Pigliucci decries scientism, argues that science needs philosophy, and that most of us are doing it rong

August 30, 2012 • 5:44 am

While perusing the New Humanist website, trying to find Francis Spufford’s letter that I discussed yesterday, I came across a short piece I hadn’t seen before. It’s by Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher (also trained in biology) working at the City University of New York, and is called “Science needs philosophy” (free at the link).  If you’ve read Massimo’s website Rationally Speaking on a regular basis, you’ll know that three of his themes are the importance of philosophy for working scientists, the fact that most scientists neglect philosophy to their detriment, and that many of us are afflicted with the dread disease called scientism, which Massimo defines as “the idea that science is the ultimate arbiter of any question, or indeed even of what counts as a meaningful question.”

These points are all emphasized in the New Humanist piece, which starts off with Pigliucci’s “j’accuse”:

A recent New York Times article has noted a new trend in secular writings, what the author, James Atlas, termed “Can’t-Help-Yourself books”. This trend includes writings by prominent scientists and secularists that are characterised by two fundamental – and equally misguided – ideas: an over-enthusiastic embrace of science, and the dismissal of much of human experience under the generic label of “illusion”.

The culprits are many and influential. Physicists Steven Weinberg, Stephen Hawking and Lawrence Krauss, along with biologist EO Wilson, dismiss philosophy (and much of the humanities) as a leftover from pre-scientific thought, to be replaced by the objective and empirical truth arrived at by modern science, especially fundamental physics. Never mind that, as Daniel Dennett aptly put it a while ago, there is no such thing as philosophy-free science, but only science whose philosophical baggage is taken on board unexamined.

And then there are the likes of Sam Harris, Jonathan Haidt, Alex Rosenberg and Jerry Coyne, who claim that science can provide answers to philosophical questions, and that moreover antiquated concepts like free will, consciousness and morality are just illusions, tricks played on us by our Pleistocene-evolved brains. We are not really in control of what we do and think, it’s all done automatically by an inner zombie whose actions were determined since the Big Bang. This despite the fact that serious neuroscientists like Michael Gazzaniga and Antonio Damasio are actually much more careful about what exactly their discipline brings to our understanding of the human mind.

Well, I think this is a bit unfair.  First, in my own defense, I’ve never claimed that philosophy has no value for scientists. Au contraire. As I’ve noted before, philosophers like Dan Dennett and Philip Kitcher have been really valuable to me in clarifying the meaning of evolutionary biology, for they bring their formidable philosophical skills to bear on biological problems.  (I have, however, noted that I’ve never gotten much value from “straight” philosophers of science like Kuhn or Feyerabend).  As I said in a post about Pigliucci’s attacks on Lawrence Krauss’s philosophical naïvité:

Now Massimo and I have had our differences, and I’m generally a fan of Krauss (though I didn’t much like Krauss’s new book), but I’m on Massimo’s side in this one.  Despite the famously dismissive statement by Feynman, I think philosophy can be of real value to scientists.  It has helped me, for example, rethink and clarify my notions of “free will.”

Second, it is undeniable that science has made inroads on questions that were once the purview of philosophy. Free will is one of these.  Although we can argue ad infinitum—as we do—about whether humans have free will, the notion of dualism, the basis of what I see as most people’s (and nearly all religious believers) idea of free will, was dispelled not by philosophy but by science—by the discovery that material stuff and physical forces are all there appears to be.

Further, science can shed light on philosophical questions, as we all know.  Even if you reject Sam Harris’s notion that morality equates to what maximizes our well being, we can nevertheless use the tools of science to quantify well-being—if you have a way to define it! As a prime example of how science can inform philosophy and theology, there is the physicists’ notion that a universe can indeed arise from nothing—if you define “nothing” as a quantum vacuum.

As for Pigliucci’s criticism that Harris, Haidt, Rosenberg and I subscribe to the belief that

. . . antiquated concepts like free will, consciousness and morality are just illusions, tricks played on us by our Pleistocene-evolved brains. We are not really in control of what we do and think, it’s all done automatically by an inner zombie whose actions were determined since the Big Bang.

I see it as partly right and partly wrong.  I think we are conscious, and that that phenomenon is a property of an evolved brain that may well have arisen by natural selection.  It’s not a “spirit” or a “soul” in our heads, but a property of neurons that, I think, will one day be explained.  Likewise, we may have some evolved notions of morality, though that doesn’t mean that those notions comport with modern thought. But I do think free will is an illusion in a different way, at least if one thinks that we really have a “will” that is distinct from the deterministic (or quantum-mechanical) forces that operate in our brains.  We think our actions originate spontaneously with us, and that we can freely choose between alternatives, but we can’t. The idea that we are the authors of our actions is, to me, an illusion.  So, if you accept Cashmore’s definition of free will, which I’ve bolded in the following (and I like his definition better than my own, which was the same as Searle’s), then yes, free will is an illusion:

Searle has described free will as the belief “that we could often have done otherwise than we in fact did” (15). A difficulty with this definition is that it does not distinguish free will from the variability associated with stochasticism. For this reason, I believe that free will is better defined as a belief that there is a component to biological behavior that is something more than the unavoidable consequences of the genetic and environmental history of the individual and the possible stochastic laws of nature. Here, in some ways, it might be more appropriate to replace “genetic and environmental history” with “chemistry”—however, in this instance these terms are likely to be similar and the former is the one commonly used in such discussions. (Cashmore A., Proc. Nat. Acad. Sci. USA, 107:4500; 2010).

But I highly doubt that, contra Pigliucci, our actions have all been determined since the Big Bang, since quantum effects in the universe (and in evolution, in the form of mutations), would surely have changed things were the Big Bang to repeat itself.  Absent mutations, which may not be deterministic, humans might not even be around, much less the one named Jerry Coyne!

But I digress—as I always do when the question of free will arises. Pigliucci sees this misguided scientism as being dangerous for society:

I think this is a misguided and dangerous trend, which might backfire on the entire secular movement. . . Or take Rosenberg’s and (again) Harris’s categorical statement that in a deterministic world there is no such thing as consciousness or free will, and consequently no morality.

I’ve heard this before from compatibilists: don’t tell the masses that their behaviors are determined, for they’ll become cheaters and nihilists, (This view is often based on psychological studies in which people cheat more after reading that their behaviors are physically determined.) I see the argument about free will as a healthy one, and feel that there’s no need to protect people from determinism. That’s condescending. People will come to terms with determinism as they have come to terms with something worse: their own mortality. I do believe that there really is no objective morality, and that whether we behave “morally” is not a choice we can freely make. I’m not yet ready to jettison the word “morality,” as it has its uses as social shorthand, but we should realize—especially when we come to characterize or punish people for immorality—that their behavior was not under the control of some amorphous “will.”

So Pigliucci sees this determinism and ancillary ideas as dangerous for the secular movement:

This kind of intellectual hubris [the “reductive determinism” of Sam Harris and Alex Rosenberg] is known as scientism, the idea that science is the ultimate arbiter of any question, or indeed even of what counts as a meaningful question. Taken to its logical extreme, scientism leads to nihilism, and as such is both scientifically untenable (nihilism is a philosophical position, not an empirical one) and philosophically sterile. And if there is one thing that secular humanists do not want , it is to be associated with nihilism, both because it is intellectually uninteresting and because it plays into the worst stereotype of the “godless atheist” that most people still unfortunately hold.

The thing is, humans don’t take things to their logical extremes, because we’re creatures of feeling as well as logic. I don’t act like a robot even though I think I am largely a robot made of meat, and I still denigrate people whom I see behave in bad ways, even though I know they can’t help themselves. I act as if I have free will, even though I know I don’t. The fact that determinists like me aren’t nihilists, and do find meaning and beauty in our lives, shows that it can be done.  If determinism led to nihilism, physicists would be the most anarchic and immoral people on Earth!

Pigliucci contrasts scientism with humanism:

On the contrary, humanism is about taking seriously the complexity of the human condition and the limits of human knowledge. Science is a marvellous thing that has brought us computers, airplanes and modern medicine. But it has also brought us the atomic bomb, eugenics and biological warfare. It is a wonderful experience to think like a scientist – believe me, I’ve done it for decades. But that is only one mode of human thinking. Our arsenal is vast, including the ability to critically reflect on what we do and why (philosophy) and to communicate our emotions and perspectives about the world to other human beings (art and literature).

Here we see the denigration of science that invariably accompanies accusations of scientism.  But the misuses of science are not the fault of the scientific process itself, but of humans making humanistic ethical judgments about what to do with the products of science, or about what questions should be pursued. Finding out that spirochaetes cause syphillis comes from science, but deciding to withhold treatment from infected poor black people to watch the disease progress comes from bad ethical judgment.

And which scientist decries the value of art and literature, or claims that their value can be dissected only using the tools of science? Yes, some day science might be able to uncover why I personally see Joyce’s The Dead as the best fiction ever written in English, but until then I will continue to be moved to tears by it.

I have yet to see an accusation of scientism that really sticks. Pigliucci is correct in saying that philosophy does have value for science, though its value is, I think, more limited than he descries*. But too often his attacks on scientists for neglecting philosophy sound defensive, the way theologians sound when science begins to encroach on religious turf. Philosophy is of great value in giving us logical tools to think about questions, but it, too, is susceptible to scientific advances.


*Several readers have suggested that this word is a typo and should be “describes.” It’s not—it comes from the word “descry”

122 thoughts on “Pigliucci decries scientism, argues that science needs philosophy, and that most of us are doing it rong

  1. Pigliucci (attributing to others):

    We are not really in control of what we do and think, it’s all done automatically by an inner zombie …

    Who is this “we” who is not in control? The “inner zombie” is the “we” and indeed is in control. Pigliucci shows that he doesn’t understand the stance he is arguing against.

