“A Brief Essay…” published at The Blasted Tree

Today I’m thrilled to announce that an essay I previewed a few months ago on this blog, “A Brief Essay Against All Murder, and the Death Penalty”, has been published by my friends over at The Blasted Tree. You can read the essay on their website here.

The essay itself was originally written in my journal, then posted to my blog, dating February 11th. By ‘the essay itself’, I mean the essay not including the postscript, which is now included in full in the publication by The Blasted Tree.

As the postscript itself indicates, I continue to hold that the essay itself is self-sufficient as an argument against the question set forth by its context, namely that expressed by its title.

Another excerpt.

The title of the essay provides the reader with an approximate thematic summation of the essay’s content. In doing so, the title also offers a sufficient, and possibly necessary condition, for the rendering of a context in which to situate the exact sense of the essay itself. Along with the creation of this context, naturally I take it that the body of the essay itself is a simple sufficient condition for the comprehension of the content of the essay. That is simply to say that the essay is what it is, simply. Taken together, the title and body enjoin a further sufficient condition stating their conjunction as a simple condition of their own comprehension. All of this is to say that the postscript is entirely an afterthought, and a clarification. Strictly speaking, I take it that there is nothing said in this postscript that is not said as such in the essay itself, taken together with its title, which situates one’s reflections about the essay’s content. This postscript is only an extended reflection. Its eventual conclusion is none other than the unresolved question already set forth by the essay itself. It is exactly for the reason that this question is, necessarily, simply unresolved, that justice at the limits of its means of implementation – where it finds itself – finds itself without ground.

One would possibly be expected to give an argument as to what makes a title a sufficient condition for the rendering of a context for an essay, as well as what makes the body of an essay a sufficient condition for the resolution of its content. For the condition of the claim that each of these taken together enjoins an understanding of their conjunction, self-sufficiently entailing a comprehension of the work as a whole, seems to rest on these. Minimally, for either of the independent conditions stated of the title and body of the essay, one could say that each constitutes for itself a necessary condition for its own comprehension, which is for each their particular rendering of a context or content, respectively. This much could be said of any essay, as any piece of writing takes both its own body and title as at least a necessary part of a complete understanding of what it is said to be, or to be about. A title is an accessory, a maquillage, disclosing behind it a face and an inner working. We are not without such accoutrements, and neither are our writings, which are only our bodies of words.



The Myth of the Method

Let me begin with a brief anecdote. One thing that I’ve learned in my experience teaching philosophy (specifically, as a Teaching Assistant for a Critical Thinking class) is the alarming prevalence of dogmatic thinking about science. What I mean is that the attitudes of the young and well-educated towards the presentation of scientific knowledge and data, on average, doesn’t fare much better than those who uncritically reject good scientific evidence. Bad critical thinking about science is a nonpartisan issue. Indeed, while not strictly in decline, science literacy has been shown in some research to fall consistently short of what would be considered socially optimal. Improving metrics like the “Public Understanding of Science” (PUS) or “Civic Scientific Literacy” (CSL) is a very real concern for some policymakers, and philosophers are increasingly grappling with very similar issues.

I had some of these thoughts in mind while reading Emily Atkin’s excellent dissection of Ted Cruz’s wildly irresponsible and incorrect claims about the meaning of scientific evidence regarding anthropogenic climate change. Some of his errors stem from such incredible mistakes as systematically confusing the Arctic and the Antarctic. Clearly, there are lots of very good reasons to disagree with the claims that Cruz makes denying the reality of climate change. And this is not one of them:


Photo Credit: Emily Aitkin, “Ted Cruz Challenged Science At His Climate Change Hearing. Science Won.” Think Progress, accessed 2015-12-12.

Talking about “the modern scientific method” as if it is a tidy operational procedure that makes modern science objective is bad critical thinking about science. It reflects the broader social deficit in our ability to think critically about science. Such claims about the scientific method don’t just come from frustrated philosophers who have penned over these problems for centuries. Modern sciences can’t be neatly grouped by their methodological standards. Botanists, evolutionary ecologists, particle physicists and planetary astronomers employ such widely different methodologies that an effort to call each one of them a ‘science’ based on shared methodological standards would be ad hoc. The ‘scientific method’ is a myth of modern science, quite popular up to about the mid-20th-century, but which has now been thoroughly debunked.

Not all myths are bad. The Ancient Greeks devised entire ethical and cosmological systems based on the epic myths of Homer. Myths are a kind of cultural glue that hold people together, through shared morality and reasoning practices. We are inclined to believe that the “scientific method” defines a good set of standards for reasoning for many reasons, not the least of which are the many great things that science does for us; and also, because ‘science’ itself is first and foremost supposed to be a kind of sound social reasoning. And in lots of cases, it is. However, when the power of the myth of sound social reasoning in a social institution so central to western democracies is allowed to become a substitute for our ability to think critically about knowledge that is so central to our daily lives as citizens (and scientific knowledge is, whether Ted Cruz likes it or not), we’re only helping to continue to polarize equally uncritical pro- and anti-science attitudes. No doubt it is still very useful and rewarding to analyze the many different scientific methods that are used, to explore their hidden biases and all the implications of the knowledge they provide. But the ‘scientific method’ as a cultural myth reveals a process by which uncritical pro-science attitudes come to be seen as a de facto epistemic virtue, while similarly uncritical anti-science attitudes are seen as an epistemic vice.

