I'm a pretty big fan of Massimo Pigliucci. I think he's one of the most thoughtful and balanced public intellectuals in our current age as far as disciplinary interests, honesty, and integrity. He's probably not as public as he should be, but that takes the right combination of luck and recognizing the opportunity combined. He wrote an article in 2012 titled Why should science have the last word on culture? that I found both interesting and incorrect. I find value in things I disagree with often and try to find areas that I and the other person agrees upon, while still hashing out the disagreements. But I wanted to start this off, again, by saying this is not some stupid "cancel Massimo" article. Criticism of this kind means something was worthy intense scrutiny because it was compelling and difficult to find fault in. This wasn't easy to write, it took quite a while.
Overall, my impression of the article is a good one, but gushing about how we agree doesn't seem very interesting or useful. You could just read his article and subtract what I criticize, for the most part.
Disclaimer: I am not an expert in philosophy. I'm merely a high school and college dropout, former restaurant manager, now in a career shift to IT for the past 5 years, who has amateurly read philosophy articles, watched debates among philosophers, read pieces of philosophy books, etc... for the past decade or so, on my own. I also have an amateur interest in scientific research, regularly have read scientific papers for all kinds of subjects for a longer amount of time, and try to learn what is and isn't significant or useful in these. Also married to a scientist who has read a good amount of philosophy on the side. That is my background with both philosophy and science. I am likely going to make some glaring errors that need to be corrected. Take what I say with a grain of salt, this is more personal than it is authoritative or conclusive.
To begin, I'd like to address specific points of contention quote by quote. I tend to box concepts in my mind, separate them out, try to find smaller boxes of those concepts that intersect with the other boxes, etc... I have an overly visualized way of listening and reading in general, internally. So this is not for the purpose of uncharitably or dishonestly picking apart his article. It's for the purposes of responding to the most specific portions I had disagreements with or important context to add.
Anti-Feminist Academic Reactionary Politics, and a General Sexism Problem in Science and Philosophy Removes All Charitability From Readings Even Done By Professional Philosophers
If anything, the situation has got worse. Throughout the 1990s, postmodernist, deconstructionist and radical feminist authors (the likes of Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Bruno Latour and Sandra Harding) wrote all sorts of nonsense about science, clearly without understanding what scientists actually do. ‘I doubt that in our wildest dreams we ever imagined we would have to reinvent both science and theorising itself’. That’s a striking claim given the dearth of novel results arising from feminist science. The last time I checked, there were no uniquely feminist energy sources on the horizon.
I will say that this already primes me to be skeptical. Not only has Sandra Harding, and other feminist philosophers like her, been taken out of context frequently by Men's Rights Activists and sexist scientismists (an espouser of scientism, a term both Massimo Pigliucci and Susan Haack define pretty well in multiple places) like Richard Dawkins and Lawrence Krauss alike... Criticizing feminist philosophers based on one specific quote, in my experience, is overwhelmingly the result of reactionary politics in defense of your own identity. So I have reason to exhibit scrutiny of this bit.
This specific quote, which is from her 1986 book The Science Question in Feminism - is not regarding the act of doing science but it is about the sexist culture in scientific fields being an unreasonably unwelcoming space toward women, and she explores certain gendered or even less fluid (and more static) language use (that isn't absolutely necessary in its usage broadly speaking) which likely/potentially disincentivizes women participating in scientific fields. It doesn't seem to me to be the case (from reading her own summaries and broad intents in the beginning of the book) that she is claiming the scientific process must be fundamentally changed so that it is more accurate. From actually reading the article Pigliucci quoted for shock value, which he no doubt received context second hand from others that have spun the quote in this similar light before him, her intent is one of gender diversity in the scientific workforce. She also clearly distinguishes what true ideal science is and the culture which she is critiquing that deviates from this ideal and results in flawed research as a result.