    Harris’s categorical statement that in a deterministic world there is no such thing as consciousness or free will, and consequently no morality [and hence on to nihilism].

    Pigliucci again misrepresents. This is the opposite of what Harris said, he spent much of hids “Free Will” book explaining that there is still morality even in a deterministic world. It is not any compatibilist arguing for nihilism, it is a strawman attributed to them by Pigliucci (and it is notable that he only “paraphrases” them on this, he gives no quotes of them adopting nihilism).

    1. » coelsblog:
      and it is notable that he only “paraphrases” them on this, he gives no quotes of them adopting nihilism

      Which I consider professional misconduct in a philosopher.

    2. [quote]Pigliucci (attributing to others):

      We are not really in control of what we do and think, it’s all done automatically by an inner zombie …

      That’s not Pigliucci’s view. That’s what Pigliucci thinks Coyne thinks.

      1. That’s not Pigliucci’s view. That’s what Pigliucci thinks Coyne thinks.

        Yep (hence my “attributing to others”), but Pigliucci is wrong here. Coyne etal don’t think there is an “inner zombie” and a separate “we” who is not in control and is standing by helplessly. Hence Pigliucci doesn’t understand the stance he argues against.

    3. Bingo. ‘We’ are in control of our actions but ‘we’ are not separate from our ‘inner zombie’. Our actions are determined by ineluctable physical processes and our decisions are our experience and description of the large scale sum of those processes.

    4. If Pigliucci argues for “something else”, a “soul”, well why an “inner zombie” is not that? They should follow Darwin’s view “better something than nothing” and agree that if we can find an “inner zombie” their beliefs will be corroborated. But no “inner zombies” of any class…

  2. In Rosenberg’s case, instead of “j’accuse!” it’s “je m’accuse!” And he makes it stick but good.

    Scientism costs nothing in awe, wonder and gratitude and in fact enhances such experiences.

    As Tyson says, “So that when I look up at the night sky, and I know that yes we are part of this universe, we are in this universe, but perhaps more important than both of those facts is that the universe is in us. When I reflect on that fact, I look up- many people feel small, cause their small and the universe is big. But I feel big because my atoms came from those stars.”

    Embrace scientism and feel big.

    1. I’ve been in and out of this thread, but each time I’ve neglected to write that I’ve very much liked your comment. It’s really quite lovely.

    1. Since I started reading this blogsite, I spend some amount of time re-thinking philosophy. I’ve most always been of the opinion that philosophy is not terribly useful, and the more I think about it, the more philosophy seems like a piece of chewing gum that’s been in my mouth too long.

      Why should scientists learn more philosophy? For that matter, why should anyone?

      1. I should probably say that I’m excluding logic and ethics, which are important branches of philosophy. Those are both interesting and useful.

      2. Well, “Philosophy” as a category would I think include both Science and the processes of thinking over, discussing, and drawing conclusions. “Love of wisdom” is a common value. The internal argument is over what is wise.

        Bad philosophy is bad; good philosophy is good. That’s my philosophy, at any rate.

        1. “Love of wisdom” is becoming less of a common value all the time.

          It’s the thinking about thinking that’s beginning to drive me up the wall.

          Your philosophy is pretty good.

      3. Why should anyone learn philosophy? If you have to ask, it’s best that you presuppose your philosophy instead of deliberately trying to learn any. That way, you can pretend that science answers all of your important questions.

        1. Physics answers my most important questions.

          My secondary and tertiary questions are neither here nor there, but philosophy, I daresay, cannot begin to answer them.

      4. And then Algebra also goes into the toilet. I do not agree that Philosophy should go away from curriculas. Classic philosophers laid the foundation of today in many aspects. I’ll call that Pure Brute Thinking. The clash between Naturalist Philosophers and Classics in the Europe of the 1600’s is the point I agree here: if you keep thinking in the air and never look and test the “reality” well you go into the line of the Platonics, wrong. I’m totally in the other side: pure thinking can help you figure out that the world is an sphere, just looking at the moon phases, but then you move into writing down hypothesis following a rigorously logical path and test with an experiment: eclipes, measuring the shadow of a pole at the same time in different places, etc. You do not need the wonderful and amazing picture of the Earth and Moon from Apollo VIII to confirm that planets are spheres (almost). If you teach that type of reasoning it will help with more complex “reasonings and conclusions” like Natural Selection and Evolution. Darwin was applying pure brute thinking under a rigorous logically framework to make sense of the things he saw during the voyage of the Beagle. The Apollo moment was the Synthesis but you do not need that to understand where you have to invest your studies. Choose your Philosophy side, but keep curriculas particularly in High School full of different topics: Math, Astronomy, Biology, History, Philosophy, Geology, Geography, Physics, Chemistry…

  3. Jerry Coyne says that dualism is the basis of most people’s belief in freewill, and that dualism has been dispelled by the scientific discovery that physical stuff and forces are all that exist.

    But for decades, philosophers have distinguished between Cartesian, substance dualism and property dualism. The first kind has to do with what something’s made of, the second with what it can do. Science has shown there are no ghosts, not that everything behaves strictly according to physical theories. Nonphysical capacities emerge from physical ones and so we have biological, psychological, and social properties. Even though organisms and societies are made from physical stuff and are subject to physical forces, they have nonphysical properties as well: they can behave in ways that aren’t explained by physics.

    I criticize Jerry Coyne’s views of scientism and freewill at greater length in my article:


    1. Nonphysical capacities emerge from physical ones and so we have biological, psychological, and social properties.

      So long as these “nonphysical” properties “emerge from physical ones”, and thus are products of physical interactions, in what way is this brand of “property dualism” any different from monism/materialism, in which biological, psychological and social properties are products of physical interactions?

      1. There’s no difference at all. Property dualism is naturalistic and materialistic. That’s the point. There’s a more sophisticated kind of dualism in philosophy that Jerry Coyne seems to ignore and that’s both naturalistic and consistent with the idea that we have real freewill. The notion that the only kind of metaphysics that supports freewill is dualism in the old Cartesian sense, which makes freewill supernatural, sets up a strawman.

        1. No, they’re not consistent with free will. All you’re doing is describing emergent properties. That just gets you consciousness, not free will.

          1. Indeed, all you have to do to refute what Jerry Coyne says about dualism is describe emergent properties. And if consciousness can emerge from physical properties, why can’t the capacity for self-control?

            1. It’s a mistake to think ‘free will’ and self control are the same thing. Computers have self control, but no average human being would think a computer has the kind of free will that theologians, for example, impute to humans as part of their special ability to freely choose God. The way compatibilists have redefined free will, it does make sense to say a computer has free will. I view that as a perverse consequence of compatibilists refusal to admit that the traditional human conception of the ability to freely will without internal constraint is not the same as the autonomy and control that even robots have.

              You also need to distinguish between strong and weak emergence. Strong emergence holds that there are phenomena that are entirely irreducible to micro-causes. It implies a gap in the explanatory power of science, which is analogous to the irreducible complexity of ID, I.e. if I don’t understand it today, there must be magic involved. I don’t buy it.

              Weak emergence, on the other hand, is simply acknowledging that complex systems composed of layers have different properties at different layers. There is no mystery here. In a computer, objects, icons, point and click, drag and drop, and touch scrolling are all emergent properties of a digital processor moving 1s and 0s around at blinding speeds. But these are all entirely explainable as aggregate effects of low level digital computation, based on the conceptual structuring of programs in interdependent layers of greater and greater abstraction.

              1. Control isn’t sufficient for freewill, but for self-control you need a self, that is, a living, sentient person with feelings, etc. That rules out a computer as having freewill (unless the computer acquires the other properties of having a self.) When you have a person who can control herself, as opposed to being controlled by things outside herself, you’ve got the essence of freewill.

                Yes, we’re talking about strong emergence, the irreducibility of some theories to others. I wouldn’t buy it either if it amounted to your strawman caricature of it.

                For two reason, though, there would be no gap in the generic power of what you call “science.” First, there’s no such thing as Science in general. To be more precise, you’d have to say that the lowest-level science, physics, would be incomplete. But it’s much less obvious that physics has the semantic resources to be a Theory of Everything.

                Second, there would be a special science at each level of emergence, so the emergent processes wouldn’t be entirely miraculous, like intelligent design of nature. We’d have biology, psychology, and the social sciences to explain consciousness and freewill, not to mention philosophy.

                The gap that nevertheless makes those sciences incommensurable with physics is that, given strong emergence, you couldn’t deduce the higher-level laws or principles from physics. Nevertheless, even now we have numerous philosophical metatheories of how nature produces complex levels or wholes that are more than the sum of their parts. So again there need be no miracle (ineffability).

                I don’t even see that there need be such a mystery, since why expect intelligent mammals to be able to explain absolutely everything using a single language/theory (physics)? Maybe you need different languages to explain the variety of things you find in nature. And why expect these mammals to be able to explain absolutely everything in the first place? Scientists can pragmatically assume as much, but if you actually are so optimistic, as opposed to being merely pragmatic, I think you’ve got as much irrational faith in our greatness as a Creationist has in some god.

              2. When you have a person who can control herself, as opposed to being controlled by things outside herself, you’ve got the essence of freewill.

                I would deny that we have ‘free will’, but that just depends on how ‘free will’ is defined. But even if you’re a compatibilist, wouldn’t you have to admit that animals, or sentient beings as a larger class than just humans, have the ‘free will’ that humans do, but to a lesser degree because of lesser brain capacity? What you call the ‘essence of free will’ can also be attributed to a thermostat or a self-driven car or a robot.

                Regarding emergence, I may have misunderstood the claims of strong emergence. I wouldn’t say physics can deduce the existence of consciousness. But the divisions between academic disciplines are somewhat arbitrary, so I don’t think names like physics, chemistry, psychology belong in this discussion, unless we already knew more about the most efficient and complete set of explanatory layers. Let’s just talk about human ability to understand and explain nature by any means at all.