Improving civic scientific literacy is no easy task. In recent years, the most visible of efforts to do so has come in the surge of science popularizers – the Neil deGrasse Tysons, Bill Nyes and Lawrence Krausses of the world – who, for my part, seem mainly to disseminate scientific information in a heavily mediated, sensationalized way, which doesn’t exactly facilitate critical thinking so much as it perpetuates both pro- and (indirectly) anti-science dogmatic attitudes. I’m a bit disappointed in Aitkins’ Think Progress article, which links to the Wikipedia page on Scientific Method, and offers the brashest possible summary of the entire history, philosophy and sociology of scientific knowledge from the 17th-century to the modern day found therein, especially since the article does an otherwise great job of dismantling Cruz’s arguments.

This kind of argument makes it easier for climate change deniers to dig their heels in and cry dogmatism when presented along with scientific evidence. It makes it easier, because they’re right (though not necessarily less dogmatic). As such, I would conclude that it really should not feature alongside otherwise sound arguments refuting the claims of climate change deniers like Cruz, where it does more harm than help. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports, most recently published in 2014, present a very high standard of evidence and scientific justification. Their claims are a great deal more modest than most deniers make them out to be, and they are still alarming. But defending these claims dogmatically will only serve to increase resistance to them. We should work hard to debunk myths that block our critical thinking about important subjects like scientific knowledge. And ultimately, this responsibility falls on the shoulders of all those who wish to use science as a way to bolster their arguments with empirical evidence, either for or against (rejecting empirical evidence is still a rhetorical device using empirical evidence, as the Cruz clique shows us). If we want to take political action on behalf of scientific evidence, we should have both the capacity and the patience to proceed undogmatically.

Though not directly sourced, readers interested in a critical perspective on the ‘scientific method’ would be interested to read, as a start, Paul Feyerabend’s ‘Against Method’ (1975).

Parasitic Wasps, Biopolitics and the Tree of Life

Last week, we learned of a species of parasitic wasp, which through the transmission of a symbiotic virus produced in its ovaries to a caterpillar host, has actually been able to transfer parts of its genome into the host’s lineage.  The evolutionary history of this horizontal gene transfer, scientists estimate, dates back as many as 100 million years.  Apparently, certain species of moth and butterfly have appropriated the virally transmitted wasp genome, adapting it in order to provide some resistance against the common pathogen baculovirus, similar in structure to the symbiotic bracovirus produced by the wasp[1].

Genetically modified organisms occur in nature; the image of the atomic individual adapting solutions to problems presented to it by its environment, in competition for its survival, is problematized.  The genetic expressions of some species histories are characterized by reciprocity, if not outright mutual aid (most caterpillars die while performing the role of host.)  Thus, the orthodox conception of evolutionary adaptation, which problematizes the environment for individuals and reduces organisms to struggling organs of behaviour and which views populations as breeding pools, stands in need of some revision.

This orthodox adaptationist view is perhaps most recognizable in the image of the “Tree of Life”: the phylogenetic portraiture of evolutionary histories and ancestral relations, which so transfixed the early Darwinists, such as Haeckel…

Haeckel's Early Darwinian

Though Haeckel’s particular depiction is heavily dated, the figurative phylogenetic tree hangs over evolutionary biology even today – perhaps a consequence of modern Neo-Darwinism’s post-Enlightenment hangover.  Just this summer, a tremendous research project mutually supported variously by institutes of computational biology and natural or evolutionary history across the United States has resulted in the publication of the Open Tree of Life, a collaborative platform for the synthesis of phylogeny and taxonomy into a comprehensive tree-model[2] (whose “tips” number several orders of magnitude higher than those seen in Haeckel’s earlier depiction.)

But we have seen how parasitic wasps and archaeal viruses complicate this model, which establishes hard species barriers outside of ancestry and thereby obscures the possibility of genome fusion and horizontal gene transfer in evolutionary histories.  New phenotypic models that attempt to account for these phenomena have illustrated trees with deep and circular primordial root systems[3].  Further conceptual options include bushes, forests, and nets[4].  It makes sense to ask what kind of shape our tree is in: whether it is indeed standing strong despite countervailing evidence, or whether it is withering.

The tree-model depicts species histories as stratified and progressing (towards optimal adaptation vis-à-vis natural selection at the levels of genes, organisms, and/or cultures) as a result of competition within a shared environment.  Just as the Copernican Revolution brought about a shift in cultural consciousness, from a view of human existence under God as residing in His universal center to being just another speck in a godless sky, so has the Darwinian Revolution ushered in the era of biopolitics: the social and political being of humankind is seen as capable of reduction to biological explanations, and of subject to biological controls.  The competitive struggle for life results in genetic winners and losers emerging from the game of nature; the ethos of struggle and savagery is supremely vindicated.

The participation of the sciences in the early development of capitalism across Europe allowed science to serve “as an externality of the capitalist expansion, like roads and lighthouses, and as a way to solve particular problems”[5].  For the rising European bourgeoisie, the question of its own freedom was a problem for it, just as the question of the expression of freedom through ownership and exploitation is for it in the modern day of neoliberal capitalist globalization.  The early biopolitics thus opened as a theatre for the ideological ascendancy of a class rising to rule; this class was the bourgeoisie, who across Europe could wield scientific knowledge as an ideological weapon by which to unshackle itself from old feudal oppressions and religiosity.

