The Decline of Humanities

Head of Platon, roman copy. The original was e...

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One of the current narratives is that the humanities are in danger at American universities. Some schools are cutting funding for the humanities while others are actually eliminating majors and departments. At my own university, the college of arts and sciences was split apart with the humanities and soft sciences in one new college and the now exalted STEM programs in another. Not surprisingly, I was called upon (at a moment’s notice) to defend the continued existence of the philosophy and religion unit I head up. Fortunately, I could point to the fact that our classes regularly overload with students and the fact that our majors have been very successful.

While this narrative is certainly worrisome to faculty in the humanities, this is actually not a new narrative. For example, while about 7% of majors are in the humanities, this has been the case since the 1980s. As another example, humanities programs have been subject to cuts for decades. That said, there is clearly a strong current trend towards supporting STEM and cutting the humanities.

As might be suspected, the push to build up the STEM programs has contributed to the decline of funding for humanities programs. Universities and colleges have to allocate their funds and if more funds are allocated to STEM, this leaves less for other programs. There is also the fact that there is much more outside funding (such as from the federal government) for STEM programs. As such, STEM programs can find themselves getting a “double shot” of increased funding from the university and support from outside while humanities programs face reduced support from within the institutions and little or nothing from outside.

Those who argue for STEM over the humanities would make the case that STEM programs should receive more funding. If more students enroll in STEM than in the humanities, then it would clearly be fair that these programs receive more funding. If humanities programs want more funding, then they would need to take steps to improve their numbers.

There is also the argument based on the claim that funding STEM provides a greater return for the money in terms of job creation, educating job fillers and generating research that can be monetized. That is, STEM provides a bigger financial and practical payoff than the humanities. This would, clearly, serve to justify greater funding for STEM. Assuming, of course, that funding should be determined primarily in terms of financial and practical values defined in this manner. As such, if humanities programs are going to earn increased funding, they would need to show that they can generate value of a sort that would warrant their increased funding. This could be done by showing that the humanities have such practical and financial value or, alternatively, arguing that the humanities generate value of a different sort that is still worthy of funding.

Those in the humanities not only need to convince those who redistribute the money, they also need to convince students that the humanities are valuable. This need not require convincing students to major in the humanities—getting students to accept the value of the humanities to the degree that they will willingly enroll in such classes and support the programs that offer them.

It has long been a challenge to get students to accept the value of the humanities. When I was an undergraduate almost three decades ago most students looked down on the humanities and this has not changed. Now that I am a professor, honestly compels me to admit that most students sign up for my classes because they have to knock out some sort of requirement. I do manage to win some of these students over by showing them the value of philosophy, but many remain indifferent at best.

While it is a tradition to claim that things are worse now than they were when I was a youngster, this is actually the case. Recently, there has been a conceptual shift in regards to education: now the majority of students regard the main function of college as job preparation or as vocational training. That is, students predominantly see college as a machine that will make them into job fillers for the job creators.

Because of the nature of our economic system, most students do have to worry about competing in a very difficult job market and surviving in a system that is most unkind. As such, it is not unwise of students to take this very practical approach to education.

While it is something of a stereotype, parents do often worry that their children will major in the humanities and it is not uncommon for students to pressure their kids to major in something “useful.” When I was a student, people I knew said just that. Now that I am a professor, my students sometimes tell me that their parents are against them taking philosophy classes. While some are worried that their children will be corrupted, the main concerns are the same as that expressed by students: the worry that majoring in the humanities is a dead end and that the humanities requirements are delaying graduation and wasting their money.

Those of us in the humanities have two main options here. One is to make the case that the humanities actually do provide the skills needed to make it in the world of the job creators. While some regard philosophy as useless, an excellent case can be made that classes in philosophy can be very helpful in getting ready for employment. To use the most obvious example, philosophy is the best choice for those who are considering a career in law. This approach runs the risk of devaluing the humanities and just making them yet another form of job training.

The second is the usual argument from the humanities, which is based on the idea there is more to life than being a job filler for the job creators. The usual line of argument is that the humanities teaches students to address matters of value, to appreciate the arts, and to both think and question. This, as might be imagined, sounds good in principle but can be a very hard sell.

Unfortunately, humanities faculty often fail to convince students, parents and those who control the money that the humanities are valuable. Sometimes the failure is on the part of the audience, but often it is on the part of the faculty. As such, those of us in the humanities need to up our game or watch the shadow over the humanities grow.


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  1. Considering that the U.S. has been in an economic crisis since 2008, that every few days someone in your country begins shooting at innocent people at random, that your supposedly democratic government has been spying on everyone in the world, including friendly chiefs of state like Angela Merkel, maybe it’s time for citizens of your land (and of others) to sit down and think about where they are going, what they are up to in terms of values and what matters besides faster high tech gadgets, that is, time to reflect on our lives and open a philosophical dialogue about it.

    It would be suicidal for the soul of all of us (and not just for our souls) to cut back on the study of philosophy at this point.

  2. I think the Humanities are too dangerous when left alone. Without empirical support pretty much anything can be argued, in the Humanities generally. Philosophy is no safeguard, and can lead to a false sense of security, since a very good argument that rests on vague and hard to criticise premises can be even more persuasive to false beliefs than a mere crummy argument in some other Humanities subject.

    So many good (valid) arguments can be stopped dead in their tracks simply be asking why a certain premise should be agreed to. All too often premises are taken to be obvious – which should actually be a sin in philosophy, but rarely is. Some very elaborate philosophical articles rest on some presupposition that one need not presuppose at all.

    It’s difficult enough to keep our feet on the ground in STEM fields, but at least any bollocks can be shown to be unsupported (at least) by repeated experiments that fail to replicate the results. Humanities nonsense can go unchecked for decades, generations even.

    The problem swings from one to the other over time. Over the decades of the 60’s to the 80’s the distaste for grounded (empirically supported) critical thinking has given us homoeopathy, scientifically ignorant politicians, anti-science humanities departments, post-modern relativism, unhealthy political correctness. Thanks to G W Bush and the Republican party generally, among others, the ignorance has been exposed publicly, and people are waking up to their own gullibility. STEM is valued not just for its economic utility, but for its real contribution to education.

    It would help to have more science literate humanities departments that were not afraid of the science bogeyman:

    We need a broad education, and these days that can only be attained by a continued education throughout one’s life.

    I would think the required courses are necessary as a first step to achieving that. Scientists being required to study philosophy should be paralleled by humanities students being required to study science.

  3. Ron Murphy:

    Judging from comments of yours that I’ve read over at least a year, I get the impression that you have studied philosophy and become skeptical of it, very aware of its limits and limitations.

    However, to reach a position such as yours, one must have a fairly good grasp of what philosophers have said in the past and what they are doing at present.

    Don’t you feel that there is some value in studying philosophy, even if the end result is a certain skepticism about philosophy as a discipline?

  4. I agree with those points. As a psychology professor, I see students and colleagues wanting to turn psychology into a strictly empirical science (e.g. have it folded into the neurosciences). I try to deter them from this path by showing the power of philosophy, history, and anthropology, to make some of the recent claims of empiricist psychologists seem asinine. I think some students eventually understand that there is power in knowledge and depth of understanding. A good and well rounded education will include the humanities.

  5. swallerstein,

    My early education was guided by an interest in science and art, but my higher education is in engineering and science. My interest in philosophy is entirely amateur – and as such has a potential to be drastically wrong on some points for want of better training and experience. I could be dismissing swathes of philosophy on poor grounds – and yet so far I’ve not been persuaded otherwise. I’m happy to learn.

    So I remain sceptical of the application of much traditional philosophy. I see philosophy much like science (and religion), in that the history of it is both interesting and useful from a broad human perspective – history is vitally important to understanding how we came to where we are now.