                Elementary particles combine to form atoms, which exhibit properties that couldn’t necessarily be deduced from knowledge of elementary particles. So on with molecules, cells, clusters of neurons, groupings of nerve clusters with various roles, etc.

                Yes new properties emerge that may not be deducible strictly from knowledge of the underlying primitive components, or at least not deducible without some information feedback from the higher levels, yet the reverse seems possible: to start with the emergent property and to explain how it results from the combined properties of it’s components.

                At this point, let me say that my understanding of strong emergence was that it asserts that some emergent properties simply have no explanation in terms of more primitive constituent elements. I seriously doubt that, if it is in fact the claim of strong emergence. This sounds suspiciously like spooky woo to me.

                It seems that emergence is the appearance of new properties in a system that are generated by the combinatorial and information encoding abilities of the primitive parts of the system. To imply that the emergent properties are in some way independent of the parts of the system seems to be an error.

                I agree that more than one language is needed. I write software and I know that software can be expressed as logic gates, binary, assembly language, or other higher level languages that use different conceptual structures to model computation. Some languages are more efficient than others at various tasks. It makes sense to me that a similar linguistic hierarchy exists in our attempts to describe nature.

                It’s pretty obvious that physics is an awkward and cumbersome language to try to explain love, or hate, or any other human emotion. But this doesn’t mean that there isn’t a layered decomposition of our emotions into components using a variety of languages that allows us to make sense of the relationships between our emotions and the underlying chemistry and physics.

                I have a pretty good sense of how the graphical objects you drag around on a visual designer, or the cooperating objects in a workflow model arise step by step from the transistors etched into a semiconductor all the way up to instances of classes interacting with a coordinating framework via a polymorphic interface. These objects have emergent properties that one would have great difficulty conceiving from a thorough inspection limited to examining how binary digits are managed by a computer system.

                I feel fairly confident an analogous but much more complex hierarchy exists between the physics and chemistry of our brain and our subjective consciousness. I would also agree that there can be many intermediate layers that are indispensable to forming a coherent sensible formal linguistic explanation of the next higher layer in terms of the next lower layer.

                I think you’ve got as much irrational faith in our greatness as a Creationist has in some god.

                Nope. To assert that something is explainable in terms of it’s parts is not the same as saying that humans have the intelligence to discover or understand the explanation. We may never solve the mystery of consciousness, but that doesn’t mean it makes sense to consider the mystery to arise from invisible magic. I think it arises from a natural material complexity that we may never succeed in fully understanding. We may be able to prove mathematically that the brain can’t ever understand itself, but that some kind of meta-brain would be necessary. I believe an explanation exists in principle, even if we may never know exactly what it is. I don’t believe the brain could have evolved if such an explanation did not exist.

              3. Jeff Johnson,

                I don’t know if this response will reach you, since I see no “reply” button on your Aug 31, 10:19am response.

                Anyway, I agree that natural freewill would come in degrees, so animals would be free to a lesser extent. Their self-control would be more limited than ours, for example. Dan Dennett makes the same point regarding thermostats, etc.

                Regarding the “independence” of emergent properties, again there’s substance and then there’s property dualism. Property dualism assumes that things with higher-level properties also have lower-level ones, so obviously a person, for example, can’t be independent of what she’s made of at the fundamental level. Obviously if you take away atoms, you lack freewill since you no longer have a body to be self-controlled in the first place.

                The independence, rather, is between ways of understanding patterns, to use Dennett’s terms. Now, you say that just because you can’t use physics directly to understand psychological phenomena, that doesn’t mean there’s no decomposition of psychology into a variety of sub-theories, leaving no gaps. I agree there’s such a decomposition, but the lower-level explanations won’t answer every question available at the higher level. For example, you could use chemistry to help understand how mental properties came to be, historically speaking, but if psychology is irreducible this means, as the philosopher Davidson said, that psychology is autonomous. This means that some aspects of psychology can’t be translated into any lower-level theory.

                In particular, normative and qualia-related discourses seem irreducible. Freewill is part of folk psychology, which presupposes certain normative notions that have no license at all in descriptive sciences. You can use evolutionary biology to explain how moral principles came to be, but biology won’t suffice to answer any moral question whatsoever. The moral question emerges and can’t be reduced to non-normative explanations of patterns.

                The same is true in your software analogy. I’m quite sure you can explain various aspects of a piece of software by referring to the hardware and the programming, etc, but semantic questions will remain as to how the connotations of the software should be interpreted, for example. You can’t understand everything there is to know about a computer game by understanding just the programming and the hardware, because the game operates in a social context, and in that context you’ll find those pesky normative and qualia-related factors.

                Regarding faith and optimism about science, I see your point about the metaphysical question of freewill versus the epistemic question of whether we can understand all the causes of our behaviour. Yes, the mystery of freewill would go only to the epistemic and not the metaphysical question, whereas only the metaphysical issue is relevant here.

                In your other short response, you say that a system that supervenes on a deterministic system should itself be deterministic. But this becomes less obvious once we see that the notion of determinism in question is defined in physical terms. That is, the kind of necessity at issue is one that applies to objects like particles whose behaviour is entirely forced. Only when we dilute the physicist’s concept of cause and effect does it seem self-evident that everything can be caused in the same way. But by this point we’d be equivocating.

                People are also physical objects, and so we are indeed subject to physical forces. But when a person is understood psychologically, the physicist’s concept of cause and effect is irrelevant. To say that my decision to drink a beer instead of a Coke was forced and fully determined is just to change the subject. The explanation that has to do with self-control, with character, and other normative matters that may affect my decision, isn’t understood fully in lower-level terms of particles or chemicals.

              4. @Ben,
                It seems to me that the conceptual modeling might be irreducible, the linguistic constructs themselves, but the natural phenomena being referenced don’t seem irreducible. Our conceptual linguistic modeling of natural phenomena is simply a mental convenience we impose on natural phenomena, but it isn’t at all identical or isomorphic to the phenomena themselves, just as some of mathematics can model nature quite well, but there are many mathematical constructs that refer to nothing in the natural world. This gets tricky when we are thinking about the brain thinking about itself.

                An example used by Sartre was that humans destroy cities via earthquakes. This captures the difference between concepts and natural reality that we often ignore. It’s so normal for us to assign utility and value to the features of cities that we think of these values as intrinsic. But in fact, after a devastating earthquake, nothing is destroyed; it is merely a rearrangement of matter. The only notion of destruction resides in the human subjective evaluation of the new arrangement of matter compared to the old arrangement of matter. And for other creatures, the new arrangement may actually have more utility, may have created many new locations for taking shelter or hunting for food, for example. So earthquake physically rearranges distribution of matter in space, humans destroy city, small mammals, birds, and insects create new habitat.

                The way a psychologist conceptually carves up human emotional experience is somewhat arbitrary according to what we find useful. So the experience of jealousy could be lumped together with anger and rage, or we might identify 5 variations of jealousy that are meaningful distinctions. None of this would effect the natural phenomena in the brain that lead us to experience jealousy.

                There would not be a simple mapping between the concept ‘jealousy’ and a single concept at the next layer down. But we can find a model in which we can describe physically the process in the brain that causes the feeling we call jealousy. Thus the reduction of jealousy to some physical process gives us a link or mapping between the concept/word jealousy and a complicated description of the physical process that causes the feeling of jealousy.

                Sure, certain questions will only make sense at one level, and not at another. Questions are part of our conceptual models. The answers come from the physical models. It seems that reducing mental phenomena to underlying physical explanations could only help psychologists improve their conceptual models, ask better questions, and get better answers, just as improvements in chemistry and physics have provided the tools for biology to delve deeper into the reasons for inheritance and gene expression and other phenomena that can’t be fully understood without reference to chemistry level phenomena.

                So are apartment buildings emergent properties of concrete and iron? Or are the emergent properties completely contained within our conceptual and linguistic evaluation of apartment buildings? Is jealousy an emergent phenomenon, or is it our convenient linguistic model that emerges in response to our desire to talk about our emotional experiences?

                It’s easy for me to see there is no determinism between the concept of infidelity, the concept of jealousy and the concept of temperamental reaction, but it’s impossible for me to not see a deterministic relationship between seeing your partner passionately kissing another person, the powerful and visceral emotions of jealousy, and the possibly regrettable angry actions that ensue. The deterministic connections between these phenomena will differ from person to person because each brain is unique, but the way each person reacts would be determined by the structure/state of their particular brain.

                That is, the kind of necessity at issue is one that applies to objects like particles whose behaviour is entirely forced. Only when we dilute the physicist’s concept of cause and effect does it seem self-evident that everything can be caused in the same way. But by this point we’d be equivocating.

                So can you give an example of a physical system that leads to emergence of new properties on a higher level where determinism would be diluted? And where those emergent properties are not reducible? I mean without jumping into the linguistic/conceptual subjective realm, but staying strictly with a natural physical phenomenon, like the brain viewed as object rather than subject. I think the trouble in trying to answer this question is that we don’t know what the boundary between physical neuron activity and subjective experience or linguistic conceptual structures looks like. We feel like we effortlessly associate ideas and memories, ideas and emotions, memories and emotions, but these mental objects and their associations probably all correspond to underlying unconscious physical deterministic processes, so it seems pretty easy to get the idea that we have more freedom than we are likely to actually have if you start at the linguistic/conceptual level and try to work your way down from there.

