Damaged Keyboard Aphorisms
(from a note found in a copy of Human, All Too Human).
Look, Jo. Mooz loom.
Poolz o’ bloom.
Williamson on naturalism
Timothy Williamson opinionates on naturalism at the Times.
He starts with a pre-1960 view of physics and biology: considered at a “sufficiently abstract level”, they are hypothetico-deductive. (I’ll let other people deal with that.) Naturalism would then be the view that all that exists is what will be asserted to exist in a completed hypothetico-deductive science of everything.
Williamson’s next move is not to refute that claim; instead he argues that not all science is hypothetico-deductive. It seems to me that the naturalist can happily agree & yet still affirm that all that exists is what will be asserted to exist in a completed science of everything. The notion of a science, to be sure, must be clarified if that claim is to be clear, but Williamson seems to regard the project as hopeless. In other words: if science can’t be characterized as HD (and it can’t), then there is no adequate characterization of science, and so the naturalistic view fails to assert anything definite.
There cannot be an adequate philosophical characterization of science, it would seem, because to be scientific is to have the scientific spirit, a wild horse no theory can tame… (It’s idle to say that no theory can “replace” that spirit. My theory of aerodynamics won’t get me to New York either.) But why can’t there be a theory of curiosity, honesty, precision, and rigor (so much for formal logic, which spells out what it is to reason rigorously in mathematics)? The naturalist is going to hold—is bound to hold—that if there is such a thing as the scientific spirit, then it too must fall within the purview of science. Williamson’s argument hinges on a Romantic assertion of art against science which comes close to begging the question it wants to answer.
On magnets and lies, and checking sources
The historian’s attitude, when attempting to establish matters of fact, toward the sources, is one of tempered but universal skepticism. The same applies to the history of the present. For example:
Don’t depend on popularizations for your knowledge of neuroscience (see the previous item in this blog for a similar issue concerning the biology of sex). A recent headline in several newspapers and online sources reads something like this: “Magnetic Pulses To The Brain Make It Impossible To Lie”. Wow! That’s exciting! And scary too…
The only problem is, it’s false. The original study, which takes two minutes to retrieve if you have access to the journal (Behavioural Brain Research, Volume 225.1 (Nov 2011) 209-214; doi:10.1016/j.bbr.2011.07.028) states its main result as follows:
In our study we found support for the general hypothesis: rTMS targeted at DLPFC changed spontaneous truth-telling/lying rate in a task with no mock-criminal, guilty knowledge, or personally relevant information processing contexts being involved. Importantly, clear hemispheric differences were found. In principle, artificial inhibition of the sustained neuronal activation-states in left DLPFC and possibly the concomitant effect on the systems intimately associated with DLPFC decreases the willingness to tell the truth (more non-truthful answers produced) and/or increases the willingness to tell lies. Conversely, inhibitory rTMS effect on right DLPFC and possibly the concomitant secondary effect on the DLPFC-associated systems increases willingness to tell truth (more truthful answers produced) and/or decreases willingness (or capability) to lie.
[Acronyms unpacked: rTMS = repetitive transcranial (from outside through the skull) magnetic stimulation; DLPFC = dorsolateral prefrontal cortex.]
The authors carefully note the limitations of their study.
- The effects of the magnetic stimulation may spread beyond the area adjacent to the coil; and so “ interpretations on causal effects of TMS exclusively through the TMS-targeted area should be taken with care”.
- The dorsolateral prefrontal cortex has many functions, and in a complicated task like “spontaneous” lying more than one may be activated: because “perceptual stimuli had to be named and two response variants chosen and reversed from time to time, the number of possible neural mechanisms that influence readiness to lie in our task and their possible interactions remain too numerous at present” to be sorted out.
- The spontaneity of the lying was limited to some unknown degree. Subjects were “instructed to name the colour correctly or just lie about it, naming the other colour that was not presented in this trial, being free to choose whether to lie or not”, but they were also told that only lying or only telling the truth would not be “good for the experiment”.
The upshot is that there is a positive correlation between spontaneous truth-telling and rTMS stimulation of the right dorsolateral prefrontal cortex; and between spontaneous lying and stimulation of the left DLPFC. That’s very interesting. But it’s far from what you would gather from the headlines and stories online.
The moral should be obvious. In matters of science, there is no substitute for reading the original studies. Science journalists, and for that matter popularizing philosophers, should be drawn upon cautiously. Moreover, the studies often present complexities and issues (as here) that summaries, especially of the ax-grinding sort, tend to omit.
I learned this long ago when reading studies on animal perception that were cited over and over in the philosophical literature on representation. It was clear that only a few people had read the original studies; everyone else drew on their predecessors’ summaries. When I read the original studies, I discovered not only mistakes in the summaries but also a world of fascinating work that the “poor diet of examples” in the literature had simply omitted. Insect senses in particular offered much food for thought, and I recommend it highly if you’re thinking about the origins of representation or defining sensory modalities.
Philosophers have done a better job in the last twenty years. A much broader range of scientific results is brought to bear on philosophical debate, and prejudices according to which doing so is somehow unphilosophical have waned. Experimental Philosophy even generates its own results. But it’s well worth remembering, both when doing philosophy and when judging scientific results of political import, that although a great deal of expertise is required to contribute to ongoing research, rather less is needed to acquire a basic understanding of the results of research, to understand their limitations, and to evaluate second-hand accounts.
On Rosenberg on Science
A quotation first:
“But what about other items on Professor Williamson’s list of disciplines it would be hard to count as science: history, literary theory? Can science and naturalistic philosophy do without them? This is a different question from whether people, as consumers of human narratives and enjoyers of literature, can do without them. The question naturalism faces is whether disciplines like literary theory provide real understanding.
“Naturalism faces these questions because it won’t uncritically buy into Professor Williamson’s ‘default assumption … that the practitioners of a well-established discipline know what they are doing, and use the … methods most appropriate for answering its questions.’ If semiotics, existentialism, hermeneutics, formalism, structuralism, post-structuralism, deconstruction and post-modernism transparently flout science’s standards of objectivity, or if they seek arbitrarily to limit the reach of scientific methods, then naturalism can’t take them seriously as knowledge.
“That doesn’t mean anyone should stop doing literary criticism any more than foregoing fiction. Naturalism treats both as fun, but neither as knowledge.”
Rosenberg starts here with a brief list: history, literary theory. He forgets history (after implying that all history is narrative history: so much for the Annales school and hundreds of other historians), and turns to “disciplines like literary theory”.
Then we get a seriously defective bit of non-argument. In form:
If A, then B.
Here A = “semiotics etc. flout science’s standards or seek to limit the reach of scientific methods”, and B = “naturalism can’t take them seriously”.
No doubt Rosenberg holds A true. But it is bad manners in philosophy, even op-ed philosophy, to pretend you’ve proved or been granted a controversial premise that you haven’t gone one step toward proving.