    But in science, we don’t generally indulge in old-school alchemy. It may be that the concept of changing matter into different states is a valid one, but the traditional methods didn’t work then and will not work now. But in philosophy many philosophers are still peddling traditional philosophies as if they are still useful. Particularly with regard to ethics, consciousness, knowledge, as examples.

    Evolution, neuroscience and biology generally, chemistry, physics, show us that we are empirical creatures with no access to anything of absolute proof or absolute truth, and yet much philosophy seems to ignore this. It seems that there are sets of philosophical problems that vanish with a little pragmatic empiricism, and so are not usefully applicable today. Many of the traditional paradoxes are not particularly paradoxical, just poorly defined, in empirical terms. The primacy of thought hangs over philosophy, as if thinking is a pure logical capacity and not a messy brain process that just happens to be deceptive in its apparent acuity.

    But I still think that philosophy, in the spirit of natural philosophy, is alive and well when applied in the context of science – or rather as part of the one ‘way of knowing’ humans have. When philosophy is treated as a branch of humanities it stands apart from the empirical grounding which makes it useful and becomes much more like theology – intellectual speculative gratification from overindulgence in pure thought.

    Logic is a binary systems, and as such is just a branch of discrete mathematics. This should tell us something. Theoretical mathematicians generally do not use their maths to tell us how to live our lives, or indulge in the mathematics of ethics. And yet philosophical logic, when messed up with language, is supposed to be used to derive truths of behaviour?

    The difficulties seem to arise in trying to map that abstract system of logic onto natural language, which is a messy and imprecise system that has evolved and developed in messy human brains. It is a poor mapping from which untold bunk is derived. Maybe that comes from early misguided notions of the value of pure thought, reason, that attainment and access to pure truth – those notions persist. At best, language can be approximately corralled into simple logical statements, or basic logic may be used to approximately represent messy language meanings. But there seems far too much bunk developed on truth and meaning in language – far more than is possible or necessary, given the messiness of the human brain.

    So, we come to the OP. STEM v Humanities? The conflict itself is a human construct built from old concepts about knowledge and the value of knowledge, and is exacerbated by an antagonism from those that focus on too narrow a view of human knowledge – those in science or humanities too ignorant of the broader perspective. Personally I don’t see much of a distinction; and as Pinker points out, science should be a friend to the Humanities, giving it firmer grounding.

  6. Brad,

    I would hope that modern psychology is already a strictly empirical science – though historically it has suffered for the lack of empiricism. When it comes to deciding how I have my brain messed with I’m not sure why we would want anything other than an empirical grounding in the science that treats it. I’d have thought good psychologists would be grateful for any science that helps them ditch some of the wacky ideas that pass for psychology because they don’t require empirical support.

    While any new science may be justifiably criticised – such as the use of fMRI – it is no less easy to criticise the Humanities for the claims that are often made without any empirical input other than the introspective deliberations on what amount to anecdotal observations. As such, and with due diligence, I’m not sure why neuroscience would add any more dangers to psychology that it does not suffer already. The difficulty for psychology traditionally has been that its empirical basis has been essentially a black box treatment of the brain.

    And I take it you don’t reject all uses of fMRI, but rather want to distinguish its proper use: noting the difference between speculative suggestions from basic research and the therapeutic use of well tested methods of diagnosis. New sciences are bound to suffer from learning, and there’s nothing new to that.

  7. Ron, I have to disagree with most of what you are saying here, though I don’t have the time to write as lengthy a reply. I’ll hone in one sentence in particular:

    “It seems that there are sets of philosophical problems that vanish with a little pragmatic empiricism, and so are not usefully applicable today.”

    Yes, it is interesting how many problems science can make vanish with their empiricism. I have watched in recent years the disappearance of human agency, free-will, phenomenological intentionality, qualia, and so on; to essentially say that science cannot measure it, therefore it is not worth discussing (or perhaps it does not even exist!) is the biggest problem of today’s scientists. I think this is also one of the bigger reasons why these narrow-minded scientists see no problem with encroaching on the humanities in the way that they do.

    Pinker is a brilliant thinker, but he is absolutely wrong about a great many things. I have recently critiqued the essay you cite:

    Contra your position, I would say that psychology suffers in some ways more today, as a result of its uncritical adoption of empiricism (at the expense of rationalism). I have already stated this position a while back:

    In short, human beings are not objects, and thus cannot be studied by way of a strict empiricism. Any attempt to do so, will involve a dehumanization of what we are.

  8. “Any attempt to do so, will involve a dehumanization of what we are.”

    There’s a rationalist assertion right there, that is founded on some presupposition what it is to be human.

    “In short, human beings are not objects”

    Of course they are objects. They are made of atoms – though that then relies on the current understanding of what it is to be any material object. What else are they? Reading your site I didn’t take you to be a dualist of any sort, so what other way is there of describing what humans are?

    Within all categories of objects we might identify we might point out some characteristics of humans that differ from other objects, and even from other animal objects. But we are still objects.

    “I would say that psychology suffers in some ways more today, as a result of its uncritical adoption of empiricism (at the expense of rationalism).”

    Rationalism can be used invent any notion at all and claim it ‘true’. That’s what religions rely on. That’s how they come to invent gods. But I take it psychology is at least sufficiently empirical to stake its claim that it treats humans on the empirical grounds that it observes humans.

    “but he [Pinker] is absolutely wrong about a great many things.” – This seems like a absolutist Rationalist statement. I can’t understand how Rationalists can complain about some scientists being over enthusiastic about their empirical claims, and then go ahead and make such bold assertions.

  9. Everything is relative, it is best not to eliminate anything. While it is true that there have been, and are philosophies that are more opinion than based on anything that is fundamental, still it is freedom of thought. The more trains of thought the better. The humanities provide a safeguard; they are a bastion against one-dimensional thinking, against the orthodoxy of religions that focus more on the darkness in others than the darkness in themselves; a liberal world view is their bete noire. The humanities also provide a defense against the overreaches of an empirical science that is biology-based and skeptical of anything metaphysical. An article in this regard stated that as evolution was settled and over, next on the agenda was the existence of your precious self.

    A dystopian view, if the humanities were eliminated, could be a future of religious fanatics facing off against each other or a biology-based science that devalues the human person. The outcome of the first could be Armageddon; the outcome of the second could be a populace, perceiving itself as mindless and determined, turning to pharmacology as the only solution to its woes.

    The U.S. has a utilitarian propensity, protecting the freedom of thought that the humanities represent would be utilitarian in the sense that freedom of thought is fundamental to all other freedoms.

  10. Ron,

    I assert that any attempt to capture the human being in purely empirical terms will involve a dehumanization of what we are. You say that this is founded on a presupposition of what it is to be human, which is correct, since I take humans to be more than objects; in contrast, you presuppose that they indeed are, and that psychology ought to be strictly empirical in its approach to understanding the human being. So in what way are subjective qualities of experience to be explained as objective? How does one objectively quantify a thought, feeling, or motive driving a behavior? Furthermore, how are we to objectify secondary qualia, phenomenology, intentionality, and so on? It seems to me the burden of proof is on you, not me. I will again assert that taking these things to be illusionary, simply because the objective ‘view from nowhere’ that science espouses cannot tangibly explain it, is in effect cheating.

    You also say that “rationalism can be used to invent any notion at all and claim it true,” and seem to stop just short of calling philosophy a religion. You seem to suggest that logic has no rules or guideposts for distinguishing good arguments from bad, that there is perhaps no difference between a ‘reason’ versus an ‘opinion,’ and that the only credible evidence is what can be ascertained by the senses. This mode of thinking is currently in vogue right now, but I think it is grossly incorrect. If you are defending some version of logical positivism here, I would like to hear it, but I think Quine already nailed the coffin on that one.