So I personally conclude for this third paragraph, the section I quoted from Pigliucci's article is a strawman argument. Criticizing cultural elements and even tendencies in language in an industry that harms gender representation (which she talks about racial, disability, and other protected class representation disparities too, by the way) is not the same thing as asserting that feminist philosophers have solved science or that the scientific method is inherently sexist/flawed. At the core this means when she talks about the culture of the scientific field, he hears it as her talking about the scientific method. And a Wittgensteinian Language Game emerges! Now he may not be accusing her exactly of this, but it does appear to be what he's doing by his appeal to ridicule in the last sentence. If so, maybe he will correct me (if he ever sees this) on my inaccuracy, telling me he actually did read her work before criticizing it, and pointing out how my understanding is flawed.
Alan Sokal's Fishing Expedition Is Not Sufficient Evidence For Postmodernism's Supposed Inherent Flaws
In order to satirise this kind of pretentiousness, in 1996 the physicist Alan Sokal submitted a paper to the postmodernist journal Social Text. He called it ‘Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity’. There is no such thing as a hermeneutics of quantum gravity, transformative or not, and the paper consisted entirely of calculated nonsense. Nevertheless, the journal published it. The moral, Sokal concluded, was that postmodern writing on science depended on ‘radical-sounding assertions’ that can be given ‘two alternative readings: one as interesting, radical, and grossly false; the other as boring and trivially true’.
Here Massimo Pigliucci seems to be suggesting that because one journal published a satirical paper, therefore we must conclude that the entire body of work of Postmodernist philosophers commenting on the objectivity of science must be dismissed. Or at least that's the logical conclusion of what point he starts with this. But, again, this makes me skeptical. Not only have I heard of this before, but his portrayal of events leaves out crucial motivations, points of fact, conclusions, and deceptions.
First, Alan Sokal's intent was not to make a complete mockery of Postmodernism, or to suggest it's inherently flawed. He asserted that some kinds of postmodernism is unskeptically becoming a trend in the Left. And he's politically on the left and hoped to raise awareness. I'm sure that since then, his media exposure and the reactionary backlash against the left (which was unintentional on his part) thanks to his satirical paper being published, and the following criticisms from fellow leftists, have changed his perspective on this to where he retroactively recharacterizes his intent back then. That seems to be the case from summaries of his later writings on the subject, and interviews, and revivals by other journalists commenting on the subject. Alan Sokal's a genius, but he's still human.
Second, Sokal specifically picked one cultural studies journal out of many that distinctly was:
- Not Peer-Reviewed
- Obviously headed by people with a clear intentional bias toward Postmodernism
- Of very low impact factor
at the time he submitted the satirical paper. It seems to me that the sane takeaway given a broader scope is to be wary of journals that lack peer review and that are not ideologically diverse. A criticism of people taking low impact factor journals seriously just because they are journals can also be made. Why the conclusion of the full view of this old story is "postmodernism dumb", I have no idea. The only way I can put myself in Pigliucci's shoes and imagine getting to that result is participating in motivated reasoning as a result of biases against postmodernism already in place. If Massimo's identity is already partially the internalization that postmodernism is wrong, it's hard for him to look at this whole story fairly. This is why the most important part, in my view, of doing good science is peer review/analysis/discussion of results, and other things of that nature. One person's biases can taint the interpretation of the data that will warp the conclusions.
In fact, to use scientific terminology, picking out one specific journal among many that met the qualities that would likely give you the result you were hoping for is called a fishing expedition. So for a numbers guy like Sokal to suggest science is not susceptible to postmodernism's criticism by not following the principles of good science himself, seems hypocritical and intellectually dishonest. Getting media coverage by feeding a reactionary narrative was just a huge reward as a result, giving him more motivation to never change his story, and to even embellish it. Now he can sell more books...
Important to note, but I won't quote the parts I agree with; Massimo does in fact criticize the Scientismists for doing the same exact thing he accuses Postmodernists of doing, but on the other side of the coin to dump on Philosophy. They unfairly and brazenly claim that philosophy is dead, or declare it has no utility whatsoever to science. He's right to criticize them, and I see no misunderstandings in how he frames what they are saying. It's a shame he wasn't as charitable to Postmodernists earlier.