Darwin’s theory of evolution was not widely supported at the time of its publication in 1859.  Historians of evolutionary history have long emphasized that that the reception of a theory is as much a result of the particular sociopolitical context into which it is introduced (or by which it is given birth), as it is of the theory’s actual content[6].  Major conflicts arose between the early evolutionary theory and church dogma, but these mostly gave way by the end of the century, having only recently resurfaced after points of disagreement fell out of favour even among theologians and other church scholars (as in the case of Christian fundamentalism in the United States, which has embraced anew Ussher’s infamous date for the creation of the Earth in 4004 B.C.)  Interestingly, this resurgence resembles an ideological counterrevolution from the fundamentalist Christian Right, against the ideologically bourgeois revolutions whose avatars are Copernicus and Darwin.  Who knows the essence of life, controls it.

In the modern theatre of biopolitics, life continues to be imagined on the basis of oppressive ideology: of “freedom” expressed only through individualism.  The “Modern Synthesis” of the Neo-Darwinists between evolutionary laws operating at the level of populations and the laws of classical genetics has gone so far as to reduce evolutionary histories to the competitive instincts of autonomous selfish genes.  But,

What of the autonomous individual organism, often the conceptual target of attempts to define life, and the thing that is assumed by models of evolution through competition and selection? To the extent that such individual autonomy requires just an individual life or life history, then it surely applies much more broadly than is generally intended by biological theorists. Countless non-cellular entities have individual life-histories, which they achieve through contributing to the lives and life-histories of the larger entities in which they collaborate, and this collaboration constitutes their claim to life. But – and this is our central point – no more and no less could be said of the claims of individual life histories of paradigmatic organisms such as animals or plants; unless, that is, we think of these as the collaborative focus of communities of entities from many different reproductive lineages. In much the same way, whatever sense we might try to make of the Dawkinsian idea of selfish genes, molecular replication is always, and has always been from the pre-cellular molecular community to the present, the achievement of ensembles of molecules, not of individual molecules…[7]

Prions, archaeal viruses, organelles and symbionts, parasitic wasps and mutant moths: these all challenge our notion of the evolutionary tree, of the reduction of life and lineage to individual life histories, and of the characterization of evolutionary progress as through competition instead (and to the exclusion) of collaboration.  What if the Tree of Life, instead of revealing the ultimate elucidation of the ascendancy of (some) humans towards freedom and progress, resembled another outmoded Enlightenment model?

Petrus Camper's Racist Model of Human Intelligence

Petrus Camper, in the late 18th century, studied the various human races and placed them in a hierarchy, with whites at the top, in his model of a correlation between the angles created by certain facial features with intelligence (whites were held to be closest to the ideal, represented by classical Greek statues, while blacks were seen as barely distinct from apes.)  Racist science, although in decline, has existed and will continue to exist in real contexts of racial oppression.  Classist science has also existed and will continue to exist in the context of class struggle, but it is reinforced by the neoliberal management of research institutions in advanced capitalist countries, where scientific knowledge is itself transformed into a commodity.

The fetishism of biotechnology, genetic determinism, no doubt, is one of the most important ideologies of biocapitalism. It declares the omnipotence of the gene, which not only prescribes the fundamental vital movement, but also internally determines the evolution of culture, so any physical and mental purpose can be achieved through the intervention on the “blueprint of life” and the subjugations of bodies. Ultimately, “life” is equated to “gene,” then reduced to the carrier and slave of gene.[8]

Biology is not merely the stage of the discovery of life.  Biopolitics invites us to consider biology as a space of Becoming, as a space where the human being is free to define her living as a social organism.  We can also treat this space as a space of Becoming into the Being of living ecologies that transcend the immediate experience of our spatiotemporal bondage.  Furthermore, this space can be seen as freely imagining the functioning of organisms within a body politic: be their vital force competitive, collaborative, or perhaps a sublation of the two.

The current age of biocapitalism has sought to restructure political rationality through the hegemony of western reductive science over the imagination of life and livelihood.  Perhaps the sublation of the dialectic between competition and collaboration is one which invites us to understand more complex forms of life, such as diverse ecologies or even sociopolitical organisms, in terms of the complex reciprocal relations between parts and wholes; where each is understood as the negation of the other and neither is monopolized through the exertion of biotechnological extensions of the power of capital over all social and political forms of life.

[1] See “Recurrent Domestication by Lepidoptera of Genes from Their Parasites Mediated by Bracoviruses” (Multiple Authors) in PLoS Genet 11(9): e1005470. doi:10.1371/journal.pgen.1005470.

[2] See “Synthesis of phylogeny and taxonomy into a comprehensive tree of life” (Multiple Authors) in PNAS 2015 : 1423041112v1-201423041 (http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2015/09/16/1423041112.full.pdf?sid=1f2f2386-7283-4284-a12c-f8bca971a14c)

[3] Rivera & Lake, “The ring of life provides evidence for a genome fusion origin of eukaryotes” in Nature, 431, 2004.

[4] Lucio Florio, “The Tree of Life: Philosophical and Theological Considerations” in Studia Aloisiana, 4(1), 2013.

[5] Levins & Lewontin, “The Commoditization of Science” in The Dialectical Biologist (1985).

[6] See, for example, Peter J. Bowler’s Evolution: The History of an Idea (3rd ed. 2003).

[7] Dupré & O’Malley, “Varieties of Living Things: Life at the Intersection of Lineage and Metabolism” in Philosophy and Theory in Biology 1:e003, 2009.

[8] Yu & Liu, “The New Biopolitics” in Journal of Academic Ethics 7, 2009.