  11. Ron Murphy:

    Part of the problem of this conversation depends on what we mean by the “humanities”.

    It’s been many years since I was in the university, but way back then, the humanities included history and foreign languages as well as
    philosophy and literature.

    Studying history seems very important, if we want to have informed citizens. History, of course, is an empirical discipline, insofar as it depends on evidence.

    Studying foreign languages also seems important to me, because mastering a foreign language is one of the best methods I know of understanding another culture, becoming less provincial, less a prisoner of one’s upbringing and of one’s specific socio-economic situation.

    I agree with you that much philosophy lacks an empirical basis, not only because it is not based on scientific evidence, but also because it is done by people from very narrow academic backgrounds who lack the trial and error, hard-knocks knowledge of society and day to day values that one finds in any moderately successful businessperson or lawyer or school teacher, etc.

    The kind of philosophy that interests me is the kind that arises in debates and discussions about ethics between intelligent people from all walks of life when they reflect upon their values, on what matters, on whether their society is just or not.

    Those debates need to be guided by principles of rationality and logic, avoiding fallacies, and certainly, traditional philosophy can help guide us in them, insofar as it raises questions of what justice is, what virtues are, what a good life is, but finally, we have to answer those questions for ourselves, using trial and error to learn what works and what suits us.

  12. swallerstein,

    I agree pretty much with what you say there. But I’d still qualify your last paragraph with the observation that we can’t simply rely on depending on rational logic and avoiding fallacies – completely contradictory religious arguments can be built on those grounds. Valid non-fallacious deductive arguments are not enough – we are ultimately left to rely on premises that are observations or unknowns. For observations all we can say is that this is what we have observed so far, so even these valid deductive arguments rely ultimately on induction. And where the premises are unobservable then we have a choice – we can say we don’t know the answer to our problem, or we can guess a premise and go with that.

    It seems to me that some of the problems of religion are that they assert that their premises are known, and prescribe and proscribe on that basis. In philosophy, and in the humanities, and in science, and in all walks of life, we have a tendency to take premises to be true when we ought to be a bit more cautious. One of the common mistakes is to presume something is obviously true, when we should really be admitting that we don’t know.

  13. “Now that I am a professor, my students sometimes tell me that their parents are against them taking philosophy classes.

    While some are worried that their children will be corrupted”

    An interesting question, which you probably won’t answer. But why would parents be concerned that a philosophy professor might corrupt their children?

    What is the precise nature of this corruption, they fear and loath?

  14. “As a psychology professor, I see students and colleagues wanting to turn psychology into a strictly empirical science”

    And you smelled a rat. And this rat is quite tricky to deal with. Once the psychologist takes the position that every principle must be empirically proved, or it is not science, hence not psychology (I do know a psychology professor who takes this position). Then your counter argument must have empirical evidence, otherwise they will dismiss it. Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.

    “I assert that any attempt to capture the human being in purely empirical terms will involve a dehumanization of what we are.”

    This dehumanisation could be very deliberate and intentional. And one major intention being to put distance between the psychologist/therapist/doctor, and human subject both within themselves and the other.

    The drive for empiricism is not a new. Talk therapies are taken seriously nowadays, but once upon at time the medical approach to psychiatric health issues was purely empirical (they’d rather look at a schizophrenic’s urine than speak to them). One of RD Laing’s arguments in the divided self is that the empirical approach turned the person into an object for study. And not a subject.

    Subjectivity is a lot messier. The further you get from the subject the less messier it gets, but then what do you have.

  15. Brad,

    On what grounds do you make your presupposition, and so assert your point? Why do you take humans to be more than objects? What does that mean? What specifically are they if not biological objects in this universe?

    “you presuppose that they indeed are [objects]”

    I don’t think I do presuppose it, as I explain here:, and here:

    “So in what way are subjective qualities of experience to be explained as objective?”

    The objective/subjective dichotomy is a false one.

    We are objectively observable animals, with localised masses of biology we call brains. These brains consist of neurons, just as do the peripheral sense and motor neurons. The main difference is that the localised brain neurons sense each other, but in functionality they are pretty much the same as the peripheral neurons. As such our entire nervous system is an entirely physical empirical system – it interacts with the body, and through that with the wider physical world. We are physical components of a physical universe.

    The perception problem we have is that the neurons of the brain are effectively sensing each other – an analogy (albeit a very simple one) is a computer system that analyses its own state, monitors its own processing. Qualia? What would it feel like to be a bat? Well, what would it feel like to be a sensing automaton that senses some of its own internal processes, such that it can process data about itself? Would it feel just like this? With nothing to go on, no ghost in the machine so far observed, this is the only reasonable inference from all the science we know.

    Evolution tells us we are on a continuum of development, from prior species to what we are now. Unless someone can demonstrate where some magical spark came from the only sensible inference to make is that we are one more step in an unbroken evolutionary chain.

    Trace back our parents, grandparents, on back in time, and at no point in known science is there any indication that the mother is not of the same species as the daughter – and yet look on that chain at distant points and you will see different species, some with brains of various degrees of evolution, and further back our ancestors had no brains at all. A lot of science has to be dead wrong for some ancient Rationalist notion constructed in times ignorant of this science to be correct in its place: that we are special in some way not accountable by science (albeit not accountable yet).

    And subjectivity? There’s enough difference in every head to make the localised experience subjective, to account for any and all subjectivity.

    So, our subjective experience does not nullify an objective account of what we are: biological machines.

    “How does one objectively quantify a thought, feeling, or motive driving a behavior?”

    With great difficulty. And that’s why clear cut pure notions of truth (e.g. JTB) are so way off the mark. Knowledge need be nothing more than contextual patterns in a brain. When a child is driven home from hospital soon after birth, there is no reason to think it has any brain representation of a car other than the noise and vibration sensations it experiences for the first time. It experiences the concept ‘car’ from then on without a formalised language notion of car – just more noise experiences. As it grows the parent buys toy cars and makes car sounds. Over time the child’s brain builds associated patterns that are triggered again and again by interaction with cars. Eventually the brain simply links some sense impressions with ‘car’, as a notion, as a mental ‘image’ – the interactions trigger brain events that become ‘car’. Every context in which ‘car’ is experienced, along with ‘mum’, ‘dad’, … all experiences are a flood of meaningless data, made into meaning purely by inter-related context. Why else would the same brain be able to construe ‘car’ in one language, while a twin brought up elsewhere can construe ‘voiture’.

    The thing is, we have little data on what constitutes a single ‘thought’ or even if there is such a thing. The notion of a ‘single thought’ always seems rather vague to me. I’m not sure they can be isolated as such. And when we try we are always referring to ‘conscious’ thoughts – what about all the other activity that is just the same, only not available to the self-monitoring processing? What seems to be coming from neuroscience is that a single neuron may be used while experiencing numerous thoughts, and what is vaguely the same thought (e.g. some concept like ‘car’) may vary from moment to moment as a variety of neurons contribute. There need not be a one-to-one mapping of neurons that can build a consistent repeatable thought.

    “It seems to me the burden of proof is on you, not me.”

    I think you think that because of the error of the primacy of thought that is instilled into us by our education, which in turn is a construct of ancient ideas:;

    All of our science only ever shows the physical universe. There is nothing that supports any of the ghostly notions of thoughts or minds.

    “I will again assert that taking these things to be illusionary, simply because the objective ‘view from nowhere’ that science espouses cannot tangibly explain it, is in effect cheating.”

    I will assert it is not cheating. But there’s the problem with Rationalism – it’s merely competing assertions. That’s why the only measure we have as to which assertion is reasonable to hold to is data, experience. Why can’t science explain it? Is this a Rationalism of the gaps – whereby if science does not have a full explanation at the ready right now the only conclusion is that it never will, that there is something ‘extra’?