EO Wilson, Epistemic Reductionism, and Epigenetics Rules
He then goes on to very relevantly summarize EO Wilson's view that the relation between Philosophy and Science and the assertion that they need to work together/unify in order to be more effective. He describes the problem of complexity in using ontological reductionism outside of simpler areas it has been shown to be effective. Complex problems like those in biology are not solved via ontological reductionism is what he claims, but they can be very useful in solving problems in Physics and some fields of Philosophy. He then asserts that epistemic reductionism is obviously false and impractical, basically useless. He commits the same flawed reasoning he accused Scientismists of when he writes:
Epistemic reductionism is obviously false. We do not have — nor are we ever likely to have — a quantum mechanical theory of planets or of human behaviour. Even if possible in principle, such a theory would be too complicated to compute or to understand. Chemistry might have become a branch of physics via a successful reduction, and neurobiology certainly informs psychology. But not even the most ardent physicist would attempt to produce an explanation of, say, ecosystems in terms of subatomic particles. The impossibility of this sort of epistemic reductionism therefore puts one significant constraint on Wilson-type consilience.
Not only is he severely lacking in imagination, he isn't even technically right when he claims it will never be possible or it's unlikely. Complex calculations of immense data, in the 7 years since he wrote this article, have ramped up exponentially with major advances in high performance computing and global efforts to understand more about the quantum physics realm. Data science is now one of the most high-paying in demand careers in STEM, up from being not much of a priority just 5 years ago or so. Quantum computers are getting closer to calculation stability every day, and already real reliable calculations are being done on them in testing, when they were in their early stages of development and couldn't hold rational numbers in place just 5 years ago. Quantum computers won't solve every problem, but they can theoretically do things like weather prediction modeling thousands of times faster per space occupied and energy consumed than a binary computer processor.
I think it's needlessly hasty and somewhat naive of Massimo Pigliucci to assume what is currently not possible will not be possible. Especially if it's in regard to predictive models, data to back those models up, and all the other links in the chain associated with a solid scientific theory. We have too many instances where people thought we had it all figured out. Hell, even Einstein famously denied a portion of the reality behind Quantum Mechanics observations and hypotheses during his time. I get the urge to think "how could it go any further than this?" when you have an ideal view of where we are, but we have learned over and over that this kind of thinking has always been limited. He continues with another criticism:
Instead he (Wilson) tells us: "Genes prescribe epigenetic rules, which are the regularities of sensory perception and mental development that animate and channel the acquisition of culture". As it happens, I have worked on epigenetics. The word actually refers to all the molecular processes that mediate the effects of genes during plant and animal development. The problem from Wilson’s point of view is this: biologists don’t know what "epigenetic rules" are. They don’t know how to quantify them or how to study them. For explanatory purposes, they are vacuous.
Why is it that "epigenetic rules", in how EO Wilson means that phrase, have to currently exist, there has to be a consensus among biologists as to what they are, and that they are true, for Wilson's point to be valid? Massimo seems to be applying a similar reasoning as the Scientismists do to dismiss anything that isn't already established science in line with the consensus and has significant empirical evidence behind it. It is meaningful to talk about and pursue new avenues in science, and the historic record shows that to be true. Massimo is being the philosophy of science equivalent to a "counter-revolutionary" in political science terms. It may make pragmatic sense in the moment, but the long history shows that real change doesn't happen through pragmatic careful approach. In fact, two researchers (Evgenya Popova and Colin Barnstable) who have occasionally done research in epigenetics submitted an article titled "Epigenetics rules" to the Journal of Ocular Biology, Diseases, and Informatics, where it was published the year before Massimo wrote this article.
Therefore, just because Massimo is not aware of the term personally, and he doesn't see it, doesn't mean it is untenable, wrong, or just made up or something. It has real meaning, and has been used (albeit rarely) by researchers in Epigenetics. In a pretentious way, he derails his response to the implications of the rule, by appealing to the majority of experts and his own lack of knowledge of the term. I think Massimo is typically more self-aware than he was in this portion of the article. He's a bit too talented to both bemoan pretentiousness while simultaneously using pretentiousness to dismiss a valid argument.