              5. Jeff Johnson,
                I don’t think we’re supposed to be writing these mini essays in Jerry Coyne’s Comments section, so I’ll try to be brief. But I invite you to take a look at my article that criticizes Coyne’s views on scientism and freewill. It’s at my blog: http://rantswithintheundeadgod.blogspot.ca/2012/08/jerry-coyne-on-scientism-and-freewill.html

                Briefly, then, you seem to be saying that the special sciences, or at least psychology and the social sciences, are subjective and pragmatic, whereas physics alone is objective and in correspondence with reality. But once you interpret scientific theories as more like models and not like divine books filled with eternal laws of nature, I don’t see how physics comes out any more objective than the special sciences. All the sciences are in the same boat; they each get at part of nature. You should read Pigliucci’s article on structural realism, if you’re not familiar yet with that view.

                I think that once you agree that scientific theories are largely pragmatic models that each get at a different aspect of natural reality, you’re a long way to seeing my point about freewill. Obviously, our behaviour is caused largely by our brain, but the brain is the seat of our self-control, as I explain in my blog. A believer in freewill has no problem saying there’s determinism between the self and the self’s actions; of course we bring about our actions. And sometimes our behaviour is predictable, given what’s going on in the environment and given knowledge of our character, experience, etc. But when the brain is part of the causal chain, we’re not talking about the same sort of causality that’s present in physical systems. The brain has power to select from its possible effects in a way that’s absent from lower-level systems.

                My point about the determinist’s dilution of “determine” is that there’s no scientific notion of causality that applies to all sciences. Were there such a theory, that science would be able to explain everything and answer all questions. Instead, there’s a philosophical over-generalization from physics. The kind of causality that applies to agents as such isn’t the kind you find in physical systems. So to say that human behaviour is determined is to use “determined” as a weasel word.

                The idea is supposed to be that our behaviour is “forced” or beyond our control, just as a particle can’t help but go wherever some forces cause it to go. But people aren’t physical systems when our psychological properties are in view, so the physicist’s notion of cold, indifferent forces is irrelevant and that notion enters the psychological picture only by sleight of hand. Another way to say this is that there are no psychological “forces” in anything like the physycist’s sense, so a person can’t literally be forced in the same way (unless you view the person as a physical object). Special sciences have, at best, ceteris paribus laws, and emergent processes are inherently probabilistic rather than necessary (rather like quantum mechanics).

            2. Those emergent properties are 100% dependent on physical effects. They’re just second (and higher) order, rather than first order. Jerry is still correct.

              1. Nope. They’re dependent only in that they supervene. Higher-level processes, as such, can’t be explained in lower-level terms, given the irreducibility. Thus, if determinism is a feature of physical processes, that doesn’t mean it’s a feature of higher-level ones.

              2. And regarding self-control, feedback may well be part of how natural freewill works. At a minimum, a free creature has to be able to control itself from within as opposed to being a puppet of external things that it has no control over. If feedback is part of what gives a creature that power and that separation from the rest of the world, so be it.

              3. @Ben

                Higher-level processes, as such, can’t be explained in lower-level terms, given the irreducibility. Thus, if determinism is a feature of physical processes, that doesn’t mean it’s a feature of higher-level ones.

                How do you justify these assertions? I don’t buy the irreducibility, nor the lack of determinism in a system that supervenes on a deterministic system. This sounds like incredible woo to me, but I’m willing to be proven wrong if you can do it.

  4. Why do I feel like accusations of scientism always seem like philosophers and theologians trying to use art and literature to shield them from the legitimate criticism that they’re just sitting in a chair making stuff up? And I think it would really behoove the philosophers to look at science education, science literature, and popular science books to see that scientists spend a lot of trouble trying to make very complex ideas and data into stuff other scientists can understand, and then even more effort into showing laymen what it is they are doing.

    Its rare that I’ve read a philosophical work that was anywhere near as clear and easy to grasp as piece of popular science literature. Much as I liked Breaking the Spell, it was so much harder getting through that book than the God Delusion or God is Not Great, because he stopped every few paragraphs to define his terms. And I could barely crack some of his other books. So, sure, you have philosophy for scientists, that’s great. But try and make it accessible to them first… scientists first goal is, and should always be learning to do science. They don’t have time to wade through erudition for the sake of erudition.

    1. Sajanas,

      That’s an interesting comment. I hadn’t really thought about whether popular philosophy was as clear as popular science. I don’t really know, since I don’t read popular philosophy. To be honest, I’m not sure I can think of a lot of examples of popular analytic philosophy. I guess Frankfurt’s On Bullshit comes to mind, but my suspicion is that since so many fewer people are interested in reading popular analytic philosophy than reading popular science, there aren’t as many actual analytic philosophers writing about it.

      1. And, I’ll admit, I’ve not tried seeking a huge sample them out myself. But in my experience trying to crack some books of Dennett like Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, and my girlfriend’s interest in various books on feminism, truth, and honor, we both just hit these linguistic brick walls were the authors go off on these GRE word filled tangents and lose us. Or go on arguing some points that seem far removed from the arguments that drew us to the book. I’ve picked up books that sounded interesting on atheism and just hit a wall, and every time I see “professor of philosophy” in the authors CV.

        And the crux of it is, if you feel like philosophy is needed in science, you should make it accessible to science. No one at CERN has any illusions that a laymen can dive right into their actual papers, so they make press releases, Youtube videos, and such things. The solution is not to complain about scientism, but to make some works of philosophy that are useful and understandable to scientists. Which is harder than just getting upset that they don’t read your papers, but I think is the only way to avoid just being dismissed offhand by some very busy, funding hungry scientists.

        1. Sajanas,

          My suspicion is that there’s less demand for popular analytic philosophy than for popular science, and so there are fewer practiced popular philosophy writers, or their works are less well-known.

          It’s possible, also, that philosophical concepts are difficult to explain in a way that scientific concepts aren’t. I admit that quantum weirdness and non-Euclidean space are very difficult to explain, but it may be that philosophical concepts are also hard to understand in some interestingly different way.

    2. Philosophy is like jazz. If you don’t ask for help with who to listen to, you’ll think it’s all bad.

      Read Russell, Popper, Schopenhauer to start, and hopefully you’ll see what I mean.

  5. There is no doubt that professions and modes of talking that focus on words, and not data, can help the use of words in all domains.

    So sure, philosophy can help with the semantics of scientific topics, but that is not contributing anything predictive or empirical.

    Also, as the research on free will suggests increasingly — words don’t matter much. How much has not been tested.

    Fundamentally, philosopher’s arguments do not pass the independence test. Do their statements make sense outside of them getting paid for what they defend? Philosopher’s arguments, disappointingly, can all be ascribed to conflicts of interests based on how they get paid. They all seem to be arguing from their W-2s.

    1. Brain for Business,

      By “data,” do you mean to include or exclude evidence? I’m not sure what you mean by suggesting that philosophy focuses on words. Yes, there’s a branch of philosophy called ‘conceptual analysis,’ but that’s only a small part these days of what philosophers do, and it’s very informed by science anyway. Philosophers spend far more time trying to discern whether God exists, whether various beliefs are justified, whether we have free will or immaterial minds, and what our moral and political obligations are, if any.

      I guess I’d be curious whether you could cite a recent (last 5 years) philosophical article in a professional journal that fits the description you give in the last paragraph. Since you seem to have a lot of familiarity with philosophers’ arguments, you must be keeping up with the literature to some degree.

  6. Another piece of terrible philosophy from a philosopher. I guess we really don’t have anybody to blame for our reputation but ourselves.

    Pigliucci accuses others of hubris, i.e. extreme arrogance, when he himself is being nothing but insufferably arrogant. Witness his haughtily dismissive “you would have to have read a bit of philosophy to appreciate that”, implying that Harris et al. haven’t done so—adding the stupefying falsehood that “Harris for one is proud of his contempt for anything philosophical”. And all this is in support of his accusation that Harris commits the naturalistic fallacy by saying that “moral judgments are facts”. Harris, of course, actually says that “values reduce to facts”, which is an entirely different story. And it is not the naturalistic fallacy either, which, in the words of an esteemed philosopher, you wouldn’t even have had to read a fair bit of philosophy to appreciate. (NF = identification of a natural trait with a normative judgement)

    Furthermore, what Pigliucci calls “scientism“ is in fact logical positivism, a justificationist concept that holds that only statements that are empirically verifiable are even meaningful. That concept hasn’t had any substantive currency for over half a century, though, and Harris for one is explicitly opposed to it. (Cf. p. 189 of The Moral Landscape) He may not be consciously citing a Popperian kind of falsificationism, but he comes close enough. And it is not a coincidence that Popper has as good a claim as anyone to having “killed logical positivism”. (For more on Harris and Pigliucci’s confused view of TML and Harris’s views of morality, see my article at Butterflies and Wheels.)

    And lastly, neither logical positivism nor an overly broad conception of science lead to nihilism. The former leads to inconsistency, since it would be meaningless itself according to its own standards; the latter leads to an appreciation of the fact that more things in life are amenable to, broadly speaking, an evidence-based investigation—or, more technically, are capable of being analysed in terms of objective knowledge. And it is entirely symptomatic that Pigliucci also equivocates on this central term, ‘knowledge’, by implying that art and literature involve the same kind of knowledge as science does.

  7. “Yes, some day science might be able to uncover why I personally see Joyce’s The Dead as the best fiction ever written in English, but until then I will continue to be moved to tears by it.”

    I’m guessing you will continue to be moved to tears even after science explains it.

  8. Wait, what? Sam Harris doesn’t care about philosophy and doesn’t believe in consciousness? Doesn’t he have a degree in philosophy, and hasn’t he said in the end subjectivity is all we could possibly care about? There may be good arguments to be made on this topic, but from here I suspect this article is mostly sensationalism and cashing in on current hot topics.

    “And which scientist decries the value of art and literature, or claims that their value can be dissected only using the tools of science? Yes, some day science might be able to uncover why I personally see Joyce’s The Dead as the best fiction ever written in English, but until then I will continue to be moved to tears by it.”