  16. Brad,

    “[you] stop just short of calling philosophy a religion”

    No. I call philosophy that works like religion is as bad as religion – the difference being only that religion asserts a god as a premise, a presupposition. Philosophy need not be, and much of it isn’t. On the other hand, if religion had evidence of its gods then good valid religious arguments would be fine by me.

    “You seem to suggest that logic has no rules or guideposts for distinguishing good arguments from bad”

    No. Bad arguments are either fallacious, or rely on unsupported premises.

    I don’t have a problem with contingent arguments by the way, as long as the contingency is acknowledged. Much of science works on premises that are working premises – because the science based on them works.

    Maths has many unproven axioms, but the maths that is based on them has utility. We cannot prove properties of a pure triangle without the axioms on which we rely, but pure triangles seem to fit observable messy actual triangles quite well, so we happily use those axioms. They are accepted contingent on them working. We don’t need to ask some god or some philosophical demon to prove their correctness. When axioms are shown to be inadequate we change them or add to them or ditch them. We don’t rely on axioms of Euclidean geometry for non-Euclidean space. We happily extend Newtonian physics with Relativity, and change our conceptual models of space and time in the process. But when we come up with speculative theoretical ideas, it’s the data that validates them, or not.

    A good argument can be a valid argument with well supported premises. A good argument can be a valid argument with atrocious premises. The argument contains the premises, as assumptions, but does not require that they be true in order to be a good argument. Only a sound argument requires true premises – and that is something we cannot rely on. There are no sound arguments that are not tautologies or where the premises are simply made true by definition – such arguments are then trivial and don’t tell us anything about the world.

    “perhaps no difference between a ‘reason’ versus an ‘opinion,'”

    I think the distinction is a convenient one; but they can overlap. Opinion is what we commonly think of it: someone’s idea of what is the case, possibly without any good foundation at all. But reason, even a valid argument, is no better than opinion of the premises are opinion.

    “and that the only credible evidence is what can be ascertained by the senses”

    No. Specifically the senses, being made of the same sort of stuff as brains, are mushy systems that work according to many different sub-components – chemistry of neurochemicals, waves of activity of interacting ions that result in electrical pulses, some biological summation of inputs – all very messy and not at all as simple as some electronic component. So both our senses and our reasoning are fallible. Science is just our extreme and most rigorous means of compensating for these fallibilities – it isn’t anything significantly different in kind from what all humans do on a daily basis. We are empirical beings in every sense, and our reasoning is really a convenient categorisation of the sensing that goes on in the mass of the brain. The complex internal goings-on are a mystery as yet in that they are unknown in detail, but are not mysterious in any spooky sense.

    “This mode of thinking is currently in vogue right now, but I think it is grossly incorrect.”

    In what way is it incorrect? What is incorrect about it specifically?

    As to logical positivism, I’d avoid specific ‘schools’ of philosophy, because they all contain various good and bad ideas. I’m a fan of Quine, but I disagree with him on a specific point: that abstract things exist. They do not.

  17. “The usual line of argument is that the humanities teaches students to address matters of value, to appreciate the arts, and to both think and question.

    This, as might be imagined, sounds good in principle but can be a very hard sell.”

    Might be a hard sell because all this thinking, and questioning, may not sound all that sweet to some ears. You know what they call someone who questions and thinks a little too much; uppity is one word. And culture, you know when some people say that word, some others reach for their gun.

    You should be trying to sell philosophy to the college on the basis of it improving students’ soft skills….Their interpersonal skills. These skills are highly valued by employers.

    Do I believe for a second philosophy enhances interpersonal or soft skills…..Not at all, at all.’s not me going to be doing the lying – and if you believe it, if you convince yourself, then it’s not lying.

  18. Ron Murphy,

    “And subjectivity? There’s enough difference in every head to make the localised experience subjective, to account for any and all subjectivity.”

    So you say. But do you have any empirical evidence to back up that claim.

    I don’t agree with you. The subjective experience of a locality is heavily dependent on so many factors, that for different people the experience of a locality can be radically different.

    “So, our subjective experience does not nullify an objective account of what we are: biological machines.”

    And here again you are wrong. Only a small minority of the world’s population share that belief. Most are religious. They do not believe they are biological mechanisms.

    But this mechanistic idea is already in conflict with your idea of shared subjectivity. For example let’s take two mechanisms that are nearly identical; I was going to compare PCs with Macs, but I don’t even need to go that far. Two identical PCs; one running Windows and the other running Ubuntu Linux. Both can communicate, they can share information. But their subjective operation is different – yes, you can run Windows software on Linux, but Microsoft will not allow you to return the favour.

    So, even if people shared the same biological/cognitive hardware, which they don’t, you still have the issue of different operating systems, software, and individualised bugs in the software. Cultural or world experiences are not contained in your DNA. A person traumatised by a real world event, will not become spontaneously traumatised, if the event does not happen to them. And that’s the science – BF Skinner if you like.

    Even on a large scale, taking into account the law of large numbers, shared subjectivity does not hold. Heinz Salad Cream, for instance. It was once one of Heinz’s most popular products. Then literally overnight nearly everyone decided it tasted awful and Salad Cream sales collapsed. If subjectivity yielded to empiricism, then Salad Cream sales would be stable forever, and ever, and ever and ever.

  19. Where is JMRC when you really need her?

    Well… in actuality, she is here like the smell of a handcrafted wool sweater. Or something like that, eh?

  20. JMRC,

    “So you say. But do you have any empirical evidence to back up that claim.”

    The very fact that we disagree is evidence that we are having different subjective experiences of the world – we have different data entering our eyes and ears from birth, and every moment our bodies are interacting with the world is evidence that we have different personal experiences. We should expect differences. The way our bodies are manufactured, biologically, from varying genetic combinations, is enough evidence of our similarity and our differences – across species and within a species.

    That there are people that believe religious stories, and ones that vary so much, is evidence of brains that have different subjective experiences. And yet that people believe is not any assurance at all that what they believe has a correspondence to any reality. Some people believe in ghosts. In medieval times people believed in ‘dog heads’ and all sorts of other fantastical creatures. And this last week I’ve seen this still circulating on Facebook – and people have believed it: Human gullibility seems all too obvious in cases like this giant spider. But ignorance and gullibility are not shameful conditions but quite natural ones – human conditions, animal conditions. Religion in particular has a history that is well established, has been a dominant power system for centuries to various degrees around the world, and is supported by various Rationalist and Idealist philosophies that resist the mechanistic view of the universe, despite that this is all we have evidence for, so it’s not surprising so many people still believe it – without evidence. Unevidenced Rationalism is alive and well.

    But open up any brain and the same sort of stuff is found, objectively. The same areas of the brain perform the same tasks in different people. Objectively observing material brains is well established. As more evidence accumulates there is ever more reason to dismiss ancient notions of ghosts in the machine.

    “The subjective experience of a locality is heavily dependent on so many factors, that for different people the experience of a locality can be radically different.”

    I agree. So I’m not sure what you are disagreeing with.

    “And here again you are wrong [that our subjective experience does not nullify an objective account of what we are: biological machines]. Only a small minority of the world’s population share that belief.”

    Your first sentence is not supported by your second. What people believe does not say anything at all about the objective evidence that brains are biological machines.

    “But this mechanistic idea is already in conflict with your idea of shared subjectivity.”

    No it isn’t. Your PC example makes the case, if anything, for a general purpose machine adaptable to different languages. And yes you can run any system on any other, if you have the appropriate emulation software.

    “Both can communicate” – So can humans born into different cultures, if they ‘upgrade’ with a new language. The common biological nature of all animals is evident when we see animals that would be in direct conflict in the wild actually nurturing each other in captivity – cats nursing squirrels, dogs and big cats as companions.

