Saturday, 12 July 2014

E.O. Wilson against Analytic Philosophers

Some philosophers think that some scientists have a naïve and simplistic view of reduction - and indeed of much else - in science. Especially when it comes to the complexities of causation; which they see as their own pet subject. It's not surprising, then, that E.O. Wilson gets a lot of flack from philosophers. Wilson is not, after all, a philosopher. More relevantly when it comes to reduction and causation, he's not an analytic philosopher. It's interesting, then, to see what Wilson himself thinks about these inevitable criticisms from (analytic) philosophers. In his book Consilience, he writes:

"'The subject I address they consider their own, to be expressed in their language, their framework of formal thought. They will draw this indictment: conflation, simplism, ontological reductionism, scientism and other sins made official by the hissing suffix. To which I plead guilty, guilty, guilty.’" (67)

E.O. Wilson cites all the jargon one would expect analytic philosophers to use when criticising not just scientists, but also all non-analytic philosophers. (Sometimes also when criticising other analytic philosophers.)

For example, "conflation, simplism, ontological reductionism, scientism and other sins". That is, they're accusing all of us (not just scientists) of not to be analytic philosophers. Of daring not to talk about ‘conditionals’ and ‘possible worlds’. Of daring not to read at least five papers a month on causation and possible worlds. Of daring not to use "their language, their framework of formal thought" because they truly believe that there's only way of attaining the truth – their way. That there's only one way of being logical – their way. That there's only one way of being rational – their way. And that there's only one way of being philosophical – their way. Anything else is sneered at and criticised for "conflation, simplism, ontological reductionism, scientism and other sins".

The sin, for example, of not reading Synthese, Analysis or Mind. Of not using the sign for the conditional or schematising one’s writing in a pseudo-scientific manner. Of not being up to date with normativity or what Ted Sider said last week. And so on.

So no wonder Wilson "pleads guilty, guilty, guilty". He can't do anything else. No one outside the Analytic Academy can plead anything else but "guilty" to not being an analytic philosopher or writing analytic-philosophy prose.

All I can say is: What’s wrong with ‘ontological reductionism’? What’s wrong with ‘scientism’? Indeed, what’s wrong with simplicity and a bit of ‘conflation’? There may be things wrong with these things. However, in large parts of the Analytic Academy it's simply assumed that reductionism, scientism and the rest are wrong. After all, Wittgenstein and whomever told us that they're wrong.

The real reason - or one main reason - why some analytic philosophers accuse E.O. Wilson of all these things may be because they've "not kept up" with science. Wilson writes:

"It appears to me that professional philosophers have not kept up with the foundational disciplines of neuroscience, behavioural genetics, and evolutionary biology, and as a result have surrendered their franchise to the scientists. The scientists, not the philosophers, now address most effectively the great questions of existence, the mind, and the meaning of the human condition. This surrender seems to be permanent, and professional philosophers have begun a diaspora into other vital and challenging disciplines that include theoretical neuroscience, evolutionary theory, intellectual history and bioethics."

However, in many cases, especially in England rather than America, analytic philosophers were never up to date when it came to science. They probably weren’t even up to date with Newton.

For example, the "ordinary language" and "linguistic" philosophers (as well as some "analytic metaphysicians" today) championed their ignorance of science and said that no scientific findings had any effect on philosophical fundamental problems or truths. That is, philosophy is an essentially a priori discipline which can't be touched by science or its findings. Of course the Americans and the logical positivists thought otherwise.

All of this, of course, may be a massive generalisation on Wilson’s part. Surely not all philosophers (certainly not philosophers of science) are ignorant of contemporary science. What about Dennett, Churchland, van Frassen, Putnam, Quine, Fodor and all the rest? They're far from being ignorant of science. Many of them are (or were) mathematicians and logicians. In any case, how up-to-date is up-to-date? After all, philosophers aren't scientists: they're, well, philosophers. Of course there will be gaps in their knowledge – sometimes large gaps. That’s why they're philosophers and not scientists. If they knew as much as scientists, then they would probably be scientists instead of philosophers.

Wilson also says that scientists

"now address most effectively the great questions of existence, the mind, and the meaning of the human condition".

The "meaning of the human condition" doesn’t sound like a fit subject for science. Perhaps my view is prejudiced or perhaps things have changed in science and its ambit has enlarged somewhat – especially in the advent of "inter-disciplinary research".

And what does Wilson mean by "the great questions of existence"? This sounds like metaphysics or even ontology – surely not a fit subject for any science. And, yes, scientists may well study the mind; though only by reducing it to the physical, or behavioural, or functional, or the computational. Then they'll be studying something that is scientifically respectable. Though will they be studying the mind or consciousness if they leave out, for instance, qualia or the first-person perspective?

Is it true that philosophers "have begun a diaspora into… theoretical neuroscience, evolutionary theory, intellectual history and bioethics"? Or is it really a case of philosophers becoming more interdisciplinary and therefore using the findings of theoretical neuroscience, evolutionary theory, etc. in their philosophy? That's not the same thing at all.

Steven Stitch and rest are still philosophers who happen to use - and indeed depend upon - the findings and sometimes the methods of science. Though they're still philosophers – interdisciplinary ones!

Philosophers have always been interested in science and indeed up-to-date. Think of Aristotle, Descartes, Leibniz, J.S. Mill, Russell, Quine, Carnap and all the rest. Indeed science even provided the philosophers with some of their own problems; as in the case of scepticism about the external world in Descartes’ case.

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