The Magazine

In Shallow Waters

A mismatched academic responds to Aristotle.

Sep 24, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 02 • By MARK BLITZ
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Answers for Aristotle intends to help us improve our lives. Its method is to see what science can now teach us about philosophical questions, but also what it cannot. It joins the current gaggle of semi-popular works meant to inform the eager, but ignorant, about what neuroscience and psychology say about this, that, or the other thing.

Aristotle.

It is not a bad book, but it is not serious or deep enough to be worthy of its topic. And although Pigliucci’s wish to help us find “meaning” is doubtless real, he also needs to find a way to stand out from the competition. Hence the link between science and philosophy—“sci phi,” as he cloyingly calls it throughout the book. In general, he affects the revelatory yet chatty tone of a waiter announcing daily specials, or a fundraiser stalking opportunity. Pigliucci is also a bit too beholden to academic authority. Figures often enter his book with Homeric-, or perhaps it is only Time-, style designations: psychologist x, political scientist y, neurobiologist z and, most desperately, “philosopher” Peter Singer, as if his job title makes his views less, rather than more, ridiculous. Better reasoned arguments would have been a welcome breath of cold air.

Much of what Pigliucci says is familiar to those who have read similar books. Outlandish philosophy-professor tests of moral choice (“imagine you are on a trolley.  .  .”), Helen Fisher’s three phases of love, and the rod in poor Phineas Gage’s brain all make an appearance. Pigliucci’s general point is that if we know more, we will choose better and be happier. Oddly, he never argues this point, and some of his own discussions call it into question. He does not analyze, let alone debunk, obvious ways in which ignorance can be bliss or its handmaiden.

There are several difficulties with both the scientific and philosophical elements of the book, and with their combination. Professor Pigliucci equates all the academic “sciences” he discusses, so that a psychologist’s study of happiness, or a political scientist’s of voter ignorance, is as valid as a neuro­biologist’s study of hormones and brain use.

This is a faculty-senate notion of equality, not a clear view of the rank of cogent evidence. When the chemist tells us what her technical findings mean for happiness, love, or morality, of course, she enters the world of interpretive overstatement and challenge. But this merely highlights the difference between her own field and the others. Pigliucci happily does not subscribe to the fantasy that anything is true if you say it often enough, but he weakens this rigor by failing to discriminate among the different degrees of reliability, universality, and longevity of the studies he discusses.

Another difficulty in his reports of academic work is that he rarely tells us on whom a study was conducted, whether it has been replicated, and whether there is competing work. We suspect that we are mostly hearing about infrequently replicated studies of American college students in artificial situations, but we rarely can be certain. Perhaps the suspicion is wrong or, if correct, would not vitiate or limit the results. After all, they are unlikely all to be accidental. But we do not know how precise and long-lasting the findings are.

The greatest issue with Pigliucci’s academic reports is also characteristic of similar efforts. He needs to spend more time examining the phenomena that he then describes scientifically or reduces to science. Locating, say, certain moral choices in this or that part of the brain, or uncovering hormones or chemicals involved in love, or seeing what brain scans show when someone makes a political judgment tells one about love, morality, politics, poetry, and philosophy only to the degree that one grasps these phenomena in the first place.

Thoughts and feelings are directed toward what they are about, and are influenced by what they are about. They are mediated or structured by reason and what is general. Sight is not only about seeing, but about what is there to be seen. Mathematics is about what is true, not only about what happens in the brain. Politics is not only about my feelings and transitory opinions, but about ways of life and the common institutions that direct and help to form these opinions and passions. One needs to know the range and intricacy of love before one ascribes, locates, or reduces the experience to brain chemistry. There may be simple and obvious elements in some of these phenomena, but they are as a whole complex, and must be studied fully on their own.