    There is a combination of objectively observed biological similarities and differences across all animals. Nowhere in any of that is there anything that makes any material difference – the same molecules form the same or similar functions in most animals, while at the same time there are some that have a specific function in one set and a different function in another. Life on earth is a combination of objective similarity and personalised different experiences.

    “So, even if people shared the same biological/cognitive hardware, which they don’t”

    Yes they do. Wernicke’s are and Broca’s area exist in the same location in every human that has been tested – it would be big news if they were not. Our ears are generally in the same place. It is seen as a defect when they are not. I’m not sure what you expect in the way of objective similarity from machines that have evolved, where each has a unique genetic code that comes from a common set.

    Without common biology medicine does not work at all.

    Being the same does not mean being identical down to the location of every atom, every cell even. The only difference at source between a chimp and a human is a biological one, primarily a genetic one. And the only differences between two humans, at source (at the conception that results in a new human single cell) is a primarily genetic one. All other individual differences emerge from experience – and that includes the experience of one cell developing into many, as dictated by the biology of the growing zygote, and the input to the foetus from the mother, and the whole life experiences from then on. Identical twins remain more objectively similar than other siblings, because of this objectively similar machinery that develops with individual differences.

    Two computers are not the same from the moment they are powered up. When electronic components are made they are all different due to errors bounds in the manufacturing process. Within seconds, or less, of powering up two computers they will be different. Every bit cell in memory will have subtle differences. The same memory locations will not be used for the same data. A fraction of a second can lead to significant differences in where internal memory is stored. A bug could go undetected for billions of operations, until some user just happens to have some data values that expose the bug. Computers are not the precise infallible machines we would like them to be, dispite the fact that we make great efforst to make them so. The concurrency of running code in computers mroe or less guarantees their differences. That’s why computers are so troublesome. We expect them to do exactly the same thing every time, and we are lulled into a false sense of security by the fact they they do so well.

    A good and very simple analogy between messy evolved creatures and electronic components is the way resistors are made. Rather than go to great expense of making each individual resitor precisely the correct value it’s far easier and cost effective to make them less precisely, and then measure, bin and mark them according to the actual resistence values they happen to have. Of course each resistor is not the product of two previous resistors, so it’s not analogy for evolution but for how variable yet similar products appear somewhat the same yet individually different.

    With no evidence of any designer evolution is a rambling unguided process that we should expect to result in similar systems with individual differences. Objectively similar, individually different to varying degrees. This isn’t a difficult concept. Unless one wants it to be, unless one is committed to humans being special in some unexplained vague way.

    A common mistake is the suppose this materialist understanding of what humans are is some attack on our humanism, our humanity. It is not. None of this denies how much more capable that other animals humans are. It would be ridiculous to suggest that; and it is a misunderstanding of the materialist physicalist case to suppose it is – a mistake often made, a misrepresentation often put as words into our mouths.

    Brad Peters in his site, and Kenan Malik, one of his referenced authors, and Raymond Tallis, another author critical of the materialist perspective, make claims that this perspective comes out of a pessimism. It does not. That is their mistake, perhaps their pessimism. I know it’s a pessimism Raymond Tallis has, because he has said as much. Even atheists like Tallis have some urge not to let go of our human specialness, to the extent that they fear this mechanistic perspective. But materialists are generally optimistic rather than pessimistic. I don’t feel any different for thinking I’m a thinking machine. If anything I find it far more enlightening that believing in entities for which there is zero evidence.

  21. Brad,

    OK. If you could respond to this it would be helpful:

    On what grounds do you make your presupposition, and so assert your point? Why do you take humans to be more than objects? What does that mean? What specifically are they if not biological objects in this universe?

  22. I am hesitant to respond Ron, because again you seem to have it all figured out, and because the length of your responses make it almost impossible to engage in any meaningful exchange. It would take an essay to point out the many assumptions you make about the relationship between human minds, brains, and machines.

    In short, I presuppose that I am not an object based on my phenomenal experience of myself as a subject with an explicitly phenomenal kind of intentionality and agency. The moral of Searle’s Chinese Box experiment shows that computers and other animals may be capable of syntactical manipulation, but they lack understanding of meaning. This is because humans, as self-aware agents, are capable of creating meaning, which makes part of their ‘environment’ a symbolic one. It must necessarily rely on some supportive biology, but those symbols, capable of being invented, defended, and discarded within the community of subjective human minds, is a part of us that permits escape from the physical determinism (biological or environmental) that you appear to espouse.

  23. (Disclaimer: I have a fine art degree: art history and theory. Aesthetic philosophy. Although I am also educated in economics, philosophy, history and computer science.)

    [Warning: Harsh words follow.]


    1) COST. Now, if I paid 10K for this degree, or even 20K, that would be one thing. But these degrees are too expensive for the cost of the education. Humans make cost benefit analyses and the data is in: there isn’t a return on them.

    2) CONTENT. Philosophy departments can alight with the humanities and religion (which is a death sentence) or align with science, economics, politics, business and law (where it is terribly useful).

    3) FAILURE OF PHILOSOPHICAL PROGRAM. The academic humanities bear much of the responsibility for their plight having tried fitfully to prove via the metaphysical program on one hand (a demonstrated failure), via the logical program on the other (a demonstrated failure), by the mathematical program (a failure at least at the set level to correct mathematical platonism rather than justify it), that philosophy is a science in itself, rather than the means by which we interpret the findings of the sciences and therefore to inform and alter our perception and understanding, such that we adapt our actions to the new knowledge. Philosophy then is a moral discipline, where morality is the study of action. It is not a means of attempting find justification that philosophy is a science. It is not. It cannot be. Because science requires that we use instrumentation to confirm our senses.

    4) REPLACING THE CHURCH: It is not lost on those of us who are critics (even those few of us who write philosophy nearly full time), that Academia, originating as an extension of the church, has sought to replace the church’s influence over moral and political life. It has done so. It has done so largely by a) promoting both socialism, communism, postmodernism and totalitarian humanism, social democracy, and therefore bearing the responsibility of both the decline of the west’s aristocratic mythos, and the death of nearly one hundred million people. If that is not an indictment I don’t know what is. And rather than extend rights to all, academics encouraged extraordinary rights, and in particular supported feminism as a means of increasing revenues and attracting women to previously male dominated universities.
    However, the feminist program has been successful in undermining the nuclear family, and are the voting force that allows socialists, democratic socialists, and totalitarian humanists produced by the university system, to obtain political power, by which to both undermine the 14th amendment, the Absolute Nuclear Family which is the necessary component of the high trust society, and to undermine the western model through forcible large scale immigration. Even now, the supreme court is populated by non-protestants. And that matters. Because protestants are the keepers of the Absolute Nuclear Family, and the High Trust, Individualist, Risk taking, Experimental society.

    5) FRAUDULENT PRODUCTS: The source of much of our political trouble is the fascination in the humanities introspection and self reinforcement rather than external evidence and adaptation, combined with its fascination with totalitarian humanism, and philosophy with postmodernism and socialism. Economics departments don’t teach Marx. It’s bad economics, and really bad philosophy. Furthermore, the evidence is in, and is decidedly against democracy – we cannot seem to make all men aristocrats. So much of the philosophical tradition is not only demonstrably false. It is not only false. But it is harmful.

    6) CRIMINALLY DEFECTIVE GOODS: It is not lost on us that academic wares are not warranted, any more than religious wares are warranteed. If they were I suspect academia would rapidly change. The fact that the state gives license to academics who sell faulty goods, but punishes ‘thought crimes’, is evidence enough to demonstrate that academic humanities has in fact, succeeded in replacing the mystical religion of christianity, discrediting the church, only to replace aristocratic egalitarianism and christianity, with totalitarian state humanism – effectively communism by other means.