A Crook against the “Evidence for Technocracy”

I’d like to blow some hot air on the kindling of what may become the hot new election issue in Canada. In a recent CBC debate hosted by The 180, Katie Gibbs – a biologist from the University of Ottawa, and executive director of (the science-lobbyist group) “Evidence for Democracy” – discusses the efforts of her organization to have specific science-policy questions addressed as a part of the current federal leaders’ debates. Clive Crook, Bloomberg View columnist (and author of such enlightened articles as “The Meaning of Donald Trump” and “Are You Rich? No Need to Apologize”), argues that science and policy ought not to mix. Let’s review.

There is a dialectic at play here, between the old economists and a microcosm rising within the bourgeoisie. We are in the epoch of the 21st century technocratic ‘Knowledge Society’. Intellectual property, shifts from a public (military-industrial) to a private (anarchic free-market) funding model for universities, and the overextended farce of patent law, all point to sites of conflict over the ownership of knowledge capital. In Harper’s Canada, declining funding for and the muzzling of government scientists have driven two spears into Galileo’s sides, in what has been called a war on science.

It is important to realize that science as a social institution has been structured on a neoliberal model[1]. Most of us are consumers in the marketplace of facts, while this debate falls between the owners/managers and the producers, whom are a modern technical intelligentsia. Gibbs claims that scientific research is an important element of all political decision-making. It is not clear to me why environmental assessments, ecological impact statements and psychological indices of cross-cultural conflict are important elements, for example, in decisions about whether to build unwanted and potentially damaging oil pipelines through the traditional and oft sacred lands of indigenous communities, except for on the basis of such a model.

Of course, scientists are also citizens, and like any other they will be predisposed to making value judgements based on the evidence that confronts them. There is a question as to whether (or to which extent) the facts discovered by scientific researchers have any value-content. Crook defends a dated view of objective neutrality in the sciences; in his view, the facts discovered by scientists are bereft of value-content. The role of scientists is to present the bare facts to politicians, who then attend to the ethics and make value judgements.

Gibbs’ view puts value-content not into the facts discovered by scientists, but into science itself. Usually scientists and philosophers of this persuasion appraise whichever their notion of the scientific method: used to arrive at facts by way of the testing of hypotheses against empirical observations, through the fuse of several degrees of abstraction. The facts themselves do not have any value-content, but the scientific method does. Her view envisions greater autonomy for researchers and rings of class individualism and elitism, affording value to an epistemic culture in-demand rather than their specific product. Crook’s view, on the other hand, is conservative against the progressive element contained in the rising intellectual microcosm within the capitalist class.

Neither view seems quite correct to me. Facts have value-content, both inwardly and outwardly. Consider the fact, “75% of all casualties in World War II were civilians”. If you’re interested, that’s nearly 50 million people. Value-content comes into this fact through the productive means which birthed it. For example, does a person who succumbs to a lingering lung infection from having inspired a modicum of Mustard Gas several years after the end of the war count as a casualty? What about the countless infants in the following generation that would die simply for having been born into crushing war-torn poverty?

Outwardly, the fact is harrowing to hear. It makes me unhappy. It makes me dislike war. No doubt my reaction upon hearing this fact is socially and culturally conditioned, but this does not rob it of its value-content. If anything, it correlates value-content with shared evaluative practices and norms. It seems that we are inclined to make use of facts when we reason, and that we evaluate facts according to our own worldviews and against our own experiences.

Methods, such as experimental practices and statistical models of inference, do not have value-content, but are value relevant in their factive manifestations. Value judgements are made even in ostensibly minute methodological details. But ‘science’ (supposing a group of spuriously connected methodologies) has no intrinsic value. Science is the dominant epistemic culture living in a postcolonial and multicultural society. Public uptake of the scientific worldview is as much a role for the scientist-as-citizen as it is a role for science journalism. The understanding of and receptivity to scientific facts is a function of the ideological outgrowth of the institution, whose expansion under the neoliberal model is fueled by market forces.

Crook’s view consigns science merely to be the scullion of capitalism. I am inclined to agree with Gibbs, that scientists must strive to be engaged citizens. The question is how we, as a critical and engaged public, should react to their involvement. Though bound by the strictures of neoliberal management, and displaying some of the class characteristics of the liberal bourgeoisie, there exists a progressive element relative to the current balance of power in the Canadian political context. In my view, we should even encourage scientists – beyond what Gibbs suggests – to make specific policy recommendations, rather than merely advocating for the value of science in general.

Hypothetical science policy directive for a new Canadian socialist party: fully decentralize knowledge production. In the interim, leading up to the revolutionary stage, foster a program of epistemic revolt against the neoliberal scientific institution. The revolution in the means of production made possible on the condition of capitalism, when transitioning to a socialist stage of history, could evenly redistribute the sublime bourgeois luxury of leisure time, ushering in a new post-scientific Enlightenment. The scientific institution assumes the role of the church: the crumbling tradition against which new progressive elements are tested.

In fact, this is happening even now, with insurrectionary pockets papering from within the intelligentsia to resist the neoliberalization of academia. Of course, even if science policy is successfully introduced into the arena of federal leaders’ debates, the Canadian political spectrum runs only from just-left-of-center to far right; only a radical left party could be expected to take this tone. But many parties to the far left accept the sciences of the day uncritically, as many others do. ‘Scientific’ socialists should be careful not to unwittingly adopt neoliberal predilections based on their aspirations to the status of a science.