He rightfully criticizes the scientific effectiveness of Dawkins' memetics idea. I don't need to go into it, I agree with his criticisms completely, and EO Wilson was obviously swept up in the last remnants of the momentum of memetics, for some reason. Nobody's perfect.
Massimo Treats the Physical Component of the Brain Implicitly as Separate from the Mind
This interpretation I have of the flaws of this next bit (related to EO Wilson above) might be a bit of a stretch, but this is how I received it. He writes:
None of the above, of course, is to say that biology is irrelevant to human culture. We are indeed biological entities, so lots of what we do is connected with food, sex and social status. But we are also physical entities, and humanity has found cultural ways to exploit or get around physics. We built aeroplanes to fly despite the limitations imposed by gravity, and we invented endless variations on the basic biological themes, from Shakespeare’s sonnets to Picasso’s paintings. In each case, the supposedly fundamental sciences give us only a very partial picture of the whole.
To divorce the brain (which is a product of biology, which is rooted in physics, etc...) from the act of brain-havers inventing planes by using their brains... is astounding to me. This seems to me that Massimo Pigliucci believes that a mind which is somehow totally separate from the body (brain too) invents airplanes independent of the brain enough to say biology has nothing to do with us inventing planes. Based on this and the statements before, is Pigliucci a spiritual man who believes in a strict separation of Mind and Brain, while simultaneously being a logical empiricist? I know for sure he doesn't consider himself of this synthesized position, but these two areas of argumentation seem to indicate this is what he incoherently believes.
I see the airplane-biology situation very differently. We built airplanes because our brains (which are a product of biological events, which are a product of cosmological events) are capable of controlling a body that might one day build a plane, and tell others about it with the mouth is attached, and record how to with the hands that are attached, and understand how to do it again. It's convincing to me that human beings AND what they do are on some level products of biology. To completely divorce sociological elements from any kind of biology seems foolish to me, since beings with minds, as far as we can tell, always have brains, and brains emerge from biological systems. They are shaped by them.
Now that's not to say I'm a genetic determinist, but I am saying that biology is necessarily a contributor, no matter how small, to things like the invention of airplanes and Picasso's paintings. The all or nothing view (which I don't think Massimo Pigliucci actually believes) with nature vs nurture, is limited. It can and is most likely both with regards to behavior, success, temperament, treatment of others, and so on. And Massimo Pigliucci's criticism of Postmodernism earlier, specifically Michel Foucault, is now ridiculous as he himself makes Foucauldian arguments against things like determinism. Foucault is foundational to the social constructionist view that Pigliucci and I likely agree on for the most part. Massimo IS postmodernist himself, in a way, with his rejection of society's imposed institutional biases and how they warp our view of reality.
Fun side note:
Let’s set aside the goal of unifying all knowledge. How are we doing in the millennia-long quest for absolute and objective truth? Not so well, it seems, and that is largely because of the devastating contributions of a few philosophers and logicians, particularly David Hume, Bertrand Russell and Kurt Gödel.
No Wittgenstein though? 😏
Unified Theories Regarding Philosophy to Science
He comments on the motivations for a unified theory:
At this point one might wonder what exactly is at stake here. Why are Wilson and his followers in search of a unified theory of everything, a single way to understand human knowledge? Wilson gives the answer explicitly in his book, and I think it also applies implicitly to some of his fellow travellers, for instance the physicist Steven Weinberg in his book Dreams of a Final Theory (1992). The motive is philosophical. More specifically, it is aesthetic. Some scientists really value simplicity and elegance of explanations, and use these criteria in evaluating of the relative worth of different theories. Wilson calls this ‘the Ionian enchantment’, and names the first chapter of Consilience accordingly. But the irony here is obvious. Neither simplicity nor elegance are empirical concepts: they are philosophical judgments. There is no reason to believe a priori that the universe can be explained by simple and elegant theories, and indeed the historical record of physics includes several instances when the simplest of competing theories turned out to be wrong.