    7) INCENTIVES: It is not lost on any of us that the INCENTIVES in academia are (in economic terms ) ‘perverse’. That we have spent two generations now exchanging personal retirement accounts of parents, for overpriced education of children, most of which ends up in rapid expansion of academic administration, diversion from teaching professors to research faculty, physical capital, and endowments. That graduate students are little more than slave labor, that their work products are almost universally shoddy, that the quality of writing in the humanities is offensively bad, and that obscurant language is used consistently to mask weak, false and unsupported thought.


    That’s what SCIENCES tell us. So choose whether you will be part of another tragic religion, or move into hard science with the rest of us. 🙂

    Curt Doolittle
    The Propertarian Institute

  24. Brad,

    From my perspective its millennia of Rationalists that appear to have it figured out, with assertions based on no evidence at all. If humans had this figured out there’d be no discussion to have. I’ve also made it clear than my position in particular, and human knowledge generally, appears contingent and fallible, so I’m not sure why you think I think I have it figured out.

    What makes you think your phenomenal experience of yourself as a subject gives you any data about your intentionality or agency that could not be just as easily attributed to a machine? What makes you think it tells you enough to know you are not a biological machine? How do you know that what we personally perceive as intentionality and agency are not how self-aware mechanistic systems would appear, to themseleves?

    Again it’s the primacy of thought error that supposes the mind is a good enough tool for investigating itself, rather than being just a hazy window through which we look in on the brain, with all detail obscured, dazzled by millennia of philosophy that presumes a mind is not a brain machine.

    I don’t think Searle’s Chinese box experiment shows anything of the kind.

    For one, it is only a thought experiment and so is subject to the same flaws as Rationalism generally – there is no empirical basis to it from which to infer anything about consciousness. That alone rules it out as of any real significance. Think back to all the thought experiments as to why humans could not endure speeds above that of a horse when mechanical systems made high speed travel possible. Or the thought experiments that lead to countless religions. Thought experiments are not evidence, they are mere conceptual tools from which we might expand our speculative musings – but they are still speculative.

    But in addition, Searle’s thought experiment already contains the presupposition that ‘mind’ and ‘consciousness’ are something extra and special, something that can be so separated from a system such that two systems, a conscious human and a non-conscious Chinese Room, would be indistinguishable.

    The same flaw applies to the zombies of Chalmers. The notion that you could take something away, consciousness, and still have something that behaves like a human is already to presuppose that such a separation is possible, that they are distinct in some way. It presupposes its own answer. It’s question begging.

    We cannot say if such a non-conscious Chinese room could be constructed.

    If we could construct a non-conscious system that is indistinguishable from a conscious system (human) that would still not be evidence that machines cannot be conscious, only that some machines can appear conscious but might not be.

    If it is the case that all there is in the brain is biological machinery then there seems little alternative but to infer that biological machines can be conscious; or from the other perspective, consciousness can exist in machines. There is nothing yet discovered to suppose that human brains are anything but biological machines. Introspective accounts are hopeless in deciding this.

    Another problem is that it refers to formal programs as being the signifcant difference, in that formal syntactic programs are different from mental semantic phenomena. But there are more than just formal simple syntactic programs, and not all machines are formal syntactic programmed machines. Many programs are so complex that they are indeterminate – parallel system particularly, and the human brain is indisputably a parallel system, extremely parallel. There is nothing in Searle’s account that precludes mechanistic system acquiring semantic meaning by accumulating massive amounts of contextually related data. There is nothing we know about human brains to suggest that they are not machines that do the very same – accumulate data that has some correspondence with the world, which forms a working contextual whole that we experience as ‘meaningful’ semantic content.

  25. Hey! Is Professor LaBossiere eNSAing the NY Times? How did he scoop their Op-ed? Makes ya wonder; or no?

    What would be wrong with the Humanities morphing to include tech-friendly add-ons to their programs. What would be wrong, if Phil or language majors had to pick a hard science or business minor?

    Another aspect of post-secondary education is that no longer can any graduate afford to go brain-dead on graduation. The universities may need to provide after-graduation care and learning to its highly educated graduates.

    In a word: the world changes, life goes on; get used to it.

  26. Kevin Henderson

    If I were King I would make all persons intending to go to college get a humanties degree of any kind and then get another degree in the vocation they wish. Our civilization would benefit.

    Healthy people are living longer, why not make them wiser earlier and give them perspective? I have PhD in physics, but I first got a BA in Philosophy. I am not a philosopher, but can assure you the journey was worth it and think others, who are young, could do with some time in a museum, concert hall, or in a dorm room discussing why Rawls was a good thing and how they might do better.

  27. Ron Murphy,

    We are objects, but we do not seem to be mere objects. Like, you know, rocks and sticks.

  28. Science arose out of philosophy, so we’d be happy to welcome science back to the family home. 😉

  29. Boreas,

    I have strange and useless epistemic powers in that I have useless foreknowledge. 🙂

  30. Ron Murphy,

    “A common mistake is the suppose this materialist understanding of what humans are is some attack on our humanism, our humanity. ”

    Okay, Ron, you’re pretty heavily wedded to this idea – it’s unlikely I’ll be able to manufacture a divorce, pry you apart from your bride.


    The fundamental problem with your position. When you say this materialist understanding of what humans are, you are implying there is a single coherent and congruous body of knowledge, as regards to what this understanding is – even with the imprimatur of science. In terms of science, it’s like a curate’s egg; good in places…and awful in places to the point its’ not science at all. And this is a very serious problem for science in general.

    WD Hamilton, the evolutionary biologist, was a misanthrope. It’s Hamilton’s theory of the Selfish Gene, that Dawkins made his name on. Putting that theory aside for a moment, another theory Hamilton believed was that the use of medicine was weakening the human race by not allowing unfit human specimens to be naturally selected for elimination, instead they were going on to reproduce. He was in the Congo in 2000, looking for evidence that the production of polio vaccine in the region had led to the Siminan Immuno Virus, transmuting to the Human Immuno Virus.

    Hamilton’s belief that the use of life saving medicines was causing the human race to devolve, is not science. And even if there were a scientific basis to the argument, it still wouldn’t be science. But, there is philosophical question in there, and quite a bit of psychological turf too.

    I’m prepared to hazard a guess that he was a particular kind of misanthrope. The kind who has near hysterical concern for animals, but a deep seated hatred for humans. Like Hitler. Hitler increased the penalties for animal cruelty to a severe as the death penalty, while pushing the most barbaric “natural” selection on the German people. He believed that German soldiers dying in the war made the blood stock of the surviving German people stronger.

    Hamilton is also the father of evolutionary psychology. Is it science?……I would say it’s psychosis.

    And the selfish gene theory, is wrong too. I believe Hamilton ignored evidence that didn’t suit the theory. If he was floridly psychotic, which he may have been, then an overwhelming cognitive dissonance would have meant he couldn’t even see the contradictions.

    My key problem with religion, is that if you don’t give people a religion they’ll make their own. MJ Lerner’s Just-World bias, or fallacy, is purely a religious belief. Even if people have no belief in a divinity, they are susceptible to this fallacy.

  31. Mike,

    Then neither are chimps, cats, mice, ants. And nor are weather systems. Yes, brained animals have capabilities not afforded to rocks, and humans have yet more capabilities than most, by far. Humans are special in that respect – at least in that part of the universe we can view, as far as we know. This is not being denied, when pointing out that humans are objects, mere objects.

    Our human capabilities do not come from some supernatural spark as far as we can tell. Our brains do not contravene any laws of energy conservation as far as we know. That means the human brain is mere stuff, the stuff of objects.

    So, those extra capabilities, what are they made of? Are they things in themselves, such that they can be removed, such as consciousness from a human to make a zombie?