A discussion of the sort which Gibbs envisions should not be seen as a truly progressive shift. It is a horizontal shift in hands between powers, primarily centred on the question of ownership. Since the first Canadian federal leaders’ debate in 1968, a total of zero science policy questions have been asked of the candidates. Surely it is time to discuss these matters inside of our official political infrastructure. I suspect that parties to the left are weakly positioned to take a stance on the science policy question, with perhaps only the Lysenko affair as an embarrassing lesson from history. Efforts should be made to bring the culture of epistemic revolt out from their dark corners in the universities, into the public whose uptake of scientific facts is considered to be such an important metric.

[1] This is the current suasion from within the social studies of science (STS). A 2010 Issue of Social Studies of Science (40/5) was focused on the impacts of neoliberalism as “a regime for scientific management”. (Lave and Mirowski, “Introduction: STS and Neoliberal Science” (2010), in the aforementioned issue.


Dialectical Biology // Cognitive Maoism

Modified from my forthcoming, ‘Epistemic Dynamics of a Revolutionary Science.’

Of course the speed of light is the same under socialism and capitalism, and the apple that was said to have fallen on the Master of the Mint in 1664 would have struck his Labor Party successor three-hundred years later with equal force. But whether the cause of tuberculosis is said to be a bacilus or the capitalist exploitation of workers, whether the death rate from cancer is best reduced by studying oncogenes or by seizing control of factories – these questions can be decided objectively only within the framework of certain sociopolitical assumptions (Levins & Lewontin 1985, 4-5).

By ‘science,’ we speak of variously many things.  There are scientific theories – explanatory hypotheses about the natural world – and even technological commodities, which are the products of science.  Then, there is a network of social actors, orthodoxically thought to consist primarily or even exclusively of ‘scientists,’ the fruits of whose collective efforts constitute the social production of these products.  Finally, there is a third respect in which we speak of science; in this sense, there is a worldview, approximately but not exclusively defined by the socially productive modes and products of science, which presents the manifest image of reality as the scientific image (see Bas Van Fraassen, The Scientific Image (1980) on the distinction between the manifest vs. the scientific image of reality.)  I do not mean to suggest that there is a single ‘worldview’ that is consistent across the endless spectrum of scientific disciplines and subdisciplines; worldviews differ significantly between Mendelian and molecular genetics, between Newtonian mechanics and relativity theory; indeed, historical cases abound in which some such cases of collisions between worlds had significant sociopolitical consequences.  Here, I mean only to articulate the relation between the historically contingent social worldview and the productive modes of science.  The mode of this scientific worldview is primarily ideological; by understanding this ideological mode in an Althusserian vain, we see that social relations of knowledge production in science are both materially and ideologically productive; in this sense, both the theoretical products of the first, and the scientific worldview of the third senses in which we speak of science are essentially ideological.  The dominant Western scientific ideology operating in and between each of these layers has been variously critiqued by philosophers of the Left: for its deeply methodologically entrenched oppressive patriarchal values, exposed by feminist philosophers of science; for its bourgeois Capitalist values and culturally imperialistic violence, decried by epistemological anarchists and Marxist scientists alike.  Arguments for the value-ladenness at each of these levels abound.  The Mertonian myth of value-free objectivity of the early twentieth-century has only served to engender a certain disinclination among interested parties of scientists and stakeholders to challenge (or even to see) the framework of sociopolitical assumptions in which these social and material relations of knowledge production are arranged.

The scientific worldview sets epistemological boundary conditions that narrow and define our conception of ‘truth.’  When this feedback loop is allowed to continue, the result is a paradigmatic period of Kuhnian ‘normal science’; for many, this is not a vicious circle, but rather a precondition of scientific progress.  I hardly need to state that the story of stable progress along the lines projected by the status quo characteristically fails to convince those who detect oppression in the orthodoxy.  Epistemic features of theories are designed to aim at ‘truth’; however, minimally insofar as our conception of ‘truth’ is refined by ideological production and for the sake of ideological reproduction (a further Althusserian notion), we should expect that the idea has a material existence that exerts its force on the social means of knowledge production.  The ‘framework of sociopolitical assumptions’ raised by Levins and Lewontin is an idea which directly challenges the question of ‘truth,’ by challenging the proper construal of standard epistemic features in biological theories.  They reject Cartesian reductionism as a manifestation of oppressive ruling class values being insinuated into scientific methodology as a guiding epistemic principle, presenting work from across the fields of evolutionary and population sciences, molecular biology and zoology, to demonstrate the value in adopting a dialectical ‘truth-concept’ as an epistemic aim in the sciences.  The selection of truth-concept is established with express political motivation.

An epigraph is set in the beginning of The Dialectical Biologist (1985); it reads,

To Frederick Engels,

who got it wrong a lot of the time

but who got it right where it counted

So too did Levins and Lewontin get ‘it right where it counted.’  The form of ideological revolution presupposed by dialectical biology amounts to scientific or cognitive Maoism; it is thereby ill-equipped to fulfil its mandate, to be an ideologically emancipatory science, counterposed to the dominantly Cartesian orthodoxy.  We can conceive of an alternative view – with a Trotskyist spirit – in Longino’s contextual empiricist approach to the study of the social relations of knowledge production.  Longino’s view pushes for greater diversification among practitioners of science, to maximally widen the array of background beliefs employed in the production of knowledge; however, diversification within the constraints of Western science is effective only up to a point.  Barring the revolutionary abolition of class antagonisms, the material reality of Western science is such that oppressed beliefs remain alienated from the centralized, sanctioned body of permissible bourgeois-ified background beliefs.  Thus, the ideological erosion of the scientific worldview on a material basis must serve as a precondition for ideological emancipation; furthermore, this erosion must proceed from the bottom-up, under the unity of an educational program, rather than from the top-down, under the forcible instilment of dialectics.  As is so often seen in the realpolitik of emancipation, spontaneous solidarity builds between sectarian pockets of the revolutionary Left.  Likewise, my predominantly Marxist analysis benefits here from the groundwork laid by Feyerabend’s epistemological anarchism.

