry. Problems arise from concrete problematic situations, and are specified and revised in response to those situations. The problems of actual social inquiries, rather than mere intellectual games, are not "big questions" that have been set for social inquiry from time long forgotten. While the problems may be quite generic because of a very wide scope, they are also quite particular to a concrete, culturally and historically situated context.

The values that play a crucial role in inquiry are not brought in from outside of it, as unyielding constraints on inquiry. Values, as much as any material that plays a role of inquiry, are subject to revision and refinement in the attempt to resolve a problematic situation. Certain values may be rejected as too constraining; certain goals might be rejected as too utopian. Facts may come to light that show certain of our values to be in conflict with other deeply held values. There are in general many ways that the process may require the modification or rejection of values.

Experiment is practically more difficult in social inquiry than in physics; this much is obvious. Yet, methodologically, it is no less important. Experimentation should not be construed too narrowly: as much as we would like all manner of efficacious controls on our experiments, these will not be appropriate or practicable in every circumstance. The major opening for experimentation in social inquiry comes in the realm of policy: social policy ought always to be of the form of an experiment. There is no possibility of having all the evidence in before making policy recommendations; policy must always be seen in the logical role of ongoing experimentation.

Part Three: Politics As Method

In the prior section, we have discussed inquiries into problems whose subject-matter was explicitly social. But it should be fairly clear that these are not the only situations in which inquiry may evaluate or transform social structures. Indeed, we must all realize that, even if political values as ideology are not to be imported into inquiry, that inquiries take place in a socio-political context, and all the more so for scientific inquiry, which involves an entire social structure of its own.

That the social structures of science can have epistemological ramifications may appear quite obvious to many. In many circles, these effects are taken as resources for a kind of global skepticism about the prospects of science, while more moderate epistemologists and philosophers of science such as Kitcher, Longino, and Goldman attempt to provide a social epistemology of science that can allow us to evaluate the relationship between social practices of science and scientific knowledge. Yet few have recognized that the epistemic requirements of inquiry can have socio-political ramifications that reach beyond the structures of scientific institutions into political institutions more broadly.

James Robert Brown has argued in recent work (2006) that in the case of medical research, the structures of scientific funding and the practices of corporations create systematic biases that make reliable scientific research impossible. Solutions that focus narrowly on epistemological standards of research or on the internal political structures of science fail to remove the distortions. The problem lies instead in the very nature of corporate initiation and funding of research. Brown proposes a seemingly radical solution: remove the corporate funding by socializing medical research and abolishing intellectual property rights for drugs and medical procedures. Yet the argument relies not on radical political values, but on basic methodological concerns: when we discovered the placebo effects systematic distortion of results, we had to change our methods in order to remove the source of bias; hence, double-blind trials. When the systematic distortions come from the political structures that science is embedded in, we may need to alter those political structures, on purely methodological grounds.

Part Four: The Problem of the Criterion and an Adaptive Model of Value

We've seen a number of ways in which inquiry can be social: it can be inquiry into social problems, or it can be inquiry that requires social adjustments. Often, it is both. These inquiries depend crucially on epistemic, social, and political values. Social inquiry, like all inquiry, often requires an adjustment of our values. And yet, the pragmatist framework I've been discussing here provides no absolute standard for evaluating judgments. In order to judge whether the right or wrong decision has been made, don't we need a set of criteria in which such judgments can ultimately be grounded?

Consider the process of adaptive management in ecology (Norton 2005). Adaptive management is an iterative decision-making process under uncertainty that begins with a plurality of objectives and attempts to maximize those objectives along an adaptive path of development. Multiple criteria and multiple scales can be used, reflecting a plurality of interests and values, and a process of feedback, learning, and Bayesian inference can lead towards increased achievement of goals that also get refined in the process.

Adaptive management is an iterative process that leads to progress of both values and achievements. It requires no external standard of value to judge its success; rather, the internal concerns of participants are sufficient to identify that success. Pragmatism insists that such internal standards are all that is available within the situations in which inquiry takes place, and so an iterative process of evaluation is what we must settle for.


  • Brown, James Robert. (2006). "Politics as Method: The Case of Medical Research," PSA 2006, not yet published.

  • Norton, B. G. (2005). Sustainability: A Philosophy of Adaptive Ecosystem Management. U Chicago Press.

  • Rorty, R. (1986). Introduction. In Boydston, J. A., editor, The Later Works of John Dewey, Volume 8: 1933, pages ix–xviii. Southern Illinois UP.

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Blog Update

Hi there - I just updated the Blog to the new version of Blogger. I changed the template to a new option. Should I leave it or change it back?

For some authors, you'll be asked to change your Blogger account into a new/existing Google account, which is an easy process. And I guess that the "Contributors" list is gonna look small until everyone's accounts are updated. But things are rather nicer on the backend, anyhow.

Is everyone satisfied with the look and feel of the blog? With the title and description? Email me some new ideas, or post them in the comments here, and I'll update it to something more popular.