    Are they properties? Is consciousness like height? Cut off some height and you have a shorter human; cut of some consciousness you have a less conscious human? But if you cut of some height then the bit removed is still stuff, equivalent to the change in height. Can you touch and measure the consciousness removed by Chalmers when he makes zombies? Brains don’t seem to vary much in their energy consumption whether resting or active, so where is all that particularly human capacity when not active? What is it made of?

    Without a clear Rationalist definition of consciousness that also excludes non-materialist dualism, then we are left with just matter. So, are you sure we are not merely objects, albeit complex objects that behave in peculiar ways?

    It’s all very well making statements like “we are not mere objects”, but without actually pointing out what the extra is that you are referring to when you say ‘not merely’ we are left to conclude we are merely objects, of if you wish, merely dynamic objects, or merely complex dynamic objects.

    “Science arose out of philosophy, so we’d be happy to welcome science back to the family home.”

    Well, maybe science grew up, left its juvenile stage behind, and left home because the rents were holding it back. Maybe philosophy needs putting in an old folks home. On the other hand I know old people who hang out with the youngsters in order to stay young themselves, so philosophy needn’t stay at home with pipe and slippers in the old prof’s ivory towered study, but could get out and actually experience the world instead of just fantasising about it.

  32. Sometimes in this on-going science vs. philosophy debate, the pro-science people contrast actually existing philosophy with the ideal of science, while the pro-philosophy people contrast the ideal of philosophy with actually existing science.

    It seems that it would be fairer either to contrast the ideal of philosophy with the ideal of science or to contrast actually existing philosophy with actually existing science.

  33. JMRC,

    “you are implying there is a single coherent and congruous body of knowledge”

    Not really:

    – If human knowledge is a contextual correspondence between what’s in the brain and what’s in the world, then different brains will have different representations of the world.

    – If we discard JTB, and in fact if we dicard some ideal notion of a pure and ultimate truth – or at least if we accept the epistemological limitations of humans, then humans don’t have access to any pure truth, if there is such a thing.

    – This means knowledge is a pretty flexible concept. In a sense we can know stuff that has no correspondence to the world – e.g. gods, fairies – or at least we can hold knowledge, fictional knowledge, knowledge of fictional entities – or at least we can hold knowledge for concepts for which we have no corresponding external experience.

    Science is certainly the most consistent, detailed and universal body of knowledge we do have though.

    “In terms of science, it’s like a curate’s egg; good in places…and awful in places to the point its’ not science at all.”

    Yes. Given all I’ve said. I’m saying that human knowledge is imperfect, contingent, and the only good measure of it is the extent to which it measures up against the world. And the best way to measure it against the world is through science.

    Given our fallible sensory capabilities what else should we expect. So much so that this is why we actually have science, why it was developed. It is an attempt, a more rigorous attempt, to overcome our fallibilities; and that’s all it is. So we shouldn’t expect it to be infallible, and I don’t know a science proponent that does. That’s why I find it ironic that there is so much crying of ‘scientism’ from those that are willing to criticise science as if it is supposed to be perfect, a cry often made by those claiming Rationalist access to certainties.

    “And this is a very serious problem for science in general.”

    Yes it is. But it’s a far worse problem for all Rationalism, and particularly religion. Given all the rigour of science it is still very difficult to do, it is still not a collection of perfect infallible methodologies; and it’s still difficult for fallible humans to adhere reliably to what methods there are – so no wonder science screws up often, no wonder fallible human scientists over reach or exaggerate claims. But it’s still the best we have in spite of that. It’s rare in science to have any dispute that even comes close to the dispute between Christians and Muslims, with regard to the divinity of Jesus. It’s rare in science to have such diverse notions as exist in philosophy. That is unless we count the speculative scientific ideas regarding what ultimate reality might consist of, how many dimensions there might be – but being speculative they are on similar fantastical grounds as philosophy and religion, being unsupported by experiment; but then again at least those science ideas often come from a mathematical origin that has shown to be fruitful in the past.

    If one of those religious options were true about the divinity or otherwise of Jesus it would be absolutely devastating for the other religion – a total collapse of a religion. There is nothing in science that looks so dramatic. Planes don’t fall out of the sky when some principle of physics comes under challenge. Quantum physics was quite a shock, but a pendulum on a clock still helped to keep time and didn’t suddenly leap from one clock to another. The whole edifice isn’t dependent on a metaphysical myth. Science, as troubled as it is bound to be, is on far safer ground than religion or philosophy.

    On Hamilton and Hitler – OK, so there are some crazy people out there. I’m not sure of the bearing on this conversation. Could you be specific.

    “And the selfish gene theory, is wrong too.”

    I’m not sure what aspect of it you’re saying is wrong. But whatever, if a theory is wrong then it’s wrong. If we think it’s right when its wrong then the science to discredit it hasn’t been done, or the science has been inadequate to show it wrong. But theories alone are not science. Theories can be pure Rationalist speculation. Feynman emphasised the point when saying that hypotheses could be guesses. The way to deal with theories is to test them with empirical science. If that doesn’t do a good enough job then we need better science, not less science, or no science, or more Rationalist fantasy.

    “My key problem with religion, is that if you don’t give people a religion they’ll make their own.”

    I’ll agree that empirically this does appear to be a tendency we observe historically, but I’m not sure how strong a theory you have there, not sure you can formulate the data into a law – which given your take on Hamilton I’d have thought you’d be a little more cautious about. It almost sounds Freudian. But even if what you say is true, what are you proposing – that we invent religions?

    Everyone has their biases. It’s helpful to point that out, and to be aware of our own. We are not perfect beings. Scientists intent on improving science acknowledge this as part of what they do, it’s why they do science, why they insist on methodologies – they don’t just think they can think the truth. It is the Rationalist or the Idealist that thinks they have a grasp of the universe based on nothing more than personal thought, a faculty known, shown, to be rather flaky when pushed beyond the mundane. Ironic that they give science such a hard time for its imperfections.

  34. swallerstein,

    “It seems that it would be fairer either to contrast the ideal of philosophy with the ideal of science or to contrast actually existing philosophy with actually existing science.”

    Fair point. Personally I think I do. I’m not claiming infallibility or access to certain truth in any of my support for science as our best route to reliable knowledge. I declare its fallibility as inherent, because it is done by humans.

    The principles of science are better than those of philosophy, in that they are in principle supposed to measure our ideas against the world.

    This is not the case in philosophy. All it requires is good argument – sound argument, at its best.

    In practice things only get worse. But at least the methodologies of science are intended to compensate for our acknowledged human fallible senses and reasoning, while philosophy presupposes that reasoning is of sufficient quality to deduce truths, and as such can be as dangerous as religions in its ideas. Science as a tool can be dangerous too, but generally only in the hands of people with bad ideas. Ideas are the danger, untested unfounded ideas.

    Faith is an enabler of bad ideas, and an enabler of the actual carrying out of bad ideas. It’s the worst that humans can do. In religions it’s pot luck whether a religious system’s ideas will be turned to good or bad, because there are no checks against the fantasy. When a nice kind peaceful Christian or Muslim uses faith, he is enabling the worst fundamentalist to use faith – when faith is the measure, who is to say which is the best or which is right?

    At least in philosophy there is supposed to be the requirement to have true premises before having confidence in an argument enough to call it sound. But how do we check all our premises. Even at its best philosophy is stumped for want to supported premises. In practice so many premises are taken for granted, assumed to be obvious, even by professional philosophers: It’s as if in class philosophers give a nod to the requirement for sound premises, but in constructing their own ideas, and for want of ever finding well supported premises, they resort to their won biases for premises.

    But then there’s always hope:

    Science has as a matter of design been specifically burdened with methodologies to overcome bad reasoning and bad premises, whereas philosophy is more limited in its self-checking and self-restraint. Religion is a hopeless giving-up on the qualities that make us human in order to simply believe for belief’s sake, to have faith no matter what.