The question may arise as to what sorts of concrete results we might be entitled to expect as a result of the program of ideological erosion, and of the transitional program of a subsequent dialectic reconstitution of science in society.  Feyerabend argues that separate and distinct traditions of knowledge are likely to be mutually enriched as a result of open theoretical discourse.  If correct, then epistemic enrichment is a beneficial consequence of the ideological erosion of the scientific worldview on the material basis of the elevation of the intellectual and cultural authority of non-scientific worldviews.  But however serendipitous, the matter quite misses the point.  My argument proceeds on the basis of the view of sociopolitical emancipation as historical necessity, in a Hegelian sense.  What would it mean, say, to have one’s body of theories epistemically enriched in the sense that they now more reliably produce justified true beliefs, when epistemological reliabilism is fed back into science methodologically as an epistemic aim inspired by evolutionary biology and psychology? – only that we have successfully reinforced the status quo, ‘progressing’ in a dull Lakatosian vain.  While I do consider enrichment of this sort to be likely, it is merely a coincident to the final emancipatory cause.


Reflecting On Reflection

Reflection has ever been the philosopher’s most prized capacity, thought capable of rendering clear our beliefs as a mode of second-order cognitive scrutiny.  I intuitively believe that there is a keyboard here at my fingertips, a monitor before my eyes; I may call these beliefs into question, distancing myself from the immediate cognitive impressions they form on me.  If I reflect on these beliefs aptly, I ought to find that I have good reasons to hold these beliefs.  Indeed, some have claimed that it is just this capacity which cuts between human and animal cognition.  My (sadly hypothetical) dog cannot distance himself from the belief that we will go out for a walk when I show him his leash – he cannot question whether he has good reason to hold this belief, any more than he can question whether having arrived at this belief in just the way that he did constitutes a good method for arriving at beliefs.  However, qua human beings, our beliefs are called into question constantly, from the flights of fancy of minds in vats to the complex assignment of statistical probabilities to the possible truth-values of a possible set of facts which are thought to occur in (possibly) the real world.  Just as the line between human and animal has been drawn along these lines, so too has the line of freedom and moral responsibility.  The ability to scrutinize our beliefs with some higher-order reflective capacity seems, to some, essential to explain the phenomenology or reality of human freedom and agency.  Agency is thought to imply responsibility.  Hence, we are thought able to be judged praise or blameworthy, in virtue of our freedom to chart the paths of our own actions from among a sea of possible alternatives.

However, the value of our capacity for reflection may not hold up to close scrutiny.  In On Reflection (2012), Hilary Kornblith argues that this faculty, as we have hitherto conceived of it, is not the kind of thing which could possibly enlighten our inquiries about knowledge, reason, freedom, and normativity.  Our treatment of reflection seems to be essentially phenomenological; Kornblith notes an important dissimilarity between this, and our rather more empirical orientation towards other phenomena in the natural world.  The reader should note the operative ‘other’ in the previous sentence.  Kornblith considers knowledge and related epistemological phenomena to be natural kinds – see his arguments for a naturalized epistemology in Knowledge and its Place in Nature (2002).  This phenomenological bias manifests particularly in the common tendency of philosophers in the reflectionist orthodoxy (a poor ad hoc moniker to be sure – the category is meant to include Sosa, Korsgaard, Goodman, BonJour, and many others) to use first-person language to describe features of reflection.  Naturalized epistemology can be characterized as the view that explanations of the objects of epistemological inquiry are ultimately natural explanations, rooted in the natural world.  If correct, this view provides a strong reason for scrapping our phenomenological bias, in favor of a more empirical orientation towards epistemological inquiry – including our reflections on ‘reflection’.

Kornblith’s main arguments against the received view of reflection show that, on that view, scrutinizing our beliefs always falls into infinite regress.  When I reflect on my first-order belief B that there is a keyboard at my fingertips, I form a second-order belief B’ that I do indeed have strong reasons in support of the first-order belief.  But I do not know whether I have strong reasons in support of B’ unless I reflect on those reasons, thus forming belief B’’ that I do indeed have strong reasons in support of B’; et cetera ad infinitum.  Therefore, our beliefs are never ultimately justified, and we never know what ultimately counts as having sufficient reasons for accepting a belief.  It follows that we must remain mute on normative claims about belief formation.

To infinity, not beyond.  I suspect that the severity of an infinite regress is a pain much more immediately felt by those with a naturalist suasion.  If explanations about objects of epistemological inquiry are ultimately natural explanations, and the received view of reflection leads in every case to an infinite regress, then one is at pains to devise a naturalistic explanation of infinity.  The human brain must thereby be supposed to be capable of performing supertasks, provided we are not meant to reflect on even our most banal beliefs on into eternity.  A supertask is a task consisting of a countably infinite set of calculations or operations, which occurs sequentially within a finite amount of time.  Kornblith offers no argument as to why infinite regress is to be avoided in epistemological explanations.  Presumably, it is his naturalistic aversion to something like a cognitive supertask that underwrites his argument.  Another likely assumption is that cognitive tasks in humans are not such that they can perform operations on infinities.  This is not necessarily true – the phenomenology of reflection provides good reasons to believe that at least one epistemological explanandum (reflection itself) performs operations on infinities.  Mathematicians reflect on set-theoretic proofs involving greater and smaller infinities, as Cantor did with his diagonalization argument.  On a similar vein, Roger Penrose has argued that Kurt Gödel’s incompleteness theorems – and their subsequent comprehension and acceptance by fellow mathematicians and human reasoners – provide a strong reason to consider that human cognition must contain exponentially more processing power than any possible mechanical system could (though these arguments fall quite far short of wide acceptance themselves).  Again, this assumption falls on prima facie naturalistic inclinations.  Naturalized explanations just cannot, or cannot easily, contain infinities, greater or smaller.

