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Scientific Philosophy

October 30, 2012 Leave a comment Go to comments

Scientific Philosophy.

An interview with Professor Massimo Pigliucci on the benefits of combining scientific fact gathering with philosophical introspection. He is the author of the book:

Answers for Aristotle: How Science and Philosophy Can Lead Us to A More Meaningful Life

I’m glad to see more consideration for philosophical thought in connection with the interpretation of science. He mentions Hume’s distinction between ‘is’ and ‘ought’, to point out how the existence of scientific fact does not, in and of itself, compel us toward any particular moral code.  No matter what science can tell us something ‘is’, the question  of what ought to be done about it still remains up for us to decide.

I am torn between wanting to applaud this effort at synthesizing empirical and rational epistemology, and I do, as far as it goes. Professor Pigliucci seems to express here a voice of well reasoned compatibilism, and to extend this reason to the subject matter itself. It is here where I am more critical of this approach, although in the contemporary context it is very much within the intellectual consensus.

While it is indeed a profound shift from pre-scientific moralism to expound a relativistic-existential world where we are each called upon to build our own meaning and morals, I find that this is not the whole picture. Rather than a neat, compartmentalized notion of reasoning which can be traced back to evolutionary biology and neuroscience in all cases, I see much more of a momentum of perception and participation, with universe as theater. This is not to suggest a naive idealism – indeed genetics and biochemistry are overwhelmingly powerful influences in staging our personal slice of the universal theater, but morality cannot be understood with toy models of social relation. The grip of morality on the individual, society, and species is far more visceral and irrational – made of shame and disgust, of soaring pride and worshipful appreciation of superlative qualities. To understand morality is to plumb the depths of myth – of monstrous crimes and the horrific images associated with them.

I think the distinction between the good, the bad, and the ugly is one which ultimately splits along the primary fault of consciousness, which I call sense and motive, or afferent vs efferent phenomenology. The afferent mode is our sensory input, our receptivity to beautiful and awful feelings, while the efferent mode is our motive output – our projection of selfish or enlightened actions in the world. This dyad-dialectic is primordial and intertwined so that our morality often uses one to justify the other. In movies, evil is typically represented by ugly characters in dark costumes. Throughout history people have been persecuted as witches or subhumans based on aesthetic prejudices.

It is interesting, in the wake of the horrors of the 20th century, despite being bombarded with evidence of the banality of evil, we are still surprised to find the most obscene crimes being committed by seemingly ordinary people, including priests, housewives, and police officers.  Despite the noticeable lack of organized violence by fringe groups professing interest in magick, loud anti-social music, and extreme body modification, such otherwise ordinary people are often treated with moral suspicion. This double standard, which I think arises from the unconscious equivalence between taboo perceptual themes and transgressive actions is beyond neurology and evolutionary biology and follows from experience itself.

Evolutionary biology can certainly help explain why the contents of taboo themes, which often deal with morbidity, mortality, and sexuality would tend to be associated with a repulsive affect by default, but it does not explain the specific content of that affect. It does not tell us about what fear is and what it tells us about ourselves. It is great to be able to quiet the mind’s questions with reassurances about neurotransmitter interactions and references to particular regions of the brain, but this approach can also cast us in the role of explaining away ourselves. By oversignifying the sub-personal and super-personal levels of our physical mechanism, the personal level of our native experience is depersonalized and robbed of its significance.

To talk about love and fear in terms of neuropeptide cocktails is all well and good for medical purposes, but the unfolding of a human identity in a human life is not so easily reduced into an exercise of forensic pathology. For anyone who has experienced powerfully significant moments in their life, it is not enough to hold up a molecule or a flowchart of hominid foraging, because the experience goes well beyond how one feels personally. Love and fear appear to operate transpersonally, to ‘warp the luck plane’ as it were, inviting unusual synchronicities and dramatic confrontations with would not occur otherwise. Our life, it would seem, can be known to us as a kind of organism made of events, of significance through time.

At this point, I think it might be career suicide for a scientist or philosopher to bring up these ideas (even though they have enjoyed popularity in the the 20th century), so I do not expect to see them in print. I hope that this will change soon, but in the mean time, I am glad that people are beginning to at least see a glimmer of a role again for the mind of the individual.

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  1. October 30, 2012 at 6:32 pm

    Well said. This problem you mention (science vs individual, objectivity vs subectivity, external vs internal, cool logic vs hot passion), is at the heart of current being. Perhaps the true value of the holocaust was that it teaches us to go inside for answers.

    • October 30, 2012 at 7:34 pm

      Not to try to justify it or anything, but sometimes I think that the Holocaust and all of the Nazi iconography, the rallies (described in one particular documentary I remember as ’emoniac’), etc gives the world an example of what not to do which otherwise might not be so clear. Now, when people start yelling in front of large crowds bearing flags there is something that gives us pause. ‘Hey, you’re like those guys. That didn’t work out well.”

      Forever after, the Hitler mustache, the swastika, the uniforms, etc, stand as a kind of subconscious reminder that there is a kind of temptation to fascism inherent in civilization that we have been warned vividly and explicitly to avoid. If not for that particular expression of media manipulation and its consequences, I have no doubt that today totalitarianism would seem as vital and innocent today as capitalism – a viable option that has yet to be tried in earnest. Well, you gotta give the Nazis that – there can be no doubt that they gave it all they had. No need to doubt that it could have worked out better if they had tried a little harder.

  2. April 25, 2013 at 10:26 pm

    Oh my goodness! an incredible article dude. Thanks Nonetheless

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    • April 25, 2013 at 11:25 pm

      Thanks! I wish I knew about the RSS issue. I haven’t heard anything from anyone else yet, but I’ll let you know if I find any info.

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