    Awesomeness. I must read this The Dead book.

    If there is anything I take away from this article, it’s that perhaps people are struggling to claim turf and define new roles as religion fades into the background (in some small corners of the world, at least,) and people look for new ways to answer questions of meaning, morality, finding fulfillment, and so on. Psychology, philosophy, and the arts all seem to be angling for a position there (rightly so, I think,) although I think the debate with science is usually a bit of a straw man.

  9. So, scientism taken to its logical extreme leads to nihilism? I hear this claim all the time from accommodationists and believers, but I have never seen even an attempt to provide any evidence that, even if true in some philosophical modeling sense, that this actually occurs in the real world with real people. It sounds like nothing more than an opinion.

    So, what does philosophism taken to its logical extreme lead to? I shudder to think.

    1. darrelle,

      If we take Pigliucci’s definition, “the idea that science is the ultimate arbiter of any question, or indeed even of what counts as a meaningful question,” then it might be possible to argue that scientism in its “logical extreme” implies nihilism. You mention you don’t think this happens in the real world, but I take it that that’s what the “logical extreme” is doing; logical extremes don’t happen in the real world.

      Let’s say that nihilism is the belief that nothing ultimately has any deep-down or objective value. (If that’s not what nihilism is, then maybe scientism doesn’t lead to nihilism.) In any case, if science is the ultimate arbiter of any question, then since science has no way by itself of detecting objective values (if they exist), you might think that scientism would end up saying they don’t exist.

      1. science has no way by itself of detecting objective values (if they exist)

        There are objective facts about values such as “this mother loves her child”, and science can detect these objective facts.

        However, if by “objective value” you mean “value divorced from anyone doing the valuing” then I’d assert that such things indeed do not exist (indeed the concept seems nonsensical).

        Personally I would not describe that as “nihilism”, since it is a fact that many entities in the universe do value things.

        1. coelsblog,

          You’re right that nihilism isn’t the same as expressivism or subjectivism about value. But it’s certainly a lot closer to those positions than a full-blown realism about value would be.

          If you think, for example, that happiness is just good, suffering is just bad, it’s irrational to doubt science in general, and hurting innocent people is wrong (independently of what anyone believes about those propositions), then you believe in objective value. But if you think those are just opinions or subjective preferences, that’s not very satisfying to someone who wants to avoid nihilism, I don’t think.

          Let’s take, for example, the proposition that science in general gives us justified beliefs. If you doubt the existence of objective values, then you might think that science doesn’t really give us justified beliefs in any objective sense; instead, it’s just a contingent opinion that some people have that science gives us justified beliefs.

      2. Tom,

        ” If we take Pigliucci’s definition, “the idea that science is the ultimate arbiter of any question, or indeed even of what counts as a meaningful question,”. . .”

        Pigliucci identifies by name people that he thinks are guilty of scientism. I have some familiarity with the writings and talks of many of the people he lists. I am confident that none of them, if asked, would claim that “science is the ultimate arbiter of any question,” or that “indeed even of what counts as a meaningful question.” Pigliucci’s argument is off to a bad start since none of the instances of scientism he cites meet his own definition.

        ”. . .then it might be possible to argue that scientism in its “logical extreme” implies nihilism.”

        But why? Unless you already have nihilism in mind, how does scientism imply, necessarily, nihilism?

        ”You mention you don’t think this happens in the real world, but I take it that that’s what the “logical extreme” is doing; logical extremes don’t happen in the real world.”

        But the real world is the point here, right? Pigliucci is using this argument as justification for telling people that they invest too much in science, and that that is bad for them and bad for society. If logical extremes don’t really happen, and that is a necessary condition for nihilism, then his argument is useless.

        ”Let’s say that nihilism is the belief that nothing ultimately has any deep-down or objective value.”

        In the context of this article by Pigliucci I think it is safe to say that he is using the “despair at a perceived pointlessness of existence” meaning of nihilism. I feel even safer saying that most people who read the article will interpret the word to have that meaning. That is also the meaning that lay believers, theologians, accommodationists and other “opponents of scientism” intend when they make this same argument. If it were intended to be interpreted as “life is without objective meaning, purpose, or intrinsic value” then I would say that Pigliucci has really shot himself in the foot.

        Pigliucci’s argument fails at every point. His claims of scientism against various people, which he clearly defines for us, are inaccurate at best. His argument for why scientism is bad may make for interesting mental exercise but does not translate to reality. To make matters worse it really looks like he is misrepresenting, not just misunderstanding, people that he disagrees with.

        1. darrelle,

          To be honest, I’m not invested in defending Pigliucci himself here. I’m more interested in the question of whether one version of scientism seems to imply one version of nihilism.

          I think it does, since if we reject non-scientific ways of knowing, we have no way to identify objective (mind-independent) values, if they exist.

          1. I think it is very clear that some definition of scientism leads right to one of the definitions of nihilism.

            I don’t think there are many atheists who would have a problem with the claim that “there is no objective meaning or purpose to life.” That is a commonly used argument against religious belief.

            The problems arise when people claim that this must then lead atheists/scientismists(?) to believe that life is meaningless and pointless, therefore there is no reason to have any regard for life. Can’t say that has never happened but . . . can we say outlier?

          2. Oh, I also wanted to ask.

            1) What do you mean by values? The term, as generally understood, suggests agency.

            2) What non-scientific ways of knowing do you suppose might be utilized to identify objective values, and by what methodologies will it do so?

            3) How do you know that the scientific way of knowing could not identify objective values, if they existed?

            4) Given that there are huge amounts of evidence generated every day that people who think that there is no objective meaning or purpose to life, because of their scientific understanding of reality, do value their lives, and others usually including even non human life forms, and that they can and do usually define many purposes for their lives, how does that affect your concept of objective values?

            1. darrelle,

              Good questions.

              (1) If things are good or bad, those are values. To be honest, it’s hard to define them further.

              (2) This would probably take us farther afield than Jerry wants to go, but the usual answer is either (roughly) ‘self-evidence’ (Shafer-Landau), ‘intuition’ (Huemer), ‘indispensibility’ (Enoch), ‘epistemological inescapability’ (Cuneo), or ‘desire’ (Oddie). This is a big debate, but at least you can see that in principle, intuition could deliver knowledge of objective value facts.

              (3) I can’t imagine how objective goodness or badness could look, sound, smell, taste, or feel like anything, or be made of material particles.

              (4) I don’t know. Psychologists know that lots of people have beliefs that are contradictory or at least in tension with others of their beliefs. But I don’t think there’s anything crazy about valuing one’s life as a matter of personal preference. It just seems less satisfying than valuing one’s life because something about it–happiness, perhaps–is objectively valuable or good.

              1. Tom,
                Thanks for answering questions.

                RE #1) The category of concepts that we label with terms like good or bad, that is to say values, include as an integral part the sub concept that values are the product of agency of some sort. The concept of values not attributable to agency is a contradiction. Do you mean something like values designated by a god like being? Or are you using “values” as a metaphor to describe something you don’t know how to describe, or are unsure of?

                RE #2) It is not clear to me how “knowledge” derived from intuition, or any of the other ways of knowing you listed, could be useful unless it is subsequently shown to be an accurate description of reality. Otherwise, there is no good reason to suppose that it comports with reality. In other words, how do we select from the huge numbers of intuitions, desires, things that seem self evident, etc. that people generate, those which comport with reality from those that do not? To do that means testing and or observing of some sort. Which are scientific methodologies.

                RE #3) But if they are real, and if they are capable of affecting us in any way, how could they not be detectable by scientific methodologies, even in principle? If they can not affect us in any way and they have not been detected, what reason is there to suppose that they are real?

                RE #4) I can understand that sentiment, though personally I don’t share it, but that in itself is not evidence that objective values exist. Personally I find it more satisfying, and uplifting, that there are not likely to be objective values as you describe them.

    2. Well, logically it can’t lead to facts, because we know we need empirical observations and methods for that.

      [This obvious fact is btw what I call the “science of philosophy” analysis.]

      And indeed it can’t pass the outsider’s test, there are at least as many philosophies that there are philosophers.

      I would say that philosophy taken to its logical extreme amounts to religion. And yes, you can shudder, because religion poisons everything.

      I do wish they would drop the “philosophy of science” shtick soon – it can’t be good for science.

    3. Have you read Alex Rosenberg’s Atheist Guide to Reality? It’s all about how scientism should be considered a good thing and that it leads to nihilism. I think Massimo Pigliucci may be taking Rosenberg and applying Rosenberg’s arguments to everyone else, but it’s not clear to me if others like Jerry or Sam Harris have even read it.

      1. No, I have not read it. What definition of nihilism does Rosenberg use? There are a bunch. If he is using the “there is no objective meaning or purpose to life, then I would agree with him. A reasonable understanding of science does lead to that conclusion. Any meaning or purpose is something that we provide for ourselves and each other.

        If, however, he is using the “despair at a perceived pointlessness of existence” meaning of nihilism that is so often used by opponents of “scientism” when they make the same claim (as I wrote above), then I disagree with him. That is a baseless claim for which there is much evidence to the contrary. It seems more like wishful thinking on the part of opponents of “scientism” and atheism.

  10. Jerry,

    When I think of science “needing” philosophy, what I really think of is science’s inability to detect normative truths, such as whether some belief is justified or unjustified. (Justification doesn’t look like anything under a microscope.)

    So that’s why I think that science without philosophy isn’t ultimately trustworthy; we need some philosophical argument that scientific conclusions are at least prima facie justified. Of course, I think that sort of argument is easy to make. But I’m always curious to see what scientists think about this issue.

    1. Curious? Let me answer as a PhD in physics then.

      That is all philosophy and it is all irrelevant. The relevant question is if science is useful.