I am differently inclined.  Some kind of infinitesimal calculus sounds to me like a potentially plausible way to model our capacity for reflection.  I form a first-order belief B, which defines the limit to a probability function that models my certainty in that belief (to a max- or minimum infinity).  Reflective scrutiny is hence a process somewhat like calculating a limit with reasons for belief in B, with a max-limit providing an idealized objective certainty in B, and a min-limit its absolute refutation.  We can no more conceive of each of the elements in an infinite set than we can the requirements of absolute certainty in or refutation of B; we can, however, form a transcendent ideal of the concept at hand in order to understand some part of it.  Here, I am somewhat indebted to a colleague from during my undergraduate work in Victoria, who once described Anselm’s ontological proof to me as calculating a limit towards God’s existence.  Of course, the procedure that I propose would involve some sort of conceptual analysis, or analysis of our epistemic intuitions.  Experimental philosophers have recently raised many issues with this practice, which I haven’t the space to consider in this post – see especially Stitch’s The Fragmentation Of Reason (1990), and Alexander and Weinberg’s “Analytic Epistemology and Epistemic Intuitions” (Philosophy Compass 2/1, 2007).

Infinite regress only seems menacing if we share Kornblith’s epistemological naturalism; otherwise, his main arguments against the received view of reflection simply are not knockdown arguments.  Kornblith often takes Ernest Sosa’s epistemological views as his target in On Reflection.  Sosa is a main proponent of the use of a virtue vocabulary to describe and reflect on our standards of excellence in all matters epistemic.  I believe that the cultivation of epistemic virtue might have some import to a view modeling reflection as an infinitesimal probability calculus operating on our beliefs.  Consider the phenomenon, familiar to many and well-studied by psychologists, linguists and other researchers in the field of child development, of the explosion of explanation-seeking questions in preschool aged children.  The attitudes of many parents towards this phenomenon are neatly summed up by comedian Louis C.K. in the following routine.

Children between roughly the ages of 2.5 and 5 never seem to know when to stop asking why.  The increasingly metaphysical nature of Louis’ daughter’s questions demonstrates a certain tendency to exceed what adults typically consider to be sufficient reason for holding some belief.  The phenomenon is particularly well documented in Frazier et al, “Preschoolers’ Search for Explanatory Information Within Adult-Child Conversation” (Child Development 80/6, 2009).  They will often seek to over-explicate their beliefs, because a reasonably reliable calculus for belief acceptance has not yet been developed.  Refinement of this calculus would constitute the cultivation of an epistemic virtue, essentially inscribing on one’s cognition a sort of cut elimination theorem.  As is the case with the cultivation of virtue in general, experience is required, to establish a mean relative to the individual child between excess and deficiency with respect to explanations.  Children must become proficient in the use of explanatory language, with causal connectives and representational concepts, to add to their own epistemic intuitions.  A pre-theoretic epistemic intuition such as ‘justification’ is refined by honing in on a reasonably reliable mental probability calculus to operate on our beliefs.

If it is plausible to model reflection on our beliefs as a probability calculus – and certainly more argument is required than what little I have entertained here – then a strong counterargument to Kornblith’s naturalized epistemology exists.  I agree with Kornblith’s assumption, that natural explans cannot, or cannot easily contain infinities.  All the more reason not to consider epistemological kinds as natural kinds.  In Metamind (1990), Keith Lehrer develops a different account of the human mind: the human mind is a metamind.  It is a representation of mind.  This is to say that the human mind in some sense essentially transgresses the natural, at least as Kornblith conceives of it.  Again, for lack of space, I cannot here entertain the idea that something like a metamind might better ground the argument that reflection is a sort of (meta-)mental probability calculus.  I shall continue to reflect on these thoughts henceforth, for a time.  For now, suffice it to say that Kornblith’s main arguments against the reflectionist orthodoxy are grounded in assumptions informed by his epistemological naturalism; unmoved by this proclivity, I lean towards a view like Lehrer’s.  The burden of argument falls on Kornblith to tell us why infinite regress is a bad thing, even if we do not wish to accept epistemological naturalism.  However, I find myself more inclined towards cautiously abandoning naturalism, to test the limits of infinity as an explanatory concept in the reflective scrutiny of our beliefs.  And I suspect that this endeavour shall keep me asking, “Why?” ad nauseam; in this, the philosopher resembles the preschooler.  Perhaps, a preschooler who has grown up having poorly refined the virtue of knowing how much reflection is sufficient for the reasonable acceptance of our beliefs!


On the title of this blog.