While I agree mostly with what he says, I would say that he leaves out the few of us who hope for a full unification of truth, which requires unification of philosophy and science, is because areas at the margins are currently gaps which paint an incomplete image of reality. As we learn more, we learn more that we need to learn. For example, the gap from Quantum Physics as a "level" and Newtonian Physics is extremely large. There is no totally explained direct connection that explains how Quantum Physics phenomena create entirely what we observe at the next level up in types of Physics scales. We don't really know how it works, really. That's unsettling since it feels like a lot of what we take for granted given millions of confirming observations could have been a misunderstanding once some new discovery comes out. While that may be the beauty of science, it's also a lot of wasted time. A unified theory might get more done than just resigning yourself to the wind.
On some levels it could be argued that the effectiveness of both science and philosophy could be greatly enhanced through synthesizing the two or at least finding the answer to the margins that conjoins them. I don't have to go into detail, but I'm sure you could think of ways this benefits, much in the way that math predictive models can be used in science to get stuff done more quickly than otherwise.
Back to Bald Assertions
Despite an otherwise solid article, sometimes Massimo Pigliucci can't seem to stay away from strong assertions with little real backing on this subject:
Biology sets the background conditions for such feats of human ingenuity, since a brain of a particular type is necessary to accomplish them. But biology by itself has little else to say about how some human cultures took a historical path that ended up producing a small group of often socially awkward people who devote their lives to solving abstruse mathematical problems.
Biology currently has little else to say, but the possibility of discoveries in neuroscience and linking those neurological trends to genetics (our biological history) solidly will make it one day so no conversation can be had about the explanations for human ingenuity, culture, or anything of the sort without addressing the biological factors at play at some point. Again, asserting things you believe to be true because of a current state of affairs is very limited in scope. We don't know for sure that this linking will occur in our life time, but Massimo seemingly asserts it's not likely, not possible, or foolish to even talk about.
On morality related to this same subject:
Or, finally, take morality, perhaps the most important aspect of what it means to be human. Much has been written on the evolutionary origins of morality, and many good and plausible ideas have been proposed. Our moral sense might well have originated in the context of social life as intelligent primates: other social primates do show behaviours consistent with the basic building blocks of morality such as fairness toward other members of the group, even when they aren’t kin. But it is a very long way from that to Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, or Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill’s utilitarianism.
This is essentially a "god of the gaps" argument applied to synthesists/unificationists. I know Massimo doesn't find "god of the gaps" convincing for cosmological and biological assessments of truth. Why then does he employ the same strategy here to look down upon the efforts of scientists and philosophers in closing those gaps? "Stay in your lane" with regards to Science x Philosophy collab projects and attempts seems indistinguishable, aesthetically speaking, to "Science can't answer questions that Religion can".
Earlier, Massimo used the example of the invention of an airplane as an example of something not likely linked to biology (erroneously), and in the same article makes the same argument I did against the airplane example, but this time to reinforce his new point of his idea of the total separate nature of philosophy and science:
These works and concepts were possible because we are biological beings of a certain kind. Nevertheless, we need to take cultural history, psychology and philosophy seriously in order to account for them.
So this seems confused. Earlier he seems to assert that biology can't account for engineering. But we must be serious about biology accounting for philosophy. Again, I could be misinterpreting the meaning between these two, but boiled down to the essentials, I see a contradiction in reasoning. Applying a different set of rules to something similar because you agree with one and not the other, that's motivated reasoning.
Overall, an incredibly well-written article with some glaring errors that everyone makes when they write anything advanced to this level. I'll just quote his final paragraph to show his beautiful view of the world we live in and our role as moral agents that care about truth within it:
This isn’t a suggestion to give up, much less a mystical injunction to go ‘beyond science’. There is nothing beyond science. But there is important stuff before it: there are human emotions, expressed by literature, music and the visual arts; there is culture; there is history. The best understanding of the whole shebang that humanity can hope for will involve a continuous dialogue between all our various disciplines. This is a more humble take on human knowledge than the quest for consilience, but it is one that, ironically, is more in synch with what the natural sciences tell us about being human.
Thanks for reading.