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.

Pigliucci’s failure to engage in such an effort is connected to the excessive split he fashions between science and philosophy. He reduces philosophy to conceptual clarification (which seems to mean clarifying what other people have said) and views about morality. Philosophy is apparently not allowed any factual discussion of love, politics, thought, or other phenomena. And with morality, he does not distinguish what he views as philosophy’s territory from its obvious political and familial competition in securing meaning and ethical direction. All that matters are philosophy professors, or individuals constructing “handy-dandy” moralities from tools professors provide.

This split between science and morality would seem to vitiate Pigliucci’s project of seeking moral help or guidance from science. One issue that worries him explicitly is the familiar difficulty of deriving values from facts. Yet, Pigliucci’s project seems precisely to be finding guidance for values in the facts that science (apparently) discovers. Pigliucci waves his hands at his dilemma but remains trapped in it: He is forced to pick and choose arbitrarily the natural facts he likes and those he does not, those that can or should be changed or ignored, and those that should not be.

It would have served him better to have first truly examined the grounds and limits of the difference between is and ought. The salient issue is not one of deductive consistency but, rather, the substance of what is good, right, and beautiful, and why much that is imperfect belongs to how things are.

One virtue of Answers for Aristotle’s discussion of morality is to add what today’s academics call virtue ethics (Aristotle) to what they call deontology (Immanuel Kant) and consequentialism (Jeremy Bentham). But Pigliucci vitiates this improvement by not saying enough about the concrete virtues that Aristotle recommends, or about his view of justice and politics. That every man and woman should create his or her own handy-dandy morality is not Aristotle. In general, Pigliucci underplays social and political facts so that partial laboratory evidence of, say, altruism is not well balanced with what we see around us, or with the different virtues advanced by different political regimes.

He honestly confesses his standard left-of-center political preferences, but also tendentiously skews things in this political direction. From the myriad examples of people’s uncertain grasps of political affairs, he chooses what he himself indicates is a flawed study of the Iraq war (whose result is to make the war’s supporters seem stupid) and describes it confusingly.

Pigliucci also has an odd or undeveloped view of equality. He suggests that moral reason requires that we should treat everyone equally no matter how close to or far away from us they are. He pays no attention to unequal qualities, to what allows our talents to flourish, and to how we can develop them for ourselves while benefiting others. He ignores equal rights. He acts as if John Rawls’s views have never been seriously challenged, and as if justice means only fairness (equal to equals) but not also unequal to unequals, law-abidingness, proper punishment, serving the common good, or doing what is fitting.

This, despite his references to Aristotle and his discussion of elements of Plato’s Republic. Perhaps Pigliucci’s narrowness is based on his claim that “no philosopher today would be so naïve as to espouse any of [the three moral] ideas in anything like their original form, because discussions in the field have led to more sophisticated versions of them.” 

One place Pigliucci shows intellectual energy is in his discussion of religion. He thinks that religious belief is rooted in superstition, and argues that Plato has proved in the Euthyphro that we do not need gods to be moral. Although his discussions raise important questions, he ignores the place of belief in securing obedience to law, in advancing ethical action, and in elevating our understanding of ourselves and others. A more subtle understanding would enrich his arguments.

I wish he had proceeded differently. A useful book could be written that carefully weighs whatever evidence science brings to bear on the topics he examines, and others. The examination would discuss studies in enough detail that we would know on whom they were conducted, how they understood the phenomena that compose their research question, how reliable and long-lasting their results are, and whether they have been replicated.

It would distinguish among various types and levels of science. It would not ignore everyday facts and understanding when evaluating evidence. And it would try to differentiate between those of science’s results it is foolish to ignore (and why) and those it is sensible to doubt and dispute. In this way, the author could prudently assess the meaning of science’s discoveries for ethical, political, and economic matters, without overstatement.

Such a book would be a tall order, but anything less distorts understanding. If its author wished, he could, of course, also examine searchingly the phenomena that science takes for granted, and to which it intends its discoveries to refer. But this philosophical effort would need to be conducted more broadly than Answers for Aristotle, and with less attention to current authorities.

Mark Blitz, the Fletcher Jones professor of political philosophy at Claremont McKenna College, is the author, most recently, of Plato’s Political Philosophy.