Imagine if the world which we inhabit were nothing but a projection – a projection, from us, onto the external world.  Facts of the matter about states of affairs in this world turn on facts about us, rather than on the putative noumenal entities which relate, in some mysteriously neo-Kantian way, to phenomenal reality.  In Ways Of Worldmaking (1978), Nelson Goodman (whom, you will notice, I have robbed for the name of this new blog) inverts our expectations about what it is to be a rational animal inhabiting a world.  As the title suggests, Goodman argues that our worldly habitat is largely one of our own construction. Actually, to say that “the” world is “one” of our own construction is not correct, strictly speaking.  Goodman’s view implies a wide plurality of worlds, each filled with at least as many objects provided by their subjective inhabitants, as those grounded in an underlying substratum of reality.  Galileo and Copernicus lived in a different world than Aristotle and Ptolemy – in the former world, the earth revolves around the sun, while the latter world was geo-static.  Priestley’s world contained dephlogisticated air, while Lavoisier’s was full of oxygen.  Hokusai’s world emphasizes different aesthetic aspects than Rembrandt’s, and in some Shamanistic worlds human inhabitants have non-human ancestors, as they are the children of sacred plants.

All of this talk of worldmaking turns on one of the key philosophical insights that defined the Enlightenment, from Descartes to Kant.  Since Descartes, the world beyond our perception has been called into doubt (particularly if we are atheists or agnostics).  Kant took reality away from us, realizing that we could never escape the confines of subjective experience, so as to be able to check whether or not the world of our perception matches the “real” world.  All we can do is suppose that the “real” world somehow sets boundary conditions on what can be thought, to ensure that we are able to communicate meaningfully about anything.  Goodman attests that his “multiplicity of worlds” is a neo-Kantian theme.  The first act of human creativity comes as easily as Being-in-the-world (I apologize to my Heidegger-buff colleagues for this imperfect lexical appropriation). Imagine if this world we share were actually just so many projections, gaining its apparent cohesion as if by merging the complete set of conceptual matrices from the totality of we, its inhabitants.  Imagine how many conventions that we collectively subscribe to, which would come to be seen as utterly contingent constructions.  Most of us never stop to consider the utterly ethereal nature of those many “invisible hands” which daily oppress us – fair enough, for we are not all metaphysicians.

Consider this spectral thing called the economy.  Total world debt is over 300% of total world GDP.  How is this possible?  To whom do we owe all of this money – to Mars, perhaps?  But, everything in our daily experience is constructed so as to reinforce the strength and legitimacy of this gargantuan imaginary.  Althusser reveals the mythology, of bourgeois capitalo-parliamentarians and the ideological state apparatus.  The greatest weapon of the capitalist state is the construction of the story of its own necessity.  Of course this constructed actuality must cement itself by offering the most vivid, noisiest projection of its kind.  The media is the story teller.  Artifactuality: the marketplace of facts failed to get us any closer to reality. Philosophers are worldmakers.  But so are scientists, artists, lovers, and even politicians.  The worth of a world turns on how well it promotes our values, reveres our ideals.  I have always considered metaphysics as much a matter of nonrational as rational choice.  I choose to believe in magic, because it is not inherently logically contradictory, and because it enchants my existence.  We find meaning in mathematics, molecular biology, and magic mushrooms.  Traditionally, each of these three worlds would be taken to speak to different levels of reality, if we are most optimistic; more likely, one (perhaps two) will be taken to be merely illusory, depending on one’s tastes.  But each defines a world we might inhabit, if only for a time.

They say that wine tastes sweeter to one with a refined palate.  Why should we not visit new worlds freely, becoming highly cultured worldly travellers in the process?  Our understanding of ‘meaning’ might stand to benefit. I have chosen the title of Goodman’s book for my blog, in part because I support the spirit of his view.  It does seem to me that we are largely responsible for the construction of the worlds that we inhabit.  I am not sure why this should sound surprising to anybody – in nature, we build homes and infrastructure where the external world fails to accommodate us.  Literally, we shape the external world in our image, as architects and civil engineers, as oil- and war-mongers.  So too do we shape it in our image as economists and physicists, as poets and painters.  And if we should find that some noisy projection is blocking the beauty of daylight from those worlds of our creation, we should find ourselves well within our rights to tear down the offender.  Ways Of Worldmaking ought to speak to the philosopher’s curiosity as much as it does to the heart of the revolutionary – and on this level, it strikes me more profoundly.  Our worlds are imperialized by the beliefs and customs of our oppressors.  We are meant to believe that neo-liberal democracy and a global capitalist monstrosity represents the ideal across all worlds.  Of course, whether you call it the bourgeoisie, the upper class or the one-percent, we should see that assent to those factitious objects which legitimate the domination of the master over the slave is manufactured.  Whatever the underclass, everything in our quotidian experience reminds us of our domination.  In The Lessons Of October, Trotsky writes

The working class struggles and matures in the never-failing consciousness of the fact that the preponderance of forces lies on the side of the enemy.  This preponderance manifests itself in daily life, at every step.  The enemy possesses wealth and state power, all the means of exerting ideological pressure and all the instruments of repression …  The consequences entailed by this or that careless or premature act serve each time as most cruel reminders of the enemy’s strength.

I will at times write philosophical musings, ways of worldmaking which reflect my passing curiosities and flights of fancy.  At other times, I will engage in more pointed cultural critiques, launching attacks on those worlds which violently stake their own flags in the soft soil of our rightful psychological or ideological lands.  Most of all, the writings that find their way into this blog will be a representation, an invitation into the world which I inhabit.  Often I feel that I live in it alone, but I am always trying to compel others to come and see our very green grass.  Please, take off your shoes and let our green grass tickle under your feet and between your toes.  There will be sunsets, there will be curiosities aplenty – and there will be action!