  35. JMRC writes: “And the selfish gene theory, is wrong too. I believe Hamilton ignored evidence that didn’t suit the theory.”

    Perhaps you might read some of the articles in the Special Feature on 50 years of Hamilton at

    including the groovy one on the Rawlsian veil of ignorance in biology, and how it fits in with Hamilton’s models.

    “…[T]he use of life saving medicines was causing the human race to devolve” is a straightforward consequence of the relaxation of selection that the frequency of formerly deleterious alleles will be allowed to increase. Eyre-Walker et al (2006) write (using amounts of sequence data that Hamilton would not have had access to):

    “For many years geneticists have pondered the potential consequences that modern medicine might be having upon our genetic quality (Muller 1950; Crow 1997; Lynch et al. 1999) — medicine relaxes natural selection, which allows potentially harmful mutations to accumulate. This may pose a risk to our population if selection is reimposed sometime in the future [my emphasis]. Estimates of the rate at which amino acid mutations occur and their average effect allow us to estimate whether this is likely to be a problem…it seems that, at worst, human populations will suffer a decline in genetic quality of a few percent, or less, per generation.”

  36. Ron, for all that you write, I am noticing a pattern where you tend to dodge questions more than answer them. I will ask you again, how does one objectively quantify a thought, feeling, or motive driving a behavior? Don’t just say “with great difficulty,” then avoid answering.

    You make the claim that psychology ought to be an objective science – it seems to me that your position is based more on a faith in science than any kind of rational argument. Again, how are qualia and phenomenological intentionality to be understood as objects for your strictly empirical science? Do you notice how you seem to take conscious perception and intentionality away from the person only to give it to the human brain? – for example, when you say that it is our neurons that ‘sense each other.’ In what way is a neuron capable of perceiving another neuron?

    Back to the point, how does a science of psychology even get off the ground without some kind of grounding presupposition requiring either sloppy assumption or the very rationalism you want to be rid of.

    Explain to me how human knowledge can be ‘nothing more’ than contextual brain patterns. In what way are they the same thing? And be clear, what version of mind-brain relation are you wanting to defend? At times you sound like you subscribe to material monism (i.e. the mind is the working brain), then at others you sound like a property dualist.

  37. It appears to be the case that when the pendulum swings too far in one direction it creates a momentum that causes it to swing in the opposite direction. While it is not possible to agree with religious fundamentalists on everything, their fear of abstraction is not unjustified. Modern philosophy has become too abstract so Pinker’s worm’s-eye view of reality gains traction.

    It will take possibly another century and further breakthroughs in physics before the pendulum is ready to swing again, and maybe rest at the center. If discoveries in physics leaves no doubt that what is here is there, and what is there is here, abstractions as well as a worms-eye view will both be beside the point (pun intended).

    In the meanwhile future generations may be convinced by Pinker’s materialistic view, “that life depends on a molecule that carries information directs metabolism and replicates itself,” instead of the elemental view of, “sparks of intelligent finer-than-atomic-energy that constitute life.”

    Merlin was banished to the earth by a spell but it is unlikely he will have to remain there forever. In the meantime, condolences to any philosopher who is forced to take a worm’s-eye view of reality.

  38. David Duffy,

    “Perhaps you might read some of the articles in the Special Feature on 50 years of Hamilton at

    including the groovy one on the Rawlsian veil of ignorance in biology, and how it fits in with Hamilton’s models.

    That is interesting, indeed. But as said in the main article, more field research is required. In physics you can more or less count all the different particles on your fingers and toes. The variety in biology is really something else. The poisonous caterpillar may be brightly coloured to teach predators not to eat its’ kin, and here I was going to say something like why aren’t all caterpillars poisonous, which I’m sure there is an answer to, but I imagine in biology you can keep patching and patching, and adding exceptions to allow principles to survive. The chaotic nature of nature, could mean that what appears as fundamental principles could be trompe l’oeil. And if you look at a cloud long enough you will see a face. Believing faces to be a fundamental constituent of all clouds, verges on the psychotic – or is psychotic.

    Hamilton’s theories become very problematic when you apply them to humans. Especially if you reformulate human psychology as to be a collection of evolutionary strategies; evolutionary psychology. George Price was very troubled by the altruism theory. Converting to Christianity, giving away his earthly possessions, and dedicating his life to helping strangers, and then killing himself. The idea you are being driven by a selfish gene; all your thoughts, desires and actions, that is very comforting to a certain kind of selfish misanthrope. But if you’re not that kind of misanthrope, but you firmly believe the theory, it could take you to the depths of despair it took George Price to.

    But is it true. Hitler was a vegetarian because he felt it was unbearably cruel to eat animals, but he could bear limitless cruelty being dished out to humans – and it did not really matter whether they were distally and proximate genetic relatives of his. One of his last orders was for the food stores to be destroyed in Germany – as if the German people were not fit enough to defeat the Russians, then they were unfit for life itself. Hitler, helping the human race to his last breath.

    Hitler can be dismissed as a madman, but his misanthropy is not uncommon. The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, collects about five times as much in public donations than the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. Joe Arpaoi, the Sheriff of Maricopa County, Arizona, made tougher enforcement of animal cruelty laws a key promise in his re-election bid. Allowing a dog out in the Arizona heat is a criminal offence that can result in prison. But the prisoners of Maricopa county jail, which is Joe’s jail; of which he’s proudly the architect of, are forced to live in tents. Essentially, in conditions below the legal requirement for the treatment of dogs. Yes, Joe is a peculiar misanthrope – but what about all the misanthropes who have re-elected him time after time.

    ““…[T]he use of life saving medicines was causing the human race to devolve” is a straightforward consequence of the relaxation of selection that the frequency of formerly deleterious alleles will be allowed to increase. Eyre-Walker et al (2006) write (using amounts of sequence data that Hamilton would not have had access to):”

    No, Hamilton would not have access to the sequence data. But these ideas of the human race deteriorating through bad blood, bad breeding, pre-date Hamilton or even genetic theory. The idea among people that their class or nation was superior to others on the basis of a biological difference, doesn’t originate from scientific study.

    The idea in its’ own way is straightforward, and a little seductive. Of course it isn’t true – but the world still has eugenicists, who just won’t let go of the dream.

    James Watson, co-discoverer of the structure of DNA, made statements that could be fuzzily interpreted as to be science, that African people were intellectually inferior due to their different evolutionary development. And now it has immerged, that James Watson own DNA has 18 times the African DNA as the average European. As much that one of his grand parents could have been a black person. Which doesn’t prove or disprove anything – but neither did his initial statement, but the initial statement will be taken by racists as comforting proof, simply because James Watson said it.

    “Estimates of the rate at which amino acid mutations occur and their average effect allow us to estimate whether this is likely to be a problem…it seems that, at worst, human populations will suffer a decline in genetic quality of a few percent, or less, per generation.””

    Yes, vanishing small. Even if some program of assisted natural selection was introduced, like the Germans, and few other countries did through forced sterilisations, the eugenicist’s vision of Utopia would never arrive.

    The idea of denying live saving medicines on the basis that it interferes with natural selection is absurd. Denying a baby a life saving antibiotic, because it stops humans in the future evolving their own natural antibiotics, isn’t even insane – what are humans of the future to do. Cross breed themselves with mushrooms.

  39. I will forego most of the commentary and just stick to the point of the post. The chief importance of the humanities is their power to integrate ideas across specialties. Philosophy is the foundation of all the sciences. One simply can’t do good science without having a capacity to examine the quality of arguments. If someone is well founded in an ability to apply good arguments (Read Einstein’s 1916 explanation of Relativity written for lay readers for an example.) one can make revealing science out of what other scientists have left lying on the ground.

    The humanities create similar integrative possibilities in virtually all fields.

  40. The Decline of Humanities | philosophy - pingback on November 12, 2013 at 9:12 pm

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