      And it is. Out of that observation comes the facts of reliability and so trustworthiness.

      If you want a theoretical analysis I would say that the great illusion is to call the constraints that goes into making observations and theories “assumptions”, which I believe is a 19th century theological invention.

      But constraints are tested when observations or theories are.* (Observations are tested when you do a hypothesis test against a null hypothesis of pure coincidence, which is what you do to set up confidence limits.)

      If you read some physics, you will see all these terms sooner or later. You scoop it up as you go, as it were.

      I’m not sure, but it seems to me the “justifiable belief” notion is a spin off of taking that theology at face value. Bad choice, since it doesn’t describe what is actually happening. It certainly avoids dealing with facts. And so it is confusing.

      As for “normative truths” it is easy to see that facts are much more complex objects than can be described by such simplistic notions. Observations and theories have all sorts of characteristics such as “acceptable”, “rejectable”, “don’t know/not tested”, “not fully constrained”, “unambiguous” (what some call “direct observation”) et cetera.

      When an observation or a theory has managed to oust all rivals, and it seems the competition process for some reason converges and rather quickly at that, you can start to think of “normative truths” as a naive description of that state. And it happens observably, I use to refer to Carroll’s observation that the laws of everyday physics now is completely understood.

      * Somewhere here some wants to claim that these constraints are dependent on our state of technology, can be “revised” or theories “saved” et cetera. That is either irrelevant, we do the science we can, or false, when you change or “fix” or “save” you are actually studying _another_ theory for some reason, and again, we do what we can. It all falls back to – is it useful?

      1. Torbjörn,

        Thanks for your comment, although I don’t fully understand it.

        Do you believe that some beliefs are justified or appropriate or the right ones for a person to have, and some are unjustified or inappropriate or the wrong ones for a person to have?

        If you believe that some beliefs are justified, doesn’t that imply that this thing, justification, exists?

        If not, then doesn’t that mean it is unjustified to trust science?

        And finally, if you believe that justification exists, is it empirically detectable? Can you look at a belief with some scientific instrument and see that it emits particles of justification? If not that or something like that, how could science alone detect justification?

        1. Hummingbirds and Bumblebees don’t need the justification of scientific theory to fly. Science didn’t need the justification of philosophy to discover the heliocentric solar system, the laws of gravity, the equations of electricity and magnetism, natural selection and evolution, quantum mechanics, the genetic basis of reproduction and inheritance, or relativity.

          It’s okay if philosophers follow behind and invent justifications after the fact. That doesn’t hurt science. But to imagine that science requires your justifications to proceed would have to be called something like philosophism. I don’t think philosophers can even agree on what ‘knowledge’ means, or how empirical data fits into epistemology. If engineers had to wait for philosophers to hand them reliable norms, we’d still be in the dark ages.

  11. >>I don’t act like a robot even though I think I am largely a robot made of meat, and I still denigrate people whom I see behave in bad ways, even though I know they can’t help themselves.

    How exactly do you think a robot would act like? Would it act like it thinks it has free will but really don’t?

    See the problem with this rejection of the idea of free will is that you add one layer of unfalsifiable emulation on top of reality. You are forced to say that you only act like you. What’s your argument against anybody from adding one more layer – you only act like you only act like you – ad infinitum. And if we can’t an infinite level of unfalsifiable regress, why even add one.

    Occam’s Razor applies. Experience is real. We have to explain our experience of free will in terms of one level of reality. How? By recognizing that “free” in this context means free from unwanted influence.

    1. are you suggesting that people are free from unwanted influence? A person’s conscious behavior can be influenced by subconscious experiences that they would rather not have had if they had been consciously aware of the possibility of experiencing them subconsciously.

      1. Your unconscious is still you. So I guess that could be called an “internal matter.”

        Joking aside, I think your argument can easily be extended to many of the other factors that influence our decision making processes. How many people have some behavioral trait that they wish they didn’t?

        For example, compulsive shyness that inhibits you from social interaction you would like to engage in. Is this trait a result of environment (i.e. conditioned by your parents as a child), development, genetics or some combination? In a case like this haven’t you been coerced, in a sense, against your will? Does the cause need to be more immediate to count as coercion? At what point is the distance in time of the influential event far enough, and or the magnitude of the event’s affect on your decision making processes low enough that your will is free?

      2. that’s another thing that’s adding to the confusion – the idea that “free will” is an inherent attribute of the person, like having 4 limbs, or being a mammal. Instead we should look at free will as situational. We have the capacity for free will but we can also find ourselves in situations where we cannot exercise our will freely.

        1. so what about a situation where one feels one has exercised their will freely, but finds out later that it was due to the influence of a tumor….or a normally functioning teenage brain?

          It seems to me that your suggesting we can have free will whenever we feel we have exercised it freely, even if we do something out of character because of a tumor or puberty?

          What about a chimp or a cat? Can they exercise their will freely too?

  12. Some of Pigliucci’s stuff is good, but he sure manages to put a lot of straw men and false oppositions into a short article.

    Incidentally, if you are interested in a fictional look at the free will / consciousness stuff above then have a look at the novel Blindsight by Peter Watts. Having bought it on import in Foyle’s I’ve just discovered it’s free online at http://www.rifters.com/real/Blindsight.htm

  13. “the importance of philosophy for working scientists,”
    I agree with this. The historical fact though is that scientists first find out which philosophy is important for them and only then philosophers put it in words. Karl Popper is a great example.

    “the fact that most scientists neglect philosophy to their detriment,”
    They don’t. The first chapter of Stephen Hawkings A brief History of Science is about philosophy. A certain biologist called JA Coyne addresses philosophy in the Introduction and first chapter of his book Why Evolution is True. An example:

    “In the process of becoming truths, or facts, scientific theories are
    usually tested against alternative theories.”
    Philosophically speaking I, like many contintental Europeans, disagree with the first part of this sentence. We use truth and fact in a different meaning and that’s a philosophical dispute.

    “that many of us are afflicted with the dread disease called scientism”
    I see nothing wrong with scientism.

  14. “Physicists Steven Weinberg, Stephen Hawking ….. dismiss philosophy”
    No, these two don’t. This is pure philosophy:

    “The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it seems pointless.”

    Victor Stenger on his page How to Answer Theist Arguments: pure philosophy.

    “science can shed light on philosophical questions”
    Do not look any further than Democritus.

    Btw I like to defend free will, but not as defined by Cashmore.

    “misguided scientism as being dangerous for society”
    Pigliucci has a point here. Science enabled the Holocaust (Zyklon-B) and the nuclear bomb.

    “don’t tell the masses”
    Very condescending. Scientists imo have the obligation to tell the masses everything they know. That’s why the masses pay them.

    “If determinism led to nihilism, physicists would be the most anarchic and immoral people on Earth!”
    Wrong. Quantummechanics is exactly the opposite of determinism.

    1. “Pigliucci has a point here. Science enabled the Holocaust…”

      No he doesn’t. Science enables everything. The Holocaust was not an inevitable consequence of science, but required (im)moral, (un)ethical judgements that did not follow from science or any kind of “scientism”. (From pseudoscience, maybe.)

      Jerry already made this point in general.


  15. I heard an interesting statement recently:

    “If something is called “an illusion” that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. It means that it’s not what it seems to be.”

    I find that perspective useful.

  16. I used to have a terrible scientism habit. I couldn’t do or feel anything unless I had first verified that it was absolutely in agreement with and possible according to the laws of science. I once got into a fight at a bar over an argument of whether it was possible for an athlete to do anything that hadn’t first been ratified by scientists as physically possible. I thought a ball player couldn’t hit a home run unless I had reduced the game down to equations and ran the numbers to ensure that a home run was actually a possible feat. I finally had a melt down when I circled the block 7,433 times because I believed I had to turn right and could do no otherwise.

    Then a friend recommended I see a practitioner of philosophism. Wow. My life is totally different now. Now I understand that people can do things without science, but that the truth is science can’t do anything without philosophy proclaiming judgement on whether it is good, healthy, and wholesome science. I’ve been rescued from the dark doom of nihilism. The sun shines again, and I can feel joy and be happy again thanks to the advice of my philosopher. Where would I be without the warm loving guiding hand of philosophism to make my human world possible?

  17. Science is a marvellous thing that has brought us computers, airplanes and modern medicine. But it has also brought us the atomic bomb, eugenics and biological warfare

    Pigliucci confuses “science”, which is about determining how the universe is, with Engineering, which involves making design choices such as about what sort of stuff (technology, social institutions, etc) to build.

    It seems a subtle distinction, even for philosophers of science… largely because there’s some overlap between “science” and “engineering” as anthropological practices.

  18. Jerry says,

    … philosophers like Dan Dennett and Philip Kitcher have been really valuable to me in clarifying the meaning of evolutionary biology, for they bring their formidable philosophical skills to bear on biological problems.

    According to Dennett (in “Dawrin’s Dangerous Idea”) evolution is equivalent to natural selection (Darwin’s idea) and the best metaphor to describe it is building a skyscraper.

    According to Dennett, adaptationist thinking is the only game in town.

    According to Dennett, an evolutionary biologist like Stephen Jay Gould is an idiot who never got anything right.

    Is that your best example of a philosopher who helped you understand evolution?

    I use Dennett as one of my best examples of why philosophers should stick to philosophy.

    1. » Larry Moran:
      According to Dennett (in “Dawrin’s Dangerous Idea”) evolution is equivalent to natural selection (Darwin’s idea) …

      No, it is not. It is just that Dennett’s book happens to be about Darwin’s Idea, which happens to be natural selection. (Evolution the fact had been conjectured by prominent men before Darwin. Darwin’s specific contribution was finding and describing a plausible process.) It is not Darwin’s fault that he didn’t know anything about genetics and consequently didn’t know about other factors in the process of evolution. What Dennett focuses on is a clear exposition of the major factor in adaptive change (which natural selection undoubtedly is) and the major philosophical implications of this specific idea. To fault Dennett for not including other ideas is to complain that he didn’t write the book you would have liked to have written (or read).

      According to Dennett, an evolutionary biologist like Stephen Jay Gould is an idiot who never got anything right.

      And this is a perfect example of what bugs me about Pigliucci: vilifying another person by putting an intensely negative interpretation (actually, a brutal distortion) on that person’s words—without having the courtesy to opponent and reader alike to actually quote the other person. Usually, there is a reason for that. And as a scientist, you should be more aware than most of what the dangers are of that kind of dodging accountability.

      For what it’s worth, Dennett takes a somewhat dim view of him because Gould was less than forthcoming concerning his controversial pet theory of punctuated equilibrium. That does not detract, and Dennett never to my knowledge even so much as implies anything like this, from Gould’s standing as an evolutionary biologist or as a scientist in general. So the hyperbole (to put it charitably) is completely uncalled for.

      1. Peter,
        Well said. Larry needs to realize that he is not the only person who understands “modern evolutionary biology” – no matter how he defines it or how much he wants drift to be the norm – and selection is still always taking place (just as Darwin said – I might add). Selection may be very weak or population sizes may be small, but it still there – scrutinizing fitness differences so small as to be almost undetectable. Mutations at the base level may be largely neutral, but introns and genes are certainly under selection.

        He is off-base on philosophy too.

    2. Larry, it always interests me how some scientists feel they need to quote-mine and misrepresent others in order to educate people in other important areas of research they are interested in and feel are being neglected. There are better ways to educate, don’t you think?

  19. Science needs philosophy like humans need cancer. I agree with Larry Moran and Larry Krauss on this one.

    1. Which is the kind of comment nobody needs. If you cannot be bothered to give even a single argument—as, incidentally, Larry couldn’t be bothered to do either—then you’re adding nothing to the conversation.

      1. Historically, philosophy had been an impediment to science. People developed the scientific process for developing and testing ideas. We can test ideas about the natural world and show that those ideas are wrong or appear to be right. Philosophy is what thinking people call idle chatter. The only thing philosophers have going for them is that they are not necessarily wrong all the time.

          1. “I rest my case.”

            And that aptly shows why philosophy is utterly useless to science. Philosophers like to make grand claims about the importance of their idle chatter and yet they have no demonstrable evidence in favor of their claims. That is why many scientists, myself included, will have no truck with philosophy.

            1. “Historically, philosophy had been an impediment to science. People developed the scientific process for developing and testing ideas. We can test ideas about the natural world and show that those ideas are wrong or appear to be right. Philosophy is what thinking people call idle chatter.”

              This is so completely, unbelievably wrong I don’t even know where to start. Where do you think “science” came from, pal? (Hint: it’s what Galileo, Bacon, Boyle, Newton, etc. called “philosophy”). People developed philosophy for developing and testing ideas. What we now call science–and the “scientific process” (whatever you think that means)–is simply that subset of philosophy that deals explicitly with questions about the natural world (e.g. “natural philosophy”). You really should read some history of science. Of course, given that you provide exactly no examples to support your ridiculous claim, it’s not clear to me that you’ve read much of anything.

              1. But that was then and now is now. Science also came out of math, and while there is no “natural philosophy” left in science there is plenty of math.

                A couple of comments back this was described as “People developed the scientific process for developing and testing ideas.” Empirical methods are by definition not philosophical.

                So we can see that the roots of science comes out of historical reasons. Applying your reasoning widely you can as well say that science is still religion, and philosophy is still eager pattern search.

              2. Torbjörn, I think you’re defining science in a very vague, naive way. In what sense did “science come out of math”? Mathematics is a tool often (but not always) used in science. “Pure” mathematics is a branch of logic, or philosophy. “Natural philosophy” was the label used to describe empirical investigations of the natural world from antiquity to roughly the 18th century. It was replaced by the label “science.” Changing the label did not change the enterprise, although the diverse ways of approaching the natural world through empirical investigation and logical analysis have certainly transformed over time.

                The statement “Empirical methods are by definition not philosophical” doesn’t make any sense, unless you think “philosophy” is a synonym for “deductive reasoning.” It’s not. Deductive reasoning is one approach to philosophy, and inductive reasoning is another. They are both equally “philosophical,” and also both important parts of what we now call science.

                “So we can see that the roots of science comes out of historical reasons. Applying your reasoning widely you can as well say that science is still religion, and philosophy is still eager pattern search.”

                Well, sure, as a last resort smear me with the R-word. First of all, I didn’t say science comes out of “historical reasons,” and I don’t even know what that could possibly mean. Science has a history, and that history tells us that there is no meaningful distinction between what has been called both “natural philosophy” and “science”–although, again, of course the CONTENT of different branches of inquiry has changed (e.g. Aristotelian to Galilean to Newtonian to quantum physics). But, to take that as an example, I wonder if you could point out exactly when that endeavor stopped being “philosophy” and started being “science.” And it’s ridiculous to suggest that I was implying that “science is still religion,” since science/natural philosophy never was “religion” (or theology, I guess you mean). Some natural philosophers were religious, and some people tried to use science to demonstrate principles of religion, but aside from a few misguided natural theologians in the 17th century, almost nobody ever confused the two disciplines. They were certainly always considered distinct in universities, and Galileo wouldn’t have gotten into as much trouble if science or “philosophy” was ever considered equivalent to religion.

              3. Sepkoski is right about this issue. Does anybody around here even know where the term “scientist” came from and who contributed it to science? It was invented by the Englishman William Whewell, who coined the term in 1833 (prior to that science was not really different from the branch of philosophy called “natural philosophy”). What is interesting is that Whewell was at one point professor of minerology from 1828-1832, and then later professor of (you guessed it) philosophy from 1838 to 1855 when he did work in ethics. I believe he also coined the term “physicist” as well (sorry Torbjorn Larsson). The suggestion that somehow philosophy has nothing to do with science and that it contributes nothing is so unhistorical and uninformed as to be laughable. You really should read some history of science and try to get the basic facts straight about your discipline. It is also worth noting that Whewell was an important contributor to scientific methodology.

              4. You really need to learn more about philosophy and science. Philosophy was indeed a great impediment to science, especially Aristotle’s Natural Philosophy. Natural Philosophy and science were simply irreconcilable.

              5. No MadScientist. It wasn’t Aristotle but the scholastic aristotelians working in the 1500’s that were the problem, which is different. Aristotle himself was a pretty good empiricist who tried to base his views on data. That’s why Darwin thought Aristotle was one of the great biologists.

              6. crouchloc, I think you have an incorrect view of what Aristotle was all about. In Aristotle’s fantasies (and indeed, ALL of his natural philosophy was nothing but fantasy), everything must conform to some fuzzy-wuzzy Higher Order (thanks for nothing Plato!). For example, Aristotle ignored reality and imagined projectiles to move along triangular or rectangular paths. I doubt that any Greek archer would have agreed with him – it is so clear that the arrows move in an arc (ah, but the senses can be fooled – it’s really a triangle or rectangle, not an arc). If you watched a (male) Greek peeing, you’d see his pee go in an arc. And yet this Higher Order nonsense prevailed over reality – such is the hubris of philosophers! I don’t understand at all why you excuse Aristotle for his denial of reality and blame 16th century worshippers of Aristotle for philosophy’s opposition to science. There were Greek mathematicians before and after Aristotle who had much better ideas on various aspects of nature, but unfortunately the Platonic and Aristotelian views dominated for almost 2000 years.

            2. So my pointing out to you twice that in order to be fruitful, your comments should include something other than self-congratulatory assertion, preferably arguments, is proof that you have no need for philosophy? Is that the level of thinking that you bring to your science?

              Also, you will notice that I didn’t make a single claim about philosophy, not to mention grand ones about how important my field is. Your complaint may be relevant with respect to Pigliucci (as well as your pointing out the lack of evidence of importance) but is pertinent to nothing I said. On the contrary, you made a grand (and, frankly, somewhat dickish) claim about the unimportance of a certain field without any demonstrable evidence or arguments in favour of that claim. Which I simply pointed out to you. Twice.

              1. There is a tendency here to say philosophy does this or that then quote one philosopher. But it does not take much of a perusal of the corpus of philosophy to discover that it is not a discipline singing from the same song sheet.

                For every philosopher quoted in favor of a position one will find another against it. Sweeping generalizations about philosophy tend to be based on an unrepresentative sampling.

                The article author says he has found philosophers like Dennet but “I’ve never gotten much value from “straight” philosophers of science like Kuhn or Feyerabend” (Don’t forget that both the latter were physicists).

                While it is easy to give a paragraph describing the scientific method that will get many people’s assent the reality of science in practice is more complex.

                Scientists like are no different to other people in the respect that what they say they are doing and what they are doing may not fully correspond. Controversies in philosophy of science have centered around an accurate description of what scientists do, of exactly what are the key principles of science and of how science should proceed.

                These ruminations in the philosophy of science are not just philosophers philosophizing while scientists do the real stuff. Kuhn and Feyerabend were both scientists trying to understand more fully what they were doing when they were doing science.

                Exchanges in philosophy of science have promoted ways of strengthening science or defending its freedom from prescriptions for science that would hinder it.

  20. It is really boring to hear philosophers claim that science needs philosophy, when there is no result or method that has any of philosophy in it. So much for Pigliucci’s claim.

    Dennett’s claim is the equivalent to claiming that physics is math if it uses math, or that physics is engineering if it uses engineering, or that physics is belief if some physicists are religious.

    [It is however a social activity, because if you take away the scientists it will vanish.]

    Aclearon says philosophy of the gaps, and it is an apt description here.

    I believe that free will is better defined as a belief that there is a component to biological behavior that is something more than the unavoidable consequences of the genetic and environmental history of the individual and the possible stochastic laws of nature.

    The problem with Searle’s definition of “free will” is that it “free” vs non-free will is untestable. You can’t test “counterfactuals”, because even in a rigorously deterministic universe you need infinite resources to express the infinite precision of constraints needed for studying them.

    The problem with Cashmore’s definition of “free will” is that non-free will is compatible with non-dualist “free will”.

    I.e. a naturalist “compatibilist”, who claims that “will” isn’t free as much as a description of a sufficiently complex autonomous agent that it constitutes a sometimes unpredictable (and often self reliant) agent that can make choices. It is an effective, emergent simplest possible model of natural and artificial intelligences, no less and no more, a handy description abstracted from the hardware, wetware or software. And it is eminently testable.

    The article is closer than some earlier ones to get the hands straight on the neck of dualism and to point out that most philosophic and all religious “free will” := dualism, and that this can be rejected on the facts of observation of the totality of the substrate (here body and brain) and its processes (chemistry with a dash of physics). What in Pigliucci’s mind can be missing?

    1. What annoys me about Pigliucci is that he’s trotting out the old Scientism Straw Man. How many Scientism-ists do you know? Some people (not only scientists) get carried away and make strange proclamations about how science (or technology) will somehow fix all societal problems, but that’s the closest resemblance to Pigliucci’s Scientism that I can think of in my experience. Scientists like Krauss don’t fit into Pigliucci’s bizarre caricature – Krauss rejects philosophy because it does not work, not because he believes that science is the ‘only way of knowing’.

      1. MadScientist,

        When you say that “philosophy is what thinking people call idle chatter” and is an impediment to science, aren’t you assuming that science is the only way of knowing anything? Aren’t you yourself committed to scientism?

        1. Absolutely not – that is a false dichotomy which many philosophers love to trot out (so much for their arrogant claims of holding logic in high regard) and it is nothing but a diversion from the real issue: some philosophers claim that philosophy is somehow essential to science or that science can benefit from philosophy, but absolutely none of them have offered an even vaguely convincing argument for those claims. Philosophy, like religion, is incompatible with science.

  21. re: I’m not yet ready to jettison the word “morality”…

    I think we *should* abandon the term.

    Leave “morality” to the believers. Sans “Free Will,” morality is arbitrary and excessively selfish.

    Instead, we must focus on community ethics, which is all about interaction amongst people.

  22. Everybody who is not constantly acknowledging the awesomeness of philosophy in every sentence is obviously guilty of disparaging philosophy. Well, this is par for the course for Pigliucci, so nothing much has to be added. Instead, a comment on free will, once again.

    Yes, I consider determinism true. Still, a sentence like the following:

    The idea that we are the authors of our actions is, to me, an illusion.

    Just does not make any sense to me. That is like saying, see, there are deterministic laws of physics, so a volcano is predetermined to erupt instead of having some independent decision-mojo inside it, and thus the idea that a volcano is erupting is an illusion.

    That is exactly what so many don’t get when they reject the compatibilist view of free will. There is no contradiction between the observation that the volcano is part of a greater network of cause-and-effect relationships and the observation that the volcano, as such, as a volcano, is indeed erupting. Likewise, there is no contradiction between saying that determinism is true and saying that I make a decision.

      1. Okay, then take a chess computer as an example – it decides between many possible moves it can make. It makes no sense to say that its decision process is an illusion because there are laws of nature.

        You may now come with the usual supposed reductio that surely I would not be claiming that it has free will. Well, yes, the chess computer has more compatibilist free will than the volcano. It has less than a mouse; the mouse has less than a compulsive-obsessive human; and they have less than a more self-controlled human. No problem there.

        1. You are entirely correct that a computer has ‘free will’ as compatibilists define ‘free will’. This is pretty conclusive proof that compatibilist free will is not what humans feel like they have subjectively, which is the freedom to spontaneously will something out of nothing with no causality involved. That difference, between what people feel like they have and how compatibilists have been forced to redefine free will in order to not surrender their quest, is the illusion Dr Coyne refers to and you are denying. It is similar to the illusion of our brain’s unconscious processing of 2d optical images on our retina into an internal conscious illusion of a direct perception of a 3d world complete with depth perception and perspective. This illusion is frequently revealed by the rich variety of images we call optical illusions. Actually, the illusion is the entirety of our vision system, and the ‘illusory’ images merely reveal that.

  23. Jerry, you cannot continue to have it both ways. In one sentence you completely eviscerate any meaning of “free will” and decision making, then you say:

    “but deciding to withhold treatment from infected poor black people to watch the disease progress comes from bad ethical judgment.”

    What? Judgment? According to earlier in your argument they can’t help themselves. So either it’s a choice and bad judgment, or it is not.


    Oh wait… you can’t.

    1. There isn’t a contradiction here. Not having free will does not eliminate decisions, choices, or ethical judgement. These are products of intelligence, not free will. You are misunderstanding the implications of Jerry’s argument on free will.

      If the Tuskogee Institute scientists made bad judgements it’s not because as an act of unencumbered free will they deliberately selected bad when they could have just as easily chosen good. It’s because a complex set of causes, including the racist culture they were a part of, crafted their brains into corrupted thinking machines capable of deciding that what we see clearly as bad judgement was an acceptable thing to do.

      In any case, Jerry’s point that science is not responsible for bad uses of science is totally valid. In this case a corrupted racist culture reinforced by religious underpinnings was responsible.

  24. It’s interesting to me that all of these “Anti-science’s supremacy” arguments boil down to one notion: that, apart from the “known” world, there exists a force or forces that can never be explained BY science, that give us things like “free” will, morals, love, etc. Problem is that when these “forces” exert any kind of influence in the material world, they automatically create phenomena, and finding out the reasons for phenomena is what science was made for and what it is best at. One might say, “Well, you can’t understand the “force”; you just see its effects and manifestations.” Yet much can be learned about things by examining the effects caused by them on OTHER things, just as the knowledge of the existence of Neptune and Pluto was discerned from observation of perturbations in the orbit of Uranus, long before either of the bodies were spotted with a telescope. It gets very suspicious when you ask these “Science can’t be all there is” people for proof of this “force”, this something, and they can’t come up with anything that doesn’t generate messy paradoxes. If someone tomorrow came up with a “Theory of God” that neatly explained everything, I’d be the first to jump on the bandwagon, but until then I have to do a “Carl Sagan” on it.

  25. I’m glad to see that Jerry has finally admitted he is really talking about contra-causal free will. Now all us compatibilists can agree with him: contra-causal free will does not exist.

    1. Contra-causal free will is generally heat people think they have and what they mean when they say ‘free will’.

      In everything I’ve read by Jerry on free will it’s clear he means free will as most people see it, not the specialized limited form compatibilists define in order to justify the claim of compatibility between determinism and people believing that their decisions are uncaused.

      Of course people are wrong to think they have free will and their decisions are uncaused. The brain is deterministic and their decisions have causes they are unaware of. This lack of awareness is what has led to the mistaken notion of free will.

      Redefining ‘free will’ to mean ‘unconstrained and uncoerced’ does nothing to change reality. In reality people think their choices arise spontaneously, uncaused and unlimited from an abstract source known as the ‘will’, which is part of another abstract entity known as the ‘self’. These abstract concepts are pretty much the roots of dualism, which you help to preserve via this confusing equivocation on the meaning of ‘free will’.

  26. Re: belief in free will making people behave better… What evidence there is in sociological research shows that if you remind people their actions are deterministic, they are more likely to cheat, i.e. it is a short term effect — there is no evidence to support the idea that a general belief in determinism has a negative effect on behavior.

    It’s an important distinction that often gets lost. To take maybe an absurd example, I’m sure most everyone (theist or not) gets a little down when thinking about their own mortality, BUT, do we really think that someone who believed they were immortal would be better behaved? Please.

    1. The evidence is thin. I know of one study done by Vohs and Schooler that implies a link between belief in determinism and cheating. But I think it’s quite likely the study is showing a more limited effect: that people raised in a culture dominated by theology may temporarily feel license to cheat, because the test temporarily induced a kind of fatalism not shared by those more accustomed to thinking in terms of determinism.

  27. Don’t know how I didn’t realize that Pigliucci was at CUNY, he’s teaching a graduate class on Philosophy of Science that I could register for, just contacted him to see if I can get into it (first meeting was last night, only saw this posting this afternoon).

  28. I wonder if a deterministic view is really at odds with much conventional thinking on morality.

    Have we not always been told that children need to be raised by certain standards if they are to behave morally? I certainly hear many religious critics emphasize this, isn’t that what the traditional emphasis on character building is all about? Breeding people who will be moral.

    Criticizing parenting of children who have made the “wrong choices” has always been a popular pastime.

    Moral development and shaping our moral choices is also not inconsistent with a deterministic view. Reflecting on choices of ourselves and others from a moral perspective, discussing and debating change us and lead us to make different choices.

    For our own moral development, or that of others, we devise programs to work on ourselves and produce changes, with changed choices.

    Determinism does not imply that everything was decided long ago at some point of origin and that everything that follows is the actin gout of a preordained script with nothing left to add.

    We are determined by our individual histories, by the social networks and structures that we are a part of, these are not fixed and static they change over time.

    I make a different choice today than I did last week, last year, last decade, but I am a different person, even if that is in some small way.

  29. I don’t act like a robot even though I think I am largely a robot made of meat…

    If you had the cognitive processes of Robbie the Robot, you would act like Robbie the Robot. But if you were a robot with the cognitive processes of Jerry Coyne, you would act like Jerry